(This post was available a week early to my patrons. My Patreon helps support this work, and I appreciate my patrons more than I can say!)
Tarot is an important part of my life, and has been for quite a few years.
I use tarot as a way to think about what’s happening in my life, with tarot spreads acting as invitations to think about situations in specific and focused ways. I have also used tarot in narrative therapy in a similar way – inviting community members to engage with the cards as a visual way to explore their stories. I also use tarot as part of my slowly developing spiritual practice. I’ve written before about how I use tarot as self-care, in this post that introduced my tarot practice, and in this post about how to use tarot as a self-storying tool.
I participated in parts of the Owl and Bones August tarot challenge on Instagram. There was a prompt for each day, and it was an interesting process to notice was came up, what kept coming up, and how I responded to the cards. (I will admit that my participation was a bit more hit and miss while was away, mostly because I was so sick.)
On August 22nd, the prompt was “Where are things out of balance?”
I drew the Nine of Wands.
Image description: The Nine of Wands from The Wild Unknown tarot deck, against a black background.
This card is about stamina and inner strength – it’s about continuing on the long path.
Carrie Mallon, a tarot blogger who has written posts for each of the cards in the Wild Unknown deck (which I’m using here) writes about the Nine of Wands:
“The Nine of Wands shows that sometimes we need to draw on our inner reserves. We need to protect what is important to us, we need to protect our energy. We need to keep going, even though we may feel a little tired from being so on-guard. This kind of perseverance can be admirable, but can also lead to weariness.”
I thought, of course. Work is out of balance! I’m working too much. I’m always on the edge of burnout. I’m too busy, there’s too much going on, there’s too much pressure and stress. Work. This is about work.
But for some reason, I paused before posting the picture and that little response to it on Instagram. Instead, I sat with it for a few days.
I wondered why it was so easy to come to that interpretation.
I wondered about what the effect of having this story so prominently in my mind might be – how does it impact my days to always be framing myself in terms of “the edge of burnout” and “doing too much”?
I was a little uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, because I am always cautious when I feel myself edging towards “shift the narrative.” So often, this is used as a bludgeon against people who are legitimately struggling with injustice.
“Just shift your narrative!”
“Just focus on the positive!”
How about, just bite me.
However, this idea of shifting my own narrative is a theme that’s been coming up for me in a lot of areas lately. I have noticed that I’ve pushed so hard away from weaponized positivity that I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my connection to any kind of positivity at all. It’s easy, lately, to find myself feeling hopeless, trapped, powerless.
Even though it is unjust to demand that hurting people “focus on the positive,” that doesn’t mean there is never a time to re-frame.
In my narrative therapy training, I’ve been taught to “linger with intent” in the problem story – to invite community members to talk about their problems without shame or judgement, and to look for ways to strengthen their connection to preferred outcomes and preferred selves within those stories.
What this looks like in practice is that I listen to the stories that community members bring into narrative therapy sessions with an ear open to “double-storying” – what’s not being said here, but might be present anyway? In a story of anger, for example, there is sometimes a sense of justice that refuses to be silenced. In a story of hopelessness or exhaustion, there might be a cherished belief that things could be, and should be, different.
This means deepening stories of resistance and response, looking for those moments of choice and asking questions that connect people to their own acts of agency and to the ways in which they’ve responded to the problems in their lives. It also means looking for what people are valuing – what they hold to be precious or cherished, what they want for themselves and the world, what they hope for and dream – and working to strengthen their connections to the histories of those values.
This feels different than telling people to “shift their perspective” or to “think positive.”
It’s hard for me to write about this in clear and confident ways because I’m in the middle of the struggle myself.
What I do in a narrative therapy session is try to help people shift how they are oriented towards their problems and their own stories. I try to shift the narrative!
But outside of narrative therapy sessions and the respectful framing that I’m learning in my narrative therapy training, what I see in so much self-help writing is demands to “change your perspective and change your life,” with a subtext that seems to say that people have invited their own suffering, that they’re experiencing the consequences of their own “low vibrations” or “negative thoughts,” or that they have both the power and the responsibility to single-handedly and through the power of positive thinking change their external context. I hate these demands so much.
But what I’ve noticed in myself is that in rejecting the culture of “manifest your best life” positive thinking, I have also rejected a lot of helpful wisdom (wisdom that shows up in narrative therapy, too, and that I love in that context!) In rejecting the idea that individuals are responsible for changing social contexts that they can’t control, I have found myself also rejecting the hope for any change at all. I have focused so much on the harms of individualizing problems that I sometimes think I have forgotten the hope of collective action. I have focused on resisting narratives of “manifestation” and I think that I have sometimes lost sight of narratives of agency and choice.
I don’t know what to do about this.
But I do know this – when I pulled the Nine of Wands, my mind leapt to a very specific narrative of myself. It is the narrative of overwork. The narrative of “the edge of burnout.” It is a narrative I know very well, and anytime a narrative comes that easily, it’s worth questioning.
Because, even though it is a narrative that comes with my critique of capitalism and my feelings of powerlessness in the face of late stage capitalism, it’s also a thin narrative of myself. (“Thin description allows little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred.” – from What is Narrative Therapy on the Dulwich Centre’s excellent site.)
I started wondering, what if the thing that’s out of balance isn’t work, but my narrative about work?
(And, since it’s Sunday when I’m writing this, and Sunday in the Tender Year is when I pick a binary and challenge it, what if it isn’t either/or, but rather both?)
I started asking myself what is rendered invisible when I focus only on the part of my working self that is so tired and overwhelmed?
The answers came slowly, especially because I was sick. But they did come eventually.
What gets erased is the joy I take in my work.
What gets erased are the positive effects of my work.
What gets erased is the support I have in my work (including from my patrons!) and the growth that I am inviting into my life by continuing to do this work.
My choices get erased in this narrative, which is a narrative of work being foisted on me – work that I have to do in order to pay the rent, work that I have to do in order to get where I need to be.
But I do feel joy in my work.
There are positive effects that result from my work.
I have so much support for my work, and I do make choices.
After sitting with this idea of work / narratives of work, I laid out another tarot spread for myself.
Image description: A Wild Unknown tarot spread and a muffin on a wooden table. The spread includes the Nine of Wands, the Four of Cups, the Ace of Wands, the Four of Wands, and the Son of Pentacles. The Father of Cups is also visible on top of the deck.
I pulled out the Nine of Wands, and then laid out my favourite spread with that as the focus.
My favourite spread is the elements – a five card spread with a focus card (or a card that represents the situation or the whole), and then cards for air/mental self, water/emotional self, earth/physical or material self, and fire/creative, passionate, or spiritual self.
In the air position, I had the Four of Cups.
The Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown always strikes me as being a card about feelings of scarcity – that rat is trying so hard to keep control of all the cups, to make sure they don’t tip or get stolen. The Four of Cups is often about feeling like there isn’t enough, and in this deck (more than most others) it makes me think of the way scarcity can invite us into desperation and a desire to control our situation more tightly than we need to, more tightly than we actually can. This card says, “I can’t let go of anything, or I will lose everything.”
It landed like a hammer and I almost didn’t even flip the rest of the spread. This card speaks directly to what I had been thinking about over the four days since originally pulling the Nine of Wands.
Maybe I’m out of balance about this because I am so focused on scarcity. I am so terrified of scarcity. I am terrified of financial insecurity – I have experienced acute financial scarcity in the past, and I am chronically on the edge of it (and have been since my divorce), and those thoughts consume me sometimes. Especially when I think about work, and about throwing myself more fully into my narrative work.
I noticed the moon in both the Four of Cups and the Nine of Wands. That dark crescent in the Four is a rich golden colour in the Nine of Wands – two different narratives of the same moon. Am I working towards that bright sliver of light, or am I clutching what little I can in the shadows? It’s the same thing, but it’s a very different story of that same thing.
So that first position is air, how I’m thinking about the situation.
I moved on to the rest of the spread.
Water – how am I feeling about this situation? Where are my emotions here?
The Ace of Wands. This is a card about new beginnings, and about passion. When I think about work, I do think in terms of scarcity – a lack of time, a lack of money, a lack of resources, a lack of faith in myself. And a lot of that is justified, but it isn’t the whole story. Because when I feel about work, particularly about my narrative work, my community organizing work, my writing work – I feel passionate and excited. I feel like I’m building something! I feel like there’s value here, and the potential to do something new and needed. This card resonated for me, too.
Then across the spread to Fire – where is my passion and creativity here?
The Son of Pentacles. I see the same golden crescent moon as in the Nine of Wands, and notice the pentacle (a symbol of earth and grounding and materiality) centered in it – another narrative of this same story that adds stability to the potential and “enoughness” of that rich crescent.
Carrie Mallon writes about this card:
The Son of Pentacles leans into the card, pressing forward slowly but surely. An orange crescent moon frames a pentacle above him. The background is dark, but lightens where he gazes.
The Son of Pentacles is not one to act with great haste or passion. He is purposeful and careful in all that he does. Once he has decided to move in a given direction, that is simply where he goes. He sticks the course and slugs through the mud to reach his goals. He doesn’t always trust easily, but if someone does earn his trust, he stands by them without fail.
On the positive side, this attention to detail can be essential. The Son of Pentacles is thorough and has unparalleled determination to finish what he starts. On the negative side, he can fall prone to tunnel vision.
…[The] Son of Pentacles is looking down at his chosen path. He is so resolute in his endeavors that he may forget to look up and assess his current surroundings. He may have a difficult time with changes and flexibility.
That also resonates with what I’d been thinking about this whole work/narratives of work thing. I recognize my own determination, but I can also see how sometimes I get focused on a particular idea or narrative and it’s hard for me to deviate from that. I also find this interesting because this card is in the fire position – it’s all about passion. But the Son of Pentacles is not a passionate card. He’s determined, focused, attentive but not passionate. And I am passionate. I am passionate in general but I am especially passionate about my work.
Except, not so much lately.
Lately, I’ve been so tired. I’ve been so fixed on how hard it is, how hard I’m working, how hard I have to keep working, and I haven’t been feeling my fire. I’ve been feeling sad and hopeless lately – climate change, economics, politics. I’ve been doing my work, but I’ve been doing it more like the Son of Pentacles than I would like.
And the lovely thing about that is that I can make choices about whether I continue like this! The cards are not fixed, fatalistic. The cards are a conversation. And I can make choices, make changes. I can invite more fire into this part of my life.
Finally, Earth – where is my physical and material self in this?
The Four of Wands. Where the Four of Cups is about scarcity and lack, the Four of Wands is about celebration and reaching milestones.
I’m interpreting this card as an invitation to notice successes as they happen, rather than constantly watching for upcoming failures or challenges.
The fact is, some things have gone really well in the last while! I have First Class Honours in my first course of the Masters program. My birthday offer of $37 narrative therapy sessions has been popular, and I only have 25 of these sessions left. (If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, get in touch! I’d love to work with you.) I have a lot of ideas for posts and projects, and lots of people are interested in participating in these projects. The next zine is almost ready to be printed!
I’m going to try to notice those things when they happen, and to let myself linger in those stories of success and hope.
It’s really difficult looking at our narratives and allowing them to shift (or even acknowledging that a shift might be possible or desirable).
I appreciate the way that tarot invites me into these difficult and rich conversations with myself and with my stories.
Image description: A notecard hanging from a string. Text reads: Do you like me?
(This is an edited and expanded version of a post that was shared with my patrons one week early. If you’d like early access to my posts, and the ability to suggest changes or make comments before they go up on my blog, consider backing my Patreon!)
On April 9, 2018, I wrote to Jonathan, who has been a patron since the beginning of the project (and a partner for 10 years!), “Your birthday is coming! What do you want me to write about this year?”
He wrote back almost immediately, “Caring what others think.”
I like decisiveness.
And I like this topic.
Just to expand on the topic…
The shame I feel over caring what other people think is difficult to navigate. When I was a kid I was told, over and over again, that I was just supposed to be myself and not care what other people think.
That sentiment really oversimplifies things. On the one hand, I get it. Caring too much about what other people think can really paralyze you. It gives other people a lot of power over you. It creates a lot of pressure, sometimes, to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. It stunts your ability to develop your own ideas, your own interests and your own destiny.
Caring what others think is seen as a sign of weakness. It means you don’t have your own personality; you’re two-faced; you lack principle and your own moral compass. We don’t trust people who care what other people think because we think of those people as fake. Caring what others think “too much” can be inaccurately pathologized as mental disorders such as paranoia, bi-polar and attention seeking disorders.
On the other hand, all of the non-vocal messaging you get is that it’s actually really, really important to worry about what other people think. Your social networks depend on what other people think about you. Your job depends on what other people think about you. Your ability to access resources depends on what other’s think of you.
It’s a cruel myth that only the weak care what other’s think. Corporations literally invest billions in controlling what other people think about them. Politicians direct a considerable amount of their power and capital towards carefully curating their public image. Many of our public institutions operate entirely based on people’s impression of the institution.
Clearly, it’s important to carefully balance the stock you place in what other’s think and your own self-confidence and commitment to be “true to yourself” despite social pressure. It’s complicated.
I’m out of balance over it. Caring what other’s think causes me anxiety. When I feel like someone is upset or angry with me I fixate on that. When I feel like someone thinks poorly of me or has a negative impression of my skill set it completely eats away at me. It makes conflict resolution very difficult for me to manage sometimes. It also means that I sometimes have a hard time being honest and authentic not only with the people around me but also with myself. I’m struggling to find a way to bring that into balance. I think, over the years, I’ve developed real strengths because of my obsession with what other’s think. I’m very keen to non-verbal communication and a pretty empathetic person. I’ve learned a lot about social cues and can pick out social patterns better than most. Meeting expectations is important to me and, when I have proper balance in my life, I’m pretty good at exceeding expectations because I care what other people think. I think my compassion also stems from caring and that’s not something I care to lose.
So, I think the concept of caring what others think is one that could really benefit from some exploration. It’s one of those deceptively simple ideas that actually has a lot of layers and a lot of depth to it.
After this post was suggested, this topic kept coming up. And it kept coming up in ways that really supported Jonathan’s insight into the way this idea “has a lot of layers and a lot of depth to it.”
It showed up in narrative therapy sessions, where one of my community members identified “caring what others think” as something that is both a cherished characteristic that allows them to bring empathy and compassion into their relationships, and also something that keeps them from acting on their own desires and needs.
Then it showed up in that same way for another community member. They care a lot about what other people think of them, and it’s both something they value in themselves and also something that they experience as a block or obstacle when trying to care for their own needs.
Then it showed up in a similar was for a third community member, who also talked about this particular experience in work contexts, where caring about what coworkers think is a skill that keeps them from oversharing and allows them to maintain boundaries, but also has them feeling isolated sometimes.
This idea of “caring what others think” became the basis of the “too much of a good thing” project that I’m undertaking as part of my master of narrative therapy and community work program (Note: I am still looking for participants for the project, so if it sounds interesting to you, get in touch!) Because the idea was growing so much, it seemed impossible to come back to this original writing prompt. I felt that I needed to get the whole project done in order to present something worthwhile.
(Sounds a bit like I’m caring about what others think of my writing, right? This shows up frequently for me, and it means I generally publish work that I’m proud of, and I don’t share nearly as much as I would like to. For the next while, I’m working on challenging this urge towards perfection and I’ll be sharing things that are a little less intensely edited. We’ll see how it goes!)
In May, this idea of “caring what others think” showed up in my own life in a big way when I was suddenly thrown headfirst into a situation where “what people think about me” became something I had to care about intensely. I was feeling (and being) observed and critiqued in personal and impactful ways. Writing about this topic felt more and more impossible.
It was everywhere! Overwhelming!
I decided to come back to this post, even though the “too much of a good thing” project is still underway, because “caring what others think” seems critical on its own. Although this topic fits within a larger framework, it deserves its own examination and exploration. As Jonathan pointed out, “it’s a cruel myth that only the weak care what other people think.” But that myth is everywhere. It’s one that impacts most of us in one way or another.
Ask the Internet
If you google “caring what other people think,” you’re likely to get a whole bunch of results with instructions for how to stop, and often with language that pathologizes or shames people who do care what other people think.
In one post on Psychology Today, the author writes, “One of our more enduring social fallacies is the idea that what others think of us actually matters. While this notion clearly has primal evolutionary roots, its shift from survival instinct to social imperative has become one of our greatest obstacles to self-acceptance.”
I have questions about this.
Is it a fallacy that what others think of us actually matters?
What my boss thinks of me matters to my employment.
It matters what the community members who consult with me think of me. It impacts my efficacy as a narrative therapist. Some research suggests that the best indicator of success in the therapeutic relationship is the “therapeutic alliance” (meaning the positive relationship between the therapist and the person consulting them). One review of the literature found that multiple studies “indicated that the quality of the alliance was more predictive of positive outcome than the type of intervention.” If that’s the case, it matters a whole lot to my work as a narrative therapist what people think!
I also wonder about the “primal evolutionary roots” of caring what people think. I am skeptical of most evolutionary psychology, given its many problems. (For one view on these problems, this problematically hetero- and cisnormative Scientific American article is a good place to start.) I particularly question this “primal” nature of the issue given the very contemporary context within which so many of us do care what others think.
For marginalized individuals especially, caring what people think can keep us alive. Caring what others think means knowing, deeply and intimately, what the dominant expectations are so that we can do our best to adapt to them.
For neurodivergent folks on the autism spectrum, caring what others think is part of the training – look at the language used in the popular Social Thinking program. (Content note on this link at the Social Thinking site for unsettling language about autistic kids. If you just want to read critiques, many of them by autistic writers, this facebook thread is full of information, but also upsetting to read.) “Expected” and “unexpected” behaviours, where “unexpected” means that the child hasn’t responded to the “hidden rule” and could be making people “uncomfortable.” Talk about teaching kids to care what others think!
On a more positive note, caring what other people thinks can foster a sense of being “accountable to the whole,” to quote my friend and mentor Stasha. This accountability to the whole means that we maintain an awareness of how our actions impact each other, and when Stasha made this comment I wondered whether a more intentional and compassionate relationship with the idea of caring what people think might be one way to challenge the individualism and isolation that our current capitalist context enforces.
Another article, this time from Lifehack, quotes Lao Tzu, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” and concludes, “Once you give up catering to other people’s opinion and thoughts, you will find out who you truly are, and that freedom will be like taking a breath for the first time.”
Again, I have questions.
The Socially Constructed Self
Is “who I truly am” really something that happens entirely in isolation, entirely internal and apart from other people and what they think? I don’t think that it is.
I brought this question to one of the narrative therapy groups I’m part of, and I was very worried about what the group would think of me. I wrote, “This is an absolutely ridiculous question because I feel like I have read *at least* seven different version of this idea, but I’ve been searching and failing, so, halp?! I am looking for a good, comprehensive-ish, ideally readable-by-non-academic-audiences (but I’ll take an academic article also) resource on the idea of the self being shaped by context and relationships.”
I felt ashamed of the fact that I needed help, but the responses that I got were incredibly validating!
One person commented to say they were following, and I said, “You have no idea how relieving it is to realize I’m not alone in this.” They replied, “I think one of the most dangerous things a therapist can do is let their ego in the way of asking questions – well, that’s what I tell myself as I manage my “imposter syndrome” 😉”
Someone else said, “So glad you asked!! I need just the thing and didn’t think of asking here!”
So many of us caring so much what each other would think, and finding solidarity and companionship in realizing that we’re not alone in it. Although the way that anticipatory shame keeps us silent is a problem, I think that the shared experience is valuable. And normal. In that group, we are all either practicing therapists or students of narrative therapy or both, and we still care deeply about what other people will think of us. We can respond to the ways in which this caring becomes a problem without demanding that we suddenly cease caring entirely. And without accepting that we are somehow incomplete because of it!
One of the responses was from someone linking me to this resource by Ken Gergen.
Gergen’s “Orienting Principles” are here (from the link – I highly recommend following the link and listening to his talk!):
We live in world of meaning. We understand and value the world and ourselves in ways that emerge from our personal history and shared culture.
Worlds of meaning are intimately related to action. We act largely in terms of what we interpret to be real, rational, satisfying, and good. Without meaning there would be little worth doing.
Worlds of meaning are constructed within relationships. What we take to be real and rational is given birth in relationships. Without relationship there would be little of meaning.
New worlds of meaning are possible. We are not possessed or determined by the past. We may abandon or dissolve dysfunctional ways of life, and together create alternatives.
To sustain what is valuable, or to create new futures, requires participation in relationships. If we damage or destroy relations, we lose the capacity to sustain a way of life, and to create new futures.
When worlds of meaning intersect, creative outcomes may occur. New forms of relating, new realities, and new possibilities may all emerge.
When worlds of meaning conflict, they may lead to alienation and aggression, thus undermining relations and their creative potential.
Through creative care for relationships, the destructive potentials of conflict ma be reduced, or transformed.
Two things jump out at me particularly: that worlds of meaning are created within relationships (which I take as a direct contradiction of the idea that we “find out who we truly are” only outside of relationship and others influence), and that together we can create alternatives.
On a similar note, I also have questions about why freedom is so individualized, if there is so much creative potential in relationships.
Of course, these articles that advise us on how to stop caring what others think of us aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t have relationships, and treating them as if they are would be setting up a straw man that isn’t there. However, I think that there is an individualist discourse present in these articles that suggests that we can have relationships without caring what the people in our relationships think of us, and I think that discourse invites a lack of accountability and collaboration, and suggests that there is a core self that exists apart from the self within relationships. I disagree with this idea.
Melanie Grier, another wise friend, said:
I think a good question to always ask yourself is *whose* approval you are seeking and how it serves you. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve returned to school and have been working to let go of the desire for approval from my parents, understanding that as a practically impossible pursuit.
It feels good to be liked… and I think if that is your motive, just to be liked for the dopamine rush it provides, it can cause an issues once your self-worth can easily become interconnected with the external experience completely independent of you.
But the desire for approval from valued mentors, friends, partners, peers can serve us differently – it can help us build functional, healthy relationships where both parties are mutually invested in behaving in a way that results in approval or liking. It holds us accountable in a way, wanting to do right by a person. And I think we often grow by keeping expectations of each other reasonable. Working to feel validated, if consciously motivated, can help us do awesome things, I believe…
I find even knowing that people dislike me helps me self-reflect. It can again clarify values, sometimes discovering where you’re not willing to budge.
A lot of this resonates for me, because there are many elements of society that will never like or approve of me, because I am non-binary, I am bisexual, I am polyamorous, I am AFAB and often am read as femme. When I care what these people think of me (in the sense of wanting them to like or approve of me), I am caught in an impossible trap because the only way to gain that approval is to change who I am. However, even there I do care what they think because what they think points to systemic and structural injustices. I care what they think because I want to change the social context within which those thoughts of transantagonism, heterosexism, femmephobia, and all the rest (as well as all the injustices that I don’t face as a white settler with thin privilege, English language privilege, educational privilege, etc.)
Melanie also said, “I think we are too interconnected as a species and biosphere to be an island. We impact each other too much.”
In yet another article, Tinybuddha suggests that, “Worrying about what other people think about you is a key indicator that you do not feel whole without the approval of others,” and, “When you are truly content with who you are, you stop being concerned with whether or not other people like you.”
The same types of questions come up.
Why does caring about the approval of others mean I don’t “feel whole”? Why can’t I “feel whole” while also caring about approval? Why is the approval of others automatically dismissed, when it is critical to having consensual and mutual relationships? What is active consent, other than enthusiastically and intentionally caring about getting the approval of the person you’re interacting with before taking an action?
This connects to Melanie’s points about whose approval we’re seeking, and to the idea of certain types of approval being entirely unavailable. Social isolation is recognized as a source of pain and distress, and social isolation is tied directly to what people think of us (whether we are likeable, friendable, loveable). And yet, the idea that we shouldn’t care what people think seems to greatly privilege individualism – being ourselves, being okay with being ourselves, even if that means being by ourselves.
My questions in writing this post kept coming back to why we valorize individualization. Why is it better to be an island? Why do we even believe we can be islands?! Isn’t there a whole song about how that doesn’t really work out? Sure, it may be true that the rock feels no pain, and the island never cries, and maybe that’s what we are hoping for when we distance ourselves from caring what others think. But that’s not the life that I want for myself.
Melissa Day points out that this valuing of individualization only happens within certain contexts. She writes:
[W]e fetishise individualism only within certain prescribed boundaries. Think of the hipster – I was into that before it was cool. Okay, great, you’re an individual. But someone who’s into completely different music/food/subjects and isn’t doing it to be “cool” or doesn’t have those become popular isn’t looked on as a heroic individual, but rather a weirdo or a freak (and yes, those words hurt and were chosen specifically). The sense I get is that there are two types of “don’t care what others think.” 1. They feel secure enough that who they are or what they like falls in society’s norms that they can be individual but still part of the whole 2. They like what they like and it falls so far outside society’s norms that caring about what others think really isn’t an option. This is written from the perspective of someone who had two choices growing up – change who you are and conform or stop caring about other people, be yourself, and take the lumps that followed.
I think… that it ties into this idea of everyone is special and unique. I would think the end goal of being different comes from a place of “If I am the same as everyone else, I will not be Special and Special is good.”
We are, collectively, put into a complex conundrum – we must care what other people think, and we must fit in, but we must do it in exactly the right way or we risk deviating too far from the norm and being punished for it.
As NoirLuna points out, “I feel like life would be way easier if blending in had been one of my options, but I figured out young it wasn’t, and managed to stop trying. (Which was for the good.)”
Wanting to Be Liked
Why is it a problem to care whether or not people like me?
I want my friends, my family, my lovers, my companions on this journey- I want them to like me!
I want them to like me because I know that I tend to spend time with people that I like. I am invested in relationships with people that I like. And I assume that other people are, if not exactly like me, then at least a little bit like me. So if my friends like me, they’ll want to spend time with me. They’ll want to be close to me. And I am invested in that outcome.
I have found that people are more likely to spend time with me when they like me.
And the reverse is also true. I have found that I don’t enjoy spending time with people that I don’t like, and I don’t enjoy spending time with people who don’t like me!
But then again…
There is a way of caring about what others think that can invite trouble. As Jonathan writes, “I’m out of balance over it. Caring what other’s think causes me anxiety. When I feel like someone is upset or angry with me I fixate on that. When I feel like someone thinks poorly of me or has a negative impression of my skill set it completely eats away at me. It makes conflict resolution very difficult for me to manage sometimes. It also means that I sometimes have a hard time being honest and authentic not only with the people around me but also with myself.”
Many folks can relate to that.
This topic has been challenging to write about because I, too, care “too much” about what other people think. I want people to like me. I want people to think that I am a good and worthy person. I want people to think that I am competent and capable.
The problem, as I have come to understand it in the process of sitting with this prompt, is not necessarily in caring what others think (I think I’ve been clear that I don’t consider that a problem!) but rather, when I create a totalizing narrative of myself based on what other people think. What I mean by that is, if I can only be “a good person” when everyone else agrees that I am so, that’s a problem. It’s a problem because no person is good all the time, no person can be.
Similarly, if I want to be a “worthy person” and I can only perceive myself to be that when everyone thinks I am, that’s a problem!
The problem, in my mind, is when there is only room for a single story of the self. When that story is the one told by someone else’s opinion of us (including their opinion that we can only be “whole”, or “free”, or “authentic” when we don’t care what others think), it invites so much shame to the table. It invites us into so many feelings of personal failure. We need many stories of ourselves – stories of being good and stories of being less good, stories of being liked and stories of being less liked, stories of success and stories of growth. It is okay to care what other people think. It is okay to be conflicted about caring what other people think. It is okay to actively reject what other people think. There’s space. We need that space.
I struggled with this topic because, as much as I reject the idea that caring what other people think means I am somehow “not authentic” or “not whole” or “not free”, I have internalized the idea that I shouldn’t care what other people think. That it “isn’t any of my business” and that “the only thing I can control is myself.”
But this framing grates.
It feels wrong.
It feels far too individualizing.
Of course I care what people think of me! And so do the community members who consult me, and so does the patron who requested this topic, and so might you.
The idea that we should be fully autonomous, insulated individuals, small islands of personhood operating on our own, without caring or being moved by other people’s opinions… I think that’s a really harmful and hurtful idea.
That doesn’t mean that I am governed by other people’s thoughts, or that I am responsible for their thoughts, or that I am incomplete because I care about their thoughts. It means that, as Ken Gergen outlines, my reality (my worlds of meaning) is created through collaboration and context. When I engage meaningfully and intentionally with the people around me, including what they think of me and my actions, a lot of good in my life is made possible by this caring.
Image description: A black and white photo of the back of a Black woman’s head in a head wrap. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.
This is a guest post by Mel Vee.
Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.
This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note for rape, sexual assault, descriptions of misogynoir.
I learned from an early age that my body was not my own.
My Black body was created to be of service to anyone who showed up and demanded it. This Black body, the only home I have on this speck of stardust navigating the cosmos, was as foreign and alien to me as those distant galaxies.
Why should it have been any other way? I received the message clearly that my body was a means through which others could actualize their own wants and desires. My body was not a safe nor joyous place; not a place to be treasured and tended to gently. My body was a vessel – to serve others, for men’s desires, and for birthing children, but never for me.
My education in the precarity and disposability of the Black female body began at home with the women in my family. Their necessarily strong, beautiful black bodies were always in service to others. Most of the women in my family were and are never still.
One aunt, whom I love dearly, always comes to mind. As far back as I can remember, she was always in motion, toiling away for others. She toiled in her home, at her work as a nurse’s aide and in her church. She did it all. Raised a family, held down a career, opened her home to countless unwanted and discarded people in the community and never spoke a word about her struggles to anyone. No one ever questioned what toll this constant availability and service would wreak on her body and mind.
Her pace continued unabated for the entirety of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years until one day, the inevitable happened. She snapped, culminating in a one month stay in a psychiatric ward. People whispered about what might be the culprit for her decline without ever approaching the truth, that she was used up until she had nothing more to offer.
Barely a few months of marginal concern went by before things returned to “normal”. The unceasing demands, the perpetual toil and the complete disregard for her well-being until her health completely failed and simply never returned. She now spends much of her time bedridden. I feel blessed when I receive a message from her because it means her pain eased up just enough to manage a text. My aunt, once a pillar of our family, reduced to sending texts during a brief respite from her unending pain.
Her body bears the cost of continual and unceasing labour for people who took and took and left her an empty shell. Her body is racked with osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and she constantly struggles to maintain a healthy weight. I am certain some will attribute this to the inevitable ravages of age, but I know in my bones biology is only one part of the narrative.
Her body fought back in the only way available, it shut down. My aunt toiled for years without rest for others. Everyone around her demanded more and she gave more. When her health declined, all the people who had taken from her vanished, without a trace. I wish I could say my aunt is an isolated case, but this is the fate of many women in my family. Our bodies, time and energy are used up until there is nothing left and few, if any, stick around to pick up the pieces. My aunt cautions me continually about her fate and encourages me to take care of myself. It is a grim reminder that I take to heart.
What is most grotesque about the situation of my aunt and so many women like her is how normalized this is; how people expect the Black female body to be at service and at the ready.
Our bodies are not meant to be lovingly inhabited by ourselves. The roots of these expectations are deep, undoubtedly tracing their history to chattel slavery where our bodies were literally not our own. How do you love a body that was never meant for you to enjoy; a body that was historically regarded as property and in contemporary times is a reminder of your presumed inferiority?
My own body bears the scars of the precarity and disposability of the Black female body. My left arm is scarred from my wrist up to near my shoulder. All of these wounds are self-inflicted. Even after a decade of being free from self-harming behaviour, my scars are still visible. I wear them openly as an act of defiance, to hold a mirror up to a society whose violence I internalized and enacted upon myself.
I had no shape, no words for the anger and hatred I felt for being born in a Black female body; a body people regarded as valuable only so far as it could serve. I lashed out against a world which continually shows its brutal and naked contempt for me and people who look like me. I lashed out against the one person I knew had no recourse. Myself. I lashed out because rage is all I could muster. Someone had to be punished for the wound of being a Black girl in a society drenched in anti-Black racism and misogynoir.
In the process of addressing trauma and healing in my life, it has become evident that my internalized misogynoir had caused me to disassociate and distance myself from my body. I became an unwilling occupant in a body that others had treated with the utmost contempt; culminating in rape, sexual assault and violence. I sought to protect myself emotionally in the way traumatized people do, by distancing myself emotionally from the source of pain, my brown and despised body; a body that was valuable only to the extent it could serve.
I am now undergoing the painful but enriching process of coming home to my body; the process of reclaiming a body others have treated with contempt and disrespect. I am now learning to inhabit my body and treat it with love, respect and dignity. I am learning slowly to prioritize the needs and desires of my body. I am learning that my body is worthy of fighting for and keeping alive.
I am coming home now to this brown body after 28 years. I am coming home to this brown body which has been the site of so much grief and violence. I am coming home to this brown body where I laugh, love, fight, move, dance and sing. I am coming home to this brown body, imperfections and all. I am coming home to the only body that will carry me until I die.
I am reclaiming my body in defiance of a society that regards brown bodies with violence.
I am reclaiming my body in honour of all the Black women who no longer can.
I am reclaiming my body so others know it is possible.
I am coming home to my brown body, in the only home I will ever know in this beautiful and sometimes terrifying cosmos.
I am finally coming home.
This post is the final piece in the third contribution to the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!
Also check out the other posts in the series:
Image description: Tiffany looks at a pile of laundry.
The following is a collaborative discussion that I was invited into by the amazing Emily Leedham. Intro and outro are Emily’s words. We are publishing this a year later because the process of editing it into a readable format was daunting and emotionally exhausting. This conversation is cross-posted on Emily’s website here. Collective ownership of ideas and words! I love it.
My divorce was one of the most isolating events I have ever experienced. I got married young, so there were few of my friends who could relate to what I was going through or know how to offer support. It was also an emotionally exhausting situation most people understandably didn’t want to get too tangled up in. But I also shut a lot of people out. I was fragile and extremely sensitive to judgement.
Around the same time, my friends Tiffany and Sarah were going through devastating breakups of their own. I reached out to them both after Tiffany had posted this article, If Community Were a Safe Space to Fall Apart. It spoke to the isolation and alienation I felt:
“My friend and his former wife had gone through these divorces in secret and silence. Their union and wedding had been public. Their divorces took place mostly in the shadows.
And it made me ponder: how is that the coming together is in the light, in public, a public celebration — but the falling apart done in the shadows, in silence, in loneliness?
If we are a community, we should be together through thin and thick, for better and for worse. We stand together in the valleys and on the mountaintops. How do we make it possible for us to stand together when each of us goes through the valleys?
Why do we celebrate together but suffer in silence?
It made me realize that we have no rituals for suffering, for breaking up, for hurting. I am not sure what those rituals would look like, but it does seem like something to seek.”
Mourning rituals. Community. Those both sounded like things I wanted to seek out as well.
I asked Tiffany and Sarah if they would be willing to talk about their own experiences mourning relationships both on their own and with friends and family. Could we develop better processes by which to grieve and mourn with each other? Could we invite others into that process in a safe and healthy way?
What follows is a conversation between myself, Tiffany, and Sarah, about loss, mourning, and community support. The initial conversation happened in Google Docs from February through April 2017.
We are publishing this a year later because the process of editing it into a readable format was daunting and emotionally exhausting.
We took our time. Like mourning itself, it wasn’t something you could make follow a schedule.
This is an approximately 35 minute read and covers a lot of ground, potentially triggering to those who have had traumatic breakups. We suggest this conversation is best read in a safe, comfortable environment where readers can take breaks and self-care measures as needed. We hope that this conversation will help others in their mourning and healing processes both individually and within their greater communities.
February 9, 2017
Emily: I asked you both here because all three of us have been through pretty earth shattering breakups, resulting in significant changes in lifestyle and living situations.
For myself, it’s been really difficult to know how to let others into this grieving process, especially when as a result of all this, I found myself in an extremely vulnerable situation, both physically, financially, and emotionally. I shut basically everyone out. I felt like I had to, it was an act of self-preservation. But I didn’t want to be alone. I just didn’t know what else to do.
So I want to talk about mourning rituals, how to create them and how to incorporate others into them so we can resist the alienation that happens during some of the most vulnerable moments of our lives.
Sarah: Last fall I experienced a brutal breakup that left me feeling completely abandoned and discarded. It came out of nowhere and a lot of my friends/community had been following our “epic” love story (he bought me a house, we blended families, had a dreamy life, then he ditched).
Because I had celebrated so much of the relationship with my friends online, when it ended I felt like I needed to share with them. I hadn’t been on Facebook for about a month at the point of the breakup, and immediately activated my account after he left, knowing I would need the support of my community or I would quite possibly not make it through. I TOTALLY grieved publicly, but was very careful not to sound bitter or vindictive, I just needed support.
Emily: Thanks so much for sharing!
Tiffany: Whoa. That would be brutal. I’m glad you were able to find a community space for that grieving, but I can imagine it was a tightrope to balance on.
Sarah: Yeah, I didn’t want to teeter over the edge of shitting all over him and lowering myself, I guess?
Tiffany: Legit. I have had a few big relationship transitions, and when we first talked about this project, I wanted to discuss my divorce which happened almost ten years ago. It was a pretty major break from one life into another.
But right now, I think I would almost rather talk about my most recent transition, which wasn’t a breakup, but was pretty cataclysmic and didn’t leave space for public grieving. If that’s okay?
Emily: Of course! Yes, whatever is weighing on you the most right now.
Tiffany: Awesome. Thanks!
So, then, my story for the purposes of this, is that I fell in love with someone who was married with two kids. He fell in love with me. There was an awkward and not really open period of trying to incorporate polyamory (I am polyamorous and was living with a partner when this happened). His spouse was not okay with it, lines were crossed, there were five months of zero contact, then there was a long period of in-house separation for him, my relationship with the partner I lived with got very … hmm.
See, even talking about it is so fucking hard. I moved out. Joe and I live together now. I’m stepparenting, and it’s a massive change (I never had or wanted my own kids). I struggle with the label of “homewrecker” and also with all the challenges of being a stepparent while queer and non-binary. There’s a LOT of grief. And it doesn’t feel like there is any space for it.
I was very quiet on social media about what was happening, because I didn’t want to hurt the partner I was moving out on – we had just bought a house together that year. We didn’t break up, and are still together. And… the moving out would probably have happened regardless of the situation with Joe. It wasn’t working, the way we were together, in that house. The house was a huge part of what changed the sustainability of that relationship in that format. There were challenges. But talking about it hit some raw, painful nerves for that partner. AND talking about it opened me up to all the judgment about my role in the ending of Joe’s relationship. If Joe and I hadn’t happened, and if we hadn’t happened in the way that we did, the transition of that relationship would have happened differently. And the trajectory of Joe’s relationship would also have happened differently. SO, yeah.
Sarah: That would be super hard to talk about! Thanks for sharing it with us. Relationships and love can be so dang tricky.
Emily: Yes, thank you so much, I know these narratives are just…they’re not simple. They never get said because we like to put relationships in little boxes with bows on top and the reality is, I think, they’re just so fluid and there are so many different dynamics that spill over into each other… and then there’s love. How are we supposed to grieve when we’re not allowed to have complex narratives? No wonder we hide and isolate, or at least for me.
I’ll share just a bit more about my story, because it does relate to yours a bit, Tiffany. I got married when I was 22. At the time I got engaged, I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist. I had all these ideas in my head about what an ideal relationship should look like. I found what appeared to be that, and in so many ways it was very good for me, very nice and lovely.
But I had changed so much over the 7 years we were together and the 4 years we were married. I had a different outlook on life, on myself, on relationships. And then, I ended up falling in love with someone else. And I left my husband for someone else. And I can’t tell this story because of the narrative that paints me as…I don’t know, the fickle, untrustworthy, manipulative woman.
Tiffany: That narrative. It is SO POWERFUL. Pervasive.
Sarah: Super similar to my first marriage too. I left for him for a friend I was in love with, then ditched the friend too ha. I hated myself for years.
Tiffany: So… I left my marriage, lo these many years ago, after I had an affair. That marriage was so toxic for me. It was so bad for me. It was crushing me. And I had come to such peace with the fact that my affair was the best thing I could have done for myself.
But now? Now that I have this label again, in a different way, in a way that *includes children* and “breaking up a family” – my shame, ten year old shame that I really never processed then because I put on this hugely defiant “I AM GOING TO SURVIVE, I AM ALLOWED TO BE SEXUAL” … not mask, but it was performative, for sure. I never processed that shame because I felt like if I even admitted an inch of it, I would be overwhelmed by people’s judgement. But now I’m feeling this “I’m a homewrecker” shame and the compound interest is here to demand payment. It is so tough.
Sarah: I totally hear that. In those cases the narrative is soooo complicated. This past breakup was the first time I’d been involved in a very CLEAR case of “I AM THE VICTIM” and it was almost… relieving? Exciting? I was LEFT, and it wasn’t my fault! Clean storyline, nothing but sympathy.
Whereas my previous two marriages ended because of me and were very unhealthy for me mentally. I will say though, in therapy, the best thing I heard was “You’re allowed to change your mind”. That has stuck with me, and I feel like as women we put so many expectations of “how to be” in relationships – like be a good girlfriend/wife/lover. When we change our minds it feels disgusting to us? Whyyyyy.
Emily: Okay, I have like serious shivers, honestly, you guys, like thank you so much for talking through all this and being so vulnerable here. I want to touch on how our relationship narratives determine how we go about mourning/processing with friends and family. I think that’s a key thing that has shown up here.
Sarah: I also wanna clarify that I was still utterly gutted and am still recovering. It’s just a completely different mourning process than the self-loathing ones I’d experienced previously, and it’s weird to feel mega love for yourself after something like that goes down.
I want to talk about the stereotype of like…not airing dirty laundry, or being a “burden.” Like you said, Sarah, you had to walk a fine line between asking for support and not being bitter. And I think we’re so often conditioned to think of ourselves as needy and weak for expressing our brokenness online. So what are ways we can counter this?
Tiffany: Yes, the burden thing is tricky. Because the fact that we can’t talk about a lot of this openly (and I’m still struggling to talk about this even within this space – shame is such an isolating emotion! And so is fear) – it means that the few people we CAN talk to, or at least the few people that I found I could talk to, I talked to A LOT. And I ended up feeling like I was damaging those relationships because the weight was so much, and it was just all bearing down on me and on these few support people. That made it hard.
(And on that topic, I can definitely say that I had a suicidal depression absolutely decimate a relationship once and it was so awful to lose that relationship – I did get it back, but I lost it for a while – because of that weight. That’s another thing we aren’t allowed to be open about!) So, yes. Burden. Fear. Weight.
Sarah: I’ve always had a hard time with isolation, and one of my coping mechanisms (I think) has become meeting new people, getting into one BIG HEAVY conversation with them that we both are suuuper into, and then kinda vanishing? Like not fully, but I always have disclosure regret and feel bad when they want to be super friends after and I’m at home realizing I used them for therapy. I don’t know if it’s cool of me or not – probably not – but I’m not doing it on purpose!
Emily: Omg I totally get thaaaaat haha. And I think it’s because, I don’t know, if it’s someone you don’t know too well, you can feel like you’re bonding and sharing something intimate with them but don’t feel obligated to pursue more of a relationship that you don’t have energy for.
Tiffany: Yuuuup. Me too. I love the idea of being radically open about my experiences and my weaknesses but… kinda, more at a distance. Lol. Radically open on Facebook, crying in complete silence in the bathroom at home, kinda deal.
Sarah: Haha yes totally. During my last breakup there were a couple people I didn’t know well who full on STEPPED UP and went all out to help me, and then I felt sooo obliged to reciprocate and was just so drained by the breakup, I ended up feeling like a HUGE jerk.
Emily: Yes, I think it’s really important to recognize when someone is grieving, they might not be able to give you as much energy as you give them. They might not be able to give you any energy back at all. I think for someone in that position, you might have to recognize that, I don’t know, you’re almost commiting a random act of kindness that may never be reciprocated?
Tiffany: I totally agree. I think that the fact that we don’t have many mechanisms for widespread community support makes that tough. There IS an expectation of reciprocity. And reciprocity in a “timely fashion” because we have the ideal of the nuclear family and even, I think, the idea of the “squad” or small group of tight friends. But that kind of dynamic doesn’t work when there is a major, life-altering grieving happening. Because you just can’t bounce back and reciprocate right away. And that means that a lot of relationships become collateral losses, because big grief breaks the social contract. (The current iteration of the social contract is fucked, imo, but it’s still there.) At least, it seems that way to me.
Sarah: Totally agree. I will say that opening up publicly (and having the clean narrative to do so – like it would have been so different if Facebook had been around during my first divorce), was super beneficial and like, the commiseration that poured in was very healing. It’s so messed up that it has to be SUCH a clean storyline though. Like I literally only lost one acquaintance, whereas after my first divorce, I lost my entire hometown haha.
Tiffany: YUP. My whole extended family, for like a year. Everyone loved my ex-husband. And it’s not that the clean narrative makes the grief easier – I don’t think it does. It’s still such a major, major loss and so crushing. It doesn’t change the GRIEF. It just changes what avenues to support are open.
Emily: I relate to the family thing, I’m in the middle of a divorce and my ex, well, yeah, my entire family adored him so it’s a pretty big mystery to them – most of them – why I would think of leaving. And I moved cities, for sure. I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad I’m where I’m at, but it still hurts to feel so abandoned just for making choices based on contexts that literally only I knew, only I was capable of making these decisions for myself.
Sarah: Same! It took years before I could make my mom see why leaving my first husband was so crucial. Religion played a big part too. Like the idea was “a marriage only ends out of selfishness.” And like, my mom had escaped an abusive marriage, yet it was still so hard to explain to her why my marriage was horrible. In that case, I have a lot of resentment for the church, etc, but that’s another conversation ha.
Tiffany: Yeah, my mom also didn’t understand for a long time. But it also really hurts that my extended family is accepting me now, more than they EVER have before, because I’ve got a relationship that they can understand. Now I’ve got a cisgender man as a partner, and two kids. Now I “fit.” My bisexuality, my polyamory, my genderqueerness – it’s all erased. It’s still there – Jon and Scott and my girlfriend still come to Christmas dinner when I host it – but the extended family just sees me and Joe and the kids, and we fit in their box. And I fucking hate it. And it leaves no room for my complicated feelings about these changes, and it definitely leaves no room for my queerness or my gender.
Sarah: I recently came out as bi to my mom by telling her about a date I went on with a girl and she was super chill which was a massive relief, but she was probs only okay with it because me and my sibs have put her through so much at this point. Anyway at a later time I’d be interested in hearing more about navigating as bi!
Tiffany: Totally!!! It’s one of my favourite topics. 😀
Emily: Yay!! I am also bi but not super open about it to my family, for reasons. But it makes me happy we are all here together haha, go us <3
So given these narratives, again, that erase us, erase our agency, erase people’s ability to perceive us as capable of making our own decisions….well, let’s just bring it to an individual level and talk about personal mourning rituals. Because getting others involved, as we can see, is a really complicated, and sometimes unsafe process! Depending.
For me personally, I found myself in a place where most of my self-care rituals were thrown out of the loop. And those self-care rituals were developed out of financial stability, out of being in a certain socio-economic status. My self care rituals involved eating nice food, seeing my therapist I could afford through my partner’s benefits, and other things that sort of became habitual when I needed to take care of myself.
Here, in this situation, I was very isolated with few resources or people I felt like I could trust. But what I noticed I did start doing is documenting everything that was happening – I started writing more, taking pictures – I started noticing all these tiny little things I would take pictures of, and that would sort of ground me. Even if I wasn’t sharing it with anyone, I was taking control of my own narrative for myself, and affirming that what I was experiencing was valid and important, even if no one else saw it. And I found that to be incredibly valuable.
Sarah: I love that. I think I’ve had bursts of self-care, but am only now thinking in terms of “rituals”, and I guess mine is walking and writing jokes? I have to walk every day, for at least 30 min. I have to write jokes and they have to be positive and (if I can manage) not self-depreciatory. I enjoy wine but try not to ritualize it too much haha. Mainly walking, breathing, I don’t really know what else is a constant for me. With kids everything goes loopdy-loop, it can make quiet self-time tricky. Walking though, and jokes. Like my comedian friends can tell when I’m having a hard time because I’m tweeting jokes more haha. That’s when they’ll check in.
Emily: Haha, I love that! It’s nice when friends are like, attuned to you that well and check in. I think that’s huge. Last year, I had a friend who would check in, and still periodically checks in, because she realized that saying “Oh, I’m here if you need me” was bullshit. People suffering don’t want to be burdens, to say “Hello friend, may I assail your ears for an hour about my heartbreak?” Like, that gets back to that feeling of “Am I using this person, this friend?” But if the friend or group voluntarily checks in to say, “Hey, want to talk? Hey, how are you doing” that’s an invitation, and I think mitigates that feeling of burden, because they’ve welcomed you to share.
Sarah: Totally, totally. I’m lucky to have a supportive community, and again, lucky to be able to use online platforms as a way to vent or express pain when I feel like I need a new/healing perspective. But also, super great to have friends who call (like who CALLS anymore, rare precious unicorns).
Emily: I always balked at calling bc #millennial, but more and more, and probably since I moved away too…there’s just something different about someone’s actual voice, or even Facetime or something. Like texts are good, but a call feels like an “event” you know, the conversation meanders, you can’t just disengage after a few texts, you’re invested to a certain extent in having a meaningful update about each other’s lives.
Tiffany: There is so much here, both around narratives that erase, and the pressure towards tidy narratives (I have FEEEEELS about that), and also the self-care stuff, which is really near and dear to me, and yet also really challenging right now and I haven’t got a handle on it. Like, self-care plus kids? Self-care minus financial stability? Self-care plus BEING a self-care coach, plus kids, minus financial stability, plus hella shame? Questions I do nooooooooot have answered but am asking myself daily. So, definitely want to explore more.
Emily: I will say that every time I’ve opened up online, and I’ve observed with the two of you, just through Facebook, people do really respond to vulnerability. Because I don’t think there are a lot of clean narratives out there, or a lot of people that are willing to share their vulnerability in an age where it seems like we have to be these perfectly curated #brands, so I guess I will say that. I’ve experienced a lot of shame and fear from my family, but from my friends and others, people really want to know it’s okay to have these messy narratives. And that’s a huge part of healing for me, I think, is people saying “It’s ok. It’s ok.” Even just the few friends who have, it means the world. And I get messages from people saying “That thing you shared, that meant a lot to me” and that helps me heal too.
Tiffany: Yes. Agreed. I have had the same experience. At times when I was being more open about my struggles, I have gotten similar messages from people who appreciate it. One thing that has been really challenging for me in this most recent plot twist is that I haven’t been able to be as open because so many other people involved in the narrative are still involved in my life. So talking about how I feel about Scott, knowing that Scott is going to read it – it’s harder. And talking about Joe, knowing he will read it – it’s not the same as talking about the experience of being bisexual, the experience of being genderqueer, my divorce, etc. The story doesn’t just belong to me, so there are ethical and logistical issues around sharing.
It’s like talking about my move towards atheism and then towards whatever hybrid-wootheism I’m practicing now – harder to talk about because people I’m close to, who might read what I write, have feels about it. So that’s a long, long, long way of saying – YES! And also, despite the fact that this is such a valid coping mechanism, and so healing, it’s challenging to figure out how to access it again when variables shift.
Sarah: Very into exploring all this more. It’s always super cool and relieving to hear the things you’ve been turning over in your brain expressed by others, it feels like magic haha. Which is why I guess people respond to vulnerability online too. It feels like magic to connect with people now. When I had a visual art practice I always made the work unapologetically personal, and always so enjoyed when people would send me messages after because it had reached something in them, something about the super personal also being the super universal.
Emily: Magic is a good word for it <3
Feb 17, 2017
Emily: Wanted to follow up earlier but have had the most. Terrible. Two weeks ever.
Also, I got emailed a certificate of divorce this week lol, so I guess I’m officially divorced now? God, it feels so adult to say I’m divorced…more adult than being married.
I want to talk about anger and mourning. I feel like femmes have their anger policed on so many different levels, and even in the times of anguish we’re still told to always put others ahead of ourselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to be cognisant of how we express our anger and how it affects others, but sometimes it feels like it’s an emotion that’s simply not allowed at all. So how do you manage anger in this context?
It’s been challenging for me to express pain and anger over the end of my relationship because it was I who left, so therefore I forfeit my right to those emotions, apparently. Either that or there’s very little sympathy, and it’s implied I deserve whatever negative experiences occurred at the end of our relationship.
This is just…so toxic, honestly. A woman should be able to leave a relationship she feels is not right for her without fear of violence or poverty and yet this is a reality for many. But these narratives we have – that deny women any sympathy for making decisions for themselves – allow this kind of violence to be justified and normalized. Our pain and anger are erased and the pain and anger of whoever we left, or hurt, is justified.
This is not to deny my ex-partner pain, anger or mourning. The entire time this was happening I felt like my heart was being fucking torn in two because I knew how much I was hurting him. I tried to mitigate that pain as much as I could, I really did. But it hurts. it hurts. and I would never deny that.
But there are structural issues at play in relationships – and these narratives about manipulative, fickle women justify structural oppression. My partner was heartbroken, but didn’t have the added stress of worrying about rent or groceries. My partner was heartbroken but didn’t have to worry about being like, disowned by his family. My partner was heartbroken but had access to health and mental health benefits. My partner was heartbroken but could afford a lawyer, etc.
I was heartbroken and all the sudden had the rug pulled out from under me – all of these things went flying up in the air. How am I supposed to mourn and process and heal when I don’t know where I’m going to live, how I’m going to pay rent or buy groceries? And furthermore, when this vulnerable state I am in is justified because I broke someone’s heart?
I have guilt and shame for leaving him, and the added guilt and shame of being in poverty – which you’re just not supposed to talk about. You’re not! As soon as you start talking about poverty, it’s like, “Oh well you should have made better choices.” We still totally equate poverty with moral character. Those who have nice stable lives and who have been married the longest are good people. Those who got divorced for whatever reason and who experience financial fallout from that, well, they’re bad people, irresponsible.
I saw the same thing with my mother – she left my dad and faced a lifetime of stigma from it! She lived in the shadow of it her whole life – the fact that she struggled to provide for her children was seen as a moral failing in our Christian communities. I know she internalized so much of that. We lived in subsidized housing and there was a stigma around that too – like subsidized housing is for people with immoral lifestyles.
And this thinking still exists! People in Calgary will get all up in arms about affordable housing and secondary suites because they think poor people are immoral. It’s absolutely disgusting.
So, I struggle with how to express pain or anger in all this. I know at times when I was extremely financially stressed I would text him viciously. I don’t regret it, honestly. But other times I would get on Twitter and my anger would be more passive aggressive because of course I couldn’t speak about it directly, I would just go off on men in general haha. Which like, is not very healthy or constructive and didn’t really make me feel better either. I was in so much pain about the structural violence I was experiencing but I wasn’t in a place where I could articulate it in a healthy way.
So, that’s my experience with anger and pain. If either of you felt like sharing, I’d be interested in hearing your perspectives on dealing with these emotions. ♡
One last thing I’d like to talk about, besides anger, is examples of already existing mourning rituals like, when widows would wear black for a certain period, etc.
Would there be a way to incorporate some sort of outward symbol/signifier for a relationship mourning period etc? Would that be helpful on a personal level and help others in the community understand where you’re at and how to offer support etc. I don’t know what that would look like, but I like the idea of physical symbols and rituals helping to process pain and engage others.
April 19. 2017
Image description: Emily holds a basket of laundry.
Tiffany: Just caught up on the conversation I missed in Feb – so good and so valuable. <3
Emily: Thanks! How would you feel about picking up on the subject of anger and like, healthy expressions of it etc. Or would you want to start off with something else that’s been pressing? Also we’ll wait for Sarah to show up too.
How’s your day been? Haha
Tiffany: My day has been busy. I’m wearing my bee socks, because I needed to be productive and was not feeling it. Outfits = armour and encouragement. Scaffolding! It was interesting reading the comment about widows wearing black, given how I use clothing as an avenue for expression so often! I interviewed/chatted with Sarah R. for my financial self-care article just before this.
Emily: Oh awesome! I’m really looking forward to that, so important. Also the clothes thing, yeah, I feel that too. It’s been frustrating for me having to adjust what kinds of clothes I wear because buying a new piece of clothing used to be kind of a self-care thing for me haha but it really can’t be anymore, so it’s hard to adjust – as super privileged as that sounds.
Tiffany: Not at all! Financial self-care is often in direct conflict with every other kind of self-care. Thanks, capitalism. This article is actually proving suuuuper difficult and emotional to write, because I have hella hangups about money. I thought I had worked through most of them, but “working through” is always iterative and I guess I wasn’t prepared for this iteration.
Emily: Same, I mean it’s stressful because like turns out not being able to pay for things/not having autonomy is one of my triggers from growing up in child poverty. Just that sense of helplessness that sends you spiralling when one tiny thing goes wrong. It’s been a fucking trip. I always knew I was privileged when I was married, but you sort of forget just how much easier life is. You totally forget, poverty stays with you but it also fades…. Anyways. Makes it hard to sort through emotions.
Tiffany: YES!!!! SO hard to sort through the emotions. Also, not to hijack the topic, but I do think there is just so much grief that comes with life transitions that move you away from financial stability. One thing that has come up over and over for me as I try to write this article is my desperate longing for the financial stability of my marriage. It was such a shit show and such a disaster for my emotional health, but… I could just buy what I wanted, really. Camera lenses. Notebooks. Fuckin’ ridiculous scrapbooking supplies. We weren’t wealthy but we were stable. I haven’t had that since. And I didn’t grow up with it. And I *did* almost have it with Scott before I moved out to live with Joe. And part of me… wow. The just… the sadness. Sadness at just never feeling stable. I just want to feel safe and like my life is not so tenuously anchored, financially. There IS grief there. But how do you talk about that grief???? You can’t.
Emily: Holy fuck, yeah I get that. I feel an immense amount of sadness that my new relationship has to bear the weight of the fallout, both emotional and financial, of my previous relationship. Like – what, our relationship gets to have this kind of strain? There’s almost a level of like, sorrow for this current relationship sometimes, that is has to be plagued with these issues. Sometimes I do wonder if my past relationship was really that bad and if I had known how hard it would be, would I have left? I mean, not that those questions are that helpful or productive. But I do feel like…augh there’s such a cost to truly making a decision for yourself. Like this relationship means so fucking much to me and I don’t regret leaving at all, but I am angry when things are stressful and I feel like the relationship might drown because of these external factors.
Tiffany: Yeah. And there’s so much anxiety that Joe will hit this wall of grief and loss and regret it and take it back. He had a lot of financial stability. I made $40k in my most lucrative year of my life, and that was the year I was an executive admin assistant. I will NEVER do that job again. Ever. So. I mean. I grieve losing my financial stability. What will Joe end up grieving when he comes face to face with this? Ugh. And then I just can’t help judging myself in terms of financial worth = personal worth. It’s gross.
Sarah: I have so much to say about self-worth = financial stability! One of the biggest shocks/adjustments I had to make in my last relationship was *finally* not having to worry about money. He made 6 figures and everything just flowed in: the house, fun plants for the garden, great food, daily gifts that to him were just little things but to me were like “WHOA A PS4 I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD OWN ONE OF THESE”.
I grew up in poverty too, as a kid (one of six) my dad was usually unemployed and we literally survived off of food provided by the church storehouse, clothes came through charity, holiday or birthday gifts came in the mail from family. During my first marriage, my husband gave me the OPTION to work, and it blew my mind! When I eventually left him I was young, childless, and in art school, so going back to poverty was like “meh, this is normal”. Second marriage never had financial stability, I worked through my pregnancy and during newborn times, supported us while he was in school. Came out of the marriage in debt and still don’t know how I paid rent and bills afterwards as a single mom of two kids on 30k a year.
So this last relationship was WILD in terms of “oh my god this is a new reality, I don’t have to worry about money??”. I always felt uneasy about relaxing into it, and when I finally did – when I finally decided “no, I can trust this. This is finally the real thing”, he left lol.
So needless to say, having a taste of that financial freedom, especially as a parent, and then finding myself back in povertylineland fucking sucked haha. BUT, by the grace of tax audits that took 18 months to process, I got 2 years of tax returns plus retroactive child tax benefit payments, which wiped out my debt and has allowed me a savings cushion. I have a great job that I love and for the first time I feel financially secure ON MY OWN TERMS. It has completely changed how I view relationships. My world is so precious to me now, I’m SOOOO hesitant to share it with someone else who might mess it all up again. I don’t need a partner to achieve my financial dreams (it’ll still be a decade before I can buy a house but that’s fine!) or to feel secure! It took 38 years but OH WELL. I’m in control of my financial future and all my exes can all kiss my ass haha. (I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging, I HOTLY encourage you both to retain hope for your independent financial futures 🙂 )
Emily: Do you want to talk about anger? I’ve been getting so much better at managing my emotions only because I’ve had to, also the trauma of the whole leaving situation is further away in my mind, but lordt…..I still get so angry. And anger was like a primary emotion in the thick of it too.
Tiffany: Anger. Heh. Okay, so, in my family of origin, it often felt like my dad was the only person who was allowed to express any anger. In my marriage, my husband would literally refuse to acknowledge my existence – sometimes up to two days in a row! – if I showed *any* signs of anger. With one partner, we fought like cats and dogs who don’t get along. Another shut down ENTIRELY when I got angry at them. And in all of those relationships, I just didn’t have the tools to try and learn how to navigate it more effectively, less hurtfully. I did a relationship counselling session once and learned how to do “discussion mapping” – basically turning the discussion into a physical representation of the timeline, with shapes of different sizes to represent our level of emotional intensity or upset. It was really helpful, and showed us where our experiences of the argument differed. Joe and I can have disagreements that include anger without it escalating and without it needing a lot of really intentional help to keep it productive, and that’s one of the first times in my life I’ve had that. I think I learned a lot in my relationships with Jon, and then more in my relationship with Scott, and I feel some guilt and shame over the fact that I’ve sort of… springboarded into new awareness at the expense of the comfort and health of these relationships. Anger scares the SHIT out of me. I feel so much anger. And I have so much trouble identifying when I’m feeling it. (Unless I’m feeling it on behalf of someone else.) And SO MUCH trouble expressing it. Ugh. Anger.
Emily: There was a lot of anger in my home growing up, lots of kind of chaotic stuff, so I learned to pretty much shut down. As soon as I get angry about anything, even today, I just shut down. I go silent. I think I was used to being forced into the role of mediator, or knowing that I couldn’t add any fuel to the fire. So…I’ve been called passive aggressive haha. But it’s only because I’ve been conditioned that it was unsafe for me to ever question authority or ever express anger. I had to express it other ways. And I get so upset about that hahaha that I can’t just BE ANGRY oh my god because I have so much to be angry about and, I truly believe it’s healthy to be angry, people can learn to express anger in healthy ways… So with this whole marriage thing, it’s been frustrating, because YET AGAIN I am not allowed to be angry. Because I left. And my ex would talk so calmly and be like “I’m being so calm why are you so angry” while doing and saying the most damaging things…. It was infuriating. Anyways, like I said earlier, I would take to twitter. Haha. bad idea! But lordt, there were just hardly any “acceptable” outlets! I still struggle with it, although my current partner is really, really supportive and allows me to be angry in healthy ways, and we share that anger together and so that feels like a healthy expression, which is nice. But…it’s a hard thing.
Tiffany: Yeah. It is a hard thing. And I think that we really don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions that include anger. We just don’t. Even when we talk about men, who are allowed to be angry (when white) and expected to be angry (when Black or Indigenous), still we don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions within that anger. So nobody learns how to have healthy and productive angry interactions. It makes it really scary. I would rather shut down and go process things until I can be calm and then come back and have the interactions without the anger there. But that’s often very self-silencing and dishonest.
Emily: Dishonest, that’s a good word. I really love the song Mad by Solange…it’s so so great, just this lovely song about how it’s okay to be mad. It’s definitely written for black folks, and I don’t want to appropriate or erase that, but it’s a sentiment I rarely hear expressed in that way and it resonated with me a lot.
Sometimes I wish I could express my anger in like this violent physical way, or loud way, but at the same time, I think I have to give myself a little more credit for not going that route also. Because that’s harmful and damaging and all that too. So, what’s the balance between expressing anger in a way that isn’t silencing but also isn’t like, damaging. I find writing helps, which is maybe why social media seemed like a good outlet.
Tiffany: That makes sense. I also write. In my marriage, I threw sneakers against the door, when Aaron wasn’t home. Nothing could get broken, nothing was damaged, I put the dogs downstairs so it wouldn’t scare them, and it gave me a bit of that physical outlet. In high school, I had a punching bag in my room and it also helped. Having a physical outlet can be really helpful. I don’t think that kind of anger expression has any place within an interaction, because of the inherent threat – even shoes against a door are threatening when there’s another person in the room – but as an outlet, it can help. And I have really struggled since the fibromyalgia, because that physical outlet is far less accessible. How do we practice anger mitigation when chronic pain gets in the way? I haven’t figured that out yet.
Emily: Totally, yeah, and i’ve always felt a punching bag would help me quite a bit haha. I should take up boxing, seriously. Probably would be good for my physical and mental health.
Tiffany: Yeah. I would have to look it up, but I am pretty sure there are legit studies documenting how that kind of physical outlet can be a regulator for anger and stress. Even just hormonally it makes sense to me. Endorphins? Idk. But I do think it works. One reason I hate fibro so much is because a punching bag is probably never gonna be an option for me again. But yoga does help.
Emily: Yeah, actually the reminds me of something that happened the other day. I was like brushing my teeth, something mundane, and after I put my toothbrush back in the cabinet but it fell out again and I picked it up and it just wouldn’t stay put haha and I ended up just SLAMMING the cabinet door shut and for a second I just stood there like shit I hope my partner didn’t hear that. And I realized how much pent up anger I had that wanted to come out in a physical way, and I wouldn’t want it to come out unexpectedly at like the wrong time, you know? So it’s good to be self aware of that and really find healthy outlets for it.
Tiffany: Yeah. I have a lot of conflicted thoughts and feelings about anger and honestly it just kinda makes me want to shut down because it’s annoying and makes me feel physically uncomfortable. Lol. But. It is irritating that so much weight is put on women and femmes and non-men to mediate and regulate our anger, and to find healthy outlets, and to be aware of how anger can be weaponized. To dispel the anger before we come into the interaction. That irritates me. I know that it’s the better way, but it irritates me anyway because the same expectation is not placed on cis white men in the same way. And also I wish there were ways to bring anger into interactions without it being rejected or escalating or seen as inappropriate. Like, yes, we should find those healthy outlets and punching bags 4 life, but at the same time, it is so fucking irritating. And also unfairly distributed. You and I are allowed more anger than, say, a black or a fat woman. That’s bullshit! Yeah. Eh. It’s a messy tangle.
Emily: Yeah, I feel that. Like if we can develop mediation skills and do the emotional labour to understand and regulate other people’s anger, why can’t other people do the same for us?
Tiffany: EXACTLY. Exactly. But then also, nobody should have to do that work. I don’t actually WANT everyone to learn how to do that dysfunctional work that I’m so skilled at. But I also resent the fuck out of the fact that nobody in my life is doing that work for me. Like, I mean, I guess this exactly how abuse perpetuates itself. But whatever. It still makes me mad and hurt and sad.
Emily: Yeah. Yeah, I feel that so much.
April 20, 2017
Sarah: YES ANGER. After Ryan left me I was filled with so much rage, I felt like Phoenix Force (from Marvel comics haha); like I wanted to raze the physical world around me, just wanted to destruct reality at an atomic level. My eyes felt blackened for a solid month, at least. There was a day when I mixed several buckets of salt water and planned to spend the day salting the entire yard and all the gardens (of the house he had bought for us and left me in) – I was going to kill every possible plant and wanted it to be a deadzone that would baffle neighbours forever afterwards haha. I didn’t do it though, I texted friends, they convinced me not to, so I dug up all the plants and gave them away, then hurled ice cube trays around in the kitchen, shattering them and leaving sharp bits of plastic all over the floor for him to clean up after I was finally out of the house (my kids were at their dad’s for those last couple weeks, so they didn’t witness any of this). Oh god I was SO ANGRY. It’s been six months now (and he has never reached out, haven’t seen or spoken to him since he left) and the anger has subsided a lot, but I still experience waves of fury at what utter bullshit his handling of it all was. I see a therapist now and am trying to do all the work I can in healing up before getting into another relationship. I can feel how toxic the anger and bitterness is (moreso than after either of my other divorces) and I just don’t want it to ruin me. I don’t want to give him that, he doesn’t get to wreck me. He never deserved me in the first fucking place (THESE ARE THE THINGS I TELL MYSELF, QUITE ANGRILY).
Reflections One Year Later
A year later, this conversation strikes me as something incredibly beautiful. Thank you both so much for sharing this experience with me.
It has taken so much time to get to this point. Circumstances resulting from the fallout of our relationships have made it challenging to coordinate time together. It’s also not the easiest subject to pick up and work on at any time. Taking the time to let this project breathe has been important.
Right now, I am surprised to find myself still grieving a lot. Not so much the relationship itself as those tangential to it: my relationship with my hometown, my province, my perception of self and who I wanted to be there – all of that just gone. It’s a lot to lose at once, and there are still reminders of that loss everywhere.
But I have also gained a lot in the past year, and I wouldn’t have been able to accept this newness into my life without properly grieving. And I also have to recognize that grief is ongoing! It’s not like you just grieve it all at once and get over it, you kind of have to process it in fragments. But with that, you can take more and more steps forward.
I recently started the book Rebellious Mourning, a compilation of writing on grief edited by Cindy Milstein and published by AK Press. This passage resonated with me:
“One of the cruelest affronts, though, was that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized – a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses. When we instead open ourselves up to the bonds of loss and pain, we lessen what debilitates us; we reassert life and it’s beauty. We open ourselves to the bonds of love, expansively understood. Crucially, we have a way, together, to at once grieve more qualitatively and struggle to undo the deadening and deadly structures intent on destroying us.
Cracks appear in the wall.”
I’ve always sort of downplayed my personal reflections and essays as too self-absorbed or self-indulgent. Who wants to be perceived as another self-obsessed millennial? But – what I have always strove to do is situate my experiences within larger contexts, draw connections, and – yes – find those cracks in the wall, to break free, to move forward on both personal, communal and structural levels.
This project has shone light into some of our darkest and most isolating personal experiences – but we have also discussed or touched on broader issues and concepts such as: marriage; parenthood; polyamory; religion; shame; sexuality; family; mental health; fear; regret; love; abuse; gender; finances; poverty; employment; benefits; social media; anger; the legal system; housing; guilt; morality; clothing; capitalism; debt; tax returns; men; masculinity; racialized expressions of anger; physical expressions of anger; chronic pain; and white privilege.
There’s a whole lot of cracks in the wall. A whole lot of room for new life to break through.
Emily Leedham is a writer and organizer based in Treaty 1 territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba. You can read her other work here and follow her on Facebook for updates on future projects.
Tiffany Sostar is a self-care and narrative coach, working with folks going through a trauma or transition to take care of themselves in the chaos, and land as softly as possible in their new story. They founded and run Possibilities Calgary, a bi+ community group, and generate free, shareable resources for the community on a monthly basis (thanks to the support of their Patreon backers!) Tiffany is also a freelance editor, writer, and tarot reader. You can find them on their website, Facebook, and Patreon. Tiffany lives on Treaty 7 land, in Calgary, Alberta.
Sarah Adams is an artist, comedian, organizer, and makes new life bloom at Alberta Girl Acres.