Asking for Accommodations Doesn’t Mean I’m Delicate

There’s this thing that I’ve noticed from people who are generally very nice and reasonable people when I tell them about the ways that my neurodivergent brain affects my life. I might say something simple like “I really can’t handle socializing for extended periods of time,” and ask for an accommodation.

Then comes the special tone of voice, one of mixed surprise and condescension. Especially when my accommodations are for something that seems small to me, like asking that people text instead of call, or when I say that I prefer to be in a small group to a large group, I often get the sense that people are astounded that I’m so broken.

Some people have even gone so far as to say things like “Well YOUR life sounds so much more stressful than mine. I can call people on the phone just fine.” There’s an assumption that because my brain prevents me from doing certain things, I live in some kind of hellscape or that I’m severely limited in what I’m capable of doing, sitting alone in my house wishing I could pick up the phone or go out and party.

It’s weird, because when I say things like “I have lots of anxiety about talking on the phone. I really hate it and would prefer not to do it,” I am not looking for sympathy, nor am I trying to tell people that I’m unhappy with my life. I’m not trying to make myself out to be fragile or delicate or in need of protection. I am asking for accommodations. I’m letting people know that I’d like to do things slightly differently from other people. Often I’ll include the full extent of why I’m asking for the accommodation because otherwise people think I’m being a diva or won’t respect my request.

There’s a really challenging kind of circle that you get stuck in when you’re disabled or mentally ill or asking for accommodations: explaining to people how hard things are means they start to discount your competence, but not explaining means that they will assume you don’t need the accommodations.

More often than not I’m likely to let people in on just how hard things can be because we need more honesty in that discussion, and because often people don’t really get what it means to be chronically mentally ill. But I’m getting incredibly sick of people thinking that this means I’m fragile, or acting as if they’re better than I am in some way because they can do “basic” tasks. Bully for you. Sometimes I can’t eat food without breaking down. But you know what I can do? I can write a mean blog post, take over a social media page without blinking, and alphabetize the shit out of anything. I can see patterns in things, I can make connections between things, and I can hold down some awesome conversations about everything from living forever to the intricacies of disability activism.

But you know what? Even if I COULDN’T do all those things, I still wouldn’t deserve your pity or your condescension. Because there’s nothing about talking on the phone or hanging out in crowded places that makes me less or more human. I am not a worse person because I am uncomfortable with times when I can’t quite catch the social cues for when to start and end sentences. My life isn’t WORSE because I can’t do or feel uncomfortable doing certain things. It is made worse by people who won’t accommodate my need to not do those things and by people who accommodate with a side helping of judgment, but there’s nothing about talking on the phone that would leave me fulfilled in a way that I’m not right now (in fact I maintain that my life is way better now than it was when I was trying to do a lot of things that set off my anxiety).

Asking for help doesn’t make me weak. It is not an invitation to comment on the value or fulfillment of my life. It isn’t something that puts you above me. In fact it’s probably a lot harder than most things most people do. It is self advocacy. But more than that, it isn’t an admission of limitations. When I say that I have trouble with something I’m not saying that I’m giving up on my life or giving up on interacting with people. I’m asking for help to find another way. It’s just like someone who can’t reach a shelf asking for a stool: it’s not a judgment about their abilities. It’s a recognition that they need to do it differently than someone taller.

I see too many people acting as if a statement like “I can’t talk on the phone without getting anxious” is the end of the conversation. It’s not. It’s the beginning. It’s the point at which you say “can I text you instead?” or I ask for another accommodation. It’s a statement of fact but not a recognition of failure. There are things in this world that I will never do. Run a marathon, quantum physics, and also feel comfortable in group settings. No one gets all uppity if I say I’m never going to understand the intricacies of the theory of relativity, so why do they make faces like they’re sucking lemons when I say I’m never going to feel comfortable in certain social situations? None of those things diminish my ability to live a good life that I enjoy and that contributes something to the world around me.

And I suppose that’s the point isn’t it? When I say there are certain things I can’t do, some people think that those things are a prerequisite for being a functional, happy human. They think that I’m diminishing myself by recognizing there are some things I can’t do. They seem to think that I’m fragile, or I need protection, or I can’t be independent because I can’t or won’t do certain tasks that they see as basic or necessary.

There are certain activities that enough people do that they have become synonymous with “human.” Of course these standards of “basic human tasks” have changed greatly over time and in different places, so no, there’s nothing inherently human about eating three meals a day, or being able to strike up a conversation at a coffee shop, or making small talk. When people hear that I can’t do some things they take for granted, they don’t understand that there’s nothing all that great about the things they take for granted.

The more I can question the idea that I need to do certain things in a certain way in order to be ok, the better I feel. I can’t do some things. So what I need from the people around me is just a little bit of adjustment. There are some things all of you can’t do that I can do. It doesn’t make you less than me. I make adjustments for people around me all the time without giving them any side eye. Can we make it mutual?

Not the Same: Vaguebooking and Making It About You

Ok friends, it’s time we have a talk. This is a talk about Facebook and etiquette on Facebook, because people are really bad at understanding some basic rules of human interaction when they happen on the internet.

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Here’s a basic rule: whoever is posting on their own page or wall or whatever gets to decide what they want to talk about. When people post things, it is not an invitation for you and you personally to share your opinion with them, no matter how ridiculous or uninformed your opinion is. Unless the status seems to invite conversation, your opinions may not be relevant.

This is especially true if your opinion is on the attractiveness or non attractiveness of a woman either pictured or mentioned in the status. Especially if you’re going to be a jerk, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. no one is required to listen to your opinion. So if you post a crappy response on someone’s post and they delete it and tell you to shut up, it still makes sense for them to be on social media. You whining that they shouldn’t have said anything if they didn’t want debate makes no sense, because people want all kinds of things out of their interactions, and mostly they don’t want assholes.

Ok? Does that seem fair? Not everything another person says requires you to respond, and not everything another person says is a way to get a conversation started. Usually we can figure out these differences by noting if the person is asking a question or presenting an argument. If you’re unsure, you can always ask!

But basic principle: people post things for all kinds of reasons. They are not necessarily asking you to contribute your opinion.

Now every time I say this, I inevitably get this response: “But what about when someone is posting something super emotional and then they don’t say what it’s about? Shouldn’t I ask them? Shouldn’t I tell them that it’s frustrating when they’re super vague but clearly want attention?”

I won’t lie, this response makes me want to hit something. Look at the basic principle. Does it say that there is NEVER a time when people want your feedback? No. Does it say that you can’t ask a question of someone’s status? No.

If someone is vaguebooking, based on your super awesome powers of understanding basic human interactions, you can probably tell that they’re in an emotional place. They might want some comfort or attention. That’s cool. You know what they probably don’t want? Your opinions on whether or not they should vaguebook. Instead, you can ask them what would be helpful right now, offer them some supportive words, ask if they’d like you to call or come over, etc. Ya know, do nice human things for a human who is clearly in distress.

Note that these things are not in any way related to your opinions about the content of the status. Note that it is possible to connect with other people and offer support or condolences or excitement or all kinds of things without bringing your opinions into the matter.

The problem here is that once again individuals are too worried about how this affects them and their ability to speak whenever they want to, instead of how it might be a helpful principle for their friends or for vulnerable people. This idea has been circulating because there have been tons of statuses that are horribly derailed by jerks. It might simply be that there was a picture of a woman and people felt the need to comment on whether she was fuckable or not. It might be that someone posted a status about feeling down and got a lot of people telling them what they should or shouldn’t do to cure their depression. It might even be as simple as someone putting forth a factual argument and having another person say “but what about if I’m attracted to x person or not attracted to y person?” thus totally derailing any real discussion of the facts.

The world won’t end if you decide that it’s better just not to post something. There is a way to respectfully respond to all of the things mentioned above, but it’s never necessary. The point is that when you make it all about your personal opinions, attractions, and what you want to talk about, you’re being an asshole. The point is that “you posted something so you were asking for my opinion,” is never a valid reason to offer up awful, misogynistic, creepy, racist, or otherwise harmful opinions.

Maybe I’m so annoyed because I feel like this is something that we should have all learned ages ago: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It doesn’t apply to all situations, but it definitely applies to responding to other people’s Facebook posts. If you’re worried about someone else, and trying to consider their feelings when responding, then this isn’t about you. I get that sometimes seeing a post that berates behaviors can feel like it’s definitely for sure berating you. But I promise, if you’re self aware enough to be thinking about other people and worried about them, and trying to consider what their status means and how to help, you’re already light years ahead.

And don’t forget: you can always, always, always ask someone what they’re looking for when they’ve posted. It’s easy, and something we should all practice more.

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Consent and Neurodivergence

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.

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

It’s Not Edgy to Be A Douche

So as per fairly usual in my life, I had a minor encounter with a Facebook troll this morning. The conversation ended when I called him out by saying “So you’re just being a troll and you don’t care who gets hurt as long as you’re entertained” and he liked my comment. Apparently he found it really cool to be someone who hurt others. He also felt the need to point out that he associated with people that I would apparently “be disgusted by”, and insist that he was highly empathetic and open minded.

These are the classic troll behaviors. More than anything they illustrate to me that trolls have a few assumptions in common:

1.They are not constrained by the same beliefs that others are constrained by.
2. They are rebellious or forward thinking because they refuse to believe what others believe.
3. They are better than others for not being bothered by mere things like “words”.
4. When it really comes down to it, they’re good people.
5. It’s fun to hurt people as long as it’s over things that “don’t matter” like words.
6. When you hurt people over “stupid” things, you’re really just helping them see an edgier or more free thinking way. You’re doing them all a favor.

Unfortunately most of these assumptions and beliefs are simply wrong. Sometimes when you refuse to believe what others believe, you’re just wrong. There is in fact nothing wrong or overly sensitive about being hurt by words. We as human beings have a drive for acceptance, and words are in fact a form of acting. There is nothing about being cruel with your words that is helping another person or enlightening them to their own idiocy.

I’m about to drop some crazy knowledge on you guys here, so brace yourselves: being mean is not edgy. Being mean is not new. Acting superior and gaslighting people? It’s pretty much the oldest trick in the book. I’m going to be real honest: being mean is just straight out boring. EVERYONE knows how to do it. People even do it all the time without meaning to. Most people probably spend the majority of their time being mean to someone.

In addition, just disagreeing with people doesn’t make you right. In fact disagreeing with a lot of people also does not make you right. Sometimes (I know this will be hard to believe) the majority does actually have the correct facts! There is nothing about disagreeing with other people that is inherently cool, edgy, forward thinking, or good.

You might think that you’re looking real damn good compared to those sissies who overreact. You might think you’re making a statement. You might think you’re more rational or reasonable. But here’s the honest truth: you just look like a douche. Not only that, but you often look pretentious, uninformed, rambling, and unintelligent.

All those little lies that you feed yourself to pretend that you’re coming out on top, that it’s survival of the fittest and you’re the one surviving, that it’s just a big game? You know they’re lies. You know that we are built to be social animals and that at this point in our history we’ve moved past viciously ripping each other to shreds in order to survive. You know that it’s just plain outdated and redundant to do that crap at this point.

So please trolls, just be honest with yourselves. You’re not doing any of this for good reasons or because you’re really a great person. You’re doing it because you like to be mean. The sooner you accept that the sooner we can all move on.

Selfishness: An Inherent Evil?

When we talk about things that are immoral, evil, or wrong, we often point to selfishness. This is sometimes the root of a bad action, and sometimes is the bad action itself. Particularly in religious contexts, people are called upon to be utterly selfless, to remember that God is the source of the good works that they do, to avoid pride or self-aggrandizing, and to think of others first. Of course it’s a good thing to put the needs of others before your own, right?

Unfortunately, this rhetoric doesn’t always have fact behind it, and I worry that prioritizing selflessness as an inherent good does a lot of damage to many people. Selfishness is focusing on one’s own needs. Generally we also include to the detriment of others, but more and more I see people using it to mean anything that focuses on one’s own needs, whether or not it impacts others at all. Focusing on your own well being is not something that is inherently wrong. I cannot believe that this needs saying, but it’s actually incredibly important to spend some time on yourself, thinking about your own needs and taking care of your own needs. “It sounds nice” or “It would make me feel good” are both perfectly valid reasons to do something.

In fact doing things like this often help us improve our ability to do things for others. No one is helped by burnout, and if you want to make a difference in the lives of others you often have to spend a lot of time ensuring that your own needs are met first. This is the “secure your own oxygen mask first” principle. Sometimes you do have to put your own needs first, particularly when your needs are particularly serious.

I think this is another area in which the harm principle could be used to really clarify what the problem is with selfishness and when selfishness is a bad thing, versus when we simply want it to be a bad thing because we societally have a problem with individuals thinking about themselves and their own needs. There are instances where someone focuses on their own wants and needs to the exclusion of others. They might do so in such a way that they will actively hurt others in order to get their own wants met. This is selfishness in the more traditional sense, in the way that clearly is wrong. However choosing to do things for yourself that mean you’re unavailable to meet the desires of others, or to do things for yourself that have very little impact on others? I think that’s a very healthy selfishness.

If what you’re doing is causing more harm than good, it’s probably the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t matter if the harm is to yourself or to someone else, because your needs deserve equal respect with the other person’s. As an example, there are times that I choose not to spend time with my friends, even though sometimes that makes them unhappy or worried. Generally I do this when I’m feeling emotionally drained and really need some time for my mental health. If I were to prioritize my friends over myself in this case, I’d probably be cranky anyway and not do very much good for them, as well as leave myself feeling even worse than before, potentially susceptible to some bad target behaviors. If I look at the overall picture, it’s better for everyone if I take care of myself, then spend time with friends when I feel up to it.

An additional element to consider is whether or not being selfless is your responsibility. There are many times when I or someone that I know says that they should be there for another person, they should help their friend feel better, or they should always be on call for their significant other. It’s important to remember that while it is kind and wonderful of you to take care of another person, it is never required of you. Another person’s well-being is never your responsibility. Taking on another person’s well-being is a recipe for disaster as it leaves one party feeling overwhelmed and put upon, and the other party feeling beholden and useless. It generally doesn’t improve anyone’s situation. You aren’t doing something wrong by NOT going above and beyond.

Of course it would be a lovely world if each of us could spend all our energy taking care of others and somehow it would all work out that everyone gets taken care of. Unfortunately that isn’t the world we live in. Every human being (yes you) deserves to be taken care of, and that means that each of us needs to put aside some of our energy and time for ourselves to make sure we get our needs met. This is, by definition, somewhat selfish. That does not make it wrong. Sometimes I choose not to spend my time volunteering and I watch Netflix instead. Yeah, that’s selfish. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to do. I deserve my time just as much as anyone else, and if I am not hurting another person, then selfishness is not the worst thing I could be doing.

There is nothing beautiful about diminishing yourself. There is nothing inherently good about it. I would rather respect myself as much as I respect anyone else.

That’s Not The Real You

One of the tropes that I hear most often about mental health, particularly eating disorders is that when you are behaving in a disordered way you are not yourself: you’re not the real you. I see this kind of rhetoric everywhere, in exhortations to fight the eating disorder, to make the eating disorder separate from yourself, to remember what you used to be like. We bifurcate ourselves into the “bad” self that is disordered and the “good” self that is real, true, happy, honest, vulnerable, and open.

This doesn’t just happen with eating disorders though. We hear it about weight loss, about all kinds of illness, about poverty, about education, about nearly every state that we wish we hadn’t been. In all of these cases we pick one state (usually one that comes with privilege and societal status) and decide to identify ourselves with that status: healthy, educated, skinny, wealthy, independent. The other versions aren’t us. We weren’t ourselves. It was all a fake.

Unfortunately this just isn’t true. Of course there are all kinds of philosophies about what makes you who you are, identity, whether you remain the same over time or not, and I don’t really want to address those here, but what I will say is that your behaviors, your thoughts, your body, your tendencies, your emotions, and your chemistry are important elements that are part of who you are. Simply not wanting something to be part of who you are is not enough to take it out of your identity. I might wish that I was not white, but that’s not going to change the fact that I am and that is part of my experience and part of who I am. Even if I do in some future change to another race (if for example we were to create some sort of technology that could completely change skin pigmentation), that does not erase the history that I had or the experiences that I had as a white individual and does not change me into a wholly new person, the real me, the me that replaced the old me. The new self will always include elements of the old.

This might seem like I’m making a big deal out of something small and semantic: if some people find it helpful to think of an element of their life as a rebirth then why do I care? There are two main elements to the language of “real self” that appear to cause harm. The first is that it keeps us from validating the feelings and experiences we truly did have in the past. To draw again from the eating disorder community, this often comes in the form of individuals who have recovered denying all the thoughts and feelings that they had while in the midst of the disorder: I was stupid, I was crazy, I thought I knew what would make me happy but I didn’t, I was totally illogical, I was unreasonable, I was not in reality. There might be elements of this that are important to recognize such as disordered thinking, but it’s also important to know that our feelings were not wrong, that our wants were not the enemy, that our emotions are not the enemy. Particularly when we extend this denial into other areas such as obesity it becomes far more harmful in undermining the respect for individuals who have not yet changed or who will never change.

One of the most important things that we as a society can do to improve mental health and to fight against oppressive structures is to validate people’s experiences, even when they seem utterly foreign to us. This includes validating our own experiences as real and acceptable. If we don’t do this, we end up with things like gaslighting, the denial of harassment or racism, and a society that’s willing to say an individual who disagrees with them is just crazy.

But in addition to creating a culture where people’s emotions aren’t safe from criticism and questioning, when we have a narrative of “real me”, we reify structures of privilege. This might seem like an overstatement, but there are many ways that narratives like this can contribute to privileging one type of individual over another and can even go so far as to deny personhood to other types of people. The most important element of this criticism is that people almost never identify the “real me” as the one with the oppressed identity. If you have a choice between fat and skinny, abled or disabled, sick or healthy, you will always say the real you is skinny, able, and healthy. By saying that we can choose our identity, or that we’re not really ourselves when we’re in an oppressed condition, we both blame those people who remain in the oppressed condition and hold up the privileged condition as something to praise.

Even worse is that when you say you weren’t you when you were fat/sick/whatever, you deny yourself personhood in that oppressed condition, and by extension you deny others in that same condition personhood. You tell them that they’re not actually the way they are, there’s something wrong/broken/off about them that must be fixed before they are actually a person. Who were you if you weren’t yourself? Did another person take over your body for a while? In all likelihood you’re simply denying that you were a real, honest to god person who was deserving of things.

None of this is to say that we don’t get to choose our identities or say that we didn’t like who we were at a given time. However it’s important to remember that history is always a part of us and when we deny that it becomes much easier to scrub our history of anything that doesn’t appear perfectly white, cis, straight, thin, healthy, stable, middle-class…when we erase those moments from our history, we tell others that those are stories not worth telling, they’re selves not worth having.

Being open is of course a vulnerable place to be, and being open about moments in your past when you were oppressed is even more vulnerable. Unfortunately we need that openness to embrace all experiences. We can no longer have before and after narratives that erase the “before” as a fleeting, unreal state: I lost weight and I’m a new person.

I’d like to try embracing all the moments that make up who I am and who I have been, whether those  moments are who I want to be or not, and whether those moments are ones that society privileges or not. I will not deny that identity is a complicated question, and that there are narratives that defy this privileged “real me” narrative (that of trans* individuals is a wonderful example), but I challenge each of you to think of what selves you’ve hidden and why.

but it also keeps us from validating our own experiences and feelings and reifies the structures of privilege that tell us a certain status is what a person should be: we refuse to even categorize ourselves as people until we’ve reached those prioritized statuses.