A Vacation from Emotional Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

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Emotional Labor: What It Is and How To Do It

Ages ago, I read this fantastic piece about practical things men can do to support feminism. Almost every item on the list really resonated with my experience, and this was one of the most resonant:

2. Do 50% (or more) of emotional support work in your intimate relationships and friendships.

Recognize that women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labour and that being responsible for this takes away time and energy from things they find fulfilling.

Since this was just a list, that’s all it had to say about this very important topic. As I shared the article and discussed it with others, especially men, I realized that many men don’t actually know what “emotional labor” means. That, I think, is part of the problem.

I kept meaning to write a piece that explains the concept, but life happened, and I forgot. Then I read this brilliant thing:

We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”

This, in turn, spawned this great Metafilter thread in which people discuss their experiences with emotional labor. And, that, finally, led to this Ask Metafilter thread, which addresses the very question I initially meant to address: what is emotional labor and how do you know if you’re doing your fair share of it?

If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read these resources, because they’re extremely useful and accessible. I wanted to highlight some of the contributions to the Ask Metafilter thread here.

The original Ask Metafilter post:

# Partnered Life

* Am I checking in with my partner to see if they had a rough day?
* If so, am I stepping up to make their life easier in other ways (cooking, cleaning, etc.)?
* Am I open and clear about my wants, and not forcing my partner to guess/drag it out of me?
* Am I contributing constructively to planning of meals, events, trips, etc?
* Am I actively trying to make my presence feel safe for my partner?
* Do I try to do nice things for my partner without being asked (flowers, treats, etc.)?
* Do I take care of my own administrative life (paperwork, bills) without needing to be repeatedly reminded?
* Am I supportive of my partner’s decisions, big and small?
* Am I respectful and validating of my partner’s emotions?
* Am I vocally grateful when my partner goes out of their way to do something nice for me?
* Am I nice to my partner’s family [if that’s a thing they want]?

# Friend Groups

* Do I work to coordinate peoples’ schedules so that we can have a nice picnic/party/board game night/etc.?
* When planning an event, am I conscious of possible interpersonal conflicts?
* When planning an event, do I take into account different peoples’ preferences for food, beverages, music, etc., so that no one feels excluded?
* Do I actually have everything prepared in advance for an event I’m hosting, or at least clearly and fairly delegated?
* If there is an imbalance of emotional or physical labor occurring, am I willing to risk social awkwardness to improve the lot of those negatively affected?

# Third Party Relationships (Familial & Otherwise)

* Do I remember to make phone calls and visits to people I care about and want to have relationships with?
* Do I remember to send cards to people I care about?
* Do I send thank you notes to people to acknowledge their emotional labor for me?
* Am I actively sensitive to and supportive of people who are experiencing a difficult time (death of spouse/child/pet, etc.)?

User phunniemie adds:

I’d add “am I going to the doctor regularly” to what you have.

I hear a lot of guys (I take it you are a dude) complain (complain, or even just mention offhand) all the time about x, y, or z weird body thing that they have going on, but 9 times out of 10 (actually more, but then we’re getting into fractions) when I ask if they’ve talked to a doctor about it their response is no, or it’s not that big a deal, or they can’t because they don’t have a doctor despite living in the same place for 5+ years. So now they’ve involved me in concern for their Problem Freckle but have no ability or intention to manage it themselves.

Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and being proactive about your healthcare (physical and mental) so that the women in your life don’t have to feel like your nurse.

WidgetAlley adds:

Huge one for me, especially in reference to mental illness or trauma or disorders: are you doing your own emotional work?

This means asking for support and accommodation for your feelings and your illness if you need it, and negotiating with your partner about your needs, but also not making your problems their problems. If you have depression or past trauma, tell your partner– don’t make them guess. Ask them to make reasonable adjustments to their behavior and interactions if you can, or if you’re not sure what you need, just keep them in the loop as much as you can.

And then, do your own work and get to a doctor, a therapist, or another appropriate person who can help you in a solid professional context. It’s reasonable and sane and wonderful to ask for support and love and reassurance, but don’t make fixing your own internal workings your partner’s problem any more than you can help it.

wintersweet adds:

Do I pause to observe the context (my partner’s body language or current activity, what’s been happening today, etc.) before I involve my partner in something me-focused? (Whether that’s a request or a touch or whatever.)

Am I answering my partner’s bids?

Am I taking responsibility for my own reminders by putting things in a calendar app or whatever reminds me to do things?

Am I aware of all the unseen work involved in things like meal preparation*, and am I educating myself so that I can share the work?

HotToddy adds:

How often am I saying knee-jerk defensive things like “I forgot,” “I’m trying,” “I’m doing my best,” “It’s not a big deal,” vs “Oops, shit, I’m sorry, let me [take independent action and come up with my own fucking idea for how I can finally make this change that you’ve repeatedly told me is important to you and that I’ve said I would do but still haven’t].

RogueTech adds:

Am I difficult as hell to work with and expect everyone to work around it because I present as male?

E. Whitehall adds:

Are you interrupting your partner unnecessarily? Is their busy-ness less valuable to you than a question you could likely just Google instead of interrupting them? Consider whether you really need to ask them, specifically, right now, about this particular thing. Consider whether you’ve actually looked for answers. Have you googled? Have you checked the most likely places? Several times? Have you actually reached in and looked with your hands for whatever you’ve lost?

There are a lot more great examples in the thread, but this should give you some sense of what emotional labor is.

You might notice that some things in the thread sound like “bare minimum for being a decent friend/partner” type things, such as respecting and validating others’ emotions. Others sound like things that aren’t necessary (or even desirable) in every relationship. The important thing is that there’s a balance. If you and your friend or partner have the kind of relationship where you share household responsibilities and expenses, for instance, it’s unreasonable for your partner to always have to remind you to do your duties when they never need a reminder from you.

Of course, it’s easy for people to look at these lists and immediately start doing this thing: “Well, but, my partner’s so much better at planning things than I am, so of course they plan all of our social events as a couple” or “Well I have a mental illness and my friend doesn’t, so I can’t always be expected to remember to ask about their day the way they ask about mine.” Okay. This isn’t a be-all end-all list, and different people’s situations have their own particular needs and restraints. I encourage you not to get too hung up on any particular item on the list, and instead focus on the concept itself.

The point is that, for the most part, women are expected to do a lot of these sorts of things in relationships and friendships, and men are not. It may well be that men are on average objectively worse at them than women are, but that’s only because they’ve never been held responsible for these things and therefore haven’t developed the skill. Most men have gone their whole lives hearing that women are “naturally” suited for these things and men are “naturally” not, so why bother working on it? Gender essentialism doesn’t exactly foster a growth mindset, and many people don’t realize that things like communication skills and empathy can actually be improved to begin with.

After reading these articles and threads, I started to understand my frustrations with my male friends, roommates, and partners much better, because these imbalances have touched every single relationship I’ve ever had with a man. Male partners have consistently ignored glaring issues in the relationship so that I had to be the one to start the difficult conversation every single time, even though they supposedly had as much of a stake in the relationship as I did. Male roommates have made me beg and plead and send reminder texts to do even the most basic household management tasks. Male friends have tried to use me as a therapist, or drawn me into worrying about their physical health with them while refusing to see a doctor even though they had insurance.

Well-meaning men of varying roles in my life have consistently ignored my nonverbal cues, even very visible ones, forcing me to constantly have to articulate boundaries that ought to be obvious, over and over. (For instance, “Do you see how I’m intently reading a book right now? That means that I’m very interested in the book and am not interested in having a conversation right now.” “Did you notice how I’m hunched over with my arms folded over my stomach and a grimace on my face? This means that I’m in pain and probably not in the mood for cheery small-talk!” “Pay attention to how I’ve got huge headphones on and am staring at my computer screen and typing very quickly. This is why I didn’t hear a single word you just said and now is probably not a good time to chat about your day!”)

This is why being in relationship with men, even platonically, is often so exhausting for me. As much as I love them and care for them, it feels like work.

Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction. It can happen in any relationship, romantic or platonic, serious or less so. I’m pointing out the gendered dynamic here because it’s so extremely prevalent and so very harmful, but if, for instance, you’re a man realizing that you’re doing the bulk of the emotional labor in your relationship with someone of whichever gender, you still have a right to try to sort that out.

I strongly suspect that the emotional labor imbalance underlies part of the problem men often say they have with forming and maintaining friendships with other men. When neither of them is able to rely on the other person to do the emotional labor, relationships fall apart. In friendships and relationships with women, men are able to trust that we’ll handle all that messy feelings stuff.

I also suspect that this underlies the fear and anger with which some men respond to women’s emotional unavailability. That’s not to excuse the manifestations that these emotions often take, but to explain them. I empathize with this, because it must be terrifying to feel like you can’t deal with your own stuff and the person you thought was going to help you is refusing to. It must be especially terrifying when you don’t even know where the feelings are coming from, when you can’t even tell yourself, Okay, this is scary because I’ve never had to do this for myself and now it’s time to learn how.

It would be like if you’ve gone your whole life having fully prepared meals just suddenly appear in front of you whenever you’re hungry (or whenever you say the words “I’m hungry”), and suddenly you’re being told that not only will the prepared meals not be provided anymore, but now you have to go out and hunt and gather for yourself. Whaaaat.

Emotional labor is often invisible to men because a lot of it happens out of their sight. Emotional labor is when my friends and I carefully coordinate to make sure that nobody who’s invited to the party has drama with anyone else at the party, and then everyone comes and has a great time and has no idea how much thought went into it.

Emotional labor is when I have to cope, again, with the distress I feel at having to clean myself in a dirty bathroom or cook my food in a dirty kitchen because my male roommate didn’t think it was important to clean up his messes.

Emotional labor is having to start the 100th conversation with my male roommate about how I need my living space to be cleaner. Emotional labor is reminding my male roommate the next day that he agreed to clean up his mess but still hasn’t. Emotional labor is reassuring him that it’s okay, I’m not mad, I understand that he’s had a very busy stressful week. Emotional labor is not telling him that I’ve had a very busy stressful week, too, and his fucking mess made it even worse.

Emotional labor is reassuring my partner over and over that yes, I love him, yes, I find him attractive, yes, I truly want to be with him, because he will not do the work of developing his self-esteem and relies on me to bandage those constantly-reopening wounds. Emotional labor is letting my partner know that I didn’t like what he did sexually last night, because he never asked me first if I wanted to do that. Emotional labor is reassuring him that, no, it’s okay, I’m not mad, I just wanted him to know for next time, yes, of course I love him, no, this doesn’t mean I’m not attracted to him, I’m just not interested in that sort of sex. Emotional labor is not being able to rely on him to reassure me that it’s not my fault that I didn’t like the sex, because this conversation has turned into my reassuring him, again.

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me once every few weeks with multiple paragraphs about his life, which I listen to and empathize with. Afterwards, he thanks me for being “such a good listener.” He asks how my life has been, and I say, “Well, not bad, but school has been so stressful lately…” He says, “Oh, that sucks! Well, anyway, I’d better get to bed, but thanks again for listening!”

Emotional labor is when my friend messages me and, with no trigger warning and barely any greeting, launches into a story involving self-harm or suicide or something else of that sort because “you know about this stuff.”

Emotional labor was almost all of my male friends in high school IMing me to talk about how the girls all go for the assholes.

Emotional labor is when my partners decide they don’t want to be in a relationship with me anymore, but rather than directly communicating this to me, they start ignoring me or being mean for weeks until I have to ask what’s going on, hear that “I guess I’m just not into you anymore,” and then have to be the one to suggest breaking up. For extra points, then I have to comfort them about the breakup.

Emotional labor is setting the same boundary over and over, and every time he says, “I’m sorry, I know you already told me this, I guess I’d just forgotten.”

Emotional labor is being asked to completely explain and justify my boundaries. “I mean, that’s totally valid and I will obviously respect that, I just really want to understand, you know?”

Emotional labor is hiding the symptoms of mental illness, pretending my tears are from allergies, laughing too loudly at his jokes, not because I’m just in principle unwilling to open up about it, but because I know that he can’t deal with my mental illness and that I’ll just end up having to comfort him because my pain is too much for him to bear.

Emotional labor is managing my male partners’ feelings around how often we have sex, and soothing their disappointment when they expected to have sex (even though I never said we would) and then didn’t, and explaining why I didn’t want to have sex this time, and making sure we “at least cuddle a little before bed” even though after all of this, to be quite honest, the last thing I fucking want is to touch him.

Although these discussions cause it to have a negative connotation, emotional labor is not inherently bad. In any healthy, balanced friendship/relationship, the participants are all doing some amount of it, though the total amount varies based on the type of relationship and the needs of those involved. Emotional labor becomes bad when certain people are expected by default to be responsible for the bulk of it even though we’d rather be focusing on other things if given the choice. It becomes bad when it’s invisible, when it’s treated as an assumption rather than as something that the participants of a relationship intentionally discuss and negotiate together.

What might that look like in practice? Here are a few examples:

“I’m struggling with depression right now and am also extremely busy with my dissertation, so I’m not going to be able to do X, Y, or Z in this relationship. Instead, I’m going to make an extra effort to do A and B. Is that okay for you?”

“If we’re going to be living together, I need to make sure that we both do an equal share of X. Does that work for you?”

“I know you’ve had to give me a lot of reminders lately to do basic things for myself and for our household. I’m working on getting better at remembering on my own by [setting reminders on my phone/bringing this up in therapy/starting medication/cutting back on some stressful things]. While I work on this, are you okay with continuing to remind me? If you don’t feel that things have gotten any better in [timeframe], will you let me know?”

“I’ve noticed that you manage a lot of our interactions with my family. I feel like you get along a lot better with them than I do, so maybe it makes sense that you’re the one who plans our get-togethers, but is this okay with you? Do you need me to take more of an active role in this?”

“I’ve been the one who initiates the majority of our plans together, and while I always enjoy seeing you, I need some clarity about this. If you’re not that interested in spending time with me, I need to know. If you are, I’d really appreciate it if you sometimes invited me to do things, too.”

Remember that one way in which imbalances in emotional labor manifest themselves is that it always ends up being the job of the person who does the bulk of it to start these conversations and to let you know that they’re overwhelmed by the amount of emotional labor they have to do. End that cycle. Be the person who brings it up and ask your partner if this is okay for them. Remember that a lot of people who are doing the bulk of the emotional labor, especially women, might initially try to claim that it’s okay when deep down they feel that it isn’t. Leave room for them to change their minds as they feel more comfortable with you, and don’t pull the “But you said before that it was fine” thing.

I absolutely recognize that this work is not easy. If what I’ve described sounds exhausting and overwhelming and maaaybe you’ll just let your girlfriend/friend/etc deal with it instead, I get it. It is hard. But it would be a lot easier if that labor were distributed more fairly. Emotional labor isn’t a silly fluffy girl skill. It’s a life skill.

It’s hard, too, because most men have been intentionally deprived of the language and tools to even think about these sorts of issues, let alone work on them. That’s why so many men don’t even know what emotional labor is, and why they have no idea what to do when they feel really bad except find a woman and outsource the labor to her–often without even realizing why they’re doing what they’re doing. As I said before, this sounds absolutely terrifying and I do not envy men in this regard.

But you can’t get better at what you don’t practice. Start the tough conversations. Pause before speaking and intentionally observe your partner’s body language. Ask yourself, “What could I do to make life easier for her? What things is she doing to make life easier for me, without even being asked?” Spend some time listening to your own emotions and learning to name them before rushing to either unload them on someone else or drown them out with something that feels better.

I do not exaggerate one little bit when I say that if more and more men learn to do these things, we can change the world.

~~~

Although I chose to examine gender dynamics here because that’s what I feel most qualified to talk about, it’s very, very important to note that imbalances in emotional labor also happen along other axes. In particular, people of color often do emotional labor for white people, especially in conversations about race. Just as I was finishing this article, a friend on Facebook posted this poem, which illustrates this dynamic.

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Update: Maecenas, who started the Ask Metafilter thread, has compiled it into this really useful google doc.

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When Someone’s Negativity Makes You Uncomfortable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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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.

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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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How to Motivate Yourself To Read Books

book_selfie3

I read a lot.

A lot of my friends have recently been asking for advice about reading. Specifically, they say that they really value reading (books, generally) and have always seen themselves as people who read, but lately they can’t seem to motivate themselves to do it. This causes a lot of cognitive dissonance.

Usually people have one or both of these problems: 1) motivating themselves to actually pick up a book and read it, and 2) maintaining their focus on that book rather than getting distracted by other things, such as social media or articles online. Although these are slightly different issues, I’m addressing both of them here because some of the same suggestions might help for both.

Some people cite various factors that they think have contributed to the problem with reading, such as: 1) the prevalence of distracting technology, 2) being out of school and no longer being required to read all the time, and 3) being more used to reading short articles online rather than books. While I think that working out what causes difficulty with reading can be useful for you, I also think that the problem can be resolved without that. (See also: solution-focused brief therapy.)

Since I’ve had some of these issues myself and have developed a few practices that help, I decided to put together a blog post for reference for folks who have these issues. I also asked friends what’s worked for them, since this is such a common problem in my social circles, and incorporated their recommendations.

This isn’t “advice” per se; some of these might work for you and some of these might not. If you already know that the problem isn’t [thing] and a given suggestion addresses [thing], there’s no reason for you to try it (except curiosity, maybe). Some of these cost nothing to try, and others cost money. Some address the activation energy problem, and some address the focus problem. Some may feel bad to you, like you’re “giving up” on something important. If it feels awful, you don’t have to do it, but also consider that it might be worth readjusting (at least temporarily) your expectations for yourself.

1. Try reading something easier/simpler/more fun, at least at first.

A lot of people say they have trouble motivating themselves to read books, but what they really mean is Big Serious Books. If you really wish you could just pick up a book already, forget about Tolstoy or David Foster Wallace for now, and pick up a YA novel, a comic book, or something else that’s easy for you to get into. Online fanfiction works too. Saga is an amazing comic book series with big political themes, lots of diversity, beautiful art, and an engaging, suspenseful story. Peeps is a YA vampire novel, but it’s nothing like Twilight. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is, well, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

This seems to work for a lot of people. My friend Nicole says: “When I can’t motivate myself to read, I approach it like I approach exercise–start off with some easier reads to get the momentum going. Definitely doesn’t work for everyone, but when I pick up some Harry Potter or even a Sweet Valley High book (only Judy can judge me), I’m at an easier entryway for reading than if I went 0 to Dostoyevsky.”

This is in some ways one of the hardest suggestions to implement because, I’ve noticed, a lot of people have a lot of shame and stuff around what they read. It’s difficult to feel like you’re Really Reading if you’re reading a comic book or a teen vampire story. But are you comprehending words on a page? Are you making predictions and feeling empathy for a character and wondering what made an author write it the way they wrote it? Then you’re reading.

If you really can’t get past the potential embarrassment of being seen with one of these books, you could buy a protective cover for it, or use an e-reader (more on that later).

You might find that as you (re)develop a reading habit, it becomes easier and easier to read harder and harder things. Tolstoy will always be there for you when you want him.

For me, this suggestion translates as reading fiction rather than nonfiction. Like quite a few like-minded people, I often feel that reading fiction is “silly” and “useless” compared to reading nonfiction, but I often find nonfiction difficult to get into and focus on. When I can’t get myself into nonfiction, I try to overcome that feeling and read some fiction instead. First of all, reading something is better than reading nothing. Second, it’s not even true that fiction is silly or useless; I absolutely learn about the world from it and get writing ideas from it and such.

Although most of my friends say that they have no trouble reading things online and feel that they have replaced books with blog posts and articles, if that’s not the case for you, then blog posts and articles might be a stepping stone to more “serious” reading.

2. Get comfortable.

When I’m having trouble focusing on a book I want to be reading and I can’t figure out why, I do some body scanning. Often I realize that the problem is that I’m physically uncomfortable and it didn’t even make it into my conscious awareness.

Note that this might be true even if you think the problem is that you’re getting distracted by your phone or whatever. I often automatically check my phone when I’m physically (or mentally) uncomfortable as a way to cope with those feelings in the moment. While this can be extremely useful when I have to be there and need to distract myself from my discomfort, it’s not as useful when you need to focus on reading, and when it’s actually possible to resolve the discomfort.

Figure out which reading positions are most comfortable for you. I like to have back support and a surface that is neither too hard nor tries to swallow me. My favorite places to read are hammocks, couches, armchairs, and those lounge chair things they have at the pool, as long as it’s not the hard plastic ones. Unfortunately, reading in bed is not usually something I can make comfortable for long periods of time, and neither is reading at a computer while sitting in some sort of chair. Regardless of what your favorite reading positions are, if you’re doing it for a while, make sure to get up regularly and stretch. Otherwise you’ll find yourself getting stiff and cramped and therefore distracted.

Other factors play into comfort, too. One friend says she reads on her computer using Kindle for Mac, because reading on her computer means that she doesn’t have to turn the lights on–and lights trigger her migraines. In college, I had a Snuggie so that I could stay warm while still being able to flip the pages.

3. Remove distractions.

Assuming that you do have a problem with getting distracted by things, see if you can remove them. If it’s noise, find a quiet place or use earplugs (they’re pretty cheap at any drugstore). If it’s technology, put it in another room or turn it off. I like to go outside with my books and leave other stuff inside.

Sometimes people don’t do this because they assume that if they “really” wanted to read, they’d be able to do it even with the iPhone right there. But that’s not really how motivation/focus works. Most humans like to move in the direction of least effort, at least when we let our automatic impulses take over. You love reading, but you also love Facebook, and Facebook is just easier. That doesn’t make you wrong (or Facebook evil). It’s just a thing that you might need to acknowledge and plan around.

4. Try an e-reader.

Money permitting, e-readers (or e-reading apps on phones) can really help. That’s the thing that worked best for me, and the suggestion I got most often from my friends who say it worked for them. For some people, e-readers are physically more convenient and easy. For some, it’s that there aren’t other distractions on it (like there are on a phone). For other people, on the other hand, reading on a phone is great because it allows you to read in situations where you otherwise might not have been able to. I used to read e-books on my phone while waiting for clients to show up at work.

Those of you who commute on public transit may also find that e-readers/phones resolve a lot of logistical challenges. When I first moved to New York, I had a hell of a time trying to hold onto a pole on a crowded train and a bag or two and a book with pages I needed to flip. Within a few months, I got my Nook, which can be held in one hand and has conveniently-located buttons that flip the pages without a need for another hand. I happily read for hours each week while standing on trains and holding onto poles.

The cheapest current Kindle is $80, and you can even pay for it in installments. It’s probably even cheaper if you get it used. If that’s still not affordable for you but you do have a smartphone, Kindle and Nook both make free apps (and there are probably others). Your local public library might have e-books available for borrowing. Even the one here in my little Ohio suburb has that now. A friend also recommends BookBub as a way to find cheap and free ebooks.

5. If you have to drive a lot, try audiobooks.

Personally, I dislike receiving information in audio format, but some people say this works for them, especially when they have to commute by car a lot. This is also great if you feel like you can’t justify the additional time spent on reading because you have so many other things to do. This way, you’re not expending any extra time on it, just making better use of the time you already have.

6. Make it social.

Reading is generally a very solitary activity, and it’s difficult to spend hours isolated from other people doing something that’s not easily shared with them. So see if you can make it shareable.

Traditionally, people made reading social through book clubs. If that’s an option for you, try it. Note that book clubs need not be in-person/geographically proximate–online book clubs can work a lot better if it’s difficult to find people nearby who share your interests, or if going to in-person events is stressful.

However, there are plenty of ways to make reading social besides book clubs. For instance, you can post book reviews on sites like Goodreads or on Facebook. You can share what you’re reading on social media, and often friends will get excited along with you or discuss the book with you if they’ve read it too. I love to post quotes on Facebook and Tumblr, especially from nonfiction books (but often from fiction too). It helps me feel like I’m doing something good for people by spreading the knowledge I’m getting, and it also gets me some positive reinforcement from people for reading. Everybody wins.

I’ve written before (to a small amount of pushback) that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using this sort of reinforcement to motivate yourself to do things you know are good for you to do. You are not weak or silly or shallow if the encouragement and positive feedback of people you care about helps you do things. Yes, there are downsides to this, but it’s also the way humans work. Be self-aware and use it to your advantage.

7. Take books everywhere.

Take books everywhere you go, even if it’s a situation where people might make fun of you for having a book. (When I used to hang out with friends who were slightly less cool than my current friends, they’d make fun of me for having a book. They’d be like, “What, did you think I’d be that boring?” I’d be like, no, but I thought, what if you were late and I had to wait for you? What if you went to the restroom for a while? What if you needed to leave earlier and I wanted to stay at the coffee shop by myself? That’s to say nothing of public transit.)

If you always have a book, you might find yourself turning to it in those everyday boring situations. In line at the post office. In the doctor’s waiting room. In the train. On your lunch break. At the bar, waiting for your friends to show up. Boredom can be a great motivator.

E-readers help with this, but I’ve been doing it with paper books for as long as I’ve been able to read.

8. Make a habit of browsing bookstores and libraries.

When you’re in a bookstore or a library, there’s really only two things to do: find books, and read books. As a kid I used to walk out of the library with huge towers of books because I couldn’t bear to leave such interesting things in place. I wouldn’t always read all of them, but the excitement of finding something cool in the stacks is its own motivator.

When you find an interesting book, try reading the first chapter (or part of it), not just the jacket copy. If you don’t like it, you haven’t spent that much time. If you do like it, check it out or buy it, and then you’re already hooked and motivated to keep going.

This is also very fun to combine with #6. Make it social. When I was in high school and there wasn’t much else to do, my friends and I made bookstore trips constantly. Nowadays, I like to take people I’m dating (or thinking about dating) to bookstores. You learn a lot about someone that way, and plus it’s fun, and plus it encourages you to read.

Although there’s definitely something special to me about bookstores and libraries, browsing books on Amazon can have some similar effects, especially since it’ll show you similar books to what you’re looking at. I’ve definitely gotten lost in that particular rabbit hole for a while.

9. Graph it, chart it, log it.

This goes along with #6 (making it social) given how social media is these days, but for me, graphing and charting and logging things is also its own reward. I’d imagine the same is true for other nerdy types.

I like recording what I read with Goodreads, and I also use an iOS app called Hours to track how much time I spend reading each book (along with other productive things I do).

But my favorite book-tracking thing by far is this chart created by my friend Malcolm. Malcolm’s aim in creating and using this chart was to encourage himself to read more, but unlike other book-tracking mechanisms, this one tracks the time you spend reading, not the number of books you finish. Sometimes people start books they don’t end up liking but then they don’t want to put them down because sunk cost fallacy + it feels like you get no “points” for a book you don’t finish. This chart acknowledges all the time you spend on books (including audiobooks), whether or not you finish them.

You can see my own version of Malcolm’s chart here.

Some people also find success with HabitRPG, a cute webapp that treats to-do’s and habits as a game and also has an optional social component.

10. Do a little at a time.

For many people, motivation is all about that first push, and then the rest comes easily. Don’t think of it as “I need to read War and Peace.” Think of it as, “I need to read a chapter of War and Peace.” Or even a page. You might find that once you start reading you keep going naturally, or you might not. In that case, you can gradually raise your page goal rather than diving head-first into reading 100 pages a day or whatever.

DailyLit is a website that can help with this by emailing you installments of books each day. HabitRPG, which I mentioned above, can also help, because you can set a daily goal like “read five pages” and see what happens.

Mark Reads, which a few of my friends recommended, is another way to read in installments. In this series, Mark reads books out loud a chapter at a time and reviews them. My friend Suzanne says, “It’s like an online book club led by the kindest, most hilarious person who is never ever prepared for the next twist in the book he’s reading.

11. Shift your assumptions.

Reading is an act that’s all tangled up in things like class, race, gender, and neurotypicality. Sometimes we expect impossible things of ourselves, like reading dozens of dense books each year and being able to regurgitate all their plots or facts on demand, and that leads to a lot of shame that makes reading even more difficult. Sometimes we devalue certain ways of reading (audiobooks, ebooks, social reinforcement, with frequent breaks to check a phone) or certain types of texts (YA, “women’s” literature, fanfiction). Many of us remember our parents or teachers telling us to put that crap down and have held onto those ideas into adulthood.

Yes, I do think that there are ways to evaluate and judge literature, but I also think that what you think is “good” depends entirely on what you need. Recently I read a short self-published novel called Robins in the Night. It was not particularly well-written; it needed a lot of editing and a lot of the stylistic choices seemed stilted or incomprehensible to me. But it was a retelling of the Robin Hood story in which Robin Hood is actually a queer trans woman who stands up against the unjust treatment of a Black man, and at the moment, that’s exactly what I needed to read, “quality” notwithstanding. I recommend it.

As you pursue your reading goals, I recommend keeping some (re)frames in mind:

  • The perfect is the enemy of the good./Reading something is better than reading nothing.
  • Only you get to decide which books are “good” or “impressive” or “valuable” for you.
  • Work with your brain, not against it. If positive reinforcement from your friends helps, use it. If you can’t read for ten minutes without checking your phone, consider figuring out what’s going on with that, but in the meantime, read for ten minutes at a time and take breaks to check your phone.
  • Try to get rid of “should”‘s. Should you read long serious novels? Should you read without an e-reader? Should you be able to read for long stretches of time without taking a break? Should you read quickly? Should you remember everything you read? Should you find nonfiction interesting enough to hold your attention? Maybe, but who cares? Do what you can and what feels right.

What has worked for you? What engaging books do you recommend to someone who’s having trouble picking up a book and staying with it?

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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.

Conclusion

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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A List of Ways I Have Used Trigger Warnings

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

These are some ways I have mentally responded to encountering a trigger warning/content note on the internet:

  1. [ignores, continues reading]
  2. “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
  3. “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
  4. “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
  5. “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
  6. “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
  7. “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
  8. “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about how trigger warnings are nothing but a way for trauma survivors to “avoid challenging material.” I present this list in order to show some more typical ways that people use trigger warnings, such as mentally preparing themselves for the material, choosing the best time to engage with it, and setting up self-care practices that will help.

As you see from #8, yes, sometimes people choose not to engage with triggering material at all. In that latter (and not extremely common) case, it’s useful to remember that people who are triggered by something are usually triggered by it because they have lived it. I’ve sat through many classroom discussions about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, sexism, and other things that I have lived through, and while I occasionally did learn from these discussions, more often I learned little or nothing, because I have lived through it. And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, which is why it can be useful for survivors of trauma to share their experiences with fellow survivors and learn from each other. But that’s usually not what the classroom space is.

I’m also a bit fed up, to be honest, with this deceptive word “challenging.” What is a challenge? Here are some things that I find challenging:

  • applied math problems
  • recipes that involve very precise timing
  • coping with depression
  • keeping my apartment clean when I’m very fatigued all the time
  • wrapping my head around dense and difficult literature or philosophy
  • persuading myself to make the effort to go out and see friends even when I’m wiped out from work, because I know that it’ll be good for me
  • sitting through a very boring class or meeting
  • saying goodbye to people I love after a visit
  • shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod
  • telling someone that I love them
  • addressing situations where I feel like someone is communicating passive-aggressively and we need to get things out into the open and talk about them
  • dentist appointments
  • arguing with someone who thinks that rape victims ever deserve what happened to them
  • economics
  • climbing up four sets of stairs while carrying several bags of groceries
  • figuring out how to properly manage my enormous student debt
  • relationships where I feel like I’m more invested in the person than they are in me

You might notice that many of the things on this list seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other because “challenging” is a very ambiguous word!

There are intellectual challenges, like solving a difficult math problem or understanding a difficult text. There are interpersonal challenges, like figuring out the right way to address a conflict with a partner. There are physical challenges, like climbing a lot of stairs while carrying a heavy load. There are emotional challenges, like coping with depression or with dentist appointments. Some challenges involve combinations of these things. For instance, shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod involves an intellectual challenge (knowing what all those manual settings on the DSLR mean and how to set them) and a physical challenge (holding the camera as still as possible). Telling someone that they have hurt my feelings involves an interpersonal challenge (figuring out the right way to say what I need to say in a way that’ll be effective) and an emotional challenge (dealing with my hurt feelings as I do this).

When people condescendingly claim that college students who ask for trigger warnings are trying to “avoid challenging material,” they are–perhaps intentionally–conflating two meanings of the word “challenging.” Triggering material is emotionally challenging. The challenge is that you feel like you’re about to start screaming and crying in front of your classmates and professor. The challenge is that suddenly you’re back in that bar or that dorm room or wherever it happened, and you’re trying to get away but you can’t get away and you’re trying to scream but nothing comes out. The challenge is that suddenly you’re floating somewhere high above the classroom looking down at yourself sitting there unable to move. The challenge is that you forget who or where you are. The challenge is that your brain starts to empty out like a glass with a crack in it, and no matter what you do you just can’t fill it up again and they’re all looking at you because the professor asked you a question and you have no idea what any of those words meant or how to even make words.

Do we really go to college to encounter this type of “challenge”? No, college coursework is intellectually challenging. The challenge is understanding the nuances of complicated arguments or literary devices. The challenge is connecting ideas together in a way that flows and makes sense, finding patterns in the texts, defending your opinions using evidence from the book. The challenge is being willing to entertain an argument that you personally disagree with, to examine it from all sides. Sometimes, the challenge is memorizing facts, though that’s not so common in college. Sometimes the challenge is writing code that works, or designing a study that effectively examines a particular research question.

You know who would be pretty bad at those types of challenges? Someone who, in their mind, is currently stuck reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Yes, those who insist that trigger warnings are no substitute for professional mental healthcare and that it’s not a professor’s job to heal their student’s personal trauma are absolutely correct. Trigger warnings will not heal trauma. However, they will also not “prevent people from healing” or whatever’s getting thrown out as the latest justification for not using them. What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them. Only sometimes will they cause people to choose not to engage at all, and remember, the absence of the trigger warning wouldn’t have made them engage with it anyway. It would’ve made them try, get triggered, and fail to engage. It’s such a creepy “Gotcha!” sort of thing to insist on tricking people into trying to engage with triggering content by not including a trigger warning when they asked for one.

In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma–the ones that get triggered by things–are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare “instead” of asking for trigger warnings. Engaging with triggering content in a thoughtful, intentional, and controlled way is often part of someone’s healing process and has been recommended by plenty of mental healthcare professionals.

Trauma survivors know best what they need. They don’t know perfectly, but they know better than someone with no experience or knowledge of that trauma. If you don’t want to use trigger warnings, then don’t, and say so. But don’t cloak that unwillingness in a patronizing concern for the survivor’s well-being. We see past that stuff. You’re not the ultimate authority on what we need and what’s best for us. Just say it’s too much of an inconvenience for you and you won’t do it.

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.

Self-Forgiveness

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