Complaining About Trigger Warnings is Sexist

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Now that I have your attention with an overly general headline, let’s talk reality.

For quite some time in Western culture, women have been associated with emotions (nature, the body), and men with rationality (mind, culture). Unsurprisingly, rationality in U.S. society tends to be prioritized over emotions, and people who include their emotions in their arguments or conversations are seen as irrational, bad at argumentation, or just plain weak. I’m not going to get into arguing for the existence of this dichotomy in the Western mind, so check out some basic women’s or feminist studies if you’re cynical.

Simultaneous to this lovely set up, in the past few years we’ve been seeing a whole lot of hooplah about trigger warnings, college students, coddling, and how kids these days are so oversensitive. They’re accused of being too easily offended, of throwing away their freedoms in order to create a safe bubble. Safe spaces are mocked, kids are told they’ll fall apart in the “real world,” and talking heads bemoan the state of the youth.

These two issues are not unrelated. Academia has for quite some time been a bastion for white men, a place where “rationality” is said to rule, and where those whose emotions rule are not allowed. My time in college was a time in which objective inquiry was prized above all else. Emotions were to be eradicated. It is not an accident that this worship of the mind over the body is associated with a place that is traditionally male and has been vehemently guarded against female incursions. It’s also not an accident that the further you go into academics, the more likely you are to encounter horrific sexism, including out of control harassment in a number of graduate programs.

Many of the screeds I have read against the coddled college student use language that has typically been applied to women. Overly emotional. Coddled. Sheltered. Children. These are the same criticisms that were used to keep women from engaging in public dialogue for a long time. Of course women couldn’t vote/go to school/hold office: they think with their emotions. They have emotions, even strong emotions, even emotions that come from trauma and abuse. Of course there are some serious differences, as many of the people asking for trigger warnings are people with mental illnesses, and simply being a woman or having emotions (contrary to much of the history of psychology) is not the same as having a mental illness. But the fear of recognizing emotions and making space for them will always have gendered connotations. The disgust at people having emotions, speaking about their emotions, and asking for their emotions to be taken into account will always have gendered connotations.

When we talk about third and fourth wave feminism and the ways that we can embrace things that are traditionally viewed as feminine instead of simply saying that women can do all that men can do, this is what I think of. I think of the ways that the emotional labor women has done needs to be recognized. I think about the ways that we need to make emotional labor a societal endeavor that is taken on by everyone instead of hidden away to be performed by women in their homes. I think of the ways that new social connections and supports are denigrated, from trigger warnings to snapchat. These are the types of things that women have always done: we have warned each other about people and things that are dangerous, we have been the social glue, we have subtly found ways to guide conversation and topic away from spots that we know are sore. These tasks are becoming public through discussions about safe spaces and trigger warnings. Instead of simply creating our safe spaces in nail salons or other “feminine” places, we are speaking openly about the point and purpose of it, discussing the ways that emotions need to be tended in order to have a functional and healthy society.

And of course we are mocked for it. It is seen as unnecessary, weak, or damaging. More than that, it is seen as a threat. This makes more sense when you view it as the attempt to move emotional labor into the public sphere. Not only is it a demand for recognition of oppression and privilege, it is also a demand that everyone shares equally in creating places where people can be safe from those problems, or places where people who have been hurt, traumatized, or abused, can still participate.

For a long time that was hidden work. That was women’s work. And now it’s in the light. It’s ugly. It’s hard. And a lot of people don’t want to do it. So they whine about free speech and the breakdown of higher education so that they don’t have to face the fact that we are finally speaking openly about our emotional health and asking each other to step up to the plate and support each other.

I’m done idolizing the idea that we should all pretend we don’t have emotions or needs or scars. I’m done pretending that humans should prioritize rationality above all else if that means we don’t recognize our human nature as emotional, embodied creatures. I am over the idea that people in college are delicate flowers who haven’t dealt with real life. Trigger warnings and safe spaces were created to help people with PTSD and other mental illnesses. Those are real life. Those are the kinds of “feminine diseases” we ignored throughout all of history and still cannot figure out how to treat. If college students have found things that help them, then I’m all for it, and I’m sick to death of the horror over oh so weak emotions. I thought we had realized how unhelpful that narrative was with second wave feminism, but I guess we’re fighting the same battles.

So again: emotions are not weak. Asking for help isn’t weak. Particularly if you are someone whose brain is a little different, a little dangerous, it is necessary and vital to ask for help in caring for yourself. Emotions are important parts of human life and they cannot be ignored, even in situations in which it would be much easier if we could all just be perfectly rational beings. None of these things take away freedoms or coddle anyone. They create stronger, interconnected people who can function more healthily. I for one am for emotionally healthy people.

Don’t Tell Me I’m Beautiful

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Today I posted a Facebook status that I didn’t expect to get much of a response. It was personal and complaining, saying that I love body positivity but that I have a hard time internalizing the messages because I want to see how people view my body.

What amazed me was the number of responses I got. It wasn’t overwhelming, but there was an instant response from a number of female friends who said that they as well couldn’t seem to get over their insecurities, despite hearing from significant others or partners that they were beautiful. Others talked about how powerful it was to have nude photos taken, or work as a model, because it was outsiders seeing their bodies as art.

It’s not a secret that there are lots of negative messages aimed at women in regards to their bodies. Between 40 and 60% of girls age 6-12 worry about getting fat. We get messages early and often about the ways in which our bodies should change, so it’s hardly a surprise that many women do internalize those messages. And while I certainly appreciate when partners and friends tell me that I’m beautiful, what I’m hearing from these responses and what is becoming clear in my own mind is that first, it is not enough for the people we are closest to to affirm us, and second, when only those closest affirm us, it leaves us in a stressful and confusing position.

My friend Brianna summed it up quite well: “I have body image issues and I don’t really believe the things that my SO’s have [said] or do say about its beauty…so I always thought that seeing my body through the eyes of someone else would help me see what they see. I want to see my body as positively as they do, but it’s difficult for me to accept positive feedback from those I’m closest to. Perhaps it’s inconsiderate of me to not see my body positively despite my SO’s insistence, but some part of me just can’t or won’t believe it.”

What truly sticks out to me about this comment is that she says it might be inconsiderate of her. How telling is it that women feel that they have done something wrong when they can’t think positively about themselves, even though the world is repeatedly telling them not to?

Here’s where things turn stressful. How do you reconcile it when someone that you love and trust is telling you something that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, believe? How do you maintain trust and love when that person tells you things that look like lies on a regular basis? It hurts to be in this position. It hurts to choose between telling your partner that you don’t believe them or lying to your partner. It hurts to try to snuff out a voice inside yourself, even if that voice is cruel or irrational, because your partner has told you something different. It hurts to feel as if you’re being stubborn or untrusting because you can’t just believe your partner.

I end up feeling as if I can’t tell where reality rests. Am I being irrational for not believing? Are they blind or insane or lying? Will they find me out some day?

I don’t have any clear ideas of how to make this situation better, because the answer is definitely not “never tell your partner they’re beautiful.” But when a partner says that to me it feels like a huge pressure to react “properly” and learn to see myself the way they do. I feel as if I’m not grateful if I need more. Just as I felt selfish when I posted that status for wanting to see the way a stranger sees me, I feel as if I’m ignoring all the kindness of a partner when they compliment me.

But society has told me a thousand times that my beauty is only worth it if everyone sees it. It tells me that beauty is objective and distant, not a product of love and care. So can anyone truly blame me if I want to see myself through a stranger’s eyes, see art in my lines or sexiness in the swagger of my hips?

It is a problem to me when my partner holds all the responsibility for propping up my self esteem after the rest of the world has torn at it. This is why I love body positivity projects. This is why I love to celebrate the bodies of my friends, and even strangers. Because if it’s up to one person to convince me that I’m beautiful, I’ll never believe it. And it’s more likely than not that eventually I’ll come to blame him. So you. Yeah you. Your body is fucking fantastic. I’m not kidding. Send me a god damn picture. I want to be one more voice that sees how lovely you are.

If I were an artist I’d paint all of you. Believe me.

My Body, My Mind

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When I feel overwhelmed I change my body.

I tattoo, I pierce, I dye or cut my hair. Sometimes I starve myself or hurt myself. In positive or negative ways, I change my body.

When I am overwhelmed, I feel as if my body isn’t my own. I feel as if I am performing, as if I cannot take a single iota of power from a larger system around me.

Today I want to take my body back from someone who claimed it as an excuse for murder.

“You rape our women. You’re taking over our country.”

That’s what he said before he killed them. Stephanie said that we, our bodies, are not yours. My body has never been anyone’s but my own, much less someone who will now become a figure for the medical and political institutions to talk about the ways they want to limit my freedom. Yes, you know where the conversation will go. He was mentally ill.

I’m sorry, but he doesn’t speak for my body and he doesn’t speak for my brain. My mental illness is not one of racism, and mental illness is not a catch all for murderers.

The media does not get to claim my mind for this racist system, just as this terrorist does not get to claim my body as his excuse.

I want to take my body back today. I want to shave my hair or emblazon my skin with a giant NO or punch holes in every place that the patriarchy says belong to white men.

There are no failsafes for marking myself out as ‘not yours.’ All I can do is say no. My body has not been harmed by the existence of blackness. My body is not in danger due to blackness. My mind is not the site of murderous racism because I have a diagnosis. That is something else entirely and I refuse to allow myself to be associated with it.

Not today.

 

Liz Lemon Is No Tina Belcher

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I’m a bit behind on the times, but I’m finally getting around to watching 30 Rock. Unsurprisingly, I deeply enjoy it and also appreciate that Liz Lemon is unabashedly interested in promoting women. But there’s one little thing that drives me crazy every time I watch the show.

Tina Fey is a conventionally attractive woman. She is skinny, white, has a pretty face, dresses perfectly well in the show and elsewhere, is able bodied and cis. There is really nothing about Tina Fey that falls into the unattractive category. She also is a pretty normal person. Her weirdest habits are such odd things as eating, not going to the gym, and working too much. So why are there comments nearly every episode about how Liz Lemon is fat, how she’ll never get a boyfriend, and how she’s really weird?

There’s an entire plot line about how she needs to settle instead of holding out for her ideal man, because she’s already over the hill (at the age of 40, which is younger than my parents had me). How damaging is it to see a beautiful, skinny woman called ugly and fat over and over? I know that personally when I watch the show, I walk away feeling more self conscious and more worried about my appearance because any body is apparently fair game for criticism, even in shows that are purportedly feminist.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being not conventionally attractive, or honest to goodness full on weird. See other feminist idol Tina Belcher, the teenage heroine of Bob’s Burgers who is voiced by a man, drawn almost entirely with straight lines, and basically incapable of human interaction. She writes erotic stories about zombies. But Tina is not ashamed. Tina loves who she is, and no one gives her crap about it in the show.

The contrast in 30 Rock is uncomfortable. Liz isn’t doing anything wrong. She’s perfectly competent at her job, and yet she’s sexually harassed, teased, mocked for her weight and her body, and told she needs to stop eating as much. She seems ashamed of her behaviors, which is a weird choice for the writers and for Tina Fey as Liz is supposed to be a strong (although flawed) woman. We don’t need anymore women with stereotypical, unrealistic flaws. We don’t need anymore women whose flaws are that they work too hard and don’t clean enough and have high standards when it comes to dating and like to eat. I’m getting really sick of the “very pretty person portrays nerd/ugly person” trope, as it reinforces over and over again that a. ugly people shouldn’t be ugly because it’s wrong in some fashion and b. that if you actually aren’t conventionally attractive then you’re full on hideous.

This is hardly a new complaint. We see it in a lot of the geek to pretty girl movies like The Princess Diaries or She’s All That. Except that in this case it’s a show that’s heralded as being good for women, and it’s not nearly as obvious. There’s no one telling Liz that she directly needs to change in order to get something, just mocking. We can do better. We can have more Tina Belchers.

Integrated Sports

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I’ve recently become a fan of pro basketball, something that I never in my life thought would happen. I watch it often with my boyfriend and a couple of our other friends (all male). And more often than not, I’m struck and annoyed by the casual sexism that comes across in the reporting, who gets to report, the cheerleaders and dancers, and of course the fact that the league is still exclusively men (MenBA) while the WNBA is discounted (often by the same people I watch basketball with, who in many other areas are big proponents of gender egalitarianism).

So it isn’t unheard of for me to opine that we should integrate genders in sports. We have trans and intersex people who are trying to compete, amazing female athletes who do beat male athletes in a variety of sports (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, many of the top rock climbers in the world are women and top distance runners are often women), and the current system tends to devalue women’s sports and create an extremely unhealthy environment for men who participate in sports (see: the NFL’s horrific record on domestic abuse).

The problem is of course that we do have statistical data showing that in many of the most popular sports, the elite men have a significant advantage over the elite women. In the NBA for example, height is such a high predictor of success that almost 17% of all men over 7 feet tall are in the NBA (this is so ridiculous I can’t even process it, as the league as a whole is one of the smallest professional sports leagues, with only 15 members per team). The tallest woman in the world today measures in at 7 ft 3 inches, whereas the tallest man is over 8 ft, with the next few trailing in the inches behind them, making it far less likely that women will physically be able to compete against the taller men.

There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. And unfortunately, most of the extremely popular sports are those that trend male: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer all skew towards the male body type, whereas some sports that are geared towards women’s strengths, like ski jumping, open water swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, and shooting are not advertised, supported, or seen as important in the same way that male sports are. While there’s no surefire way to change the attitudes of people towards these sports, media coverage of them would go a long way towards showing people that they are actually interesting (also note that gymnastics and figure skating get huge numbers of views during the Olympics when they are broadcast widely).

There’s some good evidence that the cultures that make up male dominated sports are harmful both to the people who engage in them and the people who interact with them, pushing men to view women as objects and socialize exclusively with other men, giving them a skewed idea of what women are like and what they’re capable of. That means there’s good reason to consider integrating sports, especially as the sports that are integrated (for example cheerleading) show good evidence of being healthier for everyone involved and bestowing benefits like teamwork, understanding, and respect for women’s leadership abilities. So why don’t we integrate sports, and if we do, how should we go about doing it?

The first and most obvious way to integrate would be to simply have one league in which everyone plays, potentially with an A and B league so that we get the same number of athletes playing and so that we get the same set of less powerful athletes playing at the B league (something that many people find more interesting for the different styles of play it encourages).

The problem with that is that in the most popular sports the A league would de facto be predominantly male even if it wasn’t in a de jure fashion. It might even lead to less women in sports if there are events that are so skewed towards male bodies that men would make up the entirety of the A and B leagues. Ok, bad solution.

Another possibly more helpful way to integrate by gender but keep the playing field relatively even would be weight classes. Of course this won’t work for every sport, but it would be a start and could be instituted in sports where weight is a significant factor. For something like the NBA there could even be height limitations in some leagues. Or consider leagues that are mixed genders and require a certain number of men and women on the playing field at any given time. Even competition, but probably a slightly different game than the basketball we see now.

It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.

Of course a lot of the work when it comes to gender integration of sports is going to be convincing fans that women are both athletic and interesting to watch. It’s convincing people that sheer power is not the most interesting athletic attribute (or at least not always). It might even be shifting the massive amount of time and effort that certain leagues put into maintaining a masculine image towards one that’s more inclusive and accepting of people who don’t just want to commit exclusively to sports and only sports all the time by proving that they’re men, manly men, the manliest men.

There are so many interwoven cultural signifiers that take up residence within our conceptions of sports, both in the way they’re coached and presented to boys and men, as well as the way they’re consumed (typically by men and in coded male settings). Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.

So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things.

tl;dr I don’t see gender equality in sports happening any time in the near future.

 

Yes We Should Talk About Bodies

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Body positivity, skinny shaming, fatphobia, fitspiration. The internet has brought the age of infinite scrutiny of bodies. There are a lot of problems with this. There are fights, there’s an us vs. them that appears between fat and skinny women, there’s name calling and huge amounts of pressure to be fit and healthy.

One solution to this that many people suggest is that we should stop paying so much attention to bodies. We should focus on what people do and who they are and what they say. None of these things are unimportant, but the tendency to push the focus away from bodies in order to make people feel better about their bodies has quite a few downsides, and it’s one that I don’t hold with even though I have seen firsthand the dangers of focusing too much on my body.

I was reading earlier today a post with some criticisms of the body positivity movement. I am all for some of their thoughts (no, it’s really not that helpful to replace fatphobia with skinny shaming), but I was surprised when I hit #3: “It Keeps Us Body Focused”. The thrust of it was that we shouldn’t pay attention to what we look like because we aren’t our bodies; we’re the things we do and the personality inside. A lovely thought, but not really backed up by science.

Let’s talk for a minute about embodied cognition. I love embodied cognition, and I think you should too because it’s utterly different from the typical ways that we think and speak about minds and bodies, but also appears to have a fair amount of evidence supporting it. Embodied cognition is the idea that our brains and thoughts aren’t simply housed in our bodies, in many ways they are completely dependent on bodies. Our bodies not only influence the way we think, but sometimes changes in the body can completely change how we think. Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka define it as follows: “Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.” One great example is this study that found people who needed to pee, who were hungry, or were tired were less likely to believe in free will.

George Lakoff, a linguist, has done a lot of work on embodied cognition and found that many if not most of the ways we speak and think are based off of our bodies. We use spacial metaphors for nearly everything, and those metaphors have a physical effect in the brain which can influence our bodies. For example a study found that when asked to think about the future, participants leaned slightly forwards but when they were asked to think about the past, they leaned slightly backwards.

None of this is hard evidence that our thoughts are entirely dependent on our bodies, but they do give some evidence that what we’re doing with our bodies has a big effect on our thoughts and vice versa. For more on embodied cognition, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ok, so what does embodied cognition have to do with body positivity and improving self esteem for women and girls?

I have this suspicion that despite the intense scrutiny to which we hold our bodies and the bodies of others, we actually spend very little time paying attention to our bodies. We pay attention to how our bodies look, but not to how they feel or what they’re doing. And we ignore the ways that they affect us. We ignore that when we’re hungry we can’t think and we’re cranky. We ignore that being sleep deprived makes us nasty, angry people. And while there are times that we’re willing to point out how our bodies are ignored (for example when it comes to healthcare), we don’t necessarily talk about how embodiment affects our experiences of sexual and domestic violence, or of low self esteem, or of perfectionism, or all the other problems that women are facing today.

I’m willing to put down money that these things both have an impact on and are impacted by our bodies and our bodily experiences of them. Ignoring the actual, real bodies of women has led to a lot of problems in the past, from horrible medical care to rape. I suggest a reframing of feminism to a focus on bodies, but not bodies that are cut apart from our minds and seen as some kind of separate entity. Rather we need to spend some real time figuring out for ourselves what our bodies can do and how they’re frickin awesome (this may or may not involve looking at your body), as well as educating other people about what our bodies mean to us.

The obsession with certain body types is not actually a way of showing that we value our bodies and that we place importance on them. While it is a kind of focus on bodies, it’s actually a focus on the outside perception of bodies. It’s an obsession with standards and rules. But it misses out on whether our bodies are healthy and functioning, it misses out on all the ways that our bodies communicate to us (many of our emotions come to us through physical signals), and it misses the ways that oppression harms our bodies.

If any person is going to be relatively happy and fulfilled they need to be able to pay attention to their body enough to pick up on cues that something is wrong or that things are going right (like hunger cues or a runner’s high), as well as to understand that we can affect our emotions with our bodies. Respecting our bodies, both male and female and other, is actually pretty damn feminist since the masculine ideal tends to be of a disembodied rational brain. Let’s imagine a world in which politicians take a minute to do a mindfulness meditation when they start getting out of control angry. I imagine it would be a way better world, but I also imagine that it’s a world that’s respecting the traditionally “feminine” virtues a little more.

It’s possible that feminism can be successful by ignoring bodies and focusing on accomplishments. But I find it hard to believe that a movement that seeks to make people more empowered, happier, and create a just society will do so by ignoring an integral part of the human experience.

 

Mental Illness Isn’t Your Scapegoat

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way: abusive relationships are horrible. We should do everything we can to provide people with information on what an abusive relationship looks like, how to get out of one, and how to stand up for yourself and your boundaries, as well as support for those who are trying to escape an abusive relationship.

There are many good resources out there on how to recognize unhealthy behaviors. There’s also lots of people out there doing work specifically with women and girls to remind us that we don’t deserve abusive relationships.

What is not a good response to abusive behavior is blaming mental illness. I can’t believe I have to say this, but it is 100% possible to have a mental illness, really any mental illness, and not be abusive. This includes individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Pointing towards abusive behaviors as intrinsically linked to any of these disorders is not backed up by facts (there are many abusers who use all of these same tactics and do not have any mental illness), and throws the rest of the individuals with mental illness under the bus in order to advocate for abuse victims.

This article at Self Care Haven has some great information about techniques that many abusers will use. Unfortunately, it couches it entirely in language of “narcissists” and how those individuals behave, rather than recognizing that any abusive individual can make use of these tactics (and many do), and recognizing that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not a life sentence to being an abusive person who cannot have real relationships.

Abuse is a pattern of behaviors and interactions. It is not a personality. We don’t get to simply label any behavior we deem bad as “mental illness” in order to ignore how we as a society have contributed to it or in order to brush off any support we could provide for someone to change. I am all for speaking openly about mental illness and the challenges it can present in relationships and everyday life, as this is the best way to improve treatment and diagnosis of mental illness, but more often than not we use the label of “mental illness” to close a conversation about a difficult or painful topic.

Gun violence? They were mentally ill. Start a registry.

Domestic abuse? Mentally ill. Don’t date people with personality disorders.

Do you just disagree with someone? They’re probably mentally ill too.

Here’s the truth: even the personality disorders that make it most difficult to hold down relationships are not a life sentence. Borderline Personality Disorder, which has long been seen as the land of the manipulative and angry, has an evidence based treatment that has high success rates. Many people with BPD have totally functional lives with families, jobs, and everything else a healthy human being might want (ok, maybe not everything, but they lead fairly boring lives for the most part).

There are absolutely highly functioning individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. There’s evidence that Cognitive Behavior Therapy can reduce symptoms and increase functioning, allowing patients to form better and healthier relationships. More study is definitely needed, but instead of broadly labeling personality disorders (especially ones that already come with a lack of empathy and distrust of others) as breeding grounds for abusers, perhaps we could put some effort into finding treatment for people who have these disorders.

None of this is to say that people who have mental illnesses should be excused of abusive behavior. But providing information about abusive behaviors and giving tools and support to victims is not mutually exclusive to providing mental health treatment options to abusers, and absolutely does not require that we assume a certain mental illness necessitates abusive behavior.

There are some parallels here to threats of suicide or self harm. If you have a mental illness, there is a possibility you will feel urges to enact these behaviors. Letting a partner or friend know that you are feeling the urges is definitely a good idea. Threatening the behaviors in order to get your partner or friend to do something is not ok and cannot be excused by mental illness. The urges are the same, the behaviors are different, and choosing the healthier route is a skill that can be learned. Similarly, the urge to use and manipulate people might be a hallmark of a personality disorder, but the urge doesn’t necessitate the behavior.

We can do better in how we talk about abuse.