Feeling Feelings Without Doing Things

There’s an idea that I’ve seen floating around a lot lately that when you feel something, the logical thing to do is act on it. I think this is an unspoken assumption that most people have. When you’re angry you either bottle it up or you act on it. There are no other options. And oddly enough acting on it is generally assumed to be a big, expansive action: acting on your anger isn’t going for a run to let off some steam, it’s yelling or hitting something or breaking something or cutting ties with someone.

And there’s this idea that if you don’t act out whatever your emotion is telling you to do, completely and fully, then you’re repressing your emotions, or you’re behaving dishonestly in some way, or that it will eventually all burst out of you in some gigantic flood of ARG. If you don’t let it all out then you at least need to fix whatever is causing the emotions, because emotions are a problem, ya know? So the healthy thing to do is to Logically Understand The Problem and then take Appropriate Action.

There’s something I’ve been practicing lately though. It’s a thing where I have a feeling and then I don’t do anything about it. The feeling keeps feeling, and that’s fine. Sometimes I distract myself a bit or just continue about my life. Sometimes (if it’s one of those really big emotions) I just sit and feel it for a while. This is not always a pleasant thing. Emotions often exist as a motivation for action, and it can be hard to resist that, but it doesn’t actually cause any harm. It’s just a little uncomfortable and sometimes distressing.

So what happens when I just let my emotions happen and choose to do nothing about them? Well most of the time nothing. There is no catastrophic consequence. They happen, and they fade. And sometimes there are lingering bits to it, and I have to continue to sit with it for quite some time, but eventually it does fade.

Now there is a huge caveat to this and that’s that if something is hurting you or is an actual problem and you think that your emotions are accurately telling you “something needs to change here” then yes, please alert someone to the situation and make that change. But for the emotions that are just there, like a crush or like some minor annoyance or like some random depression feels, in which there is no necessary action, it will fade.

And despite what you may think, that’s actually totally ok. The amazing thing about being an adult is that you can have an emotion and still use other tools to determine your course of action. You can decide that you don’t want to hold on to this emotion or that it’s just not that important.

One of the hardest places to do this is in romantic or positive feelings. When we feel an attraction or a desire, holy hell is it hard to not do anything about it. It’s like not eating that delicious slice of cake that’s sitting right in front of us. And yet we know that our desire for cake is not always the most important thing in the world and sometimes we don’t eat cake. Same thing with desiring a person or an outcome or an action.

For many people it’s a foreign concept not to pursue what you want, especially in the romantic sphere. Who wouldn’t want to get with the person they’re interested in? Well lots of people. Someone might be fun to hang out with but have radically different values from yours, or you might be moving away soon, or maybe you just prefer flirting. There’s all kinds of reasons you might prefer not to act on a desire. And so learning to feel that feeling, enjoy the goodness of that feeling, and not demand an action or a result from yourself can lead to a whole lot less angst.

I’ve always hated the advice of just “sitting with a feeling”, especially for mental illness related feelings. People always told me that they would go away eventually, but for me the eventually was years. Some of the really big emotions can’t just be sat with. But part of the reason for this is our societal obsession with seeing every emotion as a problem that requires a solution. So maybe we should start practicing with smaller things. Feel a feeling but don’t do a thing. It doesn’t have to be huge, but try letting go of the desire to talk to that one person, or notice that you have a flutter of anxiety about something but keep on with your day anyway, or get annoyed at your computer and don’t yell at it.

Just an experiment, but you might find that it leaves you with a lot more space to decide what you actually want to do.

Stronger Than The Pills: Dependence and Identity

I was talking the other day with a friend about how people can act completely differently around their significant others. Some people are super bothered by that. “They’re not being themselves!” these hypothetical people whine. “They’re changing!” There are a lot of people who argue that you shouldn’t allow other people to change who you are, that you should “be yourself”.

My friend and I went back and forth for a while about what this meant for your “real” self, but by the end of the conversation we had mostly agreed that everything we do and everyone we interact with affects our brain. Brains are malleable things, and there’s evidence that (especially when we’re young) even single interactions can have impacts for years to come. Relatedly, we all adjust our behavior and self based on context. We change our clothes when we go to work, our language changes based on who we’re around. When there are different inputs and contexts, our “self” has to adapt. This is part of being a successful and functional human being.

Brains tend less to be like a static identity and more like a processor: we have ways that our brains like to interpret things or respond to things, but there is always something there to interpret, there’s always stimuli coming in that will make slight adjustments to our processors. So it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal if you choose to be around someone who affects your processor.

What does this have to do with pills you might ask?

Well some of those things that people say about relationships that affect your personality are things that people say about pills. I’ve been listening almost nonstop to Neon Trees for a few weeks and one of their lyrics says “I’m stronger than the pills”. I’m so done with phrases like this. They imply that anything that affects your brain chemistry is a crutch, a cheat, a way out of being you.

The biggest problem with this is that just like a relationship that affects the way you act, there is no integral self to interrupt. “Self” is choosing which inputs you would like. There’s really no way we can figure out what we’re like without the influence of our environment and the food we eat and the sleep we get and the people we talk to and the job we have (see: Judith Butler). We’ve got influences from the moment we’re conceived. This is not to say that there aren’t some elements of personality and self that stay consistent across time, just that it’s silly to imagine that you can have a pristine, untouched self that would be horribly tainted forever by the introduction of meds.

Strength is knowing what allows you to behave positively and functionally and choosing to put yourself under that influence: because you will never be without influence. “Being true to yourself” is about what you choose to surround yourself with. Changing our inputs is part of how we remain independent. Unless you cannot choose to change your inputs, you are always stronger than they are.

Another issue some people have with meds or serious relationships is dependence. They don’t want to have to rely on something external to themselves. I hate to break it to you all but we’re all dependent on things that are external to us. we’re dependent on food and on sleep for god’s sake, and those things affect our brain chemistry and biology. There are things we need each and every day, whether that is a medication or 20 minutes of alone time or running or food or a book or your Facebook. We’re dependent on the world around us. And all of these things affect your brain in ways similar to your relationship or your drugs.

It doesn’t feel nice to realize how dependent you are on external things, how fragile you are. And when you’re dependent on things that others aren’t dependent on (like pills), it’s a reminder over and over that we have to choose our inputs but that we don’t get to choose whether or not there are inputs. That can be scary. It can feel like you have no control over your Self. But you do. You get to choose (to some extent) what things affect your Self. You get to choose whether to sleep enough or work a shitty, stressful job, or eat healthy, or be around validating people, or whatever it might be that turns you into a processing machine or a bumbling Windows ’95.

That’s all the power you get. So yes, your identity will be dependent on your pills. It might change who you are a bit. But that’s ok. Because everything and everyone you encounter does. If you don’t like how you change then you get a choice: you can continue to depend on it or you can move away from it. But if you want to stop being influenced, if you want your identity to be pure and unadulterated you, then you’re pretty much just going to have to die because that’s the only way you stop being influenced.

Making choices to change yourself so you don’t act like a dick is not selling out: it’s being an adult.


Go To Your Box: Using The Tools Available

Earlier today I started to feel a little stressed out during a meeting. Chest tight, fluttery heart, slightly nauseous. All the classic signs. So I took a deep breath and quietly imagined a little girl with a tape recorder (she looks a bit like the featured pic here). She was yelling at me. I quieted her down, then pointed her at a playground and told her that she should go play and she could record all the things she needed to tell me. We’d listen to them later. She ran off happily.

Then I pulled myself back to my meeting and continued on about my life, anxiety dying down.

Ok, that’s a weird story, but here’s the point: if someone had suggested trying this to me a year ago, I probably would have thrown up in my mouth a little bit because it sounds so stupid. But there’s a reason for everything in the image. The reason that my anxiety is a five year old is because that’s about the earliest I remember the anxiety, that’s the level of complexity that exists in my anxiety, that’s about the level of noise and obnoxiousness that my anxiety is: a five year old who won’t shut up. So I gave her a tape recorder so she’d feel listened to and so she knows that I’ll hear her concerns at some point. And I send her to a playground so that she’ll feel safe. Anxiety has too much energy to go to most of my calming places, so I send her somewhere in which it feels like that part of my mind still gets to move and run and yell, but I just don’t have to listen.

And as bizarre as it is, it does actually help to calm me down. Last night I came up with this scenario and one for guilt. Unlike anxiety, guilt looks a bit like this:


He’s quite insistent and doesn’t shut up. He sits on my keyboard when I try to write and sticks his butt in my face when I try to read. So I made him a box with a towel in it and so now he can be more like this:

 (credit: breakingcatnews)

And while all of this is a little bizarre and a little silly, the point is that it works, even if just a little bit. It changes my perspective on the emotion. It lets me look at what that emotion does for me and whether or not that thing is actually useful right now or not. It jolts me a bit out of the spiral place. And so when I remember to do it, I will do it. I don’t care if it’s stupid or if there’s no evidence behind it. If I can personally feel my anxiety diminish after trying to do this, then I’ll keep doing it.

Cause here’s the secret: if telling my brain-guilt cat to go back to its box will have an effect, then that’s a tool. If building a playground in my brain as a safe space for my anxiety to run in circles for a while helps my breathing even out, then it’s a tool. Anything that I can do to manage my emotions that doesn’t involve hurting myself or someone else or making situations worse is a tool. And the biggest secret of recovery? Take every tool you can get. Regardless of the bizareness.

I mean sure, don’t just take any treatment you can get. Research your therapist. But if you notice that you feel better when you blow bubbles then go to Target and buy out the god damn bubble aisle, because you take the tools you can get.

Maybe it’s just exhaustion talking because I’ve been in the treatment game for almost 4 years now, but I think it’s an important insight to remember that your tools don’t have to fit with some sort of value-laden or coolness factor image. You get to make your life easier and better however damn well works for you. It might be weird, it might be trite, it might be woo woo hippie crap. I don’t care. As long as it’s a tool that is effective for you then use it.

This might be a lesson you have to learn through experience, but I hope if anyone out there is at the beginning of a treatment journey, they can realize that that weird tic they have that makes them feel better is a totally acceptable coping mechanism. I hope the communities around mental illness can start to proliferate tools and offer everyone anyone tools they might need, because they’re hard to come by and shouldn’t be passed up.

Writing Is Writing

Greta Christina posted recently about an E.L. Doctorow quote that says “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
-E. L. Doctorow

There are of course some things wrong with this, many of which Greta points out. There is a great deal of preparation and thought and research that makes writing possible, that is part of the process, that leads to the actual moment of sitting down and typing something. Of course there is more to writing than just sitting down and magically pooping out words.

But there is something about the quote that gets at an important piece of writing, and that’s that until you’ve sat down and gotten words out somehow, you haven’t written. You can plan and think and research and prepare for fifty years, but you will not have written a god damn thing if that’s all you do.

For people who actually are writers and do the work of writing, it sucks to have all the extra work besides putting things on paper discounted or pushed away as unimportant. But for those people looking in, those people who are striving to be writers or who fancy themselves writers, it’s important to be honest: writing doesn’t happen unless writing happens. Giving some importance to the sitting down and making yourself write is useful because it can help shape priorities, it can motivate people to practice that, and it puts the focus on the thing that changes all the other bits from “not writing” into “writing”.

The typing or the setting pen to paper is the magic step that transforms all the previous steps into writing. So while all the previous steps are part of writing, the end step is the defining feature of “writing”. And yes, it is a tautology that writing is the definitive feature of writing, but sometimes tautologies are helpful for focusing us on the important elements of an activity.

So no, writing is not the only part of writing. But only writing is writing.

“This Felon Is Hot”

In what is apparently now news, a felon is considered hot on the internet. For some people, this is a Big Deal that is evidence that the people who think he is hot are Very Bad People because they find someone who did a bad thing aesthetically pleasing.

So first and foremost can we just get out of the way the fact that calling someone attractive is not even remotely the same as calling them good or condoning their behavior, and the elision of goodness and beauty into one element is a shitty thing that needs to stop happening. It is in fact possible to point out a positive (ish?) thing about someone (I’m not even sure “good looking” qualifies as a positive character trait) and understand that they’ve done shitty things and are most likely a not very good person. It doesn’t mean condoning all the good things about that person.

Additionally, someone’s appearance has exactly 0 bearing on their morality. I can’t believe we still have to reiterate that fact. This is something that even popular media has figured out for the most part (see: Lucius Malfoy, among others). You can even (gasp) be actively attracted to someone who is a bad person, be aware that they’re a shitty person, not condone their nasty behavior, and choose not to act on your attraction because you know what kind of a person you are (all while still being able to honestly say that they’re hot). Contrary to popular belief, attraction is not a get out of jail free card for the person  you’re attracted to.

There are so many things wrong with the idea that this is a problem. I’m so sick of the idea that we can judge someone’s character based on their body (fat shaming anyone?), that feeling attraction requires an action (rape culture anyone?) and that women in particular should feel shitty about being attracted to someone (purity culture anyone?).

But perhaps my least favorite thing about this has to do with race. The man in question is black, and many of the women who expressed attraction are black. Color me surprised. How out of place for women of color to be shamed for their attraction and sexuality. How out of place for black men to be viewed as a negative influence on the people around them. How out of place for white people to cast judgment on black people for things that make absolutely no sense and are really just another way of connecting black people with crime.

Yeah, the guy is good looking, but I bet if I had been the one saying it no one would have batted an eyelash.

This Is A Rant: My Clothes Are A Lie

Every evening when I get home from work the first thing I do is shed my office clothes and pull on a pair of shorts. It feels amazing. Of course I only do this if I’m home alone, or if I’m not planning on leaving the apartment again. If I’m going to wear shorts out of the house, I make sure to throw on leggings under them. A few weeks ago I went out in a romper without anything underneath and I’m still feeling anxiety over it.

It’s not like I’m a particularly modest person. I wear backless dresses and low cut tops and tight clothes. But my legs have self-harm scars on them, and when people see those they give me a special disgusted face that I don’t feel any particular need to see on a regular basis. Every time I leave the house I have to think about whether there is something that people will learn about me from my body that I don’t want them to learn.

Not only is this a pain in the ass, but it’s also emotionally taxing. I feel like I’m lying to everyone around me simply by wearing clothes that cover things I would rather they don’t see.

Who would want me if I didn’t falsify what my body is really like? I portray an image of youth, of athleticism, of health, and yet the moment you raise my hemline you’d find that my body is really marked by violence, self hatred, death, and ill health. I have found myself frustrated in the past about people giving off an image of being stable, having friends, being well adjusted, only to find out after becoming enmeshed with them that in fact they are deeply screwed up people.

It’s one thing to be with someone and slowly develop these fucked up scars after you’ve already trapped them. It’s another thing entirely to ask someone to fall in love with you when the moment they look at your body, your real body, your unhidden body, they see clear evidence of instability, violence, and self hatred. Who can love someone like that? Perhaps that is why I marked my body in the first place, to illustrate to people what it is that I actually am when they think they’re falling in love with something else.

But now that I’ve made it clear just who and what I am, made it clear for an indefinite period of time (because who knows when these angry red worms inching their way over my skin will disappear), I don’t know if I am capable of accepting the rejection, the disgust, the confusion, the fear, the pity, the anger. No one simply reacts by saying “yes. That’s you. That’s ok”. No one reacts like they would just seeing a pair of legs. There is no such thing as simply existing when your body is the site of damage.

There is an intensely broken feeling to all of this. Even though I have no desire right now to date or even be desired sexually, it’s really fucked up to feel like the only way someone could want me is if I hide myself. I know that I will always be wanted “in spite of” not because of. How can I feel like any sort of relationship (even a friendly type relationship) is based on openness and honesty and all the values that I care about when every day of my life I consider and carefully cover up certain facts about myself?

What kind of a human being am I if I feel that I have to bury things about myself to everyone I know (except a select few that I feel brave around)? What is wrong with me?

Intellectually I understand that what is fucked up is not me but is in fact a society that says we need to hide every ounce of evidence that we might have mental illness, a society that indicates that someone who self harms is unstable, possibly violent towards others, immature, attention seeking, and completely different from everyone else the world except others who self harm (because seriously who does that it’s so fucked up), a society that polices bodies.

But emotionally, I cannot stop feeling as if I need to expose myself just to see if anyone I know would still treat me the same. I can’t stop feeling this desire to scream to everyone that I have scars, that I’m fucked up, that I hurt myself. My body is not what you think it is. My body is not appropriate. My body is not healthy. My body, simply by existing, fucks with your norms and I don’t know if I’m ok with that because someday, maybe, I might want someone to just look at me and not have questions or fears or emotions, but just see me.

I don’t know that there’s a point to this post, just a fear. A fear of my body and what my body has become, of the permanence of scars. A fear of what people see when they look at me. A fear of the fact that I’m hiding because if there is one thing I hate in this world it is hiding the reality of my self. And somehow, I don’t think it matters how many people do see, how many people I am brave to. Because every time I put on a pair of pants and meet someone new, I’ve hidden something. I’ve chosen not to let them see a truth about me.

I suppose we all do this every time we meet people, but the physical act of covering something brings it home in a way unlike any other, and it’s a way that is intensely guilt inducing. It isn’t simply “not sharing”. It is actively hiding. It’s a choice, every single morning, every single time I change my clothes and I am so sick of weighing myself down with guilt over it.

It’s Just So Real! The Appeal of Orange is the New Black

The new season of Orange is the New Black is out, which means that everyone I know is talking about it on all the social media because let’s be honest, it’s that good. One of the articles that made the rounds recently was an ex-con watching OITNB and talking about whether or not it’s realistic. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Prison is not like TV prison. And yet one of the things that people often applaud OITNB for is the fact that it’s “realistic”. I have this feeling that most of us are aware that prison is not in fact full of ladies fisting in the chapel and yet we continue to talk about how real the show feels (I have even been guilty of saying this myself).

So what on earth are we talking about when we say it’s so real? Why do we all get so drawn into this show if we know that it’s painting a nonrealistic picture of prison?

What sticks out to me when I identify OITNB as an amazing show is not the realistic portrayal of prison, but rather the realistic portrayal of human beings. Perhaps this is not how human beings actually act in prison, but it is how a lot of the human beings that I know act. It’s how they look. It’s how they talk (ok, maybe a bit snappier than my friends, but basically the same). It’s how they fight (a bit bloodier, but about the same things). It’s how they fall in love. It’s how they fall out of love. It’s how they make stupid mistakes. It’s a little bit like high school but with higher stakes, which essentially is real life.

The thing that people love about OITNB is that they can see people who look and act and talk like they do, people who aren’t used as the butt of a joke (not even Suzanne, who started off as a joke and now is really coming into her own), people who are trying to survive. There is an open trans woman (PLAYED BY A FOR REAL TRANS WOMAN HOLY SHIT), there are people of color, there are people of all body shapes and sizes. There’s people who aren’t fit, there’s people who are gay, there’s people who aren’t sure if they’re gay. There’s people who are all about sex all the time, and people who really couldn’t give less of a shit about people. There’s honest to god old people who have real personalities. There’s people who are/were teen moms and that is not the defining characteristic of their lives. There are so many women, all kinds of women, women talking to each other and women having problems and women thinking about women.

These things should not be revolutionary or amazing, but they are. It seems to be a decent indicator how ravenously hungry the public is for TV shows that focus on the perspectives of people who are not often represented. And what’s real about this show is that when we see someone like Red, we all know people like that (a momma bear who will rip you a new one if you fuck with her). When we see Soso being an obnoxious social justice pain in the ass, we’ve all known someone who did that crap, and we get both where she’s coming from and how flipping annoying it is to be around her. We look at Alex and Piper’s relationship and dear sweet lord we’ve all known that couple.

The point of OITNB is not really being in prison. Prison happened to be a convenient place to throw together this disparate array of people and let them get down to the business of being people. It introduced some power dynamics and some limitations on behavior that are interesting. But at the end of the day, what drives the show is the characters (and the writing through the characters). And while it’s a good idea to point out the ways the show gets prison wrong (because honest conversations about prison are also few and far between), continuing to praise the show for realistic portrayal of human beings is also a pretty good plan.

It’s important when we use adjectives that we’re clear about what noun we’ve attached that noun to. Especially when it’s a piece of media, it’s better to be specific about what is realistic or what is sexy or what is dehumanizing or what is sexist. Because media is complicated and can have good and bad parts (gasp). Being able to have a complicated handle on media is really incredibly important if we want to have real and good criticisms of media.

So yes, OITNB is both realistic and not. And I’m ok with that.

“What Can I Do To Help”?

I’ve been a bit absent in the last week, mostly because I’ve had a fairly horrible week and have been simply trying to get through. Because things have been really tough for me, I’ve had a lot of people ask what they can do to help, to make it better. I understand this impulse. I’ve done it enough times myself, usually with the answer “I have no idea!”

My answer to most of the people who have asked me that this week has been “I just need to keep feeling shitty until I stop feeling shitty”. It sounds trite, but for me (and I think for many people) it took an extremely long time before I could feel any sort of satisfaction with answering that way. Things really did warrant sadness and anger this week. My emotions were appropriate to the situation (and the situation wasn’t about to change), so not only can you not do much to change them, it’s actually probably  not a good idea to change them. When emotions make sense for a situation, it’s probably good to feel them, at least for a while.

What does make some sense to do is to try to regulate your emotions. This means keeping the appropriate emotion from dictating your action or taking over your day/life. This means sometimes distracting yourself, sometimes tolerating distressing situations, sometimes practicing mindfulness. These are the things that someone potentially can use help with, but often doesn’t know how to ask for help with because it’s not solving a problem (which is what we tend to think of when we imagine “helping”). Holding on and trying to keep yourself from doing anything stupid while you’re feeling overwhelming emotions isn’t generally thought of as a partnered activity.

A big part of feeling shitty until it stops feeling shitty is not doing anything to make the situation worse. Existing with painful emotions is actually a skill and a difficult one to learn. But if you want to help someone learn it, what you can do instead of asking how you can help is suggest concrete things that allow someone to tolerate distress. These are things like distraction (do you want to go to a movie?), a bit of venting/validation (do you just want to talk about it?), help them to soothe themselves (here’s a very soft kitten if you would like to rub it against your face for a while), or encourage them to pick one thing at a time to focus on and work on (you can help with this by engaging in an activity with them and keeping them focused on it while you’re doing it).

Sometimes it helps to even just provide for the little things while they’re trying to regulate their emotions. Cook them a meal, tell them to take a nap while you clean something up, or help them get outside and on a walk. These are the basics that help someone’s body keep functioning (sleep, food, exercise) and will help lower their emotions just a bit.

The biggest problem with asking how you can help is that when someone is in a situation that warrants strong emotions, the appropriate course of action is often to just keep going on autopilot and surviving. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time learning things like DBT skills that give you concrete ways to continue surviving while feeling horrible, the idea of someone helping you exist while feeling a lot doesn’t make any sense.

So instead of asking, sometimes it helps to suggest and see what seems to stick. If you do some research on what it takes to regulate emotions, you can even suggest “skills” without looking like it. Asking someone to a movie seems like just being nice, but in reality you could be helping them temporarily distract from their emotions so as to get some reprieve. Similarly, you can do things that clearly are helping but are actually sneakily incorporating what we know about emotional regulation (getting someone a present of a nicely scented candle as an example. Obviously getting someone a little something to get through their week is trying to help, but focusing on the senses and sensory pleasure can be hugely helpful to regulating emotions).

I love the impulse behind “how can I help”, but hopefully this will help support people to help in an easier way so that the person who is surviving can just keep on keepin’ on until everything hurts a little bit less.




“I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”

-Hazel Grace, The Fault In Our Stars

In The Fault In Our Stars, the main character Hazel Grace is dying of cancer. When asked about why she won’t have a relationship with Augustus Waters, her response is the above quote.

There are some things that I want to tell Hazel.

Hazel Grace, we are all grenades. Every human being in this world is a series of small explosions. Some of us go out in one oversized burst that levels those around us, some of us putter through life throwing shrapnel and leaving those in our wake bleeding. But no matter who we are, one of the essential facts of being human is the fact that you will hurt people. You will most likely hurt everyone you have any kind of serious interaction with.

This is not a fact to feel guilty about. It simply is, and it happens because communication is imperfect and we all die and we all hurt and when someone cares about us all of these things are pain. Augustus Waters told you that we don’t get to choose whether or not we get hurt in this world, but we get to choose who does the hurting. There is a flip side to this statement and it goes like this: we don’t get to choose whether or not we hurt others in this world, but we have to trust them to know who they want to do the hurting.

The problem, Hazel, is not whether or not we are grenades. It is not whether or not we can minimize the damage (because let’s be honest, there is only so much minimizing that we can do). The question is how do we live with ourselves knowing that life is a long series of shitty incidents that hurt the people we love? The question is how do we imagine ourselves to be good people who deserve to be alive, who might have a positive impact on the world, how do we not burn out on even trying, when no matter how hard we try to be decent, our very existence means pain for someone?

The question, Hazel, is how do we keep going?

As you so eloquently put it, we could just ignore it, which is what most people do. We could close our eyes to oblivion and pointless pain. We could just keep muddling along in the best way we know how.

Or we can be acutely, exquisitely aware and hope that the awareness motivates us to better behavior, that our guilt over the past might keep someone, somewhere from getting hurt. We can play the martyr and try to take all the pain onto ourselves (guess what, that doesn’t work).

Or we can try to escape, never form relationships, convince ourselves that this means we are avoiding the problem of the hurting others. Except of course that rejection hurts and every time we close a door in someone’s face we hurt them.

Of course it seems like there must be another option, an option that doesn’t suck, an option that isn’t full of douche. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover that option. Perhaps it’s there, but I don’t believe that the universe exists to please us, so no matter how badly we want another option to exist, that is not evidence for its existence.

And so Hazel Grace, you are a grenade and there is no way to minimize casualties and in the explosive process of living you will find yourself injured by many other grenades along the way. I hope that you survive.

I hope that we all survive, at least for a little while. I hope the pins remain unpulled.


Overt and Covert Power

This morning I was at an event put on by BePollen that focused on women in the workplace, particularly how they can influence others. One of the themes throughout the morning was the idea that influence is most powerful when it’s subtle. Speakers called out administrative assistants and secretaries as the silent power in many organizations, told stories of how they took bad situations and found ways to create influence and power, and pointed towards gatekeepers as a source of power.

It’s absolutely true that subtle influence can be immensely powerful. If you can get someone to do what you’d like them to do without them even realizing that you’re influencing them, you do have a lot of power. And taking a position that isn’t inherently influential and finding subtle ways to use it to influence others is a great skill, especially as a woman who may have a harder time reaching the top echelons of most organizations. Of course subtle power has its place, and flying under the radar can give you a lot more freedom than being in the public eye.

And yet this focus on “subtle influence” started to drive me a bit crazy after a while. One other theme that cropped up repeatedly was impostor syndrome. The question was asked over and over how we can fight against it, how we can keep other high achieving women from feeling like impostors, how we can continue to achieve while feeling as if we don’t belong. Something that wasn’t mentioned as part of this discussion is the fact that the face of power and achievement is still white and it’s still male. Of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies only 24 are women. No female presidents yet. Women only hold 18% of the seats in Congress.

Women don’t see other women in positions of power, so it’s no wonder that when they begin to achieve things themselves they start to question whether they truly belong or are simply faking it. They don’t recognize themselves as among the set of people who could have influence.

So when a group of women gets together to talk about influence, it makes me sad that we talk about subtle influence, about being behind the scenes, about being the power behind the throne. Why are we so afraid of openly saying and acting as if we have power and deserve power? A huge part of being influential is being visible. Sometimes simply existing in a space that is designated as “powerful” is a huge influence and shows young women that they can be in those spaces and have that power as well. A great way to fight impostor syndrome is to keep young girls from feeling as if there are certain spaces and ways that they should live in and act. It’s showing them a wide variety of choices so that no matter where they end up it seems appropriate for a woman.

Another element of this is that subtle power doesn’t garner respect in quite the same way that open power does. A big part of influence and power is having a platform. Unfortunately, the way the world is set up is such that more people listen to someone with a title. Having that clear and open title that says “I have power and I have influence” actually heightens one’s ability to do work. It comes with resources, it comes with respect, and it comes with an equal footing to others that you may want to influence.

I’m afraid that when we say how powerful secretaries and admin assistants are, we’re doing more than recognizing the seriously important work they do. We’re also reinforcing what kind of power is appropriate for women. We’re giving ourselves a consolation prize because we still don’t feel that we can be on equal footing with men as CEOs or presidents. We’re telling ourselves that we have the same amount of influence that men do, but if that were the case then why would we be having a meeting to discuss how to encourage women to embrace their ability to influence?

I don’t want to have to sneak in sideways to influence people. I would like to be able to equally and calmly express my opinion, own my power, and have others respect that. If I want influence, I want it to be the influence of running an organization, or influencing policy through my work, or writing a book that changes the way people think.

Perhaps it’s naive. Perhaps that’s not the way that power works. But when men talk about influence, they don’t have to couch it in terms of being subtle, of taking notes in meetings, of being a secretary who can gatekeep for the person who has the real power. They talk about running for office or starting a company. Why are women afraid to have that same kind of power?

There is a time and a place for subtle influence. But there is also a time for overt influence, for standing up and saying that we deserve respect, we deserve the attention of others, and we deserve our power. When did this go missing?