(Self-)Care in the Age of Trump

Over the past few years, the social justice and nonprofit spheres have been gradually building an awareness of the necessity of self-care for anyone who engages in the (often unpaid) emotional and intellectual labor of activism. While plenty of us–including myself–have critiqued the way that self-care is co-opted by those who want to exploit us, we’ve also recognized the fact that without it, people burn out and quit, and change is impossible.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the election of Trump seems to have reset a lot of that progress.

I’ve seen people seriously claiming that calls to engage in self-care are a tool of the neoliberal agenda. (If there’s any word that’s become uselessly vague these days, it’s “neoliberal.”) I’ve seen that horrible “don’t mourn, organize” quote over and over. (I’ll feel however the fuck I want, thank you.) I’ve seen people berating themselves (and sometimes others) for being too mentally ill to engage in certain forms of activism. I’ve seen people altering self-care memes to be about political activism instead, such as this one:

I don’t want to hate too much on this graphic, much less on the person who altered it, because it’s an important message. Yes, those of us who still care about basic things like justice should be actively trying to bring it about, and it’s useful to reflect on the concrete things you’ve done to make that happen rather than to just reassure yourself that the arc will magically bend on its own.

But I would’ve much rather seen this as a stand-alone message rather as a negation of something else–and no, the cute hashtag doesn’t make it any better. Actively doing things to make the world a better place is important, and reflecting on your happy memories is important. We shouldn’t be crossing out the latter to make room for the former.

I think a few things are going on here. One is that some progressives, noticing that corporate interests have co-opted concepts like self-care and mindfulness in order to extract more labor for less money, have decided that this somehow means that these concepts are now meaningless. While I put the bulk of the blame for this on those corporate interests, I also think that anyone who accepts their redefinition is unintentionally colluding with them. Whether or not your employer makes you attend vapid corporate trainings on self-care, you can still decide that you, personally, need real self-care and that real self-care is important for others. You’re not going to stick it to the man by running yourself ragged.

Second, there’s a lot of activistier-than-thou posturing going on right now. Just like college students brag about how little sleep they got the night before the final, some activists hope that by appearing superhuman and beyond such petty earthly concerns as letting yourself feel happy about the good things in your life, they can impress others–or themselves.

Third, some progressives think that self-care is only for times when political action is less urgent, less life-and-death. It’s for when oppression and injustice are at their usual levels, not for when we’ve elected a sexual predator who gets saluted by Nazis.

I can understand that. When considered out of context, it does seem a little weird to just sit there filling a jar with happy memories while our democracy collapses. If anything, though, now is when keeping yourself recharged is especially important. First of all, that’s the only way we can get anything done. If I burn out, the world loses my contributions, possibly forever. If I keep myself from burning out, I can keep contributing, possibly for the rest of my life. It’s because this is a marathon and not a sprint that self-care is so important right now.

Second, what we’re up against is a regime that wants us to feel like shit. Trump’s America is designed to be a place where women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, and other marginalized people feel terrified and unwanted. That was the basis of Trump’s campaign, and it was the motivation of many (if not all) of his voters. If you can somehow resist that, you are resisting Trump. Self-care in this context is resistance. It’s not a form of resistance that’s accessible to everyone, but if it is accessible to you, why not use it?

And speaking of resisting Trump, that brings me to another form of resistance that many progressives are discounting and ignoring. In a healthy community, self-care is accompanied by plain old care–people caring for each other, and not just for their romantic partners, either. To survive Trump, we will have to care for each other even more than we already do. We will have to check in with each other, support each other, comfort each other, entertain each other, energize each other, encourage each other, love each other. This is emotional labor, and it’s not easy, and you can’t always do as much of it as you want for everyone that you want (let alone everyone that wants it from you), but it’s vital work and it has to be done.

I see people asking each other how many congressional representatives they’ve called, how many protests they’ve attended, how many bigots they’ve yelled at, how many Republican family members they’ve argued with, how much money they’ve donated and to how many organizations–how about how many friends have you listened to? How many hands have you held? How many wounds have you treated?

I don’t necessarily think we should quantify it like that, by the way. But if we’re going to make it about numbers, we should be counting all of the things that matter. And we should be keeping in mind that these quieter, less flashy acts of resistance are the very same ones that are feminized, racialized, and too often discounted altogether.

Armies don’t fight wars without doctors, nurses, social workers, and chaplains. So why should we?

In the past, I saw more activists talking about this. People used to talk about how we’re not all social justice warriors; some of us are clerics, healers, and bards. Where are the clerics, healers, and bards in the fight against Trump?

One of them is right here, and is fucking tired of being told that care is a frivolity we can no longer afford.

Kindness to yourself and to others is neither hippy-dippy bullshit nor neoliberal propaganda, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying either to manipulate you or to escape accountability for their own unkindness.

Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

(Self-)Care in the Age of Trump

Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worse than pandering to Nazis and dictators.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

Trump’s Mental Health Diagnosis is Irrelevant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brute Reason does not host comments–here’s why.

If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

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

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

Why Employers Love Advocating Self-Care

Text reads, "If you can afford to relax today, I 100% recommend you do. Stay in bed, treat yourself, watch movies, & try not to focus too much on stressful matters. Take time to be good to yourself. You deserve it."
Credit: Positive Doodles on Tumblr

Last week, feeling irritated during a training, I posted this on Tumblr:

Every professional training I go to includes a section on burnout and self-care. My thought is always the same: just pay me what I’m worth. Pay me what I’m worth. Pay me what I’m worth. And give me enough paid time off.

That’s it. I don’t need bubble baths and chocolate and massages and silly TV. I need more money. And I need more rest.

Because many people derive some sort of satisfaction out of interpreting others’ words as uncharitably and narrowly as possible, I was immediately inundated with a bunch of condescending remarks about how money isn’t everything and with that attitude you’ll burn out before you know it. So I’ll expand on my spur-of-the-moment rant.

I don’t think anyone would seriously deny that everyone needs to do things that help them replenish, maintain, and/or care for themselves. Self-care can look like many different things–taking a shower, cooking a nice meal, listening to music, spending time with friends, playing with your kids, reading, taking a nap, remembering to take your meds. Self-care looks different for different people at different points in their lives, depending on what they need in those moments.

When someone has a very stressful job or caretaking role, self-care becomes especially important to prevent them from burning out, developing mental or physical health problems, or dropping the ball in ways that harm others (clients, patients, children). It makes sense to emphasize self-care for people working in fields like mine.

Lately, however, the self-care concept has become very popular for employers to throw around as a solution for all sorts of employee issues and as a way to continually extract more and more productivity from their workers. Stressed? Do self-care! Poor? Do self-care! Forced to work 12-hour shifts with no paid time off and no guarantee that you’ll still have a job if you stay home sick one day? Do self-care!

At that point, self-care is less about actually caring for yourself and more about forcing yourself into compliance with dehumanizing and intolerable conditions. It’s less about making things better for yourself and more about surviving things the way they are without making anyone else uncomfortable by forcing them to witness your struggles.

Continue reading “Why Employers Love Advocating Self-Care”

Why Employers Love Advocating Self-Care

Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a “Nice Guy”

Credit: Lauren/callmekitto on Tumblr
Credit: Lauren/callmekitto on Tumblr

The term “Nice Guy” was, at one point, a very useful term when it comes to discussing sexist dating dynamics. A Nice Guy is someone who has a crush on a female friend and believes that his friendship and his (superficially) good treatment of her entitles him to sex/romance.

If his crush rejects him, he often becomes bitter or angry and claims that he’s a “nice guy” unlike those other jerks she chooses to date and he’s done so much for her and so on and so forth.

Nice Guys may genuinely have been interested in friendship with the women they’re into, or the entire friendship may have been a ruse to try to manipulate her into a sexual/romantic relationship. What they all have in common is that they believe that if they’re nice enough to someone, then that person “ought” to reciprocate their interest.

(Obligatory “yes, this can happen between folks of any genders”; however, the term was coined to talk about what is arguably the most common version of it and that’s in a heterosexual context where the guy is the one acting entitled. While people of all genders and orientations may believe that being nice to someone entitles them to sex/romance, and while this is harmful no matter what, it seems to do the most harm when it’s got the combined forces of male privilege and heteronormativity behind it.)

So, “Nice Guy” is an important concept because it allows us to describe and discuss gendered patterns that might otherwise remain invisible. “Nice Guy” is how so many women end up in relationships they didn’t really want to be in, but felt obligated to at least try out. (Of course, pressure to start a relationship often turns into pressure to stay in the relationship.) It’s also how many women’s fear of rejecting men gets reinforced. Even if the Nice Guy never turns physically violent, his guilt-tripping and verbal coercion is scary and unpleasant enough for many women, and they learn to be very careful about letting men down easy. Sometimes, though, he becomes physically violent too.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the concept is still as useful as it originally was, because its meaning has become diluted to the point of uselessness.

Continue reading “Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a “Nice Guy””

Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a “Nice Guy”

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

Lately I’ve been disturbed by the tendency among many progressive folks to conflate boundary setting with tone policing.

When I tell people that I have a very strong preference not to be yelled at or called names, they say, “But isn’t that kind of tone policing?”

If it is, then I’ll have to admit to tone policing, because being able to set boundaries in my own space is important enough to me to risk pissing people off. In fact, as anyone who sets boundaries with any regularity knows, it’s a surefire way to piss people off no matter what kind of boundaries they are.

This is a complex topic so I will do my best to be nuanced about it. I’m going to state upfront (and I will return to this later) that tone policing is a real and harmful phenomenon, and that sometimes (not always) setting boundaries can include tone policing. That is true, and it is also true that the concept is sometimes misapplied in ways that are intended to justify cruel or even abusive behavior.

What is tone policing?

Tone policing is when more-powerful people dismiss the real concerns and call-outs of less-powerful people because of the tone they use. For instance, if I see a person of color posting “FUCK these racist-ass cops” and I respond, “You may have a point there but aren’t you being a little too angry about this?”, then I’m tone policing. Either the person has a point or they don’t; the tone is irrelevant to that. More-privileged people tend to assume that if someone is being really angry about an injustice that affects them, then their assessment of the situation is not to be trusted because it’s too clouded with emotion. In fact, the opposite is probably true; they’re probably so angry because it’s so damn awful. Not only is it perfectly healthy and appropriate for them to express anger at situations that are truly infuriating, but that anger can be an important signal to those who don’t experience that particular injustice, because it lets them know: pay attention. There’s something going on here.

Tone policing can also happen in a more interpersonal context. If a man I know refers to another woman as a slut and I say, “Whoa, what the fuck, don’t ever call a woman that!”, it would be tone policing for him to totally dismiss my concern and respond by criticizing my tone. Tone policers often also add a patronizing little bit about how “if you’d said it differently I would’ve listened to you,” proving that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of listening, they’re just choosing not to in this moment.

Anger vs meanness, intent vs impact

Sometimes the concept of tone policing is over-applied. For starters, people sometimes conflate anger and meanness. It’s possible to express anger without being mean. For instance, you can say, “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit,” or you can say, “What you just said is really messed up and really pisses me off.” Part of the problem of tone policing is that people will often misinterpret the latter statement as mean and overly angry, too, but they would be wrong. The latter statement is honest and direct and not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s intended to express anger.

If someone hears “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit” and responds with, “Whoa, it’s not ok to speak to me that way,” they’re often told that they’re tone policing and trying to prevent someone else from expressing anger. That’s not the case. The fact that someone has a boundary around being referred to as a “worthless piece of shit” doesn’t mean they’re unwilling to hear that someone is angry with them, or that they think the other person’s feelings are invalid.

And yes, sometimes the person who’s angry is so hurt that all they’re able to say is “Fuck you for saying that, you worthless piece of shit.” It happens, and I think we should all, if we can, try to practice compassion for people who say mean things from a place of deep (often structural) hurt.

However, that doesn’t actually negate someone else’s boundaries. As we’re all fond of saying, intent isn’t impact. I don’t have to accept being called a worthless piece of shit just because someone else is legitimately upset.

Continue reading “Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing”

Boundary Setting vs Tone Policing

"How can I support you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

"How can I support you?"

How Mental Illness Labels Help

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

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

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

Not everyone agreed.

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

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

Actually, I don’t think I could.

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

Here’s how.

1. Finding Helpful Information About Mental Illness

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

Sounds obvious, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

How Mental Illness Labels Help

Assorted Thoughts on Self-Care

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

I. Self-care versus communal care.

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

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

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

II. Self-care is a harm reduction measure.

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

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

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

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

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

III. Everyone’s self-care looks different.

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

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

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

IV. Self-care versus self-preservation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. Self-care should fit the situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assorted Thoughts on Self-Care