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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Danger–and Necessity–of Normalizing Our New Political Reality
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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. ???
  3. PROFIT

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
  9. PROFIT

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.

~~~

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"How can I support you?"

How Mental Illness Labels Help

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

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

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

Not everyone agreed.

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

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

Actually, I don’t think I could.

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

Here’s how.

1. Finding Helpful Information About Mental Illness

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

Sounds obvious, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

How Mental Illness Labels Help

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

Other People Have It Worse

[CN: bullying, sexual assault]

I had a client recently who spent most of his childhood as a target of relentless bullying and physical violence at school. Now, he says, “It’s not that big of a deal. I had a home and a loving family. Some people had it much worse.”

I said, “The worst thing you’ve ever gone through is the worst thing you’ve ever gone through.”

What I mean is that whatever it is that happened to you that still makes you burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror, that’s still (one of) the most difficult thing(s) you’ve ever lived through. The fact that the things that make other people burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror seem worse to you doesn’t change that.

Besides, it’s not so easy to rank suffering. Even if you could rank potential traumas from worst to least worst, someone else’s ranking might look totally different. (There are people who feel that they’d rather die than be gay, and there are happy gay people.) And the ranking might change completely if the hypothetical becomes real. Many people might think, “I could never live through ____,” until ____ happens. Then it sucks, and yet they live. Often they even thrive. And something else becomes The Worst Thing.

So, in fact, one of the people who’s survived one of the things you think about when you think “other people have it worse” might be thinking the same about you. Who’s to say who is right?

When I worked with survivors of sexual assault on a hotline, I noticed that almost every single one of them expressed the belief that others were the “real victims” while they didn’t really have it “that bad.” The women who had faced “attempted” rape said that the women who had “actually” been raped had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by partners or friends said that the women who had been raped by strangers had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by strangers said that the women who had been physically injured during the rape had it “worse.” The women who had been physically injured during the rape said that the women who had contracted an STI or become pregnant had it “worse.” And on and on it went.

In fact, some women who had been raped by strangers thought, “At least I didn’t get raped by someone I loved.” Some women have found it less traumatic to be raped by someone they hadn’t wanted to have sex with at all than by someone that they agreed to have sex with, who then violated their consent by lying about having put on a condom or by doing something else that they hadn’t consented to.

Everyone seems to think that 1) someone else’s experience was objectively worse, and 2) that this means that their own experience “shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

So either everyone’s trauma is valid, or no one’s trauma is valid. And the latter doesn’t make any sense.

The purpose of reminding yourself that “others have it worse” is ostensibly to build perspective and remind yourself that yours aren’t the only problems in the world. That’s an admirable goal and a worthwhile perspective. However, I think that a certain amount of healing needs to happen before that’s feasible or healthy. It’s okay if there’s a period of time during which you feel absolutely certain that nobody has ever suffered as you’re suffering. And it’s okay if the cause of that feeling is a broken-up relationship or a failed class or even just a spectacularly shitty day. It doesn’t have to be a Real Approved Trauma™.

I think many people feel that they have a moral imperative to always Keep Things In Perspective and make sure that their feelings are in line with some objective ranking of bad things. But the way you feel in the aftermath of a bad thing doesn’t have to be your final say on the matter. It doesn’t have to Mean Anything besides the fact that your brain is doing brain stuff. It doesn’t have to be a feeling you “endorse.”

Of course, many people also believe that if you can somehow fully convince yourself that others do in fact Have It Worse, it will hasten your healing. I’m sure that’s the case for some people, but it doesn’t really seem in line with what I’ve observed in my own experiences, friendships, and professional work with people. Rather, it seems that people heal through acknowledging what happened to them and feeling the feelings that it brings up. There’s a reason why “Wow, that sounds really hard, I’m sorry” does a better job of comforting people than “You know, others have it worse.”

If there value in contemplating the struggles of others as part of your own healing process, I’m convinced that it doesn’t lie in chastisingly reminding yourself that Others Have It Worse, but in letting yourself see how similar those struggles really are. Don’t jump to the classist assumption that people in the “Third World” are necessarily dying of AIDS or hunger while silly privileged you is crying over a breakup. Read some lovesick poetry written by a teenage boy in Ethiopia. And, not but. Replace “This sucks but others have it worse” with “This sucks and I bet other people have to deal with it too.” Countless other people have survived this and you will too. Doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does mean there’s hope.

Emotions are relative, which is why the worst thing you’ve ever experienced feels like the worst thing in the world. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The fact that emotions are relative is what allows us both to cope with persistent adversity and also to keep reaching higher for happiness rather than becoming complacent.

It also means that there isn’t much use in trying to figure out who’s suffering more. Rational!You can choose to care more about global poverty than rare feline diseases that kills some pet cats (I think that would be a wise decision), but the rest of you is still allowed to grieve when your cat dies because of a rare feline disease, and while you’re grieving, you’re allowed to care much more about rare feline diseases than global poverty. If nothing else, think of it this way: the sooner you let yourself feel your feelings, the sooner you can be back to your rational, poverty-prioritizing self.

But besides that, I think that allowing ourselves to feel our own feelings also helps us to be more compassionate to others, including all those people we think are suffering so much more.

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Other People Have It Worse

On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships

[Content note: personal discussion of emotional imbalances in relationships. If you’re struggling with feeling like a burden to your partner(s), you might want to skip my perspective on this. Or maybe not.]

On the one hand: you deserve to be able to express your feelings in a relationship, and if your partner refuses to hear and affirm your feelings, that’s probably not a healthy situation.

On the other hand: you deserve to be able to set your boundaries. If someone you’re close with is having a lot of strong feelings that they want to express repeatedly–especially if the feelings are about you or the relationship–that can be very difficult to reconcile with your own mental health needs.

I don’t really know what to do in these situations except end the relationship or transition it to a more casual one. (That’s my own approach, not my advice to others.)

I used to believe, back when I was more often in the first situation, that the right thing to do when you care about someone is to just make yourself listen to them even if you don’t really feel like it. Relationships Are About Compromise, after all.

I didn’t realize at the time how easily this attitude can lead to becoming your partner’s untrained, unpaid therapist, or having your own issues exacerbated or triggered. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just an occupational hazard of being a human in relationship with other humans.

But the other thing I learned is that it also isn’t healthy for me to frequently feel like I’m reluctantly doing my partner a favor just because it’s The Right Thing To Do.

Of course not all favors that we do are reluctant. If a friend needs help moving, I usually help out if I can, even though I would never choose to move furniture just for fun. But I didn’t do it because it’s The Right Thing To Do; I do it because it’s ultimately rewarding and because I get to spend time with friends in the process.

Likewise, I’m (usually) happy to listen to my friends’ and partners’ feelings, even when they’re strong and negative and expressed “uncharitably.” I’m used to hearing lots of sad things; it’s sad to hear them but it usually doesn’t harm me in any noticeable way. Although I can’t solve my friends’ problems for them–and wouldn’t want to–these conversations can be very rewarding for both of us.

But by the point in a relationship where we’re having the tenth conversation about “I just feel like you don’t really love me that much,” there’s generally nothing rewarding in it. (Truthfully, I’m not sure it’s rewarding for the person sharing it, either.) At that point, I’m listening because I feel like that’s what I should do, not because I want to.

For a while this seemed like an okay thing to do. It even seemed like the ethically correct thing to do, until I thought about how it would feel if I know that someone was only doing things for me out of a sense of obligation or commitment, and not because it’s actually pleasurable, meaningful, or rewarding for them.

(Note that difficult conversations can be meaningful and rewarding, if not pleasurable. Difficult conversations can bring a conflict towards resolution, build emotional intimacy, and develop more understanding of each other, to give just three examples. But I’m not talking about those.)

In fact, when I realized that this was going on and that people in my life were listening to me basically just to avoid feeling like Bad People, it totally messed up my ability to open up about my feelings. I stopped trusting people to set boundaries with me, because I’d seen proof that they don’t–ostensibly to avoid the possibility of hurting me, but also to avoid their own guilt.

In fact, it probably would’ve been hurtful to hear, “Sorry, babe, we’ve already talked through this a lot and I don’t have the bandwidth to talk through it again. Is there another way I can support you?” But hurtful doesn’t always mean wrong. What’s ultimately more hurtful, the sting of having a boundary set with me, or the steady, years-long erosion of trust in everyone that happens when enough people I care about act dishonestly with me?

And maybe, in a perfect world in which everyone is honest and direct, some of my partners would have said that they weren’t able to listen to me talk about certain things. Maybe that would’ve been a dealbreaker and I would’ve found partners who do not have those particular boundaries, and I would’ve trusted them to let me know if that changed.

But there are no easy answers for people who can’t find anyone willing to support them at the level that they need (and who cannot access therapy, presumably). Quite a few of us with a mental illness history can probably even say that someone’s failure to set their boundaries ended up saving our lives.

I don’t know.

But thankfully, most situations are not life-threatening. It should be ok if your partner has already processed your fears of rejection with you and isn’t able to do it anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or aren’t committed to you, it just means their needs are conflicting with yours. And it shouldn’t be the case that the needs of the partner who needs more support automatically override the needs of their partner.

I think part of the problem is our cultural conception of romantic partners as The One and My Other Hand and such. Many people believe that you should be able to tell your partner everything and have all your emotional (and sexual) needs met by them. If you need some sort of support–for instance, someone to listen to you regularly talk about your fears of being dumped–your partner should be available for that, and if they’re not, there’s something wrong with the relationship (or with your partner as a person).

(While this sounds like it’s only applicable to monogamy, plenty of poly couples actually work under the assumptions. Their “primary” partner is supposed to be able to fulfill all of their emotional needs, and their “secondaries” are for a bit of fun on the side. Aside from the sexual component, the “primary” partner still has to be able to do all the emotional support stuff.)

This is the point where someone is tempted to protest But It Works For Us, but okay–if it works, it works. But for many people it doesn’t. Worse, they think that the problem is with them, and not with our collective assumptions. If you and your partner are being honest, open, self-aware, and respectful of boundaries, but you still can’t fully meet each other’s needs, maybe it’s time to explore other options–not necessarily breaking up, but adjusting your expectations about how much of the support you need should come from one person.

(By the way, that doesn’t even imply that you should try polyamory. There’s no reason why certain emotional support needs can only be met by partners and not by friends.)

My concern about these conversations is that we’re always auditing people’s boundaries and shaming them for not being available enough to their partners. (Even when we’re not those people’s partners, perhaps especially then. I get so many comments from people I literally don’t even know about how I must be a terrible selfish partner. Suppose I am. What’s it to you?) I could already hear the responses to this post as I was writing it–“So what, you’re saying it’s ok to refuse to listen to your partner’s feelings?” “So it’s ok for someone to just shut down all their partner’s concerns?”

It’s notable how words like “all,” “always,” and “never” end up creeping into these conversations when they were never originally there.

Well, first of all, there’s setting boundaries and there’s abuse. Setting boundaries is, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel like I can handle this discussion. What else can we do?” Abuse is, “Come on, you’re acting crazy. This isn’t a big deal. You should be grateful I’m still with you at all.”

Second–and this is basically the whole point of this post–expectations about what’s reasonable to ask of a partner vary wildly from person to person. For me, listening for hours per week to someone venting about work or school or people they know is totally reasonable, but having more than a few “I just feel like you don’t love me as much as I love you” conversations per relationship completely destroys my ability to stay in that relationship. For whatever reason, I just can’t with that conversation. I hate feeling like I have to prove my love, I hate feeling like we have to quantify the amount of love we feel and compare it, I hate feeling like I owe my partner stronger feelings just because they have stronger feelings for me, I hate being pressured to show my love in ways that I’m not comfortable with. I just hate all of it. But that’s me. And some of the things that I am happy to do for partners, others probably aren’t.

Finally, I’m not sure that “is that ok?” is even the right question to be asking in these situations. Is it ok for you? If not, then don’t date that person. Otherwise, it’s not really relevant. Relationships with zero or minimal emotional support do exist; they’re casual hookup situations and they work great for some people.

As always with needs and boundaries, the more extensive yours are, the pickier you’ll have to be about your partners. If you need a partner who is able to support you through your mental illness at a very high emotional level, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re selfish and emotionally withholding. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Likewise, if you need a relationship in which Serious Conversations About Feelings and Relationship Talks are minimal, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re clingy and suffocating. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Of course, everyone always tells me that it’s not as simple as “just don’t date the person who isn’t a good fit for you,” because you have strong feelings for them and you can’t just get over them. This is true, and being unable to date someone you really want to date is never a good feeling no matter what the reason. But I’m not sure that being in a relationship with strongly conflicting needs is any better, unless you’ve made a plan with yourself/your partner about how those needs are going to be met (outside the relationship).

Instead, people tend to assume that being single (for now) is necessarily worse than being in a very emotionally mismatched relationship, and then end up blaming and resenting their partner for not meeting their needs or for having needs that the relationship cannot accommodate. The belief that romantic relationships should provide for all of one’s needs makes it both impossible to accept the relationship as it is, and impossible to leave it.

Gently guiding that belief to the grave where it belongs is a topic for another post, but understanding the fact that many couples have conflicting emotional needs and that this doesn’t make anyone wrong or bad is a crucial first step.

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On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships