Pragmatic psychology for shitty lives like mine

September 12, 2016 Jason No comments exist

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading The Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, an autobiography by an American lawyer who grew up in the dirt-poor Appalachian region of the United States. If you’ve ever heard of “white trash,” that’s what he is, according to him. His people are poor, vulgar-mouthed, straight-talking, violent, mean (and always believing that’s how being human is); suspicious of good people, suspicious of stable families, and often drugged out or/and pregnant with someone’s child. That he was the first to go to college, and then to Yale Law School, was a miracle unlikely to happen again soon for another family like his. It was at the Ivy League school that he learned what being an “elite” meant and succeeding in a “meritocracy” took deep relationships and networks, not just straight As, hard work and good character (a myth many hillbillies who want their children to succeed spread because they have never been in this mysterious “elite” world themselves and never will).


This was a book entirely revelatory for me. I don’t know about you, but I grew up essentially in a hillbilly family on my mother’s Hokkien side. On my father’s Hakka side, I suspect only my father was a hillbilly. Unlike his siblings, who overcame cultural and social obstacles to become middle-class and contented, he was always obsessed about being a poor man’s child and made all his (poor) life decisions based on how to prove to others he wasn’t poor. I grew up around many adults like him, always obsessed with money, quarreling about money and who gave it and who should get it, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, and very Hokkien in the loud, vulgar, quarrelsome way you find many Hokkiens to be. There is a reason we hear of “Chao Ah Bengs” and “Chao Ah Lians” but never caricatures from a different dialect group. Name one.


It’s telling that in my father’s more normal family clan, five of the eight children in my generation managed to enter university the mainstream way (in our time), meaning we went to Junior College, finished our A-levels, and then enrolled in a local uni. I am the only one among my three siblings who did so. My brother eventually graduated with an associate degree from a community college in Canada, and I suspect had he the means, he might have continued in university and had done very well. My sister: she dropped out of a Sydney-based university, because she said life was very tough when she only had the family sponsoring her fees (actually I was the only family member who was funding her because nobody else had the means then) but we did not have money to sponsor her daily expenses. She earned her allowances doing check-out at a supermarket. They lived in a time before there was UniSim and ITE as viable options, and if you didn’t make it in the mainstream system, you had to find tertiary options outside the country.


My cousins and I remain the only five kids in my extended family to have attended and graduated from university, and we supposedly broke the glass ceiling for our local version of the hillbillies. Mind you, I did so amidst losing my home because my father went bankrupt, and living out of my auntie’s storeroom. At one point, my father went into hiding and left mom to care for her three children, turning her into a single mom overnight. We were counting coins for our weekly meals, and my younger brother washed dishes at Pizza Hut to supplement the family income. One night, before an A-level exam, after months of quietly suppressing the fear of not knowing where to live and how to get money, I went into an episode called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. My mind went into “coma” for nine hours, and when I awoke, I had my revision file right on the page where I had turned nine hours earlier to prepare for the exam. Everything in between was a blank. I went for the exam any way, and barely passed. But I got a place – quite to my surprise – at the National University of Singapore, and the rest, as they say, is history.


I got into coaching and therapy because I know what it’s like to grow up in hillbilly conditions: facing instability; homelessness; adults who are not quite normal and altogether unqualified to take care of themselves, much less the next generation. And the idea that we need optimism; resilience; self-awareness and the ability to dispute negative thoughts to get through just today (tomorrow is another day) are not classroom theories for me. They are lived experiences which I think people in luckier circumstances can practice, if not master. And because overcoming hardship has been real to me, not someone else’s story, I don’t like therapy or coaching that is based on talk and analysis. Clearly, many insights-based therapists are committed to helping their clients heal by helping them gain awareness of their issues. Power to them if their clients succeed.


To me, one doesn’t overcome issues with knowledge. It starts with action, like how one satiates physical hunger not by realizing one is hungry, but by looking for means to find food. This is why I advocate a brand of psychology known as #pragmaticpsychology (my own vain label). Let’s identify the problem, but not spend a lifetime discussing it. Let’s work out the steps to crawl out of that hole, one rung at a time. If you’re into comfort and talky talky, I’m not the therapist or coach for you. But if a solutions-focused approach by a straight-talking therapist suits you, I assure you that your “healing” will be quite productive. True to my hillbilly roots, I am quite blunt — if you’re full of shit, I WILL tell you that you’re full of shit — though I deliver my bluntness gently most of the time. Some people like it. Some others think: how dare you? I pay you to insult me? Well, tough. Go somewhere else then. You will find me an honest therapist: I don’t encourage interminable therapy, for example. I think that’s cheating clients of money. If you only need one session, I’ll tell you that. But if you need many more, I will also ask if you really have the money and the time to spend it. The thing I hate most is to be jerked around by clients who say they can spend their dole on my sessions, but appear and disappear as they please or only when they have the means. This is why I make you book sessions online and prepay them – so that you don’t “play play only” but commit to paying and showing up. Everyone needs to make a living, and make it honestly.


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