Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant

Donald Trump’s mental health diagnosis, if he even has one, is almost entirely irrelevant to any of the questions we are trying to answer about our future and is a pointless and dangerous distraction that we cannot afford.

I regularly diagnose people with mental illnesses. I am myself diagnosed with a mental illness. As far as I can tell, these diagnoses have a few main functions:

  1. Insurance billing. Your insurance company needs to see something from the doctor justifying the money they’re spending on you.
  2. Research. Participants in studies have to be systematically categorized somehow, because a treatment for depression symptoms may not work for eating disorder symptoms and we need to know which it works for.
  3. Treatment. You and your therapist or doctor can use diagnoses to figure out a course of treatment that’s most likely to be effective, and to know what to try next if that doesn’t work. You can also use it on your own to find books and other resources that might help you or a loved one with coping skills and self-acceptance.
  4. Community. When people know what their diagnoses are, they can use those labels to find others who have very similar issues and build solidarity with them.

Notice what’s not anywhere on that list? Predicting a stranger’s future behavior.

Suppose you know that Donald Trump qualifies for the DSM criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. What exactly does this knowledge change? How does it impact your predictions of Trump’s future behavior or your decisions about your own behavior? How is a world in which Trump technically fits those criteria different than a world in which he doesn’t technically fit those criteria?

The only halfway-reasonable answer I’ve ever seen anyone give to any of these questions is that maybe if a fancy doctor examines Trump and concludes that he fits the criteria for some or other mental disorder, then people will finally realize that he’s unfit to be president.

First of all, that’s just false. Trump has been accused of sexual violence by numerous women, saluted by actual Nazis, and implicated in numerous cases of fraud. A bunch of clinical jargon isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion on anything if none of those things have. And given what I’ve gathered from Trump supporters by actually listening to them, many of them don’t recognize the validity of psychiatry, the DSM, or mental healthcare in general.

Second, Donald Trump is going to become president on January 20, 2017. Do whatever you need to do to cope with that knowledge, but it’s going to happen no matter which billing codes his doctors send to his insurance company.

Third, if–after the sexual violence and the fraud and the nepotism and the tax evasion and the naked racism and the probable interference of Russia in the election–it’s mental illness that makes people finally see Trump as unfit for office, that is horrifying.

What that says is that our unjustified, irrational fear of people with mental illnesses is more powerful than the collective evidence of someone’s past behavior.

That being a person with a mental illness is worse than being a rapist.

Worse than stealing the labor of working class people who need that income to put food on the table.

Worse than threatening to imprison and deport innocent people, and having the power to actually do it.

Worse than pandering to Nazis and dictators.

What does that say about the millions of people who share Trump’s supposed diagnosis?

And as awkward as I find it to disagree with a bunch of Harvard psychiatrists with much more experience than I have, we don’t need an expert neuropsychiatric evaluation to tell us that Trump is unfit for office. We already know because he provides evidence of this daily and has been doing so since he first emerged in the public spotlight. We elected him anyway.

And there’s both the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that you can never predict with anywhere near-certainty what someone will do in the future, especially if it’s not someone you know personally. People surprise us every day. It would be nice if we could magically divine a complete catalog of the disasters that Trump will cause while in office, but we can’t. Knowing which DSM criteria he fits will not help with that, and it may even obfuscate it even further.

The good news is that there is one fairly effective way of predicting someone’s behavior, and that is by observing their current behavior and reflecting on their past behavior. Trump has a long and clearly-evident record of dishonesty, boundary violations, fraud, discrimination, nepotism, harassment of journalists and other critics, conservative politics, and other things that most of us generally dislike. It’s a safe assumption that he will continue to do these things in the future.

Mental health diagnoses, on the other hand, are very poor predictors of behavior because the causative link between mental illness symptoms and outward behaviors is much more complicated than simple cause-and-effect. Diagnoses mostly describe internal processes, such as feeling hopeless or thinking everyone’s out to get you, and not outward behavior (although outward behavior can help identify internal processes). Someone who really wishes they were dead may or may not ever attempt suicide or even self-harm. Someone who is scared of elevators may or may not choose to use them anyway for any number of reasons. Plenty of people with depression hide it perfectly even from people who know them well. Someone experiencing hallucinations that tell them to jump out a window may or may not realize that the voices are a symptom of psychosis, and may or may not be able to ignore them and stay away from windows.

Personality disorders, which is what people typically associate Trump with, are an even more complicated thing. For starters, many professionals are skeptical of their validity as diagnoses in the first place because they’re extremely subjective and based much more on local norms of social behavior than on what is actually harmful or distressing for the patient. Regardless, we typically do not diagnose something as a personality disorder unless it’s maladaptive for the individual being diagnosed or they’re unhappy with the way they are. That others are unhappy with the person’s behavior doesn’t count. Trump does not seem to be unhappy with his behavior and you could hardly argue with a straight face that it’s been maladaptive for him.

In any case, I work with individuals with personality disorders on a regular basis and while knowing their diagnosis certainly predicts some of their symptoms–that’s literally the point of a diagnosis–it doesn’t necessarily predict their outward behavior, especially not when it comes to complex roles like running a government. That’s because, as I wrote above, diagnoses mainly describe internal processes.

Having a few random experts declare that Trump officially has a mental illness will not remove him from office or undo any of the harms he has already done or will do by that time. If it could, then we’d have to have a difficult conversation to have about just how badly we want to fuck over ordinary people with mental illnesses for the sake of removing from office someone that we elected in the first place, because that would mean that nobody with a history of mental health treatment will ever be able to hold elected office in this country again.

But it won’t, so the conversation we should be having instead is whether or not we will continue to attribute everything we don’t like in ourselves to mental illness, or whether we will stop demonizing those of us who suffer from it and instead aim our arrows at the proper targets.


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Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant
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Niceness and Kindness

When deciding how to act, I find it helpful to distinguish between niceness and kindness.

To most people, those are probably synonymous; Merriam-Webster uses “kind” as part of its definition for “nice.” I’m probably the only person who defines these words the way I do, but that’s okay. I’m aware of how other people use them, and that allows me to be clear with others. But when I need to be clear with myself, my definitions are much more useful.

To me, niceness is making others feel good or comfortable. Niceness is being polite. Niceness happens in those moments when the way you want to treat someone aligns well with the way they want to be treated by you. Niceness is when both of you walk away from the interaction with a smile on your faces.

Kindness is being genuine. Kindness is looking out for someone’s long-term growth or needs. Kindness may be nice, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, helping someone move into a new house is both nice and kind. Telling someone that they have hurt you may not be nice, but it is kind–both to yourself and to them, because it allows them to improve and to preserve their relationship with you if that’s what they want to do.

Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between nice and kind. But just like authentic, meaningful, and productive interactions don’t always feel good, interactions that feel good aren’t always authentic, meaningful, or productive. If a coworker irritates and frustrates me by trying to start conversations with me early in the morning before I’m ready to interact with people, I may choose to just be polite and smile back and chat with them rather than letting them know that this isn’t a good way of interacting for me. They get to leave the conversation feeling good, but neither of us has moved forward in any way.

And a lot of the time, that’s okay. It’s tempting to elevate kindness above niceness as the clearly superior way of interacting, but it’s not. First of all, kindness tends to involve a lot more emotional labor. We may not always have the capacity for that, or be willing to spend that energy in a particular situation. Second, kindness may not always be the wisest course of action. Telling my coworker how I feel about early-morning conversation may help them be more considerate towards me and maybe others too, but it can also cause unnecessary workplace conflict and give me a reputation for being cranky and unfriendly. That sort of thing is always an individual’s call to make–for you, getting someone to stop bugging you at 8 AM may be important enough to risk that, but for me it isn’t.

Trying to insert kindness into situations where it’s not warranted and wasn’t asked for can also mean giving people unsolicited help or advice. You may think it’s kind to rush over and help a stranger at the gym when you see them lifting weights improperly, but they may see this as intrusive, nosy, and rude. On the other hand, if you’re a personal trainer, letting your client know their form is off is definitely the kind thing to do (not to mention part of your job), even if it makes the client feel embarrassed or frustrated. The difference is that your client consented to have you comment on their workout; the stranger didn’t.

The reason these redefinitions are so important to me is that they create space for me to be good to other people without necessarily making them happy. A lot of the discourse on boundaries attempts to reclaim the idea of selfishness as a positive, and while I find this extremely valuable, I also think it sets up a false dichotomy in which setting your boundaries is “selfish” (whether that’s a positive or a negative) and doing what other people want is “selfless” or “nice.”

While setting boundaries can hurt people’s feelings and is therefore not exactly a “nice” thing to do, it is a fundamentally kind thing to do–not just for yourself, but for them. When you set a boundary with someone, you are giving them important information that they need. You are helping them figure out how to maintain a healthy relationship with you. You are trusting them and letting them get to know you better. You are relieving any anxiety they might’ve had about whether or not they were crossing your boundaries–now they know for sure, and can avoid doing it in the future.

Similarly, breaking up with someone or saying “no” if they ask you out on a date may hurt them, but it’s also the kinder choice. The alternative is leading them on or confusing them when you already know you’re not interested. That’s why making it a goal to always make people feel good–that is, prioritizing niceness–can actually be very harmful in the long run, both to yourself and to others.

I mentioned earlier that too much kindness, or kindness at inappropriate times, can look like trying to help people when they don’t want it or in ways they don’t need. Too much niceness looks like trying to manipulate people’s emotions by keeping them from ever being upset–specifically, upset at you.

Excessive niceness can also be extraordinarily unkind. If you continue a relationship you don’t want to be in so that you don’t hurt the person’s feelings, that prevents them from coping with the truth, moving on, and maybe putting their energy into finding someone who actually wants to be with them.

Sometimes I like being nice. Doing little polite things for people or making small talk with a coworker may not be particularly genuine actions–especially not these days when I’m pretty depressed–but they make people feel at least a little bit good and as a result I feel good too.

Sometimes I decide that being nice is not my priority. As a therapist, I can’t always be nice. However gently I hold clients accountable for harming themselves or others, it’s not going to feel good. As a partner, I can’t always be nice either. However hard I might try to keep the terseness out of my voice when I say I’m too tired for something or that I need to stop what we’re doing, some part of my pain or irritation will seep through and that’s okay.

Some people don’t deserve either niceness or kindness from me, but distinguishing those two things helps me avoid mistreating people when there’s no need to. Just because I can’t be nice to them doesn’t mean I can’t be kind; just because I can’t be kind to them doesn’t mean I can’t be nice.


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Niceness and Kindness

The Importance of Naming Bigotry

Over and over again this conversation happens:

“Anyone who voted for Trump is racist and sexist.”

“Well, you’re never going to convince them of anything if you call them that.”

Leaving aside the fact that not everyone particularly cares at this point about convincing them of anything or thinks that’s even possible, this conversation is unproductive because the people in it are talking past each other.

The fact that we acknowledge that Trump voters are racist and sexist doesn’t mean we have to open a discussion with one of them by announcing that they are racist and sexist, and the fact that we may use different language to try to engage with Trump voters doesn’t mean that we have to abandon a potentially crucial theoretical framework in our own heads and spaces. You can think something without saying it out loud in a particular situation.

Personally, I don’t care a whole lot about which words we happen to call Trump voters; what we call them for the purposes of our own internal conversations doesn’t change what they do and what they believe. As I discussed in my last post, right-wingers have made their beliefs about various social groups abundantly clear, and whichever words you chose to use to describe those beliefs, they are still out there, and still affecting public policy and group behavior in measurable, observable, and harmful ways.

However, I think that words like “racist” and “sexist” are appropriate descriptors for Trump voters for two reasons: 1) the majority of them would endorse statements that easily fit the definitions of those words, such as “Black people are more dangerous than white people” and “Women aren’t fit to be president”; and 2) even those who would not endorse those statements still voted for the most openly bigoted presidential candidate in modern American history, who has stated an intent to harm marginalized people in multiple ways.

Racism and sexism aren’t just about beliefs. They’re also about behaviors. Someone who truly believes in racial equality but for whatever reason refuses to hire people of color to work at their company is acting in a racist way. Someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about race but helps elect someone who repeatedly states an intent to violate the civil rights of particular racial groups is also acting in a racist way. I get that it’s difficult to think of your actions as having consequences when elections are decided by millions of votes, but the fact that millions of people are equally responsible doesn’t mean you aren’t.

One of the few things I think that the edgy white liberal thinkpieces are getting right is that, indeed, screaming “You’re sexist!” at a Trump voter probably won’t make them change their minds about their sexism or about voting for Trump. Thankfully, nobody has seriously suggested that it would; believe it or not, the people of color and women who have been writing about this problem for years have much more nuanced suggestions than that.

The problem with screaming “You’re sexist!” at Trump voters is threefold: 1) screaming at people usually causes them to shut down and stop learning, which is why I don’t recommend it in any situation that is meant to be educational; 2) labeling someone’s behavior “sexist” doesn’t actually tell them what they did wrong or what you would like them to do differently; and 3) if you do use it as a jumping-off point to explain what exactly they did wrong and what you would like them to do differently, you probably won’t get anywhere because they probably disagree that those things are wrong.

For instance, I’ve been in arguments with conservatives about Black Lives Matter and our criminal justice system in which I would claim that the system is racist because it disproportionately targets people of color, especially Black men, as potential criminals and treats them more harshly than others. The conservative would respond that that’s because people of color, especially Black men, are much more likely to be criminals. I would point to data that show that there is overall no racial difference in criminal activity; that whites are actually more likely to commit certain crimes; that the data that shows that Black people are more likely to commit crimes is based on convictions and it’s also been shown that they are more likely to get accused and convicted (including falsely) in the first place and etc etc etc. And the conservative would say that that data is just liberal propaganda and that everyone obviously knows that Black people are simply more dangerous than white people, so I should be thanking our brave police forces for keeping me safe from them. I would point out that in our country it’s supposed to be unconstitutional to execute a criminal, actual or suspected, on the street without a trial. They shrug and say that sometimes bad things happen and I can’t let that get to me.

(These experiences, plus research about persuasion, have convinced me that there’s literally no point in arguing with someone by presenting them with factual evidence they disagree with.)

If you define “racism” to someone and they disagree that it’s a bad thing, then obviously you’re not going to get anywhere by telling them that they did something racist. If they do think it’s a bad thing, they’ll just waste your time arguing about how what they said or did isn’t actually racist and that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.”

(While it’s plausible that calling Trump voters sexist and racist will just reinforce their belief that liberals look down on them and hate them, contrary to the thinkpiece du jour, I don’t think that this is what literally created the systems of sexism and racism in this country. I’m pretty sure the transatlantic slave trade predated Vox.com significantly.)

None of this means that we shouldn’t consider them sexist and racist. As I also discussed in my previous post, sugarcoating, euphemizing, or simply ignoring conservatives’ beliefs about various social groups is not going to be helpful in defeating their ideology. You may choose not to come at a Trump voter accusing them of hating women, but you need to keep in the back of your head the fact that they would probably endorse lots and lots and lots of sexist statements–or at least not be very bothered by them.

If we acknowledge that Trump supporters are racist and sexist and just about every other kind of -ist, that changes our behavior and predictions in a few ways. First of all, that informs us what Trump can and can’t get away with. Friends of mine have joked that after all of these allegations–sexual assault, fraud, tax evasion, and so on–the only thing Trump could do that would actually lose him a significant number of supporters is come out in support of Black Lives Matter. Obviously that’s not going to happen, and it’s also clear that just about anything he does to target marginalized people, no matter how flagrant, will be met with either tacit approval or open celebration by his supporters.

If we assume that Trump supporters endorse many bigoted beliefs, then we cannot appeal to their better natures to stop him. It seems that so far, Trump voters who regret their choice regret it mostly because he has not tried to imprison Hillary Clinton and because his fellow Republicans are hoping to dismantle Medicare.

Second, when it does come to engaging with Trump supporters, awareness of their bigotry can help you choose the best approach. Nothing he has said about women, people of color, or other marginalized people will be relevant. It won’t be like talking left-wingers out of supporting Hillary Clinton. You will have to show how Trump is a threat to the sorts of American values they do hold dear, such as free speech and relatively unregulated markets.

Third, acknowledging the bigotry of the Republican base is, honestly, a vital self-care tactic for marginalized people. Over and over we have been told that it’s not that, it’s that they love Jesus and want to spread his love, it’s that they’re worried about their taxes, it’s that they want to see their values reflected in our culture just like anyone else would, it’s that they want their jobs back, it’s that the Democrats have ignored their needs, it’s that globalism has shut down their factories so of course they’d be against trade agreements, it’s that some of these immigrants are probably bad people so naturally we should vet them carefully, it’s that the police have very stressful jobs so you can’t blame them for freaking out sometimes, it’s that Jesus was persecuted for his beliefs and so are they, it’s that marriage is supposed to be for procreation, it’s that if you work hard you won’t be poor or homeless, it’s that if you do something sinful like have premarital sex it’s only fair that you should have to face the consequences, it’s that fetuses are living babies, it’s that they miss the way things used to be when everyone knew their place and nobody asked for more than what they got, it’s anything but the fact that they simply believe that men are better than women, white people are better than non-white people, and LGBTQ people are disgusting abominations altogether.

And almost all of us, to a person, grew up with that awful buzzing voice in the backs of our minds: What if it’s me? What if I’m the problem? What if I’m disgusting, sinful, ugly, criminal, dangerous, lazy, stupid, sick? What if I’m a bitch, an outsider, a slut, an animal? What if I deserve everything they’ve done to me, and everything they still intend to do?

The reason marginalized people have been so adamant about naming Trump and his supporters for who they are isn’t because we still have much hope that they’ll feel even a twinge of shame, but because naming them for who they are is how we survive them.

Naming bigots as bigots allows us to stop blaming ourselves for our own oppression. And as soon as we’re able to direct blame outward rather than inward, we become able to fight it.


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The Importance of Naming Bigotry

Yes, We Did Fail to Empathize with Conservatives

Just not in the way you think.

One of the worst developments of this election season–after, that is, the fact that we’ve elected a proto-fascist sexual predator with the temper of a three-year-old denied candy–is that the Left appears to have collectively decided that the reason this happened is that we failed to empathize with conservatives and that we have been too concerned with making sure that trans people can use the right bathrooms.

I agree with part of this. No, not the bathroom part. We did fail to empathize with conservatives. But I mean that in a very different way than the thinkpiece du jour does.

Empathy means understanding what someone thinks and feels from their perspective. It doesn’t mean feeling bad for them–it’s not the same thing as sympathy. It doesn’t mean patiently debating life-or-death issues with them. It doesn’t mean coddling them or doing what they want you to. It doesn’t even mean accepting their distortions of sociopolitical reality as fact.

It just means understanding what they think and feel, from their perspective.

Overwhelmingly, white Americans–at least the ones who voted for Trump–think that people of color are the cause of their economic problems, and they feel afraid of them. They think that LGBTQ people are sinful and a threat to the proper order of things, and they feel disgusted by them. They think that women are asking for more than they deserve and that women are inherently deceitful and untrustworthy, and they feel threatened by them.

I know this because I listen to right-wingers and read what they write.

And because I have a relatively high empathic ability, which I train for hours each day in the course of my job, I can actually put myself right into a hypothetical conservative’s shoes and see why they’d feel what they feel given the beliefs that they have. If I had those beliefs, I would also feel (and vote) the way they do.

And when I put myself in the headspace of a white conservative, and run a simulation in my mind of their beliefs and values, their support for Trump and other Republicans makes complete sense to me. There is nothing hypocritical about it at all. There’s little evidence that they voted “against their interests,” because as much of a failure as Trump will be at improving their economic circumstances, that wasn’t the only interest they had. They were also very interested in reducing the number of people of color (especially Muslims) in the United States, maintaining Christianity as the dominant American value system, making sure that women don’t take what isn’t theirs, and preventing LGBTQ people from further corrupting American culture. They accomplished all of this and more by electing Trump.

Sure, many of them shot themselves in the foot economically in order to do that. But there’s nothing surprising about it. Psychological research (which I unfortunately can’t find right now, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt) suggests that people may willingly lose money in order to harm someone that they want to harm.

And sure, there are a lot more factors in this election outcome than just the specific beliefs I listed as examples. Those are some major ones, but there are others, such as “government-run programs are wasteful and harmful in general and should be reduced or eliminated” and “climate change is a hoax” and “I admire Donald Trump’s business successes and would want someone with those skills as president.” Yes, you can be a Trump supporter without being primarily concerned with, say, reducing the number and influence of people of color in America. But as others have pointed out, every Trump supporter has heard his rhetoric about people of color and women and decided that that is acceptable on some level. So yes, you’re all racist and sexist. Every last one of you.

The reason I think that lack of empathy–when “empathy” is properly defined–contributed to the Democrats’ loss is because they failed to understand what they were up against. Many liberals demonstrated a disturbing lack of critical reading skills when they insisted on taking statements like “I just want our jobs back” literally rather than interpreting and contextualizing them properly. When taken literally, this statement suggests that if Democrats want to capture more of the white vote, they need to address these voters’ presumably lost jobs. (Never mind that many of them are making six figures.)

But Clinton had a comprehensive jobs platform, and Obama is finishing his presidency with a strong record on jobs. While Clinton may have failed to adequately communicate her platform and the media certainly failed to adequately explain it to the public, I don’t think that the vast majority of these voters would ever have voted for her no matter how well she communicated. There are two reasons for that. One is that she’s a woman, and the majority of these voters do not believe that a woman can or should be president. The other is that they don’t simply want “their” jobs back; they believe that their jobs have been taken by immigrants and people of color. This belief is extremely strong, cemented by a cohesive in-group identity, and resistant to things like calm and reasoned presentation of facts to the contrary. Clinton supports immigrants and people of color, so she’s not going to have their vote. Neither is any other Democrat.

Of course, you could argue that if even a few people had responded positively to Clinton’s attempts to bring them into the fold, that might’ve tipped the election to her favor and she would’ve won. That’s a valid argument and I don’t disagree, but even in that case you’d be left with millions and millions of voters that Democrats have misunderstood and underestimated. Still a problem, especially given the long-term trajectory of right-wing populist movements. If Trump had lost this year, that would’ve prevented things from getting as bad as they’re going to get in the immediate future, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem.

So how do we stop misunderstanding and underestimating right-wingers? How do we have actual empathy towards them?

1. We take them seriously.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them. Trump has been telling us who he is for decades and people still won’t believe him. “Oh, he didn’t really mean that about grabbing those women.” “He didn’t literally mean that Mexican immigrants are rapists, just that there are probably some rapists among them, like any other group.” “He’ll probably surround himself with good people once he gets to the White House.” We’re now seeing how that’s turning out.

Same with Trump’s supporters. When they say that their jobs have been taken by immigrants, they mean that that’s what they believe. You are not going to win them over unless you either manage to convince them that this deeply-held, socioculturally-reinforced belief is false (good luck with that), or you tell them that you’re going to kick all the immigrants out so they can have their jobs back.

Many–not all–Trump voters have real economic concerns. But they have chosen a fundamentally racist way of explaining the origins of those problems, and they will not accept a solution that doesn’t get at what they see as the problem.

2. We learn to read and listen critically.

On the other hand, we can’t take people’s statements so literally and interpret them so shallowly that we fail to understand what they actually mean. When Trump supporters said that they want to get rid of all the elites in the federal government, they didn’t mean that they wanted the next president to be someone who grew up in a Rust Belt town with ordinary non-politician parents, built their own small business from the ground up, and knows what it’s like to struggle financially. When right-wingers use words like “elites,” what they typically mean is urban liberals and/or Jews. So nobody should be surprised that most Trump voters seem totally okay with his own elite status and that of the people he’s filling his administration with.

LIkewise, the language of racism is typically full of codewords and euphemisms that allow people to dodge away from the implications of what they’re saying. When white people say that they’re worried about the changing demographics of this country, they mean that their majority is on its way out. The only reason for a white person to be concerned about being the minority is that they hate or fear people of color.

Taking people’s words literally might seem like a necessary part of taking them seriously, but that’s only if you refuse to acknowledge that most people communicate indirectly. That’s especially the case when we have heavily stigmatized certain forms of direct communication. For instance, in most circles, people will make you feel very uncomfortable if you say something like, “Black people are lazy and I don’t like them.” (Yes, even if those other people believe that on some level themselves.) So instead, you learn to say things like, “I just think that a lot of these welfare programs are encouraging dependency and preventing people from getting out there and getting an actual job.”

Well-meaning liberals may respond to this person by pointing out that while fraudulent applications for food stamps do happen, most are genuine. They may point out that some of this person’s (white) relatives have been on government assistance. They might say that, actually, there are work requirements involved with food stamps and you can’t just take them and do nothing.

They won’t get anywhere because the person hasn’t said exactly what they mean.

3. We understand the powerful role of tribalism and identity.

Identity politics did cost Clinton this election. Specifically, identity politics won the election for Trump. This election was won by conservative white identity politics.

For white conservatives, things like opposing immigration (of non-white people), fearing Muslims, distrusting women, being disgusted by homosexuality, and believing that government programs and other institutions unfairly favor people of color aren’t just isolated opinions, like preferring summer to winter or liking a particular brand of frozen pizza.

Rather, those are strong markers of group identity. Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon them because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

I’m not saying liberals don’t have their own versions of this, by the way. They sure do. But the point is that they underestimate the role this plays in our current political situation at their peril.

If you really want to convince someone that the pizza they like is shitty or that winter is obviously the superior season, you might succeed by presenting them with well-reasoned arguments and responding effectively to their rebuttals. (You probably won’t–they have those opinions for a reason–but you could.) That’s because they probably don’t really, really need to believe that their pizza is better or that summer is the best season.

When it’s a matter of group identity, that changes. Conservatives don’t simply believe that climate change is a hoax; they really, really need to believe that climate change is a hoax. If they stop believing that climate change is a hoax, they will lose part of their sense of who they are, not to mention cause conflict with their friends and family and also start fearing that we’re all literally going to die. That’s some powerful motivation to keep believing that climate change is a hoax. Avoiding cognitive dissonance is a much stronger drive than your calm and reasoned arguments can possibly provide.

So now that we know how to truly understand Trump supporters, what do we do with that?

Here’s where I’m not really a helpful source of advice, because I don’t actually think there’s anything to be done. I don’t think that being nice to them or debating calmly with them will change their minds. I don’t think creating progressive policy that addresses their economic concerns will help, for the reasons I’ve laid out. The way to get right-wingers to vote for you is to support the policies that they support, and you can’t do that as a Democrat or any other kind of liberal or progressive.

I think we can do two things:

1. Galvanize the left-wing base so that they turn the fuck up at the polls next time.

Stop with the “voting doesn’t really matter” fucking bullshit. We’re about to find out exactly how much it mattered. This is my main aim when I write and share things about Trump, about racism, about fascism, and so on. I’m not trying to convince conservatives. I’m trying to get progressives who can vote to get the fuck out there and vote. I fucking promise you there are progressives in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and literally every other red and swing state who could have voted in this election and chose not to.

Because I don’t believe that we can convince conservatives to stop supporting Trump (or other relatively less awful but still awful politicians), I believe that our best option is to strengthen our own base so that it can defeat conservatives in elections. And not just elections, of course. I’ve just started hosting monthly letter-writing parties to get my friends and myself to write letters to our representatives and senators. Progressives need to start doing all of this kind of shit in much greater numbers and defeat conservatives with brute strength, not, ironically, brute reason.

I don’t like this. I wish we could all just rationally debate each other until the best ideas won, but that’s very clearly not how the world works. Progressives need to get more comfortable with relying on things like numbers and politics rather than on simply Being Right and feeling good about it.

2. Do our best to educate young people.

Of course, brute strength isn’t a perfect or sustainable solution. As I said, we could’ve avoided a Trump presidency and prevented a lot of harm that way, but the shitty ideas would still be out there, ready to strike at any time. Kinda like Obama being president didn’t end racism.

We need to keep trying to reach young people before they develop a strong tribal conservative identity. That’s very hard to do, because these identities can form early. My 14-year-old brother is a passionate Trump supporter and there’s nothing any of us can do to talk him out of it now. Maybe there could’ve been years ago. Maybe I should’ve tried. But I had no idea this was coming. Now I know exactly what can happen, and how quickly.

(Yeah, yeah, he might “grow out of it” or whatever. But that’s not going to happen through arguments with me. I already tried that.)

These are my two best ideas, but honestly, I’m feeling pretty depressed and cynical about the whole changing-minds project right now so I welcome disagreement on that.

What I’m much more certain of is that however we proceed, we need to do so with as accurate an understanding of conservatives’ perspectives as possible. That means acknowledging their opinions about women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

Pretending that these opinions do not exist and are not a major driver of conservatives’ political behavior isn’t going to do any good. It won’t convince conservatives that they should agree with us because we’re nice to them and don’t make them uncomfortable. It won’t make them vote for someone who wants to do things that they don’t want to happen, like protect abortion access and ensure equal pay for women.

Too much of the commentary about this election has been focused on whether or not Trump supporters are _____-ist, or whether or not you can support Trump without being _____-ist, or how it makes Trump supporters feel to be called _____-ist. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter what you call them. They have made their opinions very clear. Are we going to listen?


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Yes, We Did Fail to Empathize with Conservatives

The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality

A lot of folks have been asking, “How do we protect our own emotional health without normalizing what’s going on?”

They’re speaking to the tension between being horrified, terrified, and disgusted by what’s happening and what’s about to happen politically, and yet still being able to get up in the morning and go to work or do whatever it is you do and function as if life is, well, normal.

To be honest, I don’t know. And to be honest, I really feel the temptation to just assimilate this into my model of the world and go on with my life as if it’s no big deal.

Of course, doing so is dangerous because it breeds complacency. If this is normal and no big deal, why fight against it? If it’s normal for our country’s leadership to casually throw around ideas like Muslim registries and internment camps, what can be done anyway? If swastikas all over everything is just a thing that happens now, why bother?

So we must retain our capacity for horror, even as it drags on year after year and threatens to feel less and less horrifying.

On the other hand, I also know this: no living thing is meant to live with unrelenting stress. Our stress response evolved to help us escape life-threatening but temporary situations. It spurs us to action that quickly burns through our reserves of energy but is meant to get us to a place where we can safely rest.

One of the ways in which mental illness can develop is that this physiological response is fired up constantly due to trauma, abuse, adverse life events, overly stressful jobs, and so on, to the point where we never have relief. It’s not meant to work that way, and depression and anxiety result.

That sort of constant stress can also lead to physical health problems, and it’s one reason (along with healthcare disparities and so on) why marginalized people tend to have worse health outcomes. The added stress of constant racism or other forms of bigotry takes both a physical and a psychological toll.

The reason so many of us are feeling such a strong urge to just accept our new political reality and move on isn’t just because activism is hard or because we’re lazy or whatever. It’s because, unfortunately for progressive politics, that’s actually the psychologically adaptive response. You’re not a bad person or a bad activist if it feels like your brain is urging you to move on.

This isn’t to shame anyone who can’t move on. Many people aren’t anywhere near feeling “normal” about this election because of preexisting trauma, mental illness, or any number of other factors that prevent them from “getting used to it.” That can make it even harder for them to go on with their lives, but that’s not their fault.

But if you are fighting the impulse to normalize, know that you’re to some extent fighting with biology. That doesn’t make you wrong and biology right–we fight and control our instincts all the time, often for our (and others’) greater good. That just means that you shouldn’t blame yourself if it’s hard and you sometimes fail.

As I said, I’m not sure where I’m at with this myself. I’m still very much in the place I was in my previous post, and I’m still dedicated to giving myself space to move through my own feelings rather than shoving them aside for others’ sake. The thing is, if I don’t normalize at all, I’m going to burn out. And not only is that horrible for me, and for all the friends and family and partners who depend on me, and for my parents who cosigned on my $160,000 of student loans and will have to pay them if I become too depressed to work, and for my clients who depend on me to provide them with mental healthcare–it will also be ultimately bad for any sort of activism or organizing that I was supposed to be involved in, because then I won’t be doing it at all.

And if I were going to give any actual advice in this post, it would be this: be on guard for the possibility of burnout, and know that you owe it to yourself to do what you need to do to protect your own health. And the people who depend on you need you in good health, too. But more importantly, so do you.

The struggle against normalization also belies the fact that, unfortunately, what’s happening right now actually is kind of normal on a global and historical scale. It may be relatively abnormal in the United States, but many people have already lived through it. The fact that I was raised by such people might by why I’m simultaneously so triggered and so resilient–triggered because unlike them, I don’t yet have the confidence that I can survive it, but resilient because I’ve learned some of their coping skills. No matter how bad things get, my parents spend time with their loved ones, do “silly” things like watch bad crime shows to relax, invest in their work, take care of their health, and do things they enjoy. Oppressive governments are entirely normalized to them, and they survive. To some extent, they’ve passed that down to me. It’s hard for me not to feel like this is just the way of things.

That said, we don’t have to conflate normalization with acceptance. That swastikas and casual references to mass internment may be normal here right now doesn’t mean we have to let them remain normal forever. We can’t let them remain normal forever.

That means that we may have to look beyond emotional reactions to motivate our activism. If your main motivator is the anger you feel when you witness bigotry or when Trump opens his mouth (so, when you witness bigotry), you may stop acting when the anger stops coming. And for many of us, it will, because our brains can’t sustain that level of emotional response for four-plus years.

Since I’ve never really been motivated by negative emotions–for me it’s more about the satisfaction of doing something that I think is meaningful and effective–I’m not actually that concerned that I’ll stop doing things once the pain of this election outcome stops feeling so raw. Actually, I’ll probably be doing more things because I won’t be so fucking overwhelmed with despair.

And if you think about it, many of the things we fight against–racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on–have always seemed “normal” to us because we grew up steeped in them. That didn’t stop us from fighting. The threat we face now is of a different type and a different degree, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t feel both normal and unacceptable at the same time.

Something I’m going to try to do to maintain both my sanity and my outrage is to set aside times for doing political things and times where I’m going to keep political things out of my head and out of the conversation. Sometimes I’ll sit down for an hour or two to read the news and write a letter to my representative and feel angry and worked up during that time, but then I need other times where I am free to not think about that stuff at all, to not give a fuck about it. Not everyone is able to achieve that sort of compartmentalization–it’s something that comes easy to me after a lifetime of necessity–but if you can, it might help you.

So I suppose my final answer to the question I opened with is that, for the most part, you cannot maintain your mental health without doing some amount of normalizing, or whatever else it takes to gradually reduce your stress response so that you can function rather than sobbing for days on end like I did right after the election.

But it matters how you normalize–what language you use, and what you do in response. “Trump’s not that bad I guess” combined with no action is disastrous if enough people adopt it; “It is currently normal in our country to advocate mass internment and I must act against it” would be a very beneficial attitude for people to take, even though it doesn’t necessarily involve getting your blood pressure up at each mention of mass internment.

Unfortunately, the people who most need to resist their urge to accept this are the people least likely to be reading this article or worrying about normalizing horrible things to begin with. If you’re worried that this will become normal to you and you’ll stop caring, I’d predict that you probably won’t stop caring. But, of course, you know yourself best.

And again, if you cannot normalize, you don’t have to, and I hope you can find a way to be okay without it. But if you can, that’s not a personal failure; that’s your brain trying to protect you. You don’t have to let it, but you’re also allowed to put your own oxygen mask on first.


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The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality

Things Will Neither Be as Good as You Hope, Nor as Bad as You Fear

I. Comfort

As the days went by and nothing anyone said could comfort me, I realized I would have to comfort myself.

This is what I would’ve liked to hear in the days following the election. To that end, it’s extremely personal even though it discusses a political event. It may not be true, but it can’t really be said to be false, either, because this is what keeps me wanting to keep living. I hope that by writing it and putting it out into the world, as a real, living, breathing thing, I can be comforted.

There’s a saying I kind of live by, and it goes: “Things will neither be as good as you hope, nor as bad as you fear.” I don’t remember where I first heard it or who I could possibly credit it to. I like it because it reminds me not to overinvest myself in fantastical possibilities, positive or negative.

I’ve had plenty of each this past week. First I thought it was literally just a mistake. A part of me expected to wake up on Wednesday morning–I didn’t stay up quite late enough to see the actual concession–and check my phone and see that Clinton won. Things were obviously not as good as that particular hope.

Then I hoped even more irrationally that Someone Would Do Something–what?–and reverse the election results. Can’t anyone do something? Isn’t he literally currently on trial for child rape? But no, nobody was going to do something; the time for doing something was November 8 and we did not do it.

Now I hope for other too-good things. That it was all just a big funny troll and he’ll turn out to be a liberal. That he’ll at least leave the ACA and abortion rights and LGBTQ rights and a ton of other things alone and focus on his money. That he’ll die or resign or be impeached and then so will Pence and literally everyone else on down until I don’t know what. That it’ll be like Harry Potter or Star Wars or other great stories that I love in which the rebels win in the end and not all that many people die.

And then there were the fears. As soon as the election was over I discovered in myself a seemingly unstoppable well of intergenerational trauma that paralyzed me with visions of forced labor camps, gas chambers, Secret Police, interrogations, mass graves, yellow stars on clothing, armed men kicking down the door in the middle of the night. While there are many valid reasons to fear that Trump will inexorably damage our democracy, these particular fears are not, I don’t think, coming from any actual evidence. They are an inevitable result of trauma, even trauma that you haven’t personally witnessed. They are a part of my story nonetheless.

Things will neither be as good as you hope, nor as bad as you fear.

II. Surviving

“We survived Reagan,” they said. “We survived Bush. We’ll survive this.” Others responded, angrily and rightfully so: “Many of us didn’t.”

Some won’t survive Trump. Of those that do, many will probably be changed in ways they never wanted to change, ways that you can’t necessarily turn into silver linings. There’s no point papering over that ugly writing on the wall.

You may not survive Trump. Your loved ones may not survive Trump. I’m so sorry we didn’t do better by you. We failed in many ways not just on November 8 but in the weeks and months leading up to it, but many people are already doing that postmortem analysis and that’s not my aim here.

It is a small but significant comfort, though, that human ingenuity and empathy will survive, and most likely so will our democracy, and that for every Trump there are dozens of people who enrich the lives of the people around them. If only our political system were set up to uplift these people. But it’s not, so instead it’s up to us to uplift them, now more than ever.

III. Privilege

As someone who has often written about privilege as a helpful lens through which to understand our society, I was surprised to find that in the days after the election, personally, I found this lens unhelpful and even harmful.

Just to get this out of the way first–I don’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about privilege right now. We should be talking about it more than ever. I mean that in my own emotional process, it didn’t help at all.

Something that I kept hearing a lot was that certain people have “nothing to worry about” in the coming years and are therefore obligated to put themselves on the line for others. I guess I don’t think anyone is ever “obligated” to do anything but treat others like human beings, but aside from that, I don’t know who I could possibly identify that I personally know (so, not a member of Trump’s family or cabinet) who has “nothing to worry about.”

A straight cis white man who loses health insurance because the ACA is repealed and then develops a fatal condition is just as dead as anyone else. Does he have “nothing to worry about”?

When climate change continues unabated thanks to Trump’s denialism and all of us suffer, do any of us have “nothing to worry about”?

And I think back to those horrible images I keep seeing, and I think about who had “nothing to worry about” then. In the Soviet Union, being straight, cis, white, and male may have afforded you some amount of protection–I’m not sure exactly what the social dynamics there were–but if someone informed on you (usually falsely, usually in order to save themselves or their family or to get back at you or to get something you had), off you go to the camps like anyone else.

Some people are in more danger than others, and we must speak up and stand up for those people. But I’m tired of the gaslighty claims that relatively privileged people are wrong in their own fears. None of us are actually safe now.

I’m also not sure where I stand in this hypothetical privilege ladder now that white supremacists are in power, because Jews are not white to them. Jewish whiteness has always been somewhat conditional, not just on time but also on place. There are many parts of the country–the types of parts that voted heavily for Trump, in fact–where Jews have never been white. My family fled a country where Jews were not white. Anti-Semitism has always trafficked in racial stereotypes. All of you who claim that Jewishness is just a religion and nothing more must not have ever heard all the jokes about big ugly noses and frizzy ugly hair, and inferior genes and physical weakness and illness. There’s a long legacy of visual representations to that effect, too.

So, in the context of that and in the context of swastikas getting spray-painted all over everything and in the context of this has happened to us numerous times already, I don’t really appreciate being told that I have “nothing to worry about.”

IV. Organizing

So what now? Now, apparently, we’re supposed to “organize.”

“Don’t mourn, organize,” say actual posts on my actual Facebook feed, as if anyone has the fucking right to tell me how to feel right now.

I’m aware that immediately jumping to action is some people’s coping strategy, and I don’t knock that. But the proliferation of these posts within hours of the election’s conclusion was, if not exactly triggering, at the very least deeply invalidating. I feel like I’m grieving the loss of a loved one as people stand around and command me to “take action” and “use your privilege” and “do something about it.” What am I supposed to do? It’s dead. You want me to bring a corpse back to life now? No amount of privilege is going to make that happen.

Which brings me to the deeper part of this, which is that I don’t feel like I can trust anyone enough to organize with them.

I know this will upset some of you to hear, but this is the part that I feel like I have to say before anything else can come out of my chest. Progressives who voted third party in swing states (or didn’t vote at all) because Clinton wasn’t progressive enough make me feel like a hostage in a negotiation. “Give me a better Democratic candidate, or the girl gets it.” Well, they called your bluff, I’m shot and bleeding, and none of us are better off for it. Most of these progressives are white and non-Jewish; some aren’t, but even those are responsible for bargaining with others’ lives as if those lives are theirs to bargain with.

Now I am being told to “organize” with my fellow progressives because this is the only way to stop Trump. Leaving aside the fact that the only realistic way to stop Trump given the conditions we had was to vote for Clinton, I wouldn’t organize so much as a desk drawer with people who so cavalierly threw me and all other marginalized people onto the negotiating table.

I’m aware that third-party voters and nonvoters don’t see it that way. You see it as a matter of conscience, of standing up for what’s right. That may be true for you, but I feel that my life, health, and safety have been put on the line without my consent and I can’t trust people who do that to me.

Maybe eventually I’ll come around and forgive and stop feeling so unsafe and compromised, but for now, just leave me alone to write and call my representative in peace. I don’t want to organize anything besides my Thanksgiving party.

V. Grief

The past week has definitely felt like grieving. I experienced that odd narrowing of focus, that sense that literally nothing else matters, not even the things I cared deeply about before. I remember looking at photos of my outfit from election night and feeling sort of numbly confused as to why I would care about putting together an outfit. I can still barely write anything that isn’t this, because I don’t see why anything else would matter.

I’m grieving for a future that isn’t one of various shades of total fucking shitshow. I’m grieving for all the people who will get hurt. I’m grieving for the fact that there will probably not be a female president in my lifetime; after this we will assume that a woman couldn’t possibly win an election even against an incompetent, impulsive, hateful rapist and fraud. I’m grieving for the hope I had felt about my own future. I’m grieving for my parents and all the other survivors of authoritarian and fascist regimes who came here thinking they would never have to go through that again. I’m grieving, utterly bizarrely and misplacedly, for Hillary Clinton and the hope that she must’ve had that the world was finally ready for her, and it wasn’t. I’m even grieving, against all reason, for the people who thought this would save them and who might never realize just how much it’s going to destroy them.

I am grieving and I feel too numb to care, too apathetic to organize, too betrayed to trust, and too overwhelmed to move forward.

I’m told, if not in these exact words, that that’s a personal failure because it means I’m wallowing in my own feelings rather than Organizing or whatever. Look–first of all, I don’t owe anyone shit. The way I see it right now, my family came to this country because y’all told us this can’t happen here, so as it turns out, you lied. You broke it, you pay for it.

But that’s my immediate, raging, grieving self. That’s the sort of thing I have to move past in order to be of any use to myself or anyone else. And I can’t move past it without taking the time and space to move through it.

When I moved to New York–and again when I moved back from New York–I had a really, really hard time with those transitions. Those were radically different sorts of events than this is–for one, they were not literally national-scale disasters and for another, I got to fucking choose those things. But what I learned was that as silly and petty and childish as my feelings seemed to me, I needed to be gentle and caring with myself in order to be able to move forward.

I think that applies to this as much as it does to any other grief I will ever experience, and for that reason I feel absolutely zero guilt for indulging those feelings for now and just letting myself feel them all the way through. There’s no moral value to this because it’s simply what needs to be done.

I am grieving, but the final stage of this grieving process isn’t acceptance. It’s anger.


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Things Will Neither Be as Good as You Hope, Nor as Bad as You Fear

If You Voted for Trump Today

If you voted for Trump today, I will continue to treat you with the basic respect and dignity that I believe all human beings deserve, even if you don’t believe the same.

I won’t call you names or weaponize your marginalizations against you–and yes, plenty of Trump voters have them, despite the fact that he hates people like you.

I will continue to fight for your rights whenever I see them eroded or denied, even though you left mine lying in the gutter.

I will seek to understand your experiences and motivations, just like I do everyone else’s, because I’m curious about people and also because that’s how I’m going to keep the rest of us safe from your hatred.

If you come to me as a client for counseling, I will provide you with the same ethical, evidence-based, compassionate care I give everyone else who walks into my office, even though you voted to destroy the programs that fund these life-saving services for yourself and everyone else.

If I have to interact with you at a party or a checkout line, I’ll do it politely. There’s no point in adding even more misery to the world.

Now that that’s clear, here’s what I won’t do.

I won’t go back to not knowing that you–every single one of you with the yard signs and bumper stickers and baseball caps–voted for someone who, if given a chance, would sexually assault me. I’m not going to just pretend you didn’t look at that man’s name on your ballot and, having seen those headlines splashed all over your social media, went ahead and selected it.

If I loved you before, I will not–I cannot–continue to love you now, no matter how many tacky posts I see on Facebook about “loving each other no matter what happens today.” I don’t make a habit of loving people who love hatred. If you wanted my love, you should’ve valued it enough not to love someone who sees me as a piece of meat.

I will not tolerate intolerance. I won’t see you as monsters or animals, but I will see you as exactly what you are–human beings who are to various extents comfortable with or actively supportive of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, xenophobia, and other forms of harmful biased thinking. Even if you were uncomfortable with some of it, you were not uncomfortable enough to refrain from voting for the most openly bigoted presidential candidate in modern history. Nobody forced you to do that.

I will not “forgive.” Forgiveness is for people who have acknowledged the harm they’ve done, apologized sincerely, and done what they can to repair the damage. Our culture of obligatory forgiveness is bullshit, and “forgiving” people who haven’t changed a single thing about themselves is just another way to say that we’ll smile and pretend their actions have no consequences and insulate them from those consequences. I fucking refuse. I will forgive any Trump voter only if and when they understand they were wrong, apologize, and commit themselves to working to undo what they helped unleash.

Because even if Trump loses tonight, even if he loses by a historical landslide, the damage is done, and those millions of us that he and his supporters have directly targeted will not forget. The acts of violence he has inspired still happened, and people are still hurting from them.

If you voted for Trump today, I’ll remember.


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If You Voted for Trump Today

How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

[CN: probably skip this one if you think passive communication/Guess Culture is good/acceptable/necessary.]

One of my biggest interpersonal struggles is deciding how to respond to passive communication from others.

A resource from the University of Kentucky Violence Intervention and Prevention Center defines passive communication like this:

PASSIVE COMMUNICATION is a style in which individuals have developed a pattern of avoiding expressing their opinions or feelings, protecting their rights, and identifying and meeting their needs. As a result, passive individuals do not respond overtly to hurtful or anger-inducing situations. Instead, they allow grievances and annoyances to mount, usually unaware of the buildup. But once they have reached their high tolerance threshold for unacceptable behavior, they are prone to explosive outbursts, which are usually out of proportion to the triggering incident. After the outburst, however, they may feel shame, guilt, and confusion, so they return to being passive.

In their book on polyamory, More Than Two, Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux define passive communication this way:

Passive communication refers to communicating through subtext, avoiding direct statements, and looking for hidden meanings. Passive communicators may use techniques such as asking questions or making vague, indirect statements in place of stating needs, preferences or boundaries. Directly asking for what you want creates vulnerability, and passive communication often comes from a desire to avoid this vulnerability. Passive communication also offers plausible deniability; if we state a desire for something indirectly, and we don’t get it, it’s easy to claim we didn’t really want it. Stating our needs means standing up for them and taking the risk that others may not agree to meet them.

Although I understand that cultural/social/familial norms differ, I’m strongly against passive communication, Guess Culture, and anything else in that vein in my personal life. (My opinion is that those things are often harmful to others too, and much of this blog is based on that opinion, but that’s up to you.) I come from a family and a culture that thrives on Guess Culture, so I’m not coming at this from some hyper-individualistic American perspective. My perspective is that I’ve seen firsthand the harm this communication style does and I refuse to participate in it anymore.

But refusing to participate is complicated for two reasons. One is that when you’re raised with something like this, you’re inevitably going to fall back into it, especially when you’re hurt, angry, or otherwise not firing on all mental cylinders. That’s compounded by the fact that I’m still very close with my family, which means that I have to communicate the way they do when I’m with them. The result is that I get plenty of practice at communicating passively, even though I try to be more direct with my family than I used to be.

The second reason is that other people use passive communication too, and it’s not always practical, possible, or desirable to just cut all those people out of your life. Sure, I find some people toxically passive-aggressive and avoid having anything to do with them, but most of the people I encounter who communicate passively are, like me, just trying to get themselves out of that mindset and they’re going to slip up from time to time. To me, that’s not something to dump a friend or partner over.

So, when I sense that someone is upset with me because they’re dropping little hints but won’t say anything directly, or when I tell someone about my weekend plans and they sigh and wistfully say, “That sounds so fun, I wish I had someone to do that with…”, I honestly don’t really know what to do. Ignoring the subtext seems like a jerk move, but taking the bait teaches the person that this is an effective (and acceptable) way to communicate with me. All that does is set up a situation where they never feel like they have to actually state their feelings and desires directly, and when I have to constantly read between someone’s lines like that, I will eventually fuck up, and they will be upset and resentful that I didn’t magically know what they felt or wanted.

You might think I’m exaggerating–what’s the big deal with inviting someone along to do Thing because they seem sad that they don’t have anyone to do Thing with?–but in my experience, passive communicators don’t choose just one thing to communicate passively about. Furthermore, it traps me into communicating passively, too, because being direct with passive communicators often backfires. When I was younger, I used to ask people things like, “Are you asking to be invited?” or “Are you saying you have a crush on me?”, only to be met with angry denials and dismissal.

As it turns out, many passive communicators seem to wish people could read their minds right up until they actually do. Instead, you end up swept up into that sort of game-playing right along with them. Most of our popular cultural scripts around sex and romance rely on this–you can never come right out and say that you like someone, and you can’t ask them if they like you, either.

Some passive communicators are hoping that you’ll ask them, though. The typical example is someone who silently huffs until you ask them why they’re upset. Then they’ll insist that it’s “nothing” and you have to keep asking until they finally unleash a whole list of things you’ve been doing for weeks or months that upset them and you had no idea. (Although the sexist stereotype is that this is a “female” thing to do, I assure you, it’s quite gender-neutral.)

It can feel like a jerk move to ignore the fact that someone seems to be upset at you, and it can seem like a very small deal to ask them if you’ve upset them. The problem is that when this becomes a pattern–and with people who habitually communicate in a passive way, it will–it creates a very unequal burden of emotional labor. Rather than just being responsible for listening to them, respecting their boundaries, owning your mistakes, and communicating your own needs and feelings, you are now also responsible for laboriously extracting theirs from them like a dentist performing a root canal.

Some people are totally fine with that dynamic. I, however, am not.

(Some people who are totally fine with that dynamic later realize they’re completely overwhelmed by the disproportionate emotional labor, but that’s a separate article.)

But there are times when being receptive to passive communication is an ethical imperative, and that’s when it comes to setting boundaries.

Because of the way that most women and many people of other genders are socialized, many of them end up uncomfortable or even unable to state boundaries directly. It’s a skill we have to relearn as adults. (I say “relearn” because most little children have no trouble with this. It’s only as they get older that they learn that saying “no” is somehow wrong.) That’s why “no means no” was insufficient as a sexual assault prevention slogan–many people don’t say “no” directly. Instead, they communicate their “no” passively–through silence, closed-off body language, uncertainty, and all sorts of other signals that are definitely not meant to communicate a “yes.”

In my personal life, I prefer to interact with people who are able to tell me directly when they want me to stop doing something or when something isn’t working for them, because for me that’s a major part of trust and intimacy. But if someone communicates a boundary indirectly, I respect it anyway–possibly checking in about it later, if appropriate, so that I can make sure I understood correctly and didn’t cross any other boundaries.

So if I ask someone if they want to have sex (to be frank, this almost never happens, but let’s pretend it does for the sake of example), and they say, “Well, I don’t know…I have to get up early tomorrow…” I just go ahead and consider that a “no,” even though it’s technically a passive way of communicating “no.”

That’s an easy call because I consider boundaries so important. But with anything other than that, I just don’t think the excess emotional labor is justified.

Refusing to read double and triple meanings into people’s words is also a way of pushing back against my own upbringing. Because, yeah, I’m really tempted to do it. My parents taught me to do it, not just by example but through direct teaching (“Maybe she said that because she’s secretly upset that you didn’t invite her to your birthday party.”). I’m also really good at it, which is both a blessing and a curse. (As I said, people rarely like it when they realize how well they’ve been understood when what they really wanted was to obfuscate.) So at some point I have to say enough and just opt out.

I also hope that it encourages people to be direct with me. The ones who can’t do that decide that I’m oblivious, selfish, or both and fade out of my life; the ones who decide that they want what they want from me badly enough to ask for it directly, ask for it directly.

Any discussion of passive communication and its nasty cousin, passive-aggressiveness, inevitably elicits rationalizations and justifications for this kind of behavior. Maybe that’s what they learned growing up. Maybe they were abused and this is their way of coping. Maybe they don’t think their desires are valid so they feel too ashamed to ask for them directly. Maybe they have social anxiety and can’t bear rejection. Maybe they can’t trust me enough to risk being direct.

Look, I’ve been through a lot of that and I get it. But just because a particular behavior once made sense as a response to a particular environment doesn’t mean it’s still adaptive or reasonable. And it definitely doesn’t mean I’m obligated to do harm to myself in order to accommodate it. Maybe if you trust me so little that you can’t be direct with me, then we have no business being friends or partners.

Passive communication doesn’t work for me. Except for boundaries, which I will always go far out of my way to perceive and respect, this is not a communication style that I can sustainably use (or have used with me).

I’m genuinely sorry if that makes anyone feel like they can’t interact with me, but not sorry enough to ever go back to being a passive communicator.


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How Should We Respond to Passive Communication?

“He was acting creepy, but she seemed okay with it…”

[Content note: sexual harassment and assault]

This is something I hear from guys a lot–they’ve witnessed another guy in their space or social group acting in a “creepy” or inappropriate way towards a woman, but because she’s smiling or even laughing along, they figure she’s fine with it and they don’t intervene.

I hate to break it to you, but even without knowing the woman in question I can say that there’s a very high chance that she’s not fine with it at all.

Women and AFAB people are socialized from an early age to politely smile, nod, and laugh along in response to men who annoy, scare, and even violate us. Sometimes this is a survival mechanism, like backing away slowly from a predatory animal or playing dead. Every day there’s a news story about a woman or trans person who was injured or murdered by a man after telling him to stop talking to or harassing them. Often, even smiling and nodding isn’t enough.

Even when it’s not a matter of life or death, it’s really difficult to explain to cis men what it’s like when you’ve been trained for your whole life to ignore your own boundaries. For many of us, smiling and nodding isn’t even necessarily a conscious and intentional strategy; it’s a reflex, something that happens as naturally and automatically as breathing. Of course, it’s not “natural” in any meaningful sense of the word. But it feels that way, and that makes it really hard to unlearn.

For many of us–until we do manage to deliberately and effortfully unlearn this shit–telling a man “leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you” is unthinkable, not just because it’s scary and potentially dangerous but because we don’t even think it. Ditto for just ignoring the man completely. It often takes hours, weeks, or years to realize that a particular interaction was uncomfortable and violating, to finally recognize the discomfort, fear, and anger that had hidden beneath the polite smile all along. That can happen with harassing comments and it can happen with rape.

For most of us, it’s not because we read some articles about feminism and changed our minds. It’s more like realizing that a house that seems stable and well-built actually has crumbling foundations and a rotting frame. It’s not that the crumble and the rot wasn’t there before. We just didn’t see it.

So yes, when you observe a man leering at, making sexual comments to, or otherwise appearing to sexually harass a woman who is gamely playing along, there’s a chance that she’s okay with it or even enjoying it. What’s much more likely is that she’s very uncomfortable, or will soon realize it, but she’s not showing it because she’s been taught not to show her negative feelings towards men or even recognize that they are there.

So let’s talk about “white knighting,” since men are always telling me that they chose not to stand up for women’s safety and autonomy in order to avoid being “white knights.”

First of all, I’m not convinced that accusations of “white knighting” are necessarily being made in good faith, i.e. by women or other marginalized people who are upset that male bystanders tried to help them deal with a harasser or assailant. Most of them seem to be coming from anti-feminist men who are trying to delegitimize and ridicule male feminists. While there are many important conversations to be had about the motivations and missteps of male feminists, none of those conversations are going to be initiated by people who do not believe that sexism exists or that it oppresses people who are not cisgender men. These people are trying to create a safe space to further marginalize and terrorize women and trans people, and male feminists who take these “white knighting” accusations seriously are giving them exactly what they want.

Second, it’s not a choice between “literally do nothing” and “force the woman to accept your patronizing and uninformed assistance.” Yes, there’s a shitty history of men “protecting” women from other men (men they may be interested in) because they assume that women have no agency and how dare another man take “your” woman. We have to push back against that, but without using it as an excuse to let harassment and assault happen in our spaces.

I’ve noticed that men engaging with feminist issues are often frustrated by the lack of clear answers and action steps. They want to fix it immediately and they want to get it right on the first try.

I can’t tell you how to do that. There is no flowchart for exactly how to intervene successfully when someone is being creepy. There are simply too many variables.

Instead, here are some strategies you could try when they seem appropriate.

  • Talk to the women and trans folks in your life about what (if anything) they would want from you if you witness them being harassed. Be proactive about this. Don’t wait for it to happen to them. It already does.
  • If you did notice someone being harassed but didn’t do anything because you didn’t know what to do, check in with them later about their experience and what they might’ve wanted from you.
  • If you see someone you know being harassed, step in and say, “Hey, can I steal you for a moment? I had a question for you.” If they say, “I’ll catch you later,” they’re probably fine. If they come along, ask them if they need an out.
  • If you don’t know the person being harassed, and you’re a man, it’s a little tough. Offering to lead them away is unlikely to feel comfortable for them because they don’t know you either and you could be even worse. If the space has an organizer–i.e. a party host or conference staffer–ask them to check if the person is ok. You could also ask a female friend to do the previous suggestion.
  • If you know the person who is harassing someone, find a reason to pull them away for a conversation. Tell them what you observed and why it’s inappropriate. This won’t be a comfortable conversation, but it’s extremely important and can make a huge impact. One of the biggest contributing factors to sexual harassment and assault is that many men think their male peers approve of it. Rain on that parade.
  • Talk to the organizer of the space. Ask your friend to stop inviting the harasser to their parties. If you’ve observed harassment, you don’t have to wait for one of the victims of it (there are almost certainly more than one) to speak up–they may not, because they have no reason to expect to be listened to. If someone started a fistfight, you’d kick them out without waiting for the punched person to tell you they don’t like being punched.
  • Avoid speaking for the person being harassed–when appropriate, center your own feelings. Tell the harasser that you are uncomfortable with what they’re doing and that it’s creepy and wrong. That’s one way of letting other guys know that you personally disapprove of harassment rather than just wanting to look good in front of women, and helps prevent them from trying to drag the person they’re harassing in to defend them.
  • Review the Geek Social Fallacies and remember that no one is entitled to any non-public space. That’s why you don’t have to wait for an Official Complaint to kick a harasser out of your space. Ask yourself–is this the kind of behavior I want at my event/in my friend group? If not, take steps to make it stop.
  • Confronting harassers is not safe or accessible for everyone. So if you can’t do it, do some of the other things listed here. But you can get better at it by roleplaying with a friend or practicing out loud on your own. This can be a great project for a few progressive guys to do together.
  • Let others know what you’ve observed so they can potentially intervene too if it happens again. Just like those who get harassed, many bystanders stay silent because they don’t want to “gossip” or “trash talk.” But letting someone know what you’ve seen or heard someone doing in your shared space isn’t gossiping. It’s giving people information they need to help keep each other safe.
  • If you interrupt a situation and the person you thought was being harassed says they’re fine, take that at face value. Yes, they may not feel safe telling you or they may realize later that it’s not fine, but you have to respect their autonomy. Apologize for interrupting and let them know you’ll be nearby if they need anything.

It’s important to remember that bystander intervention is fundamentally a harm reduction tactic–it will not remove the problem, just reduce the harm that the problem does. The only thing that will stop sexual harassment (or at least reduce it to its lowest possible baseline) is a massive cultural shift in how we think about sex, boundaries, and gender.

So don’t beat yourself up if you try all of these strategies and nothing seems to “fix” harassment. It won’t. It may, however, make some cool women and nonbinary folks stay in your social group who would otherwise have quietly left, and it may prompt a major attitude shift in a few of your guy friends that will keep them from harassing anyone else. That’s a small win in the great scheme of things, but it’s a massive win for those individual lives.


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“He was acting creepy, but she seemed okay with it…”

Deconstructing Jealousy

Note: This is written from my perspective as someone who practices polyamory from a non-hierarchical perspective, so my personal examples are grounded in that experience. You can mentally edit them to apply them to just about any type of relationship, monogamous or poly, romantic or platonic.

I don’t think that “jealousy” is a useful concept. It’s used as an umbrella term for a variety of negative interpersonally-triggered feelings that are actually quite different from each other. Unfortunately, people don’t always realize this and may communicate about “jealousy” without noticing that they’re talking about different things.

Even worse, some of these things are very stigmatized (some deservedly and some less so), which means that labeling anything “jealousy” gives the whole conversation a negative tone. I could imagine telling a partner that I feel upset or angry, but I would never say, “I feel jealous.” Unless my partner is very aware of the concepts I’m about to discuss in this post, telling them this would shut down the conversation and keep it from going anywhere productive. Where it goes from there depends entirely on whether or not my partner says, “Okay, but what does that mean?”

This semantic ambiguity keeps us in a state of confusion about what “jealousy” actually means for us, what is causing it, and how it can be resolved. Every time we feel negatively about someone else having an experience we aren’t sharing, this gets labeled “jealousy”–sometimes when we don’t even want that experience for ourselves!

I’ve identified six different feelings that are often called “jealousy.” There are probably more than that, but I think that most of the time when it feels much more complicated, that’s because you’re feeling more than one of these at once and that can get confusing. I’ve also given the feelings names to make them easier to write about, but I totally admit that most of the names are pretty clunky and imprecise and honestly I don’t know what to do about that other than try to invent new words, which I’m horrible at. If someone wants to take on that project, have at it.

  1. Possessiveness: “I want you all to myself.” / “I should have this, not you.”

Thanks to the way our culture teaches all of us to think about romantic relationships, I spent my adolescence convinced that if someone really loves me, they won’t need anyone else. Sometimes I got irrationally jealous if my boyfriends had close female friends, because I thought I ought to be “enough.” The idea of polyamory would’ve been appalling to me at the time because, honestly, I just didn’t want to share. I didn’t think that anyone else should “get” what I’m “getting.”

This is probably the most toxic form that jealousy takes. Unlike the other five feelings that I’ll discuss, this one places the blame on the other person for “making” you feel jealous by taking more than they “ought” to take, or by having something that you “ought” to have instead.

This is also what many people think of when they think of the word “jealousy,” which causes them to attach a strong negative stigma to a feeling that may or may not originate from possessiveness.

Possible cause: Feeling entitled to all of someone’s romantic/sexual attention, believing yourself more “worthy” of certain things than others, generally having unrealistic ideas about how relationships ought to work

Possible solution: You’ll probably want a therapist for this one, because you’ll need to work on some really deeply-seeded beliefs about people and relationships. In order to stop feeling possessive, you have to really internalize the idea that you are not entitled to anything from anyone, and that just because you’re not the only/central person in someone’s life doesn’t mean the relationship is worthless or they don’t care about you. You deserve good things, but so do other people.

  1. Envy: “I want to have this too.”

I always envy my male partners their relationships with women. While I’m sure it feels anything but easy for them, they aren’t carrying the weight of institutional and internalized homophobia and biphobia and a lifetime of invisibility, of feeling like what you want isn’t even real, valid, or possible. Men have scripts for meeting women and forming relationships with them; women don’t, not really. That’s starting to change, but it didn’t start to change fast enough for me.

So, I will probably never have uncomplicated feelings when the men I’m dating date women. It’s not because I don’t think they should get to do that if I can’t, or even because I’m interested in those specific women. It’s because I wish I could’ve grown up feeling like asking out and being in a relationship with a woman is a normal, totally achievable thing that’s completely valid for me to want. I wish I could’ve grown up with older girls giving me advice on how to ask girls out to prom. I wish that when I met a woman I liked, there was a statistically significant chance that she’s even attracted to people of my gender.

While I’m sometimes envious of female or nonbinary partners dating other women, it’s not quite the same because I know that they’ve had to overcome exactly what I do, or even more. I’m envious but it’s more an envy of awe than of sadness and regret. I envy men in a different way because it’s just so much easier for them, and often they don’t even know it.

Possible cause: Having unmet needs or unfulfilled desires in your own life, especially if you feel like there’s no way for you to meet/fulfill them.

Possible solution: Rather than focusing on the people who have what you want and don’t have, figure out if there are ways to make those things more likely to happen for you too. Reach out to others for advice and support. Learn new skills. Although getting what we want often feels impossible, especially for those of us who struggle with depression, it often isn’t. When it is, a therapist can help you find ways to cope with that grief–and grief is often what it feels like.

  1. Insecurity: “I feel bad about myself, and this reminds me of that.”

Reading or hearing about people’s very serious, very committed relationships frequently triggers my insecurity in a way that others would probably label “jealousy.” But that doesn’t make much sense to me–I don’t really want a relationship like that, at least not at this stage in my life. The problem, though, is that I ultimately believe that I am Bad At Relationships and that I’ll never be able to commit to someone in such a serious and meaningful way, and that I just don’t have the capacity to love someone that way. I also kinda hate myself for how badly I need space and independence, and how much I therefore avoid any enmeshment in my relationships. Seeing evidence that others can do it just reminds me of all my relational failures and makes me feel really, really shitty and down on myself.

Is it jealousy if I don’t even want it, but maybe want to want it, but I’m not even sure if I’d even enjoy it? I dunno. I do know that it’s not as simple as looking at what someone else has and wishing I had it too (or instead). I just want to be “normal.” It has very little to do with those people’s actual relationships and everything to do with my own insecurities that have been around since long before that couple started posting sappy stuff on Facebook.

Possible cause: Having some unresolved negative feelings towards yourself that get kicked up when good things happen to someone else.

Possible solution: Work through those feelings on your own, with a therapist, or with a friend who agrees to be a source of support. Learn how to better align your perception of yourself with reality–there’s a good chance you’re not nearly as bad at Thing as you think. (Yes, this applies to me too.) Do things that make you feel good about yourself, which may or may not have anything to do with the thing you feel bad about. (For instance, I feel good about myself when I write, take long bike rides, cook, and hang out with friends.)

  1. Lacking: “I’m realizing I want/need more time/attention/etc from a particular person.”

Recently I found myself feeling “jealous” of a friend who’d been talking to me about their partner a lot. Specifically, I was “jealous” about the fact that their partner often plans and initiates interesting new activities for them to do together. I quickly realized that the “jealousy” wasn’t because I wanted to be with my friend’s partner, or with my friend, or because I begrudged them those fun things they did together, or because I felt bad about myself, or even because I was missing any particular thing from my life that my friend has. I do fun things too.

But it made me realize that I would really love it if my own partners made more effort to plan interesting new things to do together rather than letting me make the plans, or falling into whatever our default for that particular relationship is. I feel really cared about when someone thinks of a cool thing for us to do and suggests it and, if I agree, makes it happen. And although it does happen for me sometimes, it doesn’t really happen as much as I would like, and it took listening to my friend to realize that.

(Have I communicated that to anyone? Noooo. But at least I know now.)

While for me the feeling was triggered by a friend, the way this often happens is that your partner starts seeing someone new and does more/different things with that new partner, and you realize that you actually haven’t been getting quite what you wanted from this relationship. It may look from the outside like you’re “just jealous” about their new relationship, but it’s not that simple. You’re realizing what your own needs are, and what you’re currently lacking.

What I’ve called lacking is pretty similar to what I’ve called envy, but the difference is that lacking is attached to a specific person/relationship. For instance, I might feel envious because I wish I had a good job like my friend does, but I might feel that my relationship is lacking because I’m not seeing my partner as often as I’d like.

Possible cause: Having some unmet needs in your relationship(s).

Possible solution: Identify what it is that you need and let that person know. If they’re unable to meet that need, decide if you need to end the relationship, work on changing your expectations, or (if appropriate) try to find ways to meet that need in some other way.

  1. Hurt: “I’m not okay with the way this happened.”

Some of my most painful and confusing experiences with “jealousy” were when a partner did something that hurt me, and it happened to involve another partner. For instance, I once had a partner for whom I was their only partner at the time. I mentioned that I had been in a poly discussion group where we talked about such relationships–one of us is seeing multiple people, but the other is seeing only one–and they surprised me with: “Well, actually…I do have another partner.” Record-scratch. That’s how I found out that they’d had another partner for…weeks? Months? And never told me because…reasons? It wasn’t “cheating,” since we didn’t have “rules,” but I was shocked and hurt that given the overall seriousness and commitment of our relationship, they wouldn’t think that that’s an important thing to at least mention.

Honestly, I never felt okay about that other partner after that and I never wanted to hear anything about them. The relationship started to unravel soon after that. It’s not that I didn’t want them to date anyone else–I’d actually spent the whole relationship hoping that they would, so that it’d feel more equal and they’d be able to reach out to someone besides me with those types of relationshippy needs. But I just wasn’t okay with the way it happened. I felt hurt, ignored, overlooked. I kept thinking, “If I’m not someone they’d even talk to about something so awesome that’s happening to them, what sort of relationship even is this?” No longer a very close or healthy one, as it turned out.

This is a huge pitfall for many couples and friends because it’s so easy for the non-”jealous” person to dismiss it as jealousy and have a convenient excuse to ignore the hurt they caused. And it’s not just romantic poly contexts in which it happens! For instance, if a friend cheated on an exam and got a better grade than I got after studying really hard and taking the exam honestly, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their higher grade, but because I’m not okay with the way this happened. If a friend started dating someone new and blowing me off to hang out with them instead, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their new relationship, but because I’m not okay with the way it’s happening.

Possible cause: Feeling disrespected, ignored, insulted, or otherwise hurt by someone’s actions.

Possible solution: Let the person know how you feel, and/or end the relationship if you feel hurt enough that you no longer want to continue it. Let the person know if there’s anything they can do to repair the hurt.

  1. Disconnection: “I want to reconnect after feeling separated.”

For many poly couples, disconnection and reconnection are part of a normal and healthy cycle. A partner goes on a date with someone new, or flings themselves headfirst into an exciting new relationship, and we feel an ache of (hopefully-temporary) separation. It doesn’t exactly feel good–it may actually feel really sad sometimes–but ideally, it feels okay. This type of “jealousy” is how I might feel waiting for a partner to let me know how a first date went, or accepting that we’re going to see less of each other for a while because they’re getting really invested in someone new and spending lots of time with them.

After feeling that way, it’s normal to want to reconnect with a partner in some way that’s meaningful for both of you. Some people like to see a partner after they get home from a date with someone else (assuming it doesn’t last the whole night, obviously). Sometimes I just need a hug or some reassurance that I still matter. You could write this off as clinginess or insecurity if you want, but I don’t think it is. It’s normal to want to connect with people you love after having been separated or disconnected in some way, even if that separation or disconnection was totally voluntary for both of you.

Possible cause: Feeling separated from your partner because they’ve been doing something else that doesn’t involve you.

Possible solution: Figure out what would be a meaningful way for you to reconnect with them, and ask them to do that. If you want, you could even instate it as a ritual for the two of you.


Obviously this is all very much a work-in-progress, and not all of the feelings I described or the language I used to describe them might resonate with your own experience. In that case, I encourage you to deconstruct “jealousy” for yourself and figure out what it actually means for you so that you can communicate more effectively.

I could probably expand all of those little “solution” bits into full articles, so use those as jumping-off points, not as Complete Certified Therapist Advice.

Also, do not do a Google Image search for “jealousy.” It will be upsetting.


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Deconstructing Jealousy