(This post is part of the #100loveletters challenge, which started June 21. The challenge is open to anyone, at no cost! It’s really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, or 100 days from whenever you start, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. It can be written down, or it can be an act of love. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag #100loveletters on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love, or participate offline. You can also enter to win a hand-written letter by emailing me. I’ll be drawing a random name every twenty days over the course of the challenge. You can also join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.)
I interviewed Stasha at the beginning of the 100 Love Letters challenge, since she was the inspiration for the challenge.
Now, three weeks into the challenge, I was lucky enough to interview her again on the topic of writing ourselves love letters when we’re in the middle of feeling shame, anger, fear, or self-hate. This is a topic that has come up again and again for challenge participants, and it’s worth digging into. So, here we go.
Stasha – Question the first?
Tiffany – Yes! Excellent. In our first interview, we talked a lot about the beginnings of the project, and what it offered you in terms of that deep well of self-loving actions and accumulated evidence – I loved the image you shared of having that big stack of love letters to look back on.
We’re into the #100loveletters challenge now, and quite a few people have sent me messages asking about how to write a love letter when you’re hating yourself. My answers have mostly been “just start with whatever you have available, even if it’s just a walk or a post-it note or a mug of tea” but I wondered if you had wisdom about this, since you’ve been through the full 100 days.
How do you write – WHAT do you write – when you’re feeling self-hate?
Stasha – I’m just looking through my letters because I felt a lot of self-hate during the process…
One example, I was feeling really rejected, which is a feeling that I can get easily stuck in. So, I tried to think of the opposite of rejection and wrote those words around my heart. Another time I did the same about interrupting, because I was trying to listen better.
Tiffany – Oh, I like that a lot. That fits with the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy skills I’ve been working on in my own life – looking for opposites, and intentionally choosing an opposite and incompatible word/thought/action.
Stasha – Oooo yes dbt forever! I love the story of dbt creation and I try to fight the professionalization of the system of dbt. (Tiffany’s note: The New York Times recently ran a profile on Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT. Her work is particularly important because it came out of her own experiences of borderline personality disorder – still such a stigmatized condition – and extreme self-harm. If “nothing about us without us” is your rallying cry, her work is worth exploring.)
Stasha – I externalize things like anger monsters for my coping/healing work all the time, so I used that to try and remind myself of good. Example: I get to be in the same world as this tree. One externalizing technique about love letters is that even if you were really disappointed in someone you loved, you could probably still summon a love letter for them. I kept going because I wanted to show myself the same care.
Tiffany – One thing I’m thinking about, that I’m not sure how to talk about… So, forgive the awkwardness/uncertainty of this.
Stasha – Uncomfortable is required to learn, so I’m ready.
Tiffany – But I have had times in my life when a project like this would have hurt so much, because I just could not summon anything resembling a love letter for myself. I think that some of the people who have been watching the project develop, and have been wanting to participate, may be in that space. Right now, I can do this challenge. I have spent years working on self-compassion and on being able to act with love even when I don’t feel love.
The reason I find this so tough to talk about is because I want this to be a tool that is accessible to everyone – we can all show ourselves care even when we don’t feel it! We can all invest this time in ourselves! – but as I speak with people, and as I think through my own history, I am recognizing that there are times when this really isn’t possible. And I want to acknowledge that, without framing it as failure, and also offer some hope or some alternatives.
Do you have any insight or thoughts for people who maybe want to do this now but are really struggling with it?
Stasha – Yes. This is so important. Me too.
One thing that I do, that many professionals define as a symptom of trauma, is pick up treasure like a crow. Bits of glass or rusty things or worm-eaten wood.
Tiffany – I love that image. Corvids forever.
Stasha – In my love letters the symbol of the crow is recurring and was a way for me to have this as a positive image while I gathered that summer’s treasures together in a copper pot.
Nowadays I get rid of the treasures by giving them to the river in the fall, before I kept them. I knew that I was going to reengage this coping mechanism, even though I had not done it for awhile. So, I summoned my corvid power and listed the pros of crows when I couldn’t list them about myself.
Tiffany – Oh, I really love that. Having something you associate with yourself (like the crow for you, for me it would be fae folk), that you can list beloved or positive traits about even when you can’t list them about yourself.
Using your patronus / alter-ego / animal friends in your love letters
- What do you associate with yourself? If could be an animal, a character, an idea, an object. Think of the Patronus idea from Harry Potter – something powerful, associated with who you are as a person, that can be summoned to protect you.
- What are your favourite things about the animal/object/idea you associate with yourself?
- What makes that creature/concept/thing so cool?
- What is one story or myth or memory associated with that animal/object/idea that you treasure?
Stasha – When I felt broken or as if I had a giant hole in my spirit I would weave paper and fabric into a letter. I learned that one year at Equinox Vigil, a really neat Calgary event about the need for public mourning of grief of all kinds.
Tiffany – That sounds like a valuable tool, too. (And I am thinking a lot about sensory stuff as I build the summer course – registration is still open for one more week! – I love how that practice of weaving a bandaging or healing letter would blend tactile and visual senses with fine motor skills – bridging left and right brain selves, and helping both from a narrative perspective and also from a physical perspective.)
Stasha – Yes to mind melding our own minds!
I used the metaphor of growing A LOT. And home. I wanted to be home and safe when I was with myself. Big difference between with myself and by myself. That meant confronting the shit.
One love letter was a rock with a hole through it from persistent water drops.
Tiffany – Oh, that is lovely. And I love how fluid and flexible your definition of love letter is. I think that’s something I could definitely improve for myself. Or, maybe to put it more gently, that could be an invitation to more flexibility in my own thinking.
How much time did you spend on this project per day? Did you find the time commitment overwhelming? How did you carve out and protect the space for that?
Stasha – Ha! Gentle is good. I usually would write the love letter in the morning, so it could be based on what I needed for that day, and then at night I wrote 3 things that weren’t terrible about that day. I love structure for my healing, so those bookends really helped me to accomplish my other goals.
Tiffany – I like that idea. I might try that for myself, because the last-thing-at-night love letters don’t feel so good for me – they feel like avoidance and dismissal, you know? And it’s funny – even though I feel that, I haven’t shifted it. But I like your idea of bookends and of the love letter giving you what you need for the day.
Stasha – I showed myself evidence that other people loved me, when I felt less able to do it myself. I drew stick figure me and cut out my name from birthday cards to show myself that I was surrounded by love.
Dear Tiffany, If you need some material for your love letters you can look into concepts such as Radical Hope, which you demonstrate every single day. You could interview someone who loves you about your great qualities, even though it is scary. – Stasha
Tiffany – I love that so much. Thank you!
I have been struggling with that concept of “deserving” all week. I have been avoiding writing my letters – I usually write them ten minutes before bed, long after my brain wants to be done, and if I weren’t running this challenge publicly, I don’t think I would be doing them. They feel indulgent and … “bad” – selfish, ridiculous, foolish, arrogant.
Stasha – So write them to the fairies and fae. Write them to the crows and elf leaders.
Tiffany – Yes. I love that idea! And maybe we can invite others to help us see ourselves through a loving mirror, when we’re not able to do that for ourselves.
Interview Questions to ask someone who loves you when you’re struggling to write your own love letter (you can use this template as-is, or adapt it):
Hi, I would like to ask you some questions. It’s totally okay if you’re not able or don’t have time to answer. This is challenging for me to ask, because I’m struggling with not liking myself a lot right now. I’m asking you because I trust you, and I trust your insight and your ability to see me clearly. I know that you love me. I appreciate you taking the time to answer these for me.
- What comes to mind when you think about me?
- What is your favourite memory involving me?
- Can you think of a time when I did something well?
- Can you share a story that demonstrates something you admire or enjoy about me?
Tiffany – Do you have any other thoughts on the topic of doing this project while experiencing self-hate?
Stasha – I do all my projects while experiencing self-hate. I think a shocking number of us do. I think I drew brick walls 3 times in my letters, not as barriers but as symbols of the cumulative effort required to get that shit voice* to also listen to compassion.
Tiffany – It is so common. So, so common. I think you’re right
Stasha – My 100th letter I painted a life size tree, while naked. I took lots of pictures of that PROCESS, because that was the gift to myself: the wonderful process of fucking up, exhibiting symptoms, lying to myself about my worth, and listing 1-3 non-crap things per day. Otherwise known as messy healing, the most sacred of love spells.
Now this process of seeing other people struggle within this same process, is so validating and healing. Because sometimes I forget how awesome I am or the amazingness of the things that I have tried. Just like you and you and you. It is really nice to try stuff together.
Tiffany – One thing that comes up repeatedly in the narrative therapy training that I’m doing, is the idea that people need to know that their experiences and knowledges can help others. Maybe one motivation for getting through the 100 Love Letters challenge is so that in a year or two years or ten years, when we have someone else in our life struggling, we can draw on these experiences and offer them hope and help.
Just like you are doing now, because you ARE amazing and badass and wise and resilient!
Stasha – Awwww thanks friend. Pulling knowledge out of pain is the original chocolate chips* out of shit! Just like YOU are doing now. Part of my 100 love letters process was to do it for me instead of for other people.
Tiffany – One thing that I did a few years ago was to give myself stickers for every positive or useful thing that happened or I did in the day. I think it was a similar process. It helped me start to see myself as competent and worthy, at a time when I did not experience myself as either of those things. I don’t even know where I got that I idea, but I used it to claw myself up out of one of the darkest holes I’ve been in.
I think that we are often so much more resilient, and so much more wily in our survival strategies, than we give ourselves credit for.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom about this! And for sharing this project. It’s a good one!
Stasha – Wily af! Thank you for building on it, there has been so much learning, and it is early still in the process!!
Tiffany – I know!! We are not even a fifth of the way through, and already so much wisdom and generosity has been shared. I’m excited to see the project continue!
Stasha – Way to grow!
* Stasha’s Chocolate Chip Wisdom (note on this section for discussion of eating shit)
Stasha – Now. Everyone loves chocolate chips.
Ok not everyone, but many do.
I describe this process [of finding self-love in the middle of self-hate] as picking chocolate chips out of a pile of shit.
It has been my direct experience that kids who are coping with abuse from primary caregivers, particularly neglect – are really, really good at picking chocolate chips out of piles of shit.
So we like chocolate. But when you are picking your chocolate out of shit, you are going to also eat a lot of shit.
And this shit will get inside you. And this shit will give you a mean belittling voice that will tell you that you are no good.
Sometimes this shit will destroy you or tell you to destroy yourself. It will always tell you that you are no good. That you don’t deserve 100 love letters.
I think though that I found a loop hole here, because the shit will never tell you not to write 100 love letters, only to not write them to yourself!
It is sad because everyone except us knows that we deserve this love. That shit gets in the way.
(Running the #100loveletters challenge is possible because of the amazing support of my community, especially my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to keep this work going, consider checking out my Patreon, or liking my Facebook page, or following me on Instagram.)
(This post is part of the #100loveletters challenge, which started June 21, and is open to anyone, at no charge! The challenge is really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love.
You can join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.)
Yesterday, just a week into the 100 Love Letters Challenge, I didn’t write myself a love letter.
I thought about it. I almost wrote it. I almost wrote about ten different versions of it. There were multiple points in the day where I thought “I did that well, I love that about myself,” or “that was really challenging, I could use some gentleness and love around that issue.”
(Like every day, there were moments of confidence, moments of doubt, moments of anger, moments of joy. Once you start noticing your experience, the complex and varying texture of each day becomes so much more apparent.)
I even pulled out my box of greeting cards* and flipped through, looking for the right card for what I was feeling.
I thought about writing my love letter in another Facebook post – I’ve done that most days so far.
I thought about taking some more pictures and turning one of them into a meme to go with the love letter – I’ve been enjoying the nudge towards more creativity.
I thought about scrawling a stick figure on a post-it note, as midnight approached, and I started to feel more anxious about missing the deadline.
But the stick figure on a post-it note would have been purely performance – that wasn’t the love letter I wanted. It would have just been for show, to prove that I’m doing the challenge successfully. So, I didn’t do it. It didn’t really feel loving.
I’m not sure why I didn’t write myself a letter yesterday. I could have – I had the time, I had the content, I had the motivation. I wasn’t hating myself, or particularly disappointed in myself, or feeling ashamed of myself. I had moments of self-awareness and self-compassion that could easily have become a love letter.
But I also had a significant reluctance to write. To write anything. Anything at all.
My reluctance was both internal and external.
On the one hand, I felt anxious about being visibly self-loving. What if I love myself too much, too openly, too loudly, too visibly? What if it makes people hate me? And, also, what if I love myself visibly, but I do it wrong, and people are disappointed in me? Visibility is risky. That’s the external reluctance – the fear of what people will think about what I write to myself.
But then, the internal resistance.
It’s just hard, my friends.
Writing myself a love letter every day is hard.
I don’t like it.
I like self-care that focuses on my flaws, my anxieties, my failings. I like looking at my failures and then forgiving myself for those. I like paying attention to the sadness, the fear, the wounds that still hurt. It keeps the focus where I’m comfortable.
Love letters are different.
Romance is different.
Different, and hard.
I can do love letters to others, and romance for others, easily. But not so much for myself. I might do it wrong. I might do it wrong.
And so, yesterday I didn’t write.
Because I am running this #100loveletters challenge, that unwritten letter is, in some ways, as visible as any of the written letters. And it’s worth acknowledging the lack of a letter. It’s worth talking about the resistance.
Every one of us in this challenge will run into resistance. There will be so much resistance. And we will get through it, whatever it is. Fear of “doing it wrong,” anger at ourselves, shame, discomfort, embarrassment.
When you hit that wall, if you haven’t hit it yet, know that you’re not alone.
We are here together, floating on the glow of self-love and dragging with the weight of self-hate.
There will be days with no letter, and that doesn’t invalidate your participation in the challenge, and it doesn’t diminish the love you are cultivating for yourself.
We can look into the parts of ourselves that are less comfortable, and we will be okay. That loving abyss is gazing back, and yeah, it’s terrifying, but, you know, it’s also really great. I’m pretty sure it’s really great.
Here we go, onward!
* I have a phenomenal collection of greeting cards, and I’ll be sending a hand written letter to five challenge participants over the course of the hundred days. I’ll be randomly selecting one challenge participant every twenty days of the challenge. To enter, just send me an email and let me know that you’re participating in the challenge and you’d like to be entered for the hand-written letter!
Every summer, attendance at my Writing in the Margins workshops dwindles as people head out on vacation or hide from the heat. This year, like most years, the workshops will be on hiatus for the summer.
This year, unlike every previous year, I’ve got something planned to keep us writing through the summer.
The #100loveletters challenge starts June 21, and is open to anyone, at no charge!
It’s really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love.
You can join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.
(Picture of Jonathan and Tiffany on Jon’s birthday.)
This is a Patreon reward post. At $5 support per month, you, too, can have a personalized post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month! Patreon posts are available to patrons one week early. (This post is late, because there were a few emergencies and illnesses in my life, and I appreciate Jon’s patience with me!)
Jonathan Griffith is one of my best friends, and has been one of my romantic partners for the last eight and a half years. Over the course of our relationship we have come out and explored bisexuality together, learned how to do polyamory together (cut our teeth on each other, and have the scars to prove it). Jon was also there when I came out as genderqueer, and together we navigated that tricky terrain of shifting identities. We also lived together for a few years, managed the phenomenal feat of transitioning out of living together while remaining partners, and I am confident that we will be in each other’s lives as loving partners for as long as we’re both kicking around in these corporeal forms. Which, I hope, will be quite a while longer.
And that brings me to Jon’s requested topic: self-care, narrative, and fear of ageing.
Similar to the emotional reaction I had to Red’s post request about self-care and navigating post-secondary and professional environments while struggling with chronic illness and mental health issues, Jon’s request touched on some of my own exposed nerves.
I consider myself fairly at peace with ageing – I am almost entirely grey at 35, and am okay with that. I like my wrinkles. My teen years were a bit of a trainwreck and I didn’t even have an orgasm until after my divorce. I often consider my life to have (re)started at 27. So, when I first approached this topic, I anticipated it being an easy write. Find some good posts to link, write about how to self-care ourselves through our fear, pat self on back, done.
But ageing is more than just grey hair and wrinkles and birthdays. The fears around ageing are more than simply superficial. Scratch at the surface of these fears, and some of the ugly aspects of our cultural fixations on youth-and-beauty, work, and individualism come quickly to the surface. Economic and social anxieties bubble within these fears, and as a result many people have a complex and fraught relationship with ageing (or with the changes ageing might bring). There are material fears – loss of mobility, beauty, the ability to work or move or think; there are social fears – loss of social standing, loss of community; there are existential fears – death. There are also joys associated with ageing. It’s complex.
I asked about people’s feelings about ageing on my facebook, and the responses flooded in. There were so many, and they touched on so many critical issues and divergent experiences, that I’ve decided to turn this post into a three-part series.
The first part of this series is directly related to Jon’s original request – the material and social fears of ageing. We’ll look at what people are afraid of, and introduce some self-care tips for navigating those fears.
The second part of the series will address the joys of ageing.
And the final part of the series will address fear of death, and end-of-life preparation.
So, let’s dive into this complex topic!
We’ll start with one of the most commonly discussed fears of ageing – fearing the loss of attractiveness and desirability. This fear seems to disproportionately impact folks who are not allowed to look old or to lose their conventionally attractive physical features – where straight men may be given more leeway to age visibly, queer men and women, as well as non-binary individuals, are given much less flexibility to age in public. (This is not to imply that straight men don’t face unrealistic body expectations, only that there are cultural templates available for men to age visibly, that do not exist with the same frequency and diversity for queer men or people of other genders. Race and class also impact the willingness of society to grant a person the right to age visibly.)
Speaking specifically about this fear, Collin said, “I find as a queer cis-man that, although I try to resist it, so much of my value comes from being seen as attractive and so many of the messages within cis-male queer circles focus on older men being less attractive and therefore worth less so despite all my efforts to reject those notions, I still encounter the constant micro aggressions aimed at men of my age and older and I find myself succumbing to those feelings of questioning my worth as I age.”
Lyn echoed Collin’s fears: “I never used to be afraid of aging.. Now I’m very afraid. I’m approaching 40 and it makes me sick to my stomach. I find I’m stuck in the bullshit narrative that women have an expiry date. I’m no longer young and pretty. I’m not fit or slender… I have grey hair and I’m starting to see wrinkles and my skin is losing elasticity and a hundred million other details I can see every day in the mirror. I feel more and more obsolete.”
These fears may seem superficial, but there are real concerns underlying them.
Both Lyn and Collin’s concerns about desirability are echoed in Saryn’s fear. She said, “I’m afraid of losing respect and opportunities.” And it is all too true that women often do lose respect and opportunities as they’re seen to age. The expectation of youth and beauty extends beyond romantic relationships and is present in every aspect of our lives, with respect being doled out differentially along lines of race, class, ability, and body type, among others. These fears intersect with anxieties about being the “right” kind of fat person, the “right” kind of minority, the “right” kind of disabled person. And the “right” kind of person in any of these marginalized groups is always young and physically attractive, or has aged enough to be a cute old person.
There are times when we are allowed to have aged, but the act of aging itself, of being in transition between the states of “cute and young” and “cute and old,” is something to hide. And there is no guarantee that you will end up at “cute and old.” You are just as likely to end up not cute, facing the kind of pervasive ageism that leaves so many seniors socially isolated and struggling with intense loneliness and lack of intimacy.
Jonathan touches on this issue of hiding the ageing process when he says, “I think my fear is related to the way we treat our elders in our culture. Older folks aren’t valued. At best, we try to keep them out of sight until they die. At worst, we actively treat them poorly. Youth is idolized while age is seen as a liability. There are very few positive representations of age in our media. If there are famous old people, they became famous while they were young (and “beautiful”). Given how little we value our elders and given how much we prioritize youth over age, it’s REALLY hard to shake the internalized ageism that builds up. It’s a fear of becoming undesirable, of becoming forgotten, irrelevant.”
So, while many of these fears are related to appearances, they’re tied to fear of losing access to social supports and resources. Fears regarding the superficial physical changes that accompany aging are so deeply ingrained in our culture, and we grow up surrounded by a toxic fog of anti-ageing sentiment. This is exemplified in Rhonda’s statement that, “I hate that I’m looking like I’m aging … [I] shouldn’t feel that way ‘cause it was imposed upon me. But, still… I’m very afraid of it, and I hate it. Makes me sad. Not that aging was imposed upon me, but the belief that aging is bad and the feelings that go along with that.”
Michelle echoed Rhonda’s frustration with fearing ageing even though she recognizes that the fear doesn’t line up with how she wants to see herself. ““I like to think I don’t have a fear of aging, but.. I turned 40 and was shocked/hurt that my optometrist would even suggest after my eye exam that I needed bifocals. I literally needed a few weeks to digest that. I talked to an older friend that clearly had them, told me that sooner or later I will be tired of taking off and on my reading glasses. I had another friend get “progressives” and she told me that she seen a reduction in headaches.
I have accepted that I should get them, the blue filter, etc but after seeing the price, I had to start all over again with the “as if I need these” conversation I have been having with myself.” (Michelle is an amazing Indigenous woman running for Ward 10 in Calgary, Alberta. She’s worth supporting!)
Even when we recognize that the fear is imposed on us, and that the physical changes are inevitable, it’s difficult to move past them. Especially because while some of the changes related to ageing are aesthetic, many of them aren’t. Many people talked about their fears around losing physical ability.
Lyn said, “My body hurts, and creaks.. I’m sore every day. I’m trying to get fit, but it seems like an impossible goal due to all the things wrong with me, and the loss of youthful resiliency on top of it.”
Lost resiliency was also a concern for Rebecca, who said, “I am not afraid of this stage of aging (I’m 50). Nor am I afraid of dying (would prefer not to for at least 30 years or so). But I am afraid of how my body will break down, things I will lose of myself, in about 30 years. I realize today how much care I have to take of my body, how fragile it really is, and how if I don’t build resilience today, I’ll pay with pain tomorrow. And I’m afraid that the things I need to do to heal my body today, I just plain suck at doing. That dynamic of feeling not in control of my body because of the laziness of my mind is a hard one to navigate.”
And the idea that we can build resiliency and have it keep us safe from pain and degeneration isn’t always the case. Although there are things we can do at any age to help reduce pain and increase mobility, strength, and resilience, none of these protect us from illnesses.
Reina says, ”I didn’t used to be afraid of ageing before becoming chronically ill. Even though I don’t plan on having children, I figured I’d be able to do all of the things you’re supposed to do to provide for yourself in retirement and beyond. After becoming ill 5 years ago, I’m much more afraid of ageing. I’m unable to work due to ME/CFS. So financially getting older is scary, but also my health is poor now and I’m only 31. I worry that by the time I get much older my health will be horrid, I’ll be at much higher risk of bone density issues etc. I try my best to accept it and hope for the best, but it’s very scary sometimes.”
Emily also has a chronic (and degenerative) condition, and it impacts how she views ageing. “I call grey hairs wisdom strips and love getting older and feeling more content to be myself. The growing invisibility works well with my personality too. Could do without the degenerative disorder and I do fear increased pain/loss of mobility as it’s escalated a lot over last decade: definitely more scared of pain than death. If I could have the ageing without the pain, that would be ideal (ironically, EDS is joked about as having the face of a youngster and body of an OAP. Sometimes it would be handy to be aging more visibly as people often equate appearance of youth with health. ‘You don’t look sick.’) Fear of future instability can lead to anxiety in the present (I think finance feeds into this lots too – & fear of losing independence.) I try to channel it into doing physio to help delay progression/trying to do as much as I can when I can while I still have the option (with pacing – though getting that right can be a challenge with ever-changing condition).”
I, also, have a chronic pain condition that changed my perspective on ageing. Knowing that my body is already experiencing reduced mobility and flexibility does influence how much anxiety I feel about ageing.
Lost mobility is crushing, whether through chronic pain, illness, or ageing.
Nicole says, “I quite enjoy getting older now, as I feel like I’m at the stage where I’m becoming the person I want to be, someone I (mostly) like. But hell yes I fear becoming aged. I cringe at the thought that I, who lives so much for the outdoors and exploration, could be reduced to [a shuffling] level of mobility. I count the years off in my head, wondering if I’ll make it to 60 before I start to feel it? 70? My back already aches pretty much all the time. And most of all, I fear the dementia I’ve seen my grandma experience—not knowing anyone anymore, living by a routine that if just slightly altered, produces massive confusion and agitation. When the fear gets particularly bad I pump myself up by thinking about all the advances in technology we’re making, and try to pretend that somehow I’ll be able to afford it.”
Nicole expressed anxiety about the internalized ageism in her views, but like Rhonda and Michelle, and Jon and Collin, these fears become so deeply ingrained.
But Gina, who works in elder care, said that most of the people she works with are at peace with their reduced mobility, especially when they are able to access social supports. I can attest to the fact that, although I absolutely do still resent the aching pain when I forget my limits and am too active for too long, for the most part, I have adapted. My walks are slower and shorter, but they’re no less calming or enjoyable.
Erin touches on another common fear, the fear of missing out. She says, “I don’t love aging. As time passes, I feel like before I know it, all of it will be over. I want to savour the moments, but then feel sad that they’re gone. There’s so much I want to do and see before I’m done, and the older I get, the farther it all feels.”
There are a lot of things to fear. And a lot of us quietly holding that fear inside.
So, how do we self-care ourselves through these fears?
Fixating on the fear is not helpful, but neither is denying that it’s real and present. It can help to discuss our fears, in safe spaces and with people who won’t judge or dismiss us. Giving a name to your feelings can make it easier to understand them and reframe them.
Visualizing a variety of potential futures can also help. Confirmation bias is a real thing, and being open to possibilities other than the one you’re certain will happen can help you see the other possible outcomes (and the steps that might get you there) the you otherwise could miss. (This story about a 63 year old “accidental fashion icon” is one delightful exception to the trend. The fact that she’s white, thin, able-bodied, still quite conventionally attractive, and cisgender are all relevant intersections.)
Along the same track, it can be helpful to identify your fears, and then identify specific alternatives. For example – “I am afraid I will be old and alone” could be countered with “I can cultivate intentional community at any age.”
Another tool is to trace the roots of your fears. Are there specific messages – either from the wider culture, or from people in your life – that are informing your fear? Are they reasonable or realistic? What underlies the fears?
Consider getting to know some old people. Seek out and spend time with the elders in your community – especially if you share a marginalization. Community care is self-care, and spending time with elders can help shift your perspective on ageing from a mysterious and terrifying process that happens behind closed doors, to one that is part of our human experience.
As with anything to do with self-care, bring awareness, compassion, and intention to your practice and you’ll find the way through.
In our next post in this series, I’ll be writing about the positive sides of ageing, and the experiences and perspectives of people who are enjoying and looking forward to the process.
Sally Knocker’s 2012 report: Perspectives on Ageing: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals.
Jess Dugan’s phenomenal project: To Survive on This Shore, interviews and portraits of transgender elders.
A PBS article about this study into the effects of racism on ageing, and how facing discrimination can cause people of colour to age more quickly: Racism may accelerate aging.
Fat Heffalump’s introduction post to her Plus 40 Fabulous contributions, about the intersection of fat acceptance and ageing.
Ashton Applewhite’s This Chair Rocks anti-ageism project includes a book, blog, and a “yo, is this ageist?” feature.
Lisa Wade’s short article (with a link to the original Sontag essay): Beauty and the Double Standard of Aging. (Note on both this article and the linked essay: cisnormative af.)
Debora Spar’s essay on feminism and beauty standards (also cisnormative, casually classist – as I searched for these “further reading” resources I found myself so deeply frustrated that the intersections of class, race, ability, orientation… even in writing that is meant to challenge and liberate, only the most privilege voices among a marginalized group are heard): Aging and My Beauty Dilemma
This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. And to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story.
– Louise DeSalvo, Writing as a Way of Healing
This course, Writing towards Wholeness: Expressive Writing for Self-Care and Healing, extends DeSalvo’s invitation (and draws on her excellent work, along with the work of many other fantastic writers). The course starts on May 8, and runs until June 19. In these six weeks together, we will learn what expressive writing is, how to use it, and how to care for ourselves through the process of writing our difficult stories.
Each week will include video content, writing prompts, exercises, and a scheduled live chat. The course is designed to be modular – if you’re not interested in the behind-the-scenes lit reviews, discussion of the hows-and-whys, or extra information, you can skip the video content. If you’re just interested in learning about the topic and trying it out later, you can skip the prompts and exercises.
The course is capped at 10 participants, and I’ll be available for individual cheerleading, coaching, and that gentle butt-kick of accountability for each participant individually, in addition to the content available to the group. As of May 3, there are 4 spots still available.
The time commitment for the course is flexible, but you’ll get the most out of it if you can spend 10-20 minutes writing, 4-6 days per week, in addition to the few minutes it takes to read the emails. The video content will be anywhere from 3-15 minutes per week, and the live chat will be 45-minutes per week. With an investment of 1-2 hours per week, you should see some significant progress. And if you do every exercise and read every link and watch every video, you could spend 3-4 hours per week (though I have absolutely no expectation of that!)
The cost for the course is $60, with sliding scale available. It’s $45 for patrons of my Patreon, and it’s free for coaching clients.
If you’d like to sign up, email me!
- Introduction to the course and the core resource books
- How expressive writing works (and the limits of its utility)
- Designing a self-care plan
In Week One, I’ll give you a mini review of the current state of the scientific research into the healing effects of expressive writing. Expressive writing has been studied as a tool for healing since the first paper was published on the topic in 1986, and there have been hundreds of studies since. We won’t talk about all of those studies, but I’ll give you a brief overview to help ground you in the science behind the practice. We’ll also talk about the limits of expressive writing, and alternatives to writing. Drawing, dancing, mind-mapping, and other artistic forms of expression are welcome, and we’ll touch on the research that supports their benefits. In Week One, we’ll also bump up against the limits of the research. The fact is that we don’t know why expressive writing does and doesn’t work, and although we’re getting closer to answers, they’re still in the future.
You’ll also begin to design a personalized self-care plan in Week One. We’ll talk about how to identify your needs, and set yourself up for success.
- Narrative trajectories
- Personal anthologies
In Week Two, we’ll introduce the narrative side of the project. Drawing on David Denborough’s work with “everyday narrative therapy,” you’ll start to identify and explore your own life story. We’ll talk about personal origin stories, and how to create an anthology of your own formative positive moments. These positive story will work with your self-care plan to help give you a solid grounding in self-compassion and non-judgmental self-awareness. For many of us, the negative stories are easier to believe and easier to call to mind, so although this week is focused on the positives, it’s definitely going to be a bit uncomfortable at times. Good thing we have a self-care plan in place!
- Writing and trauma recovery
- Other benefits of expressive writing
Week Three will dig deeper into the specifics of how writing can be used to work with trauma and other issues (such as focus at work or school, or managing depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues). We’ll talk about how trauma impacts the body, and some of the research into the health effects of trauma. We’ll also talk about externalization, and start practicing seeing problems as being something outside of ourselves, rather than something inherent to ourselves. If that sounds weird and counterintuitive, don’t worry. I’ve got exercises and simple explanations to make it more accessible and engaging.
- Expressive writing
This is it. We’re doin’ it! In Week Four, we’ll put our self-care plan into full effect, and engage in four days of 15-20 minutes of writing about an emotional topic. If you’re a trauma survivor, don’t worry – you don’t have to write about the scariest or most challenging – we’ll talk about a wide range of potential topics and you can write about whatever feels right for you. You will have access to all of the course materials even after the course wraps up, so you can always come back to it as many times as you want.
- Reframing, reshaping, recovering
We’ll take the body of writing (or drawing, or talking, or dancing) that you’ve generated over the last month and start thinking about how it fits into our narrative trajectory – the path we want our lives to take and the path we see ourselves having already taken. We’ll talk about how to use the skills and tools we’ve gained so far to reshape and reframe our stories, and to use these narrative strategies to recover from traumas and difficulties.
- Tools for a sustainable practice
- Discussion and wrap-up
In our final week, we’ll talk about how to use these tools going forward.
I am so excited about this course. I have used writing as a coping and healing tool for decades, and writing has gotten me through some of the worst times in my life, and helped me appreciate some of the best. Telling our stories intentionally, compassionately, and wholeheartedly has the potential to change the way we see ourselves in the world, to help us feel centered and strong in the stories of our own lives.
This is a companion post to last week’s Tarot, oracle cards, and other woo. This writing is supported by the amazing people on my Patreon, and access to these posts is a week early for patrons. If you enjoy my work, please consider supporting it!
Last week’s post was about how I developed an interest in tarot, and how I used it as a self-care and survival strategy during a difficult time in my life, and have continued to use it since.
Today’s post is about how you can use tarot (or oracle cards, or runes, or whatever other visual or tangible or guiding woo you’re into) to help you understand and heal your inner narratives.
This is also something I offer coaching clients, so if it interests you and you want some help with it, that’s a thing that can happen! Send me an email if that’s a think you want to arrange.
But this post is about how to do it yourself.
First, and critically – it doesn’t matter if you believe the cards are magic or not. This exercise isn’t about telling the future or anything supernatural – it’s about using cards as prompt generators to help you tell your own stories, and creative lenses to help you view your own experiences.
I am not going to judge you either way – you can see this process as connecting to something mystical and spiritual, or you can see it as connecting to your own subconscious, or you can see it as some kind of blend or blur between the two, and that’s between you and the cards (or runes, or whatever. I’m going to keep saying cards for the sake of simplicity, and also because tarot is the most easily accessible method for most folks).
This is an introduction to some exercises focused on claiming your narrative, and centering yourself within your story.
It’s all about you, the author. You, the protagonist. You, the hero.
So often, we do not see ourselves as the main characters in our own stories and we do not hear our own voice within the story. Especially if we are marginalized and subjected to a constant stream of stereotypes and toxic narratives, it can be very difficult to find our way back to the centre of our own stories.
This is one narrative tool that can help centre you in your own story.
So, choose your deck.
If you don’t want to spend any money on it, and don’t have a deck already, there are tarot apps (I had the Golden Thread app on my phone for a while but I like physical cards better), and there are lots of random tarot card generator websites.
If you’re buying a deck, spend some time in a bookstore or online shop (I love Little Red Tarot‘s shop, myself). Pay attention to how the artwork feels. Read a little bit (or a lot) about what the deck creator was hoping to accomplish. The artwork has a strong influence on how the deck feels, and a steampunk deck tells different stories than a manga deck, and they both tell different stories than a high-concept art deck. Try to find a deck that feels comfortable, with artwork that feels welcoming.
My own personal advice would be to find a deck whose creator has politics you agree with. For me, that means I want decks that are, if not explicitly queer, then definitely queer-friendly. Knowing that the deck’s creator is queer and/or feminist, and aware of issues of cultural appropriation, is really important to me.
Gender is also a big deal. There’s a lot of gender essentialism in a lot of woo spaces, and if that bothers you, or if that will trip you up by hooking into some toxic internalized narratives you’re struggling to clear, keep it in mind.
This is why you’ll never find a Rider-Waite deck in my hands, because I struggle too much with cis and heteronormativity in my own life, and that extra step of reinterpreting the cards outside of their normative origins is just too much for me. (The exception might be for Trung Nguyen’s of the Rider-Waite, but I don’t own that deck yet.)
Although there are a lot of people doing amazing work around queering the tarot, it’s an active and ongoing process. Make it easy for yourself.
Similarly, a lot of tarot decks are full of people who are very white, and very thin. Racism and cultural appropriation and normative beauty standards and ableism, just like gender essentialism and sexism, are all over the damn place. This is meant to be a practice that centres you, not one that further marginalizes you.
There are some great tarot blogs written by QTPOC tarot folks, and they are worth seeking out. I particularly love Brownstargirl Tarot and Asali Earthwork.
Whatever you need to see in your deck, seek it out. You do not need to force yourself to tell stories with a deck that doesn’t represent you, and this is a practice of self-storying. Be demanding. Take up space.
And keep in mind that your deck doesn’t have to be full of humans. The Wild Unknown is one of my favourite decks because it’s all animals. Sometimes we’re able to see stories more clearly when we get a little bit outside of our anthropocentric framing.
Think of your deck as a collaborative coauthor in the stories you’re going to tell for yourself, to yourself, about yourself.
Find a coauthor whose voice you enjoy.
(There have been decks I thought I would absolutely love to tell stories with, and then just couldn’t. The most notable, and in my opinion tragic, example is Egypt Urnash’s Tarot of the Silicon Dawn, which is amazingly and delightfully queer and trans and full of delicious diversity, but for some reason it just never resonated for me. I gave that deck away to my sister, and they sass-talk each other regularly.)
Once you have your deck, start flipping through the cards. Which ones really appeal to you? Pull them out, and read up on them.
I’m pretty picky about where I get my tarot interpretations from. I have a couple books I really enjoy, but mostly I head over to Little Red Tarot, or I read the guidebooks that come with the cards, and offer the deck creator’s own spin on things. (The exception to this is for my Wild Unknown deck – I prefer Carrie Mallon’s interpretations over the guidebook.)
Google around, and again, be picky. You don’t have to settle for anything less than decks and interpretations that fully and clearly acknowledge your relevance and presence.
Trust your intuition, too. This is your story. If there’s something in the imagery of a card that really jumps out at you, that’s worth noting, even if no other blog or book confirms your interpretation.
Once you’ve found the cards that really sing for you, try arranging them. Can you tell a story with those cards? Do they connect to memories or experiences or feelings?
Think of the cards as doorways into your own personal library, recommendations for which of your personal books to read next. They don’t tell new stories, but they might suggest taking a look at things from a new angle. And what you see in the cards can tell you a lot about what you’re focused on, worried about, or needing to process right now.
Play around with various spreads.
Try pulling a card a day for a week or two, and see how it feels. You can either do a random draw, or you can flip through the deck and pick the card you like best for the day, or some combination, depending on your mood. Do you notice a theme? Do you have a strong emotional reaction to any of the cards?
Try a simple two card spread – the situation, and the commentary.
Try my favourite three card spread – the situation in the centre, the right path on the right, and the wrong path on the left. How does that feel?
If you want a book of spreads, I highly recommend Beth Maiden’s PDF, available in the shop linked above. One of the spreads in there (the complete circle spread) was actually designed for me when I commissioned a reading from her. It’s really lovely.
Once you’re familiar with your cards, and with yourself as a reader, start telling (and exploring) your stories.
Think of a question you want to answer for yourself, or a situation you want to explore.
Shuffle your cards, and start laying them out.
You can do a past-present-future spread for the situation, and see how it feels. Are those the right cards for you? Spend some time with it. How does it feel? How do you react to the cards?
Does the future position reflect your fear? Your hope? Neither? Can you use that card as a prompt to write a vision statement for your hopes, dreams, fears, or anxieties about the future?
Does the past position reflect your pain? Your joy? Neither? Can it be used as a prompt to jog your memory, and help you reframe experiences?
Pull more cards if you need to, switch cards around, and engage in the conversation.
What do you need to know?
What does your reaction to the cards tell you about yourself in this moment, thinking about this situation?
Keep a little tarot journal to document your process.
There are two pieces of advice I would recommend, whether you approach the tarot as magical or metaphorical –
First, try to stay focused on a single question or theme at a time. You can follow that theme down a rabbit hole of related questions, and that can be very productive (ask a question, then realize the card has piqued your interest in another question, etc.) but don’t ask ten questions at once. It gets overwhelming and confusing, and, often, when we are trying to ask a whole bunch all at once it’s because we are frustrated, feeling out of control, and uncertain of ourselves.
Use the cards as a way to narrow your focus and gain a sense of self-direction. This is your story. You are the protagonist of this story. You don’t have to do it all at once.
If you’re really struggling with finding a single question because you don’t know how to narrow your focus, do a single card draw and then just sit with that for a few minutes. Make yourself a mug of tea and think. Is there a single question that card could connect to?
And second, pay attention to how the process feels for you, and make sure that it is bracketed in ways that help you feel safe and stable. Bracketing is a practice of having some sort of ritual that starts the process and ends the process – for me, with tarot, it’s the shuffling. I shuffle when I start, and I shuffle again when I’m finished. I also keep each deck in some kind of container – a purple cloth for my Shadowscapes deck, the boxes they came in for most of my other decks, and a little plexi case for my Tea and Empathy cards. Taking them out and putting them back brackets the process for me.
I have noticed in my own tarot-enhanced narrative practice that, at certain times, the cards feel less like a coauthor of my story and more like a dictator of my fate. Particularly when I’m feeling out of control and anxious, my superstitions get in the way, and I start scanning the cards for some magical truth and a message from the future. Rather than feeling centered in my own story in those moments, I feel completely separate and silent – waiting for some supernatural hand to author my story for me. In those moments, pulling random tarot cards is not the most effective or holistic self-storying tool. Recognizing that I no longer feel centered in my story, and that I no longer feel like it is my story, is important (but difficult!) It requires a lot of self-awareness to notice our superstitions taking over. It is more effective, and gives me back a sense of agency over my narrative, to draw cards intentionally rather than randomly, or even to use other methods (like free-writing in the my journal, or talking things through with a friend or counselor). Using tarot as a narrative tool doesn’t mean you can only use tarot. You have many stories, and they can be told in many ways.
Good luck, my friends! Go forth and tell yourself your own stories.
Resources for further reading:
Tarot Reading For Skeptics, Cynics, Nonbelievers And Side-Eyers – this post by Lesley Kinzel explores the history of tarot, answers some common questions, and offers a few suggestions for decks (including the Gummi Bear Tarot, which sounds hilarious and adorable).
Beth Maiden’s Favourite Tarot Decks – My favourite tarot blogger talking about her favourite tarot decks.
#TarotSoWhite: A Conversation about Diversity in Our Cards – Another Little Red Tarot post, introducing and beginning to explore the #tarotsowhite hashtag and the important conversations happening around the issue of diversity in tarot.
Gender Essentialism in the Pagan Community – A short but insightful Tumblr post that highlights some of the gender essentialism that shows up in a lot of woo spaces.
Everyone’s Spirit Animal Should be Cultural Sensitivity – This post by Samantha Gross is a brief intro into cultural appropriation and respectful alternatives. It’s written by a white person for white people, which is important because people with privilege need to take responsibility for educating other people with privilege. However, if it’s a topic you want to learn more about (which I highly recommend), it’s worth seeking out Indigenous writers sharing their wisdom and experience. Native Appropriations is a great place to start.
Autostraddle’s Tarot tag is full of great posts by queer writers.
What Makes a ‘Feminist’ Tarot? – this post from Autostraddle is a great introduction to recognizing and finding feminist tarot decks. (And it’s by Beth from Little Red Tarot!)