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The Advocacy, Avoidance & Collaboration Parts in Conflict: Applying Riskin’s Mindfulness Tactics to Mental Health Advocacy Conflicts

When I was twenty-one, I was anonymously attacked in my college newspaper.  Each semester there was a “shoutouts” section where people wrote mean messages without accountability, and without naming names.  The one about me read, “To the kid who went crazy last year and now holds all of these ‘mental health awareness’ events: You are insane and the things you did can’t be made up for by saying ‘I was a little bipolar at the time.’ Go to the nuthouse, immediately.”  Everyone knew who I was because I had been the person leading mental health awareness events describing my disorder to try to unburden myself and help others – something this anonymous detractor clearly resented (though years later I would learn who he was and he would apologize to me after having lost someone to suicide).

I responded by leading a public campaign protesting the existence of such a cruel section of the paper, as well as the bigotry advocating social exclusion of people with mental illnesses like mine and directing me to “the nuthouse.”  A former editor of that shoutout section wrote an independent blogpost condemning my response as a self-indulgent attack on free speech.  He stressed that I did not represent people with mental illness, and he began his point-by-point critique of me by stating “I don’t know who you are, Dan Berstein, but you don’t sound like a great guy to talk to at a cocktail party.”  When I replied, I ended by saying “The way I am handling this issue as a mental health advocate does not reflect how I would act at a party. I am delightful to talk to at a cocktail party.”  When the dust settled after weeks of drama, I won a graduation award for my advocacy and then I moved on with my life.  Fourteen years later, when I began my non-discrimination work in earnest, I wrote to this now-prominent journalist and asked him to remove that blogpost which I found was still up on his same blog.  He did, right away.  But that is not the reason I am sharing this story.  The reason is that his comment, about me being unpleasant to talk to at a party, was when I realized that I was a multifaceted person.  As I told my friends,  there was an Advocacy Dan and a separate other Dan who is fun at parties, and this gentleman did not realize that both versions of me could co-exist.

Len Riskin’s recent book, Managing Conflict Mindfully: Don’t Believe Everything You Think, helps people to understand this idea that we all have different parts.  He introduces the internal family systems model, which proposes that people have different parts of themselves that play different roles in conflicts.  Riskin quotes David Hoffman, suggesting that by keying into a part of someone you give them a chance to balance that with their other parts, by engaging in a reframe such as “So, I hear you saying that a part of you is very angry and wants vindication,” thereby allowing the mediator to check in if there are any other parts to include in the discussion (248-249).  In my example, you might imagine that former college newspaper editor who   attacked me as saying, “Well, Dan, I see that part of you is an unpleasant-seeming advocate.  Is there any part of you that would be pleasant at a cocktail party?”  Indeed, that is how I took it at the time.  I started trying to understand who I was now that this newfound advocacy side had been birthed so publicly through my protests.

In recent years I have had the occasion to engage in a deeper examination of these different parts of myself when facing conflicts within the dispute resolution world.  After I submitted the manuscript for my American Bar Association book Mental Health and Conflicts: A Handbook for Empowerment, I experienced a different kind of public attack – this one was focused on my work and me as a professional person.  It contained common mental illness microaggressions often associated with my bipolar disorder, depicting me as dangerous.  Advocacy Dan was reawakened after lying dormant for a decade and a half and this part of me was angry at myself for not having told more leaders in the field that they had been disseminating unethical, discriminatory, and often illegal guidance advising mistreatment of people with mental health problems.  So then I began the difficult work of contacting leaders in the dispute resolution field and asking them to remove content that was illegal or stigmatizing and advocated disparate treatment toward parties like me who have mental illnesses, or who seem to have them. 

My reputation changed because, until then, people had seen me as more of a lovable mental health awareness speaker – not someone who ruffles feathers.  Sadly, some of my relationships suffered because people who had only seen me as a friend or ‘go to’ resource began worrying I was a threat now that I was holding them accountable for things they had written or published – or because they saw me publicly raising these issues about others.  My ability to maintain my composure was challenged because I had opened a pandora’s box of triggering material and painful interactions, which is especially hard for me because I live with a serious mood disorder (I have been hospitalized five times due to my extreme challenges maintaining stability and regulating my emotions).  But I still kept my head up, and somehow kept myself stable, while facing people who inadvertently (and sometimes capriciously) were very dismissive about discrimination focused on people like me.

Many in the dispute resolution world were not prepared to meet Advocacy Dan.  And many continue to find him scary, and threatening, and someone they are inclined to avoid.  I found myself desperate for answers about how to solve this problem.   Thanks in part to Len Riskin’s very helpful book, I have coalesced a perspective that helps me cope with the people who reject me as an advocate as well as the people who hold biases against me as someone with an active serious mental illness.  And I never forget I am more than those things.  My personal journey to integrate Advocacy Dan and Cocktail Party Dan has led me to try to think more about the parts in everyone.  I created a worksheet, using the principles in Managing Conflict Mindfully, that anyone can also use as a companion to the book.  It is available at https://bit.ly/MindfulQuestions

I have realized that sometimes, when I raise the issue that a dispute resolver inadvertently published discriminatory materials, I cause that person “identity quakes,” to use a term from Riskin’s book.  And to address those issues I need to connect with some of their parts which may include:

→ Protector of reputation

→ Manager of social norms/ civility/professionalism

→ Work-averse part that doesn’t want to invest time

→ Protector of self-image (wanting to seem fair, non-discriminatory)

→ Protector of feeling like they have things figured out

→ Exile traumatized self-afraid of change and ambiguity

→ Manager who engages in avoidance

→ Any other parts that seem to emerge

More broadly, I have started to think of myself as having three major parts that I theorize perhaps all people have some percentage of:

The Advocacy Part that will not give up on addressing problems and pursuing justice

The Avoidance Part that will fight as hard as it can to not have to engage in this problem or deal with it (which I have sometimes too, just like the people who avoided me)

The Collaboration Part that will work as hard as possible to connect with the other party, build rapport, and promote relationships (the cocktail party guy!)

Mindfulness has helped me integrate these three parts.  Advocacy Dan is raising awareness of mental illness discrimination and working to get people to stop doing it by updating their inappropriate guidance and educating people with mental health problems about how to speak up when they see stigma and discrimination.  Avoidance Dan is practicing self-care when he finds

himself getting dysregulated, and also studying avoidance and creating all sorts of resources to help all types of people work through these avoidance impasses.  Collaborating Cocktail Party Dan keeps trying to offer partnerships with dispute resolution leaders, and share thought leadership on how we can all work together to vet professional guidance without stigmatizing people who publish or act on mistakes. 

The strange thing, for me, is that previously I had stigmatized this parts work.  For instance, during my second hospitalization, I wrote over 100 poems while the doctors kept dousing me with more and more medication to knock me out, make me sleep, and put me on a path toward healing from my mania.  A lot of these poems captured the idea that there were different versions of me and I was trying to be whole.  I therefore associated the idea of imagining different selves as something disturbing because I remembered scrawling out my hospital poetry.  It took years before I would ever write poems again, due to that stigma from the time they had sprung forth from me during an episode – my first time ever doing it.  But I realize now they were helping me sort out my confused pieces back then in ways I did not fully appreciate.

As Len Riskin writes, many are finding value from imagining these different parts of themselves or others, rather than being so all-or-nothing in how we look at people.  I wish I had felt comfortable taking this approach sooner, and I am thankful the book Managing Conflict Mindfully inspired me to pay more attention to the parts of myself that I had buried, forgotten, or denied.

By embracing both Advocacy Dan and Cocktail Party Dan, I can do a better job at being both and encouraging collaboration with less escalation.  Perhaps we all get stuck in different parts of ourselves, and part of becoming better conflict resolution practitioners is providing space for people to let those neglected aspects get some air and weigh in on the situation.  I, for one, am trying to help people see I am more than just a scary advocate or a stigmatized person with a mental illness.  I am also a fun guy to talk to at cocktail parties.

                        author

Dan Berstein

Dan Berstein, MHS is a mediator and trainer known for his work in mental health communication, accessibility, and challenging behaviors. Through his company MH Mediate, Dan provides tools, trainings, and resources to help all kinds of mental health stakeholders talk about mental health, resolve conflicts, and address challenging behaviors in… MORE >

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