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.
I’ve spent the last couple days mapping out my immediate upcoming projects. It’s pretty exciting, and there are many things coming up that you can be part of!
Check these projects, collaborations, and events out, and get in touch with me if there’s anything that piques your interest.
- I’m launching a book club for parents, stepparents, and caregivers of autistic kids. We’ll be reading books by autistic authors, and recentering the conversation about what autistic kids need away from neurotypical experts, to autistic experts. I feel like this is a critical counter to the standard approach, and it’s important to me because both of my stepkids are autistic. I want to do the best that I can for them, and that means listening to autistic adults. You can get involved by sending me a message and letting me know you want in. Unlike most of my work, this one will be in person. We’ll be meeting once a month-ish at my home, so space is limited. However, I’ll be writing up a detailed review of each of the books we read, and those reviews will be posted on my Patreon, and then on this blog.
- I’m collaborating on the creation of a resource for extroverts, addressing self-care and mental health, since so much of the available self-care and mental health writing assumes introversion, or assumes that being outgoing and social is incompatible with depression or suicidality. You can get involved by sending me a message. Our first in-person round table discussion is coming up on Saturday, and there will be a second in-person round table discussion later on. You can participate online (in text or skype interviews), in person (in one-on-one interviews or round table discussions), or some combination of these. I am particularly interested in talking with folks whose experience of extroversion has been impacted by cultural norms that don’t leave space for extroversion. (For example, autistic folks are assumed to be inherently introverted, and so are many Asian folks, while Black and Indigenous women are interpreted as “angry” or irrational if they’re extroverted, and women in general often find it difficult to be accepted as extroverts without being shamed for being “gossipy,” “loud,” or other unacceptable things.)
- I’m collaborating with my brilliant sibling, Domini Packer, to create a resource for survivors and supporters following sexual assault, to help build and sustain networks of support following a crisis. You can get involved by sending me a message. We’re meeting with people one on one to chat, and also talking with folks online. This is going to turn into a zine (or similar), with stories, resources, and action plans for survivors and supporters following sexual assault. We noticed a pretty big gap in the available resources, and a lot of “lean on your community” without a lot of insight into what that looks like, how to ask for what you need, how to keep boundaries between yourself and your supporters. And for supporters, a lot of “believe them, be there for them” without a lot of information about how to do self-care during the crisis so you don’t end up burning out (or worse, turning around and leaning back on the person who has just been through a trauma), how to maintain boundaries with the person you’re supporting, how to reach out for your own support in safe and respectful ways. We’re going to attempt to fill that gap a bit. I’m also interested in talking with professionals who would like to contribute. (This one is coming up quickly, so get in touch asap if you want to be involved.)
- I’m working on a resource to help folks navigate those “Bad Gender Feels” days. This project is in the germination stage, but I am starting to meet with folks to talk about what would be helpful and what they’d like to see included in a resource like this. This resource will also include information for parents and other supporters of trans and gender non-conforming kids who want to help them get through those dysphoric days.
- Possibilities Calgary events are running on the third Tuesday of each month at Loft 112 in Calgary’s East Village, and are always free to attend. Every month has a theme, and our in-person discussion becomes the framework for a shareable, downloadable, free resource booklet. You can participate at the conversations, or by sending your ideas or suggestions once the monthly topic is announced. (January is Winter Self-Care for Weary Queers.)
- The Self-Care Salons are running every month on the first or second Sunday at Loft 112 in the East Village. The cost is $50, sliding scale is available. Every month includes an in-depth conversation and a resource book. 10% of the profit from the Self-Care Salon goes to the Awo Taan Healing Lodge. (In January, Vincci Tsui, RD will be facilitating a discussion about food, health, and bodies that is size-inclusive, anti-diet, fatphobia-challenging – Self-Care Salon: Bodies, Food, and Health.)
- Bridges and Boundaries: Social Self-Care will be launching Jan 22. It’s a 6-week online course focusing on building tools for social self-care. The cost is $150, sliding scale is available, and it’s going to be awesome. You can sign up by sending me a message.
- You can also get involved by supporting my Patreon. And at the $10/month level, I’ll write you a post on the self-care topic of your choice. My Patreon supporters are the reason I’m able to put so much time and effort into developing resources that are comprehensive, inclusive, and available for free.
- And, lastly, my self-care and narrative coaching (for individuals and relationships) is on sale until the end of January. You can check out my services on my Facebook page (I’m in the process of updating this website to be up to date), or you can just send me an email! A single session ($150) is 10% off, a package of 3 ($400) is 15% off, and a package of 10 ($1200) is 20% off.
There are other projects coming up that aren’t collaborations or events, too. Blog posts and other plans for creating new work, mapping out my content focus for the year. 2017 focused on wholeness and integration, and 2018 will focus on hope. I’m in the process of figuring out what that means, and how to bring that focus into my various pieces of work.
I’m also working on pulling some of my work off of Facebook and making it accessible elsewhere. I’ll be shifting my Tender Year posts into a new blog (and cross-posting with Facebook), and once that’s up and running, I’ll share the link here. I’ll also be posting more of my self-care content onto my Tiffany Sostar blog so that people can read it without being on Facebook.
And, perhaps most exciting for me, two major projects are lurching up to speed:
- the book I’ve been talking about and writing about and thinking about for ages is happening and I’ve started to pull the content together for it, so watch for updates on the 100 Love Letters book coming throughout this year, and,
- I’m 83% certain I’ll be doing the Masters in Narrative Therapy and Community Work this year at the Dulwich Centre (I’ve been accepted into the program, and now I just need to sort out funding – yikes!)
And one major project is just starting to simmer more assertively:
- I’m putting together my speaker event wish list, and starting to think about restarting the UnConference Series and bringing people in for events (Avery Alder is at the top of my wish list, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to bring her in for a weekend workshop on transformative gaming sometime this year).
2018 is going to be about continuing to do what I love, learning how to do it more sustainably and effectively, and working with my communities to develop strategies and resources for resilience and hope. It’s going to be good.
Image description: A chai latte with the tea leaves visible in a strainer beside a laptop with a text document visible. Text reads “Digital self-care” and there is a small Tiffany Sostar logo in the bottom right.
This post is an interview with Cynthia Khoo, a Toronto-based lawyer who focuses on Internet policy and digital rights. Check out her website here – she’s amazing!
Back in April, Cynthia and I started talking about digital self-care, and harm reduction strategies for existing in our increasingly overwhelming digital spaces. She directed me to the Note to Self Infomagical boot-camp for “making information overload disappear,” and I completed that (you can read my review of the first day of the boot-camp on Patreon!)
This interview is long, and dense. It’s fairly link-heavy, and I’ve compiled each of the links into the resource section at the bottom, and embedded them in the text for context. We also tried to include supplemental resources for folks who want to dig deeper, and both Cynthia and I hope you find some help and inspiration for creating your digital self-care plan!
(Bolding added for emphasis after the conversation.)
Tiffany—First of all, thank you so much for making time to talk with me about this stuff. I know you are super busy. On which note, could you tell our fine readers who you are and what you do?
Cynthia—Sure, and thank you so much for having me! My name is Cynthia Khoo and I’m an Internet lawyer and digital rights advocate based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My practice is cross-disciplinary and involves working on law and policy reform in (tele)communications law, intellectual property law (specifically copyright), and a bit of privacy law.
Tiffany—I’ve learned so much from your posts about what’s happening at the intersection of digital and legal life, and about digital security. You pointed me in the direction of the Infomagical series, and it was really helpful.
I was hoping to talk about digital self-care today, which is a huge, and kind of confusing, topic.
When you’re online, what kind of self-care strategies do you rely on?
It seems different than practicing self-care offline, but there are similarities, too. And overlap! When we first started talking about this project, you brought up the physical self-care aspect of digital self-care, in terms of ergonomics, eye strain, and posture. That’s so relevant! And impacts our experience of the digital space. Emotional and mental self-care are also here in these digital spaces, especially if we haven’t set boundaries for ourselves. It can be difficult to practice self-awareness and intentional, compassionate action online, but it feels important.
Cynthia—I’m really glad to hear that my posts have been helpful! Especially with digital security, I think it can be intimidating or overwhelming to grapple with when you first get into it, and more so if you don’t normally work a lot with tech or live on the Internet. So, I’m very appreciative of people and groups who take the time to create guides and resources (such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defence toolkits and U.S. border device security guide, and resources from Tactical Tech) to make it a little more doable for people who aren’t necessarily thinking about this all the time or who don’t look through life through that lens (and for that matter, also more doable for those who are/do!).
The idea of digital self-care is fascinating, and I think an increasingly important one. I have to admit it’s not something I particularly thought a lot about in its own right until you brought it up with me, and so I’m looking forward to digging into this with you as well.
Tiffany—I hadn’t considered digital self-care as its own thing much either, despite the fact that we started talking about this collaboration months and months ago.
For me, the extent of my digital self-care has been limiting my engagement with trolls, and balancing my exposure to negative media with hopeful media (or pictures of small animals). I think those are valid parts of digital self-care, but I have a feeling that there is more we could be doing, and we could bring more awareness, intention, and compassion to our digital self-care. So, one goal for this conversation (and future conversations that this might spark) is to start digging into what that sort of sustainable digital self-care might look like.
Cynthia—I think that’s a good natural starting point, and probably a common one, that speaks to the considerable toll that both of those things take on you over time (engagement with trolls and onslaught of exclusively negative media). They are definitely valid ways to respond.
I agree that there is more to it than that as well, but it also depends on the context of your digital environment. So, there would be different strategies or approaches of bringing awareness, intention, and compassion to your online activities, and I think doing that is what I would consider digital self-care.
You asked earlier about what are some self-care strategies that I rely on when I’m online. I had to think about that because I think there are strategies that I do rely on, but they evolved organically in response to what I felt or realized I needed at the time, as opposed to my sitting down and going “I need to implement digital self-care.” They each address a different aspect of my “digital life” (quotation marks because I don’t believe it’s separable from “offline life,” but still a useful term in this context).
For example, in terms of exposure to general media, news, politics, current events, and the overall milieu of what people refer to when they want to avoid the Internet/online media, something I’ve found useful is to identify what I will get out of reading something, and assess whether it will be worth it. During the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, I largely avoided all coverage of it entirely—*not* because it would “bring me down,” ruin my day, etc. (although it would), but because it would do those things AND there was nothing I could do about it. Not even vote.
When I first started reading news, politics, etc., to become a more “aware/politicized” person, it was because I thought it would make me a more informed and thus better person, that could contribute more to the world, etc.
But reading the latest terrible tweet and then a dozen run-of-the-mill takes on it will not help me do that or add anything in the way of value to my life or how I am as a person.
If it were a Canadian election, however, there is still a bit of news rationing I might want to implement, but it would be different because that’s something where I could have more impact or do something in response to what I’m reading, or where what I’m reading would directly inform and make me more effective at what I do or how I go through my parts of the world.
I think it’s important to distinguish between media that you will and won’t read, and identify what that rubric is, because if the criteria is “anything that makes me feel bad / depressed / angry / etc.”, then it seems dangerously easy to tip from self-care over into willful ignorance.
So, for example, I don’t find it valuable to read “plot” or “horse race” news—what happened, who said what, etc.—but I do find it valuable to read more thoughtful or analytical pieces that are more “what does this mean, what does this tell us, what insights can be drawn, what can we/you do, where do we go from here.” These pieces, regardless of the emotional impact, are still valuable because the insights are potentially transferrable beyond the particular event, and I can draw on or apply that insight in the future.
That was kind of a long answer and was just one example!
Tiffany—Yes, that idea of curating media consumption based on where we can affect change really resonates for me. I’ve been reading Jane McGonigal’s book SuperBetter, and she talks quite a bit about self-efficacy, or the confidence that our actions can positively impact our outcomes. I think that intersects with digital self-care.
Cynthia—Before going on, I would be really curious and interested to hear about your thoughts on the similarities between digital and “IRL self-care,” because the latter is also something I’ve mostly thought about passingly or when forced to, rather than a deliberate overarching strategy.
Tiffany—I agree that “online” and “offline” are not super relevant divisions, given the way we use technology at this point in time. I view it similarly to how I view mental, emotional, physical, and social self-care—they aren’t separate selves, but there are distinct strategies that I use in each type of self-care, and teasing them out into categories gives me language for weighing my choices.
Do I need the social self-care of going out with friends, or do I need the financial self-care of not spending any money?
Do I need the emotional self-care of a beloved movie and some popcorn, or do I need the physical self-care of a swim?
These things are not always compatible, and having language that pulls them apart makes it easier (for me) to prioritize. I think digital self-care is similar, and overlaps and intersects with each of the other types of self-care.
Cynthia—I think that’s a brilliant way to think of it, and makes complete sense to me.
Tiffany—And I absolutely agree that our self-care strategies often develop organically in response to growing self-awareness, situational context, or needs. The value that I see in making that invisible work visible, is that it can offer a bit of a map for folks who are struggling and may not yet have landed on the strategies that other folks have developed.
Cynthia—Exactly. Even identifying that it’s a need in the first place, I think for a lot of people would be revelatory.
Tiffany—One question I do have, and it’s something I struggle with personally, is how do you streamline the process of weeding out the stories and articles and tweets and listicles that will not benefit you, or, on the other side, how do you increase your chances of finding the thoughtful, meaningful, or useful articles that you want to read?
I have almost entirely stopped hate-sharing anything, for example, and I try not to hate-read much anymore either. The morbid curiousity, and the desire to share anger with my community has mostly left me, because I realized how much it was draining me. (I do make some exceptions for particularly egregious articles that hit me hard, though.)
But despite making that choice for myself, and seeing the benefits of it, I still sometimes find myself wading through many articles that are not enlightening or helpful, and it can get tiring. Do you have any strategies?
Cynthia—I definitely don’t hate-share or hate-read anything. That goes back to what I said earlier about value. I have friends or acquaintances for instance who will share things like “look how ridiculous this person is hahaha” because it was incredibly sexist, racist, or whatever.
I guess the value they get out of it is amusement. I don’t find it amusing though, I just wish it didn’t exist in the first place.
We saw a LOT of that during the US election. So much of that “amusement factor” shares and responses seemed directly tied to privilege, and came from seemingly liberal/progressive people who would not bear the brunt of the current presidency.
The other thing about hate-sharing—and this is definitely a result of the work I’ve done in digital rights advocacy—is that I simply don’t want to give that content and its views or perspectives more air time. I want it gone, and then going beyond that, I want in its place what I would rather see instead: an article done right, or that shows and teaches people what it means to be better and how to go about doing that (whether in the context of journalism and media coverage, or in the context of the situation being covered, i.e. police brutality, sexual assault, disability rights, and so forth). Attention only helps strengthen the message, and reifies it as a thing. When it comes to messaging, public discourse, influencing sociopolitical norms, etc., I don’t believe in fighting fire with fire, but starving it of oxygen. And then growing a tree there instead.That metaphor works, right?
Tiffany—That metaphor works beautifully, and fits with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about in terms of my own emotional self-care in the current political, economic, and social climate.
Cynthia—Now to answer your actual question! [How do you streamline the process of choosing which articles you want to read?]
So, first, I should say that I do not have the most efficient or streamlined approach to media consumption, at all.
It’s actually quite haphazard and dissatisfactory, and I’ve been meaning to do something about it for a while now. I used to rely on RSS feeds, but time and the loss of my first RSS tool, then Google Reader, and not having found any satisfactory replacements (yes, including feedly!), meant I now basically rely on Facebook and Twitter for news. So I’ve come up with different strategies for each.
On Facebook, I’ve subscribed to the pages of a lot of media outlets, so there’s actual news to begin with and I’m not wholly reliant on what people in my feed post.
If I’ve noticed that someone in my feed tends to post good (thoughtful / insightful / informative) articles, or writes thoughtful / insightful /informative status posts, or their posts tend to attract good discussions, I will star them or use that feature where their posts always appear first.
I also use the “unfollow” button very liberally—thinking on it now though, I haven’t really had cause to unfollow people for political reasons, more that I just don’t care about their vacation photos or whatever.
I also rely on a tool called SocialFixer, which is a chrome plug-in for Facebook, that has too many features to describe here but I guarantee will make your experience on the site better. The idea is that I’ve filtered out the content that adds no value and just takes up space (mentally or literally on my screen), and tried to boost the content that does add value, whether relationship-wise, information-wise, or “becoming a better / more thoughtful person”-wise.This becomes more complex though if you stop to ask yourself whether you want Facebook to have such a clear read on your preferences.
As for Twitter, I didn’t use it for the longest time because it was such an overwhelming firehose in terms of reading content, and a void in terms of if I ever posted something myself. I really only became active on twitter for work, because pretty much everyone in my field is there. And there, it actually is helpful and sometimes necessary to have “horse race” news because I do need to know what has happened / what is happening to be effective at my job.
The trick to making Twitter manageable, for me, has been lists. It’s unfortunate that Twitter doesn’t seem to have optimized that feature, because it’s incredibly useful. I made one list of everyone who seemed immediately relevant to my work or if I simply wanted to encounter more of what they wrote or posted, and that one list is my Twitter homepage.
I ignore my general /overall Twitter feed and ignore all my other lists, unless I have an idle moment and then I’ll click in just to see what’s going on. And since that one curated list has a much more limited number of people, it makes for a more manageable amount of content to take in on a regular basis.
Tiffany—I love how much you curate your online experience. The firehose as a metaphor is so relatable, but the work of putting processes in place to curate has always felt daunting. It’s encouraging to read about your strategies because they feel more doable than…. I don’t know. Getting off social media entirely because it’s a disaster and only ever communicating via Slack.
Cynthia—One more note on curating online experience. This is such a small, almost trivial (but I think ultimately not trivial, for a variety of reasons) thing, but with such outsize impact that I have to recommend it. There’s a Chrome extension called “Make America Kittens Again,” and as you surf the Internet, it replaces all photos of the current US president with photos of kittens. Life-changing.
Tiffany—Ooooooh!!! You know, that actually is brilliant and would reduce so much stress. For multiple reasons! They have done studies (including this one specifically on kawaii and attentional focus) on the effect of seeing pictures of cute animals online, and it actually does calm you down. Win-win!
Cynthia—Exactly. It does double duty—not only removing the negative, which alone is already helpful, but puts something with actual positive impact in its place.
Tiffany—On a side note, I am so excited by this framework of actionable information being prioritized in digital self-care. I think that’s something I have already been leaning towards, but you’ve given it language and that is so valuable. Thank you!
Cynthia—You’re welcome! That’s a really interesting observation. I’m not sure if that framework is a result of the general environment of digital rights, technology, and the people generally found in these areas, or due to my own personality, which has become much more actionable solutions-oriented than I naturally was when younger. I think it is partly a result of legal practice and becoming a lawyer, combined with digital rights advocacy and what I’ve learned from working in that space.
I also have a side note.
At this point, I have to say I’m really wary of using words like “negative” and “positive” in generic terms outside of specific contexts, and especially as applied to media, because people can so easily twist that into “well articles about racism are / make me feel negative” and so they never read articles about the experience of racialized people, or never read articles about how they might be and could stop being racist, and then they think they’re just doing “self-care.”
So again there’s a line there and I think it warrants a whole other discussion maybe some other time about how you distinguish what is “legitimate / valid” and what isn’t. (And I suspect there’s also potentially something that could become problematic about the idea of deeming someone’s self-care illegitimate / invalid, but that might just go to something similar to the paradox of tolerance. The line simply has to be drawn somewhere if anything is going to mean anything at all.)
Tiffany—That side note is so relevant. I am in a constant state of trying to find the right language these days—using words that won’t become weaponized against vulnerable groups, or that won’t be used to validate ignorance and further complicity in oppressive systems. Thank you for bringing that up!
And, yeah. Negative/positive, healthy/unhealthy, valid/invalid — so slippery.
Especially when you combine it with how often more aware or politicized people are accused of “being negative,” and with how often “positive thinking” is used to obscure, erase, or derail the experiences of people going through objectively difficult or traumatizing experiences that it is imminently reasonable and even healthy at certain times for them to be allowed to be cynical, depressed, angry, etc., about.
Tiffany—Weaponized positivity is the bane of my self-care work. That sludge is eeeeeverywhere, and it harms so many people.
Also, yes yes yes to how “being negative” gets used against people (see also “being divisive” or “being just as bad as the people you’re fighting,” which all feel on a similar spectrum of “shut up and manifest your best life”).
That’s why I love the idea of using whether an idea or article will provide an actionable insight, and whether it will increase understanding about an issue (which then becomes actionable in its own way) as the metric.
And on that note, I wonder how people can find hope and a sense of their own agency, so that they can recognize where they can act. A lot of folks feel disempowered in the world as it is now.
Cynthia—YES, to all above re “positive/negative.”
Oh wait, I think I misunderstood your earlier question about prioritizing the actionable in digital self-care. With the media metric specifically, that’s just something I’ve instinctively done on my own for a long time, and have only articulated it as such to myself more recently.
Tiffany—It’s brilliant. ❤
And empowering! And it ties so beautifully in with other work around building self-efficacy, self-confidence, and our sense of agency (which ties directly into how resilient we feel).
Cynthia—I was going to say, in response to earlier question about hope and agency, that I’m not sure if that’s something you can just “do,” particularly not through the idea of digital self-care. You can’t “make” yourself feel hopeful, and you can’t just suddenly feel like you have agency. I think that goes more towards your life experiences overall, and whether they have led you to possess a sense of self-efficacy, self-confidence, and belief that you have agency to change things and impact the environment around you. I have been very lucky in that sense.
In terms of recognizing where folks can act, I think again, it depends on the context.
It’s much easier to answer that question if you have a specific issue or cause, than if you just want to “do something, anything” generally.
And then I think, as with everything in life, Google is your best friend (its search function anyway, if not the multinational monopolistic company with more power than some countries).
People do not give enough attention to the fact that other people spend a lot of time writing articles and explainers and lists that lay out clearly what any given person could do to help make the world better on any given issue.
If I want to do something about one of the recent hurricane disasters, for example, I will look up one of the many guides on that, from people who are on the ground there or work in the field or otherwise know what they’re talking about, and follow their advice.
If I want to act to make the world better for people with disabilities, I will look up the myriad articles and resources written by people with disabilities about how I can help do that.
I realize that a lot of that also starts from the prior assumption that I can act and can do something. And your question seems to be getting more at how to help someone to believe that in the first place.
In which case, I’m actually not that sure.
Perhaps something along the lines of starting small, e.g. donating to a marginalized writer you love, or engaging in mild snark so an oppressive comment at work doesn’t go past in peace, accepting those small wins for yourself, and then building upon that.
Tiffany—Those are great suggestions.
I also wanted to ask about digital security, and how that intersects with digital self-care. This is a topic that I really struggle with, and I mostly just ignore (which I know is not great self-care in any area!)
How would someone get started figuring out how to keep themselves safe online? How do you determine how much safety is enough, and how do you balance the social aspect of online life with the security risks of it?
Cynthia—First off, I am by no means an expert or anywhere near on digital security, at all. I am one of those people who are grateful for those who do work on digital security as a living and produce the guides and resources that I would also be completely lost without. So just to put that out there.
Next, I think that was three questions in one!
1) How would someone get started figuring out how to keep themselves safe online?
2) How do you determine how much safety is enough?
3) How do you balance the social aspect of online life with the security risks of it?
So I will address them in that order.
Tiffany—Awesome. And yes, it was. Sorry!!
Cynthia—1) How would someone get started figuring out how to keep themselves safe online?
I think the first and most useful thing, on a psychological level and to reduce frustration once you start the process, is to accept from the outset that digital security is not a quick errand you can run.
Think of it as an IKEA project, for your digital home. Imagine the frustration if you had to build an IKEA shelf or bed and assumed it’d be a quick task you could randomly fit in between things, and then it’s 4 hours later and you’re trying to find a missing nail and now you’re not sure the shelf even fits. At that point you’d probably throw up your hands and go, “You know what, being hacked and tracked doesn’t sound so bad.”
So give yourself the time and the space to learn and to do it right. The last thing you would want is to think you’ve secured yourself digitally when you really haven’t.
It is worth it to put aside a designated evening, afternoon, day, etc. to do it, especially if you’re coming at the whole idea of digital security from scratch. You could make an event of it if that helps, like people do with other self-care things. Or make it a date with a partner, or have a cryptoparty with friends or colleagues, where everyone learns and assists as you figure it out together.
Then, again, I would point to guides online, such as the ones listed in Martin Shelton’s Current Digital Security Resources Guide.
However, I would just start with ONE or it will be immediately overwhelming. Each guide is meant to be standalone, so it should not even matter which one. Start with that, forget the rest. Follow that one guide, and if you feel you have the energy or want to do more after, you can move on to another one and use any information in there that wasn’t already in the first.
It is kind of hard to answer this question in the abstract though, because of your second question: How do you determine how much safety is enough?
Everyone has a different threat model. I believe there are guides out there that also help instruct how you figure out what yours is.
For example, if you are an environmental activist or political journalist who travels to the United States or abroad a lot, your digital threat model would likely be much higher than, say, a junior accountant who lives in the suburbs.
I should say, a hetero white male junior accountant who is not politically active nor engages in allyship, who lives in the suburbs or not.
Tiffany—The IKEA metaphor is good. And explains why I’ve found this so frustrating. I definitely was not viewing it as IKEA furniture.
Cynthia—In the spirit of actionable advice, here are some things off the top of my head people can start with:
1) Install Signal or Whatsapp for encrypted texting [easy and painless]
2) Install PGP if you think you should have encrypted email [not as easy or painless as expected]
3) Install 2-factor authentication on all important online accounts, if available [easy and painless, provided you always have your phone on you]
4) Learn / read about how to do passwords properly, and start doing that.
When I think of digital security, I think of it as two categories: The first is protection from other people: how to encrypt your data, prevent your data from being breached, falling into wrong hands, etc.
But the second is digital security in the sense of backing up my data: how can I access it if it’s lost somehow or my normal avenues to it are cut off (such as if someone confiscates my phone)?
For the latter, I would recommend an external hard-drive that you place in safekeeping somewhere, and/or cloud storage such as Dropbox.
And then the next step beyond is combining the two: protecting/encrypting your backups. There are apps that will integrate with various cloud storage services (e.g. Boxcryptor is encryption software that works with Dropbox), and there are mobile versions as well, so you can keep things encrypted and closed to others, but still accessible to you on your phone as well as computer.
3) How do you balance the social aspect of online life with the security risks of it?
This is a really good question, and a hard one. I remember seeing a series of tweets shortly after the 2016 US presidential election, along the lines of “now is the time when we have to lock down everything and know who your true friends are, and cut off sycophants and people you do not trust.”
And I more or less agreed with that, or in any case it strongly resonated with me, and I immediately thought of all these people I would not trust. But then the issue was… wouldn’t that just lead to complete balkanization, and the precise people who should be reading and learning, no longer being exposed to those most likely to post what (imho) they should be reading and learning?
Similarly, if I have a higher threat model than average, does that mean I have to cut off all online communications with friends (or family, or partners, or colleagues) who have a lower threat model, and who implement few or even zero digital security practices, or just never digitally communicate to them anything personal or sensitive?
I remember at a conference once, a speaker mentioned how male journalists in particular would display a lot of bravado around digital security, like “I don’t care what happens to me! I’ll do anything for the story!” And then she’d ask: “But what about your family? Or your sources?” Whose personal /sensitive information is also on that person’s phone. And they’d go, “…Oh.”
I think all of that is a very personal call, and may take both research into and identifying your own threat model first and what levels of risk you are comfortable with relative to that, and then maybe some conversations with people if necessary.
Tiffany—That makes sense. And I had never seriously considered how a security breach could ripple out—or in!
Cynthia—”Weakest link” is a very relevant term in this context.
Tiffany—Yeah. I can see that. That does make it so complicated.
At this point, I want to give some word of reassurance but also not in a way that undermines everything said above or the point of this discussion. I mean, at some level it is a matter of “do your best,” and yet at another level, if your best wasn’t actually adequate, then that’s not helpful.
Tiffany—Yes. I think in that way it’s a lot like any self-care or security protocols. We can only do so much, and shaming ourselves for what we can’t do is not helpful. And also we need to do as much as we can, without shaming ourselves or victim-blaming if it isn’t enough. We have to hold those difficult and sometimes incompatible truths together at the same time, which is difficult.
It’s important, AND limitations are real, AND outcomes can be serious if we don’t take care of ourselves.
I think that part can also be complicated, especially if it ended up impacting other people or if digital security is a part of the person’s professional responsibilities, for instance.
Although digital self-care is a fairly new topic of discussion, and an evolving issue, it’s an important one! Hopefully this conversation offers a start in your own digital self-care planning and practice. Share your digital self-care tips or concerns, and maybe this will evolve into a more comprehensive resource over time!
The Link List
Cynthia Khoo’s website
Note to Self’s Infomagical Bootcamp
EFF Surveillance Self-Defence toolkit
EFF U.S. Border Security Guide
Make America Kittens Again
An article from psychologicalsciences.org about the “cuteness is good for mental health” study, and the study itself on PLoSONE
The Big Think on the Paradox of Tolerance
Albert Bandura’s paper on Self-Efficacy (our belief in our ability to affect positive change in our lives)
Martin Shelton’s Current Digital Security Resources Guide
The Security in a Box guide to assessing digital threat. This guide was designed for LGBTI individuals in the Middle East and North Africa, and is more comprehensive, with step by step instructions and matrixes to fill out, than others I found.
Signal and WhatsApp for encrypted communication, and PGP for email, Boxcryptor for encrypting cloud files
Securing Your Digital Life Like a Normal Person
Guide to Assessing Digital Risks
Violet Blue has been writing about digital life for years, and her Patreon features a weekly Info Security round-up on Tuesdays.
This is a Year of Sacred Attendance | #tenderyear post. You can read the first in this series here, and you can sign up for the Tender Year email list here.
In Staying with the Trouble (2016), Donna Haraway writes:
Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” “to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We – all of us on Terra – live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy – with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble not does require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.
Haraway’s work has been formative for me – her 1984 essay, “Cyborg Manifesto,” (link is to the PDF) was paradigm-shifting for me, and led me to Elizabeth Whitney’s 2008 essay, “Cyborgs Among Us,” which revolutionized my relationship with my bisexuality and opened up whole new worlds of liminality for me. Liminality – the threshold state, the betweenness, the selves and potentials that exist in the overlap, the between-and-beyond, the both/and, the identities that prove the binary wrong, the state that offers hope for new ways forward. Liminality – my heart. Liminality is where I find my way home to myself, and to the world.
Haraway’s writing is dense, thick, complicated and challenging. In Staying with the Trouble she discusses the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and the Chthulucene – and that tells you a lot about where the book comes from and how it goes. She discusses which stories tell stories and which thoughts think thoughts – which frames we use for generating new knowledge, which stories we use as roadmaps to new narratives. It’s rich work, and I can only read a page or two at a time. It speaks to me, but it speaks to me in ways that are not smooth or easy or comfortable. It is the perfect work to fit with the Sunday theme of the Tender Year.
It feels particularly fitting for this blog post because when I spoke with Stasha Huntingford about Venn Diagrams, her discussion of the rich and troubled/troubling/troublesome space between two binaries reminded me strongly of Haraway’s invitation to stay with the trouble. They are both troublemakers with deep insights.
The Year of Sacred Attendance, the Tender Year, started on a Sunday.
On Sundays, our prompt is to challenge a binary. To explore and expand a binary.
We use Venn Diagrams as a simple and accessible entry point into the prompt.
Venn Diagrams are great for this, because they invite both playful and silly engagement and more serious engagement. You can use this prompt to look for any area of overlap, and even that process of looking for overlap can be exciting and full of potential. You can engage with a Venn Diagram over the whole course of a day, diving deeper and deeper into what exists in either sphere, and what exists in the mingling between (as Nathan so beautifully), or you can approach it quickly, scurry up and scratch it down and then retreat to the rest of your day (like I did), or you can start with the diagram and expand it out into further self-awareness and even an affirmation about what you’re seeking for your life (like Stasha did). Each of these processes brought a different method to the prompt, and I think this will be true for everyone who participates. I am looking forward to that variety, and to the richness in the overlap. (Each of these Venn Diagrams are at the end of this post, to give you a sense of what’s possible and how the three of us have approached the topic so far.)
I think that the Tender Year, for me, will involve a lot of “staying with the trouble” and I appreciate the invitation and the encouragement to be troubled, and to find a way to be, as Haraway says, “truly present, not as a vanishing pivot… but as [a] mortal critter entwined in myriad unfinished configurations.” I have found myself lost in visions of the apocalyptic future lately, and have had trouble staying grounded in the present. This year is an invitation to attend my life as it happens (not as it will happen, or as it has happened), and to tend to the life I am living and the lives I intersect and overlap.
In this presence – this troubled and troubling, binary-challenging, playful and serious, liminal presence, there is so much potential for hope, for change, and for ways to intervene in the trouble.
“If the responsibility for the most vulnerable citizens has been passed to communities, we have a lot of work to do remembering what community means. The idea of community is important because in addition to creating shame, I feel that binary thinking has led us to a fragmented world where we are lonely and isolated from each other. My goal is to put the world back into a coherent whole where we concentrate on how things are interrelated, and brave negotiating the grey instead of falsely compartmentalizing into black/white. The peer model allows us all to be integrated, dynamic and interrelated in our identities rather than being defined by one aspect of ourselves. We should all order a nice veggie burger with bacon—which we can share with someone who is different from us!” – Stasha Huntingford
The Sunday prompt, Venn Diagrams, was Stasha’s idea and came from previous work she had done on binaries and the potential in the middle spaces. We sat down to talk about the process, and about her hopes for this year of Sunday #challengethebinary prompts.
Tiffany – To start with, I wanted to ask you about binaries and the breaking of them – the Sunday theme coalesced out of your discussion of both the “veggie burger with bacon” idea and the intersection of social workers and folks who access social work services. Can you tell me what it is about these two ideas that gets you excited, or that you want to explore in the Sunday “meditation on binaries” theme?
Stasha – Nothing makes me more excited than challenging binaries! Lots of dehumanizing oppression comes from the idea of ‘normal’ and ‘the other’.
This essay is where I explain the veggie burger with bacon concept further. It was written at a time when I was really lonely in the academy. I have used this idea to queer things that are presented as opposites.
Tiffany – How can Venn Diagrams help challenge these dehumanizing binaries?
Stasha – For example, being bisexual is one way that I have been exposed to a binary about being either gay or straight. This also reinforces a gender binary that presents two opposite options. So many people have done great work about challenging these binaries, and exploring what a spectrum view changes about two things that are framed as opposites
Tiffany – Totally. The radical binary-challenging potential within bisexuality is one reason I am so happy to be bisexual.
Stasha – Me too! And why I identify as queer instead of gay.
Binaries cause so much harm to people who exist in the middle of spectrums. I have many ways that I have experienced the tension of being a veggie burger with bacon, and I have been fortunate enough to have other people share some of their examples of the harms caused by binary thinking.
The idea of one way to do things or one truth, is part of the binary thinking, and crushes creativity.
Tiffany – I agree. But it’s also (at least for me) a very tempting way to view the world. If there is a “right” and a “wrong,” with no middle ground, then I can feel more confident about my choices – more confident that I won’t slide too far through that middle space and end up in wrongtown.
Stasha – I use venn diagrams to help me reflect deeply on the grey area between 2 binaries. This helps me to be more aware of my privileges and oppressions. It gives me points of intervention.
Tiffany – Oh, I love that! Can you talk more about points of intervention? How do you mean?
Stasha – I mostly use them to raise more questions
For example, if we explore a venn diagram between environmentalism and working for an oil company, this might help us to identify people who we know who may fit in the grey here and feel isolated from both the environmentalist and oil company employee communities.
Tiffany – Ah, yes. That makes sense. And, framing it like that, and thinking also of bisexuality, it occurs to me that the people in the grey area are often painted as “traitors” to both circles. That isolation is so real.
Stasha – Or if we explore the opposite of sacred in the dictionary, this can help us to understand the messages we may have received about what is sacred and how the opposite of this is defined.
Tiffany – Totally.
We have 52 weeks in this project, and although I am sure some binaries will warrant multiple Sundays of exploration, I am also looking forward to the invitation to look at a wide range. If someone wants to participate and isn’t sure where to start, what are some ideas that you’re excited about?
Stasha – I always say that veggie burgers with bacon are very powerful, and very lonely. In binary thinking, we are traitors because we expose that there are way waaaaaaaaay more than two options or ways to do things. What could be more dangerous and magic and lonely?
Tiffany – Yes. Absolutely.
Stasha – I’m excited to think about new binaries because I think that is difficult and magic. I am thinking about housed/homeless, the opposite of productive, the opposite of justice, rich/poor, the opposite of listening…
The opposite of connected, the opposite of fascism, the opposite of dyke
Tiffany – Those are great. Productivity is one that i want to explore, too. Also rest and whatever the opposite is, and forgiveness and all the circles that might overlap and complicate that.
Stasha – Oh my yes forgiveness, and the resulting diagrams could easily take us through to winter solstice!
Tiffany – Right?!
Stasha – Yes! If not the rest of our lives!
Tiffany – What else would you like someone to know about the Sunday theme?
Stasha – I think this is sacred work.
I think this because we are reclaiming a way of thinking that we used to have.
I cite Hans Christian Anderson’s story about the emperor who had no clothes, to explain the role of challenging binary.
Tiffany – Oooo, lovely! Can you explain how it applies here?
Stasha – We must have the strength to identify ways that we don’t belong in order to see what we are being told.
So it is scary to always be the one ruining social time by saying the emperor has no clothes.
Tiffany – I totally agree about how scary it is. I hope that this project is able to offer some of the social support that will help more of us find ways to speak our awkward truths.
Stasha – What we are being told about ourselves, and who we are. Patricia Collins explains the revolutionary act of black women defining themselves as a way that they resist oppression.
Tiffany – Yes. Narrative healing.
Stasha – Yes, I am so excited because it is something that I don’t want to do by myself. It hurts much less when we start from a space of acceptance. And we can return there when it hurts. And we know that we will connect at the full moon. And we know how many days we have to make it through to get there.
Yes huzzah for narrative healing!!! Sacred work.
I’m doing all my venn diagrams in public because I want people to have so many examples of intervention points.
Tiffany – I love that. The ability for the project to be public is one of my favourite things about it.
Stasha – You and Nathan taught me that/gave me the courage!
I did my 100 love letters privately and then shared them a year later on social media. I loved the exponential generative nature of the love that you two demonstrated.
I noticed that other people felt permission to write themselves love letters after seeing yours. And then they shared theirs, and their friends felt better able to send themselves a love letter.
Tiffany – It has been a pretty amazing collaboration, and I love the way it has invited more people in, and has rippled out into little growing communities of radical self-love. I hope that the same thing happens with the Tender Year.
It is the first day of the #tenderyear! We begin with a venn diagram, that compares ‘opposites’, and helps us reveal the grey in between. Welcome to Sundays, when we #challengethebinary!
For my first venn diagram, I wanted to explore what the opposite of sacred is. I started by looking up definitions, synonyms, and antonyms (words that we use to say the same or opposite things). I did this, keeping in mind that it is very important to inquire what is missing from the dictionary, for example colonialism and other kinds of racism are often reinforced through the appropriation of languages of resistance.
Under the sacred side of the two overlapping circles that I used in this venn diagram, I listed words that mean similar things: hallowed, pure, divine, solemn, guarded, immune, and secure.
Under the non-sacred side I found these words to describe the same concept: open, unprotected, vulnerable, profane, irreligious, ungodly, unholy, unsacred.
I then sat with my feelings with each of these words and concepts. One highlight of this meditation included reflections on my hatred of the concept of pure, since this is often used to oppress me, as a woman living in a patriarchy. I really love the word hallowed because it makes me think of my favorite holiday, the only one where the society that I am part of addresses the concept of death.
I was disappointed that the opposite of sacred is defined mostly as unsacred. I find this so interesting in terms of how we think about what is holy and what is not. I was surprised that sacred is linked with security; because in my life my most sacred moments have been the most perilous and chaotic. I think of sacredness as coming out of shit with your identity intact.
Next, I thought deeply about where the overlap is between sacred and unsacred, especially in how it applies to this project and our intent to practice sacred attention and tending. For me, vulnerability is sacred because you are reclaiming your true self. For me, the security in sacredness comes from being able to return home to yourself. Somberness and solemness are not required for my sacredness, as I think play is how we grow and interact in a genuine love. My sacredness is not guarded, it is found in the messy corners of tending your heart on your sleeve.
Finally, I created a definition of what I seek in terms of the sacred:
I seek the messy security of hallowed profane vulnerability.
Here we are. A beginning.
Sunday’s #dailypractice is about challenging binaries. My brain says: this is easy for you NVF, given the nature of your being. But, in truth, I do have a lot of either/or thinking ruling my worldview.
Because today is a beginning, I wanted to focus on parts of life that are working, but not necessarily working together. Things I’ve come to learn how much I need, especially during 100loveletters. But things that feel like they cancel each other out sometimes, in a way that gets in the way of my heart.
Spaciousness and Connectedness. I need them both in similar measure, but how to have them both at the same time?
I wordsed about each when this download arrived about a place for everyone/thing and everyone/thing in its place.
It got me thinking about ecology, about how we are connected in space and through it. Connected not crowded. Spaciousness not isolation. It got me to thinking about the collaboration that initiated this project. The collaborations that have initiated me and others.
I want to say there is a tender balance. But I think more accurately there is a robust dynamic, that can be disrupted. Keep an eye on the keystone populations. Keep an eye out for overgrowth. The algae bloom. The mineminemine of that.
Read the river. Bring curiosity to flow. There is a magic here to collect and study and work.
It’s good to be back.
A Year of Sacred Attendance
(link in bio)
This is my first post in the #tenderyear
, and my first#challengethebinary
Sunday post. You can read more about the project here –http://tiffanysostar.com/welcome-tenderyear/
I have a long list of binaries I’d like to explore over this year of Sundays. As I tried to figure out which would be *just right* for this first post, I realized that the pressure I was putting on myself to get it right, to make the right first impression, to say something profound, to make some kind of meaningful art, to have a perfect first post – that pressure was squishing the joy out of the project for me.
I had a busy day, have had a busy weekend, have had a busy week, have had a busy summer. This Tender Year / Year of Attendance work feels so important to me, and I am so excited about it, but my own internalized ideas about what “good work” means is in conflict with my sense of tiredness and general overwhelm, and what happens in the middle is not the productive, profound, generative new space that Venn Diagrams can highlight. It is, instead, a squished, cramped, claustrophobic place.
I think that this is actually a perfect start to this project, because what I need from the Tender Year is not just more work. What I need is better work, more holistic work, more wholehearted work. I need tenderness. I need to attend to the tiredness. I need to find a way to feel less cramped and squished in the creation of project-focused work.
This is a perfect diagram for where I’m at today, and an indication of where I can focus my energy to change this pattern. Or, at least, an indication of the pattern. And identifying the pattern is a great first step.
Even if you’re identifying a pattern you’ve identified a dozen times before, it’s still a good step.
Image description: On the left, a stick figure labeled ‘My tiredness and general overwhelm’ pushes a red ball labeled ‘Something.’ On the right, a stick figure labeled “My desire to do good work’ pushes a blue ball labeled ‘Something Else.’ In the middle, a purple area of overlap is labeled ‘Some other thing’ and a small stick figure it caught between the balls and labeled ‘My sense of enthusiasm and agency being squished.’ There is a text box on the bottom left that says ‘#tenderyear’ and a small Tiffany Sostar logo on the bottom right.
(Image description: A large tree in front of a house, the image is in black and white. Text reads: #TenDaysOfGrey Help promote Mental Health Awareness this October 1st-0th. Post Photos in Grey HELP Share Facts, Stories, Resources, and Donations. Create Awareness for World Mental Health Day October 10th. Use hashtags #TenDaysOfGrey and #MentalHealth)
This October, I’m participating in a new project to increase mental health awareness. The project was launched on Instagram this year by Bryan J. McLean, a Canadian multimedia artist. His music, poetry, fiction, paintings, and web published works include writing such as poetry from The Syndrome Papers, and (1)ne Night Stand, and more recently a Tumblr scifi-poetry project titled, #100days The Open Air : a dark urban fantasy about the light.
His newest project is Ten Days of Grey, which starts on October 1st and runs until World Mental Health Day on October 10th. You can find posts for the project under #TenDaysOfGrey, and you can participate by posting a black and white picture with the hashtags #TenDaysOfGrey and #MentalHealth. If you use these posts to share stories, resources, or support about mental health, you’ll make Bryan’s day.
I saw Bryan’s posts about the project in the days before October 1, and decided to participate. Mental health is such a complex and stigmatized subject, and there is a huge amount of victim-blaming and differential access to resources that complicated how and whether people can access supports.
Bryan generously agreed to an interview about the project.
Tiffany – What inspired the project?
Bryan – You know, I never thought that hard about it. I was upset with some recent career failures and was struggling with health and depression (yet again) this past summer, and then I saw World Mental Health Day was coming up. I started thinking “what can I do to bring awareness with the least amount of effort.” It’s funny to say that, I know, but I had a break down and it takes too much energy right now to pump out creative-anything.
Tiffany – Ableism in activism is so real, and so prevalent. I’m glad you gave yourself permission to do what you could with the resources you have available. I think that self-awareness about limited energy is such a critical part of self-care.
Bryan – I wanted to find something people do every day to share stories and facts. Clearly, the easiest answer was social media, memes, and picture-filters on phone apps. Selfies, food, cat or dog photos, whatever, wherever we are. We’re all addicted, but it’s such a beautiful way sometimes to share how you see the world. And then I considered how much of how I feel just turns to grey when I’m going through a depressive episode. It becomes the lens I see through. I ‘know’ all the good things are over there in the colour, but I’m cold and wet, trapped here in the grey. It’s all you see sometimes, it’s out of your control. (If you’ve ever seen the movie Pleasantville, it feels a lot like being trapped in the ignorant b&w.)
To explain how I got to this point – I’ve been trying to gain a specific full-time professional role for five years, and I’ve been maintaining two skillsets at my job and I’ve essentially been two people at work for five years. It finally caught up with me as I had pushed too long, and ended up essentially in adrenal fatigue. This exacerbated the depression & anxiety that I’ve been managing my whole adult life. I found that the self-care tools I’d developed were no longer working for me.
I collapsed emotionally. It’s embarrassing to say it out loud. It’s embarrassing to say that I was trying so hard & so long that I was exhausted, slept on breaks & at lunchtime, literally crying from exhaustion at work some days, overwhelmed after several months of living like this daily, I finally broke. I mean my brain did. I couldn’t multitask. I couldn’t wash dishes and have a conversation at the same time for months, the focus I required would just break. I couldn’t do complex math / excel formulas in my head any more, which used to be like making a sandwich for me. I couldn’t remember a conversation that just happened… or even what groceries I was supposed to pick up. Things you take for granted just remembering them. And it was very much like I was locked in a room full of doors and I knew the information I needed was just on the other side and I couldn’t get there. It was out of reach.
I’m slowly leaving my current career to restart my undergraduate & Masters work in fine arts (painting) with a minor in psychology, so I can move to work in art therapy. It’s hard, but not as much as the pain I realized I would feel spending another twenty-five something years doing something that isn’t going to help people the way I need to help them. I have the gifts (creativity & compassion) and I should use them to help adult learners.
Tiffany – Congratulations on making the choice to change your career. That’s hard (speaking from personal experience!) The experience of your burnout sounds so difficult. I know that losing executive function was one of the most challenging things about my early fibromyalgia journey – it felt like such a personal failing. And it definitely pushed me into a depressive episode that was resistant to all of my previously-effective tools. Since then, or even before then, what has your mental health journey looked like?
Bryan – I’ll try to sum that up. It’s difficult to condense the ups and downs. Since I was a teenager, I was melancholy. Just sad, not suicidal. I didn’t know it was depression. People get sad, they have regrets, lament over things, feel lonely. It didn’t feel special. I moved away for college so I spent a lot of time just alone in a new city where I knew very few people. You get lonely, but I’ve always been introverted, I like my own company. But, I’d be irrationality sad for days… a down feeling that wouldn’t leave.
Over time, I moved cities & provinces, had relationships & friendships, breakups, makeups. All the while, I just had dark days. It wasn’t like the world was ending, but I’d feel heavy or in pain. I’d keep going though, it’s what you do. Everyone feels like this, right? Also, I used to think I had insomnia but it’s actually something called bi-modal (sleep a few hours, wake up for 2-4 hours, and go back to sleep). So, I’d struggle with sleeping, overthinking, but usually I’d feel rested. I’d say my depression grew overtime though. I got more tired.
One time I set my kitchen on fire, overthinking & distracted, I’d left the plastic kettle on the stove burner. It wasn’t all that dramatic but prompted me to see my physician and I went on meds for a year, because of anxiety, depression and cognitive issues. Side effects were the worst sometimes, but it helped me get focused and back on track.
I spent a lot of time trying to avoid having to return to medications though; it’s the right thing for some people, but I wanted to do all the right things, if at all possible, to never need them again. I took up mild running, tried yoga, stopped eating a lot of take out and just cooked at home. I studied meditation and things on psychology. I’ve seen several naturopathic doctors and psychologists over the years when I needed direction and a neutral person to talk to. I wanted to stay grounded. It took a lot of work, but it’s help me be balanced. It’s a struggle to act or feel normal sometimes.
I don’t know if all of that really helped the way I thought it would, but I put in the effort of doing the self-care I needed for pretty much my adult life. I’ve been on meds again. Had another rough year. Saw my doctor, my psychologist. Was again diagnosed with anxiety & depression. I’m usually a funny, intelligent, thoughtful, and friendly person. I’m not faking that part of me, however some days it takes a lot out of me to just ‘be myself.’
Tiffany – You’ve taken that struggle and used it as motivation to start this project, which I think has the potential to reach a lot of people. What do you hope the project will inspire or accomplish?
Bryan – The worst thing someone recently said to me was, ‘everyone has anxiety, everyone gets depressed.’
It was the most unkind thing you can possibly say to someone in crisis. It makes me sick to think that is the message being shared by the public. These types of words end lives. We are all people and we all deserve kindness.
Yes, people get sad, people get worried. Yet they don’t get diagnosed with an illness by a physician and feel irrationally worried and suffer prolonged sadness for days on end.
Not everyone has high functioning depression like I have managed; I can mask my symptoms and just ‘deal with it’ but sucking it up for years, is like watching a plane that you’re flying slowly head into a mountain. You will crash, it’s just a question how badly.
So, I guess I am hoping this project will inspire awareness. Most people are lucky and don’t have to live with being sad or worried too often, or deal with the mania that bipolar people experience, or deal with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive issues that plague their quality of life. Yet these issues happen. Almost no one is trained to deal with the situation when mental health issues arise, especially when they happen to us personally, or in our close relationships.
No one really wants to talk about it, because what is there to say? Often mental health is a silent kind of disease, the myth is that it is ‘best ignored and left for doctors to decide how to deal with it.’ Issues like this though, they fester when ignored. Patience, kindness, compassion, are skills that many people don’t have, and no one really knows what to say. They don’t see it is a part of your health, they don’t see it like a broken arm – they act like you are weak or lazy, they don’t believe you… Yet those are the moments we need to be listening to each other more compassionately, not less. We need to be open to solutions. Sometimes it’s a matter of talking to the right counsellor or health professional.
Not everyone needs help, but no one should go through these things alone, and there are so many local resources & people out there that can help and are properly trained to help.
If you don’t know what to say,
If you don’t know what to do,
find a professional.
Hopefully sharing facts and sharing stories will keep giving some exposure to mental health. Even just knowing that one in three Canadians will be diagnosed with mental health problems in their lifetime, will maybe ease the pressures of doing things all alone, and seeking help.
Tiffany – That’s great. You’ve talked about different groups of people – the people who experience mental health issues, the people who don’t (and often don’t know what to say), and the professionals who might be able to help. Who do you hope will get involved in the project?
Bryan – I don’t really want to ‘own’ this idea, it’s meant for others to pick it up, so even if it’s small, I’m hoping it speaks to people to slow down and know it’s okay to seek help. Dealing with mental health is not something you have to do alone.
I was really just doing this thing for myself, it’s something I needed to hear so many times in my life, I forget sometimes that even if a small voice speaks out, maybe that idea can help others understand or seek help.
You don’t have to be in a massive crisis to talk something out. We get to being in a crisis by not talking about and not listening/believing, not finding the right professional to connect with, not having that one person say, ‘hey why don’t we talk this through.’ No one wants to be a burden, but problems like these don’t go away. They almost get stronger if you set out to ignore them.
Tiffany – What else feels important about the project?
Bryan – The simplicity. Just imagining the world in Grey for a few days might help people find a way back to the colour.
Tiffany – You talked about the tools that you used to use suddenly not working when you experienced burn out and depression. Have you found new tools that work?
Bryan – It’s been a long journey, so I want people to know, I didn’t wake up one day and have it all figured out. I’m saying that because I think it’s important to know that you will struggle trying to find out what works best for you and what fits your lifestyle; you will grow and change, and growth always hurts in some way.
I studied a lot of things, experimented a lot, talked to a lot of people & professionals. I sought help and I didn’t expect someone to magically ‘fix me.’ Sometimes I felt I was doing this workout / yoga wrong… eating the wrong vegan things… or doing that spiritual technique badly… felt confused about certain concepts… but the truth of the matter is that it was (and continues to be) a journey of the internal self.
What helps me:
- Ask for help. Ask anyone. It’s so hard when you don’t know what you need. But talk about it with a trusted advisor/friend and then a professional.
- Learn to sit quietly, to sit with yourself, and to quiet the noisy mind. Don’t worry. This takes practice, but every bit helps. So, doing Zazen (seated meditation) at minimum five minutes a day, but best 20mins when you wake up & 20mins before bed. Rhythmic breathing.
- Studying Shamanic meditation helped me. Learning to see different perspectives and ‘journey’ to discover goals, problem solving, and energetic healing.
- Studying Buddhism & Quantum Physics. I love complex patterns and how things connect, quantum mechanics tells that story. I wanted to study the nature of things, understand myself or my place in the universe or something like that, so I was looking at ethics & science. I guess I was trying to stay grounded, because spiritually is the inner path, the self… It seemed very selfish to only look inside knowing there is an outside world to experience. You can get a big head full of delusions when looking at the true nature of what being a person means, thinking you know all the answers, how everything is connected… so, I guess I wanted follow a good base set of rules of investigation. Science is a quest for truth and testing those facts. And then I read this book, The Quantum & the Lotus. It’s a conversation worth having and it took a good look at where Buddhism & Science meet. They are both the quest for truth and testing that truth, incorporating new findings and accepting that maybe what we think is true can change. It’s important to be open when you’re on any kind of journey, so these were good lessons to learn.
- Free Weights. Yoga. Spin. Dance. Being active with intent is meditative – it distracts the mind. It’s ironic when depression hits, it becomes this huge wet blanket in your life, stopping the desire to be active. Literally everything is harder & heavier. You shouldn’t force it if you need a rest day, but I try really hard to be active at least once a week, preferably five times a week. (Recent research supports this.) But even 15 mins of workout is literally better than nothing. I am an introverted person, I don’t like exercising in public or classes, but finding that sport or workout thing that makes you motivated can help a lot.
- If I can’t sleep, I do pushups or planks, downward facing dog, until I am tired, which frankly won’t take long. You can also look up breathing techniques for helping sleep, like the 7 second method.
- If something is stopping my brain from getting sleep, I get up and deal with it. I try not to lay there grinding my brain. Get up, clean the house, write down the issue, and try to come up solutions. You’ll never get to sleep just lying awake. It only gets worse. You might not solve a problem but it’s better than lying in the dark hating yourself or others. I try to take action the next day on those problems to solve by making a list and making deadlines to fix what is bothering me.
- I cook for myself. I reduced / stopped eating take out, and reduced my salt & sugar intake, and my alcohol intake (it’s also sugar). Learning nutrition from a Naturopathic Doctor, Nutritionist, or your personal doctor can also help – getting help to make a plan for your physiological needs. Single. Person. Is. Different.We all have different needs. For me, it was important to move towards being vegan/vegetarian. Requiring animal protein is a myth, it’s not the only way to get protein, not the only thing a body needs, and there are healthy ways to incorporate both your current lifestyle and what your body needs together. Listen to your body. Listen to a real doctor, not what the internet thinks you should do. Drink water, your body needs it.
- Camping, Hiking, Canoe/Kayak, & Sit with Nature. Turn off the noise. Sit at a river. Stare at some trees. Walk your dog or someone else’s dog, but be outside without your headphones in. Listen to the tress talking. Mindfully acknowledge the Now that is all around you. This helps me a lot.
- Write poetry or short stories. Paint. Draw. Craft. Bake. Sing. Make music, make things, and share them. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, it doesn’t matter if no one ever sees it. The act of expression is the most important exercise, because there are things that words cannot express and stories that need telling.
- I also use a sleeping mask all the time, and a full-spectrum light panel in the winter.
Bryan’s Recommended Resources:
- Zazen (Seated meditation) I have studied soto zen Buddhism for a long time, the best resource you can find is a very very short book called Buddha in Blue Jeans by Tai Sheridan
- My top two fave books on Buddhism are
- Sit Down and Shut Up by punkrock buddhist Brad Warner
- Peace is Every Breath by Thich Nhat Hahn, an activist and Vietnamese Buddhist Master
- Shamanic Studies: Secrets of Shamanism by Jose Stevens, a practical guide to journeying & goal setting
- Finding Ultra & Plant Powered Way by Rich Roll, on athleticism & become vegan with his researched cookbook
- Wil Wheaton’s video about his mental health
- This video is really helpful – I had a Black Dog, his name was Depression
Tiffany’s Further Reading List:
- For folks who want to explore shamanism but are concerned about cultural appropriation, this article goes into quite a bit of depth.
- Accessing professional care can be difficult for people of colour, but this list of podcasts by therapists of colour is a small step towards meeting that need.
- Rest for Resistance is another great resource written by QTPOC.
- 7 Cups is a free therapy resource for folks who can’t afford professional help.
- Exercise and physical activity can be challenging if you’re dealing with chronic pain, and chronic pain can exacerbate mental health issues. This post includes some tips (and also cute cat gifs).