Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

If you moderate any sort of online forum, I have a suggestion for you: ban all snarking about “well if you’d bothered to search the forum before posting you would’ve found the answer to that” and “why don’t you just Google it.”

The damage done to a community by people sometimes posting easily-googleable 101 questions is far outweighed by the damage done by the silencing effect that occurs when people are scared of being ridiculed for asking a damn question.

Yes, it is annoying when someone posts a question that’s been answered tons of times in the forum. It’s annoying when someone posts a question that’s considered too basic for the purposes of that particular space. But is being annoyed a good enough reason to make people afraid to ask questions?

Theoretically, the way this sort of shaming is supposed to work is that everyone realizes that they should search the forum/check the FAQ before posting. If it worked that way, that’d be nice, although you’d still be using nastiness and ridicule to make people comply, which is a dubious way to build community. But practically, that’s not what happens. Instead, people (especially people who have not been socialized to be confident) do Google, and do check the FAQ, and then think, “Well, I’m probably missing something, and I don’t want them to yell at me for not searching well enough.”

And then they don’t post. And then they don’t get their question answered and they don’t learn more about the topic. And then they quietly disengage from the community, and you never even notice that they’re gone, and you never even know that you’re missing their unique perspective and talent. Instead, your group is overrun with people whining about each others’ poor google skills and making fun of each other–and not in a friendly way.

But then how can we stop people from posting repeat questions?

As a moderator, you can never completely prevent people from doing something you don’t want in your space, but you can make it less likely and you can control what happens afterward.

  • Include “search first” in your rules.
  • Encourage other members to respond to 101 questions with reminders, not ridicule. (“Hey [name], this question has already been answered in this forum. Please use the search feature. Thanks!”)
  • Create a FAQ and make it easily visible and accessible. Forum search features are often crappy and not everyone has the time or energy to wade through pages of irrelevant search results.
  • Simply delete posts and ban users who post these types of questions. It’s kind of extreme, but it may be most appropriate for something like a safe space for marginalized folks or a 300-level social justice space where basic questions really detract from the group’s purpose.

Here’s the thing–if you don’t want your forum to focus on answering questions that have already been answered or that are considered too low-level for the purposes of that space, the last thing you should want is for those questions’ threads to fill up with snark and ridicule of the poster’s lack of Google skills. All that does is promote continued engagement on that post (and a toxic form of engagement at that, although that’s just my opinion) and keep the post at the top of the group feed. It contributes to the exact problem that the snark and ridicule is supposedly meant to prevent.

Except, of course, that’s not really what it’s meant to do at all. In my experience, people who get something out of ridiculing others frequently come up with all sorts of post-hoc justifications for their behavior, but what they’re mostly doing is venting emotions without much forethought. You feel annoyed or angry, so you lash out. Only later do you produce rationalizations like “Well, they’re ruining the purpose of this space by posting those questions and I want them to stop.” I’m skeptical that very many of these people thought, upon encountering the offending post, “Huh, I wonder what would be the best way of stopping posts like this from happening.”

But it’s annoying!

Yeah, as I said, I’m not arguing that it’s not. But I think that a big part of the reason it feels so annoying is because of the assumptions we make about others’ motivations–assumptions that we usually have no evidence for.

Many people see a repeat question and think, “Wow, this person respects me and my time so little that they would make me re-answer something that’s already been answered.” Sure, that could be it. Or it could be that they did try searching but didn’t use the exact right search terms (a common issue for topics as diverse as social justice and coding). It could be that they’re in a hurry to get the answer and figured someone would be willing to point them in the right direction. It could be that they’re on their phone and the search box isn’t even visible in the mobile version of the page and they figured there wasn’t one. Look, it could really be anything. It doesn’t have to mean laziness and disrespect.

But they’re forcing me to answer their basic questions and I don’t want to/don’t have the spoons/can’t be everyone’s free [subject] tutor!

I’ve already written about this dynamic as it applies to social justice conversations online. But I think some of that applies much more broadly, in that many people mistake a statement about a need for a demand that that need be met–or, worse, an obligation to meet that need.

When someone asks a question, it’s safe to assume that they want an answer to that question. (Ok, fine, unless it’s a rhetorical question. Let’s not get technical.) They may even need an answer to that question. They may even feel entitled to an answer to that question from you–yes, you specifically.

But usually we don’t know what a stranger on the internet feels entitled to versus what they would simply like to have, if possible. And sometimes we assume that they feel entitled because that’s what we’re used to, or because we’re not fully confident about our own boundaries or our own ability to maintain them.

Much of this difficulty comes from Guess Culture, which we all struggle with to various extents. In Guess Culture, a question can indeed be an implicit demand for an answer, and in Guess Culture, ignoring someone’s question (even if posted on a public forum) can be a Wrong Thing To Do.

Probably the most common way people deal with situations where they feel like someone is demanding something from them that they can’t provide is to try to invalidate that person’s (perceived) need. After all, if their need is wrong or if they are wrong for asking for it to be met, then we’re not wrong for refusing to meet it.

So, you’re in a forum and someone posts a question that’s already been answered a hundred times, or is obviously too basic a question for this forum, and you’re just exhausted of answering these questions, and you resent being (implicitly) demanded to do it, and how could they expect this constant free tutoring from you–so clearly they’re in the wrong for posting it, and that means it’s okay to lash out at them and make fun of them, because after all they hurt you first.

I think what would help avoid these toxic cycles is to remember that the fact that someone has a need doesn’t obligate you to meet it, and the fact that you can’t meet someone’s need doesn’t make it invalid.

So, if you’re exhausted by these questions and they make you feel resentful and used, ignore them. Hide them from your feed. Block the people who posted them. If you think that someone has a pattern of misusing a group by trying to extract an unfair amount of intellectual labor from its members, talk to the mods about maybe banning that person. Mods, pay attention to those patterns; just because someone means well doesn’t mean they aren’t turning your group into a toxic space.

And that goes just the same for the people who think it their personal mission to comment “well if you’d bothered to use the search feature–” on every other post. Mods, ask yourselves what kind of group environment this contributes to and what it accomplishes. Do you want a group where everyone’s ridiculing each other all the time, or a group where shit gets done, whatever that means for your particular space?

In short, I see all sorts of cons and no pros to allowing this sort of interaction to happen in online forums. (Besides maybe some nebulous commitment to Free Speech and Anything Goes, but I don’t see much value in that when it comes to closed online spaces.) My advice as a longtime group moderator and participant is to ban this toxic and useless behavior.

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Some Totally Unsolicited Advice About Forum Moderation

The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate

I consider emotions to be a valuable source of information. When I noticed that I was getting much more emotional about the trigger warning debate than about most of the topics I write about–sensitive and personal as they often are–I knew something was up.

Both the content and the tone of the debate has been making me feel very angry, frustrated, and hopeless. The anger is a different sort of anger than the one I sometimes feel when engaging with discussions about sexual violence, homophobia, or other issues–issues that affect me much more strongly and urgently than trigger warnings. That anger is one of passion; this is one of defeat.

I don’t even really need trigger warnings very much. I am no longer a student (thank literally every possible god), and in the situations where I do find trigger warnings very helpful, they are typically provided, because the people in my life care about accommodating people with trauma and mental illness backgrounds.

So why the anger and hopelessness? Why the “taking it personally,” as some 3edgy5u conservative dude would probably love to accuse?

I realized that the debate on trigger warnings has largely turned into a sort of collective gaslighting.

I don’t use that word lightly. Gaslighting means denying someone’s thoughts, feelings, or perceptions so that they end up doubting their own reality. It’s not the same as arguing with someone’s opinions or with their interpretations of their perceptions. If a patient sees a doctor and says, “I have a headache and I think it must be brain cancer,” it’s not gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Well, I doubt it’s cancer. Let’s check it out.” It is gaslighting for the doctor to say, “Oh, come on, you’re probably just imagining it. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

So before you jump in with Just Because We Disagree With You About Trigger Warnings Doesn’t Mean We’re Abusing You Oh My God, I’ll draw a very fine distinction.

Yes, not all anti-trigger warning arguments are gaslighting. For instance, it’s not gaslighting to say, “I hear that you want this accommodation, but we can’t provide it because [reasons].” It’s not even gaslighting to say, “I hear that trigger warnings help you, but the research shows that they may do more harm than good in the long-term.” I still disagree with that, because the classroom is not the place for exposure therapy and exposure therapy cannot proceed without informed consent and trigger warnings. But at least that doesn’t deny anyone’s internal experiences.

What’s gaslighting is when we say, “We need trigger warnings in order to be able to engage with content rather than automatically shut down,” and you respond, “You’re just trying to avoid engaging with difficult content.”

If people are telling you that they are trying to engage with trauma-related material and you insist that they’re actually saying that they want to avoid it–or literally ban it from being taught–you are gaslighting them. You are insisting that you know better than they do what’s inside their own heads. You are pretending that they said something other than what they actually said, making them doubt their own thoughts and words.

That gaslighting has affected me. I’ve spent months, years, however long this bullshit debate has gone on, wondering if I’m just being unclear, if something in the words I’m using somehow communicates “I want to ban trauma-related material from college classrooms and I want students to never engage with it,” because that’s what people keep telling me I’m saying. Literally, I would write out all these in-depth articles like I always do and people would comment “So you just want to stop professors from teaching anything that ‘triggers’ you” or “But it’s important to engage with challenging material.” As if I ever even implied that it wasn’t.

There is nothing wrong with my communication except perhaps that I’m too charitable. The problem is that people insist that I literally spoke or wrote different words than the ones I actually spoke or wrote. They don’t even say, “I know you said this, but I think you really meant [blahblahblah].” They simply proceed with the argument as if I’d said, “Professors should not teach material that may trigger students” or “Students should feel free to avoid any reading assignment they find challenging without any consequences.”

I also wouldn’t care that much if it were only happening to me, because then I probably would just write it off as a quirk of my writing style. But I’ve been seeing it all over the internet. It happens in comment threads on Facebook and it happens in opinion pieces published in major outlets.

#NotAll anti-trigger warning opinions are framed in a gaslighting way, but many are. And no, it’s not enough to claim “Well some students at [university] do actually want to ban everything triggering from the curriculum,” not only because I have yet to see any evidence that that’s happening but also because they aren’t who you’re arguing with. If you’re presenting me with a claim I disagree with, then I need to argue with the claim you made, not with another, barely-related claim. (In fact, the idea of including trigger warnings in syllabi is literally incompatible with the idea of banning triggering material from the curriculum. It makes no sense to advocate for both of those things. If someone is advocating for trigger warnings, then by definition there is something still there to be warned about.)

I am willing to grant that in many of these arguments, the gaslighting is probably unintentional because their reading comprehension is simply that bad. Obviously if you can’t understand what someone is arguing, you are liable to argue against something other than what they argued. But 1) it doesn’t have to be intentional to be gaslighting, and 2) I simply can’t believe that all of these journalists and professors are that bad at reading.

I also don’t want to imply that every time you misunderstand someone’s argument and argue against something other than what they said, that’s gaslighting. It definitely isn’t. But when someone is including their personal experiences as part of their argument–a perfectly valid thing to do when the topic concerns mental health and education–then you need to respond to their argument without denying their own experience.

If I say: “I need trigger warnings so that I can engage with material related to sexual assault without shutting down and dissociating,” here are some responses that are gaslighting:

  • “You just want to avoid difficult material.”
  • “So you’re saying that professors shouldn’t ever teach anything related to sexual assault.”
  • “Come on, I’m sure you’re making it sound worse than it is.”
  • “Yeah, well, a college classroom can’t be your therapy session.”

Here are some responses that are not gaslighting:

  • “That’s valid, but we can’t require professors to include trigger warnings because that goes against our policy.”
  • “I hear you, but my concern is that other students will use that as a way to skip readings not because of any personal trauma, but because they just don’t want to confront that subject.”
  • “Sure, sexual assault is a common trigger and easy to warn about, but how could we possibly implement trigger warnings that account for all of our students’ various traumatic experiences?”
  • “But some students say they find trigger warnings harmful. How would you accommodate them?”
  • “Is there any other way the university community could support you without requiring that professors implement trigger warnings?”

I don’t agree with all of these hypothetical responses, but they at least do not rest on a willful misinterpretation of what I said. If I say I need trigger warnings to engage with something, then it’s not your place to disagree with that unless you are a mental health professional working with me and you have strong evidence that I’m misinterpreting what’s going on, and even then that is a conversation to be approached very, very carefully.

(In fact, as a therapist, I often have to gently nudge clients into letting go of interpretations that are not accurate or helpful. But as a therapist, I also have access to a lot more information than most other people do. I don’t have to claim that my client is lying; I can just make observations about their own statements and behavior. For instance, if a client who has a substance use problem and has relapsed says, “Actually, I can control my use,” I don’t need to disagree with their experience. All I have to say is, “I hear that you feel in control of your use. I’m wondering how that fits with what you told me about last week, when you drank enough to black out and say some things to your partner that you regretted.” And guess what? If I have no evidence that they can’t control their use, then I nod and ask them to tell me more about that and keep my baseless assumptions to myself.)

You might disagree that this type of discourse is harming anyone, even though it operates as gaslighting. Maybe it hasn’t harmed me all that much, all things considered. But I still wonder why we shouldn’t aim for debates in which people respond to what was said rather than continuing to read from their own personal script that they wrote before even engaging in the debate.

That’s why I don’t argue about trigger warnings anymore. (No, this isn’t me having an argument with you. This is a blog post and my comments are still closed.) I’m tired of being gaslit and I’m not going to allow it to continue.

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The Collective Gaslighting of the Trigger Warning Debate

What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

Now that we’re deep in the latest irritating round of internet hand-wringing over college students and their political correctness, I’m watching again this dynamic:

Students want something. They want a “controversial” (read: openly hateful towards women, people of color, etc) speaker disinvited from a campus event, or they want a designated safe space, they want a professor investigated for what they perceive to be a Title IX violation, or whatever. They advocate for this via newspaper editorials or marches or signs. The administration agrees and does the thing. Then the administration and the media blame the students for the action as if they had the power to make it happen themselves rather than simply argue in its favor.

And I’m thinking, where have I seen this before?

Oddly enough, I have seen this before in polyamorous relationships.

It happens like this: John and Jane are in a serious open relationship that involves a pretty high level of emotional support. Jane and Jill are also partners, but a little more casual. Jane has a date with Jill tonight, but John is having a pretty bad day and would like her to reschedule it and stay home with him instead. He’s not telling her to cancel, but makes it clear that he’d really prefer it if she did and that his mood will probably get even worse if she doesn’t. Jane wants to be supportive of John, but she doesn’t want to cancel on Jill at the last minute because that’s not fair to her and implies that John is more important to her. At the same time, she also doesn’t want to feel responsible for John’s even-worse mood or risk the possibility that this will erupt into a fight later.

So Jane does what many poly people do in this situation. She cancels with Jill, saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go tonight because John’s having a bad day and he wants me to stay home.”

It may seem like a totally reasonable thing to say, but notice how it conveniently displaces the responsibility for the decision entirely away from Jane and onto John. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go on the date; it’s that John doesn’t want her to.

In fact, it would’ve been more accurate to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to cancel tonight because John is having a bad day and I want to be there for him.” Jane didn’t cancel because John forced her to. It’s not that she “can’t go tonight”; it’s that she is choosing not to go because she wants to stay home with John. This can be spun in either a positive or a negative direction: on the one hand, she’s staying home because she cares about John’s feelings and doesn’t want him to feel even worse; on the other hand, she’s staying home because she wants to avoid having a difficult conversation with John about these types of situations and she doesn’t want to deal with her own feelings about potentially making John’s bad day even worse.

And while that latter alternative might seem monstrous to many people, it’s not as unreasonable as it seems and it is in fact how many people, for instance me, prefer their relationships to work. I have been the person feeling crappy and knowing that I would feel better if my partner canceled their plans and spent time with me, and yet I wanted them to keep their plans anyway. I wanted them to go despite my feelings. I wanted to have the opportunity to practice coping with the feelings alone. Sometimes they did keep their plans, and sometimes they decided that they’d rather cancel and care for me, but either way it was a mutually informed decision and nobody was pressuring anybody. You may not want your relationship to work that way and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a ridiculous way to do relationships.

Jane probably isn’t being intentionally obfuscating when she cancels with Jill using that wording, but on some level she wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to avoid the negative consequences of leaving John alone at home–such as feeling bad because John is sad and potentially having a fight about it later–but she also wants to avoid the negative consequences of choosing to cancel on Jill at the last minute, such as feeling bad about being flaky and potentially having a fight with Jill about how she being flaky. So she makes it seem like canceling the date wasn’t really her choice, that she had to do it because of John and his feelings.

(Later on, she will be surprised and angry that Jill and John aren’t getting along, and will probably blame it on “jealousy,” when in fact she’s been accidentally playing Jill and John against each other all this time by blaming one for her own decisions regarding the other. Given that framing repeated over a period of time, I wouldn’t blame Jill for thinking of John as “that guy who always makes my girlfriend cancel our dates,” or John for thinking of Jill as “that girl who would apparently totally flip out if my girlfriend canceled with her to help me through a really shitty time [whether or not she actually would totally flip out].”)

What Jane needs to do if she wants two healthy relationships is:

  1. talk to John about how the two of them will handle times when he needs support and she may not be available to support him, such as other friends/partners, activities, professional help, or being able to text her while she’s out or reconnect later that night or the following morning, and make sure to clarify what sorts of expectations each of them already has about these situations. Does John actually expect her to cancel her plans at the last minute, or did he just want to express his feelings, get some empathy, and see if maybe canceling the plans was at least an option? Does Jane feel like the emotional labor she is doing for John is balanced with the emotional labor he does for her? If John would like her to be willing to cancel other plans to support him, is he willing to do the same for her? (By the way, even if Jane doesn’t necessarily want that type of support from John, it’s still important that both feel that things are balanced.)
  2. talk to Jill about how the two of them will handle times when Jane feels an obligation to another partner that conflicts with her commitments with Jill. How does Jill feel about being canceled on? Maybe she honestly doesn’t care. (Even if she doesn’t, this is something Jane will need to regularly check in on, because feelings change and it will be hard for Jill to suddenly say, “Hey um actually, I’m no longer okay with being canceled on even though last month I told you I was.”) How can Jane reassure Jill that she cares about and values her in the aftermath of having to cancel to take care of John? If Jane and Jill are interested in growing their intimacy and commitment, how will this work if Jane always prioritizes John first? Can it work? Can Jane rethink how she thinks of commitment and priorities? By the way, are there times when Jill would really appreciate it if Jane would consider canceling plans with someone else in order to support her? Or is that a privilege only John gets?
  3. own her decisions and take responsibility for their consequences. That means that even when someone’s feelings influence her a certain way, she needs to acknowledge that the decision was hers to make. If your partners are making you feel like you have no choice but to accommodate their feelings, that’s a red flag for abuse.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! Well, it is, and I hope that John and Jill will contribute equally to that work by fully engaging in these conversations with Jane when she starts them, being upfront about their feelings and expectations, and being as willing to compromise as Jane is.

Ok cool story, but what does it have to do with college campuses?

College administrators are in a bind when it comes to student activism. They don’t want to come across like they’re ignoring it, especially when it’s very loud and angry. But they also don’t want to do the thing the students are asking for, because it will be unpopular among their colleagues and/or people who write for Atlantic and New York Times. So they do the thing the students are asking for, but then make it seem like the students somehow “forced” them to do it. (Y’all, seriously, if campus newspaper op-eds had that kind of power, I’d have kept writing mine for longer than a semester.)

Sometimes the administration doesn’t even have to make that implication, because national media does it for them. This is how we get articles written by people who have not been on the campuses in question or interviewed the students involved, claiming that student activists “caused” a speaker to be disinvited or “made” professors add trigger warnings to their syllabi. (In fact, the most unpopular speaker disinvitations and trigger warning demands to be featured in the media have overwhelmingly not actually happened, and yet the students are ridiculed for even asking for it*. So much for Free Speech. Oh, what’s that you say? “Free speech” only applies to governments regulating speech? That’s not the definition of the term you were using a minute ago. And if we’re talking about chilling effects, the large-scale ridicule of student activism certainly constitutes one.)

I understand that college administrators may perceive students as having an enormous amount of power. After all, they can say whatever they want (there’s that pesky free speech again) and theoretically ruin the university’s reputation. They can, I suppose, transfer themselves and their tuition money elsewhere. But practically speaking, they’re probably not going to transfer (if anything, students whose needs as survivors of violence or as marginalized people are ignored may quietly drop out of school altogether). I’ve never heard of a university catching serious media flak for inviting a controversial speaker or refusing to add trigger warnings to syllabi; if anything, they are regularly praised for this by publications as influential as, y’know, the New York Times. (The linked article includes some balanced voices, but I think it’s pretty obvious just from the headline which direction it leans in.)

My impression as a former college student who’s been watching these debates play out for years since is that universities often acquiesce to student demands because they are uncomfortable with the discussions that those demands create. I’m not saying that all student demands are valid, well-argued, or charitable–I think that a few invalid, poorly-argued, or uncharitable claims are to be expected from people who are in school to learn how to think and debate. But will you as an educator join these discussions and use them as learning opportunities, or will you shut them down, either by categorically refusing the students’ demands or by accepting them just to get them to shut up?

I suppose if a university administration wanted to try to resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug, they could take a similar approach as I suggested for that poly couple. Administrators could meet with student activists to try to understand what they’re asking for and where they’re coming from. They could also meet with other stakeholders, such as professors or a speaker if there’s one involved, to get their point of view. If they reject students’ demands, they could do so without invalidating their feelings or opinions–for instance, instead of “DON’T EXPECT ANY CODDLING HERE” they could say, “We understand that [controversial speaker] may express opinions that are considered harmful and oppressive by certain students, and we acknowledge the hurt this causes. However, we’ve decided to invite the speaker because [reasons] and we encourage students to decide for themselves whether or not to attend. Students who are looking for support are welcome to go to [counseling services, Women’s Center, LGBTQ safe space, etc].”

Lest it seem like I’m unfairly dumping on college administrators here–I’m sure many of you are lovely and do a great job. Just like many poly couples are lovely and don’t pit their partners against each other. But some do, and that’s who I’m writing about. If the shoe fits, and so on.

Nothing that I’ve suggested here is at all easy, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important. Just because something will not be attainable every time doesn’t make it any less of a best practice.

And by the way, just as Jane may be in an abusive situation where John really does make her feel like she has no choice but to acquiesce to his demands, there are situations–although they are rare–when students can act in a similar way. For instance, if students make threats of violence against a speaker, it is completely reasonable for the speaker to cancel, for the university to choose to cancel the speaker, and/or for law enforcement to get involved. Obviously, don’t make threats of violence; I don’t give a fuck how much you hate the person.

However, both administrators and speakers sometimes misperceive students’ power in significant ways, just as Jane may assume that John’s stating his feelings constitutes a passive-aggressive demand in and of itself. (Unfortunately, people who are accustomed to passive communication tend to see it everywhere they look.) For instance, sometimes administrators or speakers cancel events because they know there will be protesters, even though no threats of violence have been made and the protesters have stated an intention to peacefully hold signs, hand out pamphlets, or whatever. This is not the same as students “forcing” anyone to cancel anything. They are exercising their First Amendment rights. If you’re an ~~~edgy~~~ “””controversial””” speaker who can’t handle people holding signs at your speech, then maybe you shouldn’t be a speaker.

And while John and Jane might each have some sort of power over the other, when it comes to the administration-student relationship, the administration holds an overwhelming amount of the power. Students, even otherwise-privileged students, can’t practically do anything besides write op-eds or march with signs if a university administration is determined to do things they don’t like. All they can really do is be annoying. But being annoying isn’t the same as forcing someone to do something.

tl;dr Abuse and coercion are things that happen, but otherwise, strongly expressing a desire isn’t the same thing as forcing someone to fulfill that desire. That applies to relationships and campus activism and probably a lot of other things.

*Similarly, a Northwestern professor raised hell online because she was investigated and then cleared for an alleged Title IX violation. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Someone accuses someone of something, an investigation happens, and, if the accused is deemed innocent, they’re cleared? Yet somehow this is still Political Correctness Run Amok or whatever.

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What Do College Administrations and Crappy Poly Couples Have in Common? Not Taking Responsibility for Their Decisions

Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing

At first it sounded like a typical argument where my siblings are concerned.

Little Brother: “[Little Sister], give me your phone.”

Little Sister: “Why?”

“So I can take a photo.”

“Use your own phone.”

“Mine is out of battery. Give me yours.”

“No. That’s your own problem.”

“Give me your phone!”


“Come on. I just want to take some photos. What’s the big deal? Just give me your phone.”


“Where is it?”

“It’s in Mom’s bag.”

[Little Brother looks for Mom’s bag, but she had taken it with her when she left to use the restroom.]

“Why did you leave it in her bag?”

“None of your business. It’s my phone.”

“You should’ve taken it out of her bag before she left.”

“It’s MY PHONE.”

[Mom arrives.]

“Mom, give me [Little Sister]’s phone so I can take a photo.”


Mom jumps in: “What’s wrong with you? He just wants to take a photo. Why are you being so selfish?”

“I just…I don’t want him to use up all the battery…he shouldn’t have used up his whole phone charge on Pokemon Go…”

“But he’s only going to use it for a few minutes!”

On and on it went.

If that’s all you heard, you might assume that my sister really is a petty and selfish person. Is it that hard to lend your phone to a family member for a few minutes so they can take a photo of a beautiful sunset?

What you wouldn’t know is that my sister is in fact a remarkably selfless and caring person. When it’s me or our parents asking, she never hesitates to help us out, lend us some of her very limited money when we’ve forgotten to bring cash, provide words of support that sound remarkable coming from an 11-year-old, give fashion advice, join in our joys even when she personally doesn’t care about the thing we’re happy about, and ask if we’re okay when we seem like we’re not.

Leaving aside the fact that it’s still her phone and she still gets to decide who gets to use it and for what–a very important fact that I’m only leaving aside because I’m writing about something else–our brother has a pattern of entitled, demanding behavior towards her. He treats her time, belongings, and energy as if they’re his to take. Unfortunately, that happens a lot to selfless and caring people.

Because of that pattern, my sister has stopped being as giving with our brother as she used to be. Often she angrily refuses to do even tiny favors for him, like letting him borrow her phone for a few minutes to take some photos. Occasionally he makes his requests in a more appropriate way, but sometimes she still reacts with knee-jerk irritation and, raising her voice, tells him no.

Watching the argument unfold, I couldn’t help but remember myself in some of my past relationships. Only I wasn’t being asked to lend a phone or fetch something from the kitchen; I was being asked for emotional labor, for support, for validation, for “can you just remind me again that you really do like me,” for “can you please explain to me again why you’re not interested in [sex thing] because I mean it’s fine that you don’t want to do it but I just want to understand.”

At first, I gladly provided what was asked for, even though, if I were really honest with myself, I’d admit that I didn’t always like the way the requests were made. But over time, the quantity of emotional labor expected was just too high, and–more importantly–I felt that my partner felt entitled to it. Although they would never be so obvious about that entitlement as my younger brother was in his–they’re much too well-versed in feminism for that–in other ways, subtle ways, they made it clear that they considered that labor to be my obligation as a partner and that if I couldn’t or wouldn’t provide it, I was doing something wrong.

Once I realized that my partners thought that it was my job to do emotional labor for them, I started rapidly losing the desire to do it. I started saying no more often, although I was never as blunt about it as my sister is. I would say, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place to listen right now.” (True.) I would say, “We’ve already talked about how you feel like I don’t really like you and you’re not good enough for me, and I don’t think there’s anything else I can do to make you feel otherwise.” (I didn’t add that they were well on their way to turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, though.) I would say, “I already explained that to you. If that explanation didn’t suffice, another one won’t help.”

Even now, even to myself, I sound selfish and cold. But so does my sister, out of context. Neither of us is selfish or cold. What we are is exhausted. What we are is tired of being unable to set any boundaries. What we are is totally done doing things for people who have never, ever asked us what we need.

And before you judge either of us as selfish based on a few snippets of conversation, ask yourself what could happen to make someone act and talk that way.

When someone’s reserves of compassion get drained like that, they start setting boundaries that are much stricter and tighter than what they would’ve been otherwise. No, you can’t borrow my phone for even a few minutes. No, I don’t want to listen to your feelings at all. No, I honestly don’t even have enough emotional energy to give you a compliment to make you feel better about yourself.

That slow draining away of compassion is so hard to notice and understand that many of us don’t even realize what’s happening or why. When pressed for explanations, especially couched in language that naturally makes us feel defensive–“Why are you so selfish?” “Why don’t you even care enough to ask me about my day?”–we stumble around in the dark until we think we’ve found something. “I don’t know, I just don’t want him to use up my phone battery.” “I’ve just been having a hard time lately.” “I guess I just don’t want the kind of relationship where we support each other all the time and talk about stuff like that.” (Oh, how false that last one turned out to be. I’m in a relationship like that now and it’s wonderful.)

Asking people questions that start with the word “why” is dangerous precisely for that reason–it puts them on the spot and forces them to come up with an explanation (not all of us are comfortable answering “I don’t know” to a question about our own internal processes, even though that would be the honest and accurate answer). The confabulation that often results is rarely intentional or conscious. Unless someone already has a clear and self-aware understanding of their actions–not likely in emotionally charged situations like this–“why” questions are more likely to hurt than help.

Maybe in that moment, my sister really did feel that she was worried about her phone’s battery draining. When our irritated mom demanded an explanation, her brain helpfully supplied one. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the real answer was that…she just didn’t want to. She really, strongly didn’t want to. Because others’ entitlement often shuts down our desire to help them, and when we’re constantly afraid that our boundaries will be ignored, one strategy that many of us feel compelled to use is to start loudly, bluntly stating and defending those boundaries, as if to remove any plausible deniability from the person who continually crosses them.

Believe me, I’ve seriously considered the possibility that I’m just selfish. I even bought into it for a long time, until I got into some relationships where I’m able to give gladly of myself and where I find that the more I give, the more I want to give. Yes, with certain partners I got to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to even the smallest act of emotional labor (at which point those relationships obviously collapsed). Yet with others I would drop what I’m doing to bring them food when they’re sick or listen for hours to their worries.

What’s the difference? No, it’s not How Much I Like Them; I was head over heels for all of them at some point, and besides, I often do lots of emotional labor for people who are practically strangers. The difference was entitlement. When people act entitled to emotional labor from me, I stop wanting to do it. When they treat my emotional labor as an act of love that I get to choose to give, I want to give it more and more.

These days I’m not optimistic about rescuing relationships that have broken down to such a point. If every request for emotional labor that your partner makes causes you to feel overwhelmed, irritated, or angry, then that relationship isn’t working out. If your partner is refusing every request for emotional labor no matter how respectfully and non-entitled-ly you make it, then that relationship isn’t working out. I don’t know whose “fault” it is and it probably doesn’t matter. But if you’re more optimistic than I am, I suggest getting counseling as a couple. Otherwise, things tend to devolve counterproductively into “Well, you’re just selfish and never want to do anything for me!” and “Yeah, well, you ask for too much and act entitled to it!”

These days I’m also trying not to label myself with negative character traits. Personality is fluid and entirely context-dependent. Some people bring out the worst of my selfishness; some people bring out the best of my selflessness. I’d rather be involved with the latter people.

All relationships are, in one way or another, built on emotional labor. When my roommate listens to me vent about my workday and I feel supported, that’s emotional labor. When my mom is worried about a sick relative and I worry with her and make her feel less alone, that’s emotional labor. When I pick out a present for a partner that’s exactly what they wanted and it makes them feel closer to me, that’s emotional labor.

But none of these things mean anything if they’re forced, if you feel like the other person will resent you for not doing them. If saying no isn’t a real option, then the yes is meaningless. (That applies to way more than just sex.)

My sister and I have in common a fierce and uncompromising selfishness towards people who cross our boundaries and demonstrate entitlement. I’m trying to stop beating myself up for that, and I hope she takes my example.

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Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing

For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy

I recently discovered this amazing piece by Nora Samaran about relationships, gender, and autonomy that has really resonated with me and many of my friends. Go read it.

Here are some of the key points I took away from this article:

  • If you’re afraid of being relied on, you’ll probably treat your partner inconsistently and any “acts of care” that you will do for them will feel inauthentic.
  • If you treat your partner like their needs are unreasonable and unmeetable–like they’re “crazy”–they are much more likely to act “crazy” with you. That same person, with a partner who treats their needs as reasonable and meetable, might seem a lot more stable. (Sidenote: this is one of several reasons I absolutely refuse to listen to any “crazy ex-girlfriend” stories from guys.)
  • Sometimes, in order for your partner to feel comfortable with distance, you have to establish real closeness first.
  • A common way that people (especially men) deal with their own fear of attachment, closeness, and interdependence is to blame their partners for having “unreasonable” needs or wanting “too much.”  This is gaslighting.

I encourage you to read (and reread) the entire article. It seems to be making a huge (positive) impact on many people I know.

That said, I have some deep disagreements with the author–not necessarily about any of these main points, but about the basic philosophical place that she comes from. We do relationships very, very differently.

For instance, one of the main ideas in the article is that autonomy is not something you “take,” but something you “build.” The author seems to believe that the default for healthy relationships is interdependence and intertwinement (to an extent that I would personally consider codependent), and she states that the reason she is able to trust her partner is because he has repeatedly met her needs no matter how inconvenient or difficult that was for him. Only then has he “built” autonomy; only then does she “give” him that autonomy; and only then does he “get” to do something like go away for weeks for a job without her being upset about it.

I see things the other way around. The default is independence and autonomy. The default is that we are each a ship at sea, setting our own courses, and we get to choose when and how and for long long to dock in someone else’s harbor. True, we don’t “take” autonomy, but that’s because we already have it.

For me, it’s interdependence that gets “built.” It requires immense trust for me to become more interdependent with someone else. If you want that from me, you first have to create a safe space for it.

And for me, I don’t “give” autonomy to anyone. They already have autonomy, and they have it no matter what I say or do or what our relationship is. They get to choose to reduce certain aspects of their autonomy if they want to, but ultimately it–just like their time, their body, and their emotional reserves–belongs to them.

The difference in our philosophies was made very clear to me in this paragraph about her breakup with the partner she had written about:

What we are no longer giving each other is sex, romantic feeling, and partnership – we are no longer committing to live together or have children together or make our lives in the same geographical location. His new girlfriend and eventual life partner will have priority decision-making power over how close he and I can be. We cried and grieved those parts.

I had such a viscerally negative reaction to this I almost had to stop reading, despite how much I had loved the article up until then. No. No no no. I would never accept someone having this kind of power over me, whether they are my partner or my ex’s partner. I would never accept a friendship or relationship with someone who agrees to let someone else control our closeness.

Moreover, I would never, ever want to exercise such a power over someone else. When I imagine one of my partners having as close and meaningful a friendship with an ex as this author has with hers, and I imagine telling that partner to destroy that closeness, I honestly feel that it would be monstrous of me. I can’t even imagine wanting to do that. Such connections are so rare, so precious, so difficult to build–who the fuck are we to tell others to destroy them for the sake of our own comfort?

But I get that given the way most people do relationships, that’s perfectly reasonable. It’s a common monogamous dictum that you get to control (though most people wouldn’t use that word) your partner’s relationships with their exes.

More to the point–Samaran’s conception of emotional safety is that it develops when (and only when) partners are able to meet each others’ needs every time they’re asked to. But what if they can’t? What if they cannot be available on demand like that? What if they have other partners–hell, what if they have friends, family members, jobs, passions, responsibilities–that matter just as much? What if the author’s partner, during his camp when he was mostly unavailable, wasn’t able to take even that half an hour to be with her? What if he had his own mental health issues that impacted his availability? What if romantic relationships are not your primary focus, but one of many domains of your life that you balance? What if you do not agree that your romantic partner (just one) will be your first (and, really, only) priority?

Do people like me just have to give up on feeling emotionally safe, and on building emotional safety for our partners?

I don’t think so.

I think Samaran creates a false choice between fully meeting your partner’s needs every time and saying (in her words), “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” She is correct that we must treat our partners’ needs as “normal, healthy, [and] eminently meetable”; I don’t think she’s correct, at least not for people like me and my friends and partners, that we must be able to commit to this:

“So, if I actually need you, you’re always there, right?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “Look, I really need to be able to focus on being here. But if you really need me, of course you can just come by the desk and ask where I am and I’ll come help with whatever you need.”

(I do appreciate how honest her partner is here about how it will impact him if she does need to access him during the camp. But what if he were unable or unwilling to be available during that time? Would that make him an emotionally unsafe partner? I think she might say it would. I say it wouldn’t.)

(Also, I may be misrepresenting the article unfairly; at times the author seems to imply that she doesn’t need her needs to be completely met in order for trust to develop, but at other times she implies that she does, and that she needs her partner to always put her first. In any case, though, the article is clearly based on a style of Primary Relationships that I don’t do myself.)

[Edit: I’m having a great chat with Nora on Twitter and she clarified that she does not mean that you have to fully meet your partner’s needs every time; we both agree that that’s too high a bar. But Wired for Love, the book she cites, does claim that. Seems that we both disagree with that aspect of it!]

So. I’m not trying to criticize how Samaran personally does things because that’s her own business, but this piece left me (and a bunch of people I know) totally unsure of how to incorporate these insights into a poly framework, and specifically a poly framework in which individual autonomy, not any particular relationship, is what’s “primary.”

Here are some thoughts I had:

1. Just because you can’t meet a need doesn’t mean it’s an unreasonable need.

One of the ways we cope with our own feelings of helplessness in the face of loved ones’ unmeetable needs is to try to delegitimize those needs. If you have real needs that I can’t or won’t meet, that makes me a bad partner(/friend/family member). I don’t want to feel that way, so maybe your needs aren’t legitimate after all, so there’s nothing wrong with me not meeting them.

Of course, this mental process usually isn’t so conscious. I think most people who do it don’t realize they’re doing it.

As Samaran writes in another piece, gaslighting doesn’t have to be intentional to be deeply harmful. If your defense mechanism against feeling powerless to help someone is to make that person feel like they shouldn’t have even asked or needed that in the first place, you’re gaslighting them and that’s abusive. You need to own your own limitations and take responsibility for them rather than blaming the other person.

Which brings me to…

2. You must own your boundaries and limitations.

There’s a huge difference between saying, “[I’m sorry], I’m not in a good place to listen to you right now” and saying, “I can’t listen to you because you’re too emotional.” Both might feel true to you–your own current state of mind may limit the amount of strong emotion you can hold space for from others. But the root cause here isn’t your partner’s emotions; it’s your limitations.

Yes, it’s true that if your partner were less emotional in that moment, you might be able to listen to them. But when you set a boundary and implicitly blame the other person this way, you’re telling them that their feelings and needs are wrong. The message your partner hears is, “My partner won’t support me because I’m too emotional,” rather than what they should hear, which is, “My partner can’t support me right now because they need to take care of themselves.”

3. Not meeting needs doesn’t mean disregarding needs.

There’s a dangerous false dichotomy that a lot of relationship advice reinforces, and Samaran’s article does this as well. That’s the dichotomy between “meeting your partner’s needs” and “not giving a fuck about your partner’s needs.”

I’ve noted before that every time I talk about my autonomy-based form of polyamory, the first question I get is “So what you don’t even care if your partner is sitting at home alone crying while you’re on a date?” Of course I care. And if that’s really how it would be, I probably wouldn’t go on the date. But it wouldn’t be my duty to not go on a date, and it can’t happen every time I have a date, and I would not choose to continue a relationship with someone who regularly gets that upset about me going on dates because it doesn’t sound like we’re compatible.

If you’re unable or unwilling to meet a partner’s need at a particular point in time, that doesn’t mean that you’re saying, as Samaran writes, “My needs matter and I will meet them regardless of the impact on you.” It might mean saying, “My needs matter but yours do too–what solutions can we come up with?” It might mean saying, “I hear that this is hurting you, but this is something I need to do. Is there any way I can help you through it?” It might mean saying, “Let’s do what you need this time, but later let’s talk about what we can do to make sure that next time I can do what I need.”

4. You might be able to find comfort in your partner’s care and concern for you, even if they can’t meet your need.

Say I have a very intense job that doesn’t really allow for many (or any) breaks to chat on the phone with someone. Say I have a partner who really needs to be able to call me during the work day if they’re having a hard time. Say that, due to the limitations of my job, that’s an unmeetable need at this point.

How would my partner feel if I said, “Sorry, can’t do that. I already told you that I’m very busy at work. We can talk about it when I get home”?

How would my partner feel if I said, “I’m sorry, I really wish I could be there for you during the day, but my job just doesn’t allow for that. I’ll be there for you after work if you want to talk then”?

If they’re anything like most people, they’d probably feel pretty different in those two scenarios, even though I’m still declining to meet their stated need and offering the same alternative. What I’m doing is the same, but how I’m doing it is totally different.

If you’re someone who, like Samaran’s examples of men who aren’t ready to be relied on, treats every request for your care as overwhelmingly too much, you are liable to respond in that snappy, detached way from my first example. And that’s going to really hurt your partner, and they may come to the conclusion that they feel hurt because you aren’t meeting their needs, not because of the way you aren’t meeting their needs. This will lead to arguments about how you aren’t meeting their needs enough, and you will respond that you can’t and why can’t they understand that, and it’ll be a mess. (I may or may not have been on both sides of this at various times.)

Whereas if you respond to unmeetable needs not only by treating them as valid (as I discussed above) but also with real compassion and concern, that may go a long way in healing your partner’s pain at having their needs unmet.

5. Compromise is key.

If you can’t meet your partner’s need, what’s the next best thing?

In my work phone call situation, it might be that they can text me while I’m at work and I’ll respond as I’m able. It might be that they can call and leave me a long voicemail that I’ll listen to as soon as I’m done–that way, they can at least talk their feelings out and know that I’ll hear it even if I’m not responding right away. It might be that we set aside time that evening to cuddle and talk. It might be that they find a friend or another partner who can talk during the work day, even though they’d rather have talked to me. It might be that they work on finding a therapist who can help them develop other coping skills that they can use independently. It might be that once a week, I set aside my brief lunch break to talk to them on the phone during the work day.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between “fully meet your partner’s needs” and “ignore your partner to suffer alone.”

6. Patterns tell the truth that individual cases don’t.

Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, bad years. There will be times when your partner comes to you for support and you snap “Leave me alone, I can’t deal with this right now.” As Samaran writes in her article, these things happen and they can be repaired–as long as they don’t become patterns.

When I talk about the importance of taking care of yourself and your needs before others–putting your oxygen mask on first, as I sometimes refer to it–someone often says, “Well, my partner is always putting themselves first and they never seem to have any time or energy left over for my needs.”

That’s a pattern. If your partner consistently can’t or won’t meet your needs, maybe you’re not compatible. (Or, in a polyamorous/non-elevator framework, you might be compatible in a different way than you’re trying to be–for instance, as good friends who have sex, or as occasional lovers.)

And because it’s painful to acknowledge that you might just be the wrong partner for someone, it’s tempting to say that they’re “selfish” or “detached” or “not ready for relationships,” when in fact they might make a great partner for someone who isn’t you and has a different set of needs and expectations.

7. We’re not bad people for not being able to meet each others’ needs.

In the first point, I wrote about how people try to delegitimize others’ needs as a way to protect themselves from feeling bad for not needing those needs. Rather than resorting to gaslighting, we should remind ourselves that our goodness is not tied to what or how much we give others. My own philosophy is that goodness is about respecting and valuing others (and, more broadly, valuing your community, humankind, and our planet). I am good as long as I treat people with respect and remain mindful of my impact on them and on the broader systems and ecosystems in which I exist. None of this requires me to do what others need or want all (or even most) of the time. You are free to develop your own philosophy (especially if you, like me, are an atheist who is not provided with any preformed religious answers to these types of questions).

If you detach your sense of your own goodness from meeting others’ needs all of the time, you might find that you have an easier time meeting those needs, because you’ll have less anxiety about it. When we hang a whole bunch of baggage onto an otherwise-simple task, it becomes much impossibly difficult. What have you attached to the acts of care you do for others? Do you feel like doing (or not doing) those acts makes or breaks you as a Good Person?

That might seem like it’s going in the opposite direction of Samaran’s article that inspired this post–and maybe it is–but I think that one of the great paradoxes of life is that sometimes you have to let go of something in order to get it. If you’re struggling with feeling like you can’t meet anyone’s needs, try to let go of feeling like you have to meet those needs and it might become actually doable.

Moreover, we have to stop telling ourselves that we either have to be there for our partners all of the time or we’re not supporting them at all. Open yourself up to other ways of supporting and of being supported, and try to let go of the myth–perpetuated by a culture that glorifies and centers romantic relationships–that partners are the only ones who have any meaningful support to give.

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For Poly Folks Who Desperately Need Autonomy

Are All Boundaries Valid?

Follow-up to “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing.”

[Content note: abuse]

When I discuss the importance of respecting people’s boundaries, I sometimes encounter this pushback: “But aren’t some boundaries wrong? What if someone sets boundaries in a way that’s abusive?”

I can think of a few examples of boundaries that someone might place in this category: boundaries around receiving criticism or being educated about a social justice issue, boundaries around providing some minimum level of emotional labor or support to one’s partner, boundaries around which emotions you can handle hearing from someone.

Most of these apply especially/specifically to close relationships, which is usually the context in which people bring it up. Is it really okay to tell a partner that you can’t handle them expressing anger at you? Is it really okay to tell a friend that they can’t tell you if you’ve hurt them? Is it really okay to tell someone that you will not be able to listen to anything they have to say about their mental illness?

In particular, folks are concerned that such boundaries will be set not because of genuine triggers or sensitivities, but out of laziness or neglect–“I don’t feel like dealing with this, so I’m going to set a boundary that says I don’t have to.”

First of all, let’s acknowledge that it’s really hard to distinguish “okay” boundaries from “not-okay” boundaries if we’re judging by how much the boundary hurts someone else. Many (if not most) boundaries have the potential to hurt. It probably hurts people when I tell them to stop giving me unsolicited advice–advice that they no doubt meant as an expression of care and concern, but that I nonetheless find insulting and want them to stop. It certainly hurts me when I want to vent to someone about my problems but they ask me not to because they’re not in a good place to listen. But I don’t think anyone would say there’s anything wrong with these boundaries.

In particular, many people feel very hurt when a partner sets a boundary regarding sex–for instance, “I don’t want to have sex tonight” or “I need to figure some stuff out and don’t want to be intimate for a while.” Some people even consider it neglectful or abusive for a partner to choose not to have sex with them. While that’s obviously really entitled and coercive in and of itself, any boundary can be rejected on similar grounds–“You’re not giving me what you owe me,” whether that thing is sex or open ears or a willingness to adjust based on criticism.

That leads into the thorny issue of what, exactly, we are entitled to from each other, versus what is up to individuals to give or withhold. If your boundary is that you won’t give someone something that they’re truly entitled to, that’s likely abusive. For instance, children are entitled to care from their parents or guardians. If you’re a parent or guardian, your boundary cannot be that you won’t care for your child. (If it is, then you should–and will–lose custody.)

But outside of parent-child relationships, which are a special case, there’s very little that we can persuasively claim to deserve from a specific person–as opposed to people in general. I deserve love and respect, but that doesn’t mean that you–you specifically–must love and respect me. If you won’t do that, I have to find someone else who will.

There are things that we’re entitled to in relationships, such as the right to set boundaries and the right to express how the other person has made us feel. But if the other person sets boundaries like “You can’t tell me if I’ve hurt you,” I don’t think the solution is to try to force them to listen to it anyway. I think the solution is to run away.

But what if you can’t “just leave” because the relationship is abusive? Well, in that case, the primary problem isn’t the person’s “invalid” boundaries; it’s the abuse that keeps you in a relationship that can’t possibly work.

This is why I think that a better question than “Are some boundaries wrong?” is “Are some boundaries incompatible with having a healthy relationship?” Yes, I think some are. I think that if your boundary is that you will not hear the other person’s feelings, including feelings about you and/or the relationship; if you will not provide them even a minimal amount of support and emotional labor; if you cannot handle having boundaries set with you–then you aren’t prepared for a healthy relationship.

And some people pass through periods like that in their lives due to trauma or grief or whatever else, and that’s okay. Their boundaries aren’t wrong. They’re just not particularly conducive to relationships (platonic or otherwise), and rather than shaming them for having those boundaries or simply trampling over those boundaries as if they aren’t there, you should give them space to move through that.

But can’t you abuse someone by setting a boundary?

I’m not sure. Most definitions of abuse focus on the fact that it is an attempt (intentional/aware or otherwise) to control another person. Depending on the type of abuse (and they often go together), an abuser might control their target’s finances, location, body, property, behavior, emotional expression, or even (in the case of gaslighting) their perception of reality. Abuse is too much closeness, not too much distance.

What is a boundary? The most basic way I can define it is that a boundary is a condition I get to set about how others will interact with me–how (or whether) they will touch my body, how they will speak to me, what our relationship will look like, what kinds of things we will do together. Some people see boundaries as rules we set for other people, but I see them as conditions: do this [wear a barrier/discuss your STI results/check in with me every step of the way/let me know who else you’re sleeping with and what safer sex methods you’ve used with them], or else I will not have sex with you. Don’t do this [scream/call me names/talk about your sex life/comment on my body/use the wrong pronouns], or else I will not interact with you. You do have the option of disregarding my boundaries, but then I have the option of cutting off contact with you.

When conceptualized this way, boundaries cannot possibly be abusive because they do not control any aspect of anyone else or their life–except where it intersects with mine. Controlling what you do with your money is abusive; controlling what you do with my money is not. Controlling what you do with your body is abusive; controlling what you do with your body when it is interacting with my body is not. Telling you that you are not allowed to feel angry at me is abusive; telling you how I can handle hearing anger is not.

Generally, abuse harms because it destroys the healthy distance between one person and another, replacing one person’s thoughts, preferences, choices, and perception of reality with the abuser’s. When boundaries hurt, they hurt because they create distance, and it’s more distance than you wanted.

Obviously there are some murky areas here. For instance, some people are triggered even by appropriate expressions of anger because of past abuse. I’ve had times when even if a partner said to me calmly, “It made me angry when you made that comment about [thing],” that would be way too much. Had I known the language of boundaries, I might have tried to tell them that they cannot tell me that they’re angry with me.

I don’t know what to say here except that that’s your challenge to work through. As I said before, I don’t think that healthy relationships are possible if you restrict which emotions people are allowed to express to you. I also think that there will be potential friends and partners who accept such terms, and whether that’s healthy for them or not is their business.

Even if boundaries themselves can’t be abusive, the boundary-setting process can be. There’s a huge difference between, “I’m sorry, I’m not in a good place right now to listen to what you’re going through” and “Leave me alone, I don’t care about your stupid feelings.” There is also a huge difference between treating the person’s needs as valid and reasonable–but just not meetable by you in that moment–and treating them as invalid and unreasonable. If you’re invalidating your partner’s experience, that’s abusive.

If you’re concerned that you’re not getting this right, try checking whether or not you are taking responsibility for your own boundaries: “I can’t because I’m not in a good place right now” versus “I can’t because you’re too emotional,” for instance. No, they’re not too emotional. You are not currently able to process their emotions with them.

Usually when someone insists to me that boundaries can be abusive, the examples they give aren’t really boundaries at all. That’s not out of bad faith–abusers are really great at making their preferences seem like needs and your needs seem like preferences or inconveniences or even abuses in and of themselves. Here are some examples of boundaries that are not actually:

1. “My boundary is that you can’t have sex with anyone but me.”

I’m sure this is an unpopular opinion for any monogamous folks reading this, but bear with me for a sec. This isn’t a boundary because it is an attempt to control another person’s behavior outside of your personal bubble. In that way, it’s no different from saying “My boundary is that you can’t be friends with anyone but me.” Now, this may be a reasonable request in a monogamous framework, but that doesn’t make it a boundary. That makes it a request that the other person has to voluntarily agree to meet, and if they’re cool with meeting it, no problem. (A big problem with how most people practice monogamy is that it’s not truly voluntary because it’s considered the unspoken default. More on that in a future post.)

There are ways to restate this as a boundary: “I cannot have sex with you if you’re also having sex with other people because it makes me uncomfortable/because of STI risk/etc.” “I cannot be in a relationship with anyone who wants multiple partners.” While some may argue that the difference is semantic, I would argue that the difference lies in whose responsibility it ultimately is to meet your needs. Does your partner have to stop having sex with others whether they want to or not, or do you need to find a partner who is interested in monogamy?

(And again, if you say “Could you stop having sex with anyone but me?” and they say “Sure!”, then there’s no issue.)

In my view, framing monogamy as a boundary is one of those murky areas and I’m not really comfortable with it. The idea that your boundary can be what other people do with other people doesn’t sit right. The only reason most of us view monogamy as a valid boundary is because of the privileged status that romantic-sexual relationships hold in society. As I said, most people would recognize it as abusive to tell your friend that they shouldn’t have any friends but you.

2. “My boundary is that you can’t be angry at me.”

This isn’t a boundary because it’s an attempt to control another person’s feelings. Feelings and expressions aren’t the same thing; someone can feel angry at you without expressing that in a way you’re not okay with. Other people get to feel however they feel, and so do you. As soon as you get into the Dictating How Other People Get To Feel game, you’re well on your way to establishing an abusive dynamic.

3. “My boundary is that I feel unsafe if you don’t support me/have sex with me/agree with what I say/comfort me after you’ve set a boundary with me/etc”

This is a very insidious type of emotional abuse that, unfortunately, proliferates in progressive/feminist communities. The language of “feeling unsafe” is co-opted, usually by men with their female/femme/AFAB partners, to get your partner to do what you want.

First of all, your boundary cannot be that someone has to do something for you. That’s not a boundary; that’s you wanting someone to do something for you. And that desire may be very legitimate, and you may want it very badly, and you may indeed feel very bad (or even, in your perception, “unsafe”) if you don’t get it, but that doesn’t make it a “boundary.”

Second, you may only be interested in relationships where support/sex/agreement/comfort are things that generally happen, and you can leave relationships that aren’t meeting your needs, but you can’t claim that a partner who is not meeting your needs is violating your boundaries and you cannot try to require your partner to do any of those things. That’s such a perversion of what boundaries and bodily/emotional autonomy are all about that it makes me shudder.

This brings me right back around to how I started this article. Are some boundaries invalid? Is it invalid to say that you’re not okay with being called out, or listening to someone’s emotions, or supporting someone with their mental illness?

Let’s flip that around. Is it okay to say that someone else must listen to your call-outs or emotions or mental illness details? Is it okay to say that just because you’re angry at someone, they must hear that out?

Because if we say that that boundary is invalid, we’re saying that it’s okay to violate it because it’s not really a boundary at all. We’re saying that if we see a “no trespassing” sign on land that we know we’re allowed to access, we can legally and ethically disregard that sign and go there anyway.

On the other hand, we can say, “Your boundaries are valid, but I don’t see how I can have a healthy relationship with you that way, so I need to leave.” We can say, “I cannot date someone with this particular set of boundaries; thanks for warning me.” We can say, “If that boundary changes, let me know.”

It will be tempting to create a hierarchy of who gets to set particular boundaries and who doesn’t. “Okay,” you might concede, “if you have a Real Certified Trauma™ or Mental Illness™ then you can request that people not call you out or talk to you about being angry at you. Otherwise, sorry, you gotta do it.”

But here in the real world, there is not a single traumatized or mentally ill person who has not at some point believed that their trauma or illness is not real or valid. Most of us are still battling that fear every single day. Informal mental illness accommodations like these must be available to everyone or else very few of the people who need them will use them. There is no certification process for trauma or mental illness, and if there were, it would probably be monstrously unfair.

It’s also a rare woman or AFAB person who has not lived a lifetime of gaslightling. We are very quick to tell ourselves that we must not really feel the way we feel, and even that we must not have really experienced what we’ve just experienced. Boundaries must be easy to set, and they must automatically be treated as valid, or else they will never get set.

So, in conclusion: yes, there are complications to All Boundaries Are Valid. There are complications and nuances to everything. All Boundaries Are Valid is Boundaries 101, just like Atoms Consist Of Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons is Physics 101. You don’t need to get right into quarks and positrons and whatever-the-heck right away, especially if you haven’t yet learned about protons, neutrons, and electrons.

I’ve written often about the tension between getting the nuances exactly right and giving people information they desperately need. This is another example. Most of the people I write for have a lifetime of gaslighting and boundary violations behind them. Right now, they need to hear that their boundaries are valid. Once they’ve mastered that, we can get into the quarks and positrons of it.

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Are All Boundaries Valid?

You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

I hear some version of this very often, usually from women:

“I want to break up with my partner, but they don’t want to so I guess we’re staying together for now.”

“I want a divorce, but my husband wants to keep working on the marriage, so I’ll try it.”

“I tried to end my relationship, but it didn’t really ‘take.’”

Sometimes people want to break up and then they change their minds. But often, they don’t really change their minds–they just believe that breaking up, like getting together, is something that has to happen by mutual agreement.

It doesn’t. You can end a relationship (platonic, romantic, and/or sexual) at any time, with or without your partner’s agreement, with or without explanation, with or without “working on it” first, with or without meeting with them face to face, with or without apology.

“But ending a relationship without any of those things is a dick move!” Maybe? But the majority of the time I see it happen that way, it’s happening that way for a reason. The dumper may feel unsafe around the dumpee, they may know or suspect that the dumpee will try to pressure them into staying if they sit down for a conversation about it, they may have already told the dumpee many times that they will need to leave if things don’t change, and now they’re done.

It’s definitely easier if both partners agree that it’s time to end the relationship and what their interactions should look like going forward, and it’s great when that happens. But you can’t force it. If there’s a disagreement, the partner who wants less intimacy gets their way–not because the other partner’s desires aren’t valid, but because doing it any other way is a boundary violation. If you want us to hug and I don’t want to, then we don’t hug. If I want us to go on a date and you don’t want to, then we don’t go on a date. Otherwise, I would be forced into a hug I don’t want and you’d be forced into a date you don’t want, and that’s not okay. It’s not okay for anyone to be forced into a relationship, either.

Here someone often brings up “compromise.” You want physical intimacy with me and I don’t. What you really want is sex, but since you know it’s clearly wrong to pressure someone into sex, can’t we “at least” cuddle? If I wanted to, sure. But as I said, I don’t want physical intimacy with you at all. Cuddling isn’t a “compromise.” It’s a violation of my boundaries.

Likewise with ending relationships. Sometimes both exes want to stay friends after the breakup, and that’s great. But sometimes, only one of them does, and it becomes easy for the other to pressure them into a friendship as a “compromise”–especially if the person who wants the friendship is the person who just got dumped. “Can we at least be friends, then, if you won’t date me anymore?” “Fine, I guess.”

Charitably, I could say that the reason this happens is because people are modeling their breakups on their other Big Relationship Decisions, most of which involved mutual agreement or at least compromise. In healthy relationships, people take all the big steps–becoming “official,” moving in together, getting engaged, whatever–because they both really want to. Maybe to them that means that a breakup should only happen when they both really want to, too.

Healthy relationships also involve some amount of compromise, because needs don’t always perfectly align. If I really want to go out with my friends but my partner is sick and can’t cook dinner for themselves, I might stay and make dinner for them–not because I want to stay home and cook rather than going out with my friends, but because I care about my partner and want to help them.

If you’re really used to making these kinds of decisions–and most people in serious relationships are–then deciding to break up can feel similar. You’re pretty sure you want it to be over, but your partner reeeeeally wants you to stay, so you figure, “Well, I could stay for a bit longer, or I could stay as a more casual partner,” but then “a bit longer” turns into “indefinitely” and “more casual” turns into “exactly the same as it was before, except with more resentment because I thought things were going to be more casual and you’re still expecting them to be the same.”

Less charitably, though, there are some bigger issues going on. First of all, many people still think of relationships in terms like “obligation” and “duty,” which makes them very difficult to end or change. If you feel that you “owe” your partner a romantic relationship because they’re so nice to you or because they want it so much, how are you supposed to end it?

Second, women in particular (and, by extension, people perceived as women) are usually socialized to prioritize their partners over themselves. For many people, that means that even if you really want to break up, a partner’s strong desire to stay together overrides your desire to leave.

Finally, many people are manipulative and controlling in their relationships. I’m not just talking about abuse, although the line between these behaviors and abuse can be very difficult to draw. A manipulative and controlling partner can easily make it seem like breaking up with them is a grievous and unacceptable offense, not a necessary step that you need to take for your own self-care and wellbeing.

So when I hear things like, “I want to leave but they want to keep working on it, so I’m staying,” that raises a red flag. Why do their preferences override yours?

I’m often hearing about how so many people “these days” just quit relationships at the first sign of trouble rather than trying to “work on it.” From where I’m sitting, I don’t see a lot of that. I see people deciding that they’re no longer invested or safe in certain relationships, so they end those relationships.

If you still love and care about someone and want to be with them, but you’re having issues in your relationship, it might be worthwhile for you to try to “work on it.” (But even then, you don’t owe them that.) If you no longer want to be with that person, there is no “working on it” to be done. You can’t “work on” the fact that you don’t love someone and don’t want to see them anymore. You can’t force yourself to want something you don’t want. And even if you could, you don’t owe them that.

“But what about the people who suddenly up and quit a perfectly good relationship without even talking about it?” What about them? Jerks gonna jerk. I’m less worried about occasional jerks than I am about an entire society full of people, especially women and people perceived as women, who feel obligated to stay in relationships they don’t want. Besides, any relationship that someone wants to end is not a “perfectly good relationship.” If it’s a relationship you don’t want to be in, it’s not good, even if the reason you don’t want to be in it is 100% about you and your own issues.

I should mention: getting dumped sucks. (Usually.) You deserve support if you’re going through that. But the person who just announced that they no longer want to be in a relationship with you doesn’t owe you that support, and they especially don’t owe you any further intimacy just because it hurts you to lose that intimacy. It sucks and I’m sorry, but you’ll need to find support somewhere else and in some other form.

And if you’re the one sitting around waiting and hoping that one day your partner will finally agree with you that it’s time to break up, know this: you don’t need their agreement.

It takes two to tango, but only one to leave the dance floor.

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You Don’t Need Your Partner’s Agreement to Break Up With Them

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

New Everyday Feminism piece!

More than I regret any of my nos, I regret quite a few of my yeses.

To this day, I don’t understand why I’ve said “yes” to some of the things I’ve said “yes” to. Even after I discovered feminism and sex positivity, I kept agreeing to intimacy – physical and emotional – that I didn’t want, or quickly realized I didn’t want. The longer I went without admitting that I didn’t want it after all, the harder it became to speak up.

It didn’t help that when I did speak up, my partners were often confused – and even angry. “Why didn’t you just tell me before?” is something I heard often.

If that sounds a little like you – I hear you. You have a long journey ahead of you, but you’re not alone in making it. These resources can help.

And if that sounds a little like your partner, this article is for you.

Navigating a relationship with someone who has a hard time saying “no” challenges your ability to respect both your partner’s boundaries and their autonomy.

You want to trust their words and take them at face value, but you know from experience that that’s not always possible. You can do your best to create a safe space for your partner to let you know when they’re not okay with things, but they may not be ready to meet you in that space yet.

If your partner is a woman or is perceived as one, they are especially likely to have difficulty with this. Our society teaches women that their boundaries are invalid in many ways.

However, people of any gender may have a hard time setting boundaries because it’s not easy even in the best of circumstances. People with a history of trauma or abuse may have grown up with the belief that their boundaries won’t be respected no matter how hard they work at setting them, so why bother?

As much as you might want to, you cannot undo the things that made your partner who they are. You can work with them to build a relationship that honors that history while also helping them to heal.

Here are five ways you can try.

1. Remember That Only Yes Means Yes

When you’re involved with someone who has a hard time saying “no” directly, it’s important to be aware that responses like “okay,” “that’s fine,” or “I guess” probably do not mean “yes” – especially not when combined with non-responsive body language, lack of eye contact, and a monotone.

Unless your partner has made it clear to you that they intend for these types of response to communicate consent, it’s safest to treat them as “no”s.

Many people have pushed back against the enthusiastic consent model. Asexual folks and sex workers especially have argued that consent need not be enthusiastic to “count.” Nonverbal consent can be established between close partners, too (and can also be quite enthusiastic itself).

While it’s important to listen to these narratives, we shouldn’t use them as an excuse to ignore potential signs that someone is not really consenting. If you’re not sure what it means when your partner responds to you in a particular way, ask.

Read the rest here.

5 Ways to Navigate Consent with a Partner Who Has Trouble Setting Boundaries

You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

One of the principles I try to live by is that we are all responsible for our own emotions. What this means to me is that, while assholes obviously exist and while we should be able to ask our friends, partners, and family for help when it comes to managing our emotions, ultimately it’s not anyone else’s job to keep us from having negative feelings.

My experiences with depression have shaped that view and without them I probably wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. Depression taught me that just because I feel hurt doesn’t mean someone is hurting me. When I broke down sobbing because a partner wanted to end our conversation so that they could go hang out with their friends, they weren’t hurting me. When I felt like shit about myself because a friend got a job and I didn’t have a job, my friend wasn’t hurting me. As a teenager, I would’ve tried to get that partner or that friend to comfort me, or even blamed them for “making” me feel bad. As an adult I’ve learned that while it’s not fair that my brain is the way it is, it’s still ultimately my responsibility.

If depression taught me that I have to take responsibility for my own emotions, polyamory gave me a chance to practice. Polyamory–at least, when practiced with self-awareness–upends the idea that just because you feel jealous, then your partner is “making” you feel jealous*. In traditional monogamous relationships, even just hanging out with a friend of the same gender as your partner can be considered unfair and wrong because it can cause your partner to feel jealous**. In polyamorous relationships, people are intimate with multiple partners and those partners are expected to take responsibility for any jealous feelings they happen to have–even if they ask for support in managing them.

It’s important to distinguish between asking for support and making someone else responsible. Asking for support might sound like, “I want you to go on that date you’re so excited about, but I’m feeling insecure and it would help me a lot if we spent time together afterwards.” Making someone else responsible might sound like, “I don’t want you going on that date. You’re never this excited about anything we do together” or “You’re making me feel like shit. Don’t you care about me?”

Unfortunately, some people think that being responsible for your own feelings means that you don’t get to ask anyone for help with them–or that you shouldn’t be mindful of the people you care about and how they feel. That’s usually the pushback I get when I talk about my rules-free approach to polyamory: “So, what, you’d just go on that date even though your partner’s sitting at home and crying because they feel so bad about it?” Well, no. First of all, I try to avoid dating people who have that much difficulty with me dating other people, because that sounds like an issue of incompatibility. But sometimes things like that happen randomly, and in that case, yes, I would probably stay home. Not because we have a “rule” that my partner can “veto” my dates, but because I love my partner and care about them and I have chosen–even though it’s not my obligation–to stay home and help them feel better.

(And as a sidenote, when communicating that to the person I’m canceling the date with, I would take responsibility for my own actions. Some poly people pull out lines like “Sorry, I can’t go out with you tonight because [other partner] doesn’t want me to,” so that they can conveniently make their other partner out to be the villain even as they supposedly change their plans to care for them. I would say, “Sorry, we need to reschedule because I need to support someone who’s having a hard time. Seeing you is important to me too–what other day would work?” I would not, unless I know it’s okay with my other partner, go into detail about why they need support. That leads too easily into crap like “Oh, you know [other partner], they just get soooo jealous, so I’m always having to stay home and comfort them…” Ick.)

I’ve heard from other poly people that there are, in fact, a lot of poly folks out there who do claim that “you are responsible for your own emotions” means “so I will never do anything to help you through them.” Personally, I haven’t interacted with any–probably because I tend to obsessively avoid asking anyone for support in the first place–but I believe that they exist.

I guess if I had to pick one approach for myself, I’d choose extreme independence rather than controlling people to cope with my emotions. But thankfully, I don’t have to. To me, the corollary to “We are all responsible for our own emotions” is “We should be mindful of our impact on others.”

At first, that might seem like a contradiction. Which is it? Am I supposed to deal with my own hurt feelings, or are you supposed to avoid giving me hurt feelings in the first place?

I think it has to be a little bit of both. I think that in a world where people are careless or intentionally cruel with each other, dealing with your own hurt feelings is going to be a massive burden. I think that in a world where people refuse to place the ultimate responsibility for their feelings upon themselves, trying to take care of others is going to be a massive burden too. The only way this works is if we meet in the middle.

That’s true on a micro level, too. If you’re in a relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to care about how you feel or about avoiding making you feel bad, then no amount of taking responsibility for your own feelings is going to make you feel okay about being in the relationship. You’re going to feel hurt all the time, and you’ll get resentful, and you’ll start to wonder if you’re “crazy” for feeling this way, and your partner may or may not be gaslighting you with crap like “I didn’t ‘make’ you feel anything; you’re responsible for your own feelings.”

Likewise, if you’re in a relationship with someone who thinks it’s your job to keep them from feeling bad, then no amount of caring for them is ever going to solve the problem, because while you can do your due diligence in making sure you don’t hurt them, you cannot keep another human being from feeling bad ever. (Even if you could, that would be way too much work.) You’re always going to feel like nothing you do is ever enough (because for them, it isn’t), like you’re a terrible partner and a terrible human being in general, like you’re no good at relationships.

In a healthy relationship, partners trust each other to care about each other’s feelings and act accordingly, but they don’t feel like they’ll be helpless if their partner happens to be unavailable to support them at any given point in time. (Yes, I recognize that some people think that it’s perfectly healthy to actually depend on one partner and no one else for support, to the point that you actually believe you will not be okay without that support. I just disagree.) If you actually believe that you cannot manage your own emotions without your partner, it will be very difficult for you not to manipulate them.

And in a healthy relationship, partners know that they will support each other when they can, but they do not feel entitled to that support. In that mindset, a partner who chooses not to support you at a given point in time is not (necessarily) doing something wrong or withholding something that is deserved. In that mindset, you support your partner because you care about them and you want to, not because that’s your duty as a partner.

If you’re having disagreements in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) about how someone’s actions are making someone else feel, you may be disagreeing about something more fundamental: your beliefs about what share of the responsibility of managing one’s feelings belongs to the person having the feelings versus the person who triggered*** the feelings.

At that point, it may be more useful to discuss that underlying disagreement first, and see if you can agree on what responsibility you have to each other to manage each other’s emotions.

* There <em>is</em> such a thing as deliberately acting in a way that elicits jealousy from others. But that's not the subject here, except insofar as it obviously falls under things you should not do if you're taking the "being mindful of your impact on others" part seriously. ** #NotAllMonogamy. Obviously monogamy is not incompatible with taking responsibility for yourself, but <em>traditional</em> monogamy tends to discourage this. *** My use of the word "triggered" rather than "caused" is intentional here--I use those to mean slightly different things. If you say something mean (intentionally or otherwise) to someone, you cause them to feel bad. If you choose to spend the night with your friends rather than with them and they feel upset at you because they're lonely, you didn't cause them to feel bad. What caused them to feel bad was their loneliness; your actions were just the trigger.

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You Are Responsible For Yourself, We Are Responsible For Each Other

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

Drawing of a therapy session in progress.
Credit: Guy Shennan

When you spend a lot of money on things, they usually come with an instruction manual to help you use them in the most effective possible way. Unfortunately, therapy doesn’t.

A common misconception about therapy held by many laypeople (and, unfortunately, some therapists) is that all you have to do as a client is show up and then…some vague hand-wavey magic stuff happens, and then the client gets better. Many people think of therapy like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. ???

Really, though, it’s more like this:

  1. Go to therapy
  2. Establish some rapport with the therapist before you can delve into the serious stuff
  3. Sometimes be really uncomfortable
  4. Have a lot of meta-conversations with your therapist–that is, talk to the therapist about the process of talking to the therapist
  5. Do homework (in some types of therapy)
  6. Get called on your shit by the therapist
  7. Be uncomfortable again
  8. Make changes in your life outside of therapy

As a therapist, it’s tempting to say that you should just show up and let the therapist do their job and you’ll feel better. Sometimes that’s exactly how it works. But ultimately, you can only get as much out of therapy as you put into it.

Continue reading “How to Get the Most Out of Therapy”

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy