Thursday, October 6, 2016

My Interchange Journey

Like a lot of people I know, I used to be afraid of experiencing other people’s emotions. At restaurants, I said my food was good when it wasn’t so that the staff wouldn’t experience anger or shame. I avoided talking about problems in my relationship with my girlfriend because who knows what box of emotions that would unleash. If I saw someone in visible distress, I avoided them. I figured it was someone else’s responsibility to help them. What could I do?

That changed drastically over the last 12 months. I am a hundred times more free in expressing my thoughts and feelings in all sorts of situations. Whatever outcome I feared would happen doesn’t happen. Most of the time kindly expressing my opinions makes my relationships more real and satisfying. 

Ignoring emotions didn’t make them go away. I used to have this voice in my head ruminating on all the things I wished I had said but didn’t. But when I speak up, I find that inner neurotic voice is silenced. In some circles, they call this achievement “inner peace”. The trade-off is that I live a more vulnerable life because people know what I really think. It's a worthwhile trade. 

Another big change for me is that I go towards people in distress instead of away from them. I think I’m a pretty good person to have around when you need somebody. This change in my self-concept still feels new to me and I'm proud of it. 

I trace these changes back to the year-long counseling training I went through at Interchange. I learned from some other places too[0], but Interchange was the biggest piece. It bills itself as a counseling and personal growth program. But what I learned about was how to be a human. I learned how to let people see my emotions and how to be with other people’s emotions. My EQ went through the roof.

It turns out to be easy to be useful to people in distress - acknowledge what they’re going through and don’t try to fix them! Americans need to be trained out of fixing people and denying negative emotions. You have to be able to tolerate what’s there instead of pasting happy faces all over everything. The first counseling practice at Interchange is literally sitting in attentive silence while the client tells you about their problem for a few minutes. If you can do this successfully then you are in the 90th percentile of the population in terms of counseling.

Me and Steve at Interchange, demonstrating an exercise designed to examine our anger through simulated road rage

The most valuable thing about Interchange is that it provides a safe container for people to practice being real with each other. During the training, I spent hundreds of hours having real interactions with people. We helped each other explore our inner emotional landscape. They cried. I cried. It was intense, magical, and cathartic. 

On a larger scale, I think all people need safe spaces to be real with each other. We have a massive deficit of it in our society - it’s emotional malnourishment. Most of us hide what we’re feeling from our friends and family, some of us hide our emotions from our fucking therapists. 

Our culture still suffers from the idea that therapy is something you do when there is something wrong with you. You are broken and need to be fixed. For a lot of us, the only time we open up to anybody is when something is terribly wrong. It’s the same way we mistreat our bodies by only caring about health when we get sick. 

Humans are not machines that sometimes break and need a mechanic. Humans are organic creatures that are constantly growing and changing. If you’re going to use a metaphor, use a plant. It constantly needs a certain amount of water and nutrition and if it gets what it needs it grows. We need some amount of constant emotional nourishment to stay healthy.  

Modern life is confusing. Things have changed so fast. We’re not built for it. The institutions that people relied on for emotional nourishment for centuries are disappearing or changing. And maybe they were never very good to start with. We need to help each other feel like we aren’t alone and have a home in this world. 

I feel uncomfortable giving a full-throated endorsement of something, even Interchange. It's the best program I've ever done but it isn't perfect. So I want to end with some criticism to provide you with a balanced cross-section of my judgements of it. 

Interchange is based on an optimistic humanism that comes from people like Carl Rogers and Harvey Jackins. In the program you practice believing that other people are fundamentally good, interesting, and capable. It’s a powerful counseling stance. But sometimes it sounds naive and it might not be the right approach for a counselor working with a smart, skeptical client. 

I worry about groupthink at Interchange. There isn’t much nuance in what is taught and there aren’t many skeptical voices. This is partly because a community based on this kind of Humanism feels so nice to be in. When I brought up a skeptical point of view, I was the one harshing the good vibes.

Also, most of the students came from similar ideological places. I grew up in a cult so I feel uncomfortable being around unanimous ideological agreement. But when I expressed this discomfort, other students reached out to me and didn’t push me away. There may not be a lot of critical discussion but it feels like Interchange can handle it when it does happen.

Interchange is a great place to practice emotional intelligence and learn counseling. It is not a complete source of all the spiritual nourishment that you need to grow as a human. In particular, between the humanism and the social justice, it’s an epistemically sloppy place. Truth is not highly valued besides the supposed "truths" taught by humanism and social justice. If there were a package deal with Interchange and CFAR training together, that would balance out Interchange with the values that are missing.

Being founded by a progressive teacher named Steve Bearman, Interchange promotes some ideas from the social justice movement which are divisive and, in my opinion, poorly supported[1]. It's a harsh note mixed in with the humanism. White men were unkindly singled out and stereotyped a few times. Marxist models of the world are presented without consideration of other points of view that better map to reality. I spent a few nights lying awake and composing angry messages to the Facebook group. Gradually, I built more social and emotional resources and it bothered me less.

Most of the time when social justice and humanism conflict at Interchange, the humanism wins. For example, during exercises where we were instructed to practice radical honesty with each other, one of the more radical progressive students inevitably objected to the exercise on the grounds that people who aren't white men might be exposed to "oppressive" opinions. In response, Steve gently expressed that he had faith that the students could handle it. Learning goals were valued ahead of progressive orthodoxy.

Between the bitter taste of righteous anger in social justice and the sweetness in humanism, the sweetness wins out by something like a 9 to 1 ratio. Interchange is a personal project of Steve's and this reflects his background and values. You can't really change Interchange without changing Steve, and Steve's been into social justice for 2 or 3 decades. I've made my peace with it and I highly value my experience and expect to learn more from Interchange. 

Despite these caveats, I found Interchange to be a brilliant, daring, creative program. It catalyzed an incredible year for me. I believe in myself and I believe in my capacity to grow and change for the better. Check it out, or something like it. In terms of happiness, investing in your emotional intelligence is the highest-yield investment you can make.

[0] Stanford Business School's "touchy-feely" class, Nonviolent Communication, Buddhism, and eXperience the Game were other resources that led me down this path.

[1] For example, Steve often uses the concepts of class conflict, oppression, and privilege to model how the world works. These are a staple of the social justice/progressive worldview, but I think they are simplistic and overused.


  1. As a fellow Interchange grad in your same cohort, I appreciate your comments about the groupthink mentality. As I left Interchange, I had a negative online groupthink experience with fellow Interchangers on the Facebook page which sent me reeling. This experience tarnished for me much of what was so amazing about my year at Interchange. I think the biggest and most dangerous part of communities such as this is the hypocrisy element. Often, groupthink mentality is so quick to claim open mindedness but when pressed with thoughts, viewpoints, or hot-button issues they don't agree with, these same communities can come down with an iron fist. Overall, my experience at Interchange was awesome, but for several reasons including logistics I won't be returning.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I found that the quality of discussion in the facebook group was noticeably worse than real life. I guess nobody has figured out how to make people kind and thoughtful online yet. I also felt the groupthink was worse. I guess that is because it takes more work to present a counter to an opinion in writing than it does in conversation. Also, for people with my point of view, non-progressives in the Bay Area have learned how dangerous it is to speak out on the internet and we have learned to keep our head down online. So people that might support me in a lunch discussion were silent in the facebook group.

      With a few exceptions, I found people were open to repairing relationships in person. The facebook group made my experience in the group worse, but it was good practice for me in how to manage life in a digital world.