Welcome to the #tenderyear

Welcome to the #tenderyear

(Image description: A cloudy sky with reflecting sunrise light is seen through tall trees. Photo was taken by Stasha Huntingford.)

A Year of Sacred Attendance #tenderyear

Question.

We are nearing the end of #100loveletters.

Would you like to do another thing after that?

This was the question Nathan Fawaz posed to me, and the answer was an easy and enthusiastic “yes!”

The 100 Love Letters project has been transformative for me – it has been a thread of connection back to myself during a summer that included too much travel, too much stress, too much emotional upheaval, too much existential dread. The love letters were a daily reminder to sit down and breathe into a space of compassionate self-awareness. The letters were permission to take time, even five minutes at the end of the day, to love myself in the middle of the hard weeks and the bad weeks and the overwhelming weeks. They built space into my day, and gave me new tools for self-care and new methods for engaging my narrative. (You can find the posts related to this project here, and the PDF will be added to this section as well.)

The 100 Love Letters project was also an opportunity to build community, and I have appreciated the new friends I’ve made as a result of the project, the connections that have grown and strengthened as we witness and support and encourage each other through the process.

The 100 Love Letters project will continue on in various iterations – Nathan will be presenting their 101st letter at an event on October 14 (you can find out more about that event here), and I will be putting together a PDF that will be available for free download on my website, with prompts, encouragement, and a “how-to” section. (I’ll still be available to support anyone who started the project on a different day, too. You can always email me or find me on Facebook or Instagram!) I’m even working on a book proposal about the project!

But the 100 Love Letters project, in its original form, is coming to an end today, September 29. It’s 100 days since we launched at the beginning of the summer, and it has been a beautiful journey. It’s time for those of us who started our 100 days a season ago to shift into something else.

If you want to shift with me, consider this an invitation to a Year of Sacred Attendance.

This project, co-created by Nathan, Stasha, and myself, is that ‘other thing’ that was gestured into being with Nathan’s question. I think it will be amazing.

We started from another of Nathan’s ideas. They had said, “One thing that is coming up for me is the idea of attention, attendance.”

It resonated.

Being present with ourselves, attending, bringing attention, and tending to ourselves – that’s one of the most powerful elements of the love letter project. We each wanted to maintain that spacious, gracious sense of intentional, compassionate attendance. And we wanted to push gently against the edges of other aspects of our lives that could benefit from this kind of compassionate, intentional, regular tending.

Around Stasha’s kitchen table, the framework for a yearlong project coalesced. It was, and is, a collaborative project generated by the powerful narrative spellwork of the three of us, but we remain individuals within the project and we are so excited to share the project with as many of you as want to join.

The Year of Sacred Attendance will run from October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018.

Each day of the week has a unique focus. You can participate in all of them, or pick and choose the ones that resonate for you. We will be using #tenderyear for every post related to the project, with daily tags as well (to make it easier for folks to find each other on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter).

Sunday

Meditation to Challenge the Binaries. #challengethebinary

Meditation is a flexible form here – the goal of this day is to invite participants to think about binaries, opposites, exceptions, and subversions. Think of Venn Diagrams, exceptions that subvert the rule, grey areas that provide productive space for expanding and exploring our narratives. On Sundays, we look at The Normal and The Other, and we grapple with that. We look at The Thing and The Opposite of The Thing. You can engage with this focus through art, writing, or any other method that helps you dig into the topic.

Monday

Attending to the Questions. #questioneverything

A significant focus of this project is inviting and facilitating compassionate self-awareness. You can ask yourself whatever questions feel right for you – the focus of Monday is simply to take time to ask yourself how things are going. If you’re not sure what to ask, here are some sample questions, and you can answer whichever feel right for you. Not everyone participating in this project will be working on creative projects, and not everyone will feel comfortable with a goal of presence – trauma is a real factor in many of our lives, and can make presence a real challenge. These are just a place to start:

What are you creating?

What do you need?

Do you feel present?

Could you try something different?

What are you wondering about?

Tuesday

Love Letter #100loveletters

We wanted to keep the focus on self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-care, and self-love. The 100 Love Letters project continues on in the Tuesday focus.

Wednesday

Drop Into A Moment #wednesdaymoments

Find a moment to fully experience. This focus is about sensory awareness, mindfulness, presence, and about paying attention to our lives. You can participate in this through art, writing, photography, or simply pausing to observe yourself as a physical being within a physical world.

Thursday

As Above So Below #fiveelements

Thursday’s focus builds on the physical presence of Wednesday, and is about connecting to the world around you.

Friday

Reflection #fridayreflections

Friday’s focus can take so many forms. Reflect on your week, reflect on your relationships, post a selfie, take a picture of a reflective surface – the beautiful thing about reflection is the many ways it can be interpreted.

Saturday

Affirmation #saturdayaffirmations

Affirmations for yourself, for your communities, for the world. What do you need to hear? What do you need to affirm for yourself or for your people?

The #tenderyear project is open to anyone to participate, and participation can happen online or offline. Participating online can happen privately in messages or between friends, or publicly. We will be using the #dailypractices and #tenderyear hashtags throughout the posts.

There is an email list, similar to the one that was available for the #100loveletters project. You can sign up here. I’ll be sending out mostly-weekly emails with prompts, links to blog posts, interviews with participants, and encouragement and support. There will also probably be give-aways, like the handwritten letters that were sent out to Love Letters participants.

To give you a sense of the what and why and who behind this project, here is a mini roundtable with the co-creators.

How did this project start?

Stasha – For me the 100 love letters made sense as resistance to oppression, and as a lifesaving intervention. When Nathan and Tiffany also participated in the 100 love letters, it opened up a space in my heart. I was able to cheer on their resistance and to witness them both weaving powerful magic in inspiring their communities. I think after feeling that daily magic, all of us knew that sharing and sustaining this magic is vital. Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other with this even more so. I spent so much of my life stigmatizing parts of me that had been shamed by society, I didn’t survive 37 years to live in shame. I survived by transforming my pain into empathy and learning. This project assists me in that alchemy, a most sacred healing magic.

Nathan – Somewhere between letter sixty and letter seventy-five, I noticed this sensation within me… the sensation had been there since the very first letter, really, but it took me a while before I could identify it… anyway, I noticed this sense of space. That’s the best word I have to describe it. This sense of space. And, at the same time, I really began enjoying in the community that was emerging as part of #100loveletters. As I got closer and closer to letter 100, I found myself wondering what I could do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself. And how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.

Tiffany – Just like the #100loveletters project started with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Stasha’s original post about her project, this new project starts, for me, with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Nathan’s “Would you like to do another thing?” In both cases, I felt like I was being gifted a new tool to expand my self-care practice, my community care practice, and to share with the individuals and groups that I work with.

Stasha said, “Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other even more so,” and Nathan said, “[What can I] do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself, and how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.”

These two origin stories for the project echo and overlap with my own – this project, for me, starts with trying to open up space for self-love and self-compassion, for myself and for the people around me, and to support and foster connectedness and love within my communities. It fits so perfectly with the work I want to do as a self-care and narrative coach, it feels like a gift. Two gifts! (Which is totes a double entendre because I am referring both to the two projects AND the two people. Clever!)

What do you find exciting about this project?

Stasha – Everything. The sacred belonging and acceptance that I already feel is amazing. I love working with people who understand how tenderness can bring down oppressive systems. What could be more radical than tending love in this world? Already we have done so much by creating a public space where we celebrate insanity as necessary for problem solving and community building. We have made a place that includes our hearts, our fears, our bodies, our chronic illnesses, our genders, our minds, our ptsd, our communities, our joy, and our pain. One of the most painful things about participating in groups, is that often parts of me are not welcome. This project allows me to participate as a whole person, which helps me nurture love.

Nathan – Everything. I am excited by its potential for compassion, and self-compassion. I am excited about its accessibility. I am excited to make this commitment in community, both online and in person. I’m excited for the container of this project. And I am curious to see what it will hold.

Tiffany – I am excited by the idea of making space for ritual and for the sacred in my life. I think it’s possible to engage with this project without ever engaging with any kind of spirituality or sense of the sacred, and that would be totally valid, but for me… I have been writing about, talking about, thinking about, and longing for a sense of ritual and connection for a long time. But I haven’t done the work to create space for ritual in my life – I’m always too busy, I’m always too scared of doing it wrong. I love that this project is flexible, expansive, and that it offers opportunities for sacred ritual but also for goofiness and lightness. And, a year is a long time. I’m excited about the opportunity to go through the first exciting month or two, and then the drudgery when it gets old and weighs more, and then the renewal when I find the excitement again. A year is long enough to cycle through a few times, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to helping others through that cycling, too. That’s been one of the most rewarding things for me about the love letters project.

Who would you like to see participating in this project?

Stasha – Honestly, I think we all need this kind of love in our lives. I hope to model a year long spell of mindful intent, and learn from others as I go.

Nathan – I am interested in anyone participating in this project who is drawn to participation. There is no outcome. No certificate. It’s a process. Mostly gentle and generative and sometimes takes the long way to get to gentle.

I am most interested to see who will find themselves a small home in the space of this project. Who will tend toward it.

Tiffany – I would really like to see anyone who feels lonely, alienated from their own heart, scared to connect with themselves, struggling with shame and anxiety and fear of failure and fear of success – I would like all the queerdos and weirdos and sad pandas to find this project and find community and support and a way to connect back to themselves, to centre themselves in their stories, to renew themselves through this year of attendance with themselves.

What are you hoping to get out of this project?

Stasha – I am working on the theme of listening for this project. I struggle with interrrupting people, and asking rapid fire questions without listening to the answers. I work on this because I want to be more respectful of other people, and I want to learn from them. I value being listened to, and I want to give others the same gift. This work will help me to survive in an oppressive world. It also improves the world by focusing on connection, and trying to understand the world by changing it. I believe that the focus on how we are part of the earth, is vital in these times where that connection is denied. The practice of tending must be tended, us doing that together is very powerful.

Nathan – I am hoping that through this project, and the gentle tending of it, that my own rhythms, interests, way of dreaming, way of loving, further emerge into the space that they need.

I am curious to see what will happen.

Tiffany – One million new followers. Just kidding! Not totally kidding. I am hoping to build my base with this project, by offering support and resources and encouragement. But I am also hoping to find space for myself within the project. I want to find that sacred ritual.

Self-Care and Quitting Part One

Self-Care and Quitting Part One

This is the first part of a Patreon reward post series for Dylan. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write you a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too! Blog posts are available one week early for patrons at any support level.

I met Dylan in one of the first courses I took in my university career. They were smart, insightful, and hella intimidating. It has been an honour to get to know them over the last eight years, and I consider them one of my best friends. We are working on an ongoing project this year – a duoethnography on the topic of the experience of being non-binary in binary-gendered contexts. It’s pretty cool, and we even presenting a paper on one segment of our research at the Society for the Study of Social Problems conference in August! (I’ll be posting the presentation on my Patreon later this month.)

When I asked Dylan what topic they would like me to tackle for their birthday month post this year, this is what they said:

“I’m so tired and stretched thin across multiple projects so I apologize if this is not helpful. It’s kind of hilarious that this is about self-care and I’m not really doing awesome on that front atm. I was thinking about self-care as it relates to quitting because I’ve made a number of difficult changes over the past couple of years that required working through these ideas. I gave up on many hobbies as a kid because I didn’t want to face the horrible anxiety that came with pursuing hobbies: fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people… I started to think of myself negatively as a quitter and that has nagged at me as an adult such that I have a difficult time quitting or changing directions once I set myself onto a path. But quitting can be such a vital part of self-care because sometimes we do need to change directions or leave to protect ourselves.”

They sent me the topic on August 9th. In the time since, I’ve sent them multiple messages apologizing for the fact that it’s not done yet. We’re now halfway through September, and their birthday month is in August, and the post is still not up.

I started, restarted, outlined, re-outlined, mind-mapped, doodled, wrote, erased, rewrote, gave up on, came back to, gave up on again, and finally sat down to actually write this post in earnest. And then stopped again. And then came back.

It was an interesting intersection of content and context – writing about quitting, and constantly experiencing the overwhelming urge to quit.

There were lessons for me in both the content and the context, and that is one of the most exciting and encouraging things about this process. Even in a topic that I feel deeply familiar with (the concept of quitting and self-care is one I’ve already given a lot of thought to, particularly as it relates to my divorce and to the times when quitting has been the best self-care available to me), I found that there are new layers to explore and new learnings to uncover.

It was also interesting to realize that my own hang-ups about quitting – my fear and shame, the narratives I’ve internalized – are still so real, so visceral, and such strong influences on my behaviour.

And, maybe most interesting for my self-care practice and my work as a self-care coach, I started to learn how to recognize when the urge to quit in one area is actually an indicator of unmet needs in other areas. Although my challenges and new learnings in the area of “quitting and self-care” were real, I have also realized that I just need time for posts to marinate. The pressure I was putting on myself to generate the post in a short amount of time – I didn’t get back from presenting at a conference in Montreal until August 21, and I planned to leave for Costa Rica on the 27th – contributed significantly to my anxiety and my strong desire to quit. I didn’t actually want to quit – I love writing these posts! – but I needed more time. That unmet need was felt as a desire to quit.

As a result of this learning, I’m going to change the wording of this reward tier on Patreon, and have these posts written within six weeks of receiving a patron’s birthday-month topic.

(Image description: ‘Quit’ in the centre of the page.
Text around reads:
Who: ‘quitters’, survivors, boundary-respecters (internal/external), people ready to move on, people forced to change paths, ‘weak’ people
When: ‘too soon’, ‘too late’, just right, when continuing hurts, when pressure builds, when resources are gone, when told
Why: burn out, self-care, lack of resources (internal/external/social), hopelessness, trauma, new opportunities, new knowledges (self/situation)
How: reluctantly, regretfully, joyfully, shamefully, spitefully, with relief, with anger, resignedly, respectfully, resentfully
Why not: shame, fear, resilience, hope, expectations, community, strength, resources, support, obligations)

I initially approached the topic by making a mind-map about quitting. I was interested in who quits, how they quit, what they quit, why they quit, and why they don’t quit. I’ve taken that original work and expanded on it in specific categories. Narratives of Quitting addresses Who and How, Factors Influencing Quitting addresses How and Why and Why Not, The Things We Quit addresses What, and Self-Care for Quitters addresses the self-care part of the post. A final section of Reflections caps it off. Since this post turned into a bit of a monster, I’m breaking it into multiple posts. (Part two, Factors Influencing Quitting, is up on the Patreon today.)

Narratives of Quitting

Who and how blended into a series of Narratives of Quitting. These are foundational stories that help organize our understanding of what it means to quit something, and to be someone who quits something. Which of these narratives fit us at any given time, and regarding any particular act of quitting, can shift and change according to the other narratives we’re working within. For example, it’s hard to maintain a Triumphant Quitter narrative when we’re dealing with depression or ongoing anxiety, even if that narrative would otherwise fit. And we reject some narratives out of fear of the consequences – for example, many of us would deny a Resentful Quitter narrative because of the shame attached to it, even if it more accurately reflects our experience.

Here is my incomplete list of Narratives of Quitting.

The Triumphant Quitter

This is the most acceptable narrative of quitting. In this story, the protagonist (the quitter) realizes that something is not working in their lives – particularly something big, like a relationship, or a career – and they quit. Quitting solves the problem, and after they quit, they are happier, more wholehearted, and more fulfilled.

This doesn’t mean it’s always easy for the Triumphant Quitter. Often the Triumphant Quitter is an Ambivalent Quitter who has made it through to some stability after the transition following whatever they quit. And it often takes time to get to the awareness and confidence to make the choice to quit.

The Repentant Quitter

This narrative is also fairly well-accepted. In this story, the protagonist realizes that something is not working in their lives, but misidentifies the cause. They thought it was the job, or the relationship, but really is was something else – usually themselves. The repentant quitter regrets their decision to quit, and goes through a process of reflection, growth, and learning, often having to make amends (internally or externally) for having quit.

The Repentant Quitter may be performing, rather than actually feeling, repentance – especially in instances where what they’ve quit doesn’t make sense to the people around them. Leaving the “perfect” job (because it was burning them out), leaving the “perfect” relationship (despite toxic dynamics not visible to people outside the relationship) or getting divorced as a religious person, abandoning a “beloved” hobby (that has ceased to be nourishing and has become anxiety-provoking) – all of these instances of quitting can be met with skepticism and criticism, and an “appropriate” amount of repentance and self-blame can mitigate some of that social pressure.

Other times, the Repentant Quitter really does go through a process of reflection, learning, and growth. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes – quitting too soon, quitting the wrong thing – and there is nothing shameful or bad about realizing it and owning that part of our story.

The Ambivalent Quitter

This narrative is much less accepted, even though I think it is the most common. We don’t know what to do with ambivalent quitters, and stories of ambivalent quitting are often silenced and pressured into more acceptable narratives of triumph or repentance. In this story, the protagonist either doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong but quits anyway, or they don’t end up feeling happier, more wholehearted, or fulfilled after they quit.

They quit the relationship, for example, and it was the right choice for them but now they are experiencing financial hardship. They may regret the fallout of their decision without regretting the decision. The ambivalent quitter highlights the ways in which individual choices exist within larger structural frameworks, and their ambivalence challenges the individualist ideals of contemporary neoliberal late capitalism.

They took control of their lives and made a choice to quit, but it didn’t fix everything. Their narrative introduces uncomfortable tension into our understandings of personal agency, self-awareness, even self-care.

The Reluctant Quitter 

There are a few different versions of the Reluctant Quitter, and in each of them, the protagonist resists or hesitates before quitting.

In one story, the protagonist is afraid to quit despite their discomfort with the situation. The outcome is unknown, and the protagonist is worried about what will happen if they quit, or they are maintaining hope that the situation will improve and they won’t need to quit. A lot of us spend a lot of time in this story, weighing our options, feeling uncomfortable but not being able to take the step and actually quit.

In another story, the protagonist doesn’t want to quit but does not have the resources to keep going – internal, external, or social.

And in another story of the Reluctant Quitter, the protagonist is doing something that harms or makes someone else uncomfortable but they don’t want to stop it even after being told about the impacts of their actions. Many of us have been in this story, and the shame of it often causes us to reject this story and deny that it happened. We rewrite our stories to either erase our reluctance, or deny the discomfort of the other person.

The Resentful Quitter

In this story, the protagonist is forced to quit. This is often due to a lack of resources – quitting school because of lack of funding, quitting a beloved hobby because of lack of time or money, quitting a relationship because of lack of reciprocity, quitting a job or hobby because of a lack of energy after chronic illness or disability. There are so many different types of resources and any scarcity can force us to quit something we love or are committed to.

Like the Ambivalent Quitter, the Resentful Quitter is not a particularly welcome narrative. The Resentful Quitter challenges the idea that if we think positively, we can manifest the resources we need. The Resentful Quitter challenges the idea that “everything happens for a reason” and that our lives inevitably move in an upward spiral. Resentful Quitters also challenge the idea of the ever-effective bootstrapping out of hardship.

The Resentful Quitter makes people uncomfortable.

There is another Resentful Quitter story, where the protagonist is forced to quit because their actions are causing harm and they are stopped. When they have access to power, they can try (or succeed) in retaliating against the people who forced them to quit what they were doing before. This version of the Resentful Quitter also makes people uncomfortable.

The Preemptive Quitter

This is the story that we socially love to hate. In this story, the protagonist quits before it gets awful. They’re afraid – of failure, of mockery, of pain, of missed chances. They’re lonely, or isolated, or they see the potential for a negative outcome and they bail before it happens. There is a lot of shame attached to this story, and the Preemptive Quitter is rarely praised for having foresight and self-awareness, or comforted and met with empathy for dealing with fear and anxiety. Instead, the Preemptive Quitter is criticized for “giving up too easily.” Find yourself in the Preemptive Quitter story too often (and sometimes once is all it takes) and suddenly your story becomes that of…

The Weak-Willed Quitter

In this story, the protagonist is too “weak” or “lazy” to keep going. I don’t actually believe that this story is often true, because it doesn’t have nearly enough compassion or awareness. In this story, quitting is not a factor of circumstance, or access to resources, or self-awareness – no. In this story, quitting is a personal failing, a character flaw, a punishable offence.

The spectre of the Weak-Willed Quitter looms behind every other quitter narrative. Even the Triumphant Quitter can be tripped up by this narrative. When something goes wrong, even if it’s unrelated to what we quit, there is the temptation to look back at paths we’ve abandoned, imagine them going in more productive directions than where we find ourselves now, and retroactively label ourselves too weak or lazy or foolish for having quit.

Because late capitalism values labour and productivity over everything other than profit, quitting – ceasing our labour and changing our productive focus – is always fraught. Even when it’s the right choice, it’s a choice loaded with the potential to fall off into this hurtful, harmful Weak-Willed Quitter narrative.

Part Two will continue this exploration of quitting, examining the factors that influence when/how/why/whether we quit something.

Mindfulness and Self-Care

Mindfulness and Self-Care

This is a Patreon reward post, though it was a few weeks late. Every Patreon supporter at the $10+ level can have a self-care post written for them, on the topic of their choice, during their birthday month. Sound interesting? Head over to my Patreon! All patrons, regardless of support level, get access to posts early and are able to offer feedback and make suggestions.

Rachael’s requested topic was “mindfulness and self-care.”

I was inspired by Rachael’s ability to successfully inhabit multiple roles, which gave me the idea of integrating various selves through different mindfulness practices. I’m really drawn to narratives and frames that incorporate the elements as metaphors for and aspects of the self – I use elemental interpretations of my tarot spreads really frequently, and I find that it’s helpful for viewing myself and my situations as parts within a whole. By explicitly pulling the mental, physical, emotional, and creative/spiritual selves out, I’m better able to see how the different parts of me influence the whole.

I used this framing to build the structure for my online courses, and leaned on it again for this post. (And on the topic of the online courses, keep your eyes open for the fall course, on emotional self-care, launching soon!)

One reason I wanted to use the elements in this prompt is because mindfulness so often so often, the idea of “mindfulness” is connected exclusively to ideas of meditation or deep breathing. It doesn’t always show up in how we understand other aspects of ourselves, and it can seem out of place in our emotional or creative lives. Although meditation and deep breathing are valid (and important) mindfulness practices, they aren’t the only ways to bring mindfulness into your self-care routine. So, here is my woo-influenced four-part mindfulness and self-care post. You can ignore the woo and just go for the self-care strategies if that’s a better fit for you.

Air

The air element (the sword suit in tarot) is all about the mental self.

We’re starting with the air element and the mental self because “mindfulness” is all about being present, but that’s tricky when we’re talking about our mental selves. For so many of us, being present in our minds looks more like over-thinking, over-analyzing, and over-intellectualizing than anything else. The mind overtakes, and mindfulness takes on a new meaning – full of mind, full of thoughts and thinking. The swords are sometimes called the “suit of sorrow” and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Swords are not just about the mind, they’re also about the truth. They’re about insight, knowledge, and awareness.

They’re double-edged. The truth hurts, indeed.

So how do we practice mindful self-care when it comes to our mental selves, especially when we often find so much pain in our minds?

My favourite tarot blogger, Beth Maiden at Little Red Tarot, says this about the swords – “Don’t let your mind be your own worst enemy. Laugh at it when you can – the swords and all the insecurity and strife they represent can be helpful, even when you think you don’t want to know… Seek the truth. Face the truth. Accept the truth…or change it.”

Based on that insight, here are a couple mindfulness exercises for mental self-care:

Laugh at it when you can.

“Comedy is defiance. It’s a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it’s the laughter that allows hope to creep back in on the inhale.” – Will Durst

Many of us (I would venture to say most of us, in this current political and social climate) are operating under persistent, pervasive, chronic stress, anxiety, and existential dread. We are definitely living in the swords – the painful edges of the truth are cutting so many of us as we realize (or re-realize) how hateful and cruel our fellow humans can be, and are.

Laughter feels challenging in this context.

It can feel disrespectful to laugh in the face of so much danger, violence, and hate. And it’s a fact that too much comedy has become disrespectful, leans too hard on punching down.

But laughter itself is powerful medicine. And, although mindfulness often brings connotations of Very Serious Business, mindful laughter is a real thing, and can be really helpful!

So, find a way to be present with your current experience, and, if you can, find some way to laugh – at it, about it, despite it.

If you need tarot inspiration, turn to the Nine and Ten of Swords. In these cards, everything is so awful that sometimes you just have to laugh. These are the nightmare cards, but together they become mockable. Is it really so bad, they ask? Yes! Yes. And still, it’s possible to laugh at them, at ourselves within them, at the situation that calls them out.

Make a list of all the things that are wrong and horrible in your life and in the world right now. How many of them are so wrong and horrible that even five years ago they would have seemed like a parody?

Find a way to frame them as being as ridiculous as they truly are.

Draw them as a cartoon.

Write a story that highlights the what-the-fuckery of the situation.

Or even just look at the situation all around us, see it, and laugh.

Find a way to laugh – for yourself, in a way that is healing and mindful for you. Use laughter as a tool to pull yourself out of the dread, and to allow yourself to be more fully present with your experience.

(Laughter can also be used as an avoidance tool, and that would be counter to this exercise. It can also be used as a weapon against people more vulnerable than we are, and that, too, would be counter to this exercise.)

Tell the Story

If you can’t stop yourself from overthinking – and seriously, welcome, join me, this is where I live – then stop trying to stop yourself and simply observe yourself. Rather than rejecting and shaming your overthinking mind, start watching and narrating what it’s doing. You might find that you’re overthinking a specific issue because your mind is (wisely) trying to get to the root of it, or find a new way out. You may discover that the overthinking is triggered because the current situation mirrors a situation from your past, and by making the links explicit, you can start to see the differences between the two situations.

So, when you start overthinking, just take a small step back, and start narrating the story of your brain in its activity.

Imagine yourself narrating what’s happening in your own mind (picture Morgan Freeman or Ron Howard’s voice, if it helps). Be gentle and honest.

Your initial narration might look like – “Right now, I am thinking about what happened three years ago. The story I am telling myself is that this situation is the same as that situation. I can’t stop thinking about how it felt. I am worried I’ll feel the same way again.”

Once you know what’s happening, you can make choices from a place of compassionate self-awareness.

Earth

The earth element (pentacles/coins in tarot) is all about the physical self.

Mindfulness and the physical self is the entire focus of my summer online course, so this has been my life for the last 6 weeks! (It’s also, by far, the most challenging element for me – dissociation has saved me so many times in so many trauma responses, and I spend time in this body only reluctantly and hesitantly. I’m working on it, but it’s still tough. For my other trauma bbs out there, who use dissociation as a valid and effective coping strategy, solidarity. It may not be where we want to stay, but it’s where we are sometimes.)

Despite all of the work I’ve done to bring mindfulness to my physical self-care, and even the many successes over the last year of focus on this, I still find that my favourite mindfulness exercise when it comes to my physical state is an old one. The new skills I’ve learned – breathing exercises, grounding exercises, body scan meditations – are useful and valuable, but this simple three-step process is still the one that is most accessible to me in difficult moments.

Breath, Posture, Grounding

A couple years ago, I went through an extended period of depression, anxiety, and general Life Suck. My friend, Jim Tait, would send me regular messages – “breath, posture, grounding” – whenever I seemed to be spiraling. It was a gentle, non-judgmental reminder to come back to my body, and I found it easier to engage with than more elaborate mindfulness exercises.

I would sit up a bit taller, let my shoulders drop down from my ears, and gently coax my spine back from its question-mark hunch.

I would take a breath and feel the air fill my lungs. Sitting up opens up so much space in my lungs, and I would feel the tightness across my clavicle as the air filled me up (or tried to, anyway).

I would feel myself on the earth – either my feet on the ground, or my hip bones on my seat. Grounding is always the hardest for me, especially when I’m spiraling in anxiety or lost in depression, but finding a way to connect back down to the physical world and to my physical body within that physical world is always so valuable.

So, that’s the exercise I leave you with as well.

Just a gentle nudge to be present with your physical self, even more a moment – breath, posture, grounding.

Touch the Earth

Emily Goss (from groweatgift) suggested this additional exercise, and I love it.

“Dig your hands into the soil in a forest. Trees are all connected through the wood wide web. Feel the connection with something larger than yourself by joining the conversation. When you return home, plant a seed (perhaps a tree seed you’ve collected) and nurture it into growth.”

Water

The water element (cups in tarot) is all about the emotional self.

It is incredibly difficult to bring mindfulness to our emotional selves. When we’re angry or afraid, we lose connection to our mindful selves when the fight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system kicks in. When we’re embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated, we disconnect not only from ourselves but also from anyone around us. When we’re having a trauma response, dissociation is an incredibly common reaction. And even when we’re joyful, we often get caught in what Brene Brown calls “fearful joy” and anticipate the loss of our joy.

So, how do we bring mindfulness to our emotional selves, and how do we do it in a way that is compassionate, intentional, and self-aware? How can we practice mindfulness in our emotional lives without completely letting go of the necessary coping strategies that get us through difficult emotions?

It takes practice. And it takes an awful lot of gentleness and patience, because it isn’t easy.

Emotional Mindfulness (in five not-always-easy steps)

1 – Pause. Notice that you are having an emotional reaction (good or bad or awful) and take a moment before proceeding. It can be helpful to practice this when you’re having positive emotional reactions at least as often as you practice it when you’re having negative emotional reactions. It’s often easier to bring mindfulness to our fear, anger, or sadness because we notice them more easily. But bringing mindfulness to joy, happiness, and calm can help us recognize those feelings in our body and practice accepting positive emotions when they come (which is surprisingly difficult for a lot of us!)

2 – Name the emotion. Give words to the experience. Not only does this help you understand the experience, it also acts as a reminder that you are the expert in your own experience, and you are at the centre of your own story. You are the narrator. You have the knowledge and insight to be able to name and know your emotional self.

3 – Accept the emotion. For me, this one is hard. It is helpful for me to remember that acceptance is in this moment. If I am afraid, I can name it (“I am afraid”) and accept it (“I am allowed to be afraid, my fear is acceptable”) without committing to it as a permanent state. Accepting that I am feeling what I’m feeling doesn’t mean I have failed or that I will be caught in this feeling forever. And, if the feeling is joyful, accepting it doesn’t “jinx” it. Acceptance just means intentionally and compassionately allowing the emotion to be what it is.

4 – Remember that the emotion is temporary. Whatever it is, it will pass. This is where all of the ubiquitous river imagery comes in – life flows along, and our emotions flow with it. Nothing is permanent. Nothing stays the same forever. This can be an impossible truth to hold when the emotions are overwhelming us, or when we are terrified to lose the feeling, but it is true, and once we accept it, we can allow the emotion to flow through us without getting stuck. Imagine yourself on the shore of the river, the emotion flowing past you. If it is a joyful emotion, let it continue to flow without trying to trap it, because the act of trying to hold it changes it and often stifles it. If it is a fearful, angry, or shameful emotion, also let it continue to flow. It will pass, and you will still be here.

5 – Once you have noticed, named, accepted, and allowed the emotion to flow, take a deep breath and consider your response. What, if anything, do you need to do with this true and temporary emotion? Allow yourself to act, with awareness, compassion, and intention. Trust yourself. You are the expert, and you know what you need.

Have a Bath

Another suggestion from Emily, that bridges the physical and emotional selves, and ties more directly to the element of water.

“Have a bath with oils that feel right to you. Slough or scrub your skin while imagining your frustrations being shed with your old skin. Make your own toiletries from sea salt and oats, or other natural products to reduce the strain on the planet. We are all part of the same world and respecting the planet shows self respect. After your bath, use the water to water plants – your dead skin sells can provide nutrients for the plants (and it avoids water waste).”

Fire

The fire element (wands in tarot) is all about the spiritual and creative self.

This element is all about passion – fiery energy that fuels creativity and connection. Not everyone has a spiritual self, and not everyone identifies as creative, but we each experience passion. This part of ourselves shows up in unique and beautiful ways.

Because creativity and spirituality are both so individual (and come weighted with so much narrative baggage – who is allowed to be creative, what spiritual experiences are valid), I found it difficult to choose a mindfulness exercise for this element. But because this element is so important to my own experience, and because I associate Rachael so much with this element, it felt important. So, you get two.

Creative Mindfulness

Pick a creative activity. Pick anything – drawing, writing, painting, dancing, singing, baking, origami, game design, coding, songwriting, guitar strummin’, flute whistlin’, knitting, crochet, etching, woodcutting, Lego, gardening, science experiments, beadwork, jewelry-making – any activity that feels creative for you. If you’re really stuck and this pokes you in some vulnerabilities, pick something ridiculous. Macaroni art, for example.

Clear some space.

Get your materials out.

Take a deep breath.

Set your timer for 15 minutes.

And then just keep breathing and doing your creative work. Stay focused on how it feels to be creating something, whatever that something is.

When your judging mind leans over your shoulder and says “Really? Rotini? I thought we were going for more of a impressionistic rigatoni look here,” just lean back in your chair, look that judgey self right in the metaphorical eye and say “Inner critic, it’s okay. I know that you are afraid someone’s going to laugh at this, but it’s okay. We’re creative and we’re doing this. I appreciate the penne for your thoughts, but I’m going to re-fusilli to respond with anger.” (And then laugh at those sharp swords of self-doubt dulled to dry spaghetti by your wit and self-awareness. Look, we’re back at Air!)

Keep doing your work. Feel the materials you’re working with, look at what you’re making, be present with your creative self. Keep coming back to that creative self. Whenever you get pulled away into judgement, or fear of the future, or remembering failures of the past, just come back to this moment of creativity.

When the timer goes off, take another deep breath. Assess. Are you done? If not, keep going. If you are, that’s awesome. You did it!

Spiritual Mindfulness

I struggle so much with this myself, as a former evangelical Christian, former capital-a Atheist, current pagan-of-some-flavour, tarot-reading, here-for-the-queer-witches something-or-other.

But after many weeks of thinking about it, I landed on this:

Pay attention to the moments when you feel connected to something bigger and deeper than your normal everyday self. You may perceive this as a spiritual experience, or not. What you’re listening for, watching for, feeling for is a sense of connectedness.

(This is not a “do it for five minutes” exercise – this is a “watch for it throughout the next week” exercise.)

When you feel it, note it.

Just give it a little nod of acknowledgment. Maybe even take a note of what was happening that helped you feel connected. Were you outdoors? Were you with people? Were you doing something ritualized (often ritual allows us to drop into that connected space more easily) or were you trying something new?

Note it, acknowledge it, and keep going.

The more we learn to see these moments of connection, the less alone we feel throughout the rest of our days.

And this is not necessarily a spiritual practice – secular ritual is something I’ve been researching for almost a year now. So, although I am calling it spiritual because I experience it as spiritual, you can dip your toe in this exercise even if you are a staunch atheist.

Build a Fire

Another suggestion from Emily.

“Make a fire by hand and use your breath to turn embers into flames (being careful not to burn yourself – sparks can fly!) There’s something magical about making a fire happen from scratch (but don’t feel ashamed if you need to use a lighter/matches instead of a flint).”

Integration: One Last Mindfulness Self-Care Exercise

Because our selves all co-exist and are each integrated (to various degrees) within a single bodymind, a final mindfulness self-care exercise focused on integration.

This exercise is one that I use when various selves are flipping out – when my inner trauma child is frightened or angry, or when my shame gremlins are on the prowl, or when my Gender Feels are making some noise.

Mindfulness is, after all, nothing more (or less) than being present in the moment. Bringing awareness and non-judgement to the present moment, and accepting that it is what it is. In my own practice, mindfulness extends into intentional compassion, to the acts that weave together into sustainable self-care.

So, in the moments of dis-integration, disassociation, dysfunction, distress – be present. As much as you can, take that steadying breath, take a look across your inner selfscape, recognize the fractures and bends and the negative spaces where parts of yourself have gone into hiding. Let yourself see the disintegrated self, and accept the disintegration, and extend compassion to it.

I don’t believe that mindful integration requires us to heal all the wounds, fill all the gaps, join all the points of disjuncture. I believe that all we have to do is be present with ourselves, accept ourselves in whatever state we are in, and in that process of gentle acceptance we will start to make space for those wounds to heal, for those selves to slowly slide back into the negative spaces they left when they bolted.

So many of us who have trauma in our past have so many of these gaps in our experience of self.

It’s okay.

We can be present with ourselves as we are now, because we are still good, now. We have everything we need. The small childself hiding in the closet in the dark corner of our mind is still there – they just need some gentle safety to come back out. We are whole, even when we are broken. We are good enough.

We can breathe and be present with ourselves, however we are, whatever that looks like, and bring ourselves through the experience of distress.

A Tarot Bonus

This is the spread I use most often, and I find it helpful when I’m trying to decide what sort of self-care I need.

I shuffle my cards, cut the deck, lay the cards out (centre card first, then air, water, earth, fire) and then flip them over. Whatever card shows up in each position, I take as an indicator of what I might need in that area, or as an invitation to think about the narrative I’m investing in when it comes to those elements.

 

Self-care and Visibility

Self-care and Visibility

This is a Patreon reward post, and the first draft of this post was available to patrons last week. At the $10 support level, I’ll write a self-care post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month. And at any level of support, you’ll get access to these (and other) posts early.

This one’s for Stasha, who has been one of my most active supporters and cheerleaders. I appreciate her comments and insight so much. She was also the inspiration for the #100loveletters challenge that I’m currently running, and her willingness to be visible in her experience of working towards self-love is empowering an ever-widening circle of participants in the challenge and beyond.

Her requested topic was visibility, and the complexities of doing self-care while invisible or hypervisible.

These are two sides of the same issue –

Invisibility

Being invisible – having parts of your identity illegible and unrecognizable and unacknowledged by the people around you – can make you feel crazy and alienated from your own experience. Invisibility can become a deeply damaging, traumatizing experience of being gaslighted by the entire society around you.

Invisibility takes many forms. Often, invisibility brings the double-edged sword of ‘passing’ – we are invisible (in whichever of our identities is unwelcome in the context) and that invisibility causes incredible internal harm and pain while also granting us conditional privilege as we appear to belong to another, more welcome, more acceptable, more safe, group. Passing as straight. As cisgender. As white. As neurotypical.

There are so many identities that become rendered invisible in most contexts. Where the assumption of normativity – the assumption that we fit society’s definitions of “normal” – is stifling. Crushing.

Queer invisibility – the harm felt by queer folks in heteronormative spaces, where we are automatically assumed to be heterosexual. Our queer identities are erased by the assumptions of the people around us. It hurts. We have to choose, each day, in each interaction, which hurt we want to experience – the pain of erasure, or the battle of fighting to be seen. Do we come out? Is it safe to come out? What are the consequences of coming out?

Trans invisibility. The experience of trans men and women who ‘pass’ – who are perceived as their gender and assumed to be cisgender – often have their transness rendered invisible unless they come out, and this can be both painful and comforting. Sometimes at the same time. Is it safe to come out? Is it safe to get close to someone without coming out? (Passing is a hugely contentious and fraught issue.)

Non-binary trans invisibility is a whole other issue, and one that I can speak to more personally. I am ‘read’ as a woman in every context except those ones where I have explicitly and decisively come out as genderqueer, and even in those situations, the illegibility of my identity is often clear. I’ve said the words “I am genderqueer – I do not identify as either a man or a woman” and have still found myself lumped in with “us girls” or “the ladies” or whatever other assumptions of womanhood people have, even by people who have heard me come out and have acknowledged the validity of my identity. They are trying to see me, but they just… can’t. Don’t. Won’t?

Femme invisibility within the queer community – the assumption that women with femme gender presentations are automatically straight. Also within the queer community, bisexual invisibility – a huge issue that remains pervasive.

Invisible disabilities, both physical and mental. Invisible neurodivergences, and the incredible pressure on neurodivergent communities to ‘pass’ as neurotypical. (The fact that we consider it a marker of success if an autistic kid is able to get through a class and “you’d barely even know they’re autistic!” is such a problem.)

And other invisibilities, invisibilities of experience – the invisibility of addiction and the experience of being sober within intoxication culture (many thanks to Clementine Morrigan for that phrase), the invisibility of childhood poverty in academic and professional contexts, the invisibility of trauma.

One of my heroes is Amanda Palmer. In her book, The Art of Asking, she said that so much of her artistic life has been spent saying, over and over, in song after song, performance art piece after performance art piece, in every way, again and again – “see me, believe me, I’m real, it happened, it hurts.”

I saw her live at one of her kickstarter house parties, and she was talking about the experience of being a woman and being tied to reproductivity – that question of children being a defining question. Another person in the audience, a genderqueer person like me, but more brave than I was, pointed out that not everyone with a uterus is a woman, and not every woman has a uterus – that this experience is not tied so tightly to gender. Amanda Palmer blew past the question, erased it, made a comment about how if you have a uterus then you are a woman and you will have to deal with these questions.

It wasn’t malicious, but it was violent – invisibility is not neutral, it is not passive. Rejecting someone’s effort to be seen is never a neutral act. Being made invisible in that way, particularly after making the effort to be seen, hurts. It hurts a lot. It took me a few years after that to be able to listen to her music again, and I just started reading her book this week.

(It’s a separate issue – the necessity of making space for imperfection. The story is relevant, but the healing process is a post for another time. Amanda Palmer is not perfect but I still find so much value and even validation in her work. This is one of the most exhausting challenges of having invisible identities – we still need community among the people who can’t, or who won’t, see us.)

So, how do you do self-care while invisible?

And what about self-care while hypervisible?

Hypervisibility

Hypervisibility is a separate but related issue.

Hypervisibility is when, rather than being assumed to be part of the normative group, you are visibly Other and that otherness becomes your defining characteristic. It is as much an erasure as invisibility – you lose the nuance of your whole and complex self. When people see you, they don’t see you – they see your visible characteristics and don’t move past that.

Most often, hypervisibilities are written on the body. The colour of your skin. The sex you were assigned at birth. The size of your waist. The movement (or not) of your limbs.

I don’t experience hypervisibility very often – I’m white and thin, with class, language and educational privilege that helps me blend into most environments, and my disabilities are all invisible (unless I’m trying to be physically active). When I do experience hypervisibility, it is in contexts where my assigned sex or my gender presentation are conspicuous – primarily cis-hetero men’s spaces.

Hypervisibility brings the threat of violence. Racist, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist violence can all be sparked by the wrong person seeing you and seeing you. Violence against fat and disabled people is similarly tied to hypervisibility. Violence against homeless or visibly addicted people is similar.

Hypervisibility doesn’t offer the option of passing, and the fight is often chosen for you – rather than choosing between the harm of erasure and the harm of exposure, hypervisibility means constant, constant exposure. They don’t make an SPF high enough to protect from that.

It is possible to experience hypervisibility and invisibility at the same time – to be a Black queer femme. To be bisexual in a wheelchair. To be non-binary and homeless. In those moments of compounding erasure – one identity hypervisible, every other identity erased – self-care becomes even more challenging.

Self-Care and Visibility

It is an incredibly difficult thing to be a loving mirror for yourself when all around you are mirrors that either don’t see you, can’t see you, or only see some parts of you. But that is the core of self-care and visibility – the ability and the necessity of finding a loving mirror within yourself and within your communities.

Find that one friend who sees every part of you.

Be that one friend who sees every part of you.

Get to know yourself.

Get to know every part of yourself – the invisible bits and the hypervisible bits. Write it down. Make a list of all the things you are, and solidify yourself for yourself.

It can help to take a page from narrative therapy and write yourself a small Document of Authority that states who you are, and to keep it with you as a talisman in situations when you know you either will be invisible or hypervisible.

Another self-care strategy is to practice recognizing, naming, and countering the gaslighting that comes with both invisibility and hypervisibility. Start to notice when people make statements that assume you are something other than what you are, or that flatten you down to a single identity. Note them, name them (out loud or just to yourself) and counter them with the truth.

Speak yourself into being, and into complexity.

It is the hardest thing in the world.

It’s why representation matters so much.

But I believe in you.

I know that you are real, and that what you have experienced is real, and that what you are is real and valid.

You are the expert in your own experience.

You know who you are, even if you can’t access that knowledge consciously yet.

Good luck.

Further reading:

Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Makes You Watched, but Not Seen, by Megan Ryland at The Body is Not an Apology. This post is brilliant, and is part of a two-week series that ran on the blog in 2013.

The 5 biggest drawbacks of hypervisibility (and what separates it from the constructive visibility we need), by Jarune Uwujaren at Resist. Another great post that clearly outlines the harms of hypervisibility and the double-bind of being expected to be grateful for being seen.

Hypervisibility and Marginalization: Existing Online As A Black Woman and Writer, by Trudy at Gradient Lair. Trudy’s work revolutionized my understanding of misogynoir and the specific issues facing Black women. Her writing is excellent, and this post is no exception. (She no longer blogs at Gradient Lair but has generously kept the content available there.)

Queer Like Me: Breaking the Chains of Femme Invisibility, by Ashleigh Shackleford at Wear Your Voice. There is so much to love in this post (and many of the posts on this site).

10 Ways to Help Your Bisexual Friends Fight Invisibility and Erasure, by Maisha Z. Johnson at Everyday Feminism.

The Importance for Visibility for Invisible Disabilities, by Annie Elainey. I rarely link to videos (because I dislike watching videos most of the time), but Annie’s are absolutely worth watching. Her engagement with disability, and so many other issues, is fantastic.

(I am so thankful for the work of women and femmes of colour who have generously offered their insight and wisdom and emotional and educational labour to create these resources. Many of these content creators and sites are reader-funded, and if you’re in a position to support them, that’s rad!)

#100loveletters: Writing Through Self-Hate

#100loveletters: Writing Through Self-Hate

(This post is part of the #100loveletters challenge, which started June 21. The challenge is open to anyone, at no cost! It’s really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, or 100 days from whenever you start, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. It can be written down, or it can be an act of love. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag #100loveletters on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love, or participate offline. You can also enter to win a hand-written letter by emailing me. I’ll be drawing a random name every twenty days over the course of the challenge. You can also join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.)

I interviewed Stasha at the beginning of the 100 Love Letters challenge, since she was the inspiration for the challenge.

Now, three weeks into the challenge, I was lucky enough to interview her again on the topic of writing ourselves love letters when we’re in the middle of feeling shame, anger, fear, or self-hate. This is a topic that has come up again and again for challenge participants, and it’s worth digging into. So, here we go.

Stasha – Question the first?

Tiffany – Yes! Excellent. In our first interview, we talked a lot about the beginnings of the project, and what it offered you in terms of that deep well of self-loving actions and accumulated evidence – I loved the image you shared of having that big stack of love letters to look back on.

We’re into the #100loveletters challenge now, and quite a few people have sent me messages asking about how to write a love letter when you’re hating yourself. My answers have mostly been “just start with whatever you have available, even if it’s just a walk or a post-it note or a mug of tea” but I wondered if you had wisdom about this, since you’ve been through the full 100 days.

How do you write – WHAT do you write – when you’re feeling self-hate?

Stasha – I’m just looking through my letters because I felt a lot of self-hate during the process…

One example, I was feeling really rejected, which is a feeling that I can get easily stuck in. So, I tried to think of the opposite of rejection and wrote those words around my heart. Another time I did the same about interrupting, because I was trying to listen better.

Tiffany – Oh, I like that a lot. That fits with the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy skills I’ve been working on in my own life – looking for opposites, and intentionally choosing an opposite and incompatible word/thought/action.

Stasha – Oooo yes dbt forever! I love the story of dbt creation and I try to fight the professionalization of the system of dbt. (Tiffany’s note: The New York Times recently ran a profile on Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT. Her work is particularly important because it came out of her own experiences of borderline personality disorder – still such a stigmatized condition – and extreme self-harm. If “nothing about us without us” is your rallying cry, her work is worth exploring.)

Stasha – I externalize things like anger monsters for my coping/healing work all the time, so I used that to try and remind myself of good. Example: I get to be in the same world as this tree. One externalizing technique about love letters is that even if you were really disappointed in someone you loved, you could probably still summon a love letter for them. I kept going because I wanted to show myself the same care.

Tiffany – One thing I’m thinking about, that I’m not sure how to talk about… So, forgive the awkwardness/uncertainty of this.

Stasha – Uncomfortable is required to learn, so I’m ready.

Tiffany – But I have had times in my life when a project like this would have hurt so much, because I just could not summon anything resembling a love letter for myself. I think that some of the people who have been watching the project develop, and have been wanting to participate, may be in that space. Right now, I can do this challenge. I have spent years working on self-compassion and on being able to act with love even when I don’t feel love.

The reason I find this so tough to talk about is because I want this to be a tool that is accessible to everyone – we can all show ourselves care even when we don’t feel it! We can all invest this time in ourselves! – but as I speak with people, and as I think through my own history, I am recognizing that there are times when this really isn’t possible. And I want to acknowledge that, without framing it as failure, and also offer some hope or some alternatives.

Do you have any insight or thoughts for people who maybe want to do this now but are really struggling with it?

Stasha – Yes. This is so important. Me too.

One thing that I do, that many professionals define as a symptom of trauma, is pick up treasure like a crow. Bits of glass or rusty things or worm-eaten wood.

Tiffany – I love that image. Corvids forever.

Stasha – In my love letters the symbol of the crow is recurring and was a way for me to have this as a positive image while I gathered that summer’s treasures together in a copper pot.

Nowadays I get rid of the treasures by giving them to the river in the fall, before I kept them. I knew that I was going to reengage this coping mechanism, even though I had not done it for awhile. So, I summoned my corvid power and listed the pros of crows when I couldn’t list them about myself.

Tiffany – Oh, I really love that. Having something you associate with yourself (like the crow for you, for me it would be fae folk), that you can list beloved or positive traits about even when you can’t list them about yourself.

Using your patronus / alter-ego / animal friends in your love letters

  • What do you associate with yourself? If could be an animal, a character, an idea, an object. Think of the Patronus idea from Harry Potter – something powerful, associated with who you are as a person, that can be summoned to protect you.
  • What are your favourite things about the animal/object/idea you associate with yourself?
  • What makes that creature/concept/thing so cool?
  • What is one story or myth or memory associated with that animal/object/idea that you treasure?

Stasha – When I felt broken or as if I had a giant hole in my spirit I would weave paper and fabric into a letter. I learned that one year at Equinox Vigil, a really neat Calgary event about the need for public mourning of grief of all kinds.

Tiffany – That sounds like a valuable tool, too. (And I am thinking a lot about sensory stuff as I build the summer course – registration is still open for one more week! – I love how that practice of weaving a bandaging or healing letter would blend tactile and visual senses with fine motor skills – bridging left and right brain selves, and helping both from a narrative perspective and also from a physical perspective.)

Stasha – Yes to mind melding our own minds!

I used the metaphor of growing A LOT. And home. I wanted to be home and safe when I was with myself. Big difference between with myself and by myself. That meant confronting the shit.

One love letter was a rock with a hole through it from persistent water drops.

Tiffany – Oh, that is lovely. And I love how fluid and flexible your definition of love letter is. I think that’s something I could definitely improve for myself. Or, maybe to put it more gently, that could be an invitation to more flexibility in my own thinking.

How much time did you spend on this project per day? Did you find the time commitment overwhelming? How did you carve out and protect the space for that?

Stasha – Ha! Gentle is good. I usually would write the love letter in the morning, so it could be based on what I needed for that day, and then at night I wrote 3 things that weren’t terrible about that day. I love structure for my healing, so those bookends really helped me to accomplish my other goals.

Tiffany – I like that idea. I might try that for myself, because the last-thing-at-night love letters don’t feel so good for me – they feel like avoidance and dismissal, you know? And it’s funny – even though I feel that, I haven’t shifted it. But I like your idea of bookends and of the love letter giving you what you need for the day.

Stasha – I showed myself evidence that other people loved me, when I felt less able to do it myself. I drew stick figure me and cut out my name from birthday cards to show myself that I was surrounded by love.

Dear Tiffany, If you need some material for your love letters you can look into concepts such as Radical Hope, which you demonstrate every single day. You could interview someone who loves you about your great qualities, even though it is scary. – Stasha

Tiffany – I love that so much. Thank you!

I have been struggling with that concept of “deserving” all week. I have been avoiding writing my letters – I usually write them ten minutes before bed, long after my brain wants to be done, and if I weren’t running this challenge publicly, I don’t think I would be doing them. They feel indulgent and … “bad” – selfish, ridiculous, foolish, arrogant.

Stasha – So write them to the fairies and fae. Write them to the crows and elf leaders.

Tiffany – Yes. I love that idea! And maybe we can invite others to help us see ourselves through a loving mirror, when we’re not able to do that for ourselves.

Interview Questions to ask someone who loves you when you’re struggling to write your own love letter (you can use this template as-is, or adapt it):

Hi, I would like to ask you some questions. It’s totally okay if you’re not able or don’t have time to answer. This is challenging for me to ask, because I’m struggling with not liking myself a lot right now. I’m asking you because I trust you, and I trust your insight and your ability to see me clearly. I know that you love me. I appreciate you taking the time to answer these for me.

  • What comes to mind when you think about me?
  • What is your favourite memory involving me?
  • Can you think of a time when I did something well?
  • Can you share a story that demonstrates something you admire or enjoy about me?

Tiffany – Do you have any other thoughts on the topic of doing this project while experiencing self-hate?

Stasha – I do all my projects while experiencing self-hate. I think a shocking number of us do. I think I drew brick walls 3 times in my letters, not as barriers but as symbols of the cumulative effort required to get that shit voice* to also listen to compassion.

Tiffany – It is so common. So, so common. I think you’re right

Stasha – My 100th letter I painted a life size tree, while naked. I took lots of pictures of that PROCESS, because that was the gift to myself: the wonderful process of fucking up, exhibiting symptoms, lying to myself about my worth, and listing 1-3 non-crap things per day. Otherwise known as messy healing, the most sacred of love spells.

Now this process of seeing other people struggle within this same process, is so validating and healing. Because sometimes I forget how awesome I am or the amazingness of the things that I have tried. Just like you and you and you. It is really nice to try stuff together.

Tiffany – One thing that comes up repeatedly in the narrative therapy training that I’m doing, is the idea that people need to know that their experiences and knowledges can help others. Maybe one motivation for getting through the 100 Love Letters challenge is so that in a year or two years or ten years, when we have someone else in our life struggling, we can draw on these experiences and offer them hope and help.

Just like you are doing now, because you ARE amazing and badass and wise and resilient!

Stasha – Awwww thanks friend. Pulling knowledge out of pain is the original chocolate chips* out of shit! Just like YOU are doing now. Part of my 100 love letters process was to do it for me instead of for other people.

Tiffany – One thing that I did a few years ago was to give myself stickers for every positive or useful thing that happened or I did in the day. I think it was a similar process. It helped me start to see myself as competent and worthy, at a time when I did not experience myself as either of those things. I don’t even know where I got that I idea, but I used it to claw myself up out of one of the darkest holes I’ve been in.

I think that we are often so much more resilient, and so much more wily in our survival strategies, than we give ourselves credit for.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom about this! And for sharing this project. It’s a good one!

Stasha – Wily af! Thank you for building on it, there has been so much learning, and it is early still in the process!!

Tiffany – I know!! We are not even a fifth of the way through, and already so much wisdom and generosity has been shared. I’m excited to see the project continue!

Stasha – Way to grow!

* Stasha’s Chocolate Chip Wisdom (note on this section for discussion of eating shit)

Stasha – Now. Everyone loves chocolate chips.

Ok not everyone, but many do.

I describe this process [of finding self-love in the middle of self-hate] as picking chocolate chips out of a pile of shit.

It has been my direct experience that kids who are coping with abuse from primary caregivers, particularly neglect – are really, really good at picking chocolate chips out of piles of shit.

So we like chocolate. But when you are picking your chocolate out of shit, you are going to also eat a lot of shit.

And this shit will get inside you. And this shit will give you a mean belittling voice that will tell you that you are no good.

Sometimes this shit will destroy you or tell you to destroy yourself. It will always tell you that you are no good. That you don’t deserve 100 love letters.

I think though that I found a loop hole here, because the shit will never tell you not to write 100 love letters, only to not write them to yourself!

It is sad because everyone except us knows that we deserve this love. That shit gets in the way.

(Running the #100loveletters challenge is possible because of the amazing support of my community, especially my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to keep this work going, consider checking out my Patreon, or liking my Facebook page, or following me on Instagram.)

Finding Wellness: An Interview with Jen Donovan

Finding Wellness: An Interview with Jen Donovan

Jen Donovan lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is a mental health therapist. She posts frequently about her experience with chronic illness (mast cell activation syndrome), and her journey towards wellness. She blogs at Skunk Speaks.

She generously shared her experience and insight as part of the July theme week on the Sostar Self Care Facebook page – System Failure: Self-Care for Sick Days (and weeks, and months).

Tiffany – Can you share (as much as feels comfortable) about your experience with becoming ill and coming to terms with what was happening?

Jen – This was really hard for me because the disease I have is pretty rare and the symptoms are often fairly vague and hard to make sense of. So, for the first six months or so of having acute symptoms, I really thought that I was “going crazy.” Additionally, a symptom of the disease is panic attacks, which further confounded what was physiologically happening to me. I was lucky that I had a doctor at the time who happened to be familiar with the disease and was able to diagnose me. Just having the validation, that I was not just having somatic delusions, was a really important initial step in coming to terms with what was happening.

After that, though, came the second part of “coming to terms” – actually accepting that I have a rare, incurable disease. Again, I was lucky that I had exposure to alternative and holistic healers in my community who helped me realize that although the disease cannot be “cured,” it can be “healed” through major lifestyle and diet changes, among other things. The distinction between “healing” and “curing” has become an important one for me in my process of acceptance.

I acutely remember one day in early February, looking over the four pages of things that an herbalist recommended I start doing to treat my illness, including an extremely stringent diet and major lifestyle changes, and I was just crying and crying and crying. Even being very disciplined with these changes, it can take years to see a significant effect. I had a horrifying moment of realizing my life would never be the same. I felt like I couldn’t do it – it was too much – I would just be sick forever and eventually die. And at that moment of total terror, I had this incredible experience of complete surrender. I felt my “ego” just fade away and I just totally submitted to a journey towards wellness, no matter what it entailed. That was a really important moment in my acceptance.

Tiffany – I wanted to ask a bit more about the idea of surrender – you talk about that as being such an important process, but our culture is so resistant to the idea of surrender. Sickness/illness is something we are supposed to “fight” but in your words, it’s not about fighting illness so much as surrendering to a journey. Can you add to that? It’s just such a narrative shift that I wanted to expand on it.

Jen – Yeah, the idea of surrender has been big for me. I think one idea that has become a major core belief for me is that, generally speaking, the body is infinitely wise. If it’s doing something harmful to itself, it’s because something in the environment is not working for it. It’s not being given the space it needs to take care of itself. Symptoms are messages – our body telling us ‘hey this isn’t working!’ So to “fight” against illness is to disrespect the messages our body is giving us about how to heal. Again, this way of thinking about it isn’t going to work for every person in every situation. But for me what has worked is to accept that the healing is in the wound. That’s a phrase I read from my horoscope by Chani Nicholas at the beginning of the year and I cannot get it out of my head. So instead of rejecting my symptoms I’ve been trying to turn towards them, and accept that my body is doing something important, something meaningful. If I can surrender to the body, work with my symptoms as a partner to investigate why it is struggling and suffering, I’ve made so much more progress than when I was stuffing myself with medications to try to stop the symptoms. This is what surrender has been like for me.

Tiffany – How do you handle the social aspects of chronic illness? Especially the impact of illness on relationships.

Jen – This one is weird and I’m still struggling with it. The first major one was re-navigating my relationship with my primary partner. I realized early on that many of the things we would do together as a couple to bond were no longer accessible for me. I can’t eat at restaurants, I can’t drink alcohol, I can’t do recreational drugs, I can’t go backpacking or even camping for more than a night really, I can’t do super heavy impact play or other s/m activities. I had a couple of weeks where I worried that our relationship would collapse because all these things we had structured our relationship and intimacy around weren’t options anymore. It was scary for awhile. But I eventually recognized that if he decided to leave me because I couldn’t do these activities anymore, then he wasn’t actually dating me for “me,” but for the things I did. And that ended up not being the case. We have had to have a lot of intentional conversations about it, but we have been able to restructure our relationship around activities we can still do. And in some ways our relationship has grown deeper and more intimate because we’ve been forced to do this, and get to know each other in new ways. We have done a lot more things like more spiritual bdsm, tantra exercises, walks and gentle hikes, and we still go out dancing sometimes – I’m just sober now – and we have a great time.

I have found that this illness has given me a strange opportunity to really learn who my true friends are. It was surprising to see who stopped talking to me, or inviting me to events, once I became sick. I think some of it has to do with similar to the above, not being able to do the same things I used to. I also think some people are just really uncomfortable around someone who is chronically struggling. The reality is that even on good days I’m not really “good” – my body is extremely sick! And there are days when I feel very sad and discouraged. I try not to be excessively negative – but I’m also not going to pretend that everything is fine. And I’m learning who can handle that and who can’t, and having to adjust my social connections accordingly. Part of me feels bitter or rejected at times, but part of me sees this as an opportunity to focus my energy on people who can be there for me in a deeper way.

Tiffany – What has been the most helpful strategy you’ve found for keeping yourself moving forward? And, how do you handle those times when you can’t? (I’m asking this one because you always convey so much honest exhaustion and discouragement but you rarely come across as hopeless or despondent – it’s really encouraging and inspiring, and I’m wondering what keeps you tethered to resilience.)

Jen – Honestly, I don’t feel like I have any other option. I think this goes back to that “surrender” moment I had back in February. To give up is to just accept illness, accept death. I have to be real with myself that I will be dealing with this disease for the rest of my life, but that’s where the difference between “healing” and “curing” comes in. I’m not trying to cure myself. I’m just trying to heal. I’m trying to give my body space to take care of itself. And I deeply, deeply believe that bodies know how to take care of themselves if they are given the proper space and environment to do so. So to give up, to not continue to move forward would be to reject this deeply held belief I have and I have just seen too much powerful evidence in the world to do that.

Another thing is that I’ve managed to find some spiritual purpose to the experience, which I think has been essential to me. Here I am, 27, struggling with a rare disease and terribly ill. And yet – I’m sober, I have more fulfilling relationships now than I ever had, I’m eating and taking care of my body better than I ever have before, I’m better at setting boundaries around my health and self-care than I ever have before – my entire life is now centered around wellness and healing. I’ve made these changes because I’ve felt like I’ve had to – and yet… if I hadn’t gotten sick the reality is I probably never would have made these changes. I’ve had visions during meditations recently where it was explained to me that this illness had to happen in order for me to progress in this way in my life journey. I don’t think everyone needs to or can find greater purpose in their illnesses. But it has been a very profound realization for me – that somehow in sickness I have found wellness.

And lastly, there are days when I don’t feel resilient, I don’t feel like I’m moving forward, and that sense of despair and terror sets in. I cry and I wail and I feel like I’m dying and nothing can help me. But that’s part of the process too, in a way. Those fears and feelings are real and to suppress them would be toxic. So, when they come, I really feel them. Just really wallow in them. And usually if I let myself really sob and wallow for awhile, the wave naturally passes and my thoughts naturally start turning to more optimistic thoughts. So I guess that’s a part of what helps me keep moving forward too.

Tiffany – I also wanted to ask more about spirituality, if you want to talk about that. That’s such a difficult and fraught topic for so many people – I know that a lot of folks in my community have come out of harmful fundamentalism, or have rejected religion for one reason or another, but I also know that there are a lot of folks (sometimes the same ones! sometimes others) who are searching for some kind of spiritual connection or process. What has that journey been like for you?

Jen – Well, I’ve come from the opposite situation, lol – my dad is a fundamentalist atheist so it’s been a journey for me to find spirituality rather than get away from it!

(If you appreciate and want to support this work, consider visiting my Patreon page.)