There Is Probably Almost Never A Good Reason To Call Someone “Immature”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “maturity” and “immaturity” again, ever since reading this Captain Awkward column about a person (context suggests that the letter writer is female) whose boyfriend is very close with his ex and supports that ex emotionally all the time. Letter Writer is concerned about this, but the boyfriend dismisses her concerns, saying that his previous girlfriends were “mature” enough to understand his special relationship with his ex.

Among other things, Captain Awkward advises her to make some space for herself–hang out with other people, sleep alone back at home more, etc–and explains:

I say this partly because one of your questions was “Am I not being mature enough?” and I have to tell you that an older man talking to a younger woman about her “maturity” when he’s trying to get her to endorse something that makes her uncomfortable sends a red flag up in my peripheral vision and causes immediate and severe side-eye. Your boyfriend may have good reasons for behaving as he does with M., given their history, but the “I thought you were more mature and could handle it” defense is straight out of the manipulative asshole playbook. If you need a tutorial on how to appropriately react to such patronizing bullshit, here’s Prince:

Prince gives the side-eye and the fuck-you stroll.

(Yes, I had to leave in the Prince gif.)

This got me thinking: is there ever a good reason to tell someone that they are “immature,” or to tell them to be more “mature”? Could calling someone “immature” generally be mean and manipulative at best, abusive at worst?

My earliest memories of this involve my parents calling me “immature” when I was probably 11 or 12 or so. I no longer remember what caused them to say that, but it was probably because I was having “inappropriate” emotions or failing to have “appropriate” emotions, or because I was seeing things in a black-and-white way. (Incidentally, that is something I still do in certain circumstances, usually when I feel threatened and am trying to protect myself. When I feel more safe and secure, I tend to think in a very nuanced way.)

Even as a preadolescent child, I understood that their statements were ridiculous and said more about them than about me. How does it make any sense to call a child “immature”? Compared to whom? How is a child supposed to mature themselves on demand? And if you understand that this is impossible, then why call a child “immature”?

(As you can imagine, some adults adored child-me, and others really didn’t.)

More than anything, these comments felt like a power play, a way to make me feel guilty and wrong without any clear way forward. Supposing there is such a thing as maturity, some of it is clearly based on biological processes that people can’t generally control (develop, prefrontal cortex, damn you!), while other aspects of it are probably based on choices an individual makes and experiences they have as a result. Children can and do make meaningful choices in their own lives, but their lives are also largely determined and constrained by adults with power. If there was something I could’ve done to increase my “maturity,” clearly, I needed to be told. For instance, “When you’re upset at someone, remember that they are as complex a person as you.” Or, “Sometimes you need to take risks to get what you want.” Or whatever. I’m not actually sure what sort of advice 11-year-old me would’ve needed.

An adult calling a child immature is, while completely unhelpful and possibly hurtful, slightly less concerning to me than an adult calling another adult immature, or implying that if the other adult is mature, then they will understand some situation or other. If you’re dating someone that you look down upon as “immature,” why are you dating them? It seems that the only acceptable thing to do is to either 1) say something like “I feel like we’re at different stages in our lives right now” and break it off, or 2) find a way to reframe your partner’s supposedly “immature” traits in a way that isn’t degrading to them. Though I’m not actually sure how to accomplish the second one.

I’m also reminded of a fantastic post by Tumblr user erikalynae:

Gather round kids while I explain this manipulation tactic that men perpetually try to use and why it’s bullshit.
If someone is openly showing interest in you by making disparaging or disappointed comments about your age, they’re trying to put you on the defensive. This guy wants me to try to quell his discomfort, to bring up that I’m only a month shy of 20, etc. - he wants me to try to prove myself to him, that I’m mature and adult enough for a man like him.
His goal is to establish a power imbalance right off the bat. If we were to date, I would constantly be on the defensive, constantly striving to be an equal, constantly trying to prove my “adult” credentials. Anything he says or does or wants from this point on that I object to would just be seen as a strike against my age, proof that he was right and that I’m not mature enough for him. This is how SO MANY men pressure younger individuals (primarily women and girls) into situations and relationships they aren’t comfortable with. If he truly thought I was too young for him, he wouldn’t have messaged me. This is a very calculated move, and it’s fucking gross.
Adult relationships with age gaps are completely fine, but only if all parties view each other as equals. If someone is trying to set you up in a way that ensures that’s never a possibility, run far away.

Gather round kids while I explain this manipulation tactic that men perpetually try to use and why it’s bullshit.

If someone is openly showing interest in you by making disparaging or disappointed comments about your age, they’re trying to put you on the defensive. This guy wants me to try to quell his discomfort, to bring up that I’m only a month shy of 20, etc. – he wants me to try to prove myself to him, that I’m mature and adult enough for a man like him.

His goal is to establish a power imbalance right off the bat. If we were to date, I would constantly be on the defensive, constantly striving to be an equal, constantly trying to prove my “adult” credentials. Anything he says or does or wants from this point on that I object to would just be seen as a strike against my age, proof that he was right and that I’m not mature enough for him. This is how SO MANY men pressure younger individuals (primarily women and girls) into situations and relationships they aren’t comfortable with. If he truly thought I was too young for him, he wouldn’t have messaged me. This is a very calculated move, and it’s fucking gross.

Adult relationships with age gaps are completely fine, but only if all parties view each other as equals. If someone is trying to set you up in a way that ensures that’s never a possibility, run far away.

Although I obviously can’t draw too many conclusions from one advice letter, the boyfriend in the Captain Awkward column really sounds like he’s pulling this exact move. By framing “understanding” or “not understanding” his special connection with his ex as a matter of “maturity,” he forces the letter writer to either dismiss and ignore her own concerns, or adopt the defensive position of trying to prove her own maturity (and therefore the validity of her concerns). Of course, this is a catch-22. I was told all the time as a child that if I feel like I have to “prove” my maturity, that means I’m immature. Clearly, a woman who’s “mature” enough for LW’s boyfriend wouldn’t even be having these concerns! Because she would “understand.”

I do want to note, since people always want to derail things to discuss the specific example, that it’s entirely possible that LW really is being unreasonable about her boyfriend’s ex. But I don’t think so. It sounds like her boyfriend’s ex needs professional help, and it sounds like her boyfriend’s ex is really taking up a lot of her boyfriend’s time and this isn’t just Some Silly Jealousy Thing.

Regardless, there is a way for the boyfriend to frame this in a better and less red-flaggy way: “I need a partner who will be okay with the fact that I have an ex that I’m very close with and support emotionally.” There. That’s it. Anyone who will not be okay with this will not be a good partner for him. It doesn’t matter if it’s because she’s “immature” or “needy” or “jealous” or judgmental about mental illness or just someone who wants a lot of time and dependability in a relationship. It literally doesn’t matter. Everyone gets to have their needs, and everyone gets to have their boundaries.

Too often the word “immature” becomes a way to vent one’s frustrations with a child or partner or whatever without actually having to state what the issue is or provide any way for it to be resolved. A child who gets anxious and cries when it’s time for school isn’t anxious, they’re “immature.” A partner who has different priorities than you in their life right now isn’t having different priorities in their life right now, they’re “immature.” If your partner were “mature,” then they would understand you and your needs and be able to work with them. If your child were “mature,” they wouldn’t be causing you problems.

If you feel the urge to tell someone in your life that they’re being immature, try tabooing that word first–it may lead to a more productive conversation. But more important than the words you choose is acknowledging that people behaving in ways that are inconvenient for you doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

Can We Not Record Strangers’ Conversations And Put Them On Twitter?

Have you ever had that experience where everyone’s laughing at something and you’re just sitting there in silence, internally screaming WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK???

That happened to me when I read about this “hilarious” livetweet by a Canadian blogger of a “douchebag” on his first date at a cafe. I’ve been seeing this shared all over the internet, including by lots of my friends, always with comments about how “hilarious” it is and how much of a “douchebag” the guy is. At first I kept asking myself what I was missing about this, but then I realized that maybe it’s other people, and not me, who are missing things.

“But you can’t help but overhear people sometimes!”

Let’s start with the obvious fact that, while overhearing people in public places is inevitable, intentionally paying attention to them when they clearly don’t mean to include you is not inevitable, and documenting their conversation for the purpose of spreading it around on the internet is even less inevitable. Haven’t we been saying this all along about online stalking? If you know that someone would not be comfortable being listened to and recorded–and you should always assume that a stranger would not be comfortable with you listening to them and recording them–the correct thing to do is to not listen to and record them, unless there is a compelling reason to. Sorry, but making fun of an egotistical dude is not that compelling a reason. I’m talking about stuff like, protecting others from violence or abuse.

“But he’s an asshole!”

Some people also apparently believe that it’s okay to violate someone’s assumed boundaries/privacy because “they’re an asshole.” Here’s an uncomfortable fact many of us don’t like to think about: someone out there thinks you’re an asshole. Yes, you. Many people probably think that I’m an asshole. There are probably many people who think that the things I say to my friends in public spaces are so completely ridiculous and laughable that they should livetweet them to all their Twitter followers and see what happens. There are people who think that you and your partner sound totally ridiculous when you’re out on your dates, too. And since people tend to have friends and Twitter followers who agree with them, their “hilarious” livetweet of your personal conversation might get quite a bit of traction online.

“But no, the people who think I’m the asshole are wrong! They’re the assholes!”

Good luck with that.

The thing is, you never really know someone’s story. Often when people shame someone online, they end up with a completely wrong impression of what was really going on. This is a particularly painful example of that–a person who was shamed online for sitting on a folding chair on a treadmill and watching TV. This viral photo, I suppose, was meant to be some representation of Everything That Is Wrong With Fat People These Days. Of course, they got it wrong:

It’s not just the fat-bashing that hurts. Or the humiliation, the shaming, this last safe societal prejudice. All that is bad, of course. What really hurts, though, is how much the boys who took that photo of me “doing it wrong”—and the thousands of people who see it—will never know.

They’ll never know how experiences just like this began dividing me—early—from my body. That the taunts of “fatty” and “blubber” and “lardass” when I was 6 made me stand at my bedroom window and wonder if it was a long enough way down to the ground; that when the kids at lunch poked my stomach with pencils to see if I’d deflate, I honestly wished I would, with a long, satisfying “sssssss”; that by the time Ms. Gleby was leading my entire sixth grade Phys Ed class in laughing at me, I no longer had a body at all. I was a floating head, and I was determined to think of my physical form as a brick that I had to suffer the inconvenience of dragging around. My body wasn’t me. It was despicable. It was nothing.

The people who laugh at this picture won’t know that every jeer, every “mooooo,” and every “sorry, no fatties” made me more and more successful at being bodiless.

And they won’t know how scary it’s been to decide to maybe make a different choice.

They’ll never know what came before that treadmill-sitting moment: 80 minutes of aerobic exercise. They’ll never know how long it took me to feel worthy of motion, worthy of joining a gym, how long it took me to decide that moving actually felt good, and then the discovery that this was the way to reunite my floating head with the rest of me, to feel my body at its most basic, a biochemical machine that supports me. That’s what I am on a treadmill. That’s what bodies are. They are not appearance. They are purpose. It’s so hard—irrationally hard—to remember that. The world makes it hard to remember.

I’m not saying that the guy on the date had some deep back story that was causing him to appear to be a douchebag when he really wasn’t. Maybe he really is a douchebag. Maybe he really is terribly sexist. But it’s important to remember that we’re seeing this guy through one person’s lens, and that person was clearly motivated to make him seem as ridiculous as possible in order to create a bunch of viral tweets.

I’m not going to throw out some platitudes about never judging people or thinking that they’re silly. Judge, but like, consider that you’re maybe not the ultimate arbiter of whether or not a total stranger that you’ve never even interacted with is A Douchebag?

“But it was anonymous, so what’s the problem?”

Yes, shaming people online anonymously is worlds better than shaming them online and actually naming them (or posting photos of them). However, keep in mind that when something goes viral online, you lose control of it. There have been plenty of instances in which internet mobs have deliberately identified and named previously-anonymous people in viral stories. Sometimes this has disastrous effects, especially when these internet mobs are incompetent (as they are wont to be) and name the wrong person.

Even without a mob, though, some random Twitter follower could be like “Oh hey, I’m in that cafe too! That guy is [insert physical description here].” And someone else could be like, “Oh, I totally worked with that guy once and he was such an asshole.” And before long, the fragile veil of anonymity is gone, and someone is getting named and shamed online for something really quite insignificant.

Besides, they still know it was them. They still have to deal with the humiliation of thousands of people mocking them for it. It’s easy to claim that being an asshole means you deserve this, but do you really? And, as I said earlier, I’m pretty skeptical of any attempt to label a total stranger an asshole on the basis of one person’s tweets. (Not that that’s not at all the same as not believing someone who claims that someone harassed or assaulted them. It’s different when you 1) name a specific thing that the person did and 2) they did it to you.) I’m more okay with shaming people for doing specific harmful things to other people, because–although this is a controversial point–there is some evidence that this can (in certain types of situations) be an effective way of preventing people from hurting each other and/or helping to repair the harm already done. Being egotistical and annoying is not that sort of offense, though.

“So what, sharing stories about other people online is always wrong?”

Nope. It’s a spectrum and there are lots of different ways to talk online about one’s experiences offline. Posting about it on a private friends-only account is different from posting it publicly. Sharing the location is different from not sharing the location. Sharing a line (or a few lines) of dialogue is different from obsessively documenting an entire conversation. Sharing something positively (i.e. “Here’s an awesome compliment a stranger gave me!”) is different from sharing something negatively. Sharing something in order to warn people of a problem is different from sharing something purely for the purpose of ridicule. Sharing something that was said to you is different from sharing something that you overheard that was not meant for you to hear. (To that end, this would’ve felt somewhat less creepy if it’d been livetweeted by the woman who was on the date with the guy.) Sharing something to your audience of 50 Twitter followers is different from sharing something to your audience of 20,400 Twitter followers, which is how much the blogger in question has.

I could go on. Point is, there’s a lot of nuance. A decision to share something after a careful consideration of some of these questions would leave me feeling a lot more comfortable than a broad claim that “well it’s anonymous” or “but he’s an asshole.”

I feel like a lot of the response to this is stemming from the deep frustration many people have with 1) dating, 2) egotistical people, and 3) sexism. (Keeping in mind about #3 that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t really any clear sexism in the livetweet. Just a guy being incompetent at engaging a woman in conversation. Which could be sexism, could not be.)

I get it. These things are really quite frustrating and I actually have no patience for any of them, including dating. But 1) unless it happened to you personally, this is not your story to tell and 2) there are plenty of ways to share these stories with friends and get support and laugh about it that don’t involve viral tweets. I’m a huge fan of posting on Facebook (not publicly) and of having a group Facebook message going with close friends, where everyone can share their various frustrations and triumphs.

I’m just not here for this creepy eye-f0r-an-eye “if someone is an asshole then it’s now acceptable to do just about anything to them” thing.

And lest it seem like I’m doing the irritating “can’t we all just get along and not be mean to each other” thing, let me be perfectly clear: a world in which the response to this blogger’s livetweet is “whoa wtf that’s creepy and obsessive what are you doing” rather than “LOL SO HILARIOUS LOOK AT THAT DOUCHE” is a world in which we are all safer. Because the world we have now is one in which, apparently, people actively eavesdrop on each other, record each other’s conversations, and make them go viral online for the purpose of ridiculing them.

Do you want to live in that world? Because in that world, anything you say can be used against you for no particular reason. Even if you did nothing ethically wrong or actually harmful. You can wake up one morning and have your entire Twitter feed ridiculing something you said to a friend on the subway yesterday, and even though it’s anonymous, you will know, and your friend will know. Your boss could call you into their office and ask why you were talking about sex positions with your girlfriends at a bar over the weekend. The top search result for your name could be a “hilarious” livetweet from one random hour of your life you wish you could forget.

So, we could live in that world if y’all really want to. Or–or–we could decide, and persuade others, that obsessively recording a stranger’s entire conversation and putting it online is a weird and creepy thing to do. We could recalibrate our response from “LOL WHAT AN ASSHOLE” to “um why are you so preoccupied with what random strangers are saying on their dates?”

I’m not scared of dudes who talk about themselves too much and say silly things about what it’s like to be a writer. I am, however, terrified of all these vigilantes who think it’s their role to police the relatively innocuous faux pas of total strangers.


Further reading, since I didn’t want to get too repetitive:


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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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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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Do Children Matter?

[Content note: child abuse]

Someone posting in a Facebook group–doesn’t matter who or which group, since they were merely voicing an opinion held by many–said that censoring high school graduation speeches is acceptable because “I just don’t think people that age are mature enough to have free speech.”

(I will say that it was a group related to humanism, and I’m not sure what the fuck kind of humanist accepts the denial of constitutional rights to entire classes of people.  Not my kind, at any rate.)

There are two issues to discuss here, one surface-level and one a little deeper. I’ll dispatch the surface-level issue first.

I actually do think that there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in high schools, just as there are arguments to be made for certain restrictions on free speech in certain spaces for adults, such as colleges and workplaces. The best argument I can think of is that these spaces need to promote certain goals and functions, and free speech, while a very important part of our public life in general, can quickly overwhelm these goals and functions. The creation of a safe learning/working environment is more important than letting everyone say exactly what’s on their mind all the time. However, that has nothing to do with “maturity” and everything to do with the particular goals of particular spaces.

First of all, what is “maturity”? Do people suddenly obtain it on their 18th birthday? Are all adults “mature”? If not, should they also be denied their First Amendment rights? How will we determine who is “mature”? Should people with developmental disabilities be denied First Amendment rights? Should people who have demonstrated a lack of impulse control (a potential marker of immaturity)? Should a 30-year-old who goes to wild parties every night and gets drunk and can’t hold down a job be denied First Amendment rights? Should everyone be required to take a maturity examination before they are permitted to exercise rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution? What would that examination entail? An interview? A neurological test?

I am not a constitutional scholar, but note that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans a similar concept, literacy tests for would-be voters, and that legislation has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

So hopefully that complicates this question of “maturity” at least a little bit.

The whole point of rights is that they’re not just for people we like or agree with. They’re not just for the people who have their lives together and always think rationally and critically. They’re not just for adults, or just for white people, or just for Christians. They’re not just for people whose brains work the way we think people’s brains should work. Rights are rights because they are for everyone, especially the people you don’t agree with.

Now on to the thornier part of this discussion, which is this: the attitude displayed by this person towards children and adolescents is very common, and very harmful.

It harms in several ways. One is that engaged, altruistic, passionate adults do not generally develop (at least not easily) from ignored, insulted, condescended-to children. If we tell children that they have nothing of worth to say or contribute until their 18th birthday, believe me, they will not wake up that morning with a sudden desire to write letters to the editor, vote, volunteer, and generally speak up for what’s right. They will be insecure and trapped by impostor syndrome. Not a recipe for an active citizenry.

Oh, I’m sure you’ll say that you hang up all your child’s artistic creations on the fridge and forward their best book reports to Grandma and Grandpa, but let me ask you this: do you think your child has important and insightful observations to make about politics, culture, ethics, art, literature? If your child said something with which you disagree, would you engage them in a spirited debate, or would you shut them down with “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Aww, that’s nice, sweetie”? If your child has criticisms to make about the way they receive their education, or about the extracurricular activities they participate in or the house or neighborhood in which they live, do you actually listen to them and see if there’s any way that the adults in your child’s life (including you) could be doing better?

If you’re reading this and you have children, chances are you do all that stuff, because you’re great. But do most American adults?

At this point someone will usually say “But what if my child says that they are morally opposed to eating vegetables or doing homework or having a bedtime see I can’t possibly take my child’s ideas seriously.” Here’s the thing, though. Even adults sometimes (often) say things that are totally unreasonable. If you truly respect another person and value their thoughts, you can engage their totally unreasonable opinions with reasoned debate. Obviously, In The Real World, we don’t always respect other people and value their thoughts, and that’s (broadly speaking) fine. But you should respect your children and value their thoughts. You can also take this opportunity to model good critical thinking and argumentation skills, by engaging their opinions respectfully and directly.

And I know that parenting is hard and you can’t be a good parent 100% of the time and sometimes you will say “Not now honey” or “That’s nice” because you’re exhausted and juggling 100 things and that’s how it is. I’m not giving parenting advice. I’m absolutely not here to judge who is a Good Parent and who is a Bad Parent. I’m simply offering a reframe. Children saying silly things doesn’t mean that they are silly people. You can engage silly ideas seriously, and thus send the message to your children that 1) backing up one’s arguments with evidence and reason is important, and 2) their arguments are important enough to be met with kind counter-arguments, not outright dismissal and condescension.

Ah, but do I have children, you may ask. No, I do not. I helped raise two children, though, and I carried those children out of a wrecked car and over broken glass once (no, I did not cause the accident), and I taught one of those children to speak, and right now I’m living at home and engaging in all sorts of serious intellectual discussions with those children on the daily. Today I had a discussion with a 13-year-old about the ethics of business, or, why ripping off other children to get nice Pokemon cards for cheap is wrong. This weekend I had a discussion with a 10-year-old about police brutality and racism. Given our privileges and where we live, it’s very possible that I have been, and will remain for some time, the only person to directly address racism with her.

I was also very recently a child. Probably not many of you reading this can remember your own childhood as well as I do. I was a very lucky child because my parents have always endeavored to send me the message that my thoughts are valuable, no matter how old I was. Yes, sure, they sometimes engaged in a bit of condescension, for which I usually called them out and sometimes won the resulting argument. But the fact that there was an argument, and not a “That’s just how it is,” is what matters.

More importantly still, my parents basically lived the whole idea of “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” You would probably be surprised to know that although they (probably) don’t even read this blog and (probably) wouldn’t agree with a word on it, they have tirelessly encouraged me to pursue writing professionally, to publish more and more widely, to speak publicly, to ask for payment and recognition. It never seemed to occur to my parents that just because I sometimes said something foolish meant that I shouldn’t have spoken at all.

As a child, I was often stung by my parents’ quick criticism, their rush to ask me for evidence and examples and clarity. I can’t say that it was always easy or pleasant. But I always knew that they loved and valued me. And moreover, that constant process probably contributed to the strength of my writing now.

Perhaps as a result of this aspect of my upbringing, I was editing my high school literary magazine at 16, writing a monthly column for a print newspaper at 17, and publishing in campus magazines and newspapers starting at 18. I started my first blog at 12, as soon as blogs became a thing. And I don’t mean an online diary, although I’d encourage people of all ages to do that to build their writing and communication skills. I mean, I was blogging about politics and society. At 17, I was trained in pro-Israel activism (I used to be a conservative; it went away) and used those skills online–the same skills I now use in the service of the causes I now support. At 18, I started this blog. At 21, my writing first started to go viral online, and that’s when I was invited to join FtB. At 22, I gave my first solo conference talk. (SSACon! W00t!) At 23, I started freelancing professionally.

None of this would’ve happened if the closest adults in my life had not said to me, directly and indirectly, over and over, that my voice matters. It mattered when I was 12. It matters now at 24. It will matter when I’m old and nobody thinks I’m pretty anymore. Maybe it will even matter after I’m gone.

Most children don’t have all the privileges I have that contributed to my ability to put my opinions out there like that. Moreover, not all of them have adults in their lives who encourage them to speak, and who hear them when they do.

And yet, even now, at 24, I hear constantly of how useless and naive and dumb people my age are. You’ve seen the tired millennial-bashing thinkpieces. Despite two degrees and a list of professional accomplishments and leadership positions that’s too long for a standard resume, people who are older constantly talk down to me as though I’m, well, a child. Their child, someone else’s child, doesn’t matter. I’ve thought (not too seriously, but still) about quitting writing publicly plenty of times, and it was almost never because of the violent threats and harassment I receive, although that sucked. It was usually because someone on my own “side” (ha, not really) made me feel like I was worthless and my thoughts are too. (There was one particularly horrid incident where a man insisted over and over, in an increasingly abusive fashion, that I should not write a blog post about a particular topic because, despite my degree in the fucking field, I was not qualified. I must’ve cried. I don’t cry about the internet a lot. I don’t really cry a lot at all.)

If that’s my experience, imagine the experience of young people of color, young trans people, young people from a poor background, young recent immigrants, young people who could not access university education.

We do not, as a society, value our young people. You may think we’re sexy (the white, gender-conforming, able-bodied ones, anyway), you might love it when we spend money on your products, you might love having a few of us at your events to make them seem hip and cool, but you do not value us.

Now for the most difficult and painful part, and that is this: when we do not value young people’s voices and experiences, we create a culture where child abuse is rampant.

This is always the hardest point to defend because adults immediately start telling me all about how they abhor child abuse and how dare I suggest otherwise.

Of course you abhor it. I’m sorry if I suggested otherwise. I am confident that if you believe that a child is being abused, you would do the right thing and notify the authorities.

But would you believe that the child is being abused?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their mom (your friend from the PTA, who’s always so friendly and nice) couldn’t possibly do such a thing?

Would you believe them, or would you assume that their coach, who always finds you after the game and tells you what a great team player your son is, would never do that?

If we tell children that their experiences don’t matter and adults are always right, why would they even bother to accuse an adult of doing something so wrong?

If we tell children that they’ll understand when they’re older, why wouldn’t they just shrug and try to cope until it stops?

If we tell children that they are not mature enough to be granted one of their constitutional rights, which they learn about in school, which other rights will they assume they don’t deserve?

When will we start to matter? When we turn 18? When we turn 21? When we get married and have kids? When we pass your mandatory maturity exam? When we have stable jobs with benefits and 401(k)s? When we’ve paid off all our loans? (That day may never come for me, thanks to people who are much older and wiser than me.) When a neurological test shows that our brain is no longer developing? (You realize that brains continue to grow and change for our whole lives, right?)

Do any of these sound like rational, just standards by which to judge whether or not someone’s opinions matter?

I commit to doing a better job of listening to children, starting with the ones in my house. Their intellectual and moral development is more important than me getting to feel superior about myself.


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When Someone Sets Boundaries With You and You Feel Like Crap

Reflecting on some experiences I’ve had with setting boundaries, I wrote this earlier today:

A crappy thing for which I have no solution:

Someone unintentionally makes me uncomfortable or hurts my feelings. I let them know. They apologize/etc. Then I immediately see a post from them in my feed about how they’re a terrible person because they hurt people and they were just trying to be nice/funny but they hurt someone so they’re horrible. I try to convince myself that this *isn’t* a passive-aggressive attempt to make me feel guilty, because that’s a crappy thing to assume about someone, but it itches all the same.

The thing is, one of the biggest reasons why most people have such a hard time setting boundaries is because they fear hurting people. They are desperately trying to avoid that exact “I am a terrible person” reaction. Obviously, OBVIOUSLY I would never say that you should not use your own Facebook to vent/post about your feelings, which is why I said I have no solution to this. But all the same, this is instant feedback of a sort (“Your boundary-setting makes me feel like a terrible person”) and it speaks volumes.

I was almost tempted here to ask for feedback: Do I need to be nicer when I set boundaries? Maybe I do. But I’m not asking for feedback because I know it would never end. “Yes, you need to be nicer.” “…yup, still a little nicer please!” “You know, you could really stand to be just a little bit more nice.” “Actually, what would be nicest of all is just shutting up.”

People constantly remind me that I hurt them when I set boundaries, so the only way I’ve been able to set boundaries as someone with depression and a lot of feelings and a lot of empathy is to systematically train myself to stop caring if I hurt people (in this specific circumstance). And it feels monstrous. But the alternative is much worse, and in the alternative, ALL the cost is paid by me. Every cent of it. And I have been there, and I’m never going back.

As I said, I don’t have a solution, but I do have a request: if someone setting a boundary with you causes you to immediately jump to “I am a terrible person,” please try to work on that. Probably most people with that reaction (oh hey, including myself!) are already working on it, so I don’t want to come across as condescending or patronizing. But I really feel that interpersonal things would be easier for all of us if fewer people had this automatic reaction.

I could say a lot more here about how that sort of reaction is actually self-protective and serves a purpose for the individual despite feeling like crap in the moment, but I’ll save that for some other time, because the most important thing is that other people’s boundaries are *not about you*; they are not a referendum on whether or not you are “a good person” (there is no such thing), they are not a punishment to you, they are not a weapon used to intentionally hurt you. They are about the safety and comfort of the person who sets them.

In response, someone asked me a question:

Can you give some examples of how to handle boundary-setting better? I realized halfway through reading your post that I respond similarly to “I’m a terrible person” but I have no idea where to start to fix it. How do I not feel terribly?

I responded on Tumblr, but wanted to expand on that response here.

But first I want to also expand the question. The person asked, “How do I not feel terribly?”, but I think there’s another important question to address, which is, “How do I respond properly?” I realize that’s not what they were asking and don’t mean to imply that they should’ve asked that question additionally/instead; just that it’s interesting and important to address. But more to the point, these things are related. The same things that will help you feel better in this situation will also help you respond better, but when you can’t make yourself feel better–and sometimes you can’t–responding well might be the best you can do.

So what follows are some general thoughts about what to do when someone sets a boundary with you and you feel like shit.

1. Why do you feel like shit? Being told that you’ve hurt someone or made someone uncomfortable can kick up lots of old hurts and fears, especially for those of us who have depression and anxiety. These may be particular to you and your own experience, and that’s for you to uncover on your own. But more generally, there are two broad cultural messages that many of us learn that make it very difficult not to have strong negative emotions when someone sets a boundary with us:

  • The idea that there are Good People and Bad People, and only Bad People hurt people (on purpose or by accident). This idea is wrong and harmful and needs to go away. This idea also drives us to dismiss claims that someone we consider a Good Person has hurt someone. Either they aren’t really a Good Person, or they must not have really hurt anyone. The latter is easier to accept, so that’s what we do. In this case, when faced with incontrovertible evidence that you have hurt someone’s feelings, even by mistake, you may conclude that this means you are a Bad Person. It doesn’t.
  • The idea that we must intuitively/magically divine others’ needs and boundaries, and if we can’t do this, then we are Bad At People or Bad At Life or otherwise A Failure. Guess culture contributes to this, I think. So does ableism–some people’s brains make it especially difficult to read subtle cues from others, and we tend to assume that the problem is with these people and their brains, and not with our society and our expectations. So in this situation, if someone is having to set a boundary with you, you may feel that it means you have Failed at intuiting their boundaries and therefore had to be told. In fact, verbally setting boundaries should be considered the default. It is rare to know what someone’s boundaries around everything are, even if you know them quite well.

Understanding that these cultural messages are not necessarily accurate or useful to you is a good first step in learning how to react less negatively when someone sets a boundary with you.

2. A good practice when something happens that causes strong emotions is one that applies to many interpersonal situations, whether or not they involve boundary setting: before responding in any way (to the person directly, elsewhere online, etc), take some time just for yourself to process how you’re feeling. Name the feelings to yourself. “I feel angry that they told me to stop doing this.” “I feel depressed and worthless because I did something wrong.” “I am a piece of shit because I hurt a friend.” Name the feelings even if you feel ashamed of them.

This is a little more complex than the standard “breathe in and count to ten” advice. Yes, that can help you not respond automatically in a way you’ll regret, but it doesn’t necessarily help you understand or deal with what you’re feeling.

3. Intentionally think about how these emotions may impact your response. “I’m really angry, so I might yell at them.” “I feel really upset and self-destructive, so I want them to make me feel better.” Thinking about this will help you make sure that your response is what you want it to be, not what jerkbrain is yelling at you to do. It will also help you understand why you’re feeling pulled towards a particular response (yelling, shutting down, crying, ignoring the person, etc).

4. Give yourself permission to be upset/angry, even if you wish you weren’t. Being upset/angry isn’t the problem; lashing out at people or making them responsible for your feelings is. Make a pact with yourself: “I get to feel absolutely however I feel about this as long as I make sure that I’m treating people the way they should be treated.”

5. If talking to people tends to help you feel better, consider reaching out to a friend (not a friend who’s involved directly in whatever it was that made you upset). Explain to them that you’re not asking for reassurance that you did nothing wrong; rather, you’re asking for reassurance that you’re still a good person even though you did do something wrong.

This is important because sometimes our friends care about us so much that they take “sides”: “Wow, what an asshole, what’s their problem, you didn’t do anything wrong!” This might feel good to you, but it doesn’t help you treat others well.

It might help to share with them the fact that you’re doing all this work to make sure that you still respond appropriately when called out for crossing a boundary, so that they can give you some positive reinforcement for being awesome and handling this in such a good way.

6. Practice encouraging yourself to feel gratitude towards the person who set the boundary with you. This may feel out of place right now, but I find that it helps me reframe things. “I’m glad that [person] felt comfortable enough with me to let me know I was crossing a boundary.” “[Person] helped me learn how to treat them better, that’s awesome.” If this person is doing you a kindness by setting a boundary with you, then you can’t be a terrible person, because if you were, then you wouldn’t have such great friends who help you be even better!

7. Ask yourself, what is the function of feeling like a terrible person when someone sets a boundary with you? That may sound like a weird question, but it’s one I think about a lot both as a therapist and as someone working through depression. Automatic emotional responses often have a defensive function, even if they feel very bad.

Sometimes, the automatic “I’m a terrible person” response has the function of allowing you to avoid engaging with the situation fully. If you’re a terrible person, well, obviously you’re just going to fuck up and trample all over people’s boundaries and there’s nothing to be done about it. If you’re a terrible person, then you don’t deserve this friend anyway and you might as well cut them off now that they’ve set this boundary. If you’re a terrible person, then you deserve some sympathy right now rather than having to respond to this person who’s just made you feel so bad.

Understanding this dynamic won’t necessarily make you stop feeling “I’m a terrible person” in response to things like this. We can’t always choose our feelings, though we can shape them with practice.

If you realize that your automatic responses are serving the function of allowing you to avoid difficult situations like this, you may feel even more crappy and guilty than you felt before. I’m sorry if I’ve added to that. But you can also use this knowledge to reframe future automatic responses in ways that help you move through them. “My brain is telling me that I’m a terrible person to help me avoid this challenging situation, but I want to face this situation instead and deal with it like the sort of person I want to be.” You can tell yourself that your brain’s just trying to look out for you and keep you safe, but it’s not doing so in a very helpful way right now.

In conclusion, shitty feelings happen, self-awareness helps, and your automatic emotional responses don’t have to determine the actions you ultimately choose.


For some more general emotion management advice, Olivia has a great series on DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills on Teen Skepchick. Although DBT was originally developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, it’s extremely useful for many people, including those without any diagnosable mental illness, because it teaches basic adulting skills that most of us are never taught. If you have a bit of money to invest in this effort, I recommend this workbook.


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Setting Boundaries With Your Therapist

It’s a rare relationship that doesn’t require any boundary setting, and the therapeutic relationship is no exception.

Setting boundaries is something many people find difficult for all sorts of reasons–fear of rejection, uncertainty over whether or not your desired boundaries are legitimate (spoiler alert: they are), a history of getting bad reactions from people when setting boundaries with them, and so on.

It’s especially difficult to set boundaries with people you perceive as having more power than you, whether they actually do or not. Therapists are often perceived as having power over their clients because of their expertise and authority, and because it can feel like your therapist is holding your mental wellbeing in their hands. Sometimes that power is more tangible–for instance, in cases where counseling is mandated or when the client needs their therapist to sign off on or approve something. And sometimes that power is compounded by structural factors, like when a client of color works with a white therapist or a queer client works with a straight therapist.

Although these power differentials are real and have consequences, it might be helpful to reframe the client-therapist relationship slightly. Namely: you, as a client, are employing your therapist. Your therapist works for you. Most likely, either you or your insurance company (or both) are paying this therapist, not the other way around. If your therapist isn’t helping you, or is doing something that you find harmful, you have a right to let them know and to expect them to fix the problem. You can fire a therapist who is failing to help you just as you can fire anyone else you hired for some task or service that wasn’t done to your satisfaction.

Some therapists may reject this framing because it feels too consumer-y, or because they worry that this will cause clients to leave them. But I would argue that we shouldn’t be using social norms to trap clients in therapeutic relationships that aren’t working for them, and also, this framing is directed more at clients than at therapists, because I think it will help them feel a greater sense of control over their therapy.

How to know when you need to set a boundary

Therapy can be uncomfortable sometimes. But it should be uncomfortable in ways that mesh with your goals. For instance, if your goal is to learn how to ride a motorcycle, but you’re scared of riding motorcycles, you’re going to be rather uncomfortable. That’s normal and okay. However, if your goal is to learn how to drive a car, and someone is pressuring you to ride a motorcycle instead, that’s not a normal and okay sort of discomfort.

If your goal is to form healthier, more stable relationships with others, you might be uncomfortable when your therapist notes that you seem to assume negative things about people without evidence. You may disagree with your therapist’s observation, at least at first. You may even be right. You may think, “How dare they tell me I assume the worst of people!” But that discomfort is part of the process. Even if your therapist’s observation turns out to be wrong, both of you have gained from this. You’ve gained greater understanding of you. But if your therapist’s observation turns out to be right, then you’ve especially gained.

On the other hand, if your goal is to form healthier, more stable relationships with others, and your therapist suggests that maybe it would help if you accepted Jesus into your life, the discomfort you may feel (at least if you don’t already believe in Jesus) is not part of the process. You and your therapist are at cross purposes. You have already decided that Jesus is not for you.

Not all examples of boundary-crossing are that obvious, however. Many people who go to therapy to deal with trauma report that therapists ask them invasive questions about the trauma, questions that they’re not ready to answer before more trust is built or before they work through things a little more. However, some therapists were trained that they should push for details about traumatic events because talking it all through in detail helps people heal. This theory has since been complicated quite a bit.

Even if sharing all the details of a traumatic event necessarily helped people heal, though, it is crucial that therapists understand that just because the therapy office should be a space where clients feel comfortable sharing anything, that doesn’t mean it automatically is. It can be triggering for survivors of trauma to reveal intimate details about what they went through to someone who is still basically a stranger to them. It’s perfectly legitimate for them to shut down certain avenues of questioning and to expect therapists to respect that boundary until they are ready to shift it.

Setting a boundary vs. firing

When do you ask a therapist to stop doing something that isn’t ok with you, and when do you simply stop seeing them? In most cases, the answer probably depends on what happens when you try to set a boundary. If your therapist refuses to respect your boundary or argues with it, it might be a good idea to find a different one.

(Note, though, that they might agree to respect your boundary but still ask you questions about the boundary itself. While this can feel uncomfortable, I think that’s usually that better kind of uncomfortable–your therapist needs to understand you and your boundaries in order to be able to help you, and it may also help you to process your reasons for needing the boundary.

For instance, when a client says that they can’t talk about something [yet], I won’t push them to talk about it. Instead, I might say, “How do you feel when you imagine telling me about this?” or “What happened last time you tried to talk about this with someone?” That yields a lot more information than “I really think you should tell me,” and is more compassionate.)

Another way to tell whether to boundary-set or leave is this: think about what it would take for this situation to be okay. For instance, suppose your therapist mentions that attending church might be a helpful way for you to cope with depression because that’s what helped the therapist. This makes you feel really uncomfortable and you don’t want to hear anything else about the supposed benefits of religious observance from your therapist. Imagine you say, “Please don’t mention religion to me anymore; I’m not religious and am absolutely not interested in attending church or hearing anything else about church.” Imagine your therapist responds, “Okay, absolutely. I won’t mention it again.” Does this feel okay to you? Are you okay continuing to open up to someone who might believe that you’d do better if you went to church (but doesn’t say so out loud), or are you still uncomfortable?

If you continue to feel uncomfortable no matter how well the therapist responds to your boundary-setting, then you might need to find a new therapist. The strength of the relationship between a client and therapist is the best predictor of the effectiveness of the therapy, so if you can’t trust or feel comfortable with your therapist, they’re unlikely to be able to help you.

Scripts for setting boundaries

In many ways, setting boundaries with a therapist doesn’t work much differently from setting boundaries with other people. Just as I might ask my friends not to talk about weight loss around me, I might ask my therapist not to mention weight loss in therapy. Just as I might ask a partner not to ask me about [topic], I might ask a therapist not to ask me about [topic].

One difference, though, is that it might be really useful in therapeutic boundary-setting to explain why you’re setting that boundary. With other people in our lives, that’s not always necessary and may be too scary/risky–I don’t want to disclose my history of disordered eating every time I ask someone not to talk about weight loss with me. Your boundaries are your boundaries whether your reason for them is one that others would consider “legitimate” or not. (All boundaries are legitimate.)

But a therapy situation, telling your therapist why you need this boundary gives them useful information that will allow them to help you better. If you say “please don’t mention weight loss because I have a history of harmful behaviors around that,” they might know what else not to mention, or what to ask for permission before mentioning. Knowing that you have a history of harmful weight loss behaviors helps them understand your psychological history and know what to look out for in the future.

Here are some specific examples of ways you can set boundaries with a therapist:

“Please do not ask me about my weight or dietary habits. It’s a trigger for me because of past issues with disordered eating.”

“Actually, I didn’t ask for advice. Please either ask me before you give advice, or wait for me to ask for it myself.”

“The issue I came here to work on was my depression, not my relationship with my parents. Let’s keep our discussion focused on my depression as it’s affecting me right now, because that’s what’s causing the most problems for me right now.”

“I’m not ready to talk about the stuff that happened with my brother when I was little. You can ask me again in a few weeks and I’ll let you know if I’m able to talk about it then.”

“My identity as an atheist is not the reason I’m struggling with depression. If you continue to suggest that my mental illness is caused by atheism, I won’t feel comfortable coming here anymore.”

“I do not believe in karma, Zodiac signs, or any other superstitions. Please stop bringing them up in our sessions and stick with what can be tested scientifically.”

“I need you to stop suggesting that it’s my fault that I’m being bullied. Even if there were some truth to that, it feels like you’re putting all the blame on me and it’s preventing me from opening up to you about things.”

It may feel somehow manipulative to tell a therapist that you won’t tell them things or come back to therapy if they don’t respect your boundaries, but it’s also true. You can’t effectively work with a therapist you can’t trust, and they need to know that.

Also, while I certainly don’t think you should be intentionally mean, don’t worry about the therapist’s feelings. It’s our job to worry about our feelings, and your job to be as direct and open with us as you can be.

When setting boundaries is a challenge

As I mentioned, most people find boundary-setting difficult, especially in situations where they feel that they have less power than the other person. If you’re finding it so difficult to set boundaries with a therapist that you’re unable to speak up about it at all, here are some suggestions:

  1. Practice first. You can practice in front of a mirror, alone in the dark, with a friend–whatever works for you. If you’re practicing with a friend, you can tell them a little about your therapist and what they’ve been doing that’s problematic so that they can roleplay as the therapist. Make sure to be clear with your friend about what you want them to do in the roleplay–for some people, roleplaying “worst case scenarios” (for instance, your therapist arguing with you and refusing to respect your boundary) can be useful because it allows them to prepare; for others, it might just be really anxiety-provoking.
  2. Write it down and bring it to session. If you don’t feel like you can come up with the right words on the spot, write them down and bring them to therapy with you so you can read them or at least refer to them. It might sound weird, but you won’t be the first person who’s done it. Many therapists actually encourage clients to do things like this, because anything that helps facilitate communication in therapy is probably a good thing.
  3. Write it down and email it. Although we often hear about the virtues of Real Face-To-Face Communication, I’d say two things here: 1) text-based communication is also a real and legitimate way to discuss difficult things, and 2) the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you are so uncomfortable bringing something up with your therapist in a session that you’re not going to bring it up at all, try doing the next best thing, which is emailing them. That way, you’ll have ample time to think about what to say and run it by trusted people if you want to. Know that your therapist may respond by asking you to bring this up with them in the next session, so you’ll probably still need to discuss it with them in person, but that initial email can help open the floodgates.
  4. Be transparent with your therapist. You can say something like, “Setting boundaries is really hard for me, so I’m having trouble finding the words for what I’m trying to say,” or “I’m really uncomfortable with something you said in the last session, but I’m scared of bringing it up.” A good therapist will know how to guide you through this and help you speak up.
  5. Don’t worry about bringing things up days or weeks after the fact. You don’t have to have a perfect, firm, concise boundary-setting comeback right away. It’s totally normal in therapy to bring up things that happened a few sessions back. It’s never too late to make sure that therapy is meeting your needs.


Sometimes all people need to hear to be able to set boundaries with their therapists is that they have the right to. Always remember that. Your therapist works for you. Your therapist has expertise, yes, but they are not the expert on you individually. You know way more about yourself and the boundaries you need than any therapist can ever know.

It is true that some of the boundaries you may set may delay your growth or recovery, or make it more difficult for your therapist to understand what’s going on with you. However, what delays your growth or recovery even more is feeling unable to trust your therapist or connect with them. A boundary isn’t a permanent brick wall. It’s a fence. Two people can stand and chat from opposite sides of a fence, and over time, you can choose to build a gate in the fence and open it up, or close it again.


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Reaching Out for Support When You Have a Mental Illness

[Content note: mental illness]

After having written tons of posts about supporting people with mental illness, I realized that there was a gap–I’ve seen few articles about how to reach out for support when you’re the one with the mental illness. Specifically, how to do so in a way that’s respectful of people’s boundaries.

This is a difficult topic, for reasons that I think are obvious. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reaching out for help, ever. I also want to encourage people to be mindful of others’ needs and boundaries, even when everything hurts so much that that feels impossible to do. Especially then.

Why do these two goals feel like they stand opposed to each other? They shouldn’t. Getting affirmative consent before sharing difficult and potentially-triggering things with people isn’t just good for them, it’s also good for you. Most of us who struggle with mental illness have our moments of panic about imposing on others or being a burden on them. Making sure that we’re actually getting their consent before leaning on them for support can help us with those feelings.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the depressed and suicidal person who had to reach out for help, sometimes in ways that didn’t really allow people to say no. I’ve also had people reach out to me in ways that made me feel trapped and coerced. So I think I have a lot of empathy for everyone in both of these situations.

This is a huge topic and this post is very long, but it still doesn’t cover all the nuances. This post is focused on the issue of consent and boundaries specifically, so please don’t be too disappointed if it doesn’t cover everything you thought it would. Suggestions for future posts are welcome as always.

Consent, Consent, Consent

The most important thing about reaching out to someone for support with a mental health issue is to explicitly ask for their consent to have this conversation. This means that, rather than sending them a sudden wall ‘o’ text on Facebook, you might first say, “Hey, can I vent to you about depression for a bit? You can respond whenever you have a moment.” Or in person, if the topic hasn’t come up organically in a way that suggests that they’re ready to hear about it, you might say, “Can we talk about some ED stuff I’m going through right now?”

If you want to talk to someone about things that are fairly likely to be triggering–examples include self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, homicidal ideation, and so on–it’s a good idea to include a content note. In a message or text, that can just look like “TW: anorexia”; in person, you might say, “Can I talk to you about some eating disorder issues I’m having. I might get into detail.” This is important because 1) the person you’re talking to might have their own issues, which you may not necessarily know about; 2) they may be in a space right now where seeing a sudden wall of text about a very serious topic might really stress them out; and 3) regardless, people can often help you better if they have some idea of what you’re going to talk to them about, especially when it’s something pretty serious like that. When I see “Hey, can I talk to you about anorexia?”, I put myself in a different headspace than when I just see “Hey, can I talk to you about some stuff?”.

When you message someone to talk to them about Heavy Stuff and do not give them a warning about the content or an opportunity to politely bow out, understand that you are making it very difficult for them to say no to you, especially if they’re not someone who feels comfortable asserting boundaries (and most people aren’t). You may not intend to make them feel this way, but that’s the effect it often has when you don’t check in to see if it’s okay first.

I’ve gotten sudden walls ‘o’ text while in class, while on dates, when I was just about to fall asleep in bed, while finishing an assignment on deadline, and all sorts of other inopportune times. It put me in a serious bind, because on the one hand I had a really serious message demanding my attention, and on the other hand, I had things that I needed to be doing. When someone suddenly sends me five paragraphs about having an eating disorder and being suicidal, it feels incredibly wrong to say, “I’m really sorry, but I’m busy right now and can’t talk.” I usually do it, but that’s only because I’ve developed very strong boundaries over the years. Most people haven’t.

Another way that you may unintentionally make it difficult for people to set boundaries is by getting their consent for a certain type of conversation (“Hey, got a minute to chat?”) and then, once they agree, making it clearly way more than a minute and more than just a “chat” (“So I’m really really depressed and I think I’m about to lose my job and I just don’t know what to do, I’m almost out of savings and–“). Phrases like “got a minute to chat” and “hey what’s up” are vague, sometimes intentionally so. Once someone gets into a conversation with you, it’s almost impossible to then be like, “Um, actually, I thought this would just be a casual chat; I’m not really available for a conversation like this right now.”

If someone tells you that no, they cannot talk/listen right now, respect that answer, even if it feels unfair or unreasonable. They may in fact be lazy. They may in fact be selfish and callous. They may in fact completely not understand what you’re going through and if they did then they’d listen. They may in fact just be shallow people who want everything to be sunshine and daisies all the time. They may be all of those things, but they still deserve to have their boundaries respected.

The Importance of Being Specific

Consent is one reason why, when you’re reaching out to someone for support, it can be helpful to be as specific and clear as possible about what you need from them. (I say “as possible” because that can be really difficult when you’re in a moment of crisis.) If they know what they’re being asked to do, then they can actually consent to it. But taking a moment to think about what you need from others right now will help you, too–it’s easier to get what you need if you know what that is and ask for it:

“Hey, I need to just vent at someone about some depression stuff. Would you be able to listen for a bit?”

“I’m feeling down and it would be helpful to distract myself. Could you come over and play video games with me?”

“I’m feeling unsafe tonight. Is it ok if I spend the night at your place and just do my own thing with someone else in the room?”

You may, like me, be concerned that if you let people know you’re having a hard time, they’ll try to offer you types of help that you don’t need. In that case, it can be a good idea to be clear about what you’re not looking for, too:

“I’m going through a really rough time. I don’t really want to talk about it, but could we just chat for a while about something else?”

“I’m having a really bad day. I’m not really up for talking to anyone, but could you send me some cute animal videos?”

What if you want support but have no idea what would help? In that case, being specific is clearly impossible. I think it’s better to be transparent and say something like, “I’m feeling really bad and to be honest I don’t know what would help right now. I just wanted to reach out to someone.” Hopefully, your support person might have some ideas about how to help or what to say.

The reason this sort of transparency is helpful is because otherwise, the person might assume that you do need something specific and you know what that is, but that they need to somehow intuit it. Or they may ask you what they should do, which can be stressful for you to have to respond to.

As a more long-term strategy, though, it might be helpful to try to figure out what other people can do that would help you feel better, so that you know what specifically to ask for from them. If you have a therapist, they can help with that project. If not, you can ask others who struggle with similar issues (maybe on a support forum if you don’t know anyone personally) what works for them. Just because you have similar issues doesn’t necessarily mean the same things will work for you, but there’s a good chance you’ll find something.

Why This Can Be So Hard

Back to the issue of boundaries. For many of us, the pain of mental illness is so strong that it’s hard to empathize with someone who says it’s too much for them to hear about. Resentment can build. You think: “They can walk away from this conversation, but I have to live with this my whole life.” When someone is unable to listen to us talk about how awful we’re feeling, that can kick up those feelings of resentment.

But just as we ask our friends, partners, and family members not to take it personally that we have a mental illness, we should try not to take it personally when they have their own feelings and limits. There’s a reason psychologists have a concept called “vicarious traumatization,” and a reason why therapists and social workers have such high burn-out rates. Of course, you may not be asking them to do anything close to what a therapist does, and they may not experience it as “traumatization,” but the point is that being very close to someone’s pain can have an impact. In addition, your support people may be dealing with their own mental health issues, which you may or may not know about. They may want to listen to you, but may be unable to because of what it brings up for them.

One last thing I want to say about this is that for me personally, depression made it really difficult to see how my own pain was hurting others. I don’t mean in that awful way that we talk about, where people take our pain as a personal insult or expect us to be happy all the time. I mean that seeing someone you love in pain hurts. Legitimately. But when I’m depressed, I think I’m so awful that I don’t understand how anyone could possibly care that I’m hurting–even though I reach out to them with the hope that they’ll listen. (Mental illness causes many such contradictions.) And when they say that they care so much that it’s really difficult for them to hear about it, it sounds like they’re insulting and patronizing me, presumably to “get out” of having to listen to me. That this perception is often wrong is something that I had to recover from the worst of it before I could understand.


Reading this, you may realize that you have overstepped boundaries in the past. (Or maybe you already knew this.) Mental illness can make people feel like they’re horrible and deserve to die, and realizing that you have overstepped boundaries may exacerbate this.

Try to be gentle with yourself. Mental illness can provoke boundary-crossing behavior, and while it’s important not to use this as an excuse not to work on it, it also means that you’re not a terrible person, and you can get better–both in terms of boundaries and in terms of your symptoms themselves.

Talking about this issues presents what The Unit of Caring refers to as a competing access needs problem. Some people will really benefit from this advice. Some people may already be so terrified of violating boundaries that they almost never ask for the help they need. (This may be surprising given that I wrote this post, but I’m squarely in the latter group.) Mental illness also complicates matters in that people may simultaneously be excessively terrified of crossing boundaries, while also sometimes crossing boundaries!

If you feel that implementing this advice will do harm to you, then don’t implement it. However, I would posit that it would actually be helpful for most people, because my core message here isn’t “You should be Very Very Careful about not violating anyone’s boundaries,” but rather “Hey, here’s how to reach out for help in a way that respects people’s boundaries.”

Supportive People Who Aren’t Really

One reason you may be terrified of crossing boundaries is because you may have done your due diligence and followed all this advice and then still had people tell you that you’ve overwhelmed and burdened them and they never wanted to help you this much but felt obligated to. There’s a lot going on here, such as:

  • Poor boundaries on the part of those people
  • People being used to passive communication and reading unspoken messages into your words that you never put there (such as, “If you don’t help me I will hate you/hurt myself/etc”)
  • A duty-centered view of relationships (believing that being your friend/partner/family member obligates them to help you whether or not they want to or can safely do so)
  • Simple ableism: believing, however implicitly, that your mental illness makes you so weak and helpless that they are ethically obligated to help you, no matter at what cost to them

The plentiful existence of people who act in these ways makes it difficult to talk about boundaries and mental illness. If we’re constantly accused of being burdensome and asking for too much no matter how careful we are, that can easily obscure the fact that sometimes we really do reach out to people in ways that make them feel like they can’t say no. But remember: both of these things can be true, and are true. They sound contradictory but are not.

There’s no simple way to fix this problem. If you’re not sure whether or not you’re being mindful of boundaries, it might be worthwhile to consult a friend that you trust to be honest and ask them for feedback. And if you notice that there are people in your life who keep telling you that it’s okay to vent about your feelings or to ask them to take you out for ice cream but then it turns out that they never wanted to help you and only did it out of a sense of obligation, it might be time to downgrade these people from “friend that I ask for mental health support” to “acquaintance that I talk about Marvel films with.”

Whatever their reasoning for not being honest (or not being aware enough of their own needs to be able to be honest), it’s not a healthy dynamic. It’s the sort of dynamic that leads many of us to feel like such awful burdens all the time. It’s the sort of dynamic that can make it really difficult to take this blog post seriously, because if people are constantly calling you a burden when you’re not, you may not be able to recognize the ways in which you might actually be crossing boundaries.

Of course, supportive people are difficult to come by and it can feel counterintuitive to stop going to these people for support when they seem to be acquiescing. (And if you ever feel like it’s a matter of life or death, please, do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe.) But they’re not, in fact, supportive people. If they were, they would properly set boundaries with you in a way that’s compassionate but still assertive. Pretending to consent and then blaming you for believing them is an unkind and unsupportive thing to do.


If you are in crisis and do not feel safe, and none of your support people are available to talk to, please call 911, go to the ER, or call one of these hotlines if you don’t feel safe doing the first two things:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
  • The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ youth)
  • Trans Lifeline

Physical Space, Mental Accessibility

This is a short post in which I’m going to make a request: if you organize events, run meetings, teach classes, or do anything else that requires getting a bunch of people to sit in the same room together, please give some thought to making sure that people have ample physical space.

I recently finished graduate school, which is a relief for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I will (probably) never have to sit in a classroom again. I found most classrooms really stressful because I never had enough personal space. Often there’d be only six inches (or less) between me and the people next to me, and we’d be accidentally elbowing each other and reading each other’s notes for two hours straight. Getting up to step out and use the restroom or get a drink of water turned into a disastrous mess of trying to wriggle out of my seat without touching anyone or disturbing the class (so, basically impossible). If I needed to make some notes about something personal (reminders, to-do’s, rants), I could count on at least two people seeing it without even meaning to. If somebody next to me was coughing and sneezing, I could count on it getting all over me, even if they were trying to be mindful of that.

Similar issues frequently come up at work meetings, conferences, and anywhere else I have to sit in a room full of people. I end up spending meetings and events that are meant to be educational, productive, and/or fun scrunched up with my knees pressed together and my elbows jammed into my sides, ignoring my need to use a restroom or get a drink of water, hunched over my notebook so that people don’t read my notes over my shoulder, and panicking like hell.

I’m sure some people don’t mind it, but by now I’ve had enough conversations with people about this to know that I’m far from the only one who finds it really anxiety-provoking to not be able to have a personal bubble at all. And that’s not even getting into the issue of mobility aids and people who use them. As uncomfortable as I must be in spaces like these, someone who uses a wheelchair or has difficulty sitting down/standing up must be even more uncomfortable.

I know that sometimes giving everyone sufficient space is impossible. I know that people have different norms about what’s “sufficient space,” and a lot of this is culturally specific. I know that it’s a trade-off between personal space and audience size. Yes, I know.

But often it feels like no thought is given to this at all, that people who organize or lead these events (even social work professors or professionals who ought to know) don’t even realize that having to sit very very close to other people can be really anxiety-provoking to some people, and that anxious people aren’t necessarily the most effective students, audience members, or meeting attendees.

There are some things you can do to make this better if you organize spaces like these:

  • Consider a maximum attendance limit, if you don’t have one.
  • Think about how you’ve arranged the seating. So often I hear “LET’S ALL SIT IN A BIG CIRCLE SO THAT WE CAN ALL SEE EACH OTHERS’ BEAUTIFUL SMILING FACES” and I feel that drop in my stomach. Yes, it’s nice to sit in a big circle so that we can all see each others’ beautiful smiling faces, but some spaces/audience sizes cannot accommodate this comfortably. Consider arranging the chairs in rows instead.
  • Do not, do not, do not pressure people that you see have chosen to sit in the back, off to the side, or somewhere else that’s not close to other attendees. I’m so sick of hearing “BUT DON’T YOU WANT TO SIT UP HERE WITH EVERYONE,” which is not something to which I can reasonably say “no.” Assume that people have a legitimate reason for choosing to sit wherever they choose to sit.
  • If there are lots of rows of chairs, make sure to include aisles so that people sitting towards the middle of the room still have a way to get up and step out if they need to.

I’m sure this can never be fixed entirely and I’m not asking for a perfect world in which there’s always at least two feet between me and other people, but this would be a nice start. Accessibility has both physical and mental components–can people physically access the space, and also, can they actually feel mentally okay enough in that space to do what they’re supposed to do there? Both of these are important.

Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions

Sometimes when I talk to people about the importance of reading nonverbal cues–in sexual situations and also in general–they tell me that they avoid doing so because they don’t want to “assume.” Paying attention to people’s nonverbal cues feels to them like making assumptions about people’s internal states based on very limited information.

Not wanting to leap to unwarranted conclusions about people’s thoughts and feelings is an admirable goal, but I think there’s a misconception at work here about what reading body language means in a practical sense, and I think that pop psychology is partially to blame. We’ve all seen those Cosmo and Psychology Today articles that are like “Ten Ways To Tell If He’s Into You Based On His Eyebrows” or “Your Kids May Be Lying To You: Just Check The Position Of Their Feet To Know For Sure.”

As exciting as it may be to literally read people’s thoughts and intentions based on the position of their feet or eyebrows, I’ve yet to see any actual research evidence for any of this.

Even psychology textbooks spread this false “mind reading” meme. I’ve seen sentences like “We are all expert mind readers! For example, this study shows that people can generally tell if a person in a photo is angry or happy.”

No wonder some people think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to do the impossible and read minds. And no wonder some people also think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to leap to wildly specific conclusions like “This person’s tone of voice suggests that they are sad and not really paying attention to our conversation because they’re thinking of their mother who’s in the hospital.”

Here’s how this works in a more practical sense. Yesterday morning I took an Uber to the airport. It was 5 AM. I had had about four hours of bad sleep. The following conversation ensued:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia.

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Whoops. It’s C then.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: Ohio.

Driver: Where in Ohio? Cleveland? Columbus?

Me: [city].

At this point the conversation ended, and we didn’t speak again until we arrived at my airport and he wished me a safe trip and I wished him a nice day. I presume it ended because I was answering as briefly as possible and my tone was completely flat. I was literally only giving the driver the information he was asking for (whether because of social norms or because of a need to get me to my destination) and volunteering nothing more. I wasn’t reciprocating my driver’s cheerfulness and bubbliness at all.

Maybe I hate small talk. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m feeling really anxious about flying. Maybe I’m on my way home to see a seriously ill family member (thankfully, I was not). Maybe I just personally hate this driver with all my heart and do not want to say a single word more to him than is absolutely necessary. Maybe I hate all people. Maybe I have depression.

The cool thing is, it doesn’t matter! The driver correctly picked up on the fact that, for whichever of many possible reasons, I wasn’t feeling like talking, so he stopped trying to talk to me after that brief exchange. No mind reading was necessary. All he had to do was pay a minimal amount of attention.

The conversation could’ve gone very differently. Sometimes when I am in fact less tired and physically miserable, I do engage Uber drivers in conversation because I like talking to people. It could’ve just as easily been like this:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia!

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3, I believe.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Oh, oops! That’s the one I usually fly out of. I meant C.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: [city], Ohio. I get to see my family this weekend!

Driver: That’s wonderful! Do you get to see them often?

Me: No, not too often, so it’s always special when I do. Does your family live nearby?

And so on. I’ve had a lot of conversations like this.

And for all the driver in that parallel universe knows, maybe I’m just in a cheery mood. Maybe I love small talk with strangers. Maybe I’ve been feeling really lonely and just want to connect with someone, anyone. Maybe I just drank two coffees and have energy that I just need to use somehow. Maybe something about this particular person appeals to me and makes me feel like chatting. Who knows? Clearly I’m interested in having a conversation, so he would feel comfortable continuing it.

Incidentally, many people would consider the way the conversation actually went to be a “failure”: either because I “failed” to respond to this person’s attempt to engage me in conversation, or because the driver “failed” to keep trying to get me “out of my shell” or whatever. I’m not exaggerating; some people really do think this way. Some people would ask me why I didn’t just have a friendly chat with the nice man. Other people would ask him why he’d just stop trying and let his passenger sit there in silence.

But I think that our interaction was a complete success. I was able to enjoy (insofar as I was able, at 5 AM) a nice, quiet drive. While I obviously can’t presume how the driver felt, his body language and tone when we said goodbye at the end of the drive suggested that it went just fine for him too. Nobody had to bend over backwards out of a sense of obligation or politeness.

Unfortunately, while this experience isn’t entirely rare for me, it’s not as common as it should be. I have had people who know me far, far better than this driver–enough to know that I generally dislike small talk and that I tend to be extremely fatigued, for instance–try to engage me in small talk despite monosyllabic responses, flat tone, and closed body language from me. Some of these people intentionally wanted to cross my boundaries in this way, but not all of them.

And I’m specifically talking about the ones that didn’t. I’m talking about the ones who on some level expected me to directly state, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” before they would stop trying to have a conversation with me. On some level, they thought that reading nonverbal cues is unnecessary because direct, effective communication means that I should have to verbalize “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” every time someone tries to engage me in a conversation that I don’t want to have.

Maybe this seems like a reasonable assumption, but in that case, as an experiment, keep track for a day or several how often someone makes small talk with you (or something else in that vein) when you’d rather they didn’t and wish they would stop. Imagine if they never, ever stopped unless you either left their physical vicinity or said, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now.”

It would be exhausting. It would be completely exhausting if every time I’m too tired, stressed, worried, sad, physically uncomfortable, focused on something else, or otherwise mentally occupied to have a conversation, I had to explicitly state this or else the person would continue trying to have a conversation with me.

And here’s the thing–you don’t have to have any idea at all what’s going on with me to pay attention to the fact that I’m acting like I don’t want to talk right now. You don’t have to read my mind. You just have to notice, “Huh, they’re not making eye contact and they’re answering monosyllabically.”

At that point, a number of things can happen. You can just stop, like the driver from this morning did. You can say, “Sorry, it looks like this isn’t a good time. Catch me later if you want to talk?/Should I leave you alone?” Often the response will be something like, “Yeah, I’m just really tired right now. I’ll talk to you later.” Or it might be, “Sorry, I’m just a little out of it. Keep talking, I’m listening.”

No discussion of nonverbal cues and the importance thereof is complete without an acknowledgment of the fact that some people have a lot of difficulty with this. That’s okay! That’s why it’s so important to provide resources that help people learn how to read nonverbal cues, because otherwise many people just assume that this is something we all “naturally” know how to do. But we don’t, for all sorts of reasons such as neurodiversity or cultural differences. For instance, if I grow up in Russia and learn how to read nonverbal cues as a Russian person, I may not be as effective at it if I suddenly move to the United States.

And it’s also important to note that we may misinterpret nonverbal cues from certain categories of people because of preconceived notions we have about those people. The nonverbal cues of disabled people may be inaccurately perceived as angry. The nonverbal cues of (white) women may be inaccurately perceived as insecure or uncertain. The nonverbal cues of Black men may be inaccurately perceived as threatening.

In general, if you know that you have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues in useful ways, you can supplement that with direct, verbal communication. That can look like, “I’m not sure if you feel like talking right now or not. It’s okay if you don’t, but can you let me know?” Or it can look like, “Hey, I have a lot of trouble reading nonverbal cues. If we’re ever talking and you don’t feel like talking anymore, can you please say so directly so that I don’t accidentally keep bugging you?”

I want to be careful and not hold nonverbal cues up as some perfect, ideal way of getting information about people’s needs and feelings. There’s a reason why people are cautious about nonverbal cues and wary of making assumptions based on them.

However, refusing to observe and respond to nonverbal cues also puts a lot of pressure on anyone who wants to exit a social situation or be given more physical space or be left alone or whatever. It’s reasonable to assume that someone who doesn’t make eye contact, closes their body off from you, answers tersely, and generally shows no interest in continuing a conversation probably has no interest in continuing a conversation. But if you’re unsure, you can always ask.