Rejection and Bouncing Back

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I used to be horrible at rejection. I’d get a rejection letter from a job or a scholarship and I’d spend the next few hours curled up in the fetal position feeling miserable, crying, beating myself up. I should have spent more time on the application, I should have been a better person, I should have been smarter, I should have gotten better grades. No one likes rejection, although some people handle it better than others. But it’s not uncommon for rejection of any kind to leave us questioning our worth as human beings.

In the last week, I’ve been rejected from two of the jobs that I applied to. That’s not that many, but both were things I was extremely interested in and sincerely hoped I’d at least get an interview for. And yet I find myself completely unconcerned. Of course I still would deeply like a job sooner rather than later, and I’m a bit worried about my finances, but I didn’t get that stomach dropping feeling that I screwed up and will never recover.

How?

It’s easy to imagine that I just somehow calmed down. I grew out of some of my anxiety, my meds are working better. But I think that discounts the real work that anyone can do to limit the panic that often results from rejection. I have just lived what could be considered a worst case scenario. I don’t have enough money to live on my own, I don’t have a job. There are times in my past that this would lead to a full on “I’m going to end up selling drugs on a street corner and living in a cardboard box” meltdown. But I know how this is going to end: I’ll go home, move in with my parents for a bit, furiously apply to jobs, take what I can get, and move on with my life.

My friends will still be there for me. I won’t be miserable because I still have a safety net, I still have the things that I love. The bottom has fallen out and I’m still standing. Now for most people this is not the ideal way to get past the failure fear. But you can imagine it. If you were to lose your job and your savings right this minute, what would happen? If you were to not get the job that you absolutely want and had to take something you weren’t thrilled about, what would happen?

In all likelihood, you’d survive. You probably have people to support you. And if you did have to take a shitty job, you might have other things in your life that could balance it: friends, family, hobbies. The shift of focus from “finding perfect career” to “building a family and home that I love” has completely changed my sense of rejection. My friends aren’t going to reject me if I screw up once. My family will probably never reject me. These human relationships are a far more solid basis for an identity and a safety net than a career or an education that doesn’t have a personal relationship with you. Personal relationships are what create safety for us: they keep the bottom from falling out because we’ve got some extra people hanging out with us who can catch us.

This metaphor has become far too cheesy, but the point is that each individual rejection no longer becomes about the whole of your future or your identity. It’s simply one piece of a life that has other elements to balance it. I used to think that I was amazing at seeing the big picture. I got a B on a test in high school once, and my mind immediately started following all the links to a prediction of utter doom: I wouldn’t get a good enough grade in the class which meant that I wouldn’t get into a good college which meant that I wouldn’t get a good job which meant that I would be homeless and die alone. Big picture, right? Thinking in the long term?

What I missed was that the big picture has to include all the elements of the picture: the fact that schools look at more than just grades, that I am a hard and dedicated worker, that even if things did go poorly I knew people who would help me out. The big picture is more than just a series of links in a chain to doom. It’s all the mitigating factors, the people you know, the backups you have in place, your resources and your resourcefulness.

So I’m not worried. I’m not worried that I’ll end up stuck in a career I hate because I got a few rejections. I’m not worried I’ll be living with my parents for years and years and all my friends will abandon me and I’ll die of starvation. Because I can survive some temporary nastiness and find new ways into the careers that I want. There is no singular right way, and not getting one of the things that I thought could be a right way doesn’t mean dead end. It means try a different route.

Maybe this whole “focusing on relationships and my identity” rather than focusing on accomplishments business is actually fairly effective. Whoa.

Human Rights vs. Human Survival

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I’ve been watching Battlestar Galactica for the past few months (warning: some spoilers ahead), and generally deeply enjoying the show, particularly President Roslin. Until a few episodes ago when President Roslin decided to ban abortion on the fleet because they needed more babies for the continuation of the human species.

Some people (even those who otherwise approve of abortion) would suggest that the continuation of human life is inherently a good thing. There are a number of reasons they might give: life is a good thing, humans are uniquely capable of consciousness and awareness in a way that is joyful and appreciative of the universe, humans are uniquely moral, humans are better because we’re humans (ok that’s not a very good reason).

But it seems to me that there are some good reasons not to prioritize human life as an end to itself, but rather to prioritize the good human life. If we start removing rights and the ability for people to freely seek out the good life, simply being alive (surviving) without thriving is not worth it. It’s easy to imagine situations in which death would be preferable, and in which some people do in fact attempt or succeed at suicide in order to escape the situation. Certain illnesses, torture, or oppression might fall into this category. Obviously there are some people who would prefer to be alive no matter what, but these situations suggest that for many people, life in and of itself isn’t the most important thing.

This seems to be where we get the idea of basic human rights: these are the things that make life worth living. There is some debate over what would constitute a basic human right, but when we start stripping people of what we believe are rights for the sake of keeping our species alive, we are not only ignoring the fact that the universe can and perhaps should continue on without us quite successfully, but we are also degrading what our species could be simply for the sake of remaining around. On a smaller level, this is on par with a race compromising their ideals and beliefs in order to continue as a race…and while I don’t think banning abortion makes you Hitler, doing it for the sake of continuing the species certainly puts you on a spectrum that’s on par with all the other people who make bad choices in order to maintain an in group.

So what are the things that we shouldn’t compromise simply to keep ourselves safer and our race stronger? These are obviously contentious, but I’d posit a few basics like bodily autonomy, freedom of speech, freedom to organize, freedom of religion…some people might add freedom to own arms, or freedom to own property. It’s a much larger conversation to decide what constitutes the basic qualities of a livable human life, one that is not filled with pain and misery, but regardless of what we see as the basic rights, we should be willing to protect those over our species life in order to keep our species the best possible version of humanity we can. The species is not a living thing that deserves our respect and care. It is simply an organization of other lives, and those individual lives should always be prioritized.

Of course there’s a balance: there are situations where we might have to make some sacrifices in order to save more people. The trolley problem isn’t an insane question. But in this case, Roslin took away a right without a clear positive consequence. The babies not aborted won’t necessarily save the human race, and saving the human race is not necessarily the best thing ever. When we compromise things, we should have a clear image of the good that’s coming out of that compromise rather than a general idea that more people is better.

#WhyIStayed

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I have never been in a physically abusive relationship. Some people would say that I’ve never been in any abusive relationship. Sometimes things are fuzzy and there isn’t a clear line between “emotional abuse” and “unhealthy relationship”. I don’t think I would qualify myself as an abuse survivor. But here’s what I do know about my worst relationship:

I have been in situations in which my partner threatened suicide or self harm if I didn’t stay with them or acquiesce to their desires.

I have been told what to wear by my partner (as well as what is inappropriate to wear).

I have been told what activities I should and shouldn’t do by my partner.

I have been told who I should spend time with by my partner.

I have had partners whine, cry, pout, and otherwise emotionally manipulate me when I choose to do things that don’t involve them.

I have had partners try to initiate sex while I was crying and then get angry because I wasn’t enjoying it.

I haven’t felt comfortable contributing to the #whyIstayed hashtag on Tumblr, as most of the people there suffered a great deal more than I did, but there is a spectrum of bad relationships and mine was on it.

So why did I remain in a relationship like this? Why didn’t I just leave? Well, eventually I did. But it took breaking out of the isolation that I was in because somehow these things all could seem perfectly logical and warranted when the only perspective you hear is that of the person demanding and manipulating. It took seeking more help for my mental health problems, because when you’re incredibly depressed it only seems appropriate that someone else’s desires take precedence over your own. It took realizing that I might have some worth as a human being and that I didn’t need another person to demand/force/coerce me into eating and taking care of myself.

It’s easy to ask why someone doesn’t get out of a bad relationship when you assume that they have options, a strong sense of self separate from their partner, and that they haven’t come to believe that they deserve whatever is happening to them. In this particular instance, it’s easy to forget that mental illness can (and quite often does) intersect with abuse. On some level, telling an individual who is experiencing the emotional fallout of an abusive relationship that they should just leave is parallel to telling someone who is depressed that they should just cheer up or someone with an eating disorder that they should just eat. Obviously that is the solution, but that doesn’t provide them with any avenues to do it.

Just as insidious is the fact that society trains women to ignore their own needs and wants (particularly in favor of their romantic partner), so when women actually internalize those messages and suppress their own feelings in order to try to keep their partner happy (which often leads to abusive situations and someone staying when they should leave) they are rewarded in many ways. “Compromise” we’re told, which most often means “do what he wants”. And if he is kind in any way, at any time, he has earned whatever else he does.

I stayed because he was vulnerable and I had to be there for him. I stayed because he cared about me and taught me things and reminded me that the world could be fun. I stayed because his needs were just as important as my right to say no, weren’t they? I stayed because I had been told that relationships are sacrifice and a man’s jealousy is as important as a woman’s freedom. I stayed because there were still times when I smiled.

I left because feminism taught me that I deserved more. Shaming never did anything.

Quitting Is Not Failure

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One of the things that is most obnoxious about American society is the tendency to equate quitting something with failing at that thing. No one wants to be called a quitter, and we’re often told we need to commit to things, follow through, finish what you started. When someone drops out of college or quits a job they’re generally perceived as lazy or a loser in some fashion. Quitting a hobby or volunteer position or other outside activity seems to imply to some people that you can’t handle whatever it is you’re doing.

Unfortunately these perceptions are utter bullshit. Failure is when you don’t achieve your goals, so there are probably some circumstances in which quitting something is failure. If you really, truly wanted to complete something and you don’t get to, then in some sense you’ve failed at it. But most of the time when we quit something we do so because we realize that our goals and priorities have changed in some way. In order to stay in line with our values as we now perceive them, we have to take a different set of actions. That is not failure, it’s actually incredibly successful.

But even beyond the fact that if we make the choice to change our life trajectory we’re often doing it for good reasons is the fact that quitting something often comes about after increased self knowledge. All of this is a not so thinly veiled comment on my recent decision to quit my Master’s program and move home. For some, this might seem like failure. However in a mere few weeks away from home my perspective on my life and my priorities has utterly shifted. I have realized the high importance of having a strong support system around me, the value I place on my friends (they are irreplaceable), and that I want to have a more solid plan for my future before committing to an advanced degree.

I have gained an immense feeling of gratitude to the people in my life that I love and a commitment to hold them tenderly. And I’ve also found a serious motivation to fully commit to recovery. Putting myself into a new situation made all of these things clear, but also made it clear where it was healthiest for me to be. Choosing to quit something because it is unhealthy, not what you love, or simply not what you want in your life is not only self-care, it is a commitment to treating yourself well.

Taking the time to check in with yourself, see whether a situation is working for you, and then prioritize your own needs is the exact opposite of failure: it is, especially for women, people of color, disabled people, queer people, or mentally ill people, making your life what you want it to be. This is the ultimate success for individuals who often feel they have to follow certain scripts and are pressured to ignore their own needs. Success is allowing yourself to live in a way that allows you to flourish, not simply survive. Keeping things in your life that are limiting you simply because you don’t want to be a quitter is basically the essence of failing at life.

All of this is to say: I feel so proud of myself for making what I believe to be the healthiest decision I could, for discovering where I feel safe and confident, and for recognizing the amazing progress I’ve made when I’m in a safe space. I’m quitting so that I can kick some ass.

 

Self Care is Safety

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I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about self care lately because I’ve been trying to practice it, and as part of that I’ve been trying to pin down what are effective self care techniques for me. Soft fabrics, cats, a good glass of wine, familiar smells, books, Netflix, going for a walk in a park, not having to cook…these are all things that I use to take care of myself. And as I’ve thought about many of the things that feel like self care to me, the more I’ve realized that the essence of self care is creating a space in which I can feel safe.

A great deal of this is physical pleasures: when you are experiencing something warm, soft, or comforting, you are more likely to feel safe. But beyond that, many of the things that are self care for me involve making things familiar and understandable. Books have always been a safe space for me because they are controlled. Nature, trees, green spaces, are essentially the same no matter where you go and will always feel like childhood and playing outside. Scents are memories for me, and the moments when I can recreate the smell of home is a moment when I temporarily am at home.

These familiar things remind me of the places that I know I am taken care of, the places I don’t have to worry. A lot of people imagine that self care is about what makes you feel good, but that’s a bit too simplistic. Often it involves things that soothe or calm, but underneath what makes most of my self care successful is that it helps me to feel safe in some fashion. It makes my space my own, it distracts me from things that scare me, or it reminds me that I am allowed to be vulnerable.

This is one of the reasons why familiarity is an important part of self care. Things that are the same as places or people that I trust are the fastest way that I can feel safe. Of course human beings like routine, and things that we’re used to are more comforting than things that are new, but on a deeper level than that, for someone who has a mental illness, familiarity means the places that we trust not to hurt us. It means the places where the anxiety might turn off for a while, or where we can escape from depression. “Home” is often our safe place, and the people we are familiar with are our support system. This isn’t true for everyone: sometimes the things we see every day are oppressive, boring, or painful. But more often than not the fact that they are familiar makes them easier to deal with, and thus safer. Even more than that, our safe places are generally those that represent family or friends, things that have kept us safe in the past, or other parts of our life that are integrally part of who we are. Familiarity.

This of course makes self care more challenging if you’re in a new place or around new people, but it does offer a helpful way to reframe self care so that it might be more effective. I feel safe when I feel competent, accomplished, and cared for. These might be hard feelings to capture in a new place, but I know that when I write I feel competent and accomplished, I know that when I have a to do list I feel better when I get things done, I know that hearing from people (even from a distance) makes me feel cared for. These are not things you might immediately think of when you hear “self care”, but reframing self care from “pampering” to “meeting my emotional needs” or “safety” can elucidate new things to try. Now I’m gonna go start my novel and feel accomplished.

Keeping An Open Mind

Ok, maybe there are some good things

As I’m in the process of transitioning to living in a new country, my mental health has been suffering somewhat due to lack of my support network and anything familiar. Because my brain has been tending towards depression and anxiety, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how horrible everything is and how little I like it here. The problem with this is not only that it makes me miserable in the here and now, but it also doesn’t allow me to accurately perceive what it’s like here in order to try to integrate myself and build a decent amount of comfort. The further my depression takes over, the worse things look.

So how, when fighting depression, does one keep an open mind towards a new place and new people? Well so far I haven’t been wholly successful at doing this, but here are a few of the techniques that I’ve been using to keep my impressions a little more balanced.

The first, and probably most important thing I’ve been trying is what’s called “opposite to emotion action” in DBT terms. Essentially, this is recognizing how you feel and what that feeling would compel you to do (in my case sitting in bed all day and crying a lot) and then choosing to do something else. Ideally, you will do this completely. Instead of going out and thinking about how much you hate it and noticing everything that makes you unhappy, you would try to take a relaxed and open body posture, breathe evenly and deeply, and practice some mindfulness along the way. I’m not sure I’ve managed to get this entirely to the point of fully engaging with the actions of getting out into the city and trying new things and socializing, but I’ve been pushing myself to try to leave the apartment every day and try something new every day.

As part of this, I’ve been mindful of trying to notice my surroundings without judgment. This is a serious challenge and I don’t think I’m doing very well at it, but one thing I am going to start trying to do when I get overwhelmed is simply describing what’s around me in as nonjudgmental terms as possible. Stick to the facts. This has the added benefit of bringing the mind back to the present instead of ruminating on home.

The last technique is checking the facts: it’s easy to start spiraling into an “everything sucks” brain pattern, so when I notice that the only things I’ve thought for the last few minutes are “I hate this place” and “I want to go home”, I try to find something that is not those things that I feel or think. It might be noticing one good thing about the city or talking to someone who makes me smile or really anything that reminds me that not everything is absolutely horrible. I’ve been struggling a lot with this one lately as it’s easy for me to compare everything to how it was at home and find it wanting. Nothing so far has struck me as amazing or outstanding, so it’s been a struggle to accept “not bad” as a check on the “everything is horrible” script. But even “ok” is better than “shit”, and that is a fact.

Of course along with this there are a whole slew of other skills to calm my anxiety, but just surviving while hating a situation isn’t enough to fight the jerkbrain: there have to be some positives. How do you keep an open mind when depression is taking over?

Booty, Sex, Black and White

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I don’t tend to keep up on popular music much, but there are two videos that have popped up in my newsfeed recently that are similar in many ways and different in one key way. Both of these songs are sung by women, include a variety of female backup dancers, celebrate female sexuality and bodies, and focus heavily on butts (particularly big butts). But there has been remarkably different response to the two videos: one of them has been censored in a number of places, derided as disgusting and objectifying, and has provoked a great deal of controversy among some who believe that it’s inappropriate. The other (at least in all of the responses that I’ve seen) has been lauded as a feminist anthem that celebrates a variety of body types.

I’m going to leave the two videos here, and we’ll play “see if you can spot the difference”.

Now I can see some of you saying that one is more explicit than the other, that women have more clothes on in one, blah blah blah. Let’s be honest. Race is at play here. A white woman who proudly proclaims that she likes to shake her booty is treated significantly differently than a black woman who does. No woman is exactly encouraged to embrace her sexuality, but the coy, modest version of white sexuality that is on display in All About That Bass is clearly far more palatable to our society than a black woman who is oozing joy in her own body. Don’t get me wrong: I love both of these videos. I love the self-love that shows in both of them. I love the celebration of women and women’s bodies. But it’s no surprise that I like All About That Bass better. I’ve been trained to do so.

Time to start questioning.