Deconstructing Jealousy

Note: This is written from my perspective as someone who practices polyamory from a non-hierarchical perspective, so my personal examples are grounded in that experience. You can mentally edit them to apply them to just about any type of relationship, monogamous or poly, romantic or platonic.

I don’t think that “jealousy” is a useful concept. It’s used as an umbrella term for a variety of negative interpersonally-triggered feelings that are actually quite different from each other. Unfortunately, people don’t always realize this and may communicate about “jealousy” without noticing that they’re talking about different things.

Even worse, some of these things are very stigmatized (some deservedly and some less so), which means that labeling anything “jealousy” gives the whole conversation a negative tone. I could imagine telling a partner that I feel upset or angry, but I would never say, “I feel jealous.” Unless my partner is very aware of the concepts I’m about to discuss in this post, telling them this would shut down the conversation and keep it from going anywhere productive. Where it goes from there depends entirely on whether or not my partner says, “Okay, but what does that mean?”

This semantic ambiguity keeps us in a state of confusion about what “jealousy” actually means for us, what is causing it, and how it can be resolved. Every time we feel negatively about someone else having an experience we aren’t sharing, this gets labeled “jealousy”–sometimes when we don’t even want that experience for ourselves!

I’ve identified six different feelings that are often called “jealousy.” There are probably more than that, but I think that most of the time when it feels much more complicated, that’s because you’re feeling more than one of these at once and that can get confusing. I’ve also given the feelings names to make them easier to write about, but I totally admit that most of the names are pretty clunky and imprecise and honestly I don’t know what to do about that other than try to invent new words, which I’m horrible at. If someone wants to take on that project, have at it.

  1. Possessiveness: “I want you all to myself.” / “I should have this, not you.”

Thanks to the way our culture teaches all of us to think about romantic relationships, I spent my adolescence convinced that if someone really loves me, they won’t need anyone else. Sometimes I got irrationally jealous if my boyfriends had close female friends, because I thought I ought to be “enough.” The idea of polyamory would’ve been appalling to me at the time because, honestly, I just didn’t want to share. I didn’t think that anyone else should “get” what I’m “getting.”

This is probably the most toxic form that jealousy takes. Unlike the other five feelings that I’ll discuss, this one places the blame on the other person for “making” you feel jealous by taking more than they “ought” to take, or by having something that you “ought” to have instead.

This is also what many people think of when they think of the word “jealousy,” which causes them to attach a strong negative stigma to a feeling that may or may not originate from possessiveness.

Possible cause: Feeling entitled to all of someone’s romantic/sexual attention, believing yourself more “worthy” of certain things than others, generally having unrealistic ideas about how relationships ought to work

Possible solution: You’ll probably want a therapist for this one, because you’ll need to work on some really deeply-seeded beliefs about people and relationships. In order to stop feeling possessive, you have to really internalize the idea that you are not entitled to anything from anyone, and that just because you’re not the only/central person in someone’s life doesn’t mean the relationship is worthless or they don’t care about you. You deserve good things, but so do other people.

  1. Envy: “I want to have this too.”

I always envy my male partners their relationships with women. While I’m sure it feels anything but easy for them, they aren’t carrying the weight of institutional and internalized homophobia and biphobia and a lifetime of invisibility, of feeling like what you want isn’t even real, valid, or possible. Men have scripts for meeting women and forming relationships with them; women don’t, not really. That’s starting to change, but it didn’t start to change fast enough for me.

So, I will probably never have uncomplicated feelings when the men I’m dating date women. It’s not because I don’t think they should get to do that if I can’t, or even because I’m interested in those specific women. It’s because I wish I could’ve grown up feeling like asking out and being in a relationship with a woman is a normal, totally achievable thing that’s completely valid for me to want. I wish I could’ve grown up with older girls giving me advice on how to ask girls out to prom. I wish that when I met a woman I liked, there was a statistically significant chance that she’s even attracted to people of my gender.

While I’m sometimes envious of female or nonbinary partners dating other women, it’s not quite the same because I know that they’ve had to overcome exactly what I do, or even more. I’m envious but it’s more an envy of awe than of sadness and regret. I envy men in a different way because it’s just so much easier for them, and often they don’t even know it.

Possible cause: Having unmet needs or unfulfilled desires in your own life, especially if you feel like there’s no way for you to meet/fulfill them.

Possible solution: Rather than focusing on the people who have what you want and don’t have, figure out if there are ways to make those things more likely to happen for you too. Reach out to others for advice and support. Learn new skills. Although getting what we want often feels impossible, especially for those of us who struggle with depression, it often isn’t. When it is, a therapist can help you find ways to cope with that grief–and grief is often what it feels like.

  1. Insecurity: “I feel bad about myself, and this reminds me of that.”

Reading or hearing about people’s very serious, very committed relationships frequently triggers my insecurity in a way that others would probably label “jealousy.” But that doesn’t make much sense to me–I don’t really want a relationship like that, at least not at this stage in my life. The problem, though, is that I ultimately believe that I am Bad At Relationships and that I’ll never be able to commit to someone in such a serious and meaningful way, and that I just don’t have the capacity to love someone that way. I also kinda hate myself for how badly I need space and independence, and how much I therefore avoid any enmeshment in my relationships. Seeing evidence that others can do it just reminds me of all my relational failures and makes me feel really, really shitty and down on myself.

Is it jealousy if I don’t even want it, but maybe want to want it, but I’m not even sure if I’d even enjoy it? I dunno. I do know that it’s not as simple as looking at what someone else has and wishing I had it too (or instead). I just want to be “normal.” It has very little to do with those people’s actual relationships and everything to do with my own insecurities that have been around since long before that couple started posting sappy stuff on Facebook.

Possible cause: Having some unresolved negative feelings towards yourself that get kicked up when good things happen to someone else.

Possible solution: Work through those feelings on your own, with a therapist, or with a friend who agrees to be a source of support. Learn how to better align your perception of yourself with reality–there’s a good chance you’re not nearly as bad at Thing as you think. (Yes, this applies to me too.) Do things that make you feel good about yourself, which may or may not have anything to do with the thing you feel bad about. (For instance, I feel good about myself when I write, take long bike rides, cook, and hang out with friends.)

  1. Lacking: “I’m realizing I want/need more time/attention/etc from a particular person.”

Recently I found myself feeling “jealous” of a friend who’d been talking to me about their partner a lot. Specifically, I was “jealous” about the fact that their partner often plans and initiates interesting new activities for them to do together. I quickly realized that the “jealousy” wasn’t because I wanted to be with my friend’s partner, or with my friend, or because I begrudged them those fun things they did together, or because I felt bad about myself, or even because I was missing any particular thing from my life that my friend has. I do fun things too.

But it made me realize that I would really love it if my own partners made more effort to plan interesting new things to do together rather than letting me make the plans, or falling into whatever our default for that particular relationship is. I feel really cared about when someone thinks of a cool thing for us to do and suggests it and, if I agree, makes it happen. And although it does happen for me sometimes, it doesn’t really happen as much as I would like, and it took listening to my friend to realize that.

(Have I communicated that to anyone? Noooo. But at least I know now.)

While for me the feeling was triggered by a friend, the way this often happens is that your partner starts seeing someone new and does more/different things with that new partner, and you realize that you actually haven’t been getting quite what you wanted from this relationship. It may look from the outside like you’re “just jealous” about their new relationship, but it’s not that simple. You’re realizing what your own needs are, and what you’re currently lacking.

What I’ve called lacking is pretty similar to what I’ve called envy, but the difference is that lacking is attached to a specific person/relationship. For instance, I might feel envious because I wish I had a good job like my friend does, but I might feel that my relationship is lacking because I’m not seeing my partner as often as I’d like.

Possible cause: Having some unmet needs in your relationship(s).

Possible solution: Identify what it is that you need and let that person know. If they’re unable to meet that need, decide if you need to end the relationship, work on changing your expectations, or (if appropriate) try to find ways to meet that need in some other way.

  1. Hurt: “I’m not okay with the way this happened.”

Some of my most painful and confusing experiences with “jealousy” were when a partner did something that hurt me, and it happened to involve another partner. For instance, I once had a partner for whom I was their only partner at the time. I mentioned that I had been in a poly discussion group where we talked about such relationships–one of us is seeing multiple people, but the other is seeing only one–and they surprised me with: “Well, actually…I do have another partner.” Record-scratch. That’s how I found out that they’d had another partner for…weeks? Months? And never told me because…reasons? It wasn’t “cheating,” since we didn’t have “rules,” but I was shocked and hurt that given the overall seriousness and commitment of our relationship, they wouldn’t think that that’s an important thing to at least mention.

Honestly, I never felt okay about that other partner after that and I never wanted to hear anything about them. The relationship started to unravel soon after that. It’s not that I didn’t want them to date anyone else–I’d actually spent the whole relationship hoping that they would, so that it’d feel more equal and they’d be able to reach out to someone besides me with those types of relationshippy needs. But I just wasn’t okay with the way it happened. I felt hurt, ignored, overlooked. I kept thinking, “If I’m not someone they’d even talk to about something so awesome that’s happening to them, what sort of relationship even is this?” No longer a very close or healthy one, as it turned out.

This is a huge pitfall for many couples and friends because it’s so easy for the non-”jealous” person to dismiss it as jealousy and have a convenient excuse to ignore the hurt they caused. And it’s not just romantic poly contexts in which it happens! For instance, if a friend cheated on an exam and got a better grade than I got after studying really hard and taking the exam honestly, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their higher grade, but because I’m not okay with the way this happened. If a friend started dating someone new and blowing me off to hang out with them instead, I’d be pretty upset–not because I’m “jealous” of their new relationship, but because I’m not okay with the way it’s happening.

Possible cause: Feeling disrespected, ignored, insulted, or otherwise hurt by someone’s actions.

Possible solution: Let the person know how you feel, and/or end the relationship if you feel hurt enough that you no longer want to continue it. Let the person know if there’s anything they can do to repair the hurt.

  1. Disconnection: “I want to reconnect after feeling separated.”

For many poly couples, disconnection and reconnection are part of a normal and healthy cycle. A partner goes on a date with someone new, or flings themselves headfirst into an exciting new relationship, and we feel an ache of (hopefully-temporary) separation. It doesn’t exactly feel good–it may actually feel really sad sometimes–but ideally, it feels okay. This type of “jealousy” is how I might feel waiting for a partner to let me know how a first date went, or accepting that we’re going to see less of each other for a while because they’re getting really invested in someone new and spending lots of time with them.

After feeling that way, it’s normal to want to reconnect with a partner in some way that’s meaningful for both of you. Some people like to see a partner after they get home from a date with someone else (assuming it doesn’t last the whole night, obviously). Sometimes I just need a hug or some reassurance that I still matter. You could write this off as clinginess or insecurity if you want, but I don’t think it is. It’s normal to want to connect with people you love after having been separated or disconnected in some way, even if that separation or disconnection was totally voluntary for both of you.

Possible cause: Feeling separated from your partner because they’ve been doing something else that doesn’t involve you.

Possible solution: Figure out what would be a meaningful way for you to reconnect with them, and ask them to do that. If you want, you could even instate it as a ritual for the two of you.

Obviously this is all very much a work-in-progress, and not all of the feelings I described or the language I used to describe them might resonate with your own experience. In that case, I encourage you to deconstruct “jealousy” for yourself and figure out what it actually means for you so that you can communicate more effectively.

I could probably expand all of those little “solution” bits into full articles, so use those as jumping-off points, not as Complete Certified Therapist Advice.

Also, do not do a Google Image search for “jealousy.” It will be upsetting.

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Deconstructing Jealousy

How Mental Illness Labels Help

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

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

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

Not everyone agreed.

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

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

Actually, I don’t think I could.

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

Here’s how.

1. Finding Helpful Information About Mental Illness

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

Sounds obvious, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

How Mental Illness Labels Help

A Good Critique of the Medical Model is Hard to Find

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, that’s important and deserves highlighting.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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A Good Critique of the Medical Model is Hard to Find

On "Obvious" Research Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On "Obvious" Research Results

Being Extra Nice To Abusers Doesn't Stop Abuse

[CN: abuse]

So I’m reading this Washington Post article about some recent research on abusive bosses and come across this perplexing bit:

But the researchers also found something they didn’t expect. They predicted that acts of compassion and empathy—employees who assist bad bosses by going above and beyond, helping bosses with heavy workloads even when they’re not asked—would be negatively linked with abusive behavior. In other words, such acts of kindness might help lessen future rude or abusive behavior.

The study, however, found that wasn’t true. “Abusive supervisors didn’t respond to followers being positive and compassionate, and doing things to be supportive and helpful,” said Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business who was a co-author on the paper. Their findings, she said, seem to “clash with common sense.”

To put it mildly, these findings only clash with common sense if you’ve never been abused or bullied. If you have, then you know that abuse is not about persuading people to do nice things for you. It’s about controlling them: their feelings, their thoughts, their self-esteem, their experiences, their behavior, even the course of their lives. It is also about asserting power publicly to control bystanders as well.

That’s why bullies and abusers “win” almost no matter how you respond. If you lash out in anger, they get to use their higher status to get you in trouble for your anger. If you cry, they get to ridicule you. If you ignore it and walk away, they get to paint you as a coward–and, regardless, they still get to influence bystanders even if they haven’t influenced you. If you start being extra nice to them, then they reap the benefits of your niceness while reinforcing their dominance over you. The only way to “win” in an abusive situation is to find a way to get out of it entirely and never look back, and that’s exactly what abuse is designed to prevent you from doing.

And in the event that a boss is deliberately choosing to be abusive in order to elicit “supportive and helpful” behavior from you, then behaving in a supportive and helpful manner would only reinforce the abuse*. It would be like feeding scraps to a dog that begs at the table, except that dogs that beg are at worst annoying and bosses that abuse are at worst life-ruining. I am absolutely horrified at the idea that people are advising victims of workplace abuse to perform “acts of compassion and empathy” towards their abusers, because if anything, that’ll only teach the abusers that abuse is an effective method of getting people to kiss your ass.

The article continues:

In the paper, the researchers say one explanation may be that bosses just see all that extra work as part of the job, something academics refer to as “organizational citizenship,” and therefore don’t feel the need to treat their employees any better because of those efforts.

I submit that it’s not that at all, but rather that people who abuse, whether they do it in a school or their home or their office, do it because they reap some psychological reward from it. Why would they give that reward up just because you did some of their paperwork?

One might protest that this is making it seem like there’s nothing that victims of workplace abuse can do to stop the abuse. Indeed, the article notes that the researchers have so far “only discovered what not to do” to stop abuse, and nothing to do to stop it.

While that might aggravate those who believe strongly in a just world, it makes complete sense. Abusive situations are abusive precisely because they involve a significant imbalance of power. The person with less power does not have the capacity to influence the situation significantly. If they did, they probably wouldn’t have been abused in the first place. And the thing about having relatively little power is that you can’t just decide one day to have more power. That’s not how power works.

That’s why telling victims of abuse and other power-based acts of violence (such as sexual assault) to prevent that violence is not only hurtful and condescending, but also totally useless. That’s why comparing abuse and sexual assault to other situations, like stolen bikes, doesn’t work.

The researchers in this particular study seem to have wised up a lot about abusive dynamics over the course of their research. Co-author Charlice Hurst says that in order to prevent workplace abuse, “Companies have to create cultures where abusive supervisors are not acceptable, and they have to implement policies for employees to report being bullied.” In other words, the responsibility for preventing bullying rests on the shoulders of those who have more relative power within the workplace, not those who have less. The way to stop bullying is to implement reforms at the systemic level, not at the individual level.

(And no, before anyone jumps in with “but some employees are just terrible and rude and bad at their jobs, so shouldn’t they improve,” that’s completely irrelevant. The solution to a bad employee is to tell them how to improve and if they don’t, fire them. It’s not to abuse them.)

While victims of abuse do not have much control over the abuse itself (unless they manage to extricate themselves and leave), they do have some control over their emotional reaction. It is very important that I said “some.” I didn’t say “complete,” or “a lot.” And that control can include, for instance, going to therapy to learn coping skills. But the reason I bring this up is that “passive-aggressive retaliation,” one of the reactions the researchers showed to be ineffective in terms of stopping abuse, was also shown in a different study to be effective for a different purpose: helping employees cope. In sum, “Employees felt less like victims when they retaliated against their bad bosses and as a result experienced less psychological distress, more job satisfaction and more commitment to their employer.”

Of course, retaliation of any sort can be dangerous, you know your situation best, take all psychology reporting with an appropriate grain of salt, et cetera. I’m hesitant to do some sort of “coping with abuse” advicepost because I don’t want to come across like I’m condoning abuse or being fatalistic about it, but on the other hand, 1) abuse happens and 2) it’s already been demonstrated numerous times that you cannot prevent your own abuse. Using whatever coping strategies work for you seems like a good idea.

I hope that studies like this one bring more awareness to the psychology community about the dynamics of abuse. Too often, psychologists fall into the trap of focusing overly on individual factors (like what abuse victims can/should do) as opposed to structural factors (like what communities/systems can/should do). This causes them to make ridiculous assumptions like “it’s just common sense that being nice to an abuser would make them stop abusing!”

It makes sense that only someone with more power (whether individual or collective) than an abuser can make them stop abusing, although that may not always be sufficient. If an abuser holds such absolute power in your workplace that nobody and nothing can hold them accountable, you’re going to have issues with abuse no matter how nice the abuser’s victims are.


*I want to be very clear here that sometimes being extra nice to an abuser feels like the only safe thing to do, in which case you should do whatever makes you feel safe first and foremost. I will never pass judgment on the ways in which individuals choose to cope with their abuse. However, I also don’t think we should advise people to do things that seem like they’d make abuse worse, so, that’s what I’m getting at here.


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Being Extra Nice To Abusers Doesn't Stop Abuse

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

What We Can Learn From the Reproducibility Project

I have a new piece up at the Daily Dot about the Reproducibility Project and why psychology isn’t doomed.

The Internet loves sharing psychology studies that affirm lived experiences, and even the tiniest ticks of everyday people. But somewhere in the mix of all those articles and listicles about introverts, extroverts, or habits that “make people successful,” a debate still lingers: Is psychology a “real science?” It’s a question that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Last week, the Reproducibility Project, an effort by psychology researchers to redo older studies to see if their findings hold up, discovered that only 36 of the 100 studies it tested reproduced the same results.

Of course, many outlets exaggerated these findings, referring to the re-tested studies (or to psychology in general) as “failed” or “proven wrong.” However, as Benedict Carey explains in the New York Times, the project “found no evidence of fraud or that any original study was definitively false. Rather, it concluded that the evidence for most published findings was not nearly as strong as originally claimed.”

But “many psychology studies are not as strong as originally claimed” isn’t as interesting of a headline. So, what’s really going on with psychology research? Should we be worried? Is psychology a “hopeless case?” It’s true that there’s a problem, but the problem isn’t that psychology is nonscientific or that researchers are designing studies poorly (though some of them probably are). The problem is a combination of two things: Statistical methods that aren’t as strong as we thought and a lack of interest in negative findings.

A negative finding happens when a researcher carries out a study and does not find the effect they expected or hoped to find. For instance, suppose you want to find out whether or not drinking coffee every morning affects one’s overall satisfaction with their life. You predict that it does. You take a group of participants and randomly assign half of them to drink coffee every morning for a month, and the other half to abstain from coffee for a month. At the start and at the end of that month, you give them a questionnaire that assesses how satisfied each participant is with their life.

If you find that drinking coffee every day makes no difference when it comes to one’s life satisfaction, you have a negative result. Your hypothesis was not confirmed.

This result isn’t very interesting, as research goes. It’s much less likely to be published than a study with positive results—one that shows that drinking coffee does impact life satisfaction. Most likely, these results will end up gathering figurative dust on the researcher’s computer, and nobody outside of the lab will ever hear about them. Psychologists call this the file-drawer effect.

Read the rest here.

What We Can Learn From the Reproducibility Project

When Someone's Negativity Makes You Uncomfortable

Ever since I got depressed and started paying attention to this stuff, I’ve been talking about the unintentionally-dismissive ways in which people often respond when someone shares something negative that they’re dealing with or feeling: “It’s not that big of a deal,” “Oh, cheer up!”, “Look at the bright side,” and so on. Something I’ve had to deal with in particular on Facebook is people making inane and inappropriate jokes in response to serious personal things that I post, which, I’m told, they do in order to “lighten the mood.”

Luckily, I’ve found a lot of great resources to help explain this to people, such as this book and this article. One form of pushback I’ve gotten is this: “But what if people make these types of comments/jokes because they’re uncomfortable with hearing the negative stuff?”

Well, yeah, that’s exactly why they do it. In most contexts, we’re still not used to honesty about negative life stuff, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward and weird, and so the automatic response is to deal with that discomfort by shutting the negativity down.

That said, there are different types of discomfort. There’s “this isn’t the social norm, wtf” discomfort, and there’s “this is crossing my boundaries” discomfort. Sometimes, though not always, they overlap.

When I post something on my own Facebook, that’s not violating anyone’s boundaries, because it’s my own page. (Obviously you can think of some extreme examples of this, such as if I used my Facebook to post a sexual comment about someone else.) Anyone who doesn’t like what’s on my Facebook generally can unfollow or unfriend me, or, if it’s not that big a deal, just ignore and scroll past the post. You can also do this amazing thing:

Didja know you can hide posts from your Facebook feed by hitting that down arrow in the top right corner? Now ya do!
Didja know you can hide posts from your Facebook feed by hitting that down arrow in the top right corner? Now ya do!

The mere fact that a post is visible in your feed does not obligate you to respond to it, not even if the post is very sad! I get a lot of comments like “Well I just felt like I had to say something because you were so sad.” No. Me being sad does not obligate a response from you. This type of thinking is bad for you–because it forces you to interact with things you don’t want to interact with–and it’s bad for me, because it causes people to make insensitive and inappropriate remarks to me when I’m already struggling. This type of thinking isn’t good for anyone, and that’s why I generally encourage people to try to avoid thinking of social interactions or relationships in terms of “obligation.”

And yeah, it’s totally possible that constantly seeing posts that bring you down and make negative feelings come up for you totally isn’t worth it, but as I said, that’s why unfollow/unfriend/hide post exist. I frequently unfollow and/or hide posts from people when they’re making me feel bad for no productive reason (for instance, something that I find really hard to deal with is violent rhetoric, and that’s my own boundary to responsibility for).  Sometimes, to be quite honest, someone’s post makes me feel sad and jealous and so I just hide it so that I don’t have to be reminded of it. Is this cowardly and “immature”? I mean, maybe? But it’s a hell of a lot better than commenting on the post with “meh I wish I had a job :(” or “well I’ll probably never get engaged, lol, so, congrats to you I guess.” I don’t have to spend 100% of my social media time actively Working On Myself, you know. Likewise, you are totally free to just hide my depression stuff from your feed if it’s unpleasant.

Situations in which someone asks “How are you?” and receives a “too”-honest response are a little thornier than Facebook feed management. On the one hand, you would be forgiven for assuming that if someone asks how you are, they want to know how you are. On the other hand, it is also currently the case that people use these sorts of questions as greetings or smalltalk and that they do not expect a treatise on all your current medical or financial or occupational or relational woes just because they said three words. If you don’t realize that someone didn’t mean to show that much interest and tell them anyway, I think that’s forgivable, because not everyone is always able to understand and navigate these unspoken assumptions. But if you’re reasonably certain that the person doesn’t actually want to know all these details and would be uncomfortable to hear them, it’s kind of creepy to give them anyway with the justification that “yeah well they technically asked.”

I usually handle these situations by being light on the details unless prompted. “How are you?” “Ugh, honestly, it’s been pretty stressful lately.” At that point, the person can say, “Oh no, what’s going on?” or they can say, “Damn, that sucks! Well, hope it gets better soon!” The ball is in their court, and nobody has to hear more than they’re comfortable with.

Situations in which the person doing the venting is the one who initiates the interaction can be even trickier, which is why I wrote a whole post about it. But to sum it up, basically, ask people for consent before dumping really serious stuff on them and definitely provide trigger warnings if you’re going to discuss things that are likely to be triggering for those who have dealt with them too.

There is definitely something very passive-aggressive about saying “Oh, cheer up, it’ll be fine!” when what you really mean is, “Actually, I’m not really comfortable listening to this, so I’m going to end this conversation now.” And yeah, the latter doesn’t sound like a nice thing to say. Yeah, it might hurt the feelings of the person who’s telling you the negative stuff. But it’s actually a much kinder thing to say than a dismissive remark that shuts the person down and makes them feel like they don’t even have the right to be upset about whatever it is they’re dealing with.

Worse, they may not actually get the message that you’re uncomfortable hearing about their problems. They may tell themselves that you’re just trying to make them feel better the best way you know how (because that really is why a lot of people say this sort of stuff!) and therefore feel really confused about whether or not you’re someone that they should come to when they want to talk about stuff. On the one hand, talking to you about stuff feels bad. On the other hand, you’re acting like you want them to feel better, so you must care, right?

Setting boundaries sometimes hurts feelings. There’s no way around this because you cannot control other people’s feelings, and there is no award for for Best At Being Passive Aggressive So As To Avoid Directly Hurting Feelings (And Instead Only Hurting Them Indirectly). (Even if there were, is that an award you want?) If you are uncomfortable hearing someone talk about their problems and are therefore unwilling to do it, it is in everyone’s best interest–especially theirs–for this to be clarified as soon as possible.

(And should you find yourself on the other side of that and having someone tell you that they can’t listen to you anymore, remember: you don’t have to like it or be happy about it, but you do have to respect their boundaries.)

This is one of those moments when I say, 1) your boundaries are always valid and it is okay (even good) to enforce them, and also 2) it might be a good idea to do some introspection about why you have the boundaries that you have. Yes, sometimes we need to set limits on what sort of emotional support we can offer others because we need to make sure that people aren’t depending on us in ways that we can’t be depended on, or that people aren’t triggering things that we’re still dealing with ourselves.

On the other hand, sometimes we’re uncomfortable hearing certain things because it’s outside of our current social norms and we have some unexamined ideas about what’s “appropriate” and what isn’t. For instance, when I have an automatic negative reaction to hearing someone say that they’re really worried because their job doesn’t pay them enough, is that because I need to avoid listening to such things for the sake of my own well-being, or because some part of me still believes that it’s “impolite” to openly talk about things like money (especially not having enough of it)? That’s not a trick question, because it could actually be either or both. Right now, as I’m dealing with my own job search and my own fears of making too little money, it could very well be that I need to step back and not be in conversations like these. Or it could also be that I have these leftover beliefs about talking about money.

It’s crucial, I think, to learn how to critically examine your own responses and the boundaries that you set up around those responses without assuming that those responses and boundaries are therefore illegitimate. You can critically examine where your boundaries come from while still maintaining them at least until you figure it out!

So if every time someone says something negative about their life, your brain is going “no stop get away this is bad ugh ugh,” that’s a response to consider examining, because a lot of the time that comes from some very unhealthy social norms we have about what people should do when they have a mental illness or other emotional difficulty (just keep it to themselves and suffer alone, or put a positive spin on it that may not be authentic at all). In the meantime, you still get to get away if that’s what you want to do.


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When Someone's Negativity Makes You Uncomfortable

Don't Tell People How (Not) To Feel

[Content note: mentions of abuse, transphobia, & racism]

The more I do this–this writing/activism/therapy thing that I do–the more I’m coming to believe that there is almost never anything to be gained by telling people how to feel, or how not to feel.

In fact, I worry that doing so is at best neutral, probably manipulative, possibly cruel, and at worst abusive.

The most obvious examples provoke little disagreement from the social circles I move in–for instance, telling a person with depression to “cheer up,” telling a person with anxiety to “calm down,” telling a person who is angry to “stop being so angry,” telling a person who has suffered trauma to “just get over it.” These are all examples of telling people how to feel, or how not to feel, that most of us would recognize as wrong.

But the message that folks seem to get when we talk about this isn’t “telling people how (not) to feel is wrong,” but rather, “don’t tell people with mental illness/trauma history to get better because they can’t just do that on the spot.”

But what if they could? What if the cause of the emotions was something other than mental illness or trauma? Then would it be acceptable to tell them how to feel?

I think some people would say yes, at least in certain situations.

Emotions and morality are all bound up in our minds. We associate certain emotions with certain moral acts and other emotions with certain immoral acts (which with which may depend on one’s social group). Although there may be a correlation, of course, it’s probably not nearly as strong as people assume. Moreover, it’s much easier, in my experience, to change your behavior than to change your emotions. Even if you are neurotypical, but especially if you are not.

So we start to point to certain emotions, which we consider “markers” of certain immoral acts, as the problem. It’s wrong to feel angry or resentful when a potential romantic partner turns you down. It’s wrong not to be angry about injustice. It’s wrong to feel happy during a time when other people are sad. It’s wrong to fail to feel sad when Objectively Sad Things (like the loss of a loved one) happen.

I would argue that none of those are actually wrong, though. It’s wrong to guilt-trip, manipulate, or punish someone who doesn’t want to date you. It’s wrong to do absolutely nothing to make the world a better place despite having the ability to do so. But you can feel resentful at someone who rejected you without ever mistreating them, and you can actively make the world a better place without ever feeling angry about injustice.

It’s ironic that we use emotions as a proxy for actions when they are so much more difficult to change. You can change them, of course, but only with time and effort, and almost never right in the moment. Happiness is pretty easy to kill, as I was reminded very directly after Obergefell v Hodges came down, but it’s rarely replaced with the feelings that were intended to replace it. When people kept suggesting that anyone who feels happy after that decision is a terrible person who doesn’t care about other issues and naively believes that The Fight Is Over, I wasn’t suddenly full of fiery anger on behalf of all the LGBTQ folks who continue to face marginalization (including, by the way, myself). I just felt sad and defeated, and very condescended to.

Nevertheless, despite my happiness at the Supreme Court’s decision, I’m not done fighting. My actions speak louder than my happiness that particular day.

More importantly, though, I worry about the ramifications of assuming that we can and should tell people how to feel. If you tell someone to calm down or cheer up or get angry and they immediately comply, I’m not sure that that’s a healthy process. I’m not sure that it’s ultimately a good thing if people are able to change their emotions (or convincingly pretend to) as soon as someone demands it. To me, that sounds more like an abusive situation than anything else.

I’m also concerned because, once you learn (as many of us do at some point or another) that others are better than us at knowing what our emotions ought to be, that process of adjusting your emotions (or emotional expressions) to their expectations becomes par for the course. Certainly someone can claim that their particular reason for telling you how to feel is Very Important and For A Good Cause, but everyone claims that, including abusive people. Many people in my life could say that it’d be For My Own Good if I could just stop feeling sad on command. Many people have a vested interest in keeping us from being angry, or expressing our anger. Once you get in the habit of “correcting” your emotions at others’ request, it’s going to be, well, a habit.

Moreover, when people believe that it’s their emotions, and not their actions, that are problematic, they often try to push away and suppress those emotions because they are Wrong. They may even succeed for a while, but ultimately, this sort of project inevitably fails. (I’ve been there.) Suppressing Wrong emotions prevents self-awareness, which is exactly what you need to make sure that you don’t hurt people because of your emotions. Telling people their emotions are Wrong is not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

You might think that if you tell someone that their emotions are Wrong, they will immediately say, “Wow, you’re right, I will call a therapist and set up an appointment right away.” Wouldn’t that be nice. But that’s not how it works. Even if there’s a strong indication that someone probably needs to go to therapy, if you stigmatize them that way, they’ll probably believe that 1) the therapist would stigmatize them that way too, and 2) they’re a terrible person who doesn’t deserve help.

Unfortunately, I notice this a lot in people who are trying to figure out how to deal with romantic rejection, especially men. They hear that people (especially men) who get upset when they’re rejected do terrible things, and they hear that feeling upset is as much a problem as the actual doing of the terrible things. And I get that the message gets diluted a lot when we’re trying to deal with horrific shit like Elliot Rodger, but thankfully, the vast majority of people are not Elliot Rodger. Feeling upset or even angry when you get rejected is normal. You can work on it with a therapist (or with some helpful online advice) if you want, but what matters is how you act. That’s what makes you who you are.

What about emotions that are Truly Awful? What if someone is disgusted by trans* people? What if someone is terrified when they see a Black man approaching on the street?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do with these emotions (and I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t know). Here people can make a convincing argument that these emotions actually do lead to actual harm done to marginalized people, which is true. Here, again, the problem is the actual harm done to these people and not what goes on in someone’s head, but what goes on in someone’s head is undeniably related to the actual harm done to these people!

Then again, these emotions don’t come from nowhere. They, like many emotions, come from thoughts or ideas. Those thoughts or ideas are, “People ought to be either Men or Women” (where “Men” or “Women” means “as traditionally defined by cissexist assumptions), “Black men are dangerous,” and so on. There’s no use in telling people not to be disgusted by trans* people and not to be afraid of Black men unless we address the ideas that are prompting those feelings. As someone who has experienced lots of such shifts in feelings over time as my understanding of power, privilege, and oppression has evolved, I can attest to this.

In sum, I don’t have all the answers on this, but I’m starting to believe that it doesn’t really do any good to police people’s feelings, even when they seem like the wrong feelings.


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Don't Tell People How (Not) To Feel

Irrational Feelings are Still Valid, and Valid Feelings Can Be Irrational

Kate recently wrote about how sometimes, viewing your emotions as unjustified or irrational can actually prevent you from taking action to make them better. On the other hand, simply accepting all emotions as “valid” can also leave you with no way of trying to change them. To try to resolve this issue, she proposes a distinction between “local validity” and “global validity”:

Local validity is about noticing and responding to your current emotions as if they’re real emotions that are happening to you. Global validity is about reflecting about the trends and patterns of emotions and how well you think they’re grounded in a realistic view of the world.

Irrational and invalid aren’t the same thing. We can go wrong when we believe that any emotion that’s irrational must therefore be invalid, but we also go wrong when we believe that any emotion that’s valid must also be rational. (I think the latter error is made less often, but it’s true that some people feel that because emotions are “valid,” they must simply accept them as they are.)

In social circles where rationality is very highly valued, it can become difficult to tell others about how you’re feeling when you think that your feelings are irrational. Sometimes we fear judgmental responses from others (“But that makes no sense! Of course I don’t hate you! How could you possibly believe something like that?”). Other times, we may trust that people will be supportive, but we still don’t want to come across as someone who has a lot of “silly” or “irrational” feelings.

In this way, sometimes, people in social circles that have more traditional approaches to relationships and communication are at a slight advantage. For instance, suppose Sally is in a traditional monogamous relationship with Bob. Sally might feel totally comfortable telling Bob that she’s jealous when Bob spends time with his friend Susie. Sally might even feel comfortable expressing anger about this.

Of course, the resulting conversation might not necessarily be productive–Bob might just agree not to spend time with Susie anymore, or he might react angrily and tell Sally that she’s being “crazy.” But in my social circles, we often wouldn’t express feelings like Sally’s at all. We feel that being progressive/feminist/polyamorous/rational/whatever means we shouldn’t feel jealous when a partner spends time with a friend (or another partner), because that’s irrational, and therefore that feeling should be ignored rather than brought out into the open.

And so a lot of us end up trying to ignore or cope with these feelings alone. Where Bob might hug or kiss Sally and reassure her that he loves her, we get ice cream and Netflix. (Or maybe that’s just me. Seriously, I am Extremely Bad at this.)

The difference is that many people in traditional monogamous relationships treat jealousy as normal, even healthy, even a sign that you really love someone. Expressing jealousy in the context of these relationships can be a completely acceptable thing, like telling your partner that you’re annoyed that they didn’t tell you they’d be home late, or that you’re sad that they can’t spend the holidays with you and your family. I don’t want to borrow traditional monogamous folks’ ideas about jealousy necessarily, but I want to borrow their norms about expressing it and expecting your partner to hear you and respond lovingly to you even if the jealousy is “irrational.” (Yes, yes, #notallmonos.)

But as Kate’s example shows, this tendency to conflate “irrational” and “invalid” doesn’t just apply to relationships and decisions about whether or not to tell others how we’re feeling. I have a hard time engaging in self-care practices that help if I don’t feel like there’s a “rational” reason to feel the way I’m feeling.

For instance, if someone was mean to me or I had an awful day at work, I acknowledge those as “good” reasons to feel bad, and in response, I might ask friends for support or spend some money on something that brings me joy.

But if I’m feeling bad for reasons I think aren’t “good,” such as being jealous of someone or completely randomly, then I don’t feel like I have the “right” to ask for support. I don’t feel like it’d be justified to take time off of my responsibilities to do something pleasant to improve my mood. So I just sit there and suffer through it.

In a blog post, Malcolm writes about how it can be useful to “step outside” of one’s own feelings. To help someone else do that, you might ask them, “What feelings came up for you during that?” rather than “How do/did you feel?” The latter question makes people identify with a feeling in ways that the former doesn’t. To say that sad feelings came up for me feels different than saying that I am (or was) sad. He adds:

Our sociolinguistic context is full of maxims like “that’s just how I feel” or “I can’t help how I feel” or [INSERT OTHER EXAMPLES]. We don’t necessarily take them seriously, but they add to the confusion of what someone might mean when they say “I feel X”. A bunch of questions you could (mentally or verbally) ask in response:

do you endorse feeling X? do you think that feeling X makes sense?

would you like me to address (my reassurance, etc) towards the feeling, towards its causes, or towards you as the experiencer of the feeling?

is that all you’re feeling?

how do you feel about having that feeling?

do you see a way out of the feeling or does it feel all-consuming or inevitable?

Questions like these, when asked of yourself, can make it a lot easier to communicate feelings that you think are irrational. For instance: “I don’t endorse this feeling, but I’m jealous about your date with ____.” “I know this doesn’t make sense, but I’m sad about leaving for vacation tomorrow.”

And on the flip side, when people share feelings like these with us, I think it’s important not to jump too immediately to “Your feelings are valid” or “It’s okay to feel that way.” Those are very important and worthy sentiments, but for many people (such as me), they can contribute to a defeatist sort of attitude: “Well, I guess it’s ok that I’m just going to feel depressed every time a friend succeeds at something I haven’t, since that’s a valid and okay way to feel.” Often, “valid” starts to mean “unchangeable.”

Here, Malcolm’s example question, “How do you feel about having that feeling?” can be very helpful. If someone says they’re ashamed or embarrassed or having difficulty accepting that this feeling is even happening, validation can be very helpful. But if they say they’re frustrated by having to deal with the feeling, or they understand where it’s coming from but still wish it weren’t happening, then validation can unintentionally send the message that they should just accept it.

Some of this, I think, is a question of where someone is in their own process. Years ago, I was unable to fully acknowledge my depressive feelings because I didn’t understand that I had depression, and kept trying to convince myself that I “should” be happy given all the good things I had going for me. At that point, if someone had told me that sadness/depression is a valid feeling, that might’ve been a revelation.

Nowadays, I’ve basically accepted the fact that I have depression and that that brings with it depressive feelings. At this point, reminders that my feelings are “valid” are pretty much useless. I want to change them! And in order to change them, I have to understand how they’re irrational, how they’re set off, how to counter those automatic processes, and basically how to tell myself a better story about my life.

Ironically, both of these counterproductive processes can happen for the same person. Sometimes I refuse to treat my feelings as valid simply because they’re irrational. Other times, I have trouble changing irrational feelings simply because I’ve accepted that they’re valid. Depression feels so real that changing it seems impossible. But it’s not.


Note that I intentionally avoided getting bogged down in what exactly “rational” and “irrational” and “valid” and “invalid” mean. If this post doesn’t make sense to you, we’re probably working from different definitions, and that’s okay. Another blog post, another day.


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Irrational Feelings are Still Valid, and Valid Feelings Can Be Irrational