Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing

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

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

Little Sister: “Why?”

“So I can take a photo.”

“Use your own phone.”

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

“No. That’s your own problem.”

“Give me your phone!”

“Noooooo.”

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

“I SAID NO.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s in Mom’s bag.”

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

“Why did you leave it in her bag?”

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

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

“It’s MY PHONE.”

[Mom arrives.]

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

“NOOOOOOOO”

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

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

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

On and on it went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Selfishness is a Valid Response to Entitlement and Boundary Crossing
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Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

“Wow, uh…you’re very open online.” I still hear this from people every so often.

“Yup,” I say, because I don’t assume it was meant to be a compliment.

And it’s true. On my Facebook–which, by the way, is not public–I’ve posted regularly about depression, anxiety, sexuality, sexual harassment and assault, body image issues, interpersonal problems, and other various struggles, big and small, that make up life. Don’t get me wrong–I also post plenty about food, cute animals, books, and other “appropriate” topics for online discussion, although I’ve noted before that there really is no way to win at social media (including refusing to play at all).

People who don’t know me well probably assume I do it “for attention” (as if there’s anything humans don’t do for some sort of attention, one way or another), or because I’m unaware of social norms (they’re not that different where I come from, trust me), or simply because I have poor impulse control. Actually, I have excellent impulse control. I’m not sure I’ve ever acted on impulse in my entire life, with perhaps the sole exception of snapping at my family members when they get under my skin. I know plenty of people who have destroyed relationships, lost jobs, or gotten hospitalized as a result of their impulses. I get…speaking rudely to someone for badgering me about my weight.

Being open about myself and my life online (and to a certain extent in person) is something I do strategically and intentionally. I have a number of goals that I can accomplish with openness (or, as I’ll shortly reframe it, vulnerability), and so far I think it’s worked out well for me.

A lot of the good things about my life right now–and, yes, some of the bad–can be traced back to a decision I made about five and a half years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. I had recently been diagnosed with depression and started medication, which was working out great and had me feeling like myself for the first time in years. (Yeah, there were some horrible relapses up ahead, but all the same.)

I wrote a very candid note on Facebook–later a blog post–about my experience and how diagnosis and treatment had helped me. At the time, I did not know anyone else who was diagnosed with a mental illness–not because nobody was, but because nobody had told me so, let alone posted about it publicly online. While I obviously knew on some level that I wasn’t “the only one,” it felt that way. I certainly didn’t think it would be a relevant topic for my friends. Mental illness was something experienced by Other People and by weird, alien me, not by any of the happy, normal people I knew.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In response to my post, tons of friends started coming out of the woodwork–both in private messages and in the comments of my post–and talking about their own experiences with mental illness. An ex-boyfriend texted me and apologized for dumping me years prior for what he now knew was an untreated mental illness. Acquaintances and classmates turned into close friends. Circles of support were formed. I started speaking out more and gradually became recognized as an advocate for mental health on campus, and eventually started a peer counseling service that is still active on campus today, three years after I left. These experiences pushed me away from the clinical psychology path and towards mental health services, leading me to pursue internships, my masters in social work program, and now, what looks to be a promising career as a therapist.

All because of a Facebook post that many would consider “TMI” or “oversharing.”

Well, not all because. I don’t know what path my life would’ve taken if I’d made different choices, not just with coming out as a person with depression but with all kinds of things. Maybe I’d still be here, or somewhere similar. But I can’t possibly know that–what I do know is that the decision to make that Facebook post had very far-reaching and mostly positive effects on my life.

This isn’t a “you should come out” post; I don’t do those. I’m writing about myself and why I’m so open. This experience, and others that followed, shaped my perspective about this. So, here’s why.

1. To be seen.

That’s my most basic reason and the one that comes closest to being impulsive. But basically, I don’t like being seen as someone I’m not. I don’t like it when people think my life is perfect because I only post the good things. It hurts when people assume I have privileges I don’t, and when people think I couldn’t possibly need support or sympathy because everything is fine. If I didn’t post about so-called “personal” things,  people would assume that I’m straight, neurotypical, and monogamous, and the thought of that is just painful.

2. To filter people out.

I don’t expect everyone in my life to support me through hard times or care about my problems. Some people are just here for when I’m being fun and interesting, and that’s only natural. However, posting about personal things on Facebook is a great way to filter out people who not only aren’t interested in supporting me, but who are actually uncomfortable with people being honest about themselves and their lives. Otherwise, it’s going to be really awkward when we meet in person and you ask me how I’m doing and I say, “Eh, been having a rough time lately. How about you?” Because I do say that. Not with any more detail than that if you don’t ask for it, but that’s enough to make some people very twitchy because I didn’t perform my role properly.

I don’t want anyone in my life who thinks it’s wrong, weak, or pathetic to be open about your struggles. Because of the way I use Facebook, they don’t tend to stay on my friends list for long, and that’s exactly how I want it.

3. To increase awareness of mental illness.

When I post about my experiences with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, it’s not just because I want people to know what’s going on with me personally. I also want them to know what mental illness is. When I published that post about depression I mentioned earlier, I didn’t just get “me too” responses–I also got comments from people who said that they’d never had depression and struggled to understand what it’s like, but that my piece helped. Some people took that knowledge and applied it to their relationships with depressed friends, partners, and family members, which I think is great.

It seems weird to write this section now, because so many people in my life have themselves been diagnosed with mental illness or are very knowledgeable about it through supporting others with it. But when I first started being open online about depression, that definitely didn’t describe my social circle, and I’d like to think that my openness is at least part of the reason for the difference.

4. To reduce the stigma of mental illness.

I don’t just want to make people aware of what mental illness is like–I want them to stop thinking of it is a shameful thing that ought to be kept secret. Since I’m fortunate enough to feel safe coming out, I think that’s a powerful action I can take to reduce that stigma. The more people see my posts about depression and anxiety as normal, just like posting about having the flu or going to the doctor, the less they’ll stigmatize mental illness.

Of course, stigma–and the ableism that fuels it–is a broad and systemic problem with intersectional implications that I don’t even pretend to be able to fix with some Facebook posts. But I do what I can.

5. To reduce the stigma of vulnerability, period.

Not everything “personal” that I put online deals with mental illness specifically (although, when you have lifelong depression, everything does tend to come back to that). I write a lot about homesickness, my love for New York (and the pain of leaving it), issues with my family, relationships, daily frustrations and challenges, and so on.

Not everyone wants to share these things with their friends (online or off), but many people do–they’re just afraid that nobody cares, that they’ll be seen as weak, or that there’s no room for this kind of vulnerability within the social norms that we’ve created. That last one may be true, but there’s no reason it has to stay that way.

As Brené Brown notes in her book that I recently read, vulnerability isn’t the same thing as recklessly dumping your personal problems on people. I’ve also written about guidelines for appropriate sharing, and how to deal when someone’s sharing makes you uncomfortable.

The point isn’t to completely disregard all social norms; some of them are there to help interactions go smoothly and make sure people’s implicit boundaries are respected. The point is to design social norms that encourage healthier interactions, and while I’m sure there are some people who can healthily avoid divulging anything personal to their friends, I’m not one of them and my friends aren’t either. So for us, reducing the stigma of vulnerability and encouraging openness about how we feel is healthy.

6. To create the kinds of friendships I value. 

Being open online doesn’t just filter people out–it also filters people in. Folks who appreciate vulnerability read my posts, get to know me better, and share more with me in turn. I’ve developed lots of close friendships through social media, and not all of them are long-distance. In fact, a common pattern for me is that I meet someone at a local event and chat casually and then we add each other on Facebook, at which point we learn things about each other that are way more personal than we ever would’ve shared at a loud bar or party. Then the friendship can actually develop.

I’ve been very lucky to find lots of people who appreciate this type of connection. People who don’t always answer “how are you?” with “good!”, who engage with “negative” social media posts in a supportive and productive way rather than just ignoring them or peppering them with condescending advice or demands to “cheer up!” People who understand that having emotions, even about “silly” things, doesn’t make you weak or immature. People who understand that working through your negative/counterproductive emotions requires first validating and accepting them, not beating yourself up for them or ignoring them.

So, that’s why I’m so open online. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read it. But I’m not alone in it, and it’s becoming less and less weird. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, I was the only person I knew with depression. Not only do I now know many, but I’m also so much more aware of all sorts of joys and sorrows I haven’t personally experienced–all thanks to my friends’ openness online. For a therapist–hell, for a human being–that’s an invaluable education.


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Social Media, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free

I am closing comments on this blog until further notice.

I’m not writing this because I think that needs justification. I’m writing this for the sake of my own clarity, to help me decide if/when I want reopen comments, and to empower other bloggers who are considering a similar decision.

Otherwise, I don’t have to justify my decision because I don’t owe you a comments section any more than I owe you access to my living room. I don’t owe you anything other than I owe anyone else: basic kindness and respect.

I’m sure you’re wondering what awful harassment and rape and death threats I’ve gotten recently that made me come to this decision, but the reality is a lot less dramatic. I rarely get harassment and threats these days. When I did, it was horrifyingly unpleasant and scary, but it ultimately did less long-term damage than the actual reason: boring everyday online negativity and nitpicking.

Continue reading “Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free”

Brute Reason is Going Comment-Free

Frivolous Friday: Adventures in Ice Cream Making, Part 1

Frivolous Fridays are the Orbit bloggers’ excuse to post about fun things we care a lot about that may not necessarily have serious implications for politics or social justice. Although any day is a good day to write about our passions outside of social issues, we sometimes have a hard time giving ourselves permission to do that. This is our way of encouraging each other to take a break from serious topics and have some fun.

Last New Year’s, my parents gave me an ice cream machine as a gift. Ever since, I have been an unstoppable force of dessert creation. There’s almost always some in my freezer, because even though I love ice cream, I love it in pretty small amounts. The fact that there is usually so much of it in my freezer is a fact that few people other than my roommate have known…until now.

Ice cream making sounds like kind of a complicated process, and it is–but it’s easy. The first step is to obtain an ice cream machine. Mine is one of the (relatively) cheaper ones and it works just fine unless you want to make massive quantities of ice cream. All an ice cream machine does is churn the ice cream base while also freezing it so that it’s neither a solid hunk of ice nor a liquidy mess.

Making ice cream usually consists of four steps:

  1. Combining the ingredients (this often involves simmering a bunch of dairy products and adding stuff to them)
  2. Chilling the ice cream base (if you don’t do this, it won’t work)
  3. Churning the base in the ice cream machine (and, sometimes, adding stuff like nuts or chocolate chips)
  4. Freezing the ice cream (like, in the freezer) for at least a few hours

I haven’t started creating my own recipes yet, so I just basically do what the recipe says. 😛

When it comes to chilling the ice cream base, you can either put it in a sealed container and put that in the fridge for about four hours. Or, if you’re impatient like me, you can fill a big bowl with ice and cold water, pour the base into a gallon-size ziploc bag, seal it, and let it hang out in the bowl for a while until it’s pretty cold. The ziploc bag also makes for a pretty convenient way to pour the mixture into the ice cream machine.

Another smart thing to do is to make sure that when you put the churned ice cream into the freezer to finish freezing, you cover it with parchment paper first. I usually pour the churned ice cream into a tupperware, press the parchment paper onto the surface of the ice cream, and then close the container. The paper prevents those awful ice crystals of doom that have ruined every container of Ben & Jerry’s I’ve ever had.

I got to break out my ice cream machine for the first time a few days after I got it, at New Year’s Eve. I was throwing my first-ever NYE party, Russian-style. (The art of the Russian dinner party is definitely a topic for another Frivolous Friday post.) I decided that rather than normal champagne, I wanted champagne sorbet floats, because why the fuck not.

Continue reading “Frivolous Friday: Adventures in Ice Cream Making, Part 1”

Frivolous Friday: Adventures in Ice Cream Making, Part 1

The City in Her Flowers

Washington Square Park, spring.
Washington Square Park, spring. I walked this way to work from the subway every day.

At first I didn’t understand why New York has been on my mind so much lately, even more than usual.

It’s been almost seven months since that awful weekend I spent there, packing up my stuff to leave for good. It’s been ten months since I left it to spend the summer in Ohio with my family, expecting at the time that I’d soon be back.

Things here have been as good as they’ve ever been, and truly, they’ve always been good. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t paused at some point to think about how lovely my life in Columbus is. It’s not just the individual components that make up a good life–my friends, my partners, my family, a decent job, a nice place to live, interesting things to do, and so on–it’s the way my entire mental structure seems to have shifted shortly after moving here. I became less cautious, more optimistic, more able to connect with people, more willing to give to them, more willing to accept what they have to give. I’m able to treat challenges as learning opportunities. I’m genuinely curious about the future. I think I will generally succeed at things and accomplish what I set out to accomplish, and those are all very new abilities for me.

I never expected that leaving what I love most could be so good for me.

I think I know why I keep thinking about it. It’s undeniably spring now, and the warmth and sunlight and flowers naturally remind me of the last time it was spring, and where I was at that time. In a way I think I will always remember New York by its spring, same way you remember your ex in the dress she wore on your last night together.

My city’s dress was all flowers, and her hair was sunshine on skyscrapers.

Nothing about my feelings made any sense until I started thinking of New York as an ex. You might love an ex but leave them anyway. You might miss your ex but know it’s best for you to stay away. You might regret leaving them, but, what’s done is done and you’re with someone else now and living your own life and that’s good enough for you. I left New York out of necessity, but I’m staying away–I think–because I want to.

Since coming to Columbus, I’ve started my first Real Adult Job and kicked ass at it. I’ve started dating people who actually live locally and it’s been amazing. I’ve started performing burlesque. I’ve started biking regularly again. I’ve started making my own ice cream and subjecting my friends to it. I’ve (re)started hosting big dinner parties like I used to, before New York with its tiny kitchens. I’ve started getting involved in all sorts of local groups. I’ve started playing in a community band–a queer community band. (I can’t even express how excited I am to be marching in a Pride parade for the first time this summer.) I’ve started making peace with my own weird form of queerness. I’ve gotten over my anxiety about driving and making phone calls and going to events where I don’t know anyone (but, unfortunately, not about dating). I’ve met more people and gone to more events and seen more cool things than I could even try to list. My family, to whom saying goodbye used to completely break me every time, is now a mere hour down the highway and I see them all the time, and the fact that my little siblings no longer cry when I leave at the end of a visit feels like it means more to me than a thousand New Yorks. And yet.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

“New York it is not,” I say to myself, biting into a bagel with lox, eating a bowl of ramen, entering a used bookstore, walking down High Street, shopping for clothes, watching the skyline grow on the horizon. It’s kind of like everyone knows you’re not supposed to compare your partners to your exes and everyone does it anyway. This is not a city you fall in love with and do desperate things for; this is a city you learn to love because it’s the city that’s there.

And yet it’s precisely in its not-New-Yorkness that Columbus comforts, delights, and ultimately captures me. It’s the ten-minute drive home from work to my comfortable apartment with a kitchen big enough to actually cook in. It’s reading on the couch and hearing the rain through the open window. It’s the long bike rides through woods waking up from winter as if from a dream. It’s the way people here bring you into their circle, a phrase my mom uses in Russian that seems to mean not just including someone in your social group but letting them into your life. It’s falling asleep to the whistling of trains and waking up to the singing of birds. It’s 5 PM on Friday and all the promise that it brings. It’s Saturday night at a bar with a partner, running into people we know and catching up. It’s having a calendar so overflowing with burlesque shows and dinner plans and comedy nights and yoga classes and happy hours and band rehearsals and activist meetings that I barely have time to think about what I’ve lost.

Yet think about it I do, in those spaces between one thing and another, in the car, in the shower, in bed, in line. I’ve thought about it every single day since I left. I’ve thought about it so yearningly, so painfully, so viscerally, like I’ve never thought about any person, or really any thing, before.

In those moments, it’s like I’m still there. The metallic smell of the subway tracks, the screech of the train, the rush of wind around a corner, the architecture of all my favorite places, the exact taste of a proper slice or bagel or bowl of ramen, the softness of the Central Park lawn beneath my bare feet. The way I felt when I showed the city to my best friend and fell in love with them both all over again. The way I felt on New Year’s Eve. The way I felt sipping too-hot tea in my aunt’s apartment on a cold night, more times than I can count. The way I felt on my last night in the city, taking a few steps into that same apartment before collapsing, sobbing, in my aunt’s arms. The way I felt coming up the subway stairs into the light. The way I felt when I was so connected to the city that it was like its pulse was my pulse. The way I felt when it seemed like the city was all I had. The way I felt when I drove over the bridge into Manhattan for the first time, to stay. The way I felt when the bus emerged from the tunnel in New Jersey, the sun setting over the city for the last time.

At their best these memories are a nice distraction from daily life, but at their worst they haunt me. I even had a dream a few nights ago that I was still there, in a subway station, trying to find the downtown C and failing. I woke up angry. I always knew how to find the right train. I am terrified of coming back and finding that my mental geography of the city has faded and frayed so that I can’t do something so simple as finding the downtown C, let alone remembering how to get to Broadway from any given point.

Sometimes I think that New York is the closest thing to a romance I’ve ever had. I’m not given to thinking about other human beings in those terms; while I’ve loved many people, I’m not sure I’m capable of being in love with anyone for longer than a few days. People are wonderful but they’re indecisive and undependable. A city will always be waiting for me, which is probably exactly why I can’t seem to move on. How do you move on from something that can’t move?

I’m not so simplistic in my thinking as to assume that any of this means that I’m unhappy here, that this isn’t “the right thing,” that I should definitely go back, that whatever. I know I’ve never, ever been as happy as I am now and I’m not about to fuck with that because of a weird obsession with a city I ultimately only got to stay in for two years.

And maybe it’ll get better once spring is over and merely stepping outside stops reminding me of my last days there. Summer was always for Ohio, and I think it’ll help me feel more grounded in where I am rather than floating around in memories of where I once was.

But right now it’s particularly hard. I close my eyes and all I see is the city in her flowers, the city in her sunshine.

Central Park, spring--probably my last time there.
Central Park, spring–probably my last time there.
The City in Her Flowers

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

A Vacation from Emotional Labor

What follows are some (even) more personal reflections on the piece I wrote a couple days ago on emotional labor.

As I was writing that piece, I was feeling guilty. I kept thinking, “But some of these things haven’t happened to me for years. It’s gotten better. What right do I have to complain about this?”

As people (women especially) often do when speaking about their personal experiences, I kept questioning if it was really “as bad” and maybe I’m just unusually independent (or, as some would rather say, cold or selfish) and maybe none of this would be a problem for anyone besides me and maybe a few other people. It’s funny that I thought this even as I copy-pasted excerpt after excerpt of other people talking about this exact issue, and quoted two articles written by women who have dealt with it too.

Of course, whenever we talk about things like imbalanced emotional labor, others are eager to tell us that we’re the fucked-up ones, and pity to everyone who has to deal with us. These days, my response to that is a mental “okay,” because after years of very intense self-doubt (more intense than I expressed above), I’ve more or less reached a place where that shit just slides right off.

But other people are not at that place yet, and for those people (as well as for myself), I want to say this: even if you are Very Weird, and Entirely Too Selfish or Fragile, you still get to set boundaries for your relationships and to try to find ones that work for you. Yes, if you have more needs or dealbreakers than the average person, then you will find, on average, fewer compatible friends and partners. That’s rough, but that’s okay. That doesn’t make you “wrong.” That doesn’t make it okay for others to ignore your communicated boundaries because they expect or wish that they were different, more statistically normal.

And that brings me back to why it is that my experiences with emotional labor have been a lot more agreeable lately. That’s because a few years ago, I started really setting boundaries in ways that 1) attracted great people who know how to take responsibility for their own emotions, and 2) alienated people who wanted to take advantage of me. I left all those paragraphs-long messages unanswered, or answered them as monosyllabically as they answered my own attempts to share about my life. I started writing tons of blog posts about boundaries. I made Facebook posts in which I clarified my own boundaries to others. I mostly stopped having serious romantic relationships (not just for this reason, though–I’ve just lost interest in them). I decided that making sure that other people are happy is not my problem. I made it very obvious, in every way I knew how, that if you want a friend or partner who will take care of you, that cannot be me. If you want a friend or partner who will care for you, then that can absolutely be me.

Throughout all this, and still, I’m not always very nice. “Nice” is bending over backwards to accommodate people while silently resenting them for encroaching on your mental space. Instead, I try to be kind. Kindness, to me, is being honest and upfront about my limitations and needs and making space with/from people before it gets to the point of passive-aggressive sniping. Kindness is avoiding assuming the worst about people unless I have a good reason to. So when someone clearly wants things from me that I can’t give, I try to train myself out of assuming that they want to hurt me or take advantage of me. Instead, I say to myself, “We just need different things.” Kindness is making sure that whatever I do to support or help the people in my life, I do with all my heart, not grudgingly. I make sure they know that, too. I don’t want people to ever feel like they’re my obligation. I want them to know that I chose them. On purpose.

I do think that I probably overcompensated. Sometimes I guilt-trip myself about it, about how little emotional work I do nowadays. “You just want everything to be easy,” I berate myself. Maybe. On my better days, though, I understand that this makes complete sense. After years of wearing myself out with emotional labor, I’ve decided to just take it easy for a while. Consider it a nice long vacation after accumulating a decade’s worth of vacation days.

Moreover, I’m not sure I trust myself with emotional labor right now. I’m not sure I know how to get the balance right, so for now, to protect my own mental health as I went through grad school and as I take on the challenge of starting a career, I err on the side of doing very little. That’s why things are relatively easier right now.

Of course I worry that I’m a terrible friend and partner. I try to make sure to ask very little emotional labor of my friends and partners, so that it’s still about equal. (That’s why I’ve only asked for affirmation about not being a terrible friend/partner once that I can think of, in all these years.)

That said, I also trust my friends and partners to make their own decisions about me. I hope that if they decide they need more from me, they will ask, and if I say no, they will either accept that or choose to make more space between us, whatever feels right for them. I hope that if they feel that I’m asking too much, they will let me know. I think they will.

It’s super important to point out that nobody is A Bad Person in this situation. I am not A Bad Person for having limits, even if they are more limiting than other people’s limits. My friends are not Bad People if they were to want more from me. They also wouldn’t be Bad People if they decided that this doesn’t work for them and made some space or left.

I suppose some would call me selfish. I’m definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m anything but selfish. A selfish person thinks only of themselves without ever considering their impact on others. I think about my impact on others constantly, and I try to make sure that it’s a net positive. The challenge is doing that without burning myself out. I think it’s working okay so far.

~~~

I’ll close with one last example of gendered emotional labor that I forgot to include in the previous piece and haven’t seen discussed anywhere else. Men, you need to stop demanding that women laugh at your jokes and getting upset when they don’t. This is exhausting. Forcing laughter, especially believably, is difficult. But what else can I do when every time I fail to laugh at one of your jokes, you start with the “But you didn’t laugh!” “Hey, why didn’t you laugh?” “You’re supposed to laugh!” “Uh, that was a joke!”? Yes, I’m aware. It wasn’t funny. Learn from that and make a better joke next time. Or, if you can’t handle the relatively minor embarrassment of making a joke that doesn’t get laughed at (which everybody, including me, has done at some point), then don’t make jokes. Because if you ask me why I didn’t laugh and I tell you honestly that I didn’t find it funny, then I’m suddenly the mean one. Someone tell me how that makes any sense.

And especially stop demanding laughter at jokes that are sexist, racist, otherwise oppressive, or simply cruel.

Women are not your Magic Mirrors, here only to tell you that you are the funniest and the manliest in the land.

~~~

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

A Vacation from Emotional Labor

Big Life Changes + A Cool Way to Support My Writing

Screenshot of my Patreon page.

So, a lot has happened in the past few weeks. I finished my internship, graduated with my masters in social work, and (hopefully temporarily) moved back to Ohio to be with my family while I decide what to do next and look for jobs.

[Please note that although I am about to discuss job hunting, I am not looking for advice at this time.]

To be honest, I’m not optimistic. It’s not really in my nature to be optimistic about things that seem to have more to do with random chance than with actual skills or effort, and almost everyone I know is struggling to find a job, keep a job, or survive financially with the job they do have. Although I’m privileged in many ways, my family immigrated relatively recently and we just don’t have the massive network of connections that many non-immigrants have. So, we’ll see. Meanwhile, I miss my city terribly and I’m not happy about being in a state where you can’t go five miles down the interstate without a huge billboard telling you you’re going to hell for your sins.

There are a few roses amid these thorns, however. One is that I’m getting to see my family a lot and that’s great. Another is that I know lots of cool people in Columbus and I can go there often to have a social life. (I went to a Columbus Rationality meeting last night and was super impressed. It’s a subset of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, if you’re interested in finding out more about that.) Another is that I finally get to relax, sit by the pool, and read a few of those books I’ve been desperate to read.

And another is that I can focus on writing more than I did before, and while inspiration may be difficult to come by when I’m so hopeless and sad a lot of the time, all this time to read and think will hopefully prove useful.

So! A number of people suggested that I start a Patreon for my writing because there are people who’d be willing to support me. I decided to give it a shot, because it seemed fun and potentially helpful.

I’m not going to try to talk anyone into supporting my writing if they’re not already interested in doing so, because honestly that feels weird and icky to me. Spend your money however you think you should spend it. But, even a dollar per post would help me out a lot (and could make the difference in coming back to New York sooner rather than later), and you get perks!

Screenshot of some of the rewards from my Patreon page.
Just a few of the perks.

As much as I want to keep writing, it’s sort of difficult to justify the time I spend on it given that I feel like every spare minute should go towards the project of Getting A Job ASAP So That I’m Not Broke Forever. That’s why your support would actually make a huge difference right now, even if it’s not a lot.

The really fun thing about starting a Patreon has been the opportunity to clarify what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my writing, and what my principles are. Here’s what I wrote:

My blog, Brute Reason, covers social justice, psychology, mental health, sexuality, and other stuff I care about. Most of my writing touches on issues like consent and autonomy, direct communication, community building, and rational thinking. Although my writing often persuades people, I’m more interested in giving people tools to live more happily, think more clearly, and act more ethically. I aspire to be compassionate, charitable, reasonable, nuanced, and honest in my writing. Integrity and accountability are very important to me. My writing is often personal, because I want to remind others who struggle with the things I do that they’re not alone.

It should be obvious that just because I aspire to something doesn’t necessarily mean I always succeed, but it does mean that I always have a way to evaluate whether or not I’m doing what I want to be doing.

Anyway, I hope that if you follow this blog and it’s important to you, you’ll contribute what you can, or share it with others. I’m really excited to see where this goes.

 

Big Life Changes + A Cool Way to Support My Writing

An Observation on Selfies and Social Norms

Last Saturday was a phenomenally beautiful day, so I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for a few hours. Not a lot’s blooming yet, since the winter lasted so long this year. But there were flowers out, and so many people.

I had my Real Camera with me and took a bunch of shots. Then I decided that I wanted a photo of myself in front of the flowering magnolias, so I took a selfie with my phone.

Then I noticed that I felt weird. I wondered how many people had seen me take the selfie and what they would think. I braced myself for some friendly older person to run up and offer to take the photo for me, but nobody came. (This is, thankfully, New York.) I sighed in relief, wandered over to a different tree, and took another.

And I found myself wondering why I’d felt so weird about the selfie, and how this relates to a broader trend of selfie-hate that I’ve observed online.

Much of the ire about selfies seems to be directed towards women and young people specifically, which is ironic given the historical trend of rich and powerful older white men having actual oil paintings of themselves commissioned and displayed in their homes. That’s a lot more effort than even the most well-posed selfies, I’ll tell you.

But what about a sightseeing selfie? All around me, people were having their photos taken in front of beautiful plants. The difference is, they’d come with friends or partners or family, and I’d come alone. Having someone take your photo in front of something cool is a pretty common thing to do while sightseeing. Nobody seriously thinks there’s anything weird or awkward about that (although they might get annoyed when people are sightseeing right where you’re hurrying down the sidewalk to get to work). What if you’re sightseeing by yourself?

There’s a way that you’re expected to experience certain things–restaurants, movies, landmarks, botanical gardens–and that is, not alone. Taking a selfie in the botanical garden felt weird because I felt like I was expected to have someone there with me to take it. A “normal” person doesn’t just go to botanical gardens alone; they have people to go with.

I actually don’t usually have the option of taking a friend or partner along when I go exploring in the city because most of my friends and partners live in other states. But even when I do have the option, I’d usually rather not. I like doing things by myself. I like taking as long as I want to set up my shots without someone hovering over my shoulder. (Also, I’ve noticed that when I have people with me while shooting, they always try to suggest shots to me. I’d rather they just took the shots themselves!) I like the quiet. I like not worrying about being sufficiently entertaining and cheerful.

Having someone else there to take your picture isn’t just a sign that you’re a Normal Person Who Hangs Out With People; it’s also a way to make sure that you don’t appear narcissistic or whatnot. There’s a plausible deniability there–maybe they’re taking that photo of you for themselves! But in fact, I don’t think it’s exactly a controversial claim that lots of people like having photos of themselves in cool places they’ve been, whether it’s to show them off to others or just keep for themselves to remember that experience.

I don’t have some huge point to make here. I just wanted to reiterate both for myself and for others that doing things alone is okay and totally reasonable, especially if you’re not a very outgoing person, and that it makes no sense for it to be “normal” to have people take your picture in front of things but “weird” to take your own picture in front of things. Most of the arguments I see against “selfies” are really just thinly veiled attempts to shame people for taking pleasure in themselves and their lives and wanting to share that with people. Fake modesty seems like a crappy alternative.

An Observation on Selfies and Social Norms

Compassion, Men, and Me

I haven’t thought this through extensively. Normally I wouldn’t write about anything I haven’t thought through extensively, but I’ll explain that.

But I’ve read Scott Aaronson’s article and Laurie Penny’s article and Chana Messinger’s article and I’m still nowhere closer to having a conclusion about any of this. I do know this: pain is real no matter who feels it. I am a feminist and I sympathize with Aaronson. Does this make me that much of an anomaly? I doubt it, but who knows.

I also know this: the vast majority of the time that this particular shy nerdy guy pain has been shared with me, it has been shared in response to my attempts to discuss or advocate against sexual harassment and assault, or sexism in general. This makes it very difficult to continue being compassionate.

I don’t agree that “But I was sad because I could never get laid” necessarily always means “I am demanding that some woman sleep with me in order to make me feel better,” but I understand why many feminist women think that it does. We’re not sure what else we’re supposed to do with all this pain being handed to us. Aaronson may think he’s the only one, or one of the only ones, but many of us have been hearing this sort of thing for years. Some of us heard it from the guys we hopelessly crushed on in high school, who ignored us to fantasize about prettier, normal-er girls–because, guess what? Shy nerdy girls who can’t get laid exist, too.

We’re not sure what else we’re supposed to do with all this pain because all our lives we’ve been taught to soothe male pain and stroke male egos. A man telling me that he is sad because he cannot or could not get sex is typically asking for one thing only.

But that’s not really what I’m thinking about. I haven’t thought this through because I’m so tired. This is not the first time I have thought about this. I’ve been thinking about it in some way or other all along.

Since I was a child, I’ve been exhorted to take care of people’s feelings, especially men’s feelings. I was told to feel sorry for my father when he yelled at me without provocation. I was told to say yes to the boys who asked me out because otherwise they would be sad. I was told not to break up with the boyfriends I no longer liked because that would make them even more sad. I was told to be gentler in my articles so that men would not be upset–gentler, gentler, more and more caveats and concessions until there was little to no writing left. I am sure that one day I will be told to marry a man I do not love because otherwise he will be sad.

You may criticize me for my use of passive voice here, but I choose my words intentionally. I use passive voice because so many people have said these things to me–explicitly, although implicitly may have been just as effective–that it is both difficult and unfair to choose some arbitrary example to be the subject of my sentences.

Feminism, and the people I met who were feminists, was my first chance to prioritize something other than other people’s (especially men’s) feelings. I never wanted to disregard them per se–I dislike hurting people and try to do it only when absolutely necessary–but for the first time, I got to consider my own feelings first. Moreover, I got to consider other things–what needed to be done, what was important, what was practical, what was ethical, what maximized long-term gain, what was accurate. I stopped laughing at jokes I did not consider funny even though that might make the joke-teller sad. I started writing articles about sex and relationships and communication even though some people–even some people I cared about–would not like them. I held people responsible for the pain they caused me rather than excusing it.

I’ve made a lot of progress. I think a lot about finding the right balance between taking care of myself and taking care of others. I’m sure that I occasionally tip the scale too far in favor of myself, but that’s an assessment only I get to make. And for me personally, this sort of rhetoric–the Feminists Need To Be More Considerate Of Men’s Feelings rhetoric–threatens to undo a lot of that progress. It activates the little voice in my head, the little voice that I’m sure a lot of other women have, that says, “It’s okay, don’t worry about me.”

Sometimes that voice is a good thing, because it reminds us not to get too wrapped up in our own little hurts. Other times, it’s not such a good thing. That voice is the thing that allowed me to sit quietly while people took advantage of me–emotionally, physically.

I follow these discussions, the Feminists Need To Be More Considerate Of Men’s Feelings discussions, and I feel that, once again, men’s feelings are being handed to me to deal with. And I’m just not sure what I’m being asked to do with them. Do you want me to sympathize with you? That I can do. I’ve always done it, and I will always do it. If you recognized yourself in Aaronson’s post: I’m sorry you had such a shitty time. I wish it could have gone better.

But do you want me to sympathize with you, or do you want me to drop what I was carrying to hold your feelings instead?

That I will not do.

Every time I try to be more compassionate towards the men I criticize, I am told that I’m still not compassionate enough.

It’s almost as though they want me to just stop criticizing.

Compassion, Men, and Me