Mindfully Yours

November 2020 – How to stand up for yourself

One of the hardest aspects of any bullying situation is how to get the bullying to stop. By the very nature of the power imbalance that exists between the bully and the victim this implies a confrontation of some sort. When you consider the power imbalance that is inherent to the bullying dynamic, and the vulnerability that this places on the person being bullied, it seems like there has to be some sort of conflict or confrontation in order to get the behavior to stop. While that can often be an uncomfortable or even dangerous thing, it is important to remember that the person exhibiting the bullying behavior is the one who has chosen to create a confrontation, and how a person responds to being targeted in this way is ultimately up to them, and should be evaluated carefully with each specific instance of this behavior being taken into account. Ultimately being able to calmly and carefully navigate your way through a situation like this is important, and will result in the best outcome for all involved.

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Aggressors choose their targets because they see vulnerability. This is perceived as weakness, however, vulnerability is not synonymous with “weakness.” In fact, being vulnerable is an incredible strength, and one of the most important lessons that we can take from a situation of harassment and intimidation is that while being our authentic selves can sometimes attract negative attention, it is never worth compromising who we are in order to blend in or be accepted. This is especially true of LGBTQ+ individuals. We are more likely to be targeted with bullying behavior due to our sexual orientations and gender presentation and identities. This is an incredibly scary thing for anyone to deal with, but it places an unfair burden on sexual minorities who may not be comfortable asking for help. This could lead to outing or otherwise publicizing of one’s sexuality which might not be something they are ready to deal with. 

One of the most important things that we as members of communities in our towns and cities, schools and workplaces can do is keep our eyes and ears out for bullying and harassment. We know that in up to eighty percent of all bullying episodes there is a group of witnesses who see the bullying. This is part of the power imbalance, as the aggressor will often act to publicly humiliate or shame their target by using the power of the group against the target. In Tyler’s case this occurred when his college roommate set up a webcam to spy on Tyler and invade his privacy by livestreaming a sexual encounter with another male through his Twitter account. Tyler was humiliated and felt defeated and totally alone by these actions. When he walked through the hallways of his college dorm he heard the other students all stop talking and start whispering and laughing about him as he passed by. As I learned through witness testimony during the trial of his roommate, not one student approached Tyler to check in and see how he was doing. This public shaming was profound and incredibly hurtful. We will never know what the impact of even one classmate reaching out with a kind word might have made for Tyler.

In an effort to address this gap in kindness and compassion, we at the Tyler Clementi Foundation have created a “Turning Bystanders into Upstanders” movement. Instead of being simply a bystander to bullying situations, when you become aware that someone in your workplace or school is being mistreated, speak up and speak out. Every one of us has a responsibility to get involved. If you think that someone else will do it, you are mistaken. It is each of our responsibilities to get involved and say something. I am proud to say that over one million people (and counting) have signed up online to take the Upstander Pledge, which I want to point out, applies to online spaces as well as in-person spaces. Especially in the current COVID-19 pandemic, when many of us are working or going to school online, cyber-harassment has become an even larger issue than it was. Please consider taking the Upstander Pledge today and making a difference the next time you see something that doesn’t feel right.


October 2020 – The New Meaning of Empathy in 2020

As a mental health counselor, a husband, a concerned citizen and a human being I have come to understand the value of living a life filled with empathy. Empathy essentially means being able to look at the world through a lens of someone else’s experience, being able to walk in the shoes of another in your mind and heart, and try to see how you might feel if you lived in this world in that person’s experience. One of the reasons this is so important is because without empathy we run the risk of assuming that our experience is the only experience, and that everyone else is a repetition of ourselves. People who don’t see things through others perspectives see only their own perspective on every other human being. In a way a lack of empathy reveals an ego that has grown beyond its means, consumed with itself and blind to the pain and joy and truth and worthiness of other’s experiences.

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2020 has been a year that has challenged our ability for empathy at a crucial and core level. In mid-March our lives and livelihoods were threatened and turned upside down in one unexpected instant. On a personal level I was afraid… of getting sick, worried for my family and friends, worried about financial survival, and worried about what a shutdown in my home city of New York would mean for my life. The constant sounds of ambulance sirens served as a reminder of the massive sickness and death that was spreading throughout the city. The COVID pandemic truly brought about a level of fear, anxiety, depression, loss and grief that I have never seen before, on a global scale and in many different directions at the same time. The rates of infections and deaths disproportionately impacted minority communities due to systemic injustices in healthcare. 

On top of all this, when the brutal police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor made national headlines I felt a deep sense of grief for these precious lives that were unfairly taken, but also anger for the systems that protect killers and allow them to continue to walk free. My husband and I are proud to have marched in support of the Black Lives Matter movement to bring about a change towards racial justice. Although I am not at high risk of experiencing police brutality as a beneficiary of white and male privileges, it feels vitally important to me that I use my voice and privileged identities to shed awareness on the need for racial justice in America. 

Empathy is rooted in not living in another person’s perspective, not knowing how they feel, having never lived their experience, but being able to view their perspective by putting your own ego, your own sense of self, aside and learning to see the world through another’s eyes. We can use our own experiences to inform us on something that we have not lived. I think I may have been so emotionally impacted by the highly publicized victims of police brutality this year because of my own experience of losing a brother, and seeing my parents lose a child. Although the circumstances are incredibly different, losing my brother Tyler to suicide informed a lot of my understanding of how horribly painful it is to lose a loved one under circumstances that are unnecessary and preventable. 

Fighting for justice does not bring back the loved ones we have lost, as I have learned all too well on my personal journey of healing from grief. However, it is worth every bit of energy that it takes from us because we are helping other people avoid finding themselves in the same situation. We are ensuring that other sisters, brothers, moms and dads won’t have to go through the same losses. Participating in the Black Lives Matter movement as a nonblack ally is an act of empathy, and in taking those steps I hope to encourage other white and nonblack people to get involved. As a gay man I can say that having straight allies has been vital to my wellbeing. When we see members of our society being treated unfairly, those of us who get a better treatment have a responsibility to use our platforms to speak out and advocate for change. We cannot change where we have been but we can help to shape the direction of the future.

It has been confusing, triggering and bewildering for me to see the lack of compassion that many members or our society have for minority groups. Seeing guns pulled on peaceful protestors, and then seeing this hateful action being rewarded by those in power with a platform at the highest levels of our nation has been disturbing and enraging. None of it makes sense to me, but I believe it comes back to a lack of empathy. It starts early, it is rooted in our education, both in families as well as school, and it comes from the images and ideas we get exposed to in the media. Through entertainment we are able to live through the eyes of fictional characters and it shapes our understanding of the world, our place in it, and where others not like us fit in as well.

Being a member of a majority group often insulates us further into a space of self-absorption as the stories, images, voices and platforms we are exposed to continue to reflect back our own experience, representation and worldview. For example, as a white man I can turn on the TV or, in pre-COVID days I could have gone to the movie theater and see countless representations of the perspectives and feelings of people who look like me. This doesn’t just stay on the screen, as the media we take in impacts the way we feel about the world around us, and about ourselves. It also has real-world implications, as we are living in a moment when government is moving to impose a rule of law that assumes we are all the same, and those who do not or cannot conform don’t matter anyway. 

If there is anything that we can take away from the harsh lessons in 2020 it is that the fight for justice is ongoing and the need for strong communities that take care of each other is higher than ever. It is important to take the time to think critically about ourselves and why we think and feel the way we do. It is just as important to think about others feelings and try to understand where that comes from. It may seem like an impossible bridge to gap – between the self and the other – but as human beings we are all connected and can come around to seeing the world a different way if we are open to truly, compassionately listening to each other. What you find out about yourself and the world around you when you listen may surprise you, it might make you uncomfortable, but it is essential to your personal growth and the growth of our society.

September 2020 – Reflecting on Heartbreak

This month my family and I will acknowledge the ten year anniversary of my youngest brother Tyler Clementi taking his life by suicide. While the last decade has been a time of processing all that I have lost and learning to live without my little brother in my life, in many ways I find the wounds of grief are as fresh as the first days and months when I discovered his death. Dates have always been one of the hardest parts of losing Tyler: birthdays, holidays, graduations and anniversaries are a stinging reminder of what was lost and what will never be.

I remember Tyler as a kindhearted, loving and joyful young man, but I know there was a deep reservoir of pain that he hid from me. Suicide is completely preventable and I know that if Tyler would have been able to hold on to something in this life while he went through his troubling times, he would have looked back and been so grateful that he didn’t make that choice. As someone who once stood in his shoes as a young man, I know there was so much joy and love waiting for him to experience in life, and it breaks my heart to realize that Tyler will never get to experience the life he was destined for.

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Our society often blames people who die by suicide – I have heard these most fragile and vulnerable people often criticized as weak and selfish by well-meaning people. While I can agree that suicide is not ever an acceptable answer to life’s traumas and pains, I cannot stress enough how important it is to hold empathy and compassion for each other. Suicide is an entirely preventable way to die, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself how someone could get to a place where they feel it is their only option?

Judgement, shame, stigma, condemnation, and cruelty are rampant in the way we talk to each other and treat each other. We are consumed in our own negative thinking and then we inflict this pain out onto the world. Rather than sitting back and judging how people react to the pain that we all contribute to, there is another way. We can choose to replace our negative thinking with positive thinking. We can dare to be nice to ourselves, and watch how this attitude adjustment radiates in others. Just by listening to someone, showing that you are curious and interested in their life and experience, you will reach out and make a positive impact. This type of loving human connection gives all of us deep roots to cling to in hard times. We all inter-are with each other. The person being targeted, harassed, discriminated against does not exist in isolation. We have to look at the big picture: how the abuser contributes, how the silent bystander tacitly condones. No one is Switzerland here, we are all in this life thing together.

In the last ten years since losing Tyler, I have been on a personal journey of healing and growth. During the time I had Tyler in my life, I was living in fear. There were so many conversations I wanted to have, so many feelings I wanted to express. It all seemed so unacceptable, and I let so many opportunities to connect with my brother and instill worth and value into his mind go by. I learned how important it is to live out loud and speak your truth, not only for yourself, but also for the people in your world. In the last ten years I have fallen in love and married my soulmate. I went back to school and earned a Master degree in Mental Health Counseling.

These were big dreams and I first had to open myself up to believing they were possible. Becoming a mental health counselor has been especially important to me because part of my healing journey has been helping others to heal themselves the same way I had to. I know that this life is challenging and we all come at it with different experiences, and there is so much beauty in that diversity. That’s why I am so excited about writing this blog. This will be a space for me to share some of my hard-won knowledge about healing and overcoming. 2020 has been a difficult year like none other. Times are hard but learn more about who we truly are when we’re being tested. It’s easy to stay positive when things feel safe and fair. In these times of disease (global pandemic and emboldened racists alike), it feels like we are collectively being thrown into chaos and uncertainty. During a moment like this we have to look at what we have control over in our lives and what we don’t. Learning where to let go and where to hold on tighter will help us feel in control where we can, and be more comfortable with it when we can’t. I am excited to bring my perspective as a mental health counselor to address different ways that we can all practice continuing to improve our mental health. I look forward to taking this journey with you!