Hierarchies of Eating Disorders: A Spiritual Perspective

St-Catherine of Siena-circa_1746_by_Giovanni_Battista_Tiepolo

If you’re someone who reads lots about eating disorders, you’ve probably already seen this article by Maree Burns floating around recently. For those who aren’t enmeshed in the world of post-structuralist and feminist critiques of eating disorders, you may want to try to read it anyway. It’s a little long and at times jargon-y, but it’s also fascinating and makes important points about the hierarchies we set up around eating disorders. Similar to Burns, I will not be using this post to posit anything about the actual nature of eating disorders, but rather about how they’re constructed in the common conscience of Western society.

There are many points in Burns’ article that I’ve spent time grappling with: the fact that anorexia is both held up as perfect control and derided as sickness and disgusting, the way anorexia and bulimia can be mapped onto the virgin/whore dichotomy, and the tendency to view anorexia as the ideal eating disorder. There is an hierarchy of eating disorders, one that is held up by nearly everyone. Anorexia is considered cleaner, more respectable. Many people even view many of its characteristics as positive, but simply taken too far. On the other hand, bulimia is considered disgusting, animalistic, and out of control.

Burns looks at this hierarchy from the perspective of post-structuralism. I’d like to take a different perspective that I think can illuminate some other elements of the hierarchy and the ways that eating disorders make a certain kind of sense. Spirituality is something that Burns does not touch on at all in her article, despite the fact that moral language runs rampant in descriptions of eating disorders, and in the past eating disorders often happened in religious contexts.

Throughout her article, Burns draws on the Western concepts of dualism. She looks at it particularly from a feminist lens, in which female is associate with body/disorder/evil/animal, and male is associated with mind/rationality/control/order. However there is a slightly different version of this dualism that may actually shed more light on eating disorders, which is the body/soul split. Burns points out that society (including pop culture, psychological professionals, and those who actually have eating disorders) makes negative judgments of only certain elements of eating disorders. This includes the behaviors of bulimia (especially purging) and the skeletal body of someone with anorexia.

She posits that these are different types of judgment: the judgment of bulimia is about actions that don’t fit into the appropriate feminine mold, while the judgment of anorexia is about a body that makes a mockery of the thin ideal.  She looks to how each of these “negatives” deviates from acceptable feminine roles and how that deviation results in judgment. In contrast, the behaviors that make up anorexia (self-denial and self-control) are often viewed positively as movements from feminine (bodily) to masculine (rational).

However there is another way to interpret the negative judgments we cast on those with eating disorders and the ambiguous position of anorexia in society. We can find a clue in the religious language used by starving saints in past centuries and co-opted by some people with anorexia today (including myself). Oftentimes this language circulates around dismissing the body completely and moving into a fully spiritual realm. The prioritizing of the next world over this one still holds sway in Western culture (despite frequent cries about our society falling into horrible materialism).

These criticisms of eating disorders reveal that bodies, particularly bodies that remind us that we are animal, mortal, and fallible, are what receives criticism. Negative judgments of bulimia often center around the corruptness of the body and through the body, the individual. The body is seen as the ruler in this situation, but the focus on the body is often given a moral meaning. People with bulimia binge, however the binging on food is often extended into other realms: they’re posited to be kleptomaniacs, sex addicts, or out of control. Most of these assumptions focus on impurity and the fact that binging and purging “taints” the individual. I’ve often heard them referred to as “failed anorexics”. This means that they have failed at the purity that those with anorexia achieve because they allow their body and its needs to overtake them. The obsession with “how much did you eat” and “how did you throw it up” reveal society’s dark obsession with the animalistic elements of bulimia and how it affects the body, rather than an interest in the inner lives of those with bulimia.

Burns suggests that the negative judgments of bulimia are made in contrast to the self-control (often interpreted as rationality) of anorexia. She says: “Self-starving is also paradoxically privileged as a signifier of those qualities that have historically been associated with ‘masculinity’, such as self-control, persistence, transcendence of the (labile feminine) body, and strength” However I would argue that this type of self-control is often associated with spirituality rather than any kind of rationality, as she suggests. People recognize the irrationality of anorexia in the context of the material world. However starvation, asceticism, and self-denial have a long history in the religious tradition of transcending this whole plane of existence.

Something that I’ve posited for quite some time is that the end goal of anorexia is to become pure spirit, to no longer be held up by worldly, finite things.This is why anorexia is often held above bulimia. However the reality is that people with anorexia do have bodies and their actions do impact their bodies. When their bodies begin to appear abnormal, we’re reminded again that they are human, finite, and mortal and that their bodies are falling apart. We are reminded of death (see: focus on the “skeletal” nature of the anorexic figure). And especially as Western societies move closer to secularism, this reminder of death is viewed as disgusting and disturbing, garnering criticism. The combination of heavenly motivation with dying body creates the mixed reaction of most individuals.

This additionally explains the feminine coding of anorexia. It falls in line with the tradition of women who fade away into martyrdom and make their femininity acceptable by rejecting their bodies unequivocally. It is part of the “pure” woman, the history of women as keepers of the spiritual well-being of their families, of women as more moral and in touch with religion than men. Part of the push/pull response to anorexia is the fact that the very deadliness and extremity of it is considered admirable by some. Not everyone can do it: it refuses to accept human limitations and so in some ways appears almost supernatural. The extreme refusal of finitude almost appears to be a martyrdom, especially for those who are trapped within the eating disorder. There’s even a kind of cultish interest in the fact that many people with anorexia suffer from ammenorrhea. Their bodies no longer even produce blood, one of the most obvious markers of human finitude.

On the flip side, bulimia reminds us of our more animal side. We think of the behaviors not as outstanding or amazing, but as mundane and slightly disgusting. We associate overeating with animals, with bodies, and we view vomit as wholly animal (because bodily fluids are gross ya know?). It’s very easy to view the dichotomy between bulimia and anorexia as a struggle between our lower natures and our higher spiritual calling.

And of course if we are considering female morality and spirituality, sex must be play a role. The connections between food and sexuality have already been identified, particularly in Burns’ article. Abstinence is a largely spiritually driven quest. Few secular people feel the need to be abstinent for moral reasons (of course there are some, but it’s not nearly as common as within religious circles). The drift of the spiritual meaning of sexuality into food also colors our conceptions of eating disorders. Just as the body is dirtied and corrupted by inappropriate or out of context sex, so it is by inappropriate or out of context food: a binge. An important part of this connection is the way that sexuality is used to dehumanize, animalize, and objectify women. When we use phrases like “orgies of eating” to describe a binge, we sexualize not only the food, but also the individual participating, and through that sexualization we objectify. It portrays people with bulimia as less human, as more animal. The objectification of women through hypersexualization plays directly into the ways that anorexia (anti-sexual) is viewed as humanizing, pure, and spiritual while bulimia is viewed as animalistic: those who engage in it are objectified just as others who are hypersexualized are.

While the role of male/female dichotomies plays an important role in eating disorders, we should also consider the dichotomy of worldly/heavenly and how that can explain some of the behaviors and attitudes we have towards eating disorders. The history of eating disorders (particularly the long history of female saints starving themselves to death) is a good place to start in this perspective.

Infinite

There’s a scene in The Perks of Being a Wallflower in which Charlie and his friends are driving their truck through a tunnel. They stand up in the back while their favorite song plays on the radio. Charlie says “In that moment, I swear we were infinite”.

Sometimes, when I’m walking down an empty street at night and the wind is warm and my skirt is swirling around my legs, I wonder if I am infinite. Unnameable feelings rise in my throat, as if my self were too big for my body and might burst out somehow. As if I could walk to heaven if I just pointed myself in a direction and started going. As if I might be able to see the whole world if I climbed high enough.

In the first season of the rebooted Dr. Who, Rose Tyler looks into the heart of the TARDIS and becomes infinite: she knows everything. Unfortunately, she simply can’t contain it: if it remains inside her it will kill her. No human being can process that much information.

More often than not, I feel like Rose, burning up from the inside with all the bits and pieces that flit through my mind. I jump from one task to the next, my brain racing with answers and analyses and concepts that don’t quite process fully.

I wonder whether I can ever hold on to the infinity, or whether my body will burn up. I want to breathe in the whole world through the pure taste of summer. God smells like lilacs and lily of the valley. The angel choirs are singing 90′s music. In heaven, I dance like Baby from Dirty Dancing.

But my body doesn’t move like that and lilacs die in a week and the 90′s are over. Every night when I fall asleep I remember that I am finite. Sometimes I pretend I can subsist on air to convince myself that I’m god-like enough to hold onto the joy of nights that sing and smirk and dance. Sometimes my whole body deflates and I collapse into myself when the hot air I puff myself full of gives out.

How could I not be melancholy when I have glimpsed perfection and fallen away?

Consent and Neurodivergence

consent

Consent is at the heart of sexual ethics for many feminists and other progressive individuals. There’s talk of enthusiastic consent, and impaired consent, and power dynamics, and all sorts of things that might impair someone’s ability to consent. Those who promote consent can come down pretty hard on someone who has violated another’s consent (with good reason). More often than not, these conversations seem to give the message that consent is simple and anyone can figure it out. People can read body language, so clearly we can all tell when someone is not interested.

Unfortunately, what this type of attitude obscures is that for many people, consent is not easy or simple. Conversations that look to have some sympathy for those who are more than simply “socially awkward” but are neurodivergent get shut down as rape apologism. Some people repeat over and over that we can’t have any tolerance for those who violate consent, that nothing is an excuse, that we need to get serious about consent. And yes, it’s true that we can’t excuse bad behavior based on neurodivergence, but navigating consent and body language when you’re neurodivergent is simply different and far more difficult than doing so when you’re neurotypical and it’s time we talked about it.

For individuals who understand body language with relative ease and can communicate well, consent is just as easy as navigating any other social interaction. For those with autism or other forms of neurodivergence, it just doesn’t always make sense. There are two important sides to this question: one is those who have a mental illness that leaves them with cripplingly low self-esteem or other problems that mean they feel incapable of saying no. The other is those who need things to be phrased in a literal, clear way in order to understand them and who subsequently hurt the people they care for but don’t understand why or how.

Let’s start with the first. I have more experience here and I believe that these questions are a little more clear cut. The concept of consent assumes that all parties understand what they want and are comfortable with, and have the confidence to express those wants and needs. Unfortunately, many people (women in particular) have been conditioned to repress their desires, to hide them. It’s no secret that low self-esteem is a serious problem for many women. When someone doesn’t have a mental illness it’s hard enough to internalize the ideas of consent and to be open about what you’d like. Sometimes even learning to use your body language is difficult.

But what about those of us with mental illnesses? Say those who have learned that their emotions are always wrong and must be shut down, or that they can’t trust their emotions? What about those who dissociate and simply stop doing much when they become uncomfortable? What about those who have pathological fears of abandonment? We may be fully convinced of the importance of consent and still feel incapable of standing up for ourselves or expressing our wants and needs and boundaries because somewhere in the back of our mind there is a terrifying tape playing over and over that tells us we must follow the script or we will be alone forever. When an individual feels pressured to consent simply because their mind requires them to appease others, or they’ve got an unrealistic image of what might drive away their partner, consent becomes complicated.

To some extent, I question whether individuals who feel so enmeshed in a disease are capable of consent. If someone is incapable of seeing a situation realistically, can they ever be properly informed? I say this as someone who has been in these situations, thought that they were consenting, and realized later that I felt there was no other option. I am unsure whether anything can be considered consent if there is no possibility of saying no.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should never be allowed to have sex, but rather that consent is far more complex when one has to fight against a mental illness to get a clear picture of what one is consenting to and what the consequences of saying no are. It means that both parties who are consenting need to be fully aware of the situation. I also hope that the partner who is not mentally ill would take extra care to ensure that their partner knows they’re allowed to say no and will be valued regardless of sexual activity. In addition, I’m not suggesting that someone who is mentally ill is responsible for recovering or overcoming their mental illness in order to prevent sexual assault. That’s victim blaming nonsense. I am suggesting that they should be aware that their mental illness might obscure what they actually want and need, and that there should be an active and open conversation with partners (or at the very least with oneself and trusted support people) to determine what you actually want and need, and how to obtain it.

This points towards the fact that we can say someone did something wrong (misinterpreted the cues of consent and did something without another’s consent) without deciding that the individual is a horrible, miserable excuse for a human being. Thanks to my own choices to obscure my desire and boundaries, I have had partners violate them without being aware that they had done so. Often these were people who deeply loved me and wanted to never hurt me. I have begun to label their actions as inappropriate without then needing to decide that they were bad, hurtful people.

So what about the other side, those who may try to value and respect consent but find it difficult to identify when it’s present or absent? Consent is even muddier when someone has difficulty with reading body language or difficulty understanding social cues or difficulty when requests aren’t phrased in a completely literal fashion. If, for example, if someone has autism. I know that many people like to pretend that those with disabilities, including mental disabilities have no sex life, but that’s patently false. I personally have experienced some of the pitfalls of trying to navigate consent with an individual who has difficulty with social boundaries and social cues. This puts the partner in a difficult situation: how do you respect someone’s needs as a neurodivergent individual while still asserting your own boundaries?

I have never experienced it from the other side, but I’m sure it’s just as frustrating trying to understand how and why you appear to be hurting your partner. If you don’t understand that certain eye movements or body movements mean “no”, it can be extremely confusing to realize that your partner was trying to tell you no all along and you continued to push. You likely will blame yourself, right along with the other person, for something you have no control over: your ability or inability to read body language.

Particularly difficult is the fact that the community often has zero tolerance: if someone screws up one time they are officially a rapist and cannot be trusted. For those with autism, this means that they might misinterpret something and then lose much of their support system, even if they want to change, fix, or improve themselves so that it doesn’t happen again. Few people will take the time to adjust their communication habits, explain ways to read body language, or give the neurodivergent individual new tools to make sure things are better next time.

Part of the frustration here is that we don’t entirely know how to put the label “hurtful” or “unacceptable” on something without then imputing blame on the person who did it. We don’t know how to validate that someone is a survivor or was traumatized while also working to give positive options to the person who hurt them. While most rapists probably don’t need helpful hints about how not to rape, it’s straight out ableist to assume that the sex education that neurotypical people receive (which isn’t even sufficient for them) will be enough to help someone who is neurodivergent navigate the extremely tricky waters of sex.

Perhaps some of this is about the EXTREME need to find new scripts: I know that many autistic people work from scripts because that’s easiest for them. The scripts we have right now that surround sexuality suck. Providing new scripts might be the more useful way to take on these cases rather than shaming and cutting those people out of our lives. If we don’t create any new scripts, people will continue to behave in the same way. If we take the time to help them with a new script, they may have healthier relationships in future. This probably means putting more emphasis on verbal consent and making it ok to ask things like “do you like this?” or “do you want me to keep going?”

None of this is to say that neurodivergence is an excuse for sexual assault or harassment. I have seen people say “I’m autistic so it didn’t count” when told their behavior was unacceptable. That is deeply screwed up: you can still rape someone if you’re autistic. When someone does not show a strong desire to rectify what they’ve done, then by all means, blame away. These criticisms are pointed towards those who would vilify an autistic individual who deeply wants to make amends and improve their behavior for the future.

The important distinction here is excuse vs. explain. Explanations may be a plea for help to fix the root cause of a problem, while excuses seek to push away the responsibility. Different explanations for the same behavior require different actions to fix the problem. In the case of the neurodivergent, I wish there were more sympathy, more help, and more ways for the offender to demonstrate that they can learn and grow. Part of teaching consent is teaching people ways to say “no” and ways to navigate their relationship in a way that works for them. I am all for consent-based sexuality, but consent can’t be from one perspective. We need to open our movement up to those people for whom our current definition of consent isn’t working and doesn’t make sense.

I don’t necessarily have answers for how to balance these types of situations or how to improve them, but they are conversations that need to happen, and we need to recognize that one person’s version of consent may not work for everyone.

Why I Hate the Phrase “Start a Family”

my fam

It’s not uncommon for a young couple to mention that they’re looking to “start a family” or for someone who is looking for a spouse to say that part of what they want is to be able to “have a family”. We all know what people mean when they say this: they mean that they want to have kids. As someone who has no interest whatsoever in having children, this phrase implies many things that seem unhelpful and backwards to me.

First, it limits what a family can be, and it almost always means heterosexual, monogamous, cis partners with children. It cuts out any other family structure, even those that may include children. Generally the implication is that if you are not biologically related to the children, you don’t have a family. Adoption is placed on a lower tier, poly families make NO SENSE AT ALL, and GLBT families are utterly excluded (despite the fact that they can and do have kids).

But what really rubs me the wrong way about this is the idea that children are what make a family. Families are the people who are closest to us, who support us, who care for us, who we include in our most intimate decisions. They are not defined exclusively by blood: you can marry into a family, adopt into a family, or even (if you so choose) include certain friends or partners as part of your family. Each different way that we bring people into our lives in an intimate way is important and valid. Every formation of family improves our lives by giving us a support system and people who care for us (I am not referring to abusive structures here, but rather just different ways of setting up healthy relationships). And without these adult, caring, supportive, interdependent relationships, we cannot be healthy people.

So why is it that children are what defines “starting a family”? Didn’t all of us start our families the moment we had an intimate relationship, a close friend, a good relationship with our parents or our siblings, or provided support and care for our extended family? What does it say about how we value adult to adult relationships if a family only counts when we have kids?

This devaluing of adult to adult relationships has some serious consequences. It means that adults are pressured not to take time to connect with their friends, their siblings, their spouse or partners, or their mentors. When adults don’t take the time to establish healthy family networks of all types, that means they don’t have support and care when they need it. They don’t have someone they can ask to babysit or help out if they’re called in to work last minute. They don’t have other role models and mentors for their kids. They don’t have people who can support them if they lose a job or need health care. They don’t have people who can talk to them and support their emotional and mental needs. It means we have adults who don’t learn how to do the appropriate self-care of having a support network and taking time to be with other adults.

It also devalues the lives, accomplishments, and relationships of those who can’t or choose not to have children. The implication when someone says “start a family” to mean having a child is that those who don’t have children will never have families. It once again sends the message (especially to women) that their lives will be empty and alone if they don’t have kids. It says that they can’t possibly be getting the same kind of fulfillment and joy out of the relationships that they do have because they don’t “have a family”. Who on earth would want to refrain from having children? They won’t have a family!

All of this plays into the pressure to build your family in a certain way. It plays into the idea that unless you’re married or blood related, your relationship isn’t as important (which disproportionately affects people who are already oppressed). And this means legal rights, like right of attorney and inheritance. It means that I would not be able to visit the person I’ve lived with for the last 2 years if she were in the hospital simply because she’s “just a friend”.

It also means that children who have abusive or cruel parents are pressured to continue to interact with them, honor them, and respect them simply because of biology. It artificially divides relationships into “important, family” and “not important, other” through biology and the parent/child relationship.

This may seem like an unimportant phrase that comes from another time when families were all built a certain way. But the phrase implies that families look one way and there is one time when you begin to build your family. That’s simply not true and the consequences are that people are left more divided and more alone than they need to be.

I’m not playing by those rules anymore. I started a family ages ago. I started when I decided I wanted to put in the work to have a good relationship with my parents. I started when I decided to reach out to my brother. I started when I chose to reach out to new people and tell them that I care for them and wanted them in my life. I have a family. I don’t need to start one.

Adulthood: Mourning The Past

I’ve been having a lot of ennui about being an adult lately. This is not uncommon. Twenty somethings excel at ennui and not wanting to be adult. But there appears to be more to this ennui than simply being overwhelmed or not really wanting to take responsibility.

Accepting adulthood doesn’t just mean taking on new responsibilities and learning how to do practical things. All of those are difficult and stressful, but what might be the most difficult part about growing up is the changing relationships and the loss of the world that existed when you were a child. When you begin to take responsibility for yourself, it shifts every relationship you have been in with an adult it shifts how the world looks, it shifts what consequences look like and how you handle them.

One of the most difficult of these for me is relationships. I’ve had an extremely close relationship with my mother since I was young. When I was a kid, this meant that she took care of me, she protected me, she made the world an easier place for me while teaching me about all the awesome stuff I could do in it. She was amazing at making things happen that I deeply wanted to happen (e.g. going to that really cool summer camp).

Now that I’m an adult, that person that my mother was no longer exists. In childhood, parents can become a bit godlike. Sometimes they’re kind, benevolent, awesome gods (like my parents), and sometimes they’re shitty gods, but they do hold all the power in the relationship. Sometimes this means they can come across as faultless. No matter how you view your parents when you’re a child, you’re not seeing them as real, complex human beings (because that’s not the relationship parents and children have).

As you grow up and the power dynamics in your relationship even out, you see your parents in more and more realistic ways, as human beings with faults and fears. The god that protected you as a child dies. This hurts. A lot. It’s a little bit terrifying too. The relationship you had with the adults in your life will change drastically, and that is also scary and painful. You’ve replaced your parents with these new, odd people who are very much like your parents but suddenly can’t fix things for you and screw things up sometimes and have a history and want to do things other than cook you dinner.

This may sound very selfish, but at its root its about losing someone you love. Of course I still love my parents, but they’re not the people that I saw as a kid. I’m never going to get back the feeling of Mama Bear Who Will Fix All My Problems And Make Everything Ok. That’s a good thing, but I miss her. Part of growing up is mourning. Oddly though, we never talk about the fact that it’s a good and healthy thing to stop and feel sad for the things that are gone. Generally the attitude is “well you knew you had to grow up, everyone has to do it, move on”. That’s unhealthy and callous. Setting aside some time to feel sad that things have changed makes perfect sense and makes it easier to go on and do the difficult work of paying your bills and organizing your own damn vacations and building a new relationship with these people who are your parents.

There are other things to mourn though, and other places to notice that as your perspective changes, you may have to learn to be in relation to new things. A big part of this is consequences. As a kid, consequences are often arbitrary and usually limited by the adults around you: in all likelihood nothing you do will have the consequence of you ending up homeless, getting fired, going hungry (there are circumstances in which these things happen, but for the most part you aren’t going to cause them). As an adult, these things are possible, and your actions could cause them: you can get fired, you can lose your apartment, you can not have enough money for food! AH! Your relationship to the world has expanded into a much bigger and much scarier territory.

While it’s quite likely that you won’t end up making any of these huge mistakes and you probably know that, the fact that they now exist is something that’s scary and new. The world has changed in an irrevocable way. This is another thing that you get to mourn. Every couple of months if you need to, you can sit down and have a good old worry fest about the fact that it’s now up to you to make sure you have a roof over your head and food in your tummy and no deadly molds growing on your bathtub. And once you’ve felt that worry you can stand back up and remind yourself that you’re capable and not going to make any deadly mistakes, then go about your day.

The natural emotions that are part of growing up aren’t a bad thing, but for some reason it’s become normal and acceptable to tell young people that they should just get over it and ignore those emotions because hey, it’s just being an adult and everyone has to do it. Newsflash: there’s lots of things that everyone has to do that are unpleasant and terrifying and that deserve some time to respect that. A great example of this is that everyone’s parents dies and it’s absolutely understood that you get time to grieve. Similarly, growing up is a time of flux and change and confusion. All of these come with natural emotions and it makes sense to feel those emotions.

Let’s stop with the shame and start accepting that a part of adulthood is mourning what you lost when you put childhood aside. Sometimes you do get to sigh deeply and miss having Mom tuck you into bed when you’re sick, or having long afternoons of playing outside in the dirt. You get to mourn the things you miss, and hopefully you can figure out how to reincorporate some of those things into your life in appropriate, adult ways. growing up

 

Work Redux: Power and Women

women-power

This morning I attended Pollen’s Work Redux: Power event. It featured some great conversations about women, power, the workplace, hierarchy, community, and what we can do to change the conversation. Like many of these events, I left with more questions than I came in with, but there were also a number of topics that were deeply relevant and didn’t get discussed. So for the next few days I’m going to be posting about elements of the conversation on women and power that seem to be deeply relevant but may get left out more often than not.

The first thing I want to touch on has to do with one of the questions that was asked of the stellar panel that presented. The question was as follows:

“All of the women on the panel are here because they’ve stood up and stood out in some way. How do you deal with blowback from women and/or the community who instead of supporting you, prefer to toe the line and maintain the status quo? How do you create a circle of support to nourish your ideas?”

The answers to this question were insightful, but took the two pieces of the question as separate. When I heard it, I interpreted them as connected: can we create a circle of support that includes those who prefer to maintain the status quo? Is there a way to support and welcome those who may not want your support, or who would rather see you and your ideas go away?

On a related note, one of the presenters mentioned that one of the best ways women can support each other is by pushing each other to do our best, not simply by providing comfort and kind words. A challenge in the sure knowledge that someone will rise up to it may be the best support you can offer another woman. Part of creating a community is asking others to step up and be their best selves, part of which involves having the wherewithal to see what their best selves could be.

These two pieces fit together. While part of dealing with the blowback may simply be stepping up and doing your best work, ignoring the haters, acting professional, and getting the job done, part of it also needs to be challenging haters to be better selves. For the most part, the conversation aimed towards positive actions that individuals can take to move past the difficult people who might want to tell them to go back to the kitchen (or other similarly negative things). It didn’t mention things like responding to negativity or calling someone out when they do something inappropriate.

There are many bad ways to respond to someone who is being negative, and often calling them out can appear to be petty. But when someone says something inappropriate in the workplace, tries to tell you that you shouldn’t use your power, tells you you don’t deserve your position, or in some other way attempts to take your power away from you, calling them out is an entirely appropriate response. Not only that, but calling them out may be an invitation for them to join you in your community if it is done in the appropriate way. It is asking them to be better.

When someone makes a sexist or racist comment in the workplace, it’s important to say “that’s inappropriate” or even “please don’t speak that way around me” if you don’t feel comfortable making a larger statement. Especially if the person speaking to you is from your own community and is tearing you down, ask them why they think the way they do, or whether they think they’re helping or harming themselves with their words. Challenge them. You’d be surprised at how often people know that what they just said was an unhelpful and damaging thing, they just need someone to remind them.

For those people who don’t understand why their behavior is inappropriate, or who may genuinely feel that a woman in power or a person of color in power is unacceptable, it’s important that they hear the opposing voice. There is power in speaking. There is power in simply saying “no”, even if you are not heard. And it’s always possible that you might start a change deep in someone’s mind. You might show them that they can embrace their own power. You might give them support simply by showing them you at your own best. When someone looks at you and says “you can’t be at this table,” and you say “That’s not something you get to say. Yes I can” and proceed to pull up a chair, you have shown them that you are willing to be present and you are modelling what they could be doing.

I suspect that many of the women who fight back against other women in power are afraid. Why be afraid of someone else’s power if you are secure in your own? That makes it even more important to welcome them into the circles of support that we try to build for ourselves. While it’s good to have like-minded people, it’s also good to keep the door open in some spaces for people who just don’t know. Make it known that you’re someone who is a mentor and who is willing to be a shoulder to cry on. Start a dialogue in your workplace, formal or informal, about what you see as sexism or racism in the workplace. Invite everyone and make it clear that all opinions are valued. Listen. Ask questions. Hear what is scaring someone or intimidating them or holding them back.

The women who fight us tooth and nail on our accomplishments are still women. They are still experiencing all the same difficulties that the rest of us are. And it’s up to us to provide community, support, and power to all women, not just the ones we like. While it’s hugely important to think about our own networks and support, we should also be aware of what we are doing to create more opportunities and support for every woman out there. Perhaps the best way to respond to backlash is to kill them with kindness.

We Do It To Ourselves: Misery and Self Help

raccoons

Being unhappy sucks. And yet many times we end up wallowing in our own misery and creating more of it, bringing others down with it, and focusing exclusively on things that make us unhappy. Why do we do it? How can we stop? If you see someone spiraling out of control in a self-destructive spiral can you stop them without getting blown to smithereens yourself?

Well if I knew all the answers to these questions I would not be blogging in obscurity with 100 followers, but I do have a great deal of experience with feeling shitty and so I might as well share the insight I’ve gained.

I think most people get the most frustrated when they realize that they continue to do the same things over and over even if they’re aware that they are not happy when they do those things. It’s confusing and it seems as if there’s no way to change behaviors that hurt you. But there are reasons we get stuck in ruts like this. We make our patterns on the path of least resistance. Oftentimes the things that hurt us now are things that were good for us in the past. It’s extremely easy to beat yourself up for not making positive changes, but the first step to pulling yourself out of “I SUCK” is to remember that none of the things you do now are done for no reason: they all served a purpose at some point, whether that purpose was to protect you from traumatic situations or to re-energize after impossibly long days.

Even now, your bad behaviors are probably doing something for you. You never get off the couch even though it makes you feel miserable and lazy? Well you might be trying to protect yourself from some of the things that have hurt you (that are probably outside your apartment and off your couch) in the past. If you can stop blaming yourself for what you’re doing now, you’ve probably gotten rid of 50% of your judging and negativity (yes, I know you judge yourself for judging. I know all your tricks).

Oftentimes this looks like you’re just inviting negativity into your life, focusing exclusively on the negative, personalizing, engaging in those lovely ways of thinking that are tried and true proven to make you feel like shit! But here’s the secret: it isn’t your fault. In many ways, our brains appear to be wired to develop some of these faults. We have black and white thinking because it was useful earlier in our evolutionary history. Nearly everyone personalizes things. While some of us do it to a destructive extent, it’s not as if we’ve chosen to let our brains do these things. We haven’t “invited” anything. You haven’t even allowed it. It has invaded. Some people do roll over and allow it to continue to dominate and there are ways to weed it out, but I am making angry eyes at all the self-blamers right now.

So what do we do when we’ve consistently put ourselves in negative and destructive environments? How do we make a change? I’m going to be 100% honest here: you don’t do it easily. It takes a butt ton of incredibly hard work, it’s exhausting, you’ll feel worse for a while, and you will complain. You will look more negative for a while because you will constantly be bitching about this hard work you have to do.

Ok, disclaimer out of the way. First, I’d suggest finding a therapist who can help you figure out if your negativity is clinical and might require medication. They can also probably help you determine what pieces of your life are really putting stress on you. And that’s probably the place you want to start if you’re working on eradicating negativity yourself: what is it in your life that makes you miserable? What are your values? What sings to you? Take some time to write out your “must haves” in life, then try to determine what is keeping you from them. A big part of this will be determining what myths exist in your life: these are assumptions that you’ve internalized through your life. They often involve words like “all”, “never”, and “should”. They can be things like “I need to be perfect”, “I shouldn’t feel angry”, “People are not trustworthy”. These are likely those elements of negativity you think you keep inviting into your life. In reality, they’re ways of thinking that made sense at one point in time, but aren’t accurate for your current environment.

So now you know what you want and you know what’s keeping you from getting there. How do you get rid of the myths? Seems easy enough right, just stop thinking it? Except it’s not that easy because the thoughts keep barging into your mind reminding you that you shouldn’t feel that way or act that way, or that person x is really, truly out to get you/hates you/is ruining your life. The answer is that you have to notice whenever those thoughts come into your mind and then intentionally challenge them. This doesn’t mean a simple contradiction (the challenge of “anger is always bad” is not “anger is never bad”), but rather finding some clear experience or fact in contradiction of the myth.

Example time! One of my myths is that if I ever make a mistake everyone will leave me and I will fail at everything and I’ll probably end up prostituting myself on a street corner to get by (this is not meant to be anti-sex work, but rather is the narrative of my jerkbrain). The counter to this is to find one time, any one time in my life, that I made a mistake and it didn’t have horrific consequences. That time I screwed up my GRE and guess what I still got into grad school. That time I made a mistake at work and the whole organization didn’t come crashing down. Any one will do. And every time I get the crawling anxiety and negativity of “I am a complete failure if I’m not perfect” I simply pull out one of these examples and yell down the myth.

At its base, all self help is about retraining your brain so that the bad thoughts aren’t as powerful. But there are lots of other things you can do: figure out what makes you smile more and do that. Make an effort to be more social. Stop hanging out with jerks. Again, all of these things are personal but if you want to feel better you may have to sit down and make yourself a big ol’ chart of “shit that makes me feel bad” and “shit that makes me feel good” and spend your time working towards the latter. This is everything from eating food you like to leaving the job that makes you miserable. However big or small, pay attention to what makes you feel good.

That’s really all the general advice I have for digging yourself out of a spiral of negativity and focus on negative thoughts: you’ve got to be aware of what you’re thinking and willing to redirect your mind. But what about helping others? Can we make things better for other people? I will reveal some of my pessimism here: none of this internal work of redirecting your brain can be done by anyone but you. That means if you want to shut negativity out of your life, you have to do it yourself. That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you start retraining your brain having another person around to distract you, to try new things with, to check up on you, can help tons! Communally, we can make a better mood if each of us individually does our best with our own mood. So if you’re around someone who’s self-destructing, you can suggest positive things, you can refuse to accept their negative mood, you can challenge some of their thoughts, but until they make some internal shifts none of that will be effective.

We don’t invite negativity in, but we do have to kick it out. It’s like a pile of raccoons that decided they wanted to take up residence in the kitchen: we didn’t want them there, but now we have to do the hard work of getting them out. And unfortunately, no one else is going to clean out your kitchen: your neighbor can come over every afternoon and shoo out the raccoons, but they’re just not there often enough, it’s not their space, they can’t build the fence across the door without your permission. Only you can call pest control (get meds), only you can revamp the kitchen so the bastards can’t get in, only you can lock the door when you leave. At the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for the fucking raccoons.