Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

I’m currently visiting my family in Ohio, which means catching up on all the gaming I’ve been too busy for during the last five years. My 12-year-old brother and I have a nice symbiosis going: he has a Windows machine, which meant I could install Skyrim on it, and I have a purchased copy of Skyrim. So we take turns watching each other play.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there. Credit: Ekulylnam

Last night, while I was adventuring through the Kilkreath Ruins on a quest from the Daedric Prince Meridia, my brother remarked that he found the cave scary–the creepy noises, the unidentified black mist near the ground–and that started off a discussion about the emotional effects of games and how we feel about them.

My brother said that he’s actually glad that the game is making him feel things again. He has previously played it on Xbox (claiming, in fact, that he “beat the game”), but he said that after a while, he stopped feeling bad when people died or feeling scared by the parts that were meant to be scary. But he prefers to feel those things even though they don’t feel good, because otherwise he worries that he’s becoming unempathetic, somehow cruel. This, he said, is why people should be careful about letting little kids play games: you need to make sure they don’t get used to not feeling things.

I hadn’t actually thought of it that way before, though it seems obvious now. I had always been frustrated by how deeply I felt things that happened in games, and how much that actually restricted my gameplay. My ethics as a game character are not very different from my ethics as a real-life person: I don’t steal (unless, hypothetically, it’s vitally important), I don’t fight anyone who doesn’t fight me first, I try to avoid injuring innocent people with splash damage unless it’s totally unavoidable, I try to persuade people rather than bribing or threatening them, and I don’t hunt wild animals (except the ones that attack me).

But despite everything my brother said, we soon discovered that our styles of play are actually quite different (besides the fact that I play slowly and deliberately whereas he tries to get through quests as fast as possible, a difference that he had already remarked upon in frustration many times). After the Meridia quest, I ended up doing another quest in which I was falsely accused of multiple murders and ended up in a prison mine with people who had attempted (and failed) to recapture the city from people they thought were oppressing them. Together with them, we escaped from the mine, since they all turned out to be very capable mages.

Outside the mine, the escaped prisoners were confronted by prison guards. I had planned to fight alongside them, but here my brother started insisting that I kill the prisoners instead. Why? Because they have really good armor, I wouldn’t get a bounty, and I could kill them easily now that I had my own armor and weapons back. I said, “But they already gave me a set of that armor as a gift.” My brother said, “But it’s really expensive and you could make 10,000 gold just from selling all of theirs.” I said, “But I have other ways to get gold.” He said, “But it’s so easy! Just kill them!”

I knew one thing for certain: I had absolutely zero desire to make 10,000 gold by killing these men. At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to kill them. The idea just felt bad.

And so I told my brother, “Remember how you felt so scared of the cave you asked me to turn the sound down, even though you knew it was irrational? That’s how I feel about killing the men. It would make me feel bad. The point of playing a game is to have fun. That would make it very un-fun for me.”

He immediately stopped trying to convince me to kill the men and never brought it up again.

It’s true, refusing to kill the men was an irrational choice. Within the game, there were no disadvantages to killing them, and one huge advantage to killing them. But outside of the game, the advantage seemed so small–what’s 10,000 gold, really?–and there was also one glaring disadvantage–the fact that I would feel crappy and uncomfortable, partially defeating the entire purpose of playing the game to begin with.

Earlier I might’ve found this frustrating. I thought that I let myself get way too affected by virtual things. I’m the sort of person who would treat even a fairly rudimentary robot as I’d treat a human or a non-human animal.

Now, having had the first conversation with my brother and the subsequent moral dilemma with the prisoners and the guards, I started to think differently about it.

After all, we (I include myself in this) are more likely to think of it as a feature, not a bug, when we experience emotional reactions to things like films and shows and novels. (That, in fact, is what I reminded my little brother when he called me crying after finishing The Little Prince, and again when he called me crying several years later after finishing Flowers for Algernon.) Playful teasing outside, feeling terrified or very sad during movies is pretty standard. Why not in games?

Maybe it’s because we assume that the point of film and literature (as a fan, not a scholar) is to be absorbed into a story. The point of games, some might argue, is more tangible: to shoot stuff, to solve puzzles, to build cool things, to become the best. Stories may matter in games, but they don’t matter the way they matter in films and novels.

And there are definitely games I would play purely for those tangible aspects. I don’t get emotionally invested in the story of my SimCity creations (though maybe some do). I care slightly for the plight of Fez’s Gomez, who has literally had his entire world as he knew it torn to bits, but mostly I’m just there for the cool puzzles.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim's eternal moral dilemma.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim’s eternal moral dilemma.

But with games like Skyrim, I come for the fighting and stay for the interesting narrative, and that generally means starting to feel immersed enough in that world to feel bad when people die needlessly in it. The experience of considering (and strongly rejecting) the idea of killing the escaped prisoners for their valuable armor reminded me of something I think I already knew: that much of ethics, at least for me, is based on automatic emotional responses. Stealing feels bad. Threatening feels worse. Killing needlessly feels even worse.

There must be ethical systems out there that rely on something besides emotion and that still result in minimal harm to other people, but they feel alien to me. In any case, I doubt that those systems would transfer over to virtual worlds. Why bother?

Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course). If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.

But for me–someone who has no interest in participating in or belonging to any sort of “gaming community” and who wouldn’t even take up the label “gamer”–it doesn’t feel like a big deal to say that games make me feel things. Not just general things like excitement or fear, but specific things, like I feel sorry for that man who died even though he’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Or I wish I didn’t have to kill that dragon; it would feel much better if we could just be friends. (That one might be influenced by the fact that I recently saw both How To Train Your Dragon movies and really liked them.)

And now I’ve finally decided that I like it that way. It’s more rich and fun that way, even with the bad feelings too. Like my brother, I like myself better when I feel those things. Embracing that irrationality feels more human to me.

On Gender, Misattribution, and Kendall Jones

I’ve been a little preoccupied with travel and conferences lately, but now hopefully I’ll have more time to write. If you donated to my conference fundraiser, look out for a post thanking you and summing up the conferences, as well as any posts you may have requested.

For now, here’s a Daily Dot piece about Kendall Jones, the Texas cheerleader who’s become, by some accounts, “the most hated person on the Internet” for posting photos of herself with animals she killed in Africa. The rest of the piece cites some cool research, so you’ll want to click through to it.

Observing all of these responses that have been pouring in over the past few weeks, pro golfer John Peterson tweeted, “I support Kendall Jones. If it was a 60-year-old overweight dude posing with his African kills, no one would talk.” While Peterson doesn’t sound like he has a problem with hunting (indeed, his Twitter bio says, “If I could get paid to hunt, id be doin that”), he correctly notes that men who hunt don’t seem to garner such a reaction.

In fact, a Virginia Democrat—not on the ballot but seeking Eric Cantor’s House seat—named Mike Dickinson even publicly offered $100,000 to any “ex-boyfriends” who could provide naked photos or “sex stories” about Jones. (There, I hope, go his electoral dreams.)

First of all, using misogyny—or whatever noxious mixture of elements causes our cultural panic about women, sex, and nude photos—to abuse someone who’s done something wrong is not any sort of justice I believe in. Second, I’ve never heard of anyone bribing people for nude photos of a man, at least not as some sort of convoluted punishment. That threat is used against women and those perceived as women exclusively.

At the same time as the Democrat’s nudie pic requests went viral, a Facebook page popped up calling for Kendall Jones’ death.

I don’t want to say that the Internet hates Kendall Jones just because she’s a woman. To say that would be to conveniently ignore the cruel things that she does in order to make a point about sexism.

A more accurate way to interpret this might be that the Internet hates Kendall Jones because she’s done cruel things, but the only reason everyone even took notice of those cruel things is because Kendall Jones does not look or sound like the type of person we expect to hunt animals for sport.

Normally, the idea of trophy hunting isn’t one that most people, even those who generally care about animals, have much of an emotional reaction to. Some find it acceptable or even laudable; others mildly disapprove—but not enough to have strong feelings about the issue. It wouldn’t surprise me if seeing someone unexpected participating proudly in trophy hunting triggers a negative reaction that people then attribute to the person’s actions rather than their identity.

After all, it takes a lot of self-awareness to notice and think, “Huh, I seem to be having a very strong reaction of anger and disgust when I see a young attractive woman posing with animals she killed, but not when an older man does the same thing.” Most people will instead think, “Wow, I’m very angry about this. It’s disgusting to kill animals for fun like that.”

Most people who experience such a reaction would simply assume that it’s being caused by the most obvious thing: the pointlessly killed animals. They forget all the times they encountered the idea of men hunting animals for sport—because those encounters didn’t register on such a high emotional level.

Read the rest here.

Depression Is Not Sadness (Again)

[Content note: mental illness, depression, anxiety, suicide]

When I think about the frequent charge that therapists and psychiatrists and those who work with them are trying to “medicalize” “normal” emotions like sadness and fear, I think that people don’t really understand how emotions like sadness and fear can be distinguished from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

I’ve tried to explain this to many people multiple times, in person and through writing, and so have many other people with mental illnesses as well as professionals in the field. Yet people continue to conflate emotions and illnesses, or rather to assume that mental healthcare advocates are conflating them. It’s often difficult to continue engaging patiently with this claim.

Even those who are knowledgeable about illness and disability make this error. In an otherwise-fantastic blog post about the medical model of disabilityValéria M. Souza uncritically cites this very inaccurate view of antidepressants:

In The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era, Lennard Davis affirms: “A drug would be a prosthesis if it restored or imitated some primary state that appears to be natural and useful” (64). Davis makes this statement in the context of his argument that SSRIs are not “chemical prostheses” for depression, since happiness is not a “primary state” of being and since there is compelling evidence to suggest that SSRIs do not actually work (Davis 55-60).

I’ll address the SSRIs-not-working thing first since I have less to say about that and it’s not as relevant to this post. The reality seems to be more that SSRIs work well for some people but not at all for many other people and we haven’t really figured out why they work for some people but not others, or more specifically, which types of people they work for and which they don’t. And on a personal note, I’m a little tired of being told that SSRIs “don’t work” when they’re part of the reason I didn’t try to off myself four years ago. There is compelling evidence to suggest they do not actually work and there is compelling evidence to suggest that they do actually work, so I’m comfortable saying that the jury’s still out on this one.

More to the point: antidepressants are not meant to cause “happiness” because depression, the illness they are meant to treat, is not defined by a lack of “happiness.” Depression involves a constellation of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that make happiness very difficult or even impossible. These symptoms have a number of other deleterious effects which vary for different people. There are many ways depression can ultimately “look,” such as being unable to get out of bed, being unable to hold down a job, bursting into tears several times a day over tiny inconveniences or in response to nothing at all, losing your sex drive, being unable to sleep, having to sleep over 12 hours a day, having severe memory loss, losing the ability to enjoy any previously enjoyable activity, experiencing complete emotional numbness, obsessing over death and suicide, physically hurting yourself, or attempting suicide.

Maybe being “happy,” whatever that even means, isn’t a “primary state,” but I would argue that being able to live a relatively normal life in which you can go to school or have a job, have relationships with people, and not want to kill yourself is a “primary state.”

Being treated for (and, hopefully, recovering from) depression does not give you extra things that other people don’t have, such as constant happiness and optimism. It gives you what everyone else has had all along, which is a reasonable and age-appropriate amount of control over your emotional state and the ability to create your own happiness if you want to and make the effort.

By the way, you can definitely be miserable and unhappy without having a diagnosable mental illness, but it’s rare to find a person whose unhappiness is truly caused entirely by their own voluntary actions. Depression can also develop as a result of voluntary actions; for instance, if you have a number of career options available to you but you choose an extremely stressful and mind-numbing (but perhaps lucrative?) option, you might end up becoming depressed because of it. At that point, your best bet might be to find a way to make a career change, but it’s likely that you’ll also need therapy to help undo the maladaptive mental habits that the situation has created. (Medication might help too, but in a case like this I’d personally recommend therapy first.)

I think a better way to explain the difference has been that, at least in my experience of mental illness versus mental health, there are things that mentally healthy people can do to significantly increase their level of happiness, whereas people who are going through a bout of mental illness can rarely make a huge difference just by stopping and smelling the roses or making more time to play with their kids or enrolling in a cooking class or whatever. They can maybe make a small difference, but it’s unlikely to reduce the mental illness symptoms themselves. I used to get so frustrated at things like The Happiness Project and other initiatives of that sort, until I finally realized that they weren’t aimed at me because happiness would literally not even be a possibility for me until I treated my damn mental illness.

(That said, things like that can be very useful for someone whose mental illness is in remission or otherwise low-grade. Right now, I’m not fully symptomatic for depression but I’m aware that it can probably come back at any time, so I do a lot of things to keep my mental health strong to try to avoid it coming back.)

It’s difficult to tease out all the complicated interactions between mental illness, mental health, and happiness, and of course it varies for different people. In my experience–which includes my personal experience, my interactions with friends and partners, and my studies and clinical experience, here it is in a nutshell: untreated/unmanaged mental illness makes happiness virtually impossible to achieve. Treating or managing your mental illness, whether through medication, talk therapy, or personal lifehacking, helps make happiness possible to achieve. But the work of achieving it is still yours to do. No drug or therapist can just give you happiness.

And most people with mental illnesses realize this. I haven’t met anyone who was just like “I wanna go to the psychiatrist and get a pill and just be happy always forever.” Most of us just want to stop crying all the time, or stop having panic attacks whenever we need to interact with new people, or stop having intrusive and scary thoughts of killing ourselves, or stop lying awake for hours each night because we can’t stop imagining all the bad things that could happen to us.

“Happiness” is the cherry on the sundae of mental health. You need to put the ice cream and the syrup and the whipped cream in the cup first.

(I’m not sure what it says about me that in reality I actually despise maraschino cherries and always ask for them to be left off my sundae. This is an analogy that was definitely intended for the presumably more normal people who will read this.)

If you still think that what we call “depression” is just an attempt to medicalize “sadness,” then you don’t know what one or either of those things are. So I’ll illustrate with an example of an internal monologue I have had when I was sad, and one I have had when I was depressed. The subject is the same, but the emotional response isn’t. See if you can figure out which is which!

I really wish I had a partner. It’s lonely not having anyone to come home to and it feels crappy seeing all my friends with their partners even though I know I should be happy for them. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just not that attractive or likable as a person. It seems like I’m the only person not dating anyone. I hope I meet someone soon, but I don’t know when or how that will happen and I’m not that optimistic about it right now. 

I really wish I had a partner. I feel like a complete worthless failure because literally everyone else I know is seeing someone and I’m not. I’ll probably never find anyone and I’ll just be lonely for the rest of my life and there won’t be anyone to call 911 if something happens to me and they’ll find my body in my apartment days later because nobody gave enough of a fuck to check on me. Not like I blame them. I’m so ugly and stupid that I don’t know why anyone would even want to hang out with me, let alone go out with me. Everyone’s probably pitying me because I don’t have anyone and everyone can tell that it’s because I’m completely pathetic. I feel like I might as well not even exist because what’s the point of going through life alone and unloved?

One of those is a sensical reaction to lacking something in your life that’s important to you (a romantic relationship); the other is over-the-top. The emotional response in the second example is disproportionate; it doesn’t make sense to leap all the way from “I’m sad because I wish I had a partner” to “I’m a worthless failure and will die alone.”

That second monologue contains a number of characteristic cognitive distortions associated with depression, such as all-or-nothing thinking (I have to have a partner or there’s no point in even living), disqualifying the positive (the good aspects of my life are irrelevant; it’s all bad because I’m single), mind-reading (everyone must be pitying me), fortune telling (because I don’t have a partner now, I will never have one), catastrophizing (something bad will happen to me and I’ll die alone in my home because nobody will help), personalization (it’s completely my fault that I don’t have a partner; none of it comes down to chance or being in the wrong environment or anything else), and emotional reasoning (I feel like a failure because I’m single; therefore I definitely am a failure).

While mentally healthy people do make cognitive distortions too, mental health is a spectrum: the more you’re able to refrain from thinking in these harmful ways, the more mentally healthy you’ll (generally) be. If you look at the first monologue, you’ll see some slight distortions, like the fear that you’re unlikeable or unattractive just because you happen to be single, or the perception that you’re the only person not dating when that’s obviously not true. But only in the second example do these irrational thoughts become all-encompassing. And, importantly, only the second example involves thoughts of death and suicidal ideation.

Note also that in the first example, being single is causing sad feelings, whereas in the second example, the emotional responses are not primarily caused by the singleness. Perhaps being single is the immediate trigger of the extreme sadness and negativity, but what’s really causing it is depression. A depressed person who is miserable about being single will not stop being miserable if they stop being single; they will usually be miserable about other things. That’s exactly what happened to me back when I was having that monologue. I’d inevitably get into a relationship and then be miserable because I didn’t think my partner liked me enough, or because I was worried about school, or because I felt like all my friends hated me, or because I hated myself, or just because.

Depression can trick you into thinking that you’re depressed “about” something. You’re probably not. You’re depressed because you have depression, and luckily, you can treat it.

Sadness, on the other hand, is about things. You can be sad because you’re single or because you got a bad grade or because you hate your job. Sadness is a normal, healthy reaction to experiencing things that you don’t like. It’s a useful and important emotion because it tips us off to situations that we should try to change if we can. Sadness can prompt us to take a step back and think about things and how we would like them to be better.

Medicalizing sadness and medicating it away would probably harm individuals and also our society as a whole. It would make things pretty boring. Isn’t it great that antidepressants and therapy are not actually trying to do that? Isn’t it great that we can help people avoid catastrophic, paralyzing, life-ruining sadness and fear like the ones associated with mental illnesses, while helping them get in touch with healthy and situationally appropriate sadness and fear? That we can help them understand their emotions and use them to change themselves, their lives, or the world, without having their lives completely governed by them?

Indeed. Depression is not sadness. Anxiety is not fear. Nobody is actually trying to eradicate sadness and fear.

~~~

At Skepchick, Olivia has a great take on this, concluding that:

I do think that it’s important to address our societal phobia of sadness, grief, and pain. But the way to do that is not to throw the mentally ill under the bus by implying they are running from their negative emotions when they seek out treatment. It also doesn’t mean casting shade on the few tools for treatment of mental illness that we actually have evidence are effective. A diagnosis of depression does not say “this person is too sad”. It says “this person can’t function the way they would like to because their emotions are consistently out of control”. There is a world of difference between those two statements.

“When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.”

I recently discovered Star Trek. Don’t laugh! I have foreign parents who were unable to expose me to such things in a timely manner.

In episode 9 of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard and his crew are confronted for the second time by the mysterious “Q,” a member of an apparently omnipotent species that can teleport and manipulate matter and energy in ways that humans cannot. This time, as last time, Q decides to test the crew of the Enterprise, toying with them like playthings. After transporting everyone but the Captain to the surface of an unknown planet, he challenges them to a game. Lieutenant Tasha Yar boldly confronts Q, and he punishes her by suddenly making her disappear. He explains to the others that Yar is in a “penalty box” where she is safe for the time being, but the penalty box only has one spot. So if anyone else messes up, they’ll get sent to the penalty box, and Yar will be gone forever.

Captain Picard comforts Lieutenant Yar in her penalty box.

Captain Picard comforts Lieutenant Yar in her penalty box.

As it turns out, the penalty box seems to be located on the bridge of the Enterprise. Seeing Yar, Picard asks what happened.

Yar: It sounds strange…but I’m in a penalty box.

Picard: A penalty box?

Yar: Q’s penalty box. It sounds strange but it definitely isn’t. I know that one more penalty–by anyone–and I’m gone.

Picard: Gone?

Yar [agitated, starting to cry]: Yes, I am gone! It is so frustrating to be controlled like this!

Picard: Lieutenant…Tasha. It’s all right.

Yar: What in the hell am I doing? Crying?

Picard: Don’t worry. There is a new ship’s standing order on the bridge. When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.

Now allow me to make a corny analogy.

A lot of situations we end up in are like Lieutenant Yar’s penalty box. They suck. They’re terrifying. They’re unfair. Maybe, like the penalty box, they’re precipitous; one more misstep, and we’re done: not literally disappeared from the entire universe, perhaps, but fired from a job, flunked out of school, broke, alone. Sometimes we ended up there through no fault of our own, or even–as Yar was doing–while trying to make things better for ourselves or for others. But, stuck in the penalty box, we can’t fully acknowledge that the situation is crappy, and we don’t give ourselves permission to feel crappy about it.

My memory works in a very cyclical way: as time goes on, I think about things that happened during the same season but during a previous year. So now it’s mid-May and I’m remembering finishing college, graduating, packing, and that long, horrible move to the city I (nevertheless) loved then and still do. I have another move ahead of me this summer, so I’m especially thinking about it. Though, this time it’s within the same city and it’s to live with my best friends.

I think about how harsh I was on myself during that whole process, how worked up I’d get, crying about leaving and then crying about crying and probably at some point crying about crying about crying. Crying became such a routine for me last summer that I could’ve kept track of time that way.

For whatever combination of psychological and environmental factors, it seemed like that move was my penalty box. I felt on the edge of something horrible and I couldn’t even imagine what. I felt completely out of control, even though I had, after all, chosen the move. The move was my penalty box and on some fundamental level I didn’t really believe that tears were permitted. I knew that they were, but I couldn’t believe it.

Everyone I know who thinks about this stuff has their ways of trying to explain it. One good friend says, “No feelings about feelings.” Not as a rule, but as an ideal to aspire to: we get to feel sad or angry or afraid or embarrassed or ashamed or jealous, but we should try not to have feelings about the fact that we feel those things. Others just say, “Feel your feelings.” Mental health professionals practicing dialectical behavior therapy try to teach their clients a skill called “radical acceptance”: the ability to recognize that you’re feeling a certain horrible way and to accept it, not as something that’s good or preferable, but as something that, at least for now, just is.

The acceptance of feelings seems to be harder for many people than the acceptance of situations. I’ve adapted quickly to situations I’d previously thought would be intolerable, but I do not adapt quickly to my own emotions. It’s not just the emotions that feel bad; it’s the meta-emotions that do the most damage. Feelings about feelings.

There is no easy way out of this. There’s no convenient self-help trick that’ll stop the feelings about feelings. There is no Stop Hating Yourself For Being Sad In Five Easy Steps!. I wish there were.

But sometimes there are skills or coping mechanisms or even phrases from television shows that help.

When one is in the penalty box, tears are permitted.

~~~

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“But a feminist was mean to me!”

Every so often a man publishes some screed about how he’s no longer a feminist because feminists have been mean to him. Every very often, some white person opines that they’d be totally on board with this whole anti-racism thing except that people of color are just so damn rude to them all the time. Or a religious person says that atheism is wrong because atheists are condescending. Or a person who consumes animal products dismisses the idea of veganism because they, personally, found some vegan or other to be annoying.

I have seen this happen enough times and with enough different beliefs and social groups that I’ve noticed it as a pattern. I’ve written before about the specter of That One Meanie-Face Feminist Who Got All Bitchy When I Offered To Pick Up The Check, without which no discussion of feminism with a non-feminist man could possibly be complete. This supposedly very rude woman from my interlocutor’s distant romantic past is now trotted out what I imagine is very often to provide an explanation for the man’s distaste for feminism. Or, perhaps with a caveat, “modern” feminism.

But it doesn’t happen just with feminism. It happens with every political issue.

First of all, the most important thing to remember is that when feminists(/women/people of color/vegans/etc.) are accused of being “mean,” this is only actually the case a fraction of the time. (Even if the exact fraction is debatable.) A lot of the things that get people with minority identities or viewpoints are labeled “mean” go completely unremarked-upon when done by someone with a dominant identity or viewpoint. I have a lot of theories for why that is: the expectation that minority or subordinate groups be quiet and not rock the boat; the unfamiliarity that people in dominant groups have with those views and opinions; and the stereotyping of certain groups, such as women and people of color and especially women of color, as being “emotional” or “hysterical” or “angry.” This leads to the simplest cognitive bias of all: confirmation bias. You expect a woman of color to be angry, and lo and behold, you perceive her that way.

“Mean” is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s easy to rationalize why a certain tone or behavior from a female feminist is “mean” while the same tone or behavior from a man is not. And that’s not even to imply that anyone is lying or intentionally skewing anything. It’s subconscious; that’s why it’s called a bias. I have no doubt that everyone who has ever accused me of being “mean” about my feminism genuinely felt that I was being mean to them. But that doesn’t mean that perception wasn’t influenced by their bias.

I’ve seen this play out numerous times with my own writing. A year ago I wrote a post about street harassment that went viral and got tons of comments about how I’m being so mean to men and clearly I hate them and blame them for everything. (For a fun exercise, count how many times I use the phrase “not all men” or variants thereof in the post.) And look. You can disagree with my entire thesis–that “compliments” made to random women on the street are a sort of power play, and that the reason many men feel so compelled to make them is because they’ve been socialized to believe that their opinions on women’s looks are extremely important and worthy of expression–and still see for yourself that there’s no way a person thinking clearly can conceive of that post as being “mean,” or of me as “hating men.”

But sometimes feminists (and vegans and atheists and whatever) are mean. Of course they are. Everyone is mean sometimes, but “default” categories like “white” and “male” are made invisible because they’re considered the norm from which everyone else deviates, so nobody besides women and minorities and their allies usually makes much of fuss about the meanness of men or white people specifically.

For instance, if you do not identify as a feminist or you consider yourself actively opposed to feminism, you probably don’t think of yourself or others like you as especially mean. It looks a little different from over here, though. I’ve been angrily fumed at and condescended to by you. I’ve been called every possible insult and every slur that could possibly apply to someone like me–bitch, cunt, whore, slut, dyke–by you. I’ve been threatened with various acts of violence. I’ve been alternatively called gruesome and unfuckable and told exactly how I should be raped.

And yet, except for when I get especially upset (which isn’t very often anymore) I avoid claiming that everyone who disagrees with feminism is “mean” (or much worse), because I actually have evidence that that’s not true. Most of the people I’ve met in my life have been opposed to feminism, and most of them have been perfectly decent people.

Hopefully we’ve established that people of all genders and races and religions and political beliefs can be “mean,” although some get accused of it much more readily and harshly than others, and not necessarily because they are any more likely to be “mean.”

Now let’s get to the main point, which is the utter ridiculousness of dismissing someone’s argument or opinion merely because you find them to be mean.

It doesn’t actually matter if a feminist is mean to you–at least, not in terms of making up your mind about feminism. Feminism is based on a wide variety of observations and theories that are empirically testable. Either women (especially women of color) make less money than men for the same work or they do not. Either women are less likely to become CEOs and film directors and elected politicians or they are not. Either women are held to impossible and unfair standards of beauty that are impossible for most of them, especially for women of color and women who are not thin or able-bodied, to achieve, or they are not. Either women are interrupted much more often in conversation by men or they are not, and either resumes and applications belonging to men are more likely to be read and approved of than those of women or not. Either women (especially women of color and women with disabilities) are subject to extremely high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault or they are not. Either people of all genders are frequently blamed for being sexually assaulted or they are not. Either trans people, especially trans women, are socially persecuted for allegedly violating the gender binary or they are not. Either men are expected to be “strong” and “manly” at the expense of their emotional needs, or they are not. Either women (but not men) face a double bind between being considered competent but unlikable or incompetent but likable, or they do not. Either reproductive care for people with uteri (but not for people with penises) is constantly being attacked, or it is not.

Hundreds or thousands of pages of research are available about all of these questions. Even if you peruse the research and find it wanting, the reason you are not a feminist should be because you don’t find the evidence compelling, not because some woman yelled at you for offering to pay for her meal. I’ll still disagree with you about the evidence, but at least then you have a real argument, and not one entirely based on feelings.

Likewise, the criminal justice system is demonstrably discriminatory against people of color at every level regardless of whether or not you personally enjoyed your recent interactions with people of color. The production of animals for human consumption has negative effects on the environment even if many vegans are snobby. There is no, and has never been, any evidence for the existence of a higher power, even though some atheists are pretty crappy to religious people. (By the way, one way to help would be to stop calling them mentally ill, but you already know that)

It’s common to claim that a feminist who is arguing with you and also calling you names is making an ad hominem fallacy, although the argument there is usually less “You’re wrong because you’re an asshole” and more “You’re wrong and, by the way, you’re also an asshole, so there’s that.” Bu in fact, it seems like an ad hominem fallacy to dismiss someone’s arguments because they’re mean. People aren’t wrong because they’re mean; they’re wrong because they’re wrong.

If I wanted to, I could explain to you that 2 + 2 = 4 in the most nasty, condescending, stuck-up, snarky, hateful, vicious way possible. (I’m trying to imagine this now, and it’s funny.) You might never want to interact with me ever again, but that doesn’t mean 2 + 2 suddenly doesn’t equal 4 anymore.

What would be fair to say is that you’re now upset and not interested in trying to learn about basic arithmetic from me anymore, so while you still haven’t been convinced that 2 + 2 = 4, that doesn’t mean it necessarily doesn’t. You can also say that the emotional response that you’re experiencing is interfering with your ability to think clearly about this subject.

Feminism is not as clear-cut or obviously correct as 2 + 2 = 4, but the same principle applies. It’s natural to start to feel very bad when you perceive (accurately or otherwise, doesn’t even matter) that you’re being personally attacked, and that can make you not want to engage with this person, listen to their arguments, and reevaluate your own opinions in response. But that doesn’t make them wrong; it just makes them ineffective–for this particular purpose in this particular situation. Remember that meanness is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and what may seem mean to you may be just a normal spirited debate to someone else.

At this point, the rational thing to do is to tell yourself that your unwillingness to agree with or even consider the person’s opinion has less to do with the merits of the opinion and more to do with your emotional response. Disengage, let the emotions subside, and, if you’re interested, find another way to learn about the view in question.

And now I’ve written over 1,500 words, and, to be honest, I think most of the people who say things like this already know all of this. Of course someone being mean to you doesn’t suddenly invalidate all of their opinions. So when you say that you disagree with feminism/veganism/atheism/anti-racism/queer rights/whatever because someone you have apparently designated an official ambassador of one of those views was unkind to you, you probably really mean one of these two things:

1. I disagree with feminism/veganism/atheism/anti-racism/queer rights because I hold a diverging opinion.

2. I feel hurt by a discussion I had with a feminist/vegan/atheist/anti-racist/queer rights advocate, and that makes me not want to think about this issue anymore or reevaluate my opinion on it.

Say what you mean.

~~~

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I Don’t Demand Respect Because I’m Upset; I Demand Respect Because I Deserve It

At some point in my life, probably in college, I decided that I was going to (mostly; when I’m not too scared to speak up; when I can think of the words to say, etc.) stop taking shit from people. So, online, I often say things like, “Actually, I wasn’t asking for advice, thanks!” and “Please don’t use that word in my comments section” and “This is a serious post where I’m asking friends for advice about apartment-hunting; please don’t derail it with inside jokes I don’t get.” You know, standard Captain Awkward-type stuff.

I won’t mince words about it: this is really, really hard to do.

I’m sure I make it seem easy; people often tell me how confident and extroverted I apparently am (I am neither of these things). Every time I make these calm, polite, rather friendly comments, I want to shrivel up in a hole. But you know, it’s absolutely worth it. Because now it’s been a few years in which I’ve been creating a social environment that I find comforting, supportive, and fun, whereas before I had to deal with even my closest friends constantly doing things that I found disrespectful or that conflicted with what I was trying to accomplish by interacting with them in the first place.

And a lot of the time, my worst fears do not come true. People do not belittle and insult me for having the gall to ask them to treat me a little differently. They often politely apologize or acknowledge what I said, and the conversation continues productively and enjoyably

But not always. Sometimes people resist and start defending what they did, as though their interpretation of the events must automatically supersede mine in my own virtual space. And what often happens at this point is that the person completely ignores what I’m telling them and starts to produce drivel like this: “I can see that you’re upset.” “You’re angry at me. I get it.” “You’re very upset about this.” “Wow, you seem to have a thin skin.” “You need to grow a thicker skin.”

First of all, unless you know me very, very well, you know nothing of my emotional state unless I explain it to you. Strong opinions do not necessarily stem from strong emotions. Or, the strong emotions that originally prompted them may have died down a long time ago. Most of the time when I’m writing or having a serious conversation, my mood is very calm and focused; that’s how I work best and that’s the mood that writing usually puts me in. Whatever you did that I considered disrespectful and called you out for was a blip on the radar, and the blip was one of annoyance, not hurt or anger.

It is incredibly patronizing when someone I don’t even know presumes to know how I feel and then conveys this assumption to me, not even as a question or a check-in, but as a statement of fact. “You’re very upset about this.” “You need to calm down, this isn’t such a big deal.”

Nobody gets to label my emotions for me. Only I get to do that.

If you’re honestly concerned that you’ve upset someone and want to find out if your suspicions are accurate, you can say, “I’m sorry, did I upset you?” But chances are, they’ve already given you all the information you need to know. If they’ve said, “Please don’t do this thing, I find it disrespectful,” then you need to either agree to stop doing the thing or leave the interaction.

When you think you’ve upset someone, it’s understandable to immediately want to smooth things over and make them stop being upset at you. But the best you can do is apologize and stop doing the thing, not turn a conversation that was originally about something else into a conversation about You’re Upset With Me What Do I Have To Do To Make You Stop Being Upset.

I understand that my emotional states are of immense fascination to everyone I interact with, so it’s only natural that people will try to derail otherwise-productive conversations to discuss them. However, what would make a lot more sense would be if people would either apologize for doing something I felt was disrespectful and continue with the conversation, or decline to apologize and leave the conversation.

And I understand that makes complete sense that some things I consider disrespectful are not things that other people consider disrespectful. They may feel so confused about why I find those things disrespectful that they don’t think they should have to avoid doing those things to me. That’s fine. But in that case, we’re not going to interact. Nobody has a right to interact with me. Your free speech does not extend to being granted an audience by any particular person. If we cannot agree on how we are going to treat each other, then we are not obligated to interact in any casual setting, like my personal Facebook page or my Gmail inbox.

Second, notice how the comments about emotional state are almost always inherently dismissive. “You’re upset, therefore your opinion about what I said or did and your request that I behave differently is invalid.” Insert your favorite synonym for poop here to describe how I feel about this tactic.

Even if I had the thinnest skin in the world, so thin that it is literally an atom in thickness, which is biologically impossible because cells are bigger than that, that doesn’t matter. You can decide that I am too easily upset for you to be able to comfortably interact with me, and you can stop interacting with me. Or you can decide that interacting with me is worth the added consideration required to not upset me, and you can make those considerations. Those are your two options. Telling me that my emotions are wrong and I need to stop having them is not one of the options.

(For the record, I have known people to have taken that first option with me, although, again, the issue isn’t so much that I’m easily upset as that I have very high standards for what I am willing to accept from people. Of course, it’s always a little sad to lose someone as a friend or acquaintance. But that’s what’s best for both of us. I don’t have to deal with them doing the thing that I don’t like, and they don’t have to deal with getting called out for doing things I don’t like. Perfect.)

It’s notable that none of these grow-a-thicker-skin evangelists are ever any good at telling their would-be converts how this can be accomplished. “Grow a thicker skin!” “You’re too sensitive!” Okay, that’s nice. Now what? Are there special creams for this? A medical procedure? Daily toning exercises? Anything?

No. Because they don’t really care about anyone’s mental health and wellbeing. They’re uncomfortable at being called out for their words and actions, which is understandable because being called out sucks. But rather than sitting with that discomfort and seeing where it’s really coming from, they assume that the problem is necessarily with the other person and their particular skin thickness or lack thereof.

Remember, too, that “thin skin” and “thick skin” are relative terms. There is no skin thickness measuring device. If you think my skin is thin, it may be because it really is, or it may be because you’ve been raised not to consider how your words and actions affect others.

Finally, here’s the crux of the issue. Some people think that anyone who asks them to stop doing something because they find that thing inappropriate/disrespectful is obviously upset.  Why are people like me and my friends so forthright with you when you disrespect us, if not because we can’t mentally handle it? Why would we demand respect, if not because not receiving respect makes us have emotional breakdowns?

Here’s why: because we deserve it.

I deserve not to have people treat me like a pathetic little child who desperately needs their help by offering me unsolicited, patronizing advice. I deserve not to have people demean my gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity with slurs that promote the norm that it’s okay to demean those identities. I deserve not to have people make jokes out of my pain when I’m feeling honest and open enough to share it with them. I deserve not to have every profile photo I put on Facebook plastered with comments from random men I am not even friends with about my appearance. Interacting with me is not a right granted to you simply because you exist and possess a computer. It’s something you get to do only if I decide that interacting with you is worthwhile for me, and feeling respected is a major component of that. I deserve not to exist for the entertainment of others.

And because I deserve respect in these ways and more, I will tell people–first cheerfully and with smiley emoticons, and then more insistently but still presuming good faith when they ignore me, and finally bluntly and coldly–when they are doing something that I consider disrespectful. My emotions have nothing to do with it.

Whatever twitch of annoyance I feel at the actual thing fades quickly, and I know what it means for an emotion to fade quickly because I have ones that don’t. I have misery that sinks in my gut for hours, days, weeks, years. I have anger–the productive kind, not the destructive kind–that burns for months as I work on projects and fight my battles. I have joy, too, though it’s usually a bit shorter-lived. But not as short-lived as the annoyance I feel at an asshole online. That joy can go on for a few hours or days, and few people see it. Since joy is often a rare resource in my life, I conserve it as much as possible.

But none of that is any of your business until I choose to tell you about it.

“I regret my abortion.”

[Content note: abortion, partner abuse]

The use of “I regret my abortion” as an argument against legalized abortion is nothing new, but I’ve been seeing it a lot lately in pro-life protests, such as this one at the Texas Capitol. (Yes, that is a man you see there with the sign.)

There are many things that are infuriating about this tactic, such as its implication that your own emotions can be used to legislate everyone else’s reproductive rights and its blatant appeal to emotion rather than reason (“But I regret my abortion! Look how sad I am! Wouldn’t you want to keep others from being so sad?”).

An argument like this also makes it really easy for pro-choicers to look like insensitive assholes, because our position is, simplistically, that your feelings about your own abortion don’t really matter in this debate. They don’t.

Of course, I care about people’s emotions. If having an abortion is going to be something you regret deeply for the rest of your life, I agree that you, personally, should not have an abortion. If you have already had an abortion and you regret it as painfully as these protesters do, then I think you should see a counselor who can help you.

But I don’t think your regret has any relevance whatsoever in public policy, and I think the argument from regret is completely baseless. Here’s why.

1. Humans do plenty of utterly regrettable things that we nevertheless don’t legislate.

This is, of course, the really obvious point. People regret plenty of their sexual experiences, but we don’t make those illegal (well…some try). People put dumb things on the internet that they shouldn’t and that follow them around forever, but it’s not illegal to put dumb things that follow you around forever on the internet. I’m no Libertarian, but I do essentially believe that people should be free (within reason) to make this own dumb shitty choices and learn from them on their own.

There are plenty of regrettable things that we legally regulate, but not because people feel bad about them later–because they have negative consequences that extend beyond an individual person’s regret (see below).

There are also regulations that prevent businesses from keeping people from amending their poor decisions after the fact, but that’s also not the same thing.

2. In fact, conservatives make fun of liberals for this shit.

Well, for what they perceive to be this shit. Conservatives and Libertarians are always attacking things like soda bans and cigarette taxes by claiming that the Nanny State is trying to save us from ourselves. Of course, the rationale for policies like these isn’t “Yeah but but you’ll regret it later!!”; it’s the fact that soda and cigarettes and trans fats have tremendous public health consequences. I don’t know how I feel about these policies yet, but the point is that the pro-lifers are doing the exact same thing they perceive liberals to be doing (whether or not that is actually what liberals are doing).

3. The majority of women who have abortions do not regret them.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported this:

Two years postabortion, 301 (72%) of 418 women were satisfied with their decision; 306 (69%) of 441 said they would have the abortion again; 315 (72%) of 440 reported more benefit than harm from their abortion; and 308 (80%) of 386 were not depressed.

The researchers noted, “Most women do not experience psychological problems or regret their abortion 2 years postabortion, but some do. Those who do tend to be women with a prior history of depression.”

On the contrary, people who get abortions tend to report feeling happy or relieved. If pro-lifers could only develop some theory of mind and imagine how another person might feel, they would realize that ending a pregnancy that you didn’t want, that has health risks for you, or that is going to produce a child that you don’t have the resources of willingness to raise would be a relief.

Of course, the fact that most people who get abortions don’t regret them doesn’t mean that nobody does. (Indeed, that’s…how the word “most” works.) At that point, you get into the dicey question of what exactly the proportion of abortion patients who later regret it must be to justify banning abortion. Clearly it doesn’t need to be a majority by their reasoning. Or I’m being overly charitable and they don’t realize that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

4. When people do regret abortions, what actually causes that regret?

I don’t have data on this so I’m just speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the stigma of abortion and of accidental pregnancy and of being a woman who does not want children (right now or ever) plays a role. The actual cost of abortion probably plays a role, too.

It could also be that you really want the baby, but realize that you’re not in a good place to raise a child right now. Someone in this situation could certainly regret their abortion a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision.

Tragically, people are sometimes pressured or coerced into getting abortions. This is more of an issue in places like China than it is in the United States, but it happens. I personally know of a few cases like this.

Forcing a partner to get an abortion is abuse. The problem here is not with the abortion itself; it’s with the fact that someone’s partner is abusing them. Abuse can, of course, go in many directions. Sometimes people’s partners prevent them from using birth control and thus force them to get pregnant; likewise, the problem here isn’t with pregnancy itself, but with the abuse that caused it.

Pro-lifers are aware of coerced abortions and use them as a pro-life argument. For instance, abortion restrictions often require having the patient sign a waiver stating that they were not coerced into getting the abortion. While this seems like a positive step to help ensure that abuse isn’t playing a part, it’s important to remember that the point of these laws is to restrict access to abortion and reduce the number of abortions, not to protect victims of abuse.

The fact that some people regret abortions and that some people are coerced into getting abortions is not an argument against abortion; it’s an argument against the factors that contribute to that regret, such as stigma, financial consequences, and abuse.

Here’s the thing. For some people, getting an abortion is a difficult, painful decision that will lead to regret and doubt no matter what they choose. It’s a big decision! Sometimes people get pregnant accidentally and find themselves sort of wanting to have the baby but they just can’t support a child and they need to finish school and there’s just no way.

But for other people–possibly the majority of people, it seems–an abortion is just a medical procedure like any other. It’s unpleasant and unavoidable and they’re just glad to get it over with, but it’s necessary, just like the vast majority of medical procedures you’re going to have in your life.

You can’t use the emotions of a minority of people to legislate the rights of everyone else, no matter how legitimate, strong, and real those emotions are.

Excited, Worried, Scared Shitless: How I Feel About Moving

Photo May 08, 19 16 27

Apartments in SoHo, April.

As I’ve certainly mentioned here countless times already, I’m moving to New York City at the end of the summer–in just three and a half months. I’ve wanted to do this for years, and I’ve visited the city so many times while I’ve been in college that it’s long felt like a second home. Or third. Or whatever.

My love for the city is like nothing else I’ve ever felt. I’m not really one to be a huge “fan” of things–TV shows, book series, comics, games, drinks, anything–but when it comes to New York I’m like one of those obsessive fans, an aficionado, a groupie. I read about its history and geography. I trek through its streets and make my own mental maps. I follow its news and politics. A particularly stunning photo of New York will often make me tear up, and when Hurricane Sandy hit last fall it was like getting punched in the gut. But each time I travel there and see the lights of Manhattan through the plane window yet again, it’s like reuniting with one of those friends–you know, the ones you’ve only known for a few years, but feel like you’ve actually known since childhood and wonder how you ever lived without.

So in many ways, when I move in three and a half months it’ll feel less like moving and more like coming home.

Who’s cutting onions in here, by the way? Yikes.

Most people who know me know all this, because I talk about it all the damn time. You know those people who won’t shut the fuck up about Beyonce or cats or beer or whatever? That’s me with New York. Many people have even mistakenly assumed that I’m from there, which puzzled me until I realized that in this country it’s customary to love the place you’re from. If I love New York so much, that must be my hometown.

So, when I got into graduate school and told everyone I’m finally-finally-finally moving to the city I love, people were happy for me because they knew how much this means. And as the still-undecided date nears, conversations with people often go like this: “So you’re moving soon! Isn’t that SO EXCITING? Aren’t you SO EXCITED?”

Yeah, I am, and that’s obviously a reasonable assumption to make. But that’s not at all the only thing I’m feeling right now, and when people ask me that it makes it impossible to talk to them about what this is really like for me, in all its complexity. (When I’ve tried it with people I know well by saying things like, “Yeah, I’m really excited, although it’ll also be pretty stressful finding a place to live,” they usually wave it off with something like “Yeah but you’ll figure it out I mean come on NEW YORK ISN’T THAT EXCITING?”)

Of the two extremes, this is by far the better one. There have also been people in my life before who seem desperate to make everything into a negative: “Oh, boy, just wait till you see what it’s really like. Unaffordable, hot, loud, and smells like garbage. You’ll be back in the Midwest before you know it.” Uh, thanks, dude, but I think I know where I’d prefer to live.

It’s true that I dislike small talk and prefer conversations that actually go somewhere and result in people actually learning things about each other, so maybe that’s why being compelled to grin and talk about how excited I am rubs me the wrong way. Maybe people don’t really want to hear about some of the other thoughts I have about moving. Which is fine.

That’s why I have a blog.

So yeah, I’m excited. But I’m also scared shitless. How will I find a place to live? How will I be able to afford the things I need, let alone just a few of the ones I want? How will I find a job in two years?

I’m also proud. Because despite being scared shitless, I’m doing it anyway, and I might not’ve at an earlier point in my life. I might’ve chosen to stay close to my family and the friends I already have and decided that the risk of moving somewhere new and dealing with those new stressors was too much for me to handle. And I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing that, but I still get to be proud of myself for overcoming those fears.

I’m also just unsure. Will I miss the leafy streets of the suburbs I’ve lived in? Will I miss the quiet? Will I miss the smell of freshly mowed lawns, and the joy of running through sprinklers in the summer? Will I miss lying by the pool, everything silent except for kids laughing somewhere in the distance? Will I miss going to parks in the fall? I don’t mean like Central Park. I mean big state parks with trails and rivers and ravines and fallen trees you have to step over. People have told me my whole life that I belong in a big city, but were they right?

(Sometimes I miss my parents’ house so much I can’t breathe. Sometimes I just wish I could call it mine again.)

I’m also curious. Who will my friends be? What will my routine be like? Which subway stop will become “mine”? Where will I go thrifting, where will I buy groceries, which bookstores will I fall in love with? Will I ever find a coffee shop that has wifi and outlets and at least one empty table? I know I won’t get to do all the things I want to do, but which ones will I get to do? Will I take up martial arts? Will I volunteer somewhere? Will I join some queer/poly groups?

I’m also worried. Which of my friends will I never see again? How will I be able to visit my parents? Will I still be able to go to conferences? How will I work out? Will I have to choose between eating healthy food and buying clothes when my old ones rip?

I’m also sad. I’m sad to be leaving everyone and everything behind, and sad that I didn’t grow up in New York so I wouldn’t have to abandon my life just to live there. I’m sad that I can’t look at my room anymore without imagining it already packed up into boxes. I’m sad that, to a certain extent, wanting to move to New York so much kept me from just being happy to be here.

All of this I cannot say when people ask me if I’m excited, expecting an unhesitant “Yes!”. And although I’m happy to talk about how much I love the city and how much I’m looking forward to moving, sometimes the weight of the unspoken fears and regrets and uncertainties feels heavier than the boxes into which I’ll pack up my life and send it–by car or train or plane or all three–800 miles east.

But, yes, I’m excited. I’m excited to drive over the bridge to Manhattan for the last time, excited to check out CFI-NYC and meet all the people here, excited to help lead my school’s feminist student group, excited to start my classes and my internship. I’m excited to finally get a pet, if my lease allows it, and to have a creature to love and take care of.

I’m excited to finally explore all the places I’ve wanted to explore and all the ones I haven’t even heard of yet, and to return to the ones I already love. I’m excited to see the new World Trade Center when it’s finished. I’m excited to watch Central Park turn orange, red, and yellow in a few months.

I’m excited to take the subway to Queens or Brooklyn to see my family. I’m excited to get to know even better these distant relatives whom I nevertheless call “aunts” and “cousins” because that’s a better approximation of how it feels. I’m excited to get out of the city sometimes–to Long Island to go to the beach, upstate to go camping, to New England to go skiing, to Boston and DC to see friends.

I’m excited for all the nights out, the lectures and talks, the yoga classes, the concerts and operas and ballets, the sports games, the dates, the shopping trips, and the days at the beach that are in my future. But not only that–I’m excited for the nights spend cooking and watching TV with my roommates, the weekends spent writing at my desk, glancing out the window to see the snow fall. I’m excited to feel like I can just relax at home for as long as I want without the pressure to go out and explore, because my days in the city won’t be numbered anymore.

I’m excited to finally put down roots somewhere for the first time, because for my whole life I’ve known that “home” is only temporary. I don’t want to move anymore. I don’t want to move for years and years, if ever.

I’m excited for the day when someone asks me where I’m from and, for the first time, I instinctively say, “New York.”

Railroad tracks to Manhattan

Railroad tracks to Manhattan

Lessons I Learned From Depression

[Content note: depression]

People struggling with mental illness (or any sort of illness, or anything crappy, really) are constantly exhorted by well-meaning people to find the “silver lining” in their experience. This often takes the form of tropes about “learning who your real friends are” or “learning how to fully appreciate life” or “understanding what’s really important in life” and on and on.

For a long time I resisted the entire notion of finding “lessons” or “learning opportunities” in my decade-long struggle with depression. (Yes, decade-long. Yes, I’m 22.) Part of this was because the people who demanded that I do so were just so damn annoying, frankly. No, I will not spin you a convenient story about What Depression Has Taught Me to make you feel better when you see my tears or my scars.

But mostly I resisted because I felt that admitting that I’ve learned things from this experience requires intentionally forgetting the fact that most of it had no meaning. There is no meaning to losing half of your life to something you can’t even see or prove to people or sometimes even describe in words. There is no meaning to having most of the memories of your life discolored, blurred, and tainted by a misery and terror that had no name. This is not the stuff of inspirational memoirs or films. While some people suffer for political causes or for their children or in order to produce a great work of art, I suffered for absolutely no reason at all.

But, of course, I did learn some things. Maybe I would’ve learned them even if I’d had a more normative emotional experience, but right now it really seems like I learned them as a result of being so miserable a lot of the time. And while I reserve a very special fury for those who implore us to create meaning out of meaningless suffering and produce “lessons” and “silver linings” and “bright sides” carefully repackaged for their consumption, I think these are lessons that are worthwhile to share.

I am not my GPA, weight, debt, scars.Lesson 1: Not everything your brain tells you is accurate.

Most people, I think, go through life without giving much thought to whether or not their perceptions are providing them with the most accurate possible picture of reality. But sometimes our brains are pretty crappy at this. Of course, I would’ve learned that without the help of depression, because I study psychology. So I’ve known for a while about stuff like the fundamental attribution error, the halo effect, anchoring, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the false-consensus effect, the just-world hypothesis, in-group favoritism, the hot-hand fallacy, the Lake Wobegon effect, status quo bias, and all sorts of other biases, fallacies, and errors.

But what really brought it home was depression. While the cognitive errors I’ve listed are generally adaptive and keep people happier, depression was the opposite. Instead of telling me that people like me despite evidence to the contrary, my cognitive distortions told me that everyone hates me despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than telling me that I’m above-average in most things, they told me that I’m below-average in most things. On any given day I would invariably feel like the stupidest, ugliest, least likable, most worthless person alive. True story.

At some point it occurred to me that I would never recover if I didn’t learn how to treat what my brain said with a healthy amount of skepticism. So I started to. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the time in my life when my political views evolved the most, because I also started challenging my knee-jerk reactions to various issues in our society.) Of course, this is a lesson that is not limited to folks with mental illnesses, because everyone’s brain does this to them at some point. For many people, including some of those who proudly label themselves “skeptics,” thinking critically about what happens inside one’s brain does not come nearly as easily as thinking critically about what happens out there in the world.

So, for me, this meant a lot of time spent repeating to myself, “Yes, I feel like Best Friend hates my guts, but that’s just a feeling and it’s not necessarily true” and “Yes, not getting that internship makes me feel like I’m a complete failure who will never amount to anything in her chosen field, but that’s just my brain lying to me again” and “Yes, Partner wants to see their friends rather than me tonight, but this doesn’t mean that Partner doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to keep seeing me anymore.”

Pause, rewind, repeat, and there you have my recovery.

Lesson 2: Your feelings are valid.

Does this seem like a contradiction to the previous lesson? It’s not. Unfortunately, when confronted with the apparently irrational emotions of others, many people immediately jump to the conclusion that those emotions are WRONG. (These people should never try to be therapists.)

However, just because someone’s emotions do not seem like a “rational” response to what they’re going through, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for them. That reason can be whichever complicated and still-misunderstood brain processes cause depression. It can be that those are the emotions they saw expressed in their families growing up, and learned to mimic at an early age. It can be that last time this sort of thing happened, it ended terribly and now they’re freaking out over this seemingly minor thing because it could end that badly again. It can be that what’s currently happening to them is reminding them of something else entirely.

Or it could be for any number of other reasons that you do not know, and that the person having the “irrational” feelings might not know either. So why assume?

It’s important to remember, too, that there tends to be a pattern to the emotions we decide are “irrational” and “inappropriate” in others. Anger from a woman or a person of color is perceived differently than anger from a white man. Sadness from a woman is perceived differently than sadness from a man. Archetypes like the Angry Black Man and the Hysterical Woman are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice ourselves applying them.

But all emotions are valid. Some are less adaptive than others, some we want to change, some can contribute to unacceptable behavior if we don’t address them, yes. But they’re all valid, and telling others (or ourselves) that some emotions are not okay to have doesn’t help in changing them.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to keep your mental health in mind when making decisions.

This is the one I’ve resisted the most. I had to quit studying journalism because it was giving me panic attacks, and I chose not to pursue a PhD in part because I didn’t think I could handle it emotionally (well, and because the thought of it just bored me). When it comes to my personal life, my mental health is a big part of the reason I gave up monogamy, although I’m now glad I did for many other reasons. It’s also part of the reason I never studied abroad, gave up many other opportunities, and chose to move to NYC.

When I first started to realize that mental health is a factor that I need to consider when making decisions about my academic, professional, and personal life, I felt abandoned and betrayed by my own brain. I understood intuitively that sometimes you can’t do things because they require physical traits or abilities that you lack or because you don’t have the cognitive skills or because you just lack access to those opportunities. But to have all those things and still give something up just because my brain doesn’t like it? That seemed ridiculous.

In fact, that way of thinking is just an extension of the stigma of mental illness. Just as we think that mental illness isn’t really “real,” we think that mental health isn’t really important. It’s reasonable, we think, to choose not to live in Florida because you can’t deal with the weather or to choose not to go running because it’s too hard on your knees or to choose not to be a physicist because you can’t do math worth a shit, but not getting a PhD because grad school would make your depression relapse? Not being a journalist because interviewing people gives you panic attacks? Not studying abroad because being away from people you love makes you suicidal? What the hell is up with that. Just deal with it.

So for a long time I did stuff that made me miserable because I was fighting so hard against the notion that mental health is something you need to take care of and cultivate, just as you would with your physical health. But one of the most important things I’ve learned how to do in college is knowing when to say “no” to things that sound fantastic but might break down the levees I’ve built up to keep the depression from flooding in.

Of course, sometimes it still makes me furious. I recently gave up a great opportunity for that reason; I badly wanted to do it but every time I thought about actually doing it, and the sacrifices it would entail, I broke down, sobbing, paralyzed, unable to say yes or no to it. Eventually I finally turned it down, full of resentment at myself and my useless brain, but trying to understand that my reason was a good one and that I deserve permission to make this choice.

Now, naturally, there are those who would tell me to Just Do It! and Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone! and blabbityblahblah, but those people will just have to trust me when I say that I know the potential dangers much better than they do. Mental illness is a whole ‘nother ballgame. When I want to Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! I try getting to know someone new or reading something I disagree with that makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I move to NYC, I can Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! by joining new groups or going to events where I don’t know people and seeing what happens.

That’s getting out of my comfort zone. Ignoring the fact that I have important needs when it comes to my mental health, though, is not “brave” or “spontaneous” or “gutsy.” It’s just irresponsible, just as it would be irresponsible go ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to not wash my hands during flu season.

So give yourself permission to treat your mental health with the care and concern it deserves. Of course, you might be aware that doing something could make your mental health worse and choose to do it anyway for any number of reasons, and that’s completely fine, too.

But so many of us struggle merely to accept the idea that it’s okay not to do things for the sole reason that they might worsen our mental health, and that’s something we have to overcome.

It's okay not to be okay.

Does Telling People to “Think Positive” Actually Help? An Informal Survey and Some Protips

Positive thinking is the bane of my existence. Not because I can’t do it, but because I’ve so often been exhorted to do it in the most unhelpful of ways. I’m someone who prefers to talk mostly about the neutral or negative aspects of my life to friends and family because I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, which probably leads people to assume that I have difficulty “thinking positively” (and I wouldn’t blame them). Of course, during periods of depression, positive thinking is mostly impossible, but when I’m feeling relatively healthy I’m actually quite optimistic.

Point is, I’ve gotten a lot of unsolicited advice to “think positive!” and “look on the bright side!” and “just try to find the silver lining!” Chances are, I’ve either done that already, or I’m not going to be able to do it no matter how many times one tells me to.

So despite the fact that I’m actually quite adept at finding reasons to be hopeful and getting good things even out of bad situations, being told to do so, even though it’s almost always well-meaning, usually rubs me the wrong way. Like, what, you don’t think that “thinking positively” occurred to me? And for that matter, when you tell people to “think positively,” does anyone ever go, “Oh wow, I didn’t even realize I could do that! Thanks so much!”?

And yet thinking positively helps me, and it must help many other people or else people would quit telling each other to do it. I wanted to find out more about the contexts in which people find it helpful to be reminded to “think positive” versus the ones in which they don’t, so I did an extremely informal survey of my online friends and followers. I basically asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Does it ever help you to be told to ‘think positive’?”

Disclaimer: This is not “research,” this is just me asking people I know about their opinions. Maybe if I’d gone for that PhD after all, you’d be reading about this in Science someday, but that’s not going to happen.

Some people said that it doesn’t help at all:

Nope. I find it helpful when people genuinely ask thoughtful questions and then actively listen. Pat answers are a brush off, nothing more.

No. Usually it just makes me feel like I have to shut up now because the person is done listening.

I think just saying “think positive” is a limiting concept since it doesn’t teach anyone how to change negative self talk to positive.

“Think positive” as a general suggestion can actually be harmful – it doesn’t enable its recipient to solve a problem any more than they were before, and can easily lead to an affected individual thinking they’re at fault for being unable to fix something simply by failing to think positively.

“Just think positive” almost always comes couched with The Secret or other metaphysics bullshit in my life. Sooooo I cringe whenever I hear it.

I also don’t think it helps, but for me it’s because it feels like an invalidating thing to say. I’d rather my feelings be acknowledged for their authenticity than be dismissed for not being all sunshine and rainbows like they “should” be.

Telling myself to think positively also occasionally helps, but not always. Other people telling me that does not generally help, particularly since if someone is telling me “just think positive” it’s usually in the context of, I’ve told them some specific problem I’m worrying about and they’ve given me “think positive” as a non-answer.

not when by someone who lacks knowledge of my life and circumstances. Not when I’m clinically depressed, at all.

I’ve never found it helpful, and now I understand that the reason I’ve always found it so upsetting is that the statement comes from a place of neurotypical privilege. My visceral response is almost always “Don’t you think I’ve TRIED THAT ALREADY. Seriously, if it were that simple I would FEEL BETTER.”

I think the logic behind “think positive” and “look on the bright side” are, er, “positive” alternatives to “you like being sad.” They all stem from this idea that is it the person’s own doing, that it is something the individual can control but isn’t trying hard enough, etc. But real depression and anxiety are caused by something beyond the individual’s ability to control.

There aren’t enough characters here for all the four-letter words.

A few said it does:

Certainly. I usually have negative expectations, and have to be reminded to consider positive outcomes. Otherwise, I’d never try anything.

In a really weird way it can me. Like it pisses me off, but it’s a good reminder at the same time.

The majority, however, gave an answer that was basically either “Yes, but” or “No, unless.” And these people generally hit on the same basic point:

It has, if people point out *actual* positive things about the situation.

Yes, but not if they are being dismissive. If they are like, “what about x, and y” then yes. But dismissive, NO.

It can sometimes be helpful to be reminded OF something good, but it doesn’t really help just to be told “look on the bright side.”

It depends entirely on who’s saying it to me. Like if my bestie tells me to chin up it’s entirely different then some random ass fuck

Not as a general statement, no. What has occasionally helped is if someone breaks down a situation and specifically outlines possible positive outcomes – but you can’t just think your way to them.

Although I have found it helpful to try to find the positive aspect in a bad situation, and if I find one I will point it out (especially if the “bright side” is actually black humor), telling people to just generally look on the bright side of life is horse hockey.

Only if they’ve got evidence that says I should. Saying that emptily just sounds like “smile, emo kid!” #ThingsThatDrainMyPacifism

Sometimes, especially if it’s offered along with an example of a silver lining I may have overlooked.

These aren’t nearly all of the responses, but looking through these and the others I got, I hit upon a few major themes that may help you discern whether or not telling someone to “think positive” is worthwhile:

1. Mental Illness

One of the worst things about disorders like depression and anxiety is that they rob you of your ability to be hopeful and think positively. It’s not that you’re not trying, it’s that you can’tSo, when someone’s dealing with sadness, stress, pessimism, etc. that’s brought on by a mental illness as opposed to just “faulty” thinking, telling them to “fix” their thinking isn’t going to be helpful.

2. Proof

Many people said that being advised to think positively helps when they’re actually given “proof” that there’s something to think positively about. Otherwise it just sounds like an empty platitude; if the person who’s telling you to “think positive” can’t even come up with a reason why, that’s not reassuring.

3. Closeness

It feels different to be told to “think positive” by someone who actually knows you very well than, as one person said, by “some random ass fuck.” Although nobody elaborated on why, I can think of several reasons. It’s easier to trust that someone who knows you well generally wants to help you rather than to just get you to stop talking about sad stuff. Someone who knows you well is also more likely to know what helps you. They’re also more likely to actually understand your situation, making advice to “think positive” sound much less flippant than it would otherwise.

In general, telling people to “just think positive” has the same problems as, for instance, telling people to just stop being hurt by bigoted comments or to just learn to keep saying no to persistent unwanted sexual advances: it doesn’t actually help them to do these things. Changing the way you think and feel isn’t like flipping a switch. It requires hard work and practice, just like learning a language or a musical instrument.

Generally that’s a job for a therapist or perhaps a really good self-help book, but if you’d like to help facilitate that process for someone, here are some scripts to help them learn to think more positively without doing the annoying and dismissive “Just look on the bright side!” thing:

  • “That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Is there anything you could do that would make it easier right now?”
  • “Do you think anything good can come of this?”
  • “I’m sorry, that really sucks, but just know that I/your friends/your family will be here to support you.”
  • “Would it help if we went out and did something fun to help you get your mind off of it?”
  • “I know it seems pretty awful right now, but I think you will come out a stronger person because of this.”

Note that these don’t work for everyone and are very dependent on the situation, so use your best judgment. But these are all things that have really helped me to hear at one point or another. And notice that a lot of them involve asking, not telling. Don’t tell people to think positively or do something to get their mind off of it; ask them if they’re able or willing to.

And as with all things emotional, affirming whatever the person is feeling right now is the most important thing. Even if it’s negative! Their emotions are valid even if you don’t understand them or think that they’re productive.