Image description – Autumn leaves and berries on nearly bare twigs against a grey sky. Text reads #TenDaysOfGrey #Mental Health. There is a small Tiffany Sostar logo in the top right.
Content warning for discussion of depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality.
Today is World Mental Health Day. This is my final post for Bryan McLean’s #TenDaysOfGrey mental health awareness project. You can read my interview with Bryan here. Rather than writing something new for today, I’m sharing a post I wrote four years ago that detailed my mental health journey up to that point. The reason I’m sharing it at the end of the Ten Days of Grey is because when I wrote this post I was in the grey. I am in the colour now, and I appreciate that.
I wrote the post shared here in 2013. Now I am 36, it’s four years later and many things have changed and many things have stayed the same. I am thankful for my 32 year old self writing this. I am thankful for my 28 year old self making it through, for all those younger selves who made it through. I have spent so many years in the grey.
At 36, I am not depressed. (I am often anxious, I am in the middle of a three-months-and-counting fibro flare, and I am experiencing regular existential dread over the state of the world, but miraculously, I am not depressed. Wow!)
It is sort of amazing to reflect on that, because there is a lot going on in my life that would is difficult, stressful, and overwhelming. I am thankful for the resilience I have developed, and I am also conscious of the truth that these sorts of things are not always “overcomeable” and these monsters will visit again. I’ll make them tea, cry with them, and continue surviving. I am thankful for that confidence.
I am also amazed at how strategies shift. When I wrote this original post, I had a few coping skills that I leaned on daily – my extensive lip balm collection is a testament to that. I used lip balm application as an alternative behaviour to self-harming, and it was life-saving for me. But these days, I have only even felt the urge to self-harm once or twice in the last couple years, and I only use lip balm when my lips are chapped. Self-care is such a responsive process – we are always responding, and the act of self-care is an act of presence and awareness. It becomes habitual, but it can never be only habitual. I love (and hate) that iterative, never-ending process. (I also really miss my Patchwork writers! If I ran another six-week poetry writing course, would you be interested? Let me know!)
Here is my 2013 post, edited to remove some ableism (we are always learning!) and to update links.
I’m sitting in Vendome, one of my favourite cafès in Calgary. I just sent out the writing prompt to my Patchwork writers, posted it on the Facebook page, shared it on my personal Facebook, tweeted it, posted it on the Writing in the Margins blog. Most of the time I respond to writing prompts privately, in a longhand journal. If I share the writing later (which I rarely do, outside of workshops where I read my just-written work with the group), I type it up and polish it a bit.
But the prompt today is to write about mental health.
And I am a mental health advocate. So I am typing this response directly into my “add new post” screen, and I am going to hit “publish” when I’m finished. And then I’ll post a link to it on Facebook and on all of my Twitter accounts, and here’s why –
At 13, I went through my first serious depression. I did not know what was happening to me. (If you suspect that you may be going through a depression or other mental health concern, here is a free screening tool. It’s not perfect, and symptoms are not so cut-and-dried for many people – it is a place to start, but not a final word.)
Suddenly everything was awful. There was a pain in my body/brain/heart/soul. I cried a lot. I self-harmed. I scratched my neck and shoulders and hips and belly until I was cross-hatched, red and scabbing. I smashed my head into walls, sometimes until I was dizzy. I didn’t know who to talk to. The only person who knew I was self-harming, the only person I confided in, was my 9 year old sister. It was terrible for both of us, a weight far too heavy for her small shoulders (or my own).
Writing about this time, I feel my chest tighten and my breath shorten, the muscles in my neck knot up – these are the first physical manifestations of anxiety in my body and I am aware enough now, at 32, to recognize them for what they are. I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders, take a sip of water, continue.
In high school, at around 16 or 17, I went through a second (or perhaps just a worsening of my ongoing) depression. This was complicated by the arrival of Sadisty – a very angry, very vicious voice in my head. I do not seem to have a split or multiple personality disorder – Sadisty was just (“just”) my mind’s way of externalizing the intense self-loathing that I was experiencing. Though I feel a deep shame about what feels, to me, like one of the lowest points in my mental health journey, I am also amazed and grateful for whatever it was in me that did choose to externalize rather than internalize those feelings. Sadisty wanted me to die, and I had many moments of suicidality, but I didn’t want me to die. I put all of that negativity into Sadisty, to get it out of my own head, to make those nasty comments come in a voice that wasn’t my own.
I am lucky to have survived high school, to have survived Sadisty and that second/ongoing depression.
(Breathe again, breathe again.)
At 18, I started volunteering at the Calgary Humane Society. I adopted a dog, my soul mate. Tasha. She had separation anxiety and dog-dog aggression. She was anxious, fearful, aggressive. Helping her helped me. Things got better. Sadisty was gone, and she has never come back.
I got married, I got divorced.
My mental health stayed at a consistently low-grade level of self-loathing. Low self-esteem. An at-that-time undiagnosed anxiety disorder. The impact of early trauma, unacknowledged anxiety and low self-esteem on my sex drive led me to believe I was “sexually dysfunctional” (a whole other thing, related but tangential to this post).
(Breathe, breathe. Roll shoulders, stretch wrists, refill water. In my body right now – tightness, tension. Shame, anxiety, fear.)
After my divorce, I went through a third severe depression. Again, I was self-harming. Again, I was suicidal.
I was 28.
I was ashamed.
I felt foolish – this was supposed to be done, part of the horror of adolescence. How could it follow me into adulthood? How could it threaten to destroy the new life I was trying to build for myself? How could I?! Shame, anxiety, self-loathing – there was a toxic mix of emotions and beliefs at play. Fortunately, I was seeing a counsellor and had her support, and the support of my anchor partner. I had started seeing a counsellor when I was trying to get past the sexual dysfunction, and continued seeing her through my divorce and into the depression that followed it. I still see her, and will continue to do so. I recognize now that my neurodivergence is not something I will ever “overcome” – it is part of who I am. It has taught me invaluable lessons, and has helped me become the advocate that I am. At 32, I recognize the value that this neurodivergence has brought to my life.
But at 28, I climbed halfway over my 28th floor balcony, intending to make strawberry jam on the pavement below.
After that, my counsellor helped me come up with an emergency plan.
I made the painful call to my sister, my mom, my dad.
I said, “I am currently depressed. Sometimes I feel suicidal. I am calling to ask if you would be willing to be part of my emergency plan. What that would mean is that if I call and tell you that I am feeling suicidal, you will be available to come and be with me, or take me to the hospital if necessary.”
I had to euthanize Tasha.
My mom was hit by a truck, she almost died.
I experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. The depression got worse. The self-harming escalated.
My best friend stopped taking my calls. Months later, she told me that it had just gotten to be too much – there was something wrong every time we spoke.
Depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns… they can be like bombs, decimating at the point of impact, shrapnel flying everywhere. Relationships can be fundamentally altered or destroyed. Partnerships suffer. The ripple effects of a mental health issue can make the isolation and loneliness, the shame and fear and pain so much worse. Among the conversations that we do not have regarding mental health, this conversation about self-care for caregivers, and balancing the various and sometimes conflicting needs for support is both absent and necessary. It is possible to remain friends with a depressed person, but because we do not ever have this conversation, many people don’t know how.
I came out of that depression.
I became an activist.
I developed an amazing, diverse, wide-ranging social circle.
I learned new coping skills. I breathe more intentionally now. I pay attention to tension in my body. I rarely allow an anxiety attack to escalate to the point where I feel the urge to self-harm. I use lip balm and apply it when I start to feel anxious – I pay attention to the feel, the smell, the taste. I take supplements and get exercise. I see my counsellor every other week, more frequently when things get bad.
I am 32 now.
I am currently depressed.
I wake up in the morning and I feel sad. I feel hopeless. I feel discouraged.
I haven’t reconciled with the addition of fibromyalgia to my life. I miss my dad. I miss my dogs. I am financially unstable, and frustrated by my ongoing mental health concerns. I am immobilized by anxiety on a regular basis.
But I have help. And I have a purpose. I believe that my weakness is one of my superpowers, that my willingness to speak openly about my struggles is part of my activism.
So I am depressed.
I am waiting for it to be over (for now).
I use all my new coping skills. I lean on my friends, as much as I can allow myself, and I breathe. I stretch. I take my supplements and drink my water and have epsom salt baths to help with the physical pain.
It is World Mental Health Day.
And this is my mental health story.
This is the second part of a Patreon reward post series for Dylan. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write you a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too! Consider heading over to my Patreon and signing up if you want to support this work!
You can also read Part One – Narratives of Quitting.
This series of posts attempts to address the topic Dylan posed. They said, “I’m so tired and stretched thin across multiple projects so I apologize if this is not helpful. It’s kind of hilarious that this is about self-care and I’m not really doing awesome on that front atm. I was thinking about self-care as it relates to quitting because I’ve made a number of difficult changes over the past couple of years that required working through these ideas. I gave up on many hobbies as a kid because I didn’t want to face the horrible anxiety that came with pursuing hobbies: fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people… I started to think of myself negatively as a quitter and that has nagged at me as an adult such that I have a difficult time quitting or changing directions once I set myself onto a path. But quitting can be such a vital part of self-care because sometimes we do need to change directions or leave to protect ourselves.”
This second part of the series looks at the factors that influence when/whether/how/what we might quit (or not quit).
There are so many factors that can influence whether or not someone decides to (or is forced to) quit something, or, equally complex and common, factors that influence whether someone decides not to (or is unable to) quit something. I narrowed these factors down to a core set, with the understanding that this list is incomplete and that these factors blend together into a nearly infinite range of potential influences.
I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the factors that influence quitting without addressing the way that trauma impacts, long-term, our response to threat situations (and to situations that look like they might be threatening, whether or not they actually are threatening). It’s too easy to approach the topic of quitting and self-care from a rationalist perspective, distanced from personal histories of trauma, and when we talk about quitting only in terms of the “rational” or “reasonable” response to influences or situations, we end up contributing to the stigma and shame that already weighs heavy on trauma survivors.
When we quit, how we quit, why we quit, whether we quit – our histories inform these actions in a major way. (And each of our histories influences this – family histories, success and failure histories, and trauma histories. But this section is about trauma histories.)
These trauma histories (which include any Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs, such as abandonment, abuse, childhood poverty, or watching a caretaker struggle with addiction, abuse, or financial/emotional/mental instability or illness) echo through the rest of our lives, and although I sincerely believe that we are both the protagonists and the narrators of our own stories, I also recognize that our stories happen in contexts that we do not, and cannot, control.
So, how do these histories inform how/when/why/whether we quit?
I mean… how do they not? But for the sake of this post, we’ll look at four common responses to threat, how they can be influenced by trauma histories, and how they can influence a decision to quit.
Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn are four common responses to threat.
When you’re making a decision about whether/when/how to quit, if you’re responding to a (real or perceived, internal or external) threat, and if you have a trauma history (as so many of us do), then your ability to access each of these responses will be impacted. In lots of ways.
Fight – When we feel threatened, one response is to fight.
Making decisions about quitting outside of a trauma history, the story of fighting might be one of the protagonist recognizing an injustice or other problem, assessing their available skills and resources or determining that the situation is untenable and has to be challenged, and fighting it. These stories are the stories of people who didn’t “just” quit, and they are often among the most highly praised stories.
However, the story of a trauma-infused fight response might look more like the protagonist “lashing out” and “making the situation worse” – these stories are often far less acceptable, and when the person fighting is marginalized – a woman, femme, disabled, fat, poor, neurodivergent, racialized, addicted, or otherwise marginalized person (whether they’re fighting from a place of trauma or not) – the fight response is often used to blame them for any harm that they experience.
Trauma-informed fight responses can also be hard to control, and the flood of adrenaline can make it difficult to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. It is hard to fit trauma-informed quitting decisions into an acceptable Narrative of Quitting, and this is particularly true when the response is a fight.
Flight – Another response to threat is to run away.
Outside of a trauma response, flight stories are often easily understood and accepted, because flight is non-confrontational and clearly acts to end a threatening situation. These stories can even sometimes be retroactively rescued into a Triumphant Quitter narrative, especially if the protagonist is marginalized. (Marginalized folks are expected to flee and punished for fighting against a threat, and vice versa when the person is not marginalized. This means that someone with privilege – a white, male, abled, cisgender, straight, wealthy, educated, or otherwise privileged person – will often feel a significant amount of shame for fleeing rather than fighting. Fleeing is often perceived as a sign of weakness, and groups that are already considered weak can flee without challenging the dominant narrative of who they are, but they can’t fight. And people who are perceived as strong can fight, but they can’t flee without challenging that dominant narrative of strength.)
When flight is a trauma-informed response, and is a panicked cut-and-run that seems, to an outside eye, disproportionate to the situation, there is a lot of shame attached to the flight response (even though it is often a very reasonable response to threat!).
Trauma histories that push us towards flight can make it difficult to stay in situations even when staying might be a better choice.
Freeze – Another response to threat is to freeze. For trauma survivors, this might look like dissociating, disconnecting, or mentally checking out. In a moment of freezing, we are unable to quit and unable to move forward. Being stuck in a freeze response can end up making the choice for us by default, either because we keep moving forward on the energy of our inertia, or because we’re forced to quit when we’ve stopped taking productive actions.
Freezing fits tidily into the Weak-Willed Quitter narrative, and into cultural narratives that lean hard on victim-blaming to explain away the long-term and pervasive impacts of our violently racist, sexist, classist, ableist and otherwise oppressive culture. According to bootstrapping ideology, doing something is always preferable to doing nothing, and freezing is, in many ways, the least validated response and the hardest to rescue into an acceptable narrative.
Fawn – A final possible response to the threat is to fawn, or try to appease the threatening person. This is often the safest space for someone who is under threat to stay, but it can feel corrosive to be submitting to a threat and appeasing rather than escaping harm. When we have used this coping strategy to keep ourselves safe, it can be challenging to change the pattern and we can feel a huge amount of shame whenever we slip back into submission-for-survival. This coping strategy also gets slammed in self-care and psychology settings, framed as codependence, anxious attachment, and other problems that frame this as an unreasonable and dysfunctional strategy. Although it’s true that this can become a maladaptive strategy, especially once we’re in safe relationships, the blaming doesn’t help. If this is how you cope – if you submit to other people’s needs, act as a “people pleaser” and make your choices about whether or not to quit based on what other people with power want, it’s okay. Like every trauma-informed decision, it can be hard to explain and hard to understand, but it is also a valid survival strategy. And if you want to learn how to relate in other ways, that can happen without blaming and shaming yourself for what you needed when you needed it.
We have a lot of cultural narratives around fear, and they’re everything from Frank Herbert’s famous “fear is the mindkiller” to Gavin de Becker’s “the gift of fear.” Everything we want, according to the platitude, “is on the other side of fear” and we are admonished to “choose love, not fear.”
And fear is a huge influence when it comes to our decisions about when/why/whether to quit.
We might be afraid of success (or failure), and quit to avoid getting the dreaded answer to the question “do I have what it takes?”
We might be afraid of what it will take to keep going, and quit.
We might be afraid of being seen as a quitter, and not quit.
We might be afraid of disappointing ourselves, our partners, our friends, our professors, our communities, our parents, and not allow ourselves to quit.
We might be afraid of burning out, and quit.
Some fears tell us we’re in danger, and listening to those fears, and quitting before we get hurt, is wise. Allowing ourselves to identify, understand, and act on those fears is an incredibly difficult and valuable self-preservation skill.
Some fears tell us that we’re running low on resources and we need to quit before we run out entirely – the fear of failure, for example, can seem like a fear that should always be “overcome” or pushed through, but there are times when the cost of failure is too high, and listening to the fear is the wisest choice we can make.
Fear can also be an indicator that it’s time to keep pushing – there are times when we feel fear and it’s the fear that accompanies a challenge, rather than a threat. This fear says “this is scary but keep going! We’re on the right path!”
How do you tell the difference?
How do you tell the difference if you deal with anxiety?! (One definition of the difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is a response to a situation you are currently experiencing, and anxiety is a response to a situation you are anticipating. Anxiety is about the possible-but-theoretical future, and fear is about the present and immediate future. This is obviously not a perfect definition, because wouldn’t that mean we feel anxiety, rather than fear, about failure or success? I would say that if the feeling is stopping you from starting a project, it’s anxiety – reacting to a theoretical. If it’s impacting whether you continue or quit a project, it’s fear – reacting to an ongoing situation. I also think that it doesn’t really matter what words we use, as long as we know what we mean, and these hairs might not always need to be split. Another definition, which I personally find very helpful, is that fear is situational and passes when the situation changes, and anxiety is pervasive and lingers even after the situation changes.)
Y’all… I do not have any easy answers for this one.
I know that I feel fear and anxiety on a nearly daily basis, and panic less often but still regularly, and that my fear has become an excellent and reliable (if irritating and painful) guide. The fear that tells me to keep going feels different in my body – it’s not the hollowed out fear related to threat that tells me to stop, go home, turn back. It’s a crackling electric fear related to challenge, and it has the power to generate change and growth.
I only know the difference sometimes, and often only retrospectively, and I only know it after years of practice (and years of failure – pushing into the wrong fear and staying in damaging relationships, for example, because I thought the fear was wrong, or giving up at the first flutter of fear without giving myself time to learn which flavor it was).
Fear of failure, and the equally stifling fear of success, are two that dog me constantly. These are the fears that influence my decision to quit working on a writing project before I submit it, or to create marketing plans and not act on them, or to look into Masters programs and not apply. These fears are so real.
Dylan’s original question included references to “fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people” and those fears are also so real, and can push so many of us out of hobbies, jobs, communities, and even relationships that we might sincerely enjoy and want to engage with. Sometimes it is true that what we want is on the other side of fear, but when we’re looking at fear as an influence in our decisions to quit, we need to be compassionate with ourselves. We are not fearful for no reason, and we are not fearful because we’re broken, weak, or foolish. Our fears come from somewhere, and we can’t just set them up as enemies to be overcome – often we need to sit down with that voice of fear, pour a cup of tea, and really listen.
What are we afraid of?
Can we address that fear compassionately and intentionally?
Once we’ve listened and understood our fears, we can make better decisions about whether to quit.
There is so much shame associated with being a quitter. You didn’t have enough guts. You weren’t smart enough. You weren’t strong enough. You weren’t tough enough. You just weren’t enough. If you had been, you could have stuck it out.
Even when we quit for the best reasons, and even when quitting is the right choice for us (as it often is – none of us can continue in every venture we begin indefinitely, there isn’t enough time and energy for that! And we grow, we change, we quit so that we can start something new) still, shame is always waiting to pounce.
And fear of that shame often stops us from quitting when we need to quit.
Shame is a silencer, distancer, suppressor – not only does it keep us tied to things we want to quit, and distant from things we want to embrace, but it also keeps us quiet about the experience.
Access to Resources
Access to resources is, in some ways, the most challenging and frustrating influence over decisions to quit. When we have to quit because we don’t have enough money to continue, or we don’t have enough energy to continue, or we don’t have enough support to continue – it sucks.
It sucks a lot. And it happens a lot. It happens to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.
For folks who are disabled or chronically ill, sometimes we lack energy and that can fuel a lot of shame, but often we also lack finances because of un- or under-employment, and we lack support because of pervasive ableism.
For poor folks, particularly people who are dealing with generational poverty (which disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous communities), there is often not only a lack of money, but also a lack of time and energy because poverty often means working multiple jobs, or working long hours for low pay. Poverty is also a significant social determinant of health, which means that folks living in poverty are also often dealing with health issues that sap time and energy and money. And poverty, particularly childhood poverty, can result in long-term trauma. Despite all the bootstrapping mythology in our cultural narratives, poverty forces so many people to quit so many things that they love and excel at, and it’s not because they are weak-willed or lack determination and stick-to-itiveness.
For trans, queer, racialized, or otherwise marginalized folks, that same intersection of frequent un- or under-employment, plus lack of social supports and a lot of stigma and pervasive oppression (especially in the form of microaggressions in work and play spaces) results in quitting things that they might otherwise enjoy and excel at.
On the other hand, gaining access to resources – through scholarships, living wages, more equitable distribution of domestic and emotional labour, supportive social spaces, and thriving communities – can enable people to not quit, or to quit in ways that feel right for them.
Gaining access to social supports and employment opportunities might allow someone to quit a job that isn’t right for them but that they’re staying in for the financial security. Gaining access to scholarships, housing opportunities, or food security may allow people to continue in post-secondary educations that otherwise would be out of reach.
We can collectively make a difference when it comes to this – we can vote for politicians who support living wages, daycare programs, and other social supports. We can put our money directly into the hands of people who need it, through crowdfunding and platforms like Patreon. We can advocate for accessibility and inclusivity in our spaces – particularly if we have privilege and our voices are more easily heard by people in power.
Access to resources also intersects with harm reduction, since a lack of resources can make it nearly impossible for folks to quit habits, addictions, or subsistence work even if they want to, and even if they would be happier and more fulfilled if they were able to. But, again, our bootstrapping narratives conveniently ignore the way that lack of access to social and material resources places barriers in front of people.
It’s easy to feel hopeless when it comes to access to resources. And I fully reject an individualist narrative that says this issue can be solved at the level of the individual – in order to make a real difference when it comes to access to resources, we need to fundamentally alter the social structures that uphold inequality. But just because it will take policy changes, doesn’t mean we are powerless.
We can push on this one, so that more people can keep doing what they love, and more people can quit doing what hurts them.
We hope things will get better.
We hope that they’ll get better if we quit, and hope influences us to quit. To seek something new.
We hope that they’ll get better if we stay, and hope influences us to not quit. To try and improve the situation from within it.
When we quit from a place of hope, often it feels liberating. Doing anything from a place of hope feels better than doing the same thing from a place of hopelessness or fear. (Now, if only hope weren’t so intimately tied up with access to resources, trauma histories, and social inequality…)
Self-efficacy is our belief in our own ability to successfully meet our goals or challenges and to generate a positive outcome as a result of our actions.
We can build self-efficacy through mastery experiences (having the personal experience of attempting something and succeeding at it), vicarious experiences (witnessing someone like us attempt something and succeed at it – this is why representation is so critical!), verbal persuasion (encouragement and support from influential people in our lives), and imaginal experiences (visualizing yourself attempting something and succeeding at it – there is interesting new research into increasing self-efficacy using VR and witnessing a personalized avatar succeed at a task).
Physical, emotional, and psychological states also impact self-efficacy.
If you’re interested in building your own self-efficacy, you might be interested in the gamification series of posts that I’ll be running weekly starting in October.
Self-efficacy impacts whether/when/how/why we quit because believing that our actions have the ability to result in a positive outcome is a huge factor in whether we feel empowered to keep going, or to quit when it’s right for us. Feeling helpless and ineffective often means we are more likely to quit out of despair and discouragement, and also more likely to not quit for the same reasons.
Want to be a writer?
Want to start your own business?
Change the world?
First of all, good luck. I think you’re amazing, and I count myself as one of you. Idealism and stubborn hope and the desire to make positive change in the world is beautiful.
And also, how are you going to pay your rent?
When are you going to get a real job?
What qualifications do you have?
Who gave you permission?
Who gives you permission?
The social pressure to get a “real job” is huge, and it intersects with issues of fear, access to resources, shame, and trauma histories. But outside of those intersections, the social element, and the social narratives around what types of work are valid is so huge.
Social pressure can keep us stuck when we want to quit – can keep us in marriages, in jobs, in degrees, and in communities that no longer serve us. And social pressure can force us out when we want to stay, from all those same places.
We are not supposed to “waste” our talent, and so if we’ve ever done something well, we should keep doing it.
And we are supposed to grow up and get a real job, and so if we dream of alternative jobs we meet a significant amount of skepticism (internal and external).
“Don’t quit your day job” is excellent advice, and horrible advice.
“Chasing our dreams” is also idealized and vilified, and it can be great advice when someone tells you to keep going, and it can be terrible advice when they tell you to keep going.
Social pressure and social support are also often linked. When we’ve received social support, we often feel indebted to our communities and their desires or expectations or fears can put a lot of pressure on us.
And, while it is true that this is your story and you are both the protagonist and the narrator of your story, it is also true that we live within families (chosen and given), communities, and societies that influence and are influenced by our choices.
Part Three of this series – The Things We Quit and Self-Care for Quitters – will be going up on my Patreon later this week, and will be available publicly a week after that.
(Image description: A cloudy sky with reflecting sunrise light is seen through tall trees. Photo was taken by Stasha Huntingford.)
A Year of Sacred Attendance #tenderyear
We are nearing the end of #100loveletters.
Would you like to do another thing after that?
This was the question Nathan Fawaz posed to me, and the answer was an easy and enthusiastic “yes!”
The 100 Love Letters project has been transformative for me – it has been a thread of connection back to myself during a summer that included too much travel, too much stress, too much emotional upheaval, too much existential dread. The love letters were a daily reminder to sit down and breathe into a space of compassionate self-awareness. The letters were permission to take time, even five minutes at the end of the day, to love myself in the middle of the hard weeks and the bad weeks and the overwhelming weeks. They built space into my day, and gave me new tools for self-care and new methods for engaging my narrative. (You can find the posts related to this project here, and the PDF will be added to this section as well.)
The 100 Love Letters project was also an opportunity to build community, and I have appreciated the new friends I’ve made as a result of the project, the connections that have grown and strengthened as we witness and support and encourage each other through the process.
The 100 Love Letters project will continue on in various iterations – Nathan will be presenting their 101st letter at an event on October 14 (you can find out more about that event here), and I will be putting together a PDF that will be available for free download on my website, with prompts, encouragement, and a “how-to” section. (I’ll still be available to support anyone who started the project on a different day, too. You can always email me or find me on Facebook or Instagram!) I’m even working on a book proposal about the project!
But the 100 Love Letters project, in its original form, is coming to an end today, September 29. It’s 100 days since we launched at the beginning of the summer, and it has been a beautiful journey. It’s time for those of us who started our 100 days a season ago to shift into something else.
If you want to shift with me, consider this an invitation to a Year of Sacred Attendance.
This project, co-created by Nathan, Stasha, and myself, is that ‘other thing’ that was gestured into being with Nathan’s question. I think it will be amazing.
We started from another of Nathan’s ideas. They had said, “One thing that is coming up for me is the idea of attention, attendance.”
Being present with ourselves, attending, bringing attention, and tending to ourselves – that’s one of the most powerful elements of the love letter project. We each wanted to maintain that spacious, gracious sense of intentional, compassionate attendance. And we wanted to push gently against the edges of other aspects of our lives that could benefit from this kind of compassionate, intentional, regular tending.
Around Stasha’s kitchen table, the framework for a yearlong project coalesced. It was, and is, a collaborative project generated by the powerful narrative spellwork of the three of us, but we remain individuals within the project and we are so excited to share the project with as many of you as want to join.
The Year of Sacred Attendance will run from October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018.
Each day of the week has a unique focus. You can participate in all of them, or pick and choose the ones that resonate for you. We will be using #tenderyear for every post related to the project, with daily tags as well (to make it easier for folks to find each other on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter).
Meditation to Challenge the Binaries. #challengethebinary
Meditation is a flexible form here – the goal of this day is to invite participants to think about binaries, opposites, exceptions, and subversions. Think of Venn Diagrams, exceptions that subvert the rule, grey areas that provide productive space for expanding and exploring our narratives. On Sundays, we look at The Normal and The Other, and we grapple with that. We look at The Thing and The Opposite of The Thing. You can engage with this focus through art, writing, or any other method that helps you dig into the topic.
Attending to the Questions. #questioneverything
A significant focus of this project is inviting and facilitating compassionate self-awareness. You can ask yourself whatever questions feel right for you – the focus of Monday is simply to take time to ask yourself how things are going. If you’re not sure what to ask, here are some sample questions, and you can answer whichever feel right for you. Not everyone participating in this project will be working on creative projects, and not everyone will feel comfortable with a goal of presence – trauma is a real factor in many of our lives, and can make presence a real challenge. These are just a place to start:
What are you creating?
What do you need?
Do you feel present?
Could you try something different?
What are you wondering about?
Love Letter #100loveletters
We wanted to keep the focus on self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-care, and self-love. The 100 Love Letters project continues on in the Tuesday focus.
Drop Into A Moment #wednesdaymoments
Find a moment to fully experience. This focus is about sensory awareness, mindfulness, presence, and about paying attention to our lives. You can participate in this through art, writing, photography, or simply pausing to observe yourself as a physical being within a physical world.
As Above So Below #fiveelements
Thursday’s focus builds on the physical presence of Wednesday, and is about connecting to the world around you.
Friday’s focus can take so many forms. Reflect on your week, reflect on your relationships, post a selfie, take a picture of a reflective surface – the beautiful thing about reflection is the many ways it can be interpreted.
Affirmations for yourself, for your communities, for the world. What do you need to hear? What do you need to affirm for yourself or for your people?
The #tenderyear project is open to anyone to participate, and participation can happen online or offline. Participating online can happen privately in messages or between friends, or publicly. We will be using the #dailypractices and #tenderyear hashtags throughout the posts.
There is an email list, similar to the one that was available for the #100loveletters project. You can sign up here. I’ll be sending out mostly-weekly emails with prompts, links to blog posts, interviews with participants, and encouragement and support. There will also probably be give-aways, like the handwritten letters that were sent out to Love Letters participants.
To give you a sense of the what and why and who behind this project, here is a mini roundtable with the co-creators.
How did this project start?
Stasha – For me the 100 love letters made sense as resistance to oppression, and as a lifesaving intervention. When Nathan and Tiffany also participated in the 100 love letters, it opened up a space in my heart. I was able to cheer on their resistance and to witness them both weaving powerful magic in inspiring their communities. I think after feeling that daily magic, all of us knew that sharing and sustaining this magic is vital. Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other with this even more so. I spent so much of my life stigmatizing parts of me that had been shamed by society, I didn’t survive 37 years to live in shame. I survived by transforming my pain into empathy and learning. This project assists me in that alchemy, a most sacred healing magic.
Nathan – Somewhere between letter sixty and letter seventy-five, I noticed this sensation within me… the sensation had been there since the very first letter, really, but it took me a while before I could identify it… anyway, I noticed this sense of space. That’s the best word I have to describe it. This sense of space. And, at the same time, I really began enjoying in the community that was emerging as part of #100loveletters. As I got closer and closer to letter 100, I found myself wondering what I could do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself. And how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.
Tiffany – Just like the #100loveletters project started with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Stasha’s original post about her project, this new project starts, for me, with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Nathan’s “Would you like to do another thing?” In both cases, I felt like I was being gifted a new tool to expand my self-care practice, my community care practice, and to share with the individuals and groups that I work with.
Stasha said, “Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other even more so,” and Nathan said, “[What can I] do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself, and how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.”
These two origin stories for the project echo and overlap with my own – this project, for me, starts with trying to open up space for self-love and self-compassion, for myself and for the people around me, and to support and foster connectedness and love within my communities. It fits so perfectly with the work I want to do as a self-care and narrative coach, it feels like a gift. Two gifts! (Which is totes a double entendre because I am referring both to the two projects AND the two people. Clever!)
What do you find exciting about this project?
Stasha – Everything. The sacred belonging and acceptance that I already feel is amazing. I love working with people who understand how tenderness can bring down oppressive systems. What could be more radical than tending love in this world? Already we have done so much by creating a public space where we celebrate insanity as necessary for problem solving and community building. We have made a place that includes our hearts, our fears, our bodies, our chronic illnesses, our genders, our minds, our ptsd, our communities, our joy, and our pain. One of the most painful things about participating in groups, is that often parts of me are not welcome. This project allows me to participate as a whole person, which helps me nurture love.
Nathan – Everything. I am excited by its potential for compassion, and self-compassion. I am excited about its accessibility. I am excited to make this commitment in community, both online and in person. I’m excited for the container of this project. And I am curious to see what it will hold.
Tiffany – I am excited by the idea of making space for ritual and for the sacred in my life. I think it’s possible to engage with this project without ever engaging with any kind of spirituality or sense of the sacred, and that would be totally valid, but for me… I have been writing about, talking about, thinking about, and longing for a sense of ritual and connection for a long time. But I haven’t done the work to create space for ritual in my life – I’m always too busy, I’m always too scared of doing it wrong. I love that this project is flexible, expansive, and that it offers opportunities for sacred ritual but also for goofiness and lightness. And, a year is a long time. I’m excited about the opportunity to go through the first exciting month or two, and then the drudgery when it gets old and weighs more, and then the renewal when I find the excitement again. A year is long enough to cycle through a few times, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to helping others through that cycling, too. That’s been one of the most rewarding things for me about the love letters project.
Who would you like to see participating in this project?
Stasha – Honestly, I think we all need this kind of love in our lives. I hope to model a year long spell of mindful intent, and learn from others as I go.
Nathan – I am interested in anyone participating in this project who is drawn to participation. There is no outcome. No certificate. It’s a process. Mostly gentle and generative and sometimes takes the long way to get to gentle.
I am most interested to see who will find themselves a small home in the space of this project. Who will tend toward it.
Tiffany – I would really like to see anyone who feels lonely, alienated from their own heart, scared to connect with themselves, struggling with shame and anxiety and fear of failure and fear of success – I would like all the queerdos and weirdos and sad pandas to find this project and find community and support and a way to connect back to themselves, to centre themselves in their stories, to renew themselves through this year of attendance with themselves.
What are you hoping to get out of this project?
Stasha – I am working on the theme of listening for this project. I struggle with interrrupting people, and asking rapid fire questions without listening to the answers. I work on this because I want to be more respectful of other people, and I want to learn from them. I value being listened to, and I want to give others the same gift. This work will help me to survive in an oppressive world. It also improves the world by focusing on connection, and trying to understand the world by changing it. I believe that the focus on how we are part of the earth, is vital in these times where that connection is denied. The practice of tending must be tended, us doing that together is very powerful.
Nathan – I am hoping that through this project, and the gentle tending of it, that my own rhythms, interests, way of dreaming, way of loving, further emerge into the space that they need.
I am curious to see what will happen.
Tiffany – One million new followers. Just kidding! Not totally kidding. I am hoping to build my base with this project, by offering support and resources and encouragement. But I am also hoping to find space for myself within the project. I want to find that sacred ritual.
This is the first part of a Patreon reward post series for Dylan. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write you a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too! Blog posts are available one week early for patrons at any support level.
I met Dylan in one of the first courses I took in my university career. They were smart, insightful, and hella intimidating. It has been an honour to get to know them over the last eight years, and I consider them one of my best friends. We are working on an ongoing project this year – a duoethnography on the topic of the experience of being non-binary in binary-gendered contexts. It’s pretty cool, and we even presenting a paper on one segment of our research at the Society for the Study of Social Problems conference in August! (I’ll be posting the presentation on my Patreon later this month.)
When I asked Dylan what topic they would like me to tackle for their birthday month post this year, this is what they said:
“I’m so tired and stretched thin across multiple projects so I apologize if this is not helpful. It’s kind of hilarious that this is about self-care and I’m not really doing awesome on that front atm. I was thinking about self-care as it relates to quitting because I’ve made a number of difficult changes over the past couple of years that required working through these ideas. I gave up on many hobbies as a kid because I didn’t want to face the horrible anxiety that came with pursuing hobbies: fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people… I started to think of myself negatively as a quitter and that has nagged at me as an adult such that I have a difficult time quitting or changing directions once I set myself onto a path. But quitting can be such a vital part of self-care because sometimes we do need to change directions or leave to protect ourselves.”
They sent me the topic on August 9th. In the time since, I’ve sent them multiple messages apologizing for the fact that it’s not done yet. We’re now halfway through September, and their birthday month is in August, and the post is still not up.
I started, restarted, outlined, re-outlined, mind-mapped, doodled, wrote, erased, rewrote, gave up on, came back to, gave up on again, and finally sat down to actually write this post in earnest. And then stopped again. And then came back.
It was an interesting intersection of content and context – writing about quitting, and constantly experiencing the overwhelming urge to quit.
There were lessons for me in both the content and the context, and that is one of the most exciting and encouraging things about this process. Even in a topic that I feel deeply familiar with (the concept of quitting and self-care is one I’ve already given a lot of thought to, particularly as it relates to my divorce and to the times when quitting has been the best self-care available to me), I found that there are new layers to explore and new learnings to uncover.
It was also interesting to realize that my own hang-ups about quitting – my fear and shame, the narratives I’ve internalized – are still so real, so visceral, and such strong influences on my behaviour.
And, maybe most interesting for my self-care practice and my work as a self-care coach, I started to learn how to recognize when the urge to quit in one area is actually an indicator of unmet needs in other areas. Although my challenges and new learnings in the area of “quitting and self-care” were real, I have also realized that I just need time for posts to marinate. The pressure I was putting on myself to generate the post in a short amount of time – I didn’t get back from presenting at a conference in Montreal until August 21, and I planned to leave for Costa Rica on the 27th – contributed significantly to my anxiety and my strong desire to quit. I didn’t actually want to quit – I love writing these posts! – but I needed more time. That unmet need was felt as a desire to quit.
As a result of this learning, I’m going to change the wording of this reward tier on Patreon, and have these posts written within six weeks of receiving a patron’s birthday-month topic.
(Image description: ‘Quit’ in the centre of the page.
Text around reads:
Who: ‘quitters’, survivors, boundary-respecters (internal/external), people ready to move on, people forced to change paths, ‘weak’ people
When: ‘too soon’, ‘too late’, just right, when continuing hurts, when pressure builds, when resources are gone, when told
Why: burn out, self-care, lack of resources (internal/external/social), hopelessness, trauma, new opportunities, new knowledges (self/situation)
How: reluctantly, regretfully, joyfully, shamefully, spitefully, with relief, with anger, resignedly, respectfully, resentfully
Why not: shame, fear, resilience, hope, expectations, community, strength, resources, support, obligations)
I initially approached the topic by making a mind-map about quitting. I was interested in who quits, how they quit, what they quit, why they quit, and why they don’t quit. I’ve taken that original work and expanded on it in specific categories. Narratives of Quitting addresses Who and How, Factors Influencing Quitting addresses How and Why and Why Not, The Things We Quit addresses What, and Self-Care for Quitters addresses the self-care part of the post. A final section of Reflections caps it off. Since this post turned into a bit of a monster, I’m breaking it into multiple posts. (Part two, Factors Influencing Quitting, is up on the Patreon today.)
Who and how blended into a series of Narratives of Quitting. These are foundational stories that help organize our understanding of what it means to quit something, and to be someone who quits something. Which of these narratives fit us at any given time, and regarding any particular act of quitting, can shift and change according to the other narratives we’re working within. For example, it’s hard to maintain a Triumphant Quitter narrative when we’re dealing with depression or ongoing anxiety, even if that narrative would otherwise fit. And we reject some narratives out of fear of the consequences – for example, many of us would deny a Resentful Quitter narrative because of the shame attached to it, even if it more accurately reflects our experience.
Here is my incomplete list of Narratives of Quitting.
The Triumphant Quitter
This is the most acceptable narrative of quitting. In this story, the protagonist (the quitter) realizes that something is not working in their lives – particularly something big, like a relationship, or a career – and they quit. Quitting solves the problem, and after they quit, they are happier, more wholehearted, and more fulfilled.
This doesn’t mean it’s always easy for the Triumphant Quitter. Often the Triumphant Quitter is an Ambivalent Quitter who has made it through to some stability after the transition following whatever they quit. And it often takes time to get to the awareness and confidence to make the choice to quit.
The Repentant Quitter
This narrative is also fairly well-accepted. In this story, the protagonist realizes that something is not working in their lives, but misidentifies the cause. They thought it was the job, or the relationship, but really is was something else – usually themselves. The repentant quitter regrets their decision to quit, and goes through a process of reflection, growth, and learning, often having to make amends (internally or externally) for having quit.
The Repentant Quitter may be performing, rather than actually feeling, repentance – especially in instances where what they’ve quit doesn’t make sense to the people around them. Leaving the “perfect” job (because it was burning them out), leaving the “perfect” relationship (despite toxic dynamics not visible to people outside the relationship) or getting divorced as a religious person, abandoning a “beloved” hobby (that has ceased to be nourishing and has become anxiety-provoking) – all of these instances of quitting can be met with skepticism and criticism, and an “appropriate” amount of repentance and self-blame can mitigate some of that social pressure.
Other times, the Repentant Quitter really does go through a process of reflection, learning, and growth. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes – quitting too soon, quitting the wrong thing – and there is nothing shameful or bad about realizing it and owning that part of our story.
The Ambivalent Quitter
This narrative is much less accepted, even though I think it is the most common. We don’t know what to do with ambivalent quitters, and stories of ambivalent quitting are often silenced and pressured into more acceptable narratives of triumph or repentance. In this story, the protagonist either doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong but quits anyway, or they don’t end up feeling happier, more wholehearted, or fulfilled after they quit.
They quit the relationship, for example, and it was the right choice for them but now they are experiencing financial hardship. They may regret the fallout of their decision without regretting the decision. The ambivalent quitter highlights the ways in which individual choices exist within larger structural frameworks, and their ambivalence challenges the individualist ideals of contemporary neoliberal late capitalism.
They took control of their lives and made a choice to quit, but it didn’t fix everything. Their narrative introduces uncomfortable tension into our understandings of personal agency, self-awareness, even self-care.
The Reluctant Quitter
There are a few different versions of the Reluctant Quitter, and in each of them, the protagonist resists or hesitates before quitting.
In one story, the protagonist is afraid to quit despite their discomfort with the situation. The outcome is unknown, and the protagonist is worried about what will happen if they quit, or they are maintaining hope that the situation will improve and they won’t need to quit. A lot of us spend a lot of time in this story, weighing our options, feeling uncomfortable but not being able to take the step and actually quit.
In another story, the protagonist doesn’t want to quit but does not have the resources to keep going – internal, external, or social.
And in another story of the Reluctant Quitter, the protagonist is doing something that harms or makes someone else uncomfortable but they don’t want to stop it even after being told about the impacts of their actions. Many of us have been in this story, and the shame of it often causes us to reject this story and deny that it happened. We rewrite our stories to either erase our reluctance, or deny the discomfort of the other person.
The Resentful Quitter
In this story, the protagonist is forced to quit. This is often due to a lack of resources – quitting school because of lack of funding, quitting a beloved hobby because of lack of time or money, quitting a relationship because of lack of reciprocity, quitting a job or hobby because of a lack of energy after chronic illness or disability. There are so many different types of resources and any scarcity can force us to quit something we love or are committed to.
Like the Ambivalent Quitter, the Resentful Quitter is not a particularly welcome narrative. The Resentful Quitter challenges the idea that if we think positively, we can manifest the resources we need. The Resentful Quitter challenges the idea that “everything happens for a reason” and that our lives inevitably move in an upward spiral. Resentful Quitters also challenge the idea of the ever-effective bootstrapping out of hardship.
The Resentful Quitter makes people uncomfortable.
There is another Resentful Quitter story, where the protagonist is forced to quit because their actions are causing harm and they are stopped. When they have access to power, they can try (or succeed) in retaliating against the people who forced them to quit what they were doing before. This version of the Resentful Quitter also makes people uncomfortable.
The Preemptive Quitter
This is the story that we socially love to hate. In this story, the protagonist quits before it gets awful. They’re afraid – of failure, of mockery, of pain, of missed chances. They’re lonely, or isolated, or they see the potential for a negative outcome and they bail before it happens. There is a lot of shame attached to this story, and the Preemptive Quitter is rarely praised for having foresight and self-awareness, or comforted and met with empathy for dealing with fear and anxiety. Instead, the Preemptive Quitter is criticized for “giving up too easily.” Find yourself in the Preemptive Quitter story too often (and sometimes once is all it takes) and suddenly your story becomes that of…
The Weak-Willed Quitter
In this story, the protagonist is too “weak” or “lazy” to keep going. I don’t actually believe that this story is often true, because it doesn’t have nearly enough compassion or awareness. In this story, quitting is not a factor of circumstance, or access to resources, or self-awareness – no. In this story, quitting is a personal failing, a character flaw, a punishable offence.
The spectre of the Weak-Willed Quitter looms behind every other quitter narrative. Even the Triumphant Quitter can be tripped up by this narrative. When something goes wrong, even if it’s unrelated to what we quit, there is the temptation to look back at paths we’ve abandoned, imagine them going in more productive directions than where we find ourselves now, and retroactively label ourselves too weak or lazy or foolish for having quit.
Because late capitalism values labour and productivity over everything other than profit, quitting – ceasing our labour and changing our productive focus – is always fraught. Even when it’s the right choice, it’s a choice loaded with the potential to fall off into this hurtful, harmful Weak-Willed Quitter narrative.
Part Two will continue this exploration of quitting, examining the factors that influence when/how/why/whether we quit something.
This is a Patreon reward post, though it was a few weeks late. Every Patreon supporter at the $10+ level can have a self-care post written for them, on the topic of their choice, during their birthday month. Sound interesting? Head over to my Patreon! All patrons, regardless of support level, get access to posts early and are able to offer feedback and make suggestions.
Rachael’s requested topic was “mindfulness and self-care.”
I was inspired by Rachael’s ability to successfully inhabit multiple roles, which gave me the idea of integrating various selves through different mindfulness practices. I’m really drawn to narratives and frames that incorporate the elements as metaphors for and aspects of the self – I use elemental interpretations of my tarot spreads really frequently, and I find that it’s helpful for viewing myself and my situations as parts within a whole. By explicitly pulling the mental, physical, emotional, and creative/spiritual selves out, I’m better able to see how the different parts of me influence the whole.
I used this framing to build the structure for my online courses, and leaned on it again for this post. (And on the topic of the online courses, keep your eyes open for the fall course, on emotional self-care, launching soon!)
One reason I wanted to use the elements in this prompt is because mindfulness so often so often, the idea of “mindfulness” is connected exclusively to ideas of meditation or deep breathing. It doesn’t always show up in how we understand other aspects of ourselves, and it can seem out of place in our emotional or creative lives. Although meditation and deep breathing are valid (and important) mindfulness practices, they aren’t the only ways to bring mindfulness into your self-care routine. So, here is my woo-influenced four-part mindfulness and self-care post. You can ignore the woo and just go for the self-care strategies if that’s a better fit for you.
The air element (the sword suit in tarot) is all about the mental self.
We’re starting with the air element and the mental self because “mindfulness” is all about being present, but that’s tricky when we’re talking about our mental selves. For so many of us, being present in our minds looks more like over-thinking, over-analyzing, and over-intellectualizing than anything else. The mind overtakes, and mindfulness takes on a new meaning – full of mind, full of thoughts and thinking. The swords are sometimes called the “suit of sorrow” and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Swords are not just about the mind, they’re also about the truth. They’re about insight, knowledge, and awareness.
They’re double-edged. The truth hurts, indeed.
So how do we practice mindful self-care when it comes to our mental selves, especially when we often find so much pain in our minds?
My favourite tarot blogger, Beth Maiden at Little Red Tarot, says this about the swords – “Don’t let your mind be your own worst enemy. Laugh at it when you can – the swords and all the insecurity and strife they represent can be helpful, even when you think you don’t want to know… Seek the truth. Face the truth. Accept the truth…or change it.”
Based on that insight, here are a couple mindfulness exercises for mental self-care:
Laugh at it when you can.
“Comedy is defiance. It’s a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it’s the laughter that allows hope to creep back in on the inhale.” – Will Durst
Many of us (I would venture to say most of us, in this current political and social climate) are operating under persistent, pervasive, chronic stress, anxiety, and existential dread. We are definitely living in the swords – the painful edges of the truth are cutting so many of us as we realize (or re-realize) how hateful and cruel our fellow humans can be, and are.
Laughter feels challenging in this context.
It can feel disrespectful to laugh in the face of so much danger, violence, and hate. And it’s a fact that too much comedy has become disrespectful, leans too hard on punching down.
But laughter itself is powerful medicine. And, although mindfulness often brings connotations of Very Serious Business, mindful laughter is a real thing, and can be really helpful!
So, find a way to be present with your current experience, and, if you can, find some way to laugh – at it, about it, despite it.
If you need tarot inspiration, turn to the Nine and Ten of Swords. In these cards, everything is so awful that sometimes you just have to laugh. These are the nightmare cards, but together they become mockable. Is it really so bad, they ask? Yes! Yes. And still, it’s possible to laugh at them, at ourselves within them, at the situation that calls them out.
Make a list of all the things that are wrong and horrible in your life and in the world right now. How many of them are so wrong and horrible that even five years ago they would have seemed like a parody?
Find a way to frame them as being as ridiculous as they truly are.
Draw them as a cartoon.
Write a story that highlights the what-the-fuckery of the situation.
Or even just look at the situation all around us, see it, and laugh.
Find a way to laugh – for yourself, in a way that is healing and mindful for you. Use laughter as a tool to pull yourself out of the dread, and to allow yourself to be more fully present with your experience.
(Laughter can also be used as an avoidance tool, and that would be counter to this exercise. It can also be used as a weapon against people more vulnerable than we are, and that, too, would be counter to this exercise.)
Tell the Story
If you can’t stop yourself from overthinking – and seriously, welcome, join me, this is where I live – then stop trying to stop yourself and simply observe yourself. Rather than rejecting and shaming your overthinking mind, start watching and narrating what it’s doing. You might find that you’re overthinking a specific issue because your mind is (wisely) trying to get to the root of it, or find a new way out. You may discover that the overthinking is triggered because the current situation mirrors a situation from your past, and by making the links explicit, you can start to see the differences between the two situations.
So, when you start overthinking, just take a small step back, and start narrating the story of your brain in its activity.
Imagine yourself narrating what’s happening in your own mind (picture Morgan Freeman or Ron Howard’s voice, if it helps). Be gentle and honest.
Your initial narration might look like – “Right now, I am thinking about what happened three years ago. The story I am telling myself is that this situation is the same as that situation. I can’t stop thinking about how it felt. I am worried I’ll feel the same way again.”
Once you know what’s happening, you can make choices from a place of compassionate self-awareness.
The earth element (pentacles/coins in tarot) is all about the physical self.
Mindfulness and the physical self is the entire focus of my summer online course, so this has been my life for the last 6 weeks! (It’s also, by far, the most challenging element for me – dissociation has saved me so many times in so many trauma responses, and I spend time in this body only reluctantly and hesitantly. I’m working on it, but it’s still tough. For my other trauma bbs out there, who use dissociation as a valid and effective coping strategy, solidarity. It may not be where we want to stay, but it’s where we are sometimes.)
Despite all of the work I’ve done to bring mindfulness to my physical self-care, and even the many successes over the last year of focus on this, I still find that my favourite mindfulness exercise when it comes to my physical state is an old one. The new skills I’ve learned – breathing exercises, grounding exercises, body scan meditations – are useful and valuable, but this simple three-step process is still the one that is most accessible to me in difficult moments.
Breath, Posture, Grounding
A couple years ago, I went through an extended period of depression, anxiety, and general Life Suck. My friend, Jim Tait, would send me regular messages – “breath, posture, grounding” – whenever I seemed to be spiraling. It was a gentle, non-judgmental reminder to come back to my body, and I found it easier to engage with than more elaborate mindfulness exercises.
I would sit up a bit taller, let my shoulders drop down from my ears, and gently coax my spine back from its question-mark hunch.
I would take a breath and feel the air fill my lungs. Sitting up opens up so much space in my lungs, and I would feel the tightness across my clavicle as the air filled me up (or tried to, anyway).
I would feel myself on the earth – either my feet on the ground, or my hip bones on my seat. Grounding is always the hardest for me, especially when I’m spiraling in anxiety or lost in depression, but finding a way to connect back down to the physical world and to my physical body within that physical world is always so valuable.
So, that’s the exercise I leave you with as well.
Just a gentle nudge to be present with your physical self, even more a moment – breath, posture, grounding.
Touch the Earth
Emily Goss (from groweatgift) suggested this additional exercise, and I love it.
“Dig your hands into the soil in a forest. Trees are all connected through the wood wide web. Feel the connection with something larger than yourself by joining the conversation. When you return home, plant a seed (perhaps a tree seed you’ve collected) and nurture it into growth.”
The water element (cups in tarot) is all about the emotional self.
It is incredibly difficult to bring mindfulness to our emotional selves. When we’re angry or afraid, we lose connection to our mindful selves when the fight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system kicks in. When we’re embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated, we disconnect not only from ourselves but also from anyone around us. When we’re having a trauma response, dissociation is an incredibly common reaction. And even when we’re joyful, we often get caught in what Brene Brown calls “fearful joy” and anticipate the loss of our joy.
So, how do we bring mindfulness to our emotional selves, and how do we do it in a way that is compassionate, intentional, and self-aware? How can we practice mindfulness in our emotional lives without completely letting go of the necessary coping strategies that get us through difficult emotions?
It takes practice. And it takes an awful lot of gentleness and patience, because it isn’t easy.
Emotional Mindfulness (in five not-always-easy steps)
1 – Pause. Notice that you are having an emotional reaction (good or bad or awful) and take a moment before proceeding. It can be helpful to practice this when you’re having positive emotional reactions at least as often as you practice it when you’re having negative emotional reactions. It’s often easier to bring mindfulness to our fear, anger, or sadness because we notice them more easily. But bringing mindfulness to joy, happiness, and calm can help us recognize those feelings in our body and practice accepting positive emotions when they come (which is surprisingly difficult for a lot of us!)
2 – Name the emotion. Give words to the experience. Not only does this help you understand the experience, it also acts as a reminder that you are the expert in your own experience, and you are at the centre of your own story. You are the narrator. You have the knowledge and insight to be able to name and know your emotional self.
3 – Accept the emotion. For me, this one is hard. It is helpful for me to remember that acceptance is in this moment. If I am afraid, I can name it (“I am afraid”) and accept it (“I am allowed to be afraid, my fear is acceptable”) without committing to it as a permanent state. Accepting that I am feeling what I’m feeling doesn’t mean I have failed or that I will be caught in this feeling forever. And, if the feeling is joyful, accepting it doesn’t “jinx” it. Acceptance just means intentionally and compassionately allowing the emotion to be what it is.
4 – Remember that the emotion is temporary. Whatever it is, it will pass. This is where all of the ubiquitous river imagery comes in – life flows along, and our emotions flow with it. Nothing is permanent. Nothing stays the same forever. This can be an impossible truth to hold when the emotions are overwhelming us, or when we are terrified to lose the feeling, but it is true, and once we accept it, we can allow the emotion to flow through us without getting stuck. Imagine yourself on the shore of the river, the emotion flowing past you. If it is a joyful emotion, let it continue to flow without trying to trap it, because the act of trying to hold it changes it and often stifles it. If it is a fearful, angry, or shameful emotion, also let it continue to flow. It will pass, and you will still be here.
5 – Once you have noticed, named, accepted, and allowed the emotion to flow, take a deep breath and consider your response. What, if anything, do you need to do with this true and temporary emotion? Allow yourself to act, with awareness, compassion, and intention. Trust yourself. You are the expert, and you know what you need.
Have a Bath
Another suggestion from Emily, that bridges the physical and emotional selves, and ties more directly to the element of water.
“Have a bath with oils that feel right to you. Slough or scrub your skin while imagining your frustrations being shed with your old skin. Make your own toiletries from sea salt and oats, or other natural products to reduce the strain on the planet. We are all part of the same world and respecting the planet shows self respect. After your bath, use the water to water plants – your dead skin sells can provide nutrients for the plants (and it avoids water waste).”
The fire element (wands in tarot) is all about the spiritual and creative self.
This element is all about passion – fiery energy that fuels creativity and connection. Not everyone has a spiritual self, and not everyone identifies as creative, but we each experience passion. This part of ourselves shows up in unique and beautiful ways.
Because creativity and spirituality are both so individual (and come weighted with so much narrative baggage – who is allowed to be creative, what spiritual experiences are valid), I found it difficult to choose a mindfulness exercise for this element. But because this element is so important to my own experience, and because I associate Rachael so much with this element, it felt important. So, you get two.
Pick a creative activity. Pick anything – drawing, writing, painting, dancing, singing, baking, origami, game design, coding, songwriting, guitar strummin’, flute whistlin’, knitting, crochet, etching, woodcutting, Lego, gardening, science experiments, beadwork, jewelry-making – any activity that feels creative for you. If you’re really stuck and this pokes you in some vulnerabilities, pick something ridiculous. Macaroni art, for example.
Clear some space.
Get your materials out.
Take a deep breath.
Set your timer for 15 minutes.
And then just keep breathing and doing your creative work. Stay focused on how it feels to be creating something, whatever that something is.
When your judging mind leans over your shoulder and says “Really? Rotini? I thought we were going for more of a impressionistic rigatoni look here,” just lean back in your chair, look that judgey self right in the metaphorical eye and say “Inner critic, it’s okay. I know that you are afraid someone’s going to laugh at this, but it’s okay. We’re creative and we’re doing this. I appreciate the penne for your thoughts, but I’m going to re-fusilli to respond with anger.” (And then laugh at those sharp swords of self-doubt dulled to dry spaghetti by your wit and self-awareness. Look, we’re back at Air!)
Keep doing your work. Feel the materials you’re working with, look at what you’re making, be present with your creative self. Keep coming back to that creative self. Whenever you get pulled away into judgement, or fear of the future, or remembering failures of the past, just come back to this moment of creativity.
When the timer goes off, take another deep breath. Assess. Are you done? If not, keep going. If you are, that’s awesome. You did it!
I struggle so much with this myself, as a former evangelical Christian, former capital-a Atheist, current pagan-of-some-flavour, tarot-reading, here-for-the-queer-witches something-or-other.
But after many weeks of thinking about it, I landed on this:
Pay attention to the moments when you feel connected to something bigger and deeper than your normal everyday self. You may perceive this as a spiritual experience, or not. What you’re listening for, watching for, feeling for is a sense of connectedness.
(This is not a “do it for five minutes” exercise – this is a “watch for it throughout the next week” exercise.)
When you feel it, note it.
Just give it a little nod of acknowledgment. Maybe even take a note of what was happening that helped you feel connected. Were you outdoors? Were you with people? Were you doing something ritualized (often ritual allows us to drop into that connected space more easily) or were you trying something new?
Note it, acknowledge it, and keep going.
The more we learn to see these moments of connection, the less alone we feel throughout the rest of our days.
And this is not necessarily a spiritual practice – secular ritual is something I’ve been researching for almost a year now. So, although I am calling it spiritual because I experience it as spiritual, you can dip your toe in this exercise even if you are a staunch atheist.
Build a Fire
Another suggestion from Emily.
“Make a fire by hand and use your breath to turn embers into flames (being careful not to burn yourself – sparks can fly!) There’s something magical about making a fire happen from scratch (but don’t feel ashamed if you need to use a lighter/matches instead of a flint).”
Integration: One Last Mindfulness Self-Care Exercise
Because our selves all co-exist and are each integrated (to various degrees) within a single bodymind, a final mindfulness self-care exercise focused on integration.
This exercise is one that I use when various selves are flipping out – when my inner trauma child is frightened or angry, or when my shame gremlins are on the prowl, or when my Gender Feels are making some noise.
Mindfulness is, after all, nothing more (or less) than being present in the moment. Bringing awareness and non-judgement to the present moment, and accepting that it is what it is. In my own practice, mindfulness extends into intentional compassion, to the acts that weave together into sustainable self-care.
So, in the moments of dis-integration, disassociation, dysfunction, distress – be present. As much as you can, take that steadying breath, take a look across your inner selfscape, recognize the fractures and bends and the negative spaces where parts of yourself have gone into hiding. Let yourself see the disintegrated self, and accept the disintegration, and extend compassion to it.
I don’t believe that mindful integration requires us to heal all the wounds, fill all the gaps, join all the points of disjuncture. I believe that all we have to do is be present with ourselves, accept ourselves in whatever state we are in, and in that process of gentle acceptance we will start to make space for those wounds to heal, for those selves to slowly slide back into the negative spaces they left when they bolted.
So many of us who have trauma in our past have so many of these gaps in our experience of self.
We can be present with ourselves as we are now, because we are still good, now. We have everything we need. The small childself hiding in the closet in the dark corner of our mind is still there – they just need some gentle safety to come back out. We are whole, even when we are broken. We are good enough.
We can breathe and be present with ourselves, however we are, whatever that looks like, and bring ourselves through the experience of distress.
A Tarot Bonus
This is the spread I use most often, and I find it helpful when I’m trying to decide what sort of self-care I need.
I shuffle my cards, cut the deck, lay the cards out (centre card first, then air, water, earth, fire) and then flip them over. Whatever card shows up in each position, I take as an indicator of what I might need in that area, or as an invitation to think about the narrative I’m investing in when it comes to those elements.
This is a Patreon reward post, and the first draft of this post was available to patrons last week. At the $10 support level, I’ll write a self-care post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month. And at any level of support, you’ll get access to these (and other) posts early.
This one’s for Stasha, who has been one of my most active supporters and cheerleaders. I appreciate her comments and insight so much. She was also the inspiration for the #100loveletters challenge that I’m currently running, and her willingness to be visible in her experience of working towards self-love is empowering an ever-widening circle of participants in the challenge and beyond.
Her requested topic was visibility, and the complexities of doing self-care while invisible or hypervisible.
These are two sides of the same issue –
Being invisible – having parts of your identity illegible and unrecognizable and unacknowledged by the people around you – can make you feel crazy and alienated from your own experience. Invisibility can become a deeply damaging, traumatizing experience of being gaslighted by the entire society around you.
Invisibility takes many forms. Often, invisibility brings the double-edged sword of ‘passing’ – we are invisible (in whichever of our identities is unwelcome in the context) and that invisibility causes incredible internal harm and pain while also granting us conditional privilege as we appear to belong to another, more welcome, more acceptable, more safe, group. Passing as straight. As cisgender. As white. As neurotypical.
There are so many identities that become rendered invisible in most contexts. Where the assumption of normativity – the assumption that we fit society’s definitions of “normal” – is stifling. Crushing.
Queer invisibility – the harm felt by queer folks in heteronormative spaces, where we are automatically assumed to be heterosexual. Our queer identities are erased by the assumptions of the people around us. It hurts. We have to choose, each day, in each interaction, which hurt we want to experience – the pain of erasure, or the battle of fighting to be seen. Do we come out? Is it safe to come out? What are the consequences of coming out?
Trans invisibility. The experience of trans men and women who ‘pass’ – who are perceived as their gender and assumed to be cisgender – often have their transness rendered invisible unless they come out, and this can be both painful and comforting. Sometimes at the same time. Is it safe to come out? Is it safe to get close to someone without coming out? (Passing is a hugely contentious and fraught issue.)
Non-binary trans invisibility is a whole other issue, and one that I can speak to more personally. I am ‘read’ as a woman in every context except those ones where I have explicitly and decisively come out as genderqueer, and even in those situations, the illegibility of my identity is often clear. I’ve said the words “I am genderqueer – I do not identify as either a man or a woman” and have still found myself lumped in with “us girls” or “the ladies” or whatever other assumptions of womanhood people have, even by people who have heard me come out and have acknowledged the validity of my identity. They are trying to see me, but they just… can’t. Don’t. Won’t?
Femme invisibility within the queer community – the assumption that women with femme gender presentations are automatically straight. Also within the queer community, bisexual invisibility – a huge issue that remains pervasive.
Invisible disabilities, both physical and mental. Invisible neurodivergences, and the incredible pressure on neurodivergent communities to ‘pass’ as neurotypical. (The fact that we consider it a marker of success if an autistic kid is able to get through a class and “you’d barely even know they’re autistic!” is such a problem.)
And other invisibilities, invisibilities of experience – the invisibility of addiction and the experience of being sober within intoxication culture (many thanks to Clementine Morrigan for that phrase), the invisibility of childhood poverty in academic and professional contexts, the invisibility of trauma.
One of my heroes is Amanda Palmer. In her book, The Art of Asking, she said that so much of her artistic life has been spent saying, over and over, in song after song, performance art piece after performance art piece, in every way, again and again – “see me, believe me, I’m real, it happened, it hurts.”
I saw her live at one of her kickstarter house parties, and she was talking about the experience of being a woman and being tied to reproductivity – that question of children being a defining question. Another person in the audience, a genderqueer person like me, but more brave than I was, pointed out that not everyone with a uterus is a woman, and not every woman has a uterus – that this experience is not tied so tightly to gender. Amanda Palmer blew past the question, erased it, made a comment about how if you have a uterus then you are a woman and you will have to deal with these questions.
It wasn’t malicious, but it was violent – invisibility is not neutral, it is not passive. Rejecting someone’s effort to be seen is never a neutral act. Being made invisible in that way, particularly after making the effort to be seen, hurts. It hurts a lot. It took me a few years after that to be able to listen to her music again, and I just started reading her book this week.
(It’s a separate issue – the necessity of making space for imperfection. The story is relevant, but the healing process is a post for another time. Amanda Palmer is not perfect but I still find so much value and even validation in her work. This is one of the most exhausting challenges of having invisible identities – we still need community among the people who can’t, or who won’t, see us.)
So, how do you do self-care while invisible?
And what about self-care while hypervisible?
Hypervisibility is a separate but related issue.
Hypervisibility is when, rather than being assumed to be part of the normative group, you are visibly Other and that otherness becomes your defining characteristic. It is as much an erasure as invisibility – you lose the nuance of your whole and complex self. When people see you, they don’t see you – they see your visible characteristics and don’t move past that.
Most often, hypervisibilities are written on the body. The colour of your skin. The sex you were assigned at birth. The size of your waist. The movement (or not) of your limbs.
I don’t experience hypervisibility very often – I’m white and thin, with class, language and educational privilege that helps me blend into most environments, and my disabilities are all invisible (unless I’m trying to be physically active). When I do experience hypervisibility, it is in contexts where my assigned sex or my gender presentation are conspicuous – primarily cis-hetero men’s spaces.
Hypervisibility brings the threat of violence. Racist, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist violence can all be sparked by the wrong person seeing you and seeing you. Violence against fat and disabled people is similarly tied to hypervisibility. Violence against homeless or visibly addicted people is similar.
Hypervisibility doesn’t offer the option of passing, and the fight is often chosen for you – rather than choosing between the harm of erasure and the harm of exposure, hypervisibility means constant, constant exposure. They don’t make an SPF high enough to protect from that.
It is possible to experience hypervisibility and invisibility at the same time – to be a Black queer femme. To be bisexual in a wheelchair. To be non-binary and homeless. In those moments of compounding erasure – one identity hypervisible, every other identity erased – self-care becomes even more challenging.
Self-Care and Visibility
It is an incredibly difficult thing to be a loving mirror for yourself when all around you are mirrors that either don’t see you, can’t see you, or only see some parts of you. But that is the core of self-care and visibility – the ability and the necessity of finding a loving mirror within yourself and within your communities.
Find that one friend who sees every part of you.
Be that one friend who sees every part of you.
Get to know yourself.
Get to know every part of yourself – the invisible bits and the hypervisible bits. Write it down. Make a list of all the things you are, and solidify yourself for yourself.
It can help to take a page from narrative therapy and write yourself a small Document of Authority that states who you are, and to keep it with you as a talisman in situations when you know you either will be invisible or hypervisible.
Another self-care strategy is to practice recognizing, naming, and countering the gaslighting that comes with both invisibility and hypervisibility. Start to notice when people make statements that assume you are something other than what you are, or that flatten you down to a single identity. Note them, name them (out loud or just to yourself) and counter them with the truth.
Speak yourself into being, and into complexity.
It is the hardest thing in the world.
It’s why representation matters so much.
But I believe in you.
I know that you are real, and that what you have experienced is real, and that what you are is real and valid.
You are the expert in your own experience.
You know who you are, even if you can’t access that knowledge consciously yet.
Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Makes You Watched, but Not Seen, by Megan Ryland at The Body is Not an Apology. This post is brilliant, and is part of a two-week series that ran on the blog in 2013.
The 5 biggest drawbacks of hypervisibility (and what separates it from the constructive visibility we need), by Jarune Uwujaren at Resist. Another great post that clearly outlines the harms of hypervisibility and the double-bind of being expected to be grateful for being seen.
Hypervisibility and Marginalization: Existing Online As A Black Woman and Writer, by Trudy at Gradient Lair. Trudy’s work revolutionized my understanding of misogynoir and the specific issues facing Black women. Her writing is excellent, and this post is no exception. (She no longer blogs at Gradient Lair but has generously kept the content available there.)
Queer Like Me: Breaking the Chains of Femme Invisibility, by Ashleigh Shackleford at Wear Your Voice. There is so much to love in this post (and many of the posts on this site).
10 Ways to Help Your Bisexual Friends Fight Invisibility and Erasure, by Maisha Z. Johnson at Everyday Feminism.
The Importance for Visibility for Invisible Disabilities, by Annie Elainey. I rarely link to videos (because I dislike watching videos most of the time), but Annie’s are absolutely worth watching. Her engagement with disability, and so many other issues, is fantastic.
(I am so thankful for the work of women and femmes of colour who have generously offered their insight and wisdom and emotional and educational labour to create these resources. Many of these content creators and sites are reader-funded, and if you’re in a position to support them, that’s rad!)