I Am Not Less Human Because I Will Never Have Kids

If you have not heard this, then you are a lucky person: when you have a kid, you realize what love really is. Or some variant of that, that implies that the love a parent feels for their child is better, more, and utterly different from any other kind of love out there. In some cases, this is even put on par with an integral human experience, or used as a way to hold parents above others, as more loving, more compassionate, more…HUMAN than other people.

I am so over this bullshit.

Every single human being on the planet experiences things differently. As an example, people with Borderline Personality Disorder (myself among them) experience emotions more quickly and more strongly than most other people. “Normal” people (sad lives that they lead) will probably never experience joy on par with the joy that I have felt, or experienced Arthur Miller as the transcendent thing that I have. I personally have never felt compersion, although my friends tell me that it’s an amazing and powerful experience.

We all have different experiences, and beyond that, we have brains that process those experiences differently. It is patently absurd to posit one experience as the most/best version of an emotion, and far beyond that to connect any particular experience with an essential humanity. This is the same kind of bullshit that says romantic love is better than nonromantic love. We cannot put an hierarchy on what kinds of relationships are the most powerful and  meaningful, because (holy shit) people are different and experience things differently.

You have no idea how powerful other people’s emotions are. Perhaps you got a big old dose of baby hormones when you had your kiddo and you bonded really well. Some parents don’t, and they treat their kids like crap or neglect their kids. Some people have brains that feel ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME without any babies involved. Simply because YOU experienced love in a new and different way because you had a kid doesn’t mean that EVERYONE will or that EVERYONE is missing out on something until they have a kid. Saying so is condescending and presumptuous.

Intensity of feeling is not a marker of a life well lived. We already have enough myths that say having kids is necessary for a woman to live a good life. We do not need to buoy up the egos of moms at the expense of people who choose not to have kids or who cannot have kids. We are not defined by the children we do or do not have, and those children do not turn us into completely different (better) people.

Not only that, but deciding for other people what experiences are important and meaningful is condescending and presumptuous. It is perfectly fine to say that for you, having a child changed your life and your emotions. It is not acceptable to tell other people that this will or should happen to them. Perhaps it is true that biologically momfeels are different from every other feeling. That does not make it better or more important. Literally every feeling is unique. Get over it.

Identifying and Accepting When External Events Are Hard

Of late my to do lists have been piling up in a stressful way. I get home from work, and instead of jumping in to my blogging or editing, I just fall into bed and play Pokemon for 5 hours. Now I’m not one to knock playing Pokemon for 5 hours, but this is leaving me feeling like I’m being lazy and useless, and the things that I had intended to get done don’t get done…which means more on the list for the next day.

Of course my first impulse on seeing that is to get angry at myself. I berate my lazy self and ask why I can’t just do my work. I tell myself that I have tons of time, that I wasted time doing something unproductive. And I get more and more frustrated that I can’t seem to focus.

Now (totally unrelated) to all of this, I increased the dose of my antidepressants a few weeks ago and have been dealing with some nasty side effects since then. Serious exhaustion, twitchiness, anxiety, heartburn like a mofo (up to and including vomiting), and a complete inability to tolerate alcohol of any kind.

Wait, what’s that you say? Spending multiple nights puking and incapable of sleeping will affect one’s ability to get their work done? Messing with your brain chemicals takes time to adjust and might mean you have to cut back on other work for a while? Sometimes your body and brain require care that doesn’t allow you to keep going at your normal pace?

Of all the ironies in my life, I think my inability to recognize and validate my own mental health as an actual legitimate concern in my life is probably the best one.

Despite the fact that I’ve been bitching about these side effects to anyone who would listen for the past two weeks, it took until yesterday for me to realize that the reason I have felt so behind and had so much difficulty with my work recently is because making this transition is affecting me. And it took that realization for me to accept that I might need to take things easy until I can get my brain sorted out.

This is one of the most difficult things for people with mental illness, or at least I have witnessed people with mental illness struggling with it. We’re willing to accept when we need to make accommodations for ourselves, we can accept when our bodies start to give out, but so often I and others with mental illness discount external factors that might exacerbate our mental illness, or just make life harder. I’ve had multiple therapy sessions in which I walk in thinking I have nothing to talk about and halfway through my therapist will say “Sounds like there’s been a lot going on. A lot of stressors. How are you handling that?”

The question usually confuses me because I forget that much has been going on.

I suspect that for many others, just like myself, when you’re used to operating on full anxiety alert all the time, it’s hard to recognize when that anxiety really does match what’s going on around you. That means that it’s hard to cut yourself slack when the world really is making things harder for you. That’s one of many problems with living in a state of constant crisis. You cannot recognize and deal with actual crises.

With the realization that a change in medication is actually a pretty big shift and these side effects are really hindering my ability to do anything, I’m cutting back on extra stuff. Going into survival mode until I can get back in to my shrink and get a different med. That’s ok. It’s temporary. But I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t realized that bad medication is a minor crisis that needs to be dealt with.

So if you’re noticing that you’re falling behind and feeling overwhelmed with everything…it might not be the time to try to get rid of those emotions. It might be time to listen to those emotions and see if there’s something going on in your life that needs addressing. It’s far too easy for us to invalidate ourselves, since we spend so much time dealing with emotions that don’t make sense, but sometimes we do need to trust those emotions.

You got this friends. And so do I.

Now excuse me, I have more Pokemon to play.

Featured pic is me, self caring.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Let’s play a game. If you were told that you can sympathize with someone or empathize with them, which one would you think is better?

If I looked at most dialogue around emotions I would say the vast majority of people would answer empathy. There are articles and videos about how awesome empathy is.  But lately sympathy seems to be getting the short end of the stick. People often talk about how empathy is better than sympathy, or suggest that sympathy doesn’t have a place in social justice discussions because it’s condescending.

Let’s recap the basic differences between empathy and sympathy, since they’re often conflated and confused. Empathy is when you feel with someone. If your friend tells you that they’re sad because their cat died and you feel sadness as well, you’re empathizing with them. Sympathy on the other hand is having compassion for someone, or feeling something for/towards someone without taking on their feelings as your own. If my friend and I get in an argument and I can eventually understand her position I might be able to sympathize with her, but my own feelings may not change.

For a long time, sympathy was king of the hill, and in recent years empathy has grown to be the prized ability. Especially in social justice circles, I see minority and oppressed individuals pushing allies to try empathizing. The empathy is what allows others to understand the harm of their behaviors, to get motivated to make changes, or to see how sometimes good intentioned behaviors feel awful.

Especially in these contexts, sympathy is considered pitying and useless.

But there are some instances where sympathy is actually incredibly useful, or where empathy isn’t called for at all. I want to take the time to remember what the benefits of sympathy are, and to hopefully tease apart some instances in which sympathy is called for or when empathy is called for.

Now before I get into this conversation I want to make something very clear. No one gets to tell you if your feelings are appropriate to a situation or not. No other person has the right to police your opinions or tell you that you’re feeling the wrong way about something. However it may be true that your own emotions are not helping you act effectively or be safe, and in those cases an outside opinion can be helpful.

First and foremost, sympathy can be a helpful way to build into empathy. If you look at something like police brutality and you don’t yourself feel afraid and angry but you do feel sad for the people involved, that can be a first impetus to start learning more and putting yourself in the shoes of the people directly involved. This is especially one of those circumstances where it could be helpful to not quash sympathy (because it’s not good enough) but to push people to really listen to that sympathy and let it build into empathy.

Now empathy on the other hand is often more helpful when it comes to listening to other people, to building connections with other people, to being supportive. Especially with friends and family, it may seem easy to try to offer solutions when they open up, but sometimes all they want is a little empathy and an open ear. And when it comes to movements that feeling of being listened to is often incredibly important. It gives allies the knowledge to speak up when necessary, but to also understand when they need to be quiet.

While sympathy might push you to listen for a while, it doesn’t get you to internalize the feelings in the way empathy does, which means your feelings will always be taking priority over the feelings of the other.

So when is sympathy actually a better option?

Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I was very sick. I had an eating disorder and I was in the process of slowly trying to kill myself. However I didn’t really care. I felt little to no attachment to the world and didn’t have any desire to get better.

If someone at the time had truly empathized with me they would have felt awful, but they wouldn’t have had any motivation to push me into treatment. They would have understood how terrifying the possibility of recovery was, how much I just wanted to be left alone, how much I hated it when anyone mentioned that I should change my behaviors.

So instead of empathizing, my mother sympathized with me. She saw and understood that I was in pain, but instead of feeling that along with me she felt anger towards the eating disorder on my behalf. She felt fear of losing me and a strong desire to protect me. Because she sympathized with me instead of empathized with me, she chose to push me to get treatment and I am still alive and kicking today. Thanks Mom!

There are instances in which a person’s emotions aren’t keeping them safe. Abusive relationships are often (though not always) an example of this. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often have this kind of problem. And sometimes these instances are much smaller, like when one friend warns another not to go out with that guy, he’s actually a jerk. If your emotions are telling you that what you’re doing is totally the best course of action and someone you love and trust sympathizes instead of empathizing to tell you “hey, it looks like you’re hurting yourself,” that sympathy is way more effective than empathy.

Now again, it’s probably important to have facility with both skills. If you just sympathize and don’t understand what is really pushing the other person to behave the way they do, you are highly likely to make the situation worse. If my mom had empathized a bit more she might have found some more effective and less scary ways to get me help (or maybe not because I still have no idea what an effective method of pushing someone to get treatment is).

The important part is knowing that empathy and sympathy have different roles. Empathy is often the piece that gets you to listen and understand. Sympathy can be great for integrating your own feelings and perspective with someone else’s. So let’s get a little more love for sympathy.

First Person Narratives, Objectivity, and Scandals

Over the weekend I had a realization.

I was watching a panel focused on autism called Thriving on the Spectrum, and found myself frustrated with one of the panelists who seemed to be fairly defensive and called out other panelists a number of times when they didn’t agree with her. She was vocally antagonistic to parents of autistic children, seemed extremely upset that other panelists didn’t completely condemn Autism Speaks (instead saying that they have increased awareness but are problematic), and seemed quite agitated for the whole panel.

A few days later, the same individual posted a long comment on a mutual Facebook group, detailing the ways that the other panelists acted inappropriately. She called on convention organizers to do better, to not include parents or spouses of those on the spectrum, and to police the panels better, even going so far as to suggest that some of the behavior was abusive or condoned abusive behavior by others.

I have tried throughout my time on the internet to read and/or listen to the first person experiences of people who don’t have the same privileges I do. I have tried to take them at face value and accept that someone else lived through something that I didn’t. First person narratives are often privileged because the individual was actually there, because none of us know what happened except for the person telling the story. And it’s certainly true that no other person can tell you that your experience was wrong. You experienced what you did.

I strongly want to distance myself from those people who suggest first person narratives are suspect because people lie. This is not a post about people lying. This is a post about objectivity.

Now some people out there might look at this pair of experiences and say that I am the correct person because I am more objective. I was not emotional or upset, I wasn’t personally involved in anything that was happening, I spoke with someone else about the panel afterwards and verified my perceptions. The person on the panel is not neurotypical, she was agitated, she was “oversensitive.” Of the two of us, my perspective is the socially validated one.

The problem of course with this set of assumptions is that neither one of us is objective. As important and helpful as first person narratives are, they are not great at giving other people a clear and unbiased collection of facts, and they’re really not supposed to. They are one experience.

Where this seems to become a problem in my mind is when someone uses a single personal experience as a source of outrage or scandal, or when prior individual experiences start to overwhelm current experiences. Of course we can never have complete objectivity, and of course we all view things through the lens of prior experiences. And in the moment all we can do is use the current information we have.

But when it comes to blog posts, social media, complaints, and formalized repercussions, it seems highly important to me for everyone involved to recognize that immediate impressions are nearly always more extreme than thought out and measured responses. If you are going to publicly object to someone’s behavior, it seems pretty important to just do a double check of what happened and why it’s unacceptable, as well as double checking with other people who were there to ensure that you’ve got the events right.

These might seem like really obvious statements. And I think on some level most of us know these things. I hate the idea that we live in the midst of an ‘outrage culture,’ but I do think that there are some ways people pushing for social justice and change can do a better job, and this is one of them. No, being angry or having emotions doesn’t make your perspective less valid. But that also doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to double check and question our own perceptions, because human memory is faulty and people aren’t objective.

Experiences like this not only lead me to question my own perceptions, but also lead me to feel a lot of suspicion towards first person accounts, leaving me wondering if all the people who report microaggressions etc. are exaggerating. And then I remember that my first, emotional perception might be flawed and I think again.

And I suspect that my perception is being colored by my own privilege. And so I take into account the facts of multiple hundreds and thousands of experiences of other people. And so I don’t make a complete ass of myself by tromping all over the experiences of someone with autism (I hope).

Good gosh I love meta cognition.

A New Sexual Spectrum

One of the issues that comes across my radar quite often is incompatible sex drives in relationships. I frequent many asexual communities and websites, talk a lot about consent, and generally am interested in making sure that people who don’t want to have sex aren’t forced into having sex.

However it has been brought to my attention that sometimes people do want to have sex, and sometimes those people are in relationships with people who have low sex drives. This causes Unhappiness on the part of every party, and is sometimes used as an excuse for cheating, a reason to open the relationship, a reason to break up, or as some kind of horrible leverage to pressure one partner into having sex with the other. Sometimes it just results in sad resentment simmering while no one has sex.

I also hear that sometimes relationships require compromise, and that since sex is part of a relationship, both parties need to learn how to compromise and have sex sometimes when they’re not that interested or learn how to take a no from their partner. There are lots of advice books and articles out there about these kinds of compromises (some of them that drive me completely bonkers like the ones that say a wife always has to be sexually available to her husband or he will cheat). On the positive side of the advice giving I see people who promote talking to your partner, working out which sex acts feel better and worse to them, figuring out what gets them in the mood, and coming to conclusions about what’s reasonable in your relationship to ask for (some people might be real annoyed if you asked for a blowjob after they’d turned you down for sex, whereas others might see it as a way they can be giving and kind without feeling discomfort).

There’s one element of this that sometimes gets waved at but not really discussed, and that’s the role that sex plays in a relationship. Many articles (especially super sexist ones) like to talk about how sex is incredibly important for men to be able to express and feel intimacy, so women need to be willing to give it up more often. We’re going to ignore that crappy advice, and instead talk about the fact that in long term relationships sex can have different meaning for different people, a fact which is too often overlooked, or when it is recognized is often used to shame people who don’t have the “right” meaning for sex.

But sex is a great and varied thing, and people get different things out of it. For some people it’s just a nice, pleasurable experience like eating cookies. For other people, it’s incredibly intimate and one of the ways that they express and feel close to a partner. For other people, it’s contingent on feeling close to a partner, and only really happens as an extension of emotional closeness. Some people don’t see sex as an integral part of a relationship and could do without it, others feel as if it cements emotional bonds.

All of these different approaches to sex mean that people will feel comfortable with sex in different circumstances. If sex is something you do to feel nice, you might not want to do it when you’re stressed out or thinking about other things. If sex is something you do to feel close, you’ll probably want it more if you’re feeling your partner is distant. But if you see sex as an offshoot of emotional closeness, the last thing you’d want to do when your partner feels distant is have sex.

Ok so what does this have to do with compromises around differing sex drives? If one person has a lower sex drive than another, or is not feeling like having sex, or just isn’t wanting it, it might be a good time to start talking about what sex means to both partners. Especially if sex is something that is deeply connected to emotions in some way, that’s important for both partners to know. And while it’s on both people to figure out a way to make their sex life work, this kind of information can make it easier for higher sex drive person to make things comfortable and conducive for lower sex drive person to get in the mood.

Example: I don’t really feel sexually attracted to someone unless I’m feeling emotionally close to them. Not just that I like them, but emotionally intimate. Have a philosophical discussion with me or tell me your deepest, darkest secrets and I’m way more likely to get physically into you. Some partners like to only express their intimacy with their bodies and through physicality. If we’re feeling disconnected, they might try to initiate sex while the last thing that I’d want is sex. The solution? Talking about it so that they know having emotional discussions or building our relationship in other ways will make me more comfortable and interested in sex.

This might not be a straight line of emotional—>non emotional sex, but perhaps more of a crazy explosion of different attitudes and needs. Many people are proponents of communication around sex, so I’d imagine incorporating discussions of what you get from sex and how else you might be able to fulfill some of those needs would be an important part of having a good sex life. It can also help when you’re having a mismatch of needs to understand what it is that you feel like you’re missing.

Bad Feelings Are Not Bad

For a long time, I have subscribed to a basically utilitarian ethics, one that is predicated on harm reduction. When I first started thinking about ethics in any sort of real way, my brain was not in a healthy place, and so I came to the conclusion that if I ever caused harm, what I had done was bad. In particular I never wanted to cause bad feelings in anyone else, especially by bothering them, annoying them, taking up too much of their time, being demanding, or unintentionally stepping on their toes in some fashion. I wanted to take up less space so that I would never inadvertently cause someone to feel bad feelings.

In large part, I attribute this to the fact that my own ability to tolerate distress was complete crap. Nearly every bad feeling I had felt overwhelming, and all I could think about was how much I wanted there to be less of those distressing feelings in the world. I had no idea how to have a “negative” feeling without it ruining my day, and so I assumed that every time I influenced or impacted another person, it meant that they would remember and feel that negativity forever. I was convinced that any time I made a mistake I was actively harming the world around me and making life worse for other people. This very quickly led into a perfectionism predicated on the idea that if I wasn’t perfect then I was seriously hurting people and hurting people in any way was completely unacceptable.

Let’s take a metaphor for a minute (it’s fun, I promise). Say you’re in a crowded room and you bump into someone. You step on their toes a little bit because the crowd was shifting or you lost your balance or you just didn’t quite see them. No big deal. You move and apologize, and for most people that’s the end of it. The person that you stepped on really probably hasn’t had their life impacted in any serious way, and part of being around people is the knowledge that sometimes they’ll be in your bubble. Almost no one in the world would suggest that if there’s a possibility you might step on someone’s toe you should not go out at all. Instead, we take reasonable precautions, like not wearing stilettos in situations where everyone else is barefoot, and trying to keep an eye out around us, and apologizing if we mess up. In terms of quality of life, I would much rather go out and get bumped than stay in for fear of getting bumped.

Most of the time, the little mistakes we make like saying something mildly offensive or accidentally insulting someone are a lot like getting your toes stepped on. It’s annoying and might be mildly painful, but as long as the other person stops and apologizes it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes you have to let people know they’re stepping on your toes (especially if you have sensitive spots that are a little out of the ordinary), and sometimes if you have an especially tender point you have to let someone know that it might look like stepping on toes but for you is jumping on a broken foot (I may be taking this metaphor too far). The point is, most people are more than resilient enough to make it through a few social hiccups without it affecting the overall quality of their life. Even more than that, the benefits of socializing far outweigh the small slip ups that do happen.

This is the secret: bad feelings are not bad. They are not immoral. It is not even immoral to cause them. Sometimes they are entirely healthy, good, and important things to feel, even if they are somewhat unpleasant. Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, or other so called negative emotions really exist to give us information. Most of the time they’re pretty in tune with what’s happening around us, so if someone violates a boundary, if we lose something we care about, if we cannot reach our goals, or if there’s something else that requires our attention or action, we feel an emotion in response. Good. It’s just like pain letting us know that something is not healthy.

Not all kinds of pain are things that we want to have happen, but some kinds of pain are good and important and necessary. They come from change or trying new things or growing in some fashion. Take a child moving away to college. Both the parent and the child will likely feel some sadness as they are to some extent losing each other. No one would suggest that this is a reason for a child to never leave home. We have these emotions to give us information, but sometimes they give us information we already know or can do nothing about or don’t want to do anything about. So the feeling is just there. And that’s ok. It’s not a bad feeling. It doesn’t ruin someone’s life or even day or week. Just like sometimes I get headaches and that’s annoying, sometimes I get sad and that’s annoying. Sometimes other people are the source of both of those events. In neither case do I think that means whoever caused it is a bad person that I don’t want to be around.

I do still like the idea of minimizing harm, but we also have to recognize that it is impossible to do no harm, and that it’s ok. Other people are more resilient than you might expect. And those moments of sadness or anger? They’re really not all that bad a lot of the time. Negative feelings are an entirely acceptable part of human reality.

Disclaimer: this does not mean that intentionally hurting other people is ok. It also does not mean that feelings that cause serious distress or harm are great and awesome. It means that some negative feelings sometimes are acceptable.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Being Sensitive

In the recent hooplah about political correctness and trigger warnings, a phrase that gets bandied about far too often is the claim that people are just “overly sensitive” these days. This is often met with (generally quite reasonable) assertions that outrage over racism, sexism, and other everyday cruelties is not simply being extremely sensitive but rather actively asserting boundaries. The problem with this approach is that it accepts the premise that being sensitive is bad.

Sure, there are downsides to being sensitive. It can make everyday life more difficult, and you might have to spend more time calming yourself if something stressful or unexpected happens. And yes, sometimes being overly sensitive can mean that you become anxious or upset over something that isn’t truly doing you any harm. But these things are true of just about anyone: sometimes we all make the wrong call about whether something warrants a strong reaction or not. That’s a human tendency that we can actually cultivate skills to overcome.

But there’s a difference between “reacting inappropriately” and being sensitive. One is a behavior and the other is simply a fact about how your emotions work. There are lots of people who don’t have a choice about being extremely sensitive. As someone with borderline personality disorder traits, I’m one of those people. I react quickly and strongly to things.

For some people, this would be a reason to discount the times when I react, to discount my arguments and my issues with others. But simply because I have strong emotions doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of thinking through issues and figuring out whether there is a logical and rational basis to my reaction. Indeed, including some of the strong emotion in my response also doesn’t discount it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being sensitive.

Sometimes I cry over absolutely nothing. Usually I tell the person with me that I know it’s nothing and ask them to sit with me through it. That’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with having that strong reaction. And there are also positives to the extreme sensitivity. I’m pretty good at picking up on the emotions of others, which makes me far more likely to check in with someone and find out what they’re feeling. I also get really strong happy feelings when something good happens. And I’m also pretty in tune with the times that people violate my boundaries or do things that aren’t acceptable. That means I’m more likely to be able to let someone know when I need them to do something differently. That might look like me being a pansy, but in reality it’s extremely healthy and a skill that everyone probably needs to learn to one extent or another.

Sensitivity really just refers to how strong our emotions are. There’s never anything inherently wrong with feeling something. As I’ve mentioned before, the place that we have to be careful and responsible is in choosing how we should act because of our emotions. If the best you can come up with is that people these days feel too much, then you’re really grasping at straws for why they’re wrong. What should be up for argumentation are not people’s feelings, but rather their arguments and requests. If those don’t have logic or go too far and put too much burden on others, then it seems reasonable to argue against them. But when someone else gets upset over something you wouldn’t get upset over that doesn’t make them worse than you. It doesn’t even make them pitiable. In fact in some ways it makes them better at things, and in other ways it makes them worse at things.

There’s no need to promote the idea that you “allow” yourself to be hurt if you’re sensitive. There’s no need to idealize being cold and unflappable. Having emotions is totally acceptable and does not make one irrational. Even strong emotions can be good or neutral things. I refuse to be insulted when someone calls me sensitive. Yes, I am thank you very much. That is utterly irrelevant to my arguments.