How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

I have an article up at Everyday Feminism about why it’s hard for a lot of people to talk about sex openly with their partners, and ways they can make it easier.

I have a confession to make.

Despite writing about sex on the Internet, facilitating workshops about consent and sexuality for dozens or hundreds of people, and being openly queer, feminist, and polyamorous, I sometimes choke up when it comes to talking about sex with one of my actual partners.

I want to tell them what I want, or to set a boundary around something I don’t want, but all of a sudden, words completely fail me.

I feel like a hypocrite – but I think there’s more to it than that.

Even in spaces that emphasize celebrating rather than stigmatizing sex, such as feminism and LGBTQIA+ communities, people often have trouble putting their ideals into practice and opening up when talking about sex with partners.

Being part of a sex-positive community can create a lot of pressure: If we’re really sex-positive, shouldn’t we be ready to spill all our deepest fantasies to whomever we want to sleep with?

Not necessarily.

If you have a hard time talking about sex with partners, you’re not alone.

There are a lot of reasons why people might have difficulty with it, and many of them apply across cultures and subcultures. After describing a few ways in which our experiences and the society we live in can make talking about sex challenging, I’ll suggest some strategies for making it a little easier.

5 Reasons Why Talking About Sex Is Hard

1. Internalized Sexual Stigma

Even if you really want to believe that there’s nothing shameful or inherently dangerous about sex, it’s not always easy to internalize that when you’ve grown up in a society that stigmatizes sexuality, especially that of anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis, able-bodied man.

This can make talking about sex embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, and it doesn’t mean you’re a “prude.”

2. Not Knowing the Words to Use

Sometimes talking about sex is hard because most of the words we know sound either cold and clinical (like vagina and erection) or vulgar and pornographic (like cunt or pussy).

Of course, there’s nothing about these words that makes them inherently wrong or weird to use, and many people do enjoy using them. But if we’re used to seeing them in the context of a high school health textbook or a terribly inappropriate OKCupid message, it might be hard to use them in a more positive way.

3. Cultural Scripts About Sex

In romantic films, the couple usually has an amazingly passionate and satisfying first hook up without ever talking to each other about what they like in bed.

Although we understand that movies aren’t real life, many of us nevertheless end up believing on some level that there’s no need to talk about sex explicitly, and that if the couple “really” clicks, they’ll automatically connect sexually without any prior discussion.

That’s just one example of sexual scripts and how they influence our behavior.

4. Bad Previous Experiences

Some of us are initially enthusiastic about discussing sex openly with partners, but after some bad reactions from others, we lose that openness.

I’ve had partners shut down in response to my attempts to tell them what I like or ask them what they like, or respond with “Uh, that’s weird.”

If this has ever happened to you, I can see why you might not feel too confident about talking about sex anymore.

When it comes to setting sexual boundaries, you may fear that the person will get angry or push you away because that may well have happened in the past.

5. Past Trauma

If you have a history of sexual trauma, sex may not be a topic that you can discuss casually, even with someone you’re close to. Conversations about sex may be triggering or just deeply scary and unpleasant.

This is not your fault, and you can heal with time. These articles may help you.

But whatever the reason discussing sex is tough for you (whether it’s one of these or one of many more), the good news is that there are ways to make it easier.

Here are a few you can try.

Read the rest here.

How To Make Talking About Sex With Your Partner Easier

In Defense of Finn/Poe

[Star Wars spoilers ahead]

Having now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens four times in eight days, I’m thoroughly obsessed with the movie and have become fascinated by the growing ranks of Finn/Poe shippers: fans, many of them queer, who create art and fiction depicting the film’s two male protagonists as partners, and who hope that Episode VIII might make the pairing canonical.

It’s about time for a Star Wars film to have queer protagonists, just like it was about time for it to have non-white/non-male protagonists (and in this it succeeded, splendidly).

However, I’ve seen a lot of negative responses to this idea, such as “But it’s OBVIOUS they’re just friends” and “Why do you [gays] have to insert sex into everything” and “Why can’t you just let them be friends?”

Alright.

First of all, it’s worth noting that while queer shippers are always catching flak online for “reading too much into” presumably platonic same-sex situations or “making it all about sex” when it “clearly” isn’t, straight people rarely get criticized for doing the same thing–not just when interacting with fictional worlds, but in the real one, too. If you’ve ever heard a straight person go “OooOOOOOooo is that your boyfriend?” to an 8-year-old girl playing with an 8-year-old boy from the house next door, or “He’s going to be such a ladies’ man!” about an infant boy making cooing sounds at a few baby girls, you know what I’m talking about. How’s that for reading too much into things?

Beyond that, though, straight people–and to some extent queer people, since we get socialized the same way–tend to expect heterosexual pairings in fictional stories whether the signs are necessarily there or not. And they often are, because the people who create those stories also expect those pairings to be there, and they expect that the presence of those pairings will make the stories sell better. That’s why you rarely encounter a movie that does not include any heterosexual sex or romance, whether that movie is about aliens, robots, spies, superheroes, 18th century England, 21st century New York City, or what have you.

The constant ridicule and derision of queer shippers online neatly parallels real-world claims that queer people are “pushing their sexuality” on others. “I’m fine with gay people, but why do they have to shove it in my face?” is a common complaint when queer people do anything other than be silent and invisible. Online and off, good little queers don’t make any mention of same-sex romance or eroticism, and they certainly don’t hope out loud that two characters in a popular film turn out to be queer.

Second, a lot of straight people don’t realize that the beginnings of romance or sexual attraction between two queer people often do look like “just friendship,” because it’s often not safe for us to express ourselves any other way. Being obvious about our interest exposes us to outing, ridicule, bullying, and even physical violence (especially for men, people of color, and trans people). If queer people don’t occasionally read “more” into otherwise-platonic gestures and expressions, we’d probably never find any partners. If you want to know more about this and how complicated it can be, read this Autostraddle article.

So, queer people are constantly in a double-bind. If we avoid trying to read between the lines and always interpret others’ friendly behavior towards us as merely platonic, we’ll pretty much be forever alone. If we do read more into it, we risk ridicule and worse. That’s why it comes across as more than a little insulting and irrelevant when straight people criticize queer people for “reading too much into things.”

(I just want to state for the record that at this point, some queer person over the age of 30 usually shows up and belittles me because they’ve got this figured out and it’s “obviously” so simple, but rest assured that for most of us, especially when we’re still young, surrounded by straight people, and/or newly out, it’s really not simple or easy at all. But guess what, queer people are not a monolith.)

A great example of this in action is the eventual pairing of Korra and Asami from The Legend of Korra. Plenty of queer women saw the signs, but most straight people seemed to be totally shocked when the relationship was confirmed as canon. Some even reacted angrily and accused the creators of pandering to the queer community with this unrealistic development. Yet to us, it didn’t feel unrealistic at all.

Aside from rare examples like Korrasami, queer people are very aware, thank you, that we don’t get any representation in most fictional works (and that when we do, it’s usually marginal and/or negative). A lot of the folks enthusiastically shipping Poe and Finn do not really believe that the pairing will ever be canonical, but for them, it’s a fun sort of escapism anyway. Do you have any idea how condescending you sound when you interrupt with “Come on, they’re obviously just friends”? You might as well burst into the theater on opening night shouting “BUT YOU GUYS, JEDIS AND LIGHTSABERS AREN’T ACTUALLY REAL.” Thanks, Captain Obvious of the Imperial Star Destroyer Ruining Everyone’s Fun Forever.

(Yet, a universe in which people with mind-control powers can shoot lightning out of their fingers and use laser-swords made out of magical crystals to block laser blasts is easier for some people to grok than the idea that queer people might exist in it.)

http://dicaeopolis.tumblr.com/post/135933767197

So, sure, based on the material in The Force Awakens, Finn and Poe might be headed towards a romantic relationship (or a one-sided crush, maybe on Poe’s end) or they might be headed towards a deep platonic bond. Poe might be sexually attracted to Finn or he might just admire his bravery, ability, and sense of right and wrong (as well as being pretty grateful to him for saving him from the First Order). Finn might be falling for Poe or he might be starting to love him as a friend, the first friend he ever had, the first person to ever look at him as a human being and not as a programmed killer, the first person to give him a real name. Poe might have given Finn his jacket to keep because Finn looks sexy in it, or because he’s grateful and wants Finn to feel like a part of the Resistance.

Or…it could be all of the above.

Because here’s the truth that all of this ultimately reveals: even for straight people, romance and friendship are not all that different. They are not mutually exclusive categories. The hints and signs of one may be the hints and signs of the other. One may grow out of the other, and although it more often goes in one direction than the other, a passionate romance can, in fact, transform into a deep platonic connection. It has happened to me. It’s probably happened to more people than you think.

When you look at it that way, Finn/Rey–the “obvious” romantic pairing that people always use to try to disprove the possibility of a Finn/Poe pairing–is neither so obvious nor so inevitable. If Finn and Rey were of the same gender, or if we lived in a backwards world in which queerness was the norm and straightness was the weird anomaly, we would find plenty of ways to read their relationship as purely platonic. (Just like we currently find ways to read two women making out or fucking as “just gals being pals.”) Finn asking Rey if she has a “cute boyfriend” would be an obvious sign of jealousy–not of her boyfriend, but of her. Finn grabbing Rey’s hand would “obviously” be because he’s trying to help her run away and that’s how people always help each other run away in the holovids he grew up watching. Rey’s horror and fury when she thinks that Kylo has killed Finn? Well, obviously, they’re close friends and anyone would be horrified and furious if someone murdered their close friend. Hell, she even calls him “my friend” in the last scene she has with him, where he’s lying unconscious at the Resistance base. “My friend”! How much more obvious can you get?

Finn’s behavior towards Rey might also be familiar to any queer person who has ever tried to convince themselves (consciously or otherwise) that they’re actually straight, any queer person who took a while to figure out that they’re queer. Think about it: Finn grew up brainwashed by an evil, violent regime that demanded complete conformity. I doubt he saw many queer male role models there. He sees a beautiful girl (yes, queer people are able to notice and appreciate beauty in people of genders they’re not into) and thinks, “This is how a man behaves with a beautiful woman.” As we’ve seen, Finn is not at all immune to some (adorable) macho posturing now and then.

Again, that’s just one reading. Another is that Finn is bisexual. Maybe he’ll end up interested in both Rey and Poe, and there will be a painful love triangle. Or maybe they’ll be poly and there won’t be. Maybe Rey is a lesbian. Maybe Finn is a sappy romantic asexual. Who knows? Isn’t it fascinating?

 

http://chaoslindsay.tumblr.com/post/135670908879/we-know-finn-we-all-know-hat-tip-to

The reason it’s so ambiguous right now isn’t (just) because the film’s creators want to build tension and curiosity for the next film. It’s also because the line between romance and friendship is itself ambiguous. True, in many movies–especially ones centered on more on romance and less on space battles–it’s made very blatant and obvious, because that creates drama and is more interesting for (some) moviegoers. People like to see the sexy [person of their preferred gender(s)] who clearly and obviously comes on to someone who could be them. People like the black-and-whiteness, the reassurance that romance always looks this particular way and you can’t miss it. It’s a fantasy as much as Jedis and lightsabers are; we’re just lulled into thinking it isn’t because the characters look like us (especially if we are white and conventionally attractive) and the settings look like places we’ve seen or heard about.

But back here in the real world, romance and sexual attraction don’t always announce themselves like stormtroopers raiding a village on Jakku. (Thankfully.) Sometimes it looks exactly like Finn and Poe in that movie, whatever the gender combination. Other times it looks more like Finn and Rey, or Han and Leia, or, hell, R2D2 and C-3PO. (I think, though, we can all agree that it almost never looks like Anakin and Padme.)

And back here in the real world, romance and sexual attraction can be very much not-obvious, especially when it happens in ways that are stigmatized and erased all the time. Yes, you can go years without realizing that your best friend is in love with you. You can, in fact, go years without realizing that you’re in love with your best friend. (Been there.) You can convince yourself that you’re not attracted to them, you’re just admiring them for their “objective” beauty. (Been there too.) You can tell yourself you’re jealous of their new partner because you miss spending that much time with them, not because you want to be their new partner. 

You can also choose not to act on feelings that you have. Two people can want to fuck each other and yet not fuck. Two people can be in love and yet not date. And this can be okay, and they can be happy with the friendship that they have without always regretting not having “given it a chance.” Sex and romance are not as inevitable and unstoppable as the movies make them seem, and for many people, they aren’t even the primary focus of their interpersonal lives.

Even if Finn and Poe don’t end up together in those ways, even if the rest of their on-screen relationship continues to look only like cinema’s most adorable bromance, that doesn’t actually mean they’re not sexually attracted to each other and/or in love. Or maybe it does. Who knows?

And while there will always be a canonical Finn and a canonical Poe, fans still get to do whatever they want with those characters in their own art and fiction. “Canon” doesn’t mean “real” because none of these characters or stories are real. People made them up. Other people are free to make them up in different ways, to have gay Poe and bi Finn and lesbian Rey and Han who didn’t actually die (sobbing) and Kylo who comes back to the Light Side (or doesn’t) and Captain Phasma who meets and falls in love with General Organa but doesn’t want to desert her cause (or does).

That’s why I’ve got no beef with anyone who simply says, “I see Poe and Finn as just friends.” (And I can’t complain about a movie centered in part on a close friendship between two men of color.) By all means, see them however you like!  But don’t act like seeing them as lovers or partners is somehow ridiculous or empirically inaccurate. Guys, it’s a story. We threw out any notion of empirical accuracy the moment the famous blue words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

http://lledra-fanstuffs.tumblr.com/post/135814847163/keep-it-it-suits-you

~~~

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In Defense of Finn/Poe

How Christian Privilege Shows Up During the Holiday Season

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, Happy Chinese Food Day to those who don’t! I’ve got a piece up at Everyday Feminism about how this time of year makes Christian privilege easier to spot and understand.

As a kid growing up in a secular Russian-Jewish family in a particularly Christian part of Ohio, I dreaded Christmas.

It was the day all my friends and classmates got dozens of presents from all their family and relatives while I sat at home with no one to hang out with and nowhere to go.

Although my family celebrated our own holidays – Hanukkah, Purim, New Year’s Eve, and others – it was hard not to feel left out of the most wonderful time of the year.

As I got older, I got over my Christmas envy and started to take a lot more pride in my own celebrations, traditions, and rituals. But the experience of growing up as a religious and cultural outsider in my community stuck with me, and now I use it as a lens through which I can understand and analyze Christian privilege.

Like other forms of privilege, Christian privilege is the idea that Christians are afforded unearned benefits in our society that other religious groups and atheists do not receive.

These unearned benefits can be subtle, such as seeing their beliefs portrayed positively in the media, and not-so-subtle, such as being safe from the bullying and violence many non-Christians experience as a result of their beliefs (or lack thereof).

Non-Christians experience marginalization differently depending on their particular identity. Atheists are subject to certain stigmas and prejudices because they do not believe in a deity at all, while Muslims face Islamophobia, which intersects with racism.

Though my own experiences as a Jewish atheist have shaped my understanding of Christian privilege, they are not at all universal.

While examples of Christian privilege abound throughout the year, they can be especially easy to notice during the holiday season.

Here are five ways Christians and Christianity are privileged at this time of year that I’d like to highlight in order to help us understand how we can be more inclusive of people of other or no religions.

1. Christians Are Much More Likely to Have Their Holidays Off Work

Before I get into this, it’s important to note that getting paid time off work at all is a form of class privilege. Many people work jobs that don’t allow or guarantee paid time off for holidays.

Those are the people working long hours to make sure that you get your Black Friday deals and last-minute Christmas turkey from the supermarket, and we shouldn’t leave them out of this discussion.

But those workplaces that do close on holidays tend only to close on the Christian ones.

Christians with class privilege get to spend their holidays with loved ones; the rest of us often don’t, class privilege or not.

2. Christians With Hearing Privilege Encounter Music Celebrating Their Holiday Everywhere They Go This Month

Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas music. I’m not entirely sure why – maybe it just brings positive memories of winter break and school band concerts and playing in the snow.

For many other non-Christians, though, the prevalence of Christmas music at this time of year is a constant, grating reminder of the fact that our traditions and celebrations remain largely invisible.

You’ll hear plenty of songs about baby Jesus and Santa Claus, but you won’t hear much about ancient wars in Jerusalem or about the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

And, sure, maybe there aren’t nearly as many songs out there about non-Christian holidays (though I’m sure there are more than we realize).

That’s why the ubiquitous Christmas music isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but rather a very visible symptom of the deeper issue: the fact that one particular religion pervades American society so completely.

Read the rest here.

How Christian Privilege Shows Up During the Holiday Season

"You're in my prayers."

[Content note: mentions of grief, loss, illness]

I follow The Best of Tumblr on Facebook for the cat photos and pop culture jokes, but recently I saw this:

[Text version here.]

I’ll admit that I used to subscribe to this way of thinking, even as an atheist. But a few things changed my mind: 1) understanding more about what it means to comfort someone, 2) learning about the dynamics of Christian privilege, and 3) listening to the experiences of those who found religion abusive.

First of all, the point of comforting someone who’s going through some shit is to help them. To help them, not yourself. While that doesn’t make intent totally irrelevant–I’ll get to that in a bit–it does mean that you need to at least try to help them in the way that they would want to be helped, not in the way that you would want to be helped. The Golden Rule is a nice thing to teach children but eventually we need more nuanced and empathic ways of looking at things.

That’s why, as I discussed in my previous post, “How can I support you?” and variants thereof is a great approach. But many Christians don’t even pause to consider that the person they’re speaking to might not be religious, and that–as I’ll also get to in a bit–is an example of Christian privilege. Much of the time, they’re not going out of their way to alienate and irritate atheists; they just conveniently forget that atheists even exist. The idea that someone might not pray, or care about your prayer, is simply invisible.

Where does intent fit in? Well, it can make a difference, but not a huge one. As I’ve written previously:

Not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.

I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.

The intent of phrases like “You’re in my prayers” can be especially difficult to parse. For many atheists, intentionally manipulative deployment of such phrases by Christians is a really common microaggression. They say it to us not because they don’t realize we don’t believe, but because they know we don’t. It’s a power move: “I know this means nothing to you [or even hurts you], but I’m going to say it anyway.”

That doesn’t mean that all (or even most) Christians say it for that reason, obviously. It does mean that almost all atheists have had it said to them for that reason, though. It shouldn’t be surprising that many atheists really don’t want to hear it anymore.

At this point, someone usually puts forth that, yes, sometimes referencing religion in these situations can be self-serving or even passive-aggressive and manipulative, and sure, it’s not ideal, but can’t we just assume good intent and force out a smile and a “thank you”?

Well, assuming good intent and being polite are definitely things I generally encourage because they make social interaction smoother and less stressful, but it’s a heavy burden to place on someone who just lost a loved one or got diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’m glad we seem to have all this empathy for socially awkward Christians who just want to comfort you the best way they know how, but how about some empathy for the person going through the fucking trauma? Maybe they’re not at their best when they’re burying their mother or lying in a hospital bed. Maybe that’s okay.

Further, being able to assume good intent is a privilege. It’s a function of your position in society and the experiences you’ve had as a result. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! It’s great! But not everyone can do it and it’s unreasonable and small-minded to demand that they do.

(This applies along all axes of oppression. When you see a police officer approaching, do you worry that you might die? If not, you’re probably not Black.)

Why might an atheist be unable to assume good intent from a Christian? Religious folks and more-fortunate atheists often erase or disregard the fact that many atheists have had coercive and abusive experiences with religion. Some consider their time in religious spaces to have been traumatizing.

And when you’ve experienced a trauma, little reminders of it can be overwhelming.

Before you rush in with #NotAllReligiousSpaces, remember that it doesn’t matter. Not all religious spaces, but theirs was. It would be good to see more religious folks and more atheists acknowledge this reality. Many are still dismissive or openly contemptuous of the idea that religion can be traumatizing.

Viewed through this angle, a certain amount of snappiness or impoliteness from an atheist being told that “At least your mother is smiling down on you from heaven” makes much more sense. But there’s another way in which Christian privilege plays out in this situation, and that’s in our (yes, atheists’ too) perceptions of tone and “politeness.”

Look at that post again. “Some egotistical shit about being an atheist” often, in my experience, refers to comments like “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Not “fuck you I’m an atheist,” not “take your religion and shove it up your ass,” but “Actually, I’m an atheist.” This is what’s so often perceived as “some egotistical shit” and people who say it are apparently viewed by some as “emotionally inept morons.” (Sorry, the ableist wording was not my choice.)

And while it’s apparently “egotistical” to reference one’s atheism in response to an explicitly religious comment, it’s somehow not “egotistical” to reference one’s religion in response to someone else’s trauma. It’s somehow not “egotistical” to offer unsolicited help that’s not what the person needs, without bothering to ask what they need, and then getting offended when that help is rejected as irrelevant.

This sort of double standard pervades all oppressive dynamics, and religion/atheism is no exception.

When a person with a marked/stigmatized identity does something someone doesn’t like, that identity often gets dragged in to explain it. That’s why an atheist getting snappy about a religious comment following a tragic loss is obviously snappy because they’re an atheist, not because they just lost a loved one and don’t have a lot of emotional energy left to micromanage their responses and perform politeness.

And, look, getting snapped at is an occupational hazard of interacting with someone who’s going through a ton of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, or some combination. If you want to support someone in pain, you need to set a bit of yourself aside and be prepared for some rudeness. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with it indefinitely, and it certainly doesn’t justify anything abusive, but you also don’t get to demand that they be impeccably polite and patient with you while they’re in pain, especially if you’re (unintentionally or otherwise) making that pain worse.

Just as people often try to help others in order to satisfy their own needs, people often reference religion to those going through bad things for the sake of their own coping. Watching someone go through a terrible illness or a painful loss is difficult, and praying or thinking about God’s Ultimate Plan can be comforting for those who believe in such things. So naturally they’d verbalize what they’re thinking. It’s not necessarily the grand selfless act this Tumblr post makes it out to be. Neither is it necessarily a cruel and manipulative act (though it can be); it’s very human to assume that others’ minds work the way ours do.

That it’s human doesn’t make it empirically accurate. It also doesn’t make it kind, let alone the kindest sentiment someone could possibly express. It doesn’t obligate someone who’s suffering a trauma or tragedy to put on a good face to spare that person’s feelings.

The kindest thing you could do for someone in pain is to set aside your own opinions on how they ought to be helped and help them the way they want to be helped.

~~~

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"You're in my prayers."

"How can I support you?"

When people share mental health struggles online, well-meaning friends and followers often rush in to give them unsolicited advice. That’s something many of us find irritating and push back on. One of the responses we get often goes something like this: “But I give advice because I need to say something. How am I supposed to know exactly what they need?”

These days my response is usually the same: “Have you tried asking them?”

It’s both surprising and unsurprising how often the response is: “Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

It’s surprising because, rationally, that seems like the obvious thing to do when someone is struggling and you have no idea how to help them. It doesn’t make sense to waste your time and energy and risk upsetting or pissing them off by guessing what they might want and offering that. When you need information to make a good decision, and the information is readily available by asking someone who is as close as it gets to being an authority on the subject, it makes sense to just ask them.

At the same time, it’s also utterly unsurprising that people so rarely do this.

For one thing, we have all these cultural scripts about how this stuff is supposed to go, and one of them is that if you’re really a good friend/partner/family member to the person who’s struggling, you will “just know” what they need and be able to offer it without needing to be told. On the flip side, you might believe that if someone is really a good friend/partner/family member to you, they shouldn’t have to ask you what you need; they should just know. If they do ask, and you tell them, and they do that thing, then that might be nice and all, but it’s not as special as it would’ve been if they’d just known.

You’re probably familiar with these dynamics from discussions of sexual communication and the importance of asking/telling partners what they’re/you’re into, but this applies to so many other interpersonal situations.

That second part is talked about a little less often than the first, because the first seems on the surface to do more immediate harm. But they’re two sides of a coin. We need to get rid of that sort of thinking in order to be able to intentionally create strong, communicative relationships of all kinds.

In fact, I suspect that a small part* of the reason many people are vague about what they need when they let close ones know about their struggles is because they hope that those close ones will be able to help them without being explicitly told how. When you’re neck-deep in some sort of life shit, that sort of effortlessness can be so incredibly affirming. It satisfies a need many people have to feel taken care of.

(*Note I specifically said “small part”; there are many other, probably more significant reasons people do this, such as not knowing what they want, not having the emotional energy to communicate extensively/clearly, fearing criticism or pushback for stating what they really want, etc)

Besides cultural scripts about Just Knowing what someone wants, another reason people might not ask “How can I help?” is that they worry about annoying the person or putting an additional burden on them (that is, making them explain what it is they need). While that’s definitely a risk, especially with someone who expects you to Just Know, it’s significantly less annoying than shoving useless (or even harmful) advice or assistance at someone.

In her article about unsolicited advice online, Katie Klabusich lays all this out in a great way:

“How can I support you?” is a question that works in almost every situation imaginable. It preempts judgement and assumptions while oozing humility. Often the person won’t have an immediate answer—likely because they aren’t used to being asked a question that’s about what they actually need as a unique human being. If they look stunned, I suggest something like: “It’s OK if you don’t have an answer or don’t need anything right now; the offer’s open for whenever. Just let me know.” And then use an emoji of some sort or make a face that conveys warmth so they know you mean it. (This could be a unicorn, the two señoritas dancing, or the smiling poo. Up to you.)

*Here’s the fine print: you have to believe their answer, whatever it is. If they tell you they don’t need anything, you don’t get to push or pressure or demand they give you something to do so you feel less helpless. Remember, this isn’t about you.

Following up a few weeks or months later (whatever equals “a while from now” with the two of you) is totally fine. Asking clarifying questions about what they need if they need something is also totally fine. Being unsure and having to ask along the way if the thing they asked for that you’re trying to provide is helping or being provided in a helpful way is also totally fine.

Telling the person you don’t know if the thing they need is something you can do is also totally fine; no one expects you to be everything they need, and we’d all rather you not promise than drop the ball. These are all honest, humble, supportive responses and, frankly, just being asked “How can I support you?” will make the person feel less alone and more cared for.

 

As Katie notes, the fact that many people won’t have an answer right away doesn’t mean that the question was wrong. It could mean that they’re surprised at actually being asked, and it could also mean that they’re not used to thinking of some of their needs as needs. For instance, we might ask someone for advice or for practical assistance, but it feels a little weirder for most people to ask someone to just listen or to tell them something affirming. Being asked “How can I support you?” can help shift them into that way of thinking about it: “Hm, what would feel supportive for me right now?”

Feeling supported is not always the same as Making The Right Decision or Growing As A Person or whatever, which is another reason people are sometimes hesitant to ask others what they need to feel supported. “But what if they’re making the wrong decision!” they might protest. “I need to tell them they’re Doing It Wrong!”

Yes, there are some cases in which it’s probably a good idea to speak up and rain on someone’s parade because you’re seriously concerned about their safety or wellbeing. But most cases are not that and most people are not the kinds of people you have that relationship with (i.e. children, little siblings, partners with whom you have that sort of understanding, etc). I have watched friends and partners make decisions that I personally thought were bad decisions, but because they were clear with me that they wanted support/affirmation and not constructive criticism, I kept my concerns to myself. For the most part, those people turned out okay, because they are adults and they have the right to make their own decisions.

I’ve written before that self-awareness is really important when you’re trying to help people, because you need to make sure you’re not just doing it to try to relieve your own feelings of helplessness. Even if you are doing it to relieve your own feelings of helplessness, you can still go ahead and try to help, as long as you acknowledge those feelings and understand that they are your responsibility and not that of the person you’re trying to help. Only then can you focus on helping them in the way they need rather than in the way you need.

Asking what they need is a big part of that. Don’t try to show off how amazing you are at magically intuiting what they need. You’re likely to mess up and cause more trouble than you solve. Just ask.

“How can I support you?” is not a magic question. It will not necessarily get you the answers you need or them the help they need. Maybe that phrasing sounds weird and stilted to you; try not to get too caught up in that and find other ways to ask the same essential thing. The point isn’t the exact words, but rather the idea that you should figure out how best to help someone before trying to help them. They might not always know, but they certainly know better than you do, even if it takes them some time to be able to access that knowledge. They are the expert on what they need, or as close to an expert as anyone is going to get.

Be prepared, too, for the answer, “Nothing.” Sometimes people share their struggles not to get help or support but to be heard and witnessed. Sometimes they don’t know why they’re sharing at all. Sometimes they will tell you that the best way you can support them is to hear what they have to say; sometimes they will tell you, “Nothing.” Thank them for their honesty and move along. “Nothing” is a difficult thing to hear, but it is also a difficult thing to say.

~~~

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"How can I support you?"

How Mental Illness Labels Help

I wrote this piece for Everyday Feminism. Please note that it’s based on my own experience and I include a section about how it doesn’t apply to everyone, so please read all the way through before commenting.

When I was first diagnosed with depression as a nineteen-year-old college freshman, I felt an emotion you might not associate with getting diagnosed with a mental illness: relief.

I was relieved that it was actually a real illness and not just a personal fault. I was relieved that there was treatment available for something I thought was just my burden to carry for life. I was relieved to have the language for the background noise of hopelessness, sadness, and pessimism that I had experienced for as long as I could remember.

Not everyone agreed.

Concerned loved ones questioned my decision to accept the diagnosis and use it as a personal identifier when relevant. They worried that thinking of myself as a person who has depression would prevent me from taking responsibility for recovery, or that telling others about it would cause them to judge me and abandon me.

Many people wondered why I needed to concern myself with labels at all. Couldn’t I just go to therapy, take my medication, and leave the technical words out of it?

Actually, I don’t think I could.

Identifying with the label “depression” has helped me in a number of ways, both with recovery and with coping with the symptoms that I still have.

Here’s how.

1. Finding Helpful Information About Mental Illness

The most basic way that mental illness labels have helped me is that they’re a great way to find information about mental illness.

Sounds obvious, right?

But many people who disparage labels don’t realize that you’ll probably find a lot more useful stuff if you Google “how to cope with depression” than “how to stop feeling sad” or “what to do when you feel numb.”

When I was first learning about mental health – both in general and mine specifically – I looked up a lot of things online and read a lot of books.

My searches led me to life-changing perspectives like Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, which helped me understand different ways in which depression can manifest itself, and Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, which helped me feel much less ashamed about needing to take medication.

These books have “depression” and “antidepressants” in their subtitles, and I wouldn’t have found them without knowing what to look for.

Many people first realize they might have a mental illness by looking at simple, nonjudgmental websites like WebMD, Mayo Clinic, or even Wikipedia.

Unlike some of the people in our lives, these websites won’t tell you that “it’s all in your head” or “other people have it worse.” They present scientific information in a way that’s easy to understand and relate to.

But in order to end up on one of these pages, you generally need to have a diagnosis in mind.

Even if you’ve already been diagnosed and started treatment, knowing your diagnosis can help you find information that’ll help your treatment.

For instance, if you’re looking up information about borderline personality disorder, you might learn that dialectical behavior therapy is one of the best treatments for it. This can help you find therapists who specialize in DBT, join groups that use it, and learn some techniques on your own.

Read the rest here.

How Mental Illness Labels Help

A Good Critique of the Medical Model is Hard to Find

I was optimistic about reading this critique of the medical model of mental illness by professor of clinical psychology Peter Kinderman, in part because it is written by someone with experience in the field and in part because it is published on Scientific American, which I trust.

However, while the article makes a number of good points that I will discuss later, it starts off immediately with such a tired and oft-debunked misconception that I almost quit reading after that:

The idea that our more distressing emotions such as grief and anger can best be understood as symptoms of physical illnesses is pervasive and seductive. But in my view it is also a myth, and a harmful one.

I’ll say it again for the folks in the back: nobody* is trying to medicalize “distressing emotions such as grief and anger.” They are medicalizing mental patterns (which can include cognitions, emotions, and behaviors) that are not only very distressing, but also interfere with the person’s daily functioning. It’s kind of like how some stomachaches are minor annoyances that you wait out (or take a Tums), and some land you in the ER with appendicitis. Therapists and psychologists are not concerned with the mental equivalent of a mild cramp.

In general, people don’t end up in my office because they get pissed off when someone cuts them off in traffic; they end up in my office because they are so angry so often that they can’t stop physically attacking people. They don’t end up seeing the psychiatrist down the hall because they get jittery and uncomfortable before a job interview; they see the psychiatrist because they feel jittery and uncomfortable all the damn time, and they can’t stop, and they can’t sleep, even though they rationally know that they are safe and everything’s okay.

I understand that it’s more difficult to grok differences in degree as opposed to differences in kind, because Where Do You Draw The Line. Yes, it would be easier if mentally ill people had completely different emotions that had completely different names and that’s how we knew that they were Really Mentally Ill, as opposed to having emotions that look like more extreme or less bearable versions of everyone else’s. (Sometimes, from the outside, they even look the same. “But sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed either!” “But sometimes I feel sad for no reason either!” Okay, well, you might be depressed too. Or you might find that those things have no significant impact on your day-to-day life, whereas for a person with depression, they do.)

But it really doesn’t help when you’ve got mental health professionals obfuscating the issue in this manner.

As I said, Kinderman does go on to make some really good arguments, such as the fact that psychiatric diagnoses have poor validity and reliability. This means that they don’t seem to correspond that well with how symptoms actually look “on the ground,” and that different diagnosticians tend to give different diagnoses to the same cases. However, these are criticisms of the DSM, not of the medical model. I’ve felt for a while that we should move away from diagnostic labels and towards identifying specific symptoms and developing treatment plans for those symptoms, not for some amorphous “disorder.”

For instance, suppose I’m seeing a client, Bob. After getting to know each other for a few weeks, Bob and I determine together that there are a few issues he’s particularly struggling with: self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness, guilt, difficulty sleeping, lack of motivation to do anything, loss of interest in things he used to enjoy, and frequent, unbearable sadness. Traditionally, I’d diagnose Bob with major depression (pending a few other considerations/differential diagnosis stuff) and move on with treatment. But without these often-invalid and unreliable diagnostic labels, I just skip that step (although I might let Bob know that “depression” might be a useful word to Google if he’s looking for support and resources). Instead, Bob and I look at his actual symptoms and decide on treatments that might be helpful for those particular symptoms. Cognitive-behavioral therapy might help with Bob’s self-hatred, feelings of worthlessness, and guilt. Behavioral activation might help with his lack of motivation and interest. Certain dialectical behavior therapy modules, such as distress tolerance, might help him cope with sadness in the meantime. Antidepressants might very well help with all of them!

Because mental healthcare doesn’t treat disorders; it treats symptoms. Whether that mental healthcare is medication, therapy, or some combination, the ultimate goal is a reduction in symptoms.

I can see how the medical model makes this seem bad when it isn’t. In traditional healthcare, treating symptoms rather than getting to the root of the problem is downright dangerous. If someone has headaches and you give them painkillers without diagnosing their brain tumor, they’re in serious trouble.

However, we haven’t yet developed great ways of figuring out what “the root of the problem” is when it comes to mental symptoms, especially since there often isn’t one. It’s almost always some complicated tangle of genetics, early childhood stressors, interpersonal patterns learned from family, sociocultural factors, and so on. All of this affects the brain in fundamental biological ways, which further drives the symptoms.

Thankfully, that’s not as much of a problem as it would be with a physical health condition. If you only focus on symptoms and don’t treat the underlying cancer or diabetes or whatever, it will slowly kill you. But if you successfully treat the symptoms of mental illness, you will make the person’s life much better no matter what originally caused the symptoms. There won’t be anything silently killing them in the background, and good therapy teaches people the skills to avoid future relapses of their symptoms.

Sometimes the root cause of mental illness is, as Kinderman points out, a social problem. Poverty, social inequality, and other issues contribute heavily to mental illness. But since you can’t solve those issues from the inside of a counseling office, all you can do is help your client as much as possible. I do this every day, and believe me, it feels weird and gross at times. But what else can I do? Until our fucked-up society decides to come in and take a seat in my office, I can only work with my clients as individuals. (Otherwise I would have a very different job and it would not be therapy.)

Kinderman argues that treating mental illnesses as diseases is wrong because of these social factors that contribute to them. I understand his concern, because he (and many other people) treat “disease” as synonymous with “thing that is entirely biologically based.” So, the medical model feels like an erasure of the complex and valid social dynamics that contribute to what we call mental illness.

But I don’t think of disease that way at all, and I’m betting most doctors don’t either. Social factors contribute heavily to physical illnesses, too. People who are living in poverty or who are marginalized by the healthcare system in other ways are much more likely to have all sorts of physical health problems, and the results tend to be more severe for them. Stress, which includes the stress of poverty, racism, and other social problems, makes everyone more vulnerable to illness. Eating well and exercising enough, two very important factors when it comes to physical (and mental) health, are not equally accessible to everyone. Heart disease and diabetes may have biological origins, but they do not happen in isolation from societal factors, either. Just like mental illness.

You might argue that physical illnesses and mental illnesses differ in that physical illnesses are more heavily caused by biological factors and mental illnesses are more heavily caused by social factors, and I might agree. But again, that’s a difference in degree, not kind. Both types of illnesses affect us physically and mentally.

Another good argument that Kinderman presents is that the medical model may not help reduce stigma, and there’s research to back this up. Kinderman writes:

Traditionally, the idea that mental health problems are illnesses like any other and that therefore people should not be blamed or held responsible for their difficulties has been seen as a powerful tool to reduce stigma and discrimination.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on biological explanations for mental health problems may not help matters because it presents problems as a fundamental, heritable and immutable part of the individual. In contrast, a more genuinely empathic approach would be to understand how we all respond emotionally to life’s challenges.

So, that’s important and deserves highlighting.

However, I think the issue of how best to reduce stigma against mental illness is slightly separate from the issue of how best to help people with mental illnesses feel better. (There’s a school of thought in the disability community that disabilities [including mental illnesses)] “hurt” only because of the stigma and prejudice against people who have them, and I’m not particularly equipped to engage with that here except to say that it makes me angry in a way I can’t possibly explain. It completely invalidates how awful and wretched I felt because my symptoms hurt unbearably and not because of anything anyone else said or did to me as a result.)

When it comes to what people with mental illnesses actually find helpful, for some it’s the medical model and for some it isn’t. In her piece on mental “sick days,” Katie Klabusich writes about how freeing it actually was to see herself as “sick” when she needed to take a day off due to her mental illness:

I’d realized that not only is it alright for me to think of the dysthymia as the illness that it is, it’s necessary. If it were a south-of-the-neck illness, I wouldn’t have had the conflict about it. Yes, I’ve worked when I had a virus and shouldn’t have. (See the stats on service industry staff who work when they’re sick; we’ve all done it.) But my thought process would have been totally different. I certainly wouldn’t have needed the Ah ha! moment to know I had the flu. So why didn’t I realize I was sick?

Our culture impresses upon us that we SUCK IT UP and GIT ER DONE when our “issue” is “just mental.” Except . . .

MY BRAIN IS PART OF MY BODY.

It turns out that what happens in my head has a real—not imagined or exaggerated—physical affect on my other bodily functions. That list of symptoms from a dysthymia flare? They’re worse than the flu. Full-blown body aches and exhaustion alone are enough to make just sitting up nearly impossible. What work Idid do last week was all done from bed. Including writing this.

Others may not find that way of thinking helpful, in which case, they should absolutely abandon it in favor of whatever does help.

I want to end on a cautionary note about this whole idea of the medical model “pathologizing” “normal” emotions, because the alternatives I sometimes see offered to the medical model seem far, far worse about this. While Kinderman seems to argue sensibly for a more “psychosocial” approach to mental healthcare and a reduction in the use of medication (which I disagree with, but at least it’s sensible), others turn entirely away from scientifically validated treatments into “holistic” or “alternative” treatment. In many of these communities, “positive thinking” is seen as the only treatment you need, and anything that strays from the “positive” (like, you know, the negative emotions that are a normal part of almost any mental illness) is actively preventing you from recovering. There’s a very victim-blamey aspect to all of this: if you’re unhappy or sick,” it’s your own fault for not thinking positively enough.

I’ve had clients from these communities in counseling, and it’s very difficult to get any work done with them because they only ever want to share “positive” thoughts and feelings with me. As it turns out, medical model or no, they have completely pathologized any sort of negative emotion–including, in fact, the totally normal negative emotions that all of us experience all the time.

Yet it’s those evil psychiatrists who don’t want anybody to be sad or angry ever. Okay.

Some critiques of the medical model are quite valid and very useful. Others seem to rest less on evidence and more on a general sense of unease about the idea of thinking of mental symptoms as, well, symptoms. Kinderman even implies that it’s unethical. But “makes me uncomfortable” isn’t the same as “unethical,” as we all know. Unless I see evidence that this conceptualization is harmful overall, I see no reason to throw it out.

That said, if you’re a mental health provider and you have clients who are clearly uncomfortable with this model, maybe don’t use it to explain their conditions to them, since it’s unlikely to be helpful. All of these labels and diagnoses and explanations should serve the client, not the other way around.

And if you’re a person who experiences some significant amount of mental distress and you can’t stand thinking of it as an illness, then don’t! You don’t have to think of it in any way you don’t like. I hope you’re getting treatment of some sort that works for you, but at the end of the day, it’s actually none of my business.

~~~

*Yes, there are probably some bad psychiatrists out there who think that grieving at the loss of a loved one is literally a mental illness. There are also surgeons who leave crap inside of people’s bodies or amputate the wrong limb. I see these as roughly analogous.

~~~

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A Good Critique of the Medical Model is Hard to Find

"But that applies to EVERYONE"

Every so often when I’m talking about some niche issue, such as how to consensually have sex with an asexual person or how straight women can be better to their queer women friends, someone who is not a member of the marginalized group under discussion chimes in with, “But everyone should do that” or “But you shouldn’t do that to anyone.” No joke, once on Twitter I saw some trans people talking about how you shouldn’t ask them about their genitals, and someone was like “And you shouldn’t ask cis people about their genitals either.”

Okay, I mean, yes. I’m happy to grant that many of these suggestions about how to treat people with particular identities should and do apply to pretty much all human interaction. Don’t touch white people’s hair without their permission either. Don’t ask cis people about their genitals either. Sure.

But the reason this type of comment always comes off as very All-Lives-Matter-ish is because there is a reason the original author has chosen to focus their remarks on a particular type of situation or person. What might that reason be? Some ideas:

  1. The issue is much more likely to affect the group under discussion.
  2. Cis people, how often has a stranger asked you which genitals you have? How often has a potential partner asked you which genitals you have?

    The world is an infinitely varied and complicated place, so I’m sure there exists a cis person somewhere who has had someone ask them, “So do you have a dick or a vagina?” I’m sure there are cis people who have, upon introducing themselves to someone, had that person suddenly ask if they have had surgery on their genitals. (How sure am I? Not actually that sure.)

    But if you ask trans people, they are much, much more likely to have had this experience, often multiple times. In fact, I suspect that any cis person who has had this experience, only had it because they were “read” as trans for whatever reason, and that plays into the exact same harmful ideas that impact trans people every day. There would be no such thing as reading a cis person as trans without the gender-essentialism that gives rise to anti-trans prejudice and discrimination. Just like a straight boy being bullied because he’s assumed to be gay, this can certainly hurt the cis person in question, and their feelings about that experience are valid. But when we’re talking about understanding and preventing the issue, we need to understand why it actually happened. More on that later.

  3. The issue is more harmful to the group under discussion.
  4. So, yes, it is pretty rude and inappropriate to touch people’s hair without their permission, because hair often feels like a part of one’s body and having it groped by random strangers can be rather violating. (Also, some people put a lot of work into getting their hair to look the way it does, so don’t put your greasy hands on it!) Some white people, especially those with curly or otherwise unusual/interesting hair, may indeed have had lots of negative experiences with strangers grabbing it.

    But not only are we much less likely to experience this sort of incident–which in itself means that it’s overall less harmful to us–but it would have an entirely different meaning to us, and that minimizes the harm, too. Touching Black women’s hair is an echo of the many other ways in which white people have historically treated their bodies and their selves as objects for their consumption. They also don’t have the same freedom white people do to set boundaries and ask the person to stop touching their hair, lest they activate the Angry Black Woman stereotype. Doing so can have dangers beyond social rejection.

  5. The dynamics of the issue are different for different groups.
  6. The principle of consensual sex is pretty much the same no matter who’s having sex with who. Sex almost always involves power dynamics (even when both/all people involved have the same gender, power imbalances may arise from other identities), and this can complicate consent when the person with more power is unaware that the person with less power is only saying “yes” because they feel on some level that they have to.

    Asexuality introduces another potential power imbalance into the mix, and brings along with it unique dynamics. For example, many people consider asexuality an “illness” that can be “cured” through good sex. Many people consider it “unethical” for an asexual person to date an allosexual person unless they agree to “give” them as much sex as they want. Different asexual people have different levels of interest in sex, different motivations for consenting to sex, different emotional responses to sex, etc.

    That makes articles like “How to Have Sex With an Asexual Person” absolutely crucial, because they dissect the dynamics that are unique to this situation (an asexual person and an allosexual person having sex) rather than broadly applicable across all sexual situations. Yes, at first glance it all sounds the same–get consent, check in during, etc–and so I can see why it’s tempting for people to brush it off with “Well everyone should do that.” But then you’d miss the nuances.

  7. The person leading the discussion is a member of the group in question and that’s the experience they can speak to.
  8. I don’t know what it’s like to be proselytized to as a religious person, to date as a straight person, to have sex as a cis man. So if I’m talking about various adverse experiences I’ve had with those things and how they might have been better, I can only speak to my experience as a Jewish atheist, as a queer person, as a woman. If religious people, straight people, and cis men can learn something from that and apply it to their own lives–if they feel validated by what I’ve said–that’s great, but that’s not who I’m writing for.

    So when I write about some negative experiences I’ve had with straight women as a queer woman and folks immediately rush to be like “well nobody should ever do that to anyone regardless of identity,” it feels very dismissive. Of course nobody should ever do that to anyone. But I’m not anyone, I’m me, and I’m situated at one particular intersection of identities. That location in part determines which sorts of experiences I have, and I don’t want that to be erased. I want you to see where on the map I am.

“But that applies to everyone” can obviously be a true statement. It’s pretty rare that we would want to treat people differently depending on their social identity. But the fact is, whether we mean to or not, we do treat them differently. That’s been scientifically proven over and over. Likewise, all lives should matter, but they demonstrably don’t, so activists focus on those that we do not treat as though they matter.

Many, many excellent ideas and practices emerge from communities of queer and trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. Many of these ideas and practices would be very useful for dominant groups to adopt. Why don’t cis hetero couples ask each other which words they prefer to use for their genitals and other body parts? Why don’t neurotypical people use color-coded communication badges to make socializing at conferences easier? (I encourage them to, provided they don’t act like they came up with those awesome ideas on their own.)

But that doesn’t mean that marginalized people don’t get to talk about their own experiences and issues as they apply to them specifically, rather than to everyone universally. If you liked something one of us wrote about a niche issue and feel that it’s applicable more broadly, why don’t you write your own article rather than complaining that our writing wasn’t broad enough? Maybe it wasn’t for you.

~~~

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"But that applies to EVERYONE"

Assorted Thoughts on Self-Care

I have a bunch of complicated feelings on the topic of self-care, but none of them seemed quite sufficient for its own tidy blog post. So I’ll discuss them here and maybe expand on some of them later. Some of them are mostly political, some are mostly personal, and most are a mix of the two.

I. Self-care versus communal care.

Lately I’ve been noticing how often self-care becomes a replacement for care that really ought to be provided by the community: by employers, by mental health professionals, by friends and families, by (dare I say it) taxpayers.

Self-care cannot replace being paid a living wage that allows you to get through the day without breaking down because you’re so stressed about money. Self-care cannot replace effective, accessible therapy and psychiatric medication for those who need it. Self-care cannot replace having love and support from close people in your life. Self-care cannot replace adequate parental leave, sick leave, childcare, elder care, healthcare, and other basic necessities. Self-care will not help when the only way to have a job that pays enough to cover the things that self-care does not magically provide is to put yourself so far in debt for your college education that you spend the rest of your life worrying about money anyway.

Self-care has very important limits, and I think most of us activisty types are aware of that. But it’s jarring to see self-care touted as a solution by institutions that are creating (or neglecting their responsibility to solve) the very same problems they are touting self-care as a solution to. Self-care doesn’t pay my rent, much less my student loan debt. Self-care doesn’t help when an employer won’t give me enough time off to do any damn self-care.

II. Self-care is a harm reduction measure.

Having said all that about the limits of self-care and the responsibilities of people/institutions to step up at times and care for each other, I think there’s another way to think about this that might be helpful: self-care as a harm reduction measure. Harm reduction, as the words imply, suggests that at times when immediately taking all the harm away is impossible, reducing the harm may still be possible (and worthwhile). In its prototypical usage in alcohol/drug treatment, it might refer to giving intravenous drug users free clean needles because, while we can’t magically make them stop being addicted right now, but we can reduce the harm of their drug use by greatly reducing their likelihood of contracting infections by using dirty needles.

Harm reduction in the self-care context can mean that, since we can’t magically create a just society today, we can help people cope with the way things are for now. If you have a mental illness but no therapist or psychiatrist, there are things you can do to help yourself get by in the meantime. If you don’t get paid enough and are constantly stressed about money, there are things you can do to forget your worries for a few hours and give yourself some small things to look forward to. If you are taking care of your aging parent while working full-time because there is no other care available/affordable, there are things you can do for yourself to ease the burden you’re carrying. (The wording here is not to imply that a person who needs care is themselves a burden or that it is wrong to need that care; we all carry burdens of various weights and sometimes that includes caring for someone we love who can’t care for themselves. It should be okay to be honest about the difficulty of that, even if it is a labor of love.)

Of course, one potential concern about harm reduction in any context is that people will get complacent and stop working on the broader, systemic changes that would reduce the harm the rest of the way. For instance, same-sex marriage can be seen as a harm reduction measure against homophobia–it won’t solve the problem, but it will help reduce some of its harms for the time being. (Some people don’t realize that there even is homophobia beyond the marriage issue, but they are wrong.) But some radical LGBTQ activists worry that, having achieved same-sex marriage throughout the U.S., we’ll collectively sigh in relief and say, “Well, that’s good enough, I guess.” And, meanwhile, trans people of color will still be subject to disproportionate violence and discrimination, folks will still be losing jobs, housing, and families because of their sexuality or their gender, trans people will won’t be able to access appropriate healthcare, and so on.

The same thing could happen on a smaller scale with self-care. We might develop our own effective individual self-care practices and decide that, really, it’s okay, we can live with juggling two or three jobs while caring for children and aging parents.

At least, that’s the argument against harm reduction. (The left-wing argument, that is.) But in my experience, when people give up on fighting for systemic change, it’s less complacency and more burn-out or straight-up not having enough time. Burn-out, at least, is the exact thing that good self-care is supposed to prevent. Besides, the argument that harm reduction is actually harmful because it prevents people from staying motivated to pursue more complete solutions sort of implies that people should be expected to suffer even more in the meantime so that they can be better agents of social change, and that’s downright creepy.

III. Everyone’s self-care looks different.

This is an oft-repeated fact, but sometimes it’s still hard to internalize this. I used to get so frustrated with the idea of self-care because all the examples I saw online were like…take a bath! Watch a crappy TV show! Spend all day in your pajamas eating ice cream out of the carton! These are all perfectly valid things to do, but these types of activities make me feel worse rather than better. Taking a bath is nice, I guess, but it’s hard to keep my mind engaged on anything when most of the things that I could engage it on cannot be safely taken into a bathtub. Watching crappy TV and spending all day doing nothing makes me feel like a useless waste of space, so I try to avoid it. (Again, it doesn’t mean you’re a useless waste of space if you enjoy those things. It means I don’t like them.)

So for a while I was all like “what is self-care even” because all the examples I saw failed to resonate with me and seemed more like self-neglect than self-care. As it turns out, for me, self-care usually involves doing the sorts of things that other people need to avoid for self-care: reading articles online, spending time in big groups of people, writing (for public consumption, not in my journal), being with my family, listening to someone else’s problems. Self-care for me looks nothing like sitting around on the couch looking like crap and eating crap.

This is why when people ask me for suggestions on how to do self-care, I don’t really know what to say. I only know what works for me, and I’m starting to pick up on the fact that I’m a little unusual in this way. (For instance, people keep asking me how I manage to write so much despite my depression and despite how hard writing online can be. I find this question confusing. I have depression, so how can I possibly not write? Being online can be shitty, so how can I not use writing to cope with it?)

IV. Self-care versus self-preservation.

I find it useful to distinguish between the self-care we do to replenish and sustain ourselves, and the self-care we do to prevent ourselves from falling to pieces completely. This distinction would help clarify my earlier thoughts on self-care as a form of harm reduction, and it would help explain why some forms of self-care actually seem somewhat harmful, at least in the long term.

Consider these two different situations. One: You’ve had a long, crappy day at work and you’re feeling demoralized about your work and about your value as a person. You’ve spent all day around people who don’t care about you and treat you like shit, and at times like this it’s hard to remember that you do really matter and you’re important to people. You’d planned on going home after work tonight and doing adult things like laundry and making lunch to take to work the next day, but you realize that what you really need right now is to recover from your day. So you message some friends and ask them to meet up with you at a bar, where you drink and laugh and talk about anything other than work.

Two: You’ve had a long, crappy day at work. Things just keep piling up and by the end of the day, you’re an inch away from ending up in the bathroom sobbing. You can’t stand the thought of talking to even one more person today. Although you had plans to go out with your friends after work–something you normally love to do, something that normally helps you recharge from days like today–this time you just can’t bring yourself to go. You message them to let them know you can’t make it this time and head home, where you lie on the couch, pet your cat, and watch Gossip Girl because you have no energy left for anything else. It’s not like you even enjoy it, really, and you wish you could’ve gone out with your friends, but at this point you just can’t.

I’ve been in both of these situations, and for me, the difference is agency. In the first situation, I have chosen to do something that will restore a sense of worth and joy to me, and that is self-care. In the second situation, I have “chosen” to cancel my plans in order to do something that I need to do (that is, nothing much at all), but it doesn’t feel like a choice. Yet this second scenario often gets labeled as “self-care.” “It’s ok,” my friends will say when I cancel. “You need to take care of yourself.”

But that doesn’t feel like caring for myself. That’s just preserving myself so that I don’t burst out crying at the bar with my friends or sit there staring catatonically into space. I didn’t go out because I couldn’t, even though I wished very much that I could’ve because that would’ve made me actually feel better.

At the same time, though, it’s still self-care of a sort. Given that I already felt so awful, choosing to stay in rather than try to force myself to go out undoubtedly makes my life easier in some ways. It prevents me from burning out further. It prevents potential damage to my relationships with others. It prevents me from embarrassment if I don’t feel comfortable being my burned-out self in front of my friends (and, although this is a hypothetical, I actually don’t).

That is a harm-reduction sort of self-care, whereas my first example was a more positive form of self-care. It wasn’t about preventing things from getting even worse so much as it was about making things get better. Both of these forms of self-care have their place, as painful as it is when one gets confused for the other.

V. Self-care should fit the situation.

Just as different people find different forms of self-care helpful, different situations might call for different forms of self-care. I touched on that in the previous section, but it goes further than that. At the Secular Women Work conference this summer, Hiba Krisht did a workshop about burn-out and self-care in which she made the point that effective self-care needs to restore whatever it is you’re lacking in that moment. If you’re lacking energy, self-care should restore energy (or at least conserve it, when restoring it is impossible). If you’re lacking connection, self-care should restore it. If you’re lacking peace and quiet…you get the idea.

While that sounds totally obvious in retrospect, I never thought of it that way before, and that was why, as I mentioned above, most suggestions for self-care techniques fell flat for me. Lounging around in a bubble bath is great for when you need calm and solitude, but that’s not what I usually need. I need intellectual stimulation and connection with people.

Unfortunately, that makes self-care even more difficult than it already is for most people, since feeling intellectually understimulated and disconnected from people also usually goes along with lots of sadness, fatigue, and other shit that makes it really difficult to achieve intellectual stimulation and connection with people. What then complicates matters further is that most people, including most of the friends I’d theoretically be connecting with, conceptualize self-care more as sitting in a bubble bath or watching Gossip Girl than being out at a loud bar with friends yelling about recent psychology research. So when I tell my friends I’m feeling shitty, they’re much more likely to say, “Aww, it’s okay if you need to just lay around on the couch and watch TV” than “Oh, sounds like you need to head out to a crowded noisy bar with a bunch of us to yell about research.” And when I’m in an especially shitty state, I can’t always access my memories of things that have helped in the past, so I’m unlikely to draw the “feeling shitty? go hang with friends!” connection on my own. Plus, I feel awkward asking people to hang out with me when I’m feeling shitty, because they might not realize that I’ll probably stop feeling shitty as soon as we start hanging out (but also, I can’t necessarily promise that’ll happen 100% of the time, you know?).

And sometimes it admittedly feels really weird how fast my friends jump to saying “it’s okay to just cancel our plans and be alone!” when I mention I’m having a hard time. At that point, the crappy part of my brain is thinking…do they want me to just cancel and be alone? Would they rather not deal with me when I’m down? Is it bad to want to be cheered up by people when I’m sad?

Ultimately I try not to ascribe such negative motives to my friends and try to trust them to just set their own boundaries. But regardless, it would be so helpful if people would more often ask, “What do you think would be helpful for you right now?” rather than reminding me (with the best of intentions) that I have the option of doing something that would make me feel much, much worse.

Self-care, both as a concept and as a practice, is not a panacea. We shouldn’t try to make it do more work than it’s capable of. But I’m definitely not ready to throw it out, either.

Assorted Thoughts on Self-Care

On "Obvious" Research Results

There is a tendency in my social circles sometimes to dismiss social science results that seem “obvious” and aligned with our views with, “Well, duh, why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation].”

I’ve seen it happen with studies that show that fat-shaming is counterproductive, and studies that show that sucking up to abusers doesn’t stop abuse, and probably every other study I’ve ever written about here or posted on Facebook.

To be honest, I’m often having to suppress that initial response myself. It is infuriating when we’ve been saying something for years and now Science Proves It. (Of course, science doesn’t really “prove” anything.) It’s especially annoying when some of the some of the same people who deny my experiences when I share them are now posting links to articles about research that says that exact thing, without any apology for disbelieving me.

At the same time, though, I try to separate my frustration from my evaluation of the research. In reality, the fact that a result seems “obvious” or “common sense” doesn’t mean that the study shouldn’t have been conducted; for every result that aligns with common sense, there’s probably at least one that completely goes against it. Considering the fact that negative results have such a hard time getting published in psychology, there are probably a ton of studies sitting around in file drawers showing no correlations between things we assume are correlated.

Moreover, research is important because it helps us understand how prevalent or representative certain experiences are, and listening to individuals share their stories isn’t going to give you that perspective unless you somehow manage to listen to hundreds or thousands of people. (Even then, there will probably be more selection bias than there will be in a typical study, in which the subject pool at least isn’t limited to the researcher’s friends.) I will always believe someone who is telling me about their own experience, but that doesn’t mean that I will assume that everyone who shares a relevant identity with that person has had an identical experience. That would be stereotyping.

So, sure, to me it might be totally obvious that people who make creepy rape jokes are much more likely to actually violate boundaries–because I’ve experienced it enough times–but my experience may not have been representative. It is very much still my experience, and it is very much still valid and I have the right to avoid people who make creepy rape jokes since they make me uncomfortable, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of a broader trend. (Of course, now I know that it probably is, because multiple studies have strongly suggested it.)

The weirdest thing by far about the “Why didn’t they just ask a [person who experiences that type of marginalization/trauma/adverse situation]” response is that, well, they did. That’s literally what they’re doing when they conduct research on that topic. Sure, research is a more formal and systematic way of asking people about their experiences, but it’s still a way.

And while researchers do tend to have all kinds of privilege relative to the people who participate in their studies, many researchers are also pushed to study certain kinds of oppression and marginalization because they’ve experienced it themselves. While I never did end up applying to a doctoral program, I did have a whole list of topics I wanted to study if I ever got there and many of them were informed directly by my own life. The reason researchers study “obvious” questions like “does fat-shaming hurt people” isn’t necessarily because they truly don’t know, but because 1) their personal anecdotal opinion isn’t exactly going to sway the scientific establishment and 2) establishing these basic facts in research allows them to build a foundation for future work and receive grant funding for that work. In my experience, researchers often strongly suspect that their hypothesis is true before they even begin conducting the study; if they didn’t, they might not even conduct it.

That’s why studies that investigate “obvious” social science questions are a good sign, not a bad one. They’re not a sign that clueless researchers have no idea about these basic things and can’t be bothered to ask a Real Marginalized Person; they’re a sign that researchers strongly suspect that these effects are happening but want to be able to make an even stronger case by including as many Real Marginalized People in the study as financially/logistically possible.

As I said, I do completely empathize with the frustration of feeling like nobody takes our experiences seriously until they are officially Proven By Science. I also wish that people didn’t need research citations before they are willing to accommodate an individual’s preferences for the sake of inclusivity or just not being an asshole. (For instance, if I ask you to stop shaming me for my weight, you should stop doing it whether or not you have seen Scientific Proof that fat-shaming is harmful, because I have set a boundary with you.)

However, if we take individual experiences as necessarily indicative of broader trends, we would be forced to conclude that, for instance, there is an epidemic of false rape accusations or that Christian children are overwhelmingly bullied in the United States for their religious beliefs. Certainly both things happen. Certainly both things happen very visibly sometimes. Both are awful things that should never happen, but it is, in fact, important to keep in perspective what’s a tragic fluke and what’s a tragic pattern, because flukes and patterns require different prevention strategies.

I’ll admit that a part of my discomfort with “well duh that’s obvious why’d they even study that” is because I don’t want the causes I care about to become publicly aligned with ignoring, ridiculing, or minimizing science. We should study “obvious” things. We should study non-“obvious” things. We should study basically everything as long as we do it ethically. We should do it while preparing ourselves for the possibility that studies will not confirm what we believe to be true, in which case we dig deeper and design better studies and/or develop better opinions. I find Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Litany of Tarski to be helpful here:

If the box contains a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box contains a diamond;
If the box does not contain a diamond,
I desire to believe that the box does not contain a diamond;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

Even if your experiences turn out to be statistically atypical, they are still valid. Even if it turns out that fat-shaming is an effective way to get people to lose weight, guess what! We still get to argue that it’s hurtful and wrong, and that it’s none of our business how much other people weigh. Knowing what the science actually says at this point is the first step to an effective argument. Knowing what the possibly-faulty science is currently saying is the first step to making better science.

On "Obvious" Research Results