Living With Depression: Trust

I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.

I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.

However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.

A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.

So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.

People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.

Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.

But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.

So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.

I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.

I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.

I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.

And not everyone I meet is a good person.

I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.

Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.

Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.

The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.

On Taking People’s Word For It (Or, When Not to Argue)

“You’re not really depressed, you just get sad sometimes.”

“You’re not really a lesbian, you’ve just had some bad experiences with men.”

“You’re not really an atheist, you’re just questioning your faith. You’ll find God again.”

Why do people say these things?

Everyone I ask seems to have a story about a friend or family member who just cannot accept what they disclose about themselves and insist that it’s not true–without any evidence.

From a skeptical perspective, that bothers me. Most of the time, when someone makes a statement, it’s possible to (intelligently) dispute it. If someone states a fact–i.e. “It’s 70 degrees outside”–you can dispute it if you have evidence against it–i.e. your thermometer reads 80 degrees. If someone states an opinion that can be supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a good president because he has business experience”–you can counter it with an opposing statement that is also supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a bad president because his ideas about fixing the economy would actually worsen the situation for the middle and lower classes and also because he is a huge lying douchecanoe.” (But I digress.)

However, if someone makes a fact-based claim that they have firsthand knowledge of and you do not–i.e. “I don’t believe in God” or “I am a lesbian”–you cannot argue. Sorry, but you can’t. You have no evidence.

You can, if you want to be an asshole, tell them that they’re going to hell or that you find that appalling or that you hope they change. But you cannot claim it isn’t true.

(Likewise, feelings are not up for debate. If someone says they’re sad, then they’re sad. If they say they feel embarrassed, then they feel embarrassed. “But you don’t really feel that way–” Yep, they do.)

But what if you have a Real Legitimate Concern that it’s “just a phase,” or that they’re misinterpreting things somehow?

First of all, examine where that concern is stemming from. Is it because, in your heart of hearts, you really really don’t want this person to be who they say they are? If so, you should probably keep your Real Legitimate Concerns to yourself, because you may* be a bigot.

If it’s because this person has a history of going through “phases,” it’s more reasonable of you to gently express your concern, but be kind about it. Most people stop going through phases eventually, and this could be it.

However, even if it is a “just a phase,” that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. As people grow and mature–this is a process that lasts a lifetime, by the way, rather than stopping at some arbitrary age–they change. Religious people may become atheists; atheists may become religious. Political identities change. Mental health changes. Even sexual orientation and gender identity can change. That doesn’t mean that a person’s past identities were fake or “lies,” and even if you believe that what they’re telling you now will not always be true, the kind thing to do is to affirm who the person is right now.

And if you’re “disagreeing” with what someone says about themselves because you’re concerned about possible repercussions for the person if they identify that way (such as being bullied for being gay or ostracized by family for being an atheist), remember that the onus is never on victims of prejudice to hide who they are. It’s on the rest of us to learn how to treat them like human beings. If you’re spending your energy on trying to get people to hide who they are when you could be spending it on encouraging people not to be bigots, you’re doin’ it wrong.

Depression presents a special case. When someone discloses to you that they are depressed, it may be extremely tempting to try to persuade them that they’re not “really” depressed because you think that this will help somehow. However, you can’t will an illness out of existence anyway, so you might as well accept what they’re telling you and try to be supportive. For many people (like me), identifying themselves as “depressed” is a relief, because the alternative is to believe that it’s just your personality and that you’re destined for a life of misery. That’s a topic for a whole other post, though.

In general, asking questions is better than making statements when someone’s telling you something personal–it shows that you don’t presume to know more about their experience than they do. However, there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. “So how did you realize you were a [insert identity here]?” is worlds better than “But how do you really know you’re [insert identity here]? I mean I had a friend who said they were [insert identity here] but they changed their mind later/were only doing it for attention/were just going through a phase! Are you sure?”

Remember, though, that it’s not the person’s job to provide you with Sufficient Evidence that what they’re saying about themselves is true. Sure, people lie about themselves sometimes. But presuming that someone is lying when they’re actually not is a pretty easy way to ruin a relationship.

If you have someone in your life who insists on disagreeing when you disclose something about yourself, here are some of my favorite ways to respond (warning: snark may not be suitable for everyone):

  • “Interesting. How did you learn to read minds?”
  • “You’re probably right, you know me much better than I know myself. Tell me, am I hungry right now? Should I go eat?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Actually, yes, I really am [insert identity here].”
  • “Citations or GTFO.”

*You may! I said you may! That doesn’t mean you are. It’s a distinct possibility, however.

What You're Really Saying When You Say that Suicide is "Selfish"

I’m still thinking about the Chet Hanks suicide thing from last week and the various responses to it that I saw online. Specifically, I cited two comments that referred to suicide as “selfish.”

“Selfish” has to be one of the most common adjectives people think of when thinking about suicide. Those of us who are involved in mental health advocacy could probably rant at you for hours about how this word perpetuates the stigma that mental illness and suicide carry in our society, how useless and counterproductive it is to accuse a suicidal person of being “selfish,” and so on. In fact, if you get nothing else out of this post, I hope you reconsider using that word to describe suicide if you’ve done so before.

But I can understand where this sentiment comes from. While everyone loses loved ones at some point in their lives, relatively few people experience suicidality first-hand. For this reason, people understand the latter situation much less than the former. Faced with the thought that someone you love might kill themselves and put you through all the resulting grief just because of some inner turmoil that you can’t see or understand, it makes sense that you might feel that suicide is selfish.

At the same time, though, conceptualizing suicide as a “selfish act” sends the message that people somehow “owe it” to their loved ones to stay alive despite immense emotional pain. When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.

I don’t mean to discount the grief that people feel when someone they love commits suicide–that’s real, valid, and deserves attention. And, obviously, I believe that people should not commit suicide. But I believe that because I also believe that people can recover from the pain that’s causing them to consider suicide, not because they owe it to others to live.

What all of this comes down to is that most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind. Maybe they assume that suicidal people are just sad the way all of us sometimes get sad, except maybe a bit more so. (I honestly don’t know how mentally healthy people think about suicide because I haven’t been one for a while.) It would indeed be rather selfish to put your friends and family through so much pain just because you felt sad one day.

But that’s not how suicide works.

The way I see it, the tragedy of suicide is not (or is not only) the fact that an individual’s suicide also hurts others. Rather, it’s that the individual could have found a way to heal, be happy, and live out the rest of his or her life. Calling suicide a “selfish” thing to do erases that latter tragedy and implies that our primary purpose in life is not to create a meaningful and worthwhile life for ourselves, but to keep our friends and family happy at all costs.

Our first priority should be to convince those who want to take their own lives that those lives are intrinsically valuable and should be preserved for their own sake. Only when they’ve accepted that premise can they even begin to think clearly about their obligations and interactions with other people.

Telling a suicidal person that suicide is “selfish” only reinforces the guilt they already feel. People should choose to live because their lives feel worth living to them, not out of a sense of obligation towards others.

Note: Since this is quite a sensitive topic both for me and probably for many readers, please try to be especially careful with your comments. I reserve the right to delete any comments that I feel may trigger people, even if they’re completely on-topic.

Why I Think Proselytism is Wrong

I was so happy to see this outside the psychology department.

The whole controversy on our campus surrounding Cru and their “I Agree with Markwell” campaign has gotten me thinking about proselytism. (Proselytism, in case you don’t know, is just a fancy word for trying to convert people to another religion.)

In my view, proselytism is wrong.

I have two foundations for this view. One of them is my knowledge of psychology. Research in social psychology has confirmed, over and over again, that people are much more susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation than we’d like to believe. (For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to list studies here because I’m assuming most people have taken Psych 101 and have learned about them. But if you’re curious, ask, and I’ll send you a dozen.)

The success of dubious religious ventures like witch hunts and cults suggests that adding a spiritual element makes peer pressure even more potent. If people can be persuaded to do even such ridiculous and terrible things, how hard will it be to persuade them to take a pamphlet, give out their email address, come to church, donate money, gradually abandon the beliefs they’d had before?

This is especially harmful when it comes to non-Christians, who are a minority in the U.S. (and, in fact, in many other places). In many ways, it’s difficult enough as is to maintain your own beliefs and practices when the entire surrounding culture immerses you in another belief system. If you don’t believe me, talk to a Jewish kid at Christmastime. I still remember how indignant I felt when other kids got a big present from each of their extended family members and I got just one.

But in all seriousness, science typically shows that people are very suggestible. Proselytizing groups may claim that the only people who convert are people who really, genuinely, truly want to be Christians, I’m not so sure that you can always tell the difference between really, genuinely, truly wanting something, and being subtly manipulated into wanting that thing. And while I concede that Northwestern’s Cru chapter represents only the mildest, most harmless form of proselytism, I oppose any action that implies that you, the proselytizer, know better than everyone else.

Which brings me right to my next point. The second foundation for my opposition to proselytism is my moral code. I believe that, with a few exceptions, we have no right to try to alter the beliefs of others. I place religion on the same plane as several other areas of human experience, such as sexuality–things that are personal and that have no impact on anyone but ourselves. For instance, would you ever attempt to convince someone to have sex the way you have sex? I would hope not. So why would you attempt to convince them to believe the things you believe?

I obviously don’t think that all forms of persuasion are wrong. Arguing about politics is valuable and important because political decisions affect all of us. Influencing people’s purchasing decisions via marketing is necessary for our economy to work. If done sensitively, talking to someone who seems to be making a harmful decision about their career, relationships, etc. could be very helpful.

But ultimately, a person’s inner life belongs to them alone, and most people value that inner life and resent attempts to intrude upon it. I think intruding upon it is wrong.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that mine is the best moral code in the world and that everyone should adopt it and that people who do not adopt it are Bad. If I thought that, it would make me no better than the Markwell people.

But I do think that we’d have less conflict in our society if people lived by a code such as this one, and it works for me because it helps me feel like I’m treating others with respect.

Is this moral code completely incompatible with evangelical Christianity? Yes. Christians and others who proselytize genuinely believe that others need to be saved/brought to Jesus/what have you, or else they’ll go to hell. However, it’s important to note that this brand of Christianity is incompatible with all other belief systems, including most Christian ones. In this brand of Christianity, only two types of people exist in the world: good Christians and people who haven’t been converted yet.

And before anyone goes all First Amendment on me, note that I would never suggest that proselytism should be illegal. After all, it’s a form of free speech. Laws have nothing to do with my argument.

After all, not everything that’s legal is right. It’s perfectly legal to spread rumors, use the n-word, and cheat on your partner. And yet these are things that we almost universally agree are wrong. Why? Because they hurt others.

Proselytism may not hurt in the same way that getting cheated on does, but it hurts in a more insidious way. It erodes minority traditions and belief systems and destroys trust between different religious groups.

For instance, if you ask Northwestern students whether or not they’d be willing to engage with Cru in any way, many of them will now tell you no. It’s not hard to figure out why: Cru members made their condescension and disrespect for others’ faith blatant when they expressed their wish to convert us all to Christianity. (In fact, this whole episode inspired me to join Northwestern’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Apparently I’m not the only one.)

The various forms of backlash that “I Agree with Markwell” has inspired, much of which has taken on a deeply anti-Christian tone, only proves my point. While I obviously don’t condone insulting people or their religious beliefs and wish that people would be more civil, I’m not surprised that so many Northwestern students are so annoyed and angry at Cru. After all, they basically told us that we’re going to hell. Their proselytism has, in a way, torn this campus apart.

I don’t think that my moral code is one that will ever be adopted by our majority-Christian society. But I do think that the world would be a better place if people learned to leave each other alone. You may disagree.

My opinion is not a personal insult to you.

[Snark Warning]

It never ceases to amaze me how the act of expressing an opinion opens you up to the most outlandish assumptions about your personality.

Good girls, I know, don’t blog. Or at least, they don’t blog about anything substantial, and they definitely don’t do it using their real names.

Blogging about your personal life is okay, although then you’ll get derided for making your diary public. Posting photos of your friends, family, pets, and outfits, posting recipes and craft projects, posting favorite song lyrics–all of that is okay, if irrelevant.

But when you start blogging about Issues–those things you aren’t supposed to discuss at a dinner party or with your boss–that’s when things get dicey.

A few weeks ago I interviewed for a position on the executive board of the sexual health peer education group I’m involved with on campus. I’ve been involved with it since my freshman year, and now I was interviewing for a position that would put me in charge of, among other things, doing outreach to sororities on campus.

At the interview, they asked me about my blog. Specifically, they mentioned that I’ve expressed the fact that I dislike the Greek system, and wanted to know, wouldn’t that affect my ability to do this job?

Honestly, I was completely flummoxed by this question. Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m incapable of interacting with sorority women? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I’m unwilling to present educational programs at sorority houses? Because I disagree with the Greek system, I don’t care about sexual assault in the Greek community and don’t want to start an initiative to help prevent it?

I must’ve produced an acceptable response because I got the position. But the experience made me realize how naive I’d been, in a way. I thought that people would take my writing for what it is–ideological positions for which I (usually) provide sound reasoning. I didn’t realize that they would take it and extrapolate from it beliefs and character traits that I do not have.

Disliking the Greek system doesn’t affect my ability to create an outreach program for sororities. It doesn’t affect my ability to empathize with individual women who happen to be sorority members. It doesn’t affect my ability to do anything. It’s just an opinion. Not a personal attack on anyone. An opinion.

The only thing it could possibly affect is other people’s opinions of me. Other people may read about my opinions and take them personally. They may assume that I don’t like them–personally. They may assume that I’m a callous person.

But these are their problems, not mine. If they’ve never learned not to make assumptions about others, I’m not taking responsibility for that. And I’m not going to stop writing, or “tone it down,” for the sake of someone else’s comfort.

I love writing, and I specifically love writing about Issues. It’s my way of leaving my mark on the world, and, hopefully, of leaving the world a better place than I found it.

Other people find other ways of doing this. They volunteer, play music, do scientific research, start businesses, make art, get into politics, whatever. I write.

My greatest fear right now–aside from perhaps that I won’t get into graduate school and will end up living in a cardboard box, or that I’ll never get married and will end up living in that cardboard box alone–is that I’ll have to stop writing when I start my Career.

Why would I have to stop writing?

Because of other people’s unfounded assumptions about what my writing says about my character.

Because in the culture we’ve created, you can get fired from your day job for what you write on your blog, using your internet connection, in your home, on your time.

Because good girls are sweet and sensitive, and never express opinions that might offend someone.

Because people haven’t learned that others’ opinions are not personal attacks on them.

On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell
when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.

You Don't Need Alcohol

[This is my first column for the Daily Northwestern, NU's student newspaper. I can't find the link on their website so I'm not linking to it, but here's the full piece.]

You don’t need alcohol.

Wait, hear me out. You really don’t need it.

Before I came to college, I obviously expected that there’d be a lot of drinking and partying going on here. What I didn’t know is why. I grew up in a large, loud Russian family, where alcohol flows freely at dinner parties and camping trips, but never takes center stage. My parents seem mosty the same to me whether they’ve had five drinks each or not a single drop, and they seemed to have just as much fun without alcohol or with it.

I was puzzled, then, when I came to college and found that alcohol was often–not always, but often–the main event. As far as I knew, most people readily admit that they don’t like the taste of alcohol, at least not of the sort usually served at college parties. Dealing with the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much is a drag. Meaningful connections aren’t usually made while one is drunk. So why?

The answer both suprised and disappointed me: people think they need it.

I started hearing the same story from almost everyone I asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable with people unless I’ve been drinking.” “I can’t talk to girls without a few drinks.” “I could never hook up with someone if we’re not both drunk.”

One friend even confided to me that he literally can’t have sex if he’s not drunk. “Why not?” I asked. “I’m more of a traditional person,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t really know if I’m sober.”

Could it really be that the brilliant, accomplished people I go to school with can’t make friends or hook up without alcohol?

The answer, I think, is no. I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. Sure, it can be fun to get drunk. But should it ever be something we “need” to function socially?

I think I can attest to the fact that it’s not necessary. I used to be painfully shy and incapable of having a conversation with anyone my age. Since coming to college, I’ve truly branched out and made many friends. Yet I’ve never been drunk and can count the number of parties I’ve been to on the fingers of one hand. People, if the girl who used to bring encyclopedias to read at birthday parties can do it, anyone can.

I also don’t think we should be using alcohol to help us ignore our own values. If you’re just not the sort of person who wants to sleep with people you don’t know, that’s totally fine. I’m not either. If you think it’s perfectly okay but feel too insecure to do it without alcohol, that’s something you can work on.

That applies to making friends, too. This school is full of really cool, really interesting people. You’re going to find people who think you’re awesome. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself of that. So practice in front of the mirror, get friends to introduce you, do whatever you have to do. Having the confidence to approach people and connect with them is a wonderful thing, and it’ll be with you always–long after the party’s over and the alcohol’s all gone.

"I really want to screw you, but you have so much baggage."

A guy actually said that to me once.

He may have been the only person I’ve ever encountered who was willing to verbalize his shallowness and ignorance, but he’s far from the only one who thinks that people need to be perfect before you can get involved with them.

That idea runs rampant in our culture, and it’s not only men who are to blame. Advice columns for women under 30 often exhibit what I call the “Dump His Ass” effect–anytime a woman writing a letter mentions virtually any imperfection in her crush or boyfriend, the advice columnist usually responds with some form of “dump his ass.” Still has feelings for his ex? Dump his ass. He’s insecure? Dump his ass. Doesn’t like your friends? Dump his ass.

(Of course, there are plenty of offenses for which a person of any gender should almost certainly be dumped, such as sexual harassment or assault, emotional manipulation, being a flaming racist/sexist/etc, and so on. I’m talking about much more minor sorts of flaws.)

Common wisdom seems to suggest that before one can get involved with another person in a healthy and stable way, they need to do things like “work on themselves” and “learn to love themselves” and “figure out who they are.” Leaving aside the fact that for most people, working on yourself and figuring out who you are is a lifelong process, there are some people who are never going to “love” or be comfortable with themselves. I am one such person. Do I not deserve to ever have a partner?

Similarly, people are expected to be “happy on their own” before they can be dateable. That’s preposterous. If you’re 100% happy being single, why would you need a serious partner in the first place? Why is it considered unhealthy to really, really want someone to share your life with?

As someone who has had “baggage” virtually since birth, I have never not been aware of the fact that American culture considers people like me undateable. However, the idea that we’re also unfuckable is a pretty new one to me.

Why? Why do people need to be perfect before we’ll have anything to do with them?

It might surprise some people to know that everyone has flaws and psychological baggage; it’s just a matter of getting to know them well enough to figure that out. And yes, other people’s baggage can sometimes cause you trouble. You know what? Tough titties. You have two options: grow up and deal with it, or avoid getting to know anyone.

Incidentally, the guy I quoted in this post’s title eventually overcame his reservations and spent quite some time harassing me for sexual favors. After I refused, he looked at me and said, “You know, I couldn’t ever see you as my girlfriend. I’d need a girl who’s sweet and kind.”

Now who’s the one with the baggage?

My Facial Expression is None of Your Business

I am not a cheerful person. I don’t wear my happiness on my face, and I do not consider it my moral duty to brighten the day for perfect strangers.

I am an introvert despite the fact that I’m usually pretty friendly and sociable when spoken to. Most of the time, I inhabit a world that nobody really knows. When you see me sitting still with a facial expression that is technically neutral but that many would characterize as “glum”, I’m actually anything but. Usually I’m making up music, writing my next blog post, planning out my love life or my career, or analyzing people I know, all silently in my mind.

But most people don’t bother to ask what I’m doing that’s taking up so much of my attention that I haven’t bothered to plaster a smile onto my face for others’ benefit. Instead, they assume.

And so it begins. “What are you looking so miserable about?” “What’s wrong with you?” Or, simply, “Smile!”

Some of these responses are passive-aggressive attempts to chastise me for not doing my womanly duty to keep everyone around me happy at all times. Others are genuine attempts to understand me, or genuine concern that I might be in a bad mood.

What they all have in common, though, is the shared assumption that underlies them–that there is something “wrong” with my facial expression and that this fact is anybody’s business but mine.

It’s not only people that I choose to associate with who claim the right to dictate what should be on my face. What woman hasn’t walked down a city street, perhaps on the way to work or to run errands, and encountered a random man yelling at her to “Smile!” or “Put a smile on that beautiful face!”?

Such remarks, which feminists call “street harassment” and most non-feminists call “a compliment,” represent the most glaring and offensive of non-physical intrusions into a person’s private self. My facial expression is even less the business of a total stranger on the street than it is of a person who does know me.

(Speaking of feminism, my inner feminist compels me to ask: how often are men publicly berated for the arrangement of their facial features? Quite the contrary, moody, brooding men are often considered very sexually appealing in that mysterious way. A moody, brooding woman, on the other hand, is usually called “difficult” euphemistically, or just “a bitch” if we’re really being honest.)

This issue is intimately related to something I wrote about just recently, on the concept of Debbie Downers and how sad or negative people are constantly accused of “bringing people down.” In contrast, this situation is even more absurd because the facial expressions in question usually aren’t even negative; they’re just neutral. They’re just missing that socially mandated smile. But if you read my argument for why people shouldn’t allow themselves to be “brought down” by “Debbie Downers,” you’ll see that it applies just as well for those of us who, for whatever personal reason, choose not to go about grinning like maniacs.

Furthermore, lest anyone attempt to feed me platitudes about how people who concern themselves with my facial expression are just worried about my mental wellbeing, let me ask you this: when you’re concerned about someone, do you ask them privately if everything’s okay, or do you draw attention to them in a group setting and demand to know why their face looks the way it does?

(For the sake of your friends, I hope you choose the former.)

What strikes me as most ironic about all of this is that, for all the constant blather I hear about how the unappealing configuration of my face means I’m “selfish” and “don’t care” that I’m “upsetting” people and whatnot, I’ve chosen a life that’s infinitely more helpful to those around me than many other possibilities. I’m going to be a therapist, which means that, yes, it’ll be my actual job to help people feel happy. If that’s not more important than my transient facial expression, I honestly don’t know what is.

Moral of the story (or tl;dr, for my fellow internet nerds): If you don’t like what my face looks like, don’t fucking look at it.

An example of my neutral facial expression. No, it is not a personal insult to you.

Death to Debbie Downer

Made famous by SNL.

I propose a moratorium on the term “Debbie Downer.”

“But whyyyy?” you might argue. “Those negative people are so annoyinggg!”

Perhaps. But I think we need to stop using that phrase, for several reasons.

The first thing I think of when I hear the phrase “Debbie Downer” in one of the contexts it’s most commonly used (i.e. “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s just a Debbie Downer”; “Why are you being such a Debbie Downer?”; etc.), is that it’s a reflection of our culture’s dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have a smile plastered all over their face at all times.

After all, isn’t that such a dismissive thing to say? When one calls someone a Debbie Downer, they’re implying that this person’s thoughts and opinions aren’t to be taken seriously. It means that rather than taking the time to figure out why someone’s saying all these negative things, they’re just going to write them off with a convenient alliterative term.

Second–and if you read this blog regularly, I’m sure you know where this is going–”Debbie Downer” is often used as a disparaging term that basically means “person with a mental illness.” In that context, it’s not only insulting, but inaccurate. Depression and related disorders don’t simply make people “negative.” They make them hopeless, joyless, and, at times, suicidal. You don’t really know if the frustrating person making pessimistic comments all the time is actually a pessimist, or actually struggling with a debilitating illness. So why assume?


“But wait!” you might say. “How dare you tell me how to talk? Free speech!”

Absolutely. Unlike certain more Leftist people, I would never argue that one should “ban” words just because they offend people. But look at it this way–if your friend or family member is being negative and you call them a “Debbie Downer,” all you’re doing is shutting them down and making them feel like you don’t really care about how they feel. Is this really what you want them to think? No? Then choose your words more carefully.

As for how I think one should respond to overly negative people, it’s not the way we’re used to doing it. Many people respond by trying to argue with or counteract the negative statements with positive ones, or sarcastically asking “Don’t you have anything nice to say?”, or snapping something like, “Stop complaining.”

(Our culture places a huge stigma on anyone who expresses anything even closely resembling a complaint. What else would explain the proliferation of special purple bracelets given out by various groups that members are required to wear until they have stopped “complaining”? My high school band used them. Rather than feeling free and happy in all this new-found positivity, I felt shut up and silenced, like my opinions–negative or otherwise–don’t matter.)

You’ve by now probably gathered that I think all of this is not only an exercise in futility, but actually quite damaging to relationships. Unsurprisingly, people don’t like to feel belittled and rejected.

Next time, try this simple question: “What makes you say that?”

You may be surprised at the response you receive.


The last point I wanted to make regarding this phrase is that it reveals something very interesting about our culture. We view others’ negative emotions as some sort of personal insult or attack, and we respond accordingly. Rather than either addressing the person’s issues or ignoring them, we instead allow them to bring us down–hence the term “Debbie Downer.” The response that many a depressive (or simply a sad person) has encountered is, “Why do you have to ruin my mood all the time? Why do you have to bring everyone down all the time?”

My response to that is, why are you letting someone else’s problems ruin your mood?

One might argue that it’s “impossible” to be in a good mood if someone around you is not. This is pure bullshit. In fact, I’m going to propose something radical–what if it’s entirely possible to be in a good mood despite the presence of “Debbie Downers?”

I believe that unless you yourself have a psychological problem that keeps you from being in control of your own emotions, nothing can keep you from being in a good mood if you want to be. So perhaps we should stop blaming our own bad moods on other people and acknowledge that we have control over them instead.

The great irony here is that the people bitching and moaning about “Debbie Downers” are usually those very same people who tell those of us with mental illnesses that we just have to “look on the bright side” and “stop letting the little things bring you down” and all those tropes. Perhaps they should take their own advice.

A sad person isn’t a personal insult to you, nor an insurmountable barrier to your own happiness. Next time you encounter one, try a little compassion instead of sarcastically putting them down with a cliched phrase.