A Vacation from Emotional Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

Big Life Changes + A Cool Way to Support My Writing

Screenshot of my Patreon page.

So, a lot has happened in the past few weeks. I finished my internship, graduated with my masters in social work, and (hopefully temporarily) moved back to Ohio to be with my family while I decide what to do next and look for jobs.

[Please note that although I am about to discuss job hunting, I am not looking for advice at this time.]

To be honest, I’m not optimistic. It’s not really in my nature to be optimistic about things that seem to have more to do with random chance than with actual skills or effort, and almost everyone I know is struggling to find a job, keep a job, or survive financially with the job they do have. Although I’m privileged in many ways, my family immigrated relatively recently and we just don’t have the massive network of connections that many non-immigrants have. So, we’ll see. Meanwhile, I miss my city terribly and I’m not happy about being in a state where you can’t go five miles down the interstate without a huge billboard telling you you’re going to hell for your sins.

There are a few roses amid these thorns, however. One is that I’m getting to see my family a lot and that’s great. Another is that I know lots of cool people in Columbus and I can go there often to have a social life. (I went to a Columbus Rationality meeting last night and was super impressed. It’s a subset of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, if you’re interested in finding out more about that.) Another is that I finally get to relax, sit by the pool, and read a few of those books I’ve been desperate to read.

And another is that I can focus on writing more than I did before, and while inspiration may be difficult to come by when I’m so hopeless and sad a lot of the time, all this time to read and think will hopefully prove useful.

So! A number of people suggested that I start a Patreon for my writing because there are people who’d be willing to support me. I decided to give it a shot, because it seemed fun and potentially helpful.

I’m not going to try to talk anyone into supporting my writing if they’re not already interested in doing so, because honestly that feels weird and icky to me. Spend your money however you think you should spend it. But, even a dollar per post would help me out a lot (and could make the difference in coming back to New York sooner rather than later), and you get perks!

Screenshot of some of the rewards from my Patreon page.

Just a few of the perks.

As much as I want to keep writing, it’s sort of difficult to justify the time I spend on it given that I feel like every spare minute should go towards the project of Getting A Job ASAP So That I’m Not Broke Forever. That’s why your support would actually make a huge difference right now, even if it’s not a lot.

The really fun thing about starting a Patreon has been the opportunity to clarify what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my writing, and what my principles are. Here’s what I wrote:

My blog, Brute Reason, covers social justice, psychology, mental health, sexuality, and other stuff I care about. Most of my writing touches on issues like consent and autonomy, direct communication, community building, and rational thinking. Although my writing often persuades people, I’m more interested in giving people tools to live more happily, think more clearly, and act more ethically. I aspire to be compassionate, charitable, reasonable, nuanced, and honest in my writing. Integrity and accountability are very important to me. My writing is often personal, because I want to remind others who struggle with the things I do that they’re not alone.

It should be obvious that just because I aspire to something doesn’t necessarily mean I always succeed, but it does mean that I always have a way to evaluate whether or not I’m doing what I want to be doing.

Anyway, I hope that if you follow this blog and it’s important to you, you’ll contribute what you can, or share it with others. I’m really excited to see where this goes.

 

An Observation on Selfies and Social Norms

Last Saturday was a phenomenally beautiful day, so I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for a few hours. Not a lot’s blooming yet, since the winter lasted so long this year. But there were flowers out, and so many people.

I had my Real Camera with me and took a bunch of shots. Then I decided that I wanted a photo of myself in front of the flowering magnolias, so I took a selfie with my phone.

Then I noticed that I felt weird. I wondered how many people had seen me take the selfie and what they would think. I braced myself for some friendly older person to run up and offer to take the photo for me, but nobody came. (This is, thankfully, New York.) I sighed in relief, wandered over to a different tree, and took another.

And I found myself wondering why I’d felt so weird about the selfie, and how this relates to a broader trend of selfie-hate that I’ve observed online.

Much of the ire about selfies seems to be directed towards women and young people specifically, which is ironic given the historical trend of rich and powerful older white men having actual oil paintings of themselves commissioned and displayed in their homes. That’s a lot more effort than even the most well-posed selfies, I’ll tell you.

But what about a sightseeing selfie? All around me, people were having their photos taken in front of beautiful plants. The difference is, they’d come with friends or partners or family, and I’d come alone. Having someone take your photo in front of something cool is a pretty common thing to do while sightseeing. Nobody seriously thinks there’s anything weird or awkward about that (although they might get annoyed when people are sightseeing right where you’re hurrying down the sidewalk to get to work). What if you’re sightseeing by yourself?

There’s a way that you’re expected to experience certain things–restaurants, movies, landmarks, botanical gardens–and that is, not alone. Taking a selfie in the botanical garden felt weird because I felt like I was expected to have someone there with me to take it. A “normal” person doesn’t just go to botanical gardens alone; they have people to go with.

I actually don’t usually have the option of taking a friend or partner along when I go exploring in the city because most of my friends and partners live in other states. But even when I do have the option, I’d usually rather not. I like doing things by myself. I like taking as long as I want to set up my shots without someone hovering over my shoulder. (Also, I’ve noticed that when I have people with me while shooting, they always try to suggest shots to me. I’d rather they just took the shots themselves!) I like the quiet. I like not worrying about being sufficiently entertaining and cheerful.

Having someone else there to take your picture isn’t just a sign that you’re a Normal Person Who Hangs Out With People; it’s also a way to make sure that you don’t appear narcissistic or whatnot. There’s a plausible deniability there–maybe they’re taking that photo of you for themselves! But in fact, I don’t think it’s exactly a controversial claim that lots of people like having photos of themselves in cool places they’ve been, whether it’s to show them off to others or just keep for themselves to remember that experience.

I don’t have some huge point to make here. I just wanted to reiterate both for myself and for others that doing things alone is okay and totally reasonable, especially if you’re not a very outgoing person, and that it makes no sense for it to be “normal” to have people take your picture in front of things but “weird” to take your own picture in front of things. Most of the arguments I see against “selfies” are really just thinly veiled attempts to shame people for taking pleasure in themselves and their lives and wanting to share that with people. Fake modesty seems like a crappy alternative.

Compassion, Men, and Me

I haven’t thought this through extensively. Normally I wouldn’t write about anything I haven’t thought through extensively, but I’ll explain that.

But I’ve read Scott Aaronson’s article and Laurie Penny’s article and Chana Messinger’s article and I’m still nowhere closer to having a conclusion about any of this. I do know this: pain is real no matter who feels it. I am a feminist and I sympathize with Aaronson. Does this make me that much of an anomaly? I doubt it, but who knows.

I also know this: the vast majority of the time that this particular shy nerdy guy pain has been shared with me, it has been shared in response to my attempts to discuss or advocate against sexual harassment and assault, or sexism in general. This makes it very difficult to continue being compassionate.

I don’t agree that “But I was sad because I could never get laid” necessarily always means “I am demanding that some woman sleep with me in order to make me feel better,” but I understand why many feminist women think that it does. We’re not sure what else we’re supposed to do with all this pain being handed to us. Aaronson may think he’s the only one, or one of the only ones, but many of us have been hearing this sort of thing for years. Some of us heard it from the guys we hopelessly crushed on in high school, who ignored us to fantasize about prettier, normal-er girls–because, guess what? Shy nerdy girls who can’t get laid exist, too.

We’re not sure what else we’re supposed to do with all this pain because all our lives we’ve been taught to soothe male pain and stroke male egos. A man telling me that he is sad because he cannot or could not get sex is typically asking for one thing only.

But that’s not really what I’m thinking about. I haven’t thought this through because I’m so tired. This is not the first time I have thought about this. I’ve been thinking about it in some way or other all along.

Since I was a child, I’ve been exhorted to take care of people’s feelings, especially men’s feelings. I was told to feel sorry for my father when he yelled at me without provocation. I was told to say yes to the boys who asked me out because otherwise they would be sad. I was told not to break up with the boyfriends I no longer liked because that would make them even more sad. I was told to be gentler in my articles so that men would not be upset–gentler, gentler, more and more caveats and concessions until there was little to no writing left. I am sure that one day I will be told to marry a man I do not love because otherwise he will be sad.

You may criticize me for my use of passive voice here, but I choose my words intentionally. I use passive voice because so many people have said these things to me–explicitly, although implicitly may have been just as effective–that it is both difficult and unfair to choose some arbitrary example to be the subject of my sentences.

Feminism, and the people I met who were feminists, was my first chance to prioritize something other than other people’s (especially men’s) feelings. I never wanted to disregard them per se–I dislike hurting people and try to do it only when absolutely necessary–but for the first time, I got to consider my own feelings first. Moreover, I got to consider other things–what needed to be done, what was important, what was practical, what was ethical, what maximized long-term gain, what was accurate. I stopped laughing at jokes I did not consider funny even though that might make the joke-teller sad. I started writing articles about sex and relationships and communication even though some people–even some people I cared about–would not like them. I held people responsible for the pain they caused me rather than excusing it.

I’ve made a lot of progress. I think a lot about finding the right balance between taking care of myself and taking care of others. I’m sure that I occasionally tip the scale too far in favor of myself, but that’s an assessment only I get to make. And for me personally, this sort of rhetoric–the Feminists Need To Be More Considerate Of Men’s Feelings rhetoric–threatens to undo a lot of that progress. It activates the little voice in my head, the little voice that I’m sure a lot of other women have, that says, “It’s okay, don’t worry about me.”

Sometimes that voice is a good thing, because it reminds us not to get too wrapped up in our own little hurts. Other times, it’s not such a good thing. That voice is the thing that allowed me to sit quietly while people took advantage of me–emotionally, physically.

I follow these discussions, the Feminists Need To Be More Considerate Of Men’s Feelings discussions, and I feel that, once again, men’s feelings are being handed to me to deal with. And I’m just not sure what I’m being asked to do with them. Do you want me to sympathize with you? That I can do. I’ve always done it, and I will always do it. If you recognized yourself in Aaronson’s post: I’m sorry you had such a shitty time. I wish it could have gone better.

But do you want me to sympathize with you, or do you want me to drop what I was carrying to hold your feelings instead?

That I will not do.

Every time I try to be more compassionate towards the men I criticize, I am told that I’m still not compassionate enough.

It’s almost as though they want me to just stop criticizing.

How to Show Affection When Showing Affection is Hard

I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult for me to be emotionally intimate with people. That means that it’s hard to tell them that I love them or remind them that they mean a lot to me and basically anything else associated with sappy rainbowvomitness.

In that earlier post, I described why I have this issue, but it can come up for people for all sorts of reasons–a history of abuse, trouble recognizing or connecting to one’s emotions, difficulty with language, speaking, or writing, and so on. And some people just aren’t very emotional or forthcoming, and that’s okay too. It’s not their style.

How do we show love to the special people in our lives when few of the ways we’re taught to do it resonate? I can’t bring myself to write sappy Facebook statuses or have one of those conversations where we just keep talking about how much we love each other. It quite honestly turns my stomach and makes me feel uncomfortable, boxed in, and small. I worry about What It Means to be a person who says those things. Does it mean I’ve once again become everything I worked so hard to stop being?

So I’m writing this post sort of experimentally, more for myself than anyone else. Writing, especially writing publicly, is one of the best ways I have of figuring shit out. I’m curious if the process of writing this will help me uncover ways to connect to people in my life that feel comfortable and authentic for me. So, although it will look like a list of advice, the advice is actually for myself.

I guess this isn’t likely to help that many people because both this issue and my particular situation might not be that common: I have issues with verbal/emotional affection but not physical affection, most of my relationships are long-distance and fairly casual, I’m polyamorous, and I have an easier time being affectionate with people with whom the relationship is strictly platonic. Maybe for other people, it’s physical affection that’s tricky, or it’s harder to express affection for Just Friends outside of the confines of an Established Relationship. I don’t know. Hopefully this will help more people than just me, though.

So, here is what I’m going to try to do, or do more of:

1. Give gifts.

When possible, gifts are a nice way to express appreciation for people that doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of feelings!talk. Sometimes, simply telling someone I care for them can feel very performative and self-centered in a weird way: “Look at me! I have feelings about you! Listen to my feelings! Affirm/reflect my feelings!” Giving a gift, especially a gift that is useful rather than purely A Keepsake To Remind You Of Me, can be a way to decenter myself. That’s why I tend to give lots of books and edible things. I hope that by giving someone an enjoyable experience, I can express affection for them without putting myself at the forefront.

2. Share appreciation for their thoughts, ideas, and actions.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard for me to do the “I love you so much you are so special to me I’m so glad you’re in my life you make me so happy” thing. Something that feels more comfortable and also resonates more with the way I experience my close relationships is to tell someone that I respect or appreciate something they’ve said or done. It helps that many of my friends are writers, which means I can express positive thoughts about their work. One of the reasons this is easier for me is because, like with the gifts, it takes the focus off of me and my emotions and keeps it on them and the cool things they say and do; another is that it’s what I would appreciate, because effusive expressions of emotion are somewhat difficult for me to understand and respond to and I much prefer compliments on concrete things that I do. I never want to make someone feel as awkward as I feel when I suddenly get a rainbowvomit message about how much someone cares about me that I don’t know how to respond to, so I feel better when I affirm people in ways that might be a little easier for them to reciprocate or respond to (“Thanks, I’m glad you liked it!” “Thanks, I like your new blog post too!”).

3. Tell them stories about your life.

I want to feel like my friends and partners know me and know what my life is like. Because most of them live so far away, they have no idea unless I tell them–beyond the generalities that I put in my Facebook statuses, which, although they can feel quite personal and intimate, are actually quite filtered and intentionally cheerful. Where do I talk about my successes at work, or how awful I felt when I couldn’t write something that felt important to write,  or the woman who helped me out on the subway? Pretty much nowhere. Maybe spontaneously telling people these things will help them feel like I care enough to want them to know about my life, and I know I’d appreciate hearing those types of things from them to.

4. Do helpful things for them.

The key here being to actually listen to what they need and do the things that they will find helpful, not what you personally think would be helpful. Little acts of service are a big part of the way that I show affection to people, though they might not always realize it. I remember when I was first getting to know my boyfriend over a year ago–before he was my boyfriend, before it would’ve felt at all appropriate to express that I cared in any other way–I knew he wanted a game that was being sold at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Living just a short subway ride away from it, I offered to go and get it for him and bring it to Skepticon, where we would see each other. The fact that I got to use my wonderful city to do a little nice thing for someone made it all the better. Other things I like doing include giving New York touristy tips, editing people’s writing, and carrying heavy things.

5. Use your talents.

This relates closely to the previous one, at least for me. Most of my favorite ways to show affection involve this somehow. For instance, cooking for people is something I take really seriously as a way to demonstrate the fact that I care. Although I love doing it, it is time-consuming and sometimes physically taxing and can take me away from socializing with people–but I do it because that effort is meaningful. (And I really do not exaggerate when I say that my food is amazing.) Other skills I like to use are writing (I might write a nice holiday card for someone, or let them read and respond to a new article before I’ve posted it), listening (when someone needs to rant about something), and observing (when someone needs help dealing with a problem in their lives, and I help them not necessarily by offering advice but by noting things I’ve observed about them and the situation). Although the expectation I sometimes face with everyone from partners to total strangers that I listen to and help with all of their problems just because it’s also my profession can be ridiculously stressful and irritating, I’ve found that when I really, really care for someone, I’ll drop anything to help them out. (With the caveat that if it becomes too frequent or starts to feel like an expectation, we might have a talk.)

6. Connect them with people, events, media, or resources they might like.

I think about the people I care about a lot, although they don’t always realize it because I hate to do the “hey I’m thinking of you” thing (again, it feels really presumptuous, like a demand for their attention). But one way it plays out is that I often come across things that I think people I care about would like, and I like to share those things with them. Most commonly it’s books or places, but I also like introducing people to people they might like or inviting them to events they might like. I have often reached out to friends I knew were job-hunting with listings I thought might work. I like connecting disparate friends together (although I’m also mindful not to expect them to like each other).

7. Ask for their help in little ways.

People like to feel needed in ways that matter to them. It is hard for me to make people feel needed because I like to do everything by myself, whether that’s exploring the city, editing an article, or coping with a difficult time in my life. But there are ways for me to include people in my own processes without compromising my hard-won sense of independence and competence. For instance, I sometimes post requests for practical suggestions or advice on Facebook, which lets people share their own knowledge and experiences. Other times I reach out to individual people to ask if they know of an article about X, or if they can help me think of a word for Y, or–very rarely–if they wouldn’t mind listening to me vent for a while. I only do this with people I value, so I hope it helps them remember that I value them.

8. Sexting.

This is obviously only applicable with certain types of loved ones, and I’ll also caveat it with the fact that sexting is something I find very performative in a way that is fun but also requires a lot of mental energy that I don’t always have. But when I can do it, it’s a nice way to remind a distant partner that I find them sexy without having to belabor the point–a way of showing rather than telling, as it were.

It’s probably easy to look at this list and assume that I just need to get over my intimacy issues and everything will be great. Well, I’ve restarted therapy for mostly this reason, but that’s not going to make noticeable changes immediately (if it ever does). Therapy is not accessible to everyone, and I’m also not sure that disliking rainbowvomit-y emotional expression is necessarily a sign that there’s something “wrong” with you. It’s not the way everyone experiences love and attachment. It’s certainly not the way I experience it anymore.

If you deal with similar issues and have suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments. (If you do not, then please don’t speculate and offer suggestions anyway; just use this as an opportunity to learn about people who deal with stuff you don’t.)

Opening Up, Closing Down

[Content note: depression, suicide, self-harm]

The truth about mental illnesses that many of us have learned is that they change you for good. Even after the symptoms are gone, the medication gradually reduced to nothing or stabilized at a dose that works, something remains. (And for many of us the symptoms are never entirely gone.)

Depression left my scaffolds–indeed, my very foundation–cracked. I’m okay, even joyful, much of the time. But it feels a little flimsy.

One of the ways this plays out in my daily life is that I have problems with intimacy. I don’t mean the sexual euphemism, but rather the ability to be vulnerable, to let people in, to be seen as you are, to be comfortable with closeness.

I am intensely uncomfortable with all of this.

I hate talking about myself, whether it’s positive or negative. I hate feeling like I need someone’s help to deal with emotions. I hate wanting someone’s help to deal with emotions even when I know I don’t need it. I hate the first time I tell someone I love them and I hate many of the subsequent times too. I hate it when people know that I miss them. I hate being visibly upset around someone, which means that if it’s at all possible to leave, I leave. I hate expressing any emotion besides joy and anger (which I rarely feel) to anyone. I hate it when someone says things to me in an attempt to build intimacy but I don’t know what to do so I say nothing. I hate when people notice emotions I didn’t intend to share. I hate when they tell me this as though it’s going to somehow endear them to me. I hate that there’s nowhere I can cry without being seen or heard by someone.

So relationships, whether platonic or romantic or sexual or some combination, are difficult.

Some people have difficulties like these for their whole lives, but for me, it happened as a result of depression. And, ironically, depression is also the thing that’s hardest for me to share with people.

During my nine years of depression–in fact, probably my whole life up to and including that–I was very different. My experience of mental illness was that it triggered a sort of leaking of thoughts and emotions. I literally lacked the ability to hold them in. They spilled out of my hands, like when I try to move a big pile of laundry from the washing machine to the dryer and little bits and pieces–a sock here, a tank top there–keep falling on the floor. I remember crying apropos of nothing on the band bus in 10th grade and telling my boyfriend that there’s no way to be happy when you hate yourself. Fifteen is old enough to know that this is not an appropriate thing to say. It didn’t matter. It just came out.

It’s not like I didn’t try to plug the leaks. In 6th or 7th grade, I decided to keep a record in my journal of “things left unsaid.” Each day I intentionally tried to shut myself up at some crucial juncture, and rewarded myself for it by writing it down in the notebook later–the thing left unsaid, the person I didn’t say it to, and the reason I didn’t say it.

Years later, what I learned about psychology and behavior change suggested that this could be quite an effective strategy for some people. But it didn’t help me much, because my problem wasn’t purely behavioral. When I looked at those entries later, I noticed how many of them had to do with hurt feelings. “Thing left unsaid: that I was upset about what _____ said about my outfit. Reason: because it wouldn’t make a difference.”

I tried so very hard, but everything hurt. If they couldn’t read it explicitly in my words, they read it implicitly in my face, my body, my tone. I couldn’t hide it. I gave up writing the entries within weeks because it was already too late, everything was leaking out and I couldn’t patch the holes fast enough. In college the dam broke completely, and everything from those little hurts all the way up to wanting to kill myself became common knowledge for those who interacted with me a lot.

For a while it was okay. I thought that being so open was keeping me going–and, as I’ll get to in a moment, it was important in some ways–but what it ultimately did was it completely broke me. It destroyed any sense of self-respect, independence, and competence that I had. When I confided my depressive feelings to someone, usually a partner, I felt like garbage. I felt so much more shame about the act of confiding than I ever did about the feelings I confided themselves.

If you’ve ever had to call the last person you want to speak to right now because they’re the only one available to talk you out of slashing your own wrists, then maybe you know what I’m talking about.

You have to reveal. You have to open up, in order to live. You have to tell it to the therapist and the psychiatrist and your parents and your partner and anyone else who is in any way responsible for your well-being.

You tell people the darkest most horrible things not because you trust them and want to let them see this part of you, but because you have no fucking choice.

And so the concept of “opening up” has been totally ruined for me, because I didn’t get to save it for those special, bonding late-night conversations with someone I feel ready to show myself to.

I had to do it.

Now I don’t.

And not having to feels like freedom. It feels like victory. It feels like independence, finally. It feels like adulthood, although it shouldn’t. It feels like maturity, although it shouldn’t. It feels like wholeness. It feels like safety.

It feels like recovery.

So now I sit at the computer with words typed into the chat box–“I feel sad,” “I can’t stop crying,” “I miss you so much”–and I can’t send them. I want to send them and I don’t want to send them. Not wanting to send them almost always wins out.

In a way, intimacy was easy when I was depressed. I wore it on the outside and it created a sense of intimacy with many people almost instantly. New partners saw my neat little red scars so early on, too early on. “We’ll work on that,” said one, an aspiring psychologist. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” said another.

Now nobody has to see, and it’s almost impossible to want it any other way. Intimacy has gotten much harder. Perhaps mirroring my own style, new partners disclose little and so I lose interest in them quickly, convinced we have nothing in common besides politics.

Instead I write. The stress of work, the rush of falling in love, the little depressions that come and go, the grief of losing my old lives, the fear of the future–they sink into paper and that’s where they stay.

It’s lonely and isolating as hell, but it beats feeling opened up and exposed.

And now, although I’m known as someone who talks about depression a lot, I don’t really talk about it. I speak obliquely of it, the way someone might mention the passing of a loved one without ever speaking openly of their grief.

I can say that there is fatigue. I can say that it feels sad and numb and dark and hopeless. I can say that I wanted to die. I can say that my head was–still is, much to my constant disappointment–fuzzy and slow, memory useless, words perpetually at the tip of my tongue but left unspoken. I can write this blog post about how depression has affected my ability to desire, build, and feel intimacy.

But I do not ever, not anymore, tell you how it really feels. I will not make you listen to me tell you I hate myself I hate myself like I’ve never hated anything before and I wish I could rip my body and my mind to shreds–

No, I stay on a meta level. I’m comfortable talking about it conceptually.

But the feeling of depression itself? That is a dark room into which I want to go alone. I don’t want anyone knocking on the door trying to get me to let them in. I don’t want to have to hold their hand and guide them around the sharp corners they can’t see, because when I’m in that room, I need to be caring for myself. Not for anyone else.

Of course, it always starts out with them hoping to care for me, but that’s never how it ends up. People end up needing my support to navigate the nightmares in my own head.

Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the mental fortitude for that. Caring for one person–me–is enough.

Presumably, I don’t have to be stuck this way for my whole life just because I have/had depression. I’m hoping to start therapy again soon, for this and for other reasons. But for now, as I reflect on myself and my life at this very special (for me) time of year, it’s hard not to feel hopeless about all the little things I can no longer do, at least not without lots of anxiety and fear. Like tell someone how the stress actually feels. Or talk to someone about how powerless I feel in my work. Or ask someone if they can talk to me for a while to help me get my mind off of things.

In this way, and in many other ways, mental illnesses may never end, or may take much longer to end than we expect, and there is no hopeful cheery note for me to end this on.

A Flare-up of a Chronic Illness

[Content note: depression]

This is a personal post, not an advice post or a big societal problems post. But past experience has shown that some people appreciate and benefit from it when I describe how I try to think about things.

“Reframing” is a term we sometimes use in mental healthcare (and elsewhere) to basically refer to changing the way you think about something. While therapists sometimes suggest ways to reframe things to clients, it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide whether or not they want to reframe, and if so, how.

For some people this concept can hit a nerve because it can sound a lot like the well-meaning but ultimately useless (and even hurtful) advice we get to “look on the bright side” and “think about the positives.” But that’s not what reframing means to me. Here’s an example.

In one of my classes, we are required to meet in pairs for ten weeks to administer and receive counseling. Not as a roleplay exercise, but as an actual attempt to disclose one’s struggles or work with someone else on those struggles. Many students in the class expressed strong discomfort with being one of the “clients” in this exercise, but I’m already accustomed to sharing very personal and intimate details with thousands of strangers online, so I had no qualms about signing up to be counseled.

During our first session, my student-counselor asked me a question: “What, to you, would be an ideal or perfect day?”

It didn’t take me long to think about my answer, which turned out to be sort of a non-answer.

“There isn’t one,” I said. I explained that after eleven years of depression, there is no longer such a thing as an ideal or perfect day and it feels like there never was. That sort of thing is so far out of the realm of possibility for me that, in my view, there’s no point in sitting around hypothesizing about it*.

The reason is that hypothesizing won’t bring me any closer to experiencing it. The things that stop me from being able to have perfect days, those days you spend the rest of your life wishing you could relive, are not surmountable things.

As an example, I told them about the previous weekend, when my roommate and I had gone to visit friends in the suburbs of Philly and then went to a steampunk-themed dance in the city proper. I’d been looking forward to it for a while. It was supposed to be one of those awesome nights. We got all dressed up, and I was wearing my friend’s spectacular dress that I felt amazing and sexy in, and I was with my friends, and it was going to be awesome.

Until, of course, it wasn’t. Not long after we got there, I experienced one of the things I refer to as a depressive trigger, for lack of a better term. It’s whatever the depression version of getting triggered is–specifically, it brings on acute depression symptoms–and it happens to me periodically. I heard it and I felt every metaphorical gear that keeps my brain working properly grind to a halt. It was like driving down a beautiful country road in the sunshine and suddenly finding yourself in a thunderstorm.

After that I couldn’t make myself function. I felt an uncomfortable combination of numb and sad in a very “deep” sort of way. I was constantly on the verge of crying, and knew I would if I let myself think about the thing that had triggered me. I couldn’t talk to anyone, at least not in any socially appropriate way, and I couldn’t dance or pretend to be happy or do much of anything else.

So I left my friends, sat in a corner, and spent most of the rest of the night writing in my notebook (good thing I carry it everywhere) and messaging with one of my partners on my phone. (Situations like this, by the way, are one of the reasons I’m so adamant that it should be socially acceptable to be on your phone at social events. Because my options at this point were: cry in front of my friends, be on my phone, or leave and somehow find my own ride back from Philadelphia to New York at 10 PM on a Saturday night.) I was eventually more or less okay, but it took a long time, and I spent most of the night on the effort to make myself feel more or less okay.

This is not atypical for me; it’s been happening for almost as long as I can remember, and while the triggers have changed a little over the years–as has my ability to manage them–the fact that they happen in the first place has not.

I used to hate myself for it. I’d berate myself endlessly for “ruining” everything or “wasting” good times away, especially since the triggers were as predictable as they were unavoidable. Surely I could learn to stop doing this? (But I see nothing about “acute depression triggers” in any of the scholarly material I read and I don’t even know if this is a typical aspect of the experience of depression or if anyone has ever reported it at all. I just know that that’s how depression works for me.)

Now, I told my student-counselor, I think about it differently. Of this specific incident, I think: I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it.

And because I’ve learned to think about it that way, a lot of other things start standing out–the things that went right. I had a great, relaxing day with my friends before it happened. I got dressed up and felt good about how I looked. At the event itself, during the times when I was feeling more or less okay, I met some interesting new people and took some great photos that I’ll have to look at and reminisce. While I was feeling triggery, my friends noticed and checked in on me in ways that demonstrated their concern and care but did not step over any of my emotional or physical boundaries. (Most significantly, I don’t like to talk about the things that cause me to feel bad, and nobody asked or expected me to.) While I was feeling triggery, I managed to disclose a little bit of it to my partner online–not something I am often able to do–and my partner was supportive. I was able to stop it from getting any worse.

Reframing is not the same as its distant cousins, “looking on the bright side” and “finding the silver lining.” I didn’t choose to look on the bright side or find the silver lining. The silver lining found me, after I had reframed the situation in a way that didn’t make me look like a horrible wretched failure of a person. And when I reframe, I don’t attempt to dilute or ignore the reality of the situation. It is not preferable that things like this happen when I’m trying to have a good time with my friends. There is no “silver lining” to getting triggered. I’m not going to wax poetic about what this teaches me about myself or about the human condition. I’m not going to gush about how situations like this really bring out the wonderfulness of my friends and partners, because my friends and partners are wonderful a lot of the time, whether or not I’m currently feeling like crap.

When I think back to that night now, I don’t feel sad, because I’m remembering the good things along with the bad. Previously, the distortion that my brain engages in would’ve made that impossible. I’ve tried to somehow force myself to think about the good things before and failed. It could only happen once I found a way to look at the situation realistically.

I didn’t fail. I didn’t ruin anything. I didn’t choose for this to happen. I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it–with the help of some of my friends, but also by drawing on my own strengths and resources.

~~~

*That said, the question the student-counselor asked is typically a pretty good one to ask, as it helps the therapist understand what their client hopes to change about their life. But I already know that I want something impossible. I want to be cured. I won’t be, and that’s okay.

Open Thread: In What Ways Do You Fail At Adulthood?

This may seem like a weirdly negative open thread topic, but there’s a point to it, trust me.

Something I’ve been struggling with a lot since I was 19 or 20 or so is the idea of Being An Adult and what that means. More specifically, there are a lot of things, small things and big things, that I feel I “ought” to be able to do if I am to Be An Adult, but I can’t do them, or don’t feel like doing them. Do I still get to consider myself an adult? How do I resolve the cognitive dissonance of being unable to do something that’s part of my mental schema of what adulthood means?

In some ways, I fit the “adult” stereotype. I don’t receive financial assistance from my parents. I can throw a legitimate dinner party. I have houseplants and keep them alive for the most part. I pay off my credit card in full every month. I basically take care of myself and my own needs, do the things that need to be done without reminders or cajoling from anyone, and set my own goals without needing anyone else’s approval.

But in other ways, there are still a lot of “adult things” that I can’t seem to get right. For instance:

  • I do not bring my lunch to work. I hate food that’s been sitting in tupperware for hours. I hate cooking in the morning or the night before. I hate soggy sandwiches. I hate salads. I hate cold lunch. I hate carrying around even more stuff. I hate washing tupperware that’s been sitting around all day. I hate forgetting to wash tupperware that’s been sitting around all day. I hate feeling hungry no matter what I brought because I can never bring as much as I can get at a local take-out place. I hate eating 10 granola bars for lunch. I hate that 10 granola bars cost more than lunch from a local take-out place and feel much less satisfying. I hate a lot of things. So I buy my fucking lunch.
  • I cannot arrive anywhere without being sweaty and disheveled. Even if I’m not in a rush! The city means lots of walking and lots of standing wedged in a mass of people on the subway. Unless I give myself an extra half hour so I can wait for the nicest emptiest train and then crawl down the street to my destination at a leisurely pace, I’m going to show up hot and exhausted and with my hair going all over the place.
  • I am bad at alcohol. I hate beer. I hate whiskey and scotch and all that other stuff. I don’t really like wine except the very sweet wine, and I know nothing about picking out nice wine. I don’t know how to mix drinks. When I go out to a bar I order a diet rum & coke, a vodka cranberry, or one of the special cocktails. I absolutely don’t give a fuck which wines go with which foods. The only reason I ever pay a lot of money for alcohol is because otherwise you can’t drink in New York.
  • I do not make my bed. Because IDGAF.
  • I also don’t dust anything. I hate dusting. I have no idea where to put the things that were on the surface while I’m dusting that surface. I can’t notice dust for some reason, so I have no idea what I need to dust. Also, it’s so much more boring than almost any other cleaning task.
  • I have not had a serious romantic relationship with anyone who actually lives in my city for over five years and counting. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with me. Maybe I have a pathological fear of letting anyone get too close to me. Or maybe I just don’t have time to see the same person several times a week. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence.
  • I don’t frame any of the things I put up on my walls. I don’t care if it’s “college-y.” Money’s tight, framing is expensive, and the last thing I want is for that shit to fall on the floor and break.
  • I do not wear pumps, pantsuits, necklaces, bracelets, button-downs, sweater sets (is that even still a thing), or any of that kind of Career Woman stuff. And I thank a nonexistent deity every day that I work in a field where this stuff is unnecessary.
  • I live with roommates. I adore my roommates and it’s not like I have any other option, but it’s hard to feel like a grown-up when I can’t have my own place to live.
  • I only go to the doctor when I’m sick. Time, money.
  • I miss my family to an unreasonable and depressing extent. 
  • I have no idea what I’ll end up doing as a career. I only know what I want to do, but that’s not the same as having a plan that I’m confident I can carry out.

Of course, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this isn’t really about failing at adulthood. It’s about not living up to a societal image of what a mature person ought to look like and be able to do. A lot of this is out of our control, some of it isn’t, but ultimately none of it is a reasonable way to judge someone’s value and capabilities as a human being.

But sometimes it helps to share it with other people and see that you’re not at all alone in feeling inadequate and a little like a child sometimes. Even the people we compare ourselves to when we’re feeling negative probably have these same thoughts.

So: in what ways do you fail at adulthood? What did you expect to be doing, or able to do, by now that you still can’t get right? 

As a friendly reminder, please do not give advice (to me or to any other commenter) unless they’ve specifically asked for it. And if you want advice, feel free to ask for it directly.

Venting About Your Problems Is Therapy’s Failure Mode

At least, it was for me.

The more I learn about how to conduct effective, evidence-based therapy, the more I understand why none of my attempts at getting therapy helped. (It is true that my depression is “in remission” or whatever you want to call it, but I don’t credit the few total months I spent in therapy with that development.)

Many people think that therapy is about paying a person to sit there and nonjudgmentally listen to you vent about your problems. Some of this might come from the prevalence of psychoanalytic thought in our culture, including in stereotypes about therapy and mental illness. Freud and his ideas are still very dominant in the many laypeople’s opinions about psychology. Specifically, I’m thinking of free association, a technique used in traditional psychoanalysis in which the client is asked to just say whatever happens to be on their mind, however silly or irrelevant it may seem. Free association is meant to inspire the client to reveal previously-repressed thoughts or feelings that both client and therapist are then able to learn from and understand.

I suppose that sometimes this can be useful, but other times or for other people, it may not be. The problem is that therapists operating from this perspective will be biased towards finding some sort of hidden meaning in the client’s free association whether it is there or not. If you asked me to free associate, I would probably just rant incoherently about how cool the buildings downtown are or cute things the children in my family say or how frustrated I am that whenever I enter a building I am always very cold because people use excessive air conditioning in this country.

And I’m sure an unscrupulous therapist could just assume that this means that I am obsessed with phallic-shaped objects or I am desperate to have children or I find that this world is too cold and unwelcoming and I long for the safe, warm environment of my mother’s womb. Sure. My own perspective is that the things that I happen to randomly think about when I am not directing myself (or being directed by someone else) to think about something in particular are rarely relevant to the major issues I have in my life. I will survive despite the prevalence of freezing-cold rooms in my day-to-day experience.

So it is with venting about my problems, which is somewhat similar to free-association in that one is asked to simply say whatever they want to talk about or are upset about at the moment. Yes, obviously, it can sometimes be very useful. I do not deny that whatsoever. A therapist may ask, “What’s been troubling you lately?” and a client might say, “My mother is sick.” Or they might say, “My children won’t listen to me and it’s making me mad,” and then the therapist probes a little more and the client reveals that the client and their partner are constantly fighting and contradicting each other and the children don’t know who they’re supposed to be listening to anymore.

The trouble starts when venting about their problems is all the client is ever asked or allowed or encouraged to do. Then you have a therapist who’s doing nothing more than what a trusted, patient, empathic friend could do. And while, to be fair, such friends aren’t as easy to find as we may wish they were, these are not skills that you need at least six years of higher education and at least one (possibly more) professional licenses in order to administer.

And that’s about all I recall doing when I went to therapy. Of course, because I was depressed, the things I vented about frequently had to do with depression in some oblique way. But the key thing on my mind as I headed off to my weekly appointments wasn’t necessarily, “I have depression.” It was, “I just had a fight with my partner and now I’m convinced they’ll dump me and I’ll be alone forever.” Or “I’m terrifying about this exam and if I don’t do well then I am a failure.” Or “I hate myself.” Or whatever.

And my therapists, for the most part, did succeed in creating a space where I felt slightly comfortable with sharing these things, and so I shared them. They would say, “What would you like to talk about?” and I wanted to talk about my conversation with my mother or how much I miss my siblings or my fears about my partner leaving me. The therapists would attempt to understand why I felt the way I did, but they did not seem to do much to change the way I felt, even though I continued seeing the same ones for a few months at least. By then, the real work of therapy should have begun.

Whereas what I’ve now been taught to do as part of my own training in mental healthcare goes more like this: A client comes to you. You ask for some basic information from the client about their life, family, history, cultural/ethnic/religious background, reasons for coming to therapy, and so on. You ask the client what they would like to accomplish in therapy. You tell them a little bit about your own therapy practice and what they can expect from it, and see if there’s anything that makes them uncomfortable or that they feel wouldn’t work for them.

Together, you set some concrete goals for therapy that are as measurable as possible. For instance, “I would like to stop having panic attacks when I leave the house.” Or “I want to find ways to deal with feeling very upset that do not involve self-harm.” Or “I want to learn how to approach people and make friends with them.” Or “My partner and I would like to find ways to manage jealousy.” If the client suggests goals that the therapist thinks are too vague, unrealistic, or dependent on factors beyond the client’s control (“I want to find a partner”), the therapist can discuss this with the client and help them adjust the goal so that it’s more manageable (“I want to get over my anxiety about asking people out on dates” along with “I want to learn ways to deal with feeling lonely”).

Then, the therapy progresses towards these goals. Every few weeks or so, the therapist and client assess how the therapy is going so far, and the client can weigh in on whether or not they think it’s helping, what concrete progress they feel they have made, and so on. The therapist may periodically administer scales or questionnaires that help gauge improvement in a slightly more objective way. The client and the therapist together can decide to adjust or change the goals if they want to, or introduce new ones as older ones are achieved. Being able to assess and adjust therapy as it’s going on, not just when it’s about to end, is very important.

Eventually, depending on the therapist’s style and the needs of the client, they may discuss termination, which is a word I hate that refers to the process of ending one’s work with a particular client. The client may feel that they’ve accomplished the goals they had, or that they’ve gotten as far as they think they can with a therapist and will be okay on their own now, or that they need to find a different therapist who may be able to help them better. Therapy should not continue indefinitely. The therapist and the client may agree to check in again in a certain number of months to see how the client is doing and whether or not they need to return to therapy.

Of course, this is just a template; everyone does it differently and not all clients may want or need all of these steps, but this is consistent with an evidence-based approach. This process holds therapists accountable by encouraging them and their clients to evaluate the therapy.

When I look back on my time in therapy, I wonder if I could’ve done a better job of making it work for me. Maybe I should’ve offered up specific changes that I wanted to see to the therapists, such as “I want to stop crying several times a week” or “I need to learn to be okay with being single.” (Both of these things happened without the help of a therapist, by the way.) But…I didn’t really know that I needed to do that. I saw my therapists as authority figures. I assumed they knew what they were doing, and that they would ask me for specific things if they needed to. I had only the vaguest ideas of how therapy is “supposed” to work, because my psychology classes mainly focused on theories and not on practice.

If you find yourself doing nothing but venting about your problems in therapy–without necessarily then developing any sort of plan to help resolve or cope with the problems–that’s a red flag. Venting can be therapeutic in its own right, but you shouldn’t have to pay for the opportunity to do it. Therapists have a responsibility to provide the best treatment they can; it’s literally in our code of ethics. You deserve that from your therapist.

Open Thread: How Do You Practice Self-Care?

A teapot and a mug that says, "Write like a motherfucker."

90 degrees outside. No fucks given.

I’m going to give open threads a try! The folks who comment here seem to have a lot of interesting things to share, so I thought it’d be cool to have some threads where you can talk about yourself as much as you want.

The topic I’m starting with is self-care. Whether or not you have what could be called Mental Health Problems, everyone needs to calm down, unwind, or get their mind off of things sometimes. Different things work for different people, and sometimes something that seems really weird or counterintuitive will help someone.

Self-care is not a replacement or substitute for treatment (if you need it). It’s a way for people to cope with stress and jerkbrain, maintain recovery from a mental illness, or help manage mental illness symptoms if you have them. So none of these things are intended to cure or treat anything, and a lot of frustration tends to arise when people offer them up as “advice” for those with mental illnesses.

We each know best what helps us best. Here’s how I like to do self-care:

  • Hot tea. (Even in the summer. Must be because I’m Russian.)
  • Writing, even if it’s about something heavy.
  • Taking a hot shower, even if it’s just to have a place to cry in private.
  • Cleaning, organizing, doing dishes. My apartment tends to get cleaner the more life problems I’m having.
  • Going for a walk and listening to music. Unfortunately, I don’t get to do this so much now that I live in the city, where it wouldn’t be relaxing or necessarily pleasant. But my high school years, back in Ohio, were full of leisurely walks around the neighborhood.
  • Playing music. Now that I finally have a keyboard piano, I’ll finally be able to do that again.
  • Reading sci-fi novels or nonfiction articles. For some reason, it has to be one or the other. Nonfiction books don’t work, and short stories or poetry don’t work.
  • Watching something that tells a good story but doesn’t require careful attention. So, Star Trek and Doctor Who are in; West Wing and Damages are out.
  • Talking to a friend about something totally unrelated.

Some things that help lots of people but not me are: YouTube videos, animal photos, talking to someone about the thing I’m upset/stressed about, eating, video games (though I like them at other times), basically anything that’s supposed to be funny/uplifting. The first two are especially frustrating, because the first thing many people will do if I say I’m feeling down is send me YouTube videos and animal photos. Then I have to either pretend that it helped, or tell them that that doesn’t help. (Except sometimes. Hard to predict.)

 

What works for you? What doesn’t?