I can still hear my mother saying these words: “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names with never hurt you.” It was a call for resilience, in a world that wasn’t always kind, but where the expectation was clear: I was to let insults roll off me.

We live in a different world now, one in which there are divisions between the good and the bad, where children have the right not to be called names by bullies. Our college students want safe spaces where they won’t hear offensive ideologies and trigger warnings if they are to be exposed to anything that may rekindle a past trauma.

I wish I could find a clear line as to where “good” ends and “bad” starts, but our world has become quite confusing. We elected a man to be our president only days after the release of tapes in which he talked in graphic terms about molesting women, yet earlier this month, NFL quarterback Cam Newton lost his endorsement with a national yogurt company because, during an interview with a female sports reporter, he said,” It’s funny to hear a female talk about ‘routes.’ ” I confess that I am no football expert, so perhaps I’ve just completely missed the egregious nature of this comment, but it does seem that the player was talking about his own feeling that something felt odd, and the response – by the reporter, by the media, and by the yogurt company – it is that it’s not okay to verbalize if one has these feelings about words said by a female reporter.

If you’ve been following social media, then you might be familiar with the #MeToo topic that traveled after the public was made aware of the despicable, sexually aggressive behavior of acclaimed film executive Harvey Weinstein. Actress Alyssa Milano put out a call on social media: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Others have noted that in medicine , it might well be that 100% of women have been harassed. The hashtag took off, and millions of people wrote #MeToo on their social media sites, including four female U.S. senators who told their stories.

On my personal Facebook page, I voiced a concern about the #MeToo tag. I noted that there were times when men had said some inappropriate things to me and I’d felt uncomfortable. I went on to write, “I don’t feel I was changed, harmed, or victimized by these uncomfortable advances, and I worry that by turning everyone into a victim of sexual harassment, then we detract from the stories of the women who were raped, molested, and those who were the victims of men who were maliciously taking advantage of a power differential. I don’t think we should dilute the message.” One friend (a woman) responded that if I felt uncomfortable, then I was harassed. Another friend (a man) responded that if I did not feel harmed, then I was not harassed.

With no clear definition, this does lead to the question of whether we might be turning everyone into victims and if that is good for our collective psyches. What we don’t seem to say is that if everyone is a victim of something – if not sexual assault or harassment, then something else – then doesn’t that also make everyone a perpetrator? Cam Newton, for instance, has been an advocate of kneeling to oppose institutional racism and, in terms of his own victimization, I would add that he also is the victim of a sport that now knowingly inflicts permanent and disabling brain damage on healthy young men. And now he is not just a victim, he is also a sexist perpetrator, unworthy of endorsing something as wholesome as yogurt.

Other concerns about the #MeToo campaign have also been expressed on social media. Might those who have been victimized feel pressured to publicly announce their victimization? Might the campaign trigger women to recall troubling events that were safely suppressed? While I would not personally use the terms “victimized,” “triggered,” or “harassed,” to describe myself, I would say that the campaign, like many things I see on social media, left me to think about events I had not considered in many years. That’s not necessarily bad: I like revisiting old memories, but others certainly may not. HelpiIt does leave us to ask how we can live in a society where we can’t openly address our horrors for fear that the victims might be forced to relive them.

And what do we do about these issues with our patients? As a psychotherapist, I don’t live in a comfortable world. Patients often do and say things that make me personally uneasy, and I never considered the idea that I might be entitled to live without such discomfort. The mandate of psychotherapy for the patient is to talk openly about that which is on his or her mind and for the therapist to provide a safe space for thoughts that might be unacceptable in other settings. Patients talk of behaviors that make me worry for their safety. Some talk of sexual fantasies that are demeaning to others. Others are openly sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, or supportive of political ideologies that I strongly oppose. This can be hard work.

Was my mother right? Or was she dismissive? It was good that I always felt she was in my corner cheering me on. Obviously, it’s not just a saying, but a mindset that gets transmitted, sometimes successfully breeding resilience, and sometimes not. Certainly, I have seen that patients feel helped when I have validated their victimization. I have also seen people reassess their values when I have pointed out alternative ways about thinking about situations. I have not found it particularly helpful to tell people that their wounds are not so bad and others have it worse. While I don’t tell patients that sticks and stones will break their bones and names will never hurt them, I do sometimes gently tell them that I wish I could have them dipped in tin so that they would have stronger armor and so that the insensitive words of others might roll off without injuring them so. And as with all communications in our chaotic world, it’s often not the exact words that matter, but rather the context, the tone, and the intention with which they are said.

Sometimes, there really are clear victims and clear perpetrators, but in our world today, one can be both and the sides can be blurry. We are all trying to negotiate a society where words, spoken or unspoken, well-considered or not, have become weapons. Who gets to be comfortable and protected, we might ask, and who does not? Perhaps, in the end, we are left with the possibility that there are no safe spaces.

With thanks to Dr. Emile Bendit for considering the #MeToo hashtag with me.

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The battle over involuntary psychiatric care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).


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