Image description: A screenshot of a text post. Text reads: In order to become the supreme adult, you must perform the seven wonders:
· Public speaking
· Not being afraid of teenagers
· Calling the doctor yourself
· Arguing without crying
· Having a normal sleep pattern
· Having an answer to the question ‘what do you want to do with your life?’
(This is a Patreon reward post for Dave. At the $10 per month support level, I’ll write you a yearly post on the topic of your choice, too! Patrons at any support level get access to many posts about a week early, and are able to offer comments and suggestions, and see my, sometimes meandering!, process in action.)
This text post floated across my newsfeed again, and I laughed, as I always do when I see it, because it feels so true. But I didn’t share it, because it also feels deeply ableist. And, when thinking about it, isn’t Supreme Adulting an exercise in ableism, with its demand that adulting involves navigating capitalism and passing as neurotypical and normatively abled? The infantilizing of any of us who are neurodivergent or disabled certainly lends some weight to that theory.
The reason I saved the post today, rather than laughing and scrolling past, is because of the last point – in order to become the supreme adult, you must have an answer to the question ‘what do you want to do with your life?’
Months and months ago now, Dave said that the topic of his Patreon reward post should be “self-care and figuring out what you’re going to do with your life.”
Great, I thought!
“Great!” I said.
A month or so later, I sent him an email and told him it was going really slowly. I was running into internal friction. It’s a big topic! What you’re going to do with your life? HUGE! It had felt like a quick and easy topic, as these reward posts often do, but then I scratched the surface and got stuck.
He said not to worry. I kept thinking about it.
A month or so after that, I sent him another email with a proposal – how about “self-care and job hunting”? But he wasn’t feelin’ it, so I came back to this.
And every week when I wrote out my To Do list, “Dave’s Patreon post” showed up.
And every week, it didn’t get written.
This friction… I couldn’t quite figure it out. Was it friction because I worry about what I will do with my life? Was it shame or anxiety over the fact that I’m trying to build a new career for the third time in my life? Was it worry about giving directives to other people, taking on a role of expertise when I truly believe that we are each the experts in our own experience? All of those, but also not quite any of those. There was something else there, and all I knew was that I was stuck. I have learned (painfully and only with great effort) to trust the stuckness. When I’m stuck, there’s something there. It’s worth honouring the friction, even when I find it frustrating.
And then this text post floated across my newsfeed and, and the stickiness resolved, and I thought yes! Now I can write this thing, at long last.
Because what this post highlighted for me was the ableism and the individualism and the capitalist expectations buried within the question. That’s what I had been sticking on.
Because the struggle is not figuring out how to answer ‘what do you want to do with your life?’
We can often answer that.
If we let ourselves, we can often close our eyes and imagine a life that sounds good – maybe a life full of family? Maybe making art? Maybe gardening? Maybe building community? Maybe making music? A life of long walks, or mornings spent writing, or caring for younglings or oldsters? A life spent researching the Great Questions? A life of learning? A life of teaching? There is so much that we might want to do, and many of us can, if we let ourselves, answer that question.
If we let ourselves.
Which we often don’t, not past childhood, because that’s not actually the question being asked.
The question is usually not ‘what do you want to do with your life?’
The question is ‘what do you want to do with your life that will pay your bills, position you as a productive member of society, and fit into the (unreasonable) expectations of the society around you?’
And the reason I couldn’t write a post about how to answer that second question is because I think it’s a garbage question. It is inherently harmful and violent.
‘What part of yourself will you cut off in order to fit into this shoe?’
So, instead of offering suggestions for how to answer that question-within-question, I will offer this –
Yes, the pain you feel when the question is asked is real, and valid. Even if you know what you want to do, even if you have a vocation and a career in mind, the pain can still float up because of the uncertainty of our current economic climate. We are supposed to have aspirations, but not unrealistic aspirations. We are supposed to reach for success, but not overreach. It is an impossible balancing act. So, yes, the pain you feel is real, and valid.
Yes, it is unfair that the adultier adults in your life keep asking it.
Yes, you’re right that there is often something wounded behind the eyes of the people who ask the question. It is an unfair question for all of us, and the process of answering is often a process of self-negation.
Yes, your anger is justified.
Yes, your fear is valid.
Yes, your uncertainty is legitimate!
Of course that question hurts!
You are being asked not only to disclose (and decide) how you will fit your life into capitalism but also how you will devote your entire life to capitalism.
As my good friend put it, you are being asked to assimilate, to become Borg. And that threat of assimilation is hidden in what seems like an innocuous question – what do you want to do with your life? What a lovely question, what an expansive question, what a perfectly innocent question… except not.
Our current economic climate means that the idea of vocation, of career, of calling – the idea of one job that provides a stable base from which to launch your life – only exists for the very privileged few. And you’re probably not one of them. And some part of you knows it. And it hurts.
So, what do you want to do with your life? Choose, and then be prepared to choose again, and to choose again, and to choose again, and to be pitied and rejected when you’re between choices, and to feel yourself segmented into selves who inhabit jobs but not careers, and not jobs that feed your heart but jobs that feed your body, to choose between those selves, to always be fragmented and unintegrated. What violence!
Our looming societal collapse means that many of us, Millenials and Xennials and later generations, are not planning much into the future. How can we? We are racking up student debt that we’ll never pay down. We are living with our parents and being slammed for it in article after article. We are eating too much avocado toast and we are failing at Supreme Adulting. And it is not our fault.
Truly, it is not our fault. The question is flawed. The system is hostile. There are rarely right answers because the answers that feel right don’t often answer the real question.
So, that’s not hugely helpful for those of us who need to answer the question.
(And, as I format this post to share publicly on my blog, I feel a flicker of anxiety about admitting that not only do I not have easy answers for anyone who comes to me for coaching help, I just straight up do not believe that the easy answers exist. What kind of coach am I, anyway?! The self-doubt is real, and it’s worth acknowledging. Here, and always, I lean on G. WIllow Wilson’s wisdom – “There is not always a way out, but there is always a way forward.” I am not the coach who will get you out of the struggle, I am the coach who will help you find ways forward through the struggle.)
The fact is, we do have to answer the question of how we will fit ourselves into capitalism, even though it’s a garbage question.
Even when we know the answer is not going to be right, because there are no longer any right answers, still we have to come up with it. We do have to find our way forward, because we have to eat, because we have to pay rent, because we have to make our way through this world even though the system is hostile, and it is often easier to move forward when that hostility is acknowledged and our struggle is honoured.
(And to support the idea of no right answers, look at burnout rates among doctors, lawyers, dentists, veterinarians, and other professional careers that were previously considered the adultiest of all. Who is more adult than a lawyer? Nobody! And so, then, why are so many young lawyers burning out? Maybe our ideas of what it means to be “adult” – where adult is code for “productive member of capitalist society” – are fundamentally flawed.)
Let’s detour for a moment.
For a moment, consider the surface question, the first question, the better question – ‘what do you want to do with your life?’
Consider answering it from your heart rather than from your fear. Imagine a future where that is possible.
Consider this section from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble:
“Vinciane Despret thinks-with other beings, human and not. That is a rare and precious vocation. Vocation: calling, calling with, called by, calling as if the world mattered, calling out, going too far, going visiting. Despret listened to a singing blackbird one morning – a living blackbird outside her particular window – and that way learned what importance sounds like. She thinks in attunement with those she thinks with – recursively, inventively, relentlessly – with joy and verve. She studies how beings render each other capable in actual encounters, and she theorizes – makes cogently available – that kind of theory and method. … Her kind of thinking enlarges, even invents, the competencies of all the players, including herself, such that the domain of ways of being and knowing dilates, expands, adds both ontological and epistemological possibilities, proposed and enacts what was not there before.”
Vocation: calling, calling with, called by, calling as if the world mattered, calling out, going too far, going visiting.
Imagine, just imagine, if we could answer that question with our vocation, with our calling, with our calling out and calling in, with our calling as if the world mattered. If we could go visiting into various ways of being and doing, and if that could be a beautiful part of the process rather than a painful destabilization.
Just thinking about it opens me up in the way Haraway describes.
I want that kind of thinking.
I want to answer the question with that expansiveness, that generosity, and that space. Rather than an ableist question which demands that the answerer fit into a mold that is no longer (and honestly has never been) compassionate or helpful, I want to answer an anti-oppressive question that expands and creates competencies and potential, that brings curiousity, playfulness, and companionship to the table.
And then let’s come back to the question under the question – not ‘what do you want to do with your life,’ but rather ‘what will you do to fit your life into the system?’
Here are some self-care ideas for navigating that process:
First, allow yourself to answer the surface question. Let yourself answer, even if you know you won’t be able to act on the answer. Do you want to spend your life in service? Do you want to spend your life baking pastries? Do you want to spend your life in gardens and on nature trails? Do you want to spend your life writing? Raising children? Raising goats? Raising the roof in party after party after party? Raising awareness? Raising each other up? Answer. Don’t worry if there’s no way you’ll pay the rent with that answer.
(And for the record, although we do have the persistent cultural myth of the self-made person who “trusts their heart and the money follows,” I think that it is mostly bullshit. Especially in the current economic and political climate. Especially for those of us who are marginalized or multiply marginalized. So, it may happen. You may answer that question, find a vocation, follow it, survive. I hope that you do! That’s what I’m hoping for myself, too! But if you don’t, that is not your fault. It is not because you weren’t positive enough, passionate enough, persistent enough. It is because the system is hostile.)
Second, allow yourself to dodge the question. When people who expect you to #adult ask how you’re going to do it, avoid/subvert/challenge the assumptions. What are you going to do with your life, they ask, as you enter your final year of your undergrad degree, fully cognizant of the lack of jobs in your field? “Well, I was thinking I would bake a pie this weekend!” You don’t owe them your answer.
Third, allow yourself to answer the question-within-the-question with whatever emotions come up for you. Bitterness? Yeah, fucking definitely. Anger? Yes. Fear? Yes. Curiousity? Yes! Excitement? Absolutely. Apathy? For sure. Whatever comes up for you, comes up for you. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel.
And finally, know that you’re not alone in not being able to answer the question. It is an impossible and hostile question. It is cruel. It is unfair. If you don’t have an answer, that is okay.
Take a deep breath.
Keep looking for ways to tether yourself to yourself despite all of the alienation and distance that capitalism enforces.
I believe in you.
You will do so much with your life, and not all of it will be Supreme Adulting, and all of it will be yours.
(Image description: In the lower left the cover of Avery Alder’s brilliant RPG Monsterhearts 2 is visible. In the upper right another RPG book is partially visible. There is a character creation sheet between the two books, and a pile of various sizes, shapes, colours, and types of dice. Photo credit to Scott Foster, who inspired this post.)
This is a Patreon reward post for Scott. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too. My Patreon supporters allow me to continue this work, and I appreciate them so much. You can join that small (but growing!) community, if you want!
Scott requested a post on self-care and new projects. They asked me to focus on projects that you’re not excited about, or that you’re afraid of.
Scott is a consummate gamer – when we started dating, they told me that they needed to have one whole evening to do nothing other than gaming at least once every few days, because that’s how they recharge and decompress. I have learned a lot about the value of gaming from Scott! They have also DM’d multiple tabletop roleplaying games, including D&D, Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, Mouse Guard, Goblin Quest, and more. When they game, they’re in their element. And they do a great job of making gaming spaces safe and accessible for the people they game with. (Someday I’ll interview them about that process for this blog.)
So, this post focuses on approaching new projects gamefully – not only because that’s a good idea in general, but also because of who I’m writing this post for.
For this post, I really appreciated Jane McGonigal’s work on gameful living, which I’ve been deep-diving into for the upcoming Gaming and Self-Care series that I’ll be launching on the Facebook page next month.
In the introduction to her book SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal writes:
You are stronger than you know.
You are surrounded by potential allies.
You are the hero of your own story.
She says, “This book is…about learning how to be gameful in the face of extreme stress and personal challenge. Being gameful means bringing the psychological strengths you naturally display when you play games – such as optimism, creativity, courage, and determination – to your real life. It means having curiosity and openness to play with different strategies to discover what works best. It means building up the resilience to tackle tougher and tougher challenges with greater and greater success.”
New projects are all about challenge. Whether it’s an exciting project, a terrifying project, a project you chose or a project you’ve been dropped into, it’s almost guaranteed to be a challenge of some sort. And gamefulness is all about stepping up to challenges.
So You’re Starting A New Project: A Brief Guide to Being The Boss of Your Project (and Practicing Sustainable and Gameful Self-Care While You’re At It)
Okay, so you have a new project about to launch. You want to make sure you get through the planning, launching, and in-process phases of the project without burning out, crashing into a wall of self-doubt, or losing track of your own needs in the process.
Start with some assessment
Take a minute, take a breath.
Close your eyes and picture that project on your inner horizon. Think about what the project will look like, feel like, and how much of your life will be wrapped up in the project. Imagine yourself beginning the project, working through the project, and completing the project. Picture yourself right in the thick of it, and picture yourself surveying the final result.
How do you feel? (You can check multiple.)
a) I feel amazing! This project is gonna be so good!
b) I feel hopeful. This project has a lot of potential!
c) I feel anxious. This project is gonna be a lot of work.
d) I feel terrified. This project is gonna be a disaster.
e) I feel something else.
Whatever you feel is okay.
Projects that make you catch your breath in excitement and anticipation are awesome. But not every project is one that we want, or that we would have chosen. Projects that you find yourself thrown into unexpectedly, projects you would never have chosen for yourself, and projects that terrify you can also be approached with self-awareness, compassion, and intentional self-care and you can get through them.
You might even end up gaining valuable skills, insight, and experience in the process.
Knowing how you feel about a project, and being honest with yourself about that, can help you plan for the project and for the self-care you’ll need to focus on in order to get through it. In this moment of assessment, try to let go of your expectations for yourself, and other people’s expectations for you. You may be embarking on a project that you ‘should’ be really excited about, and you might actually be terrified. You might be starting a project that you ‘should’ be terrified about, but you know you’re going to rock it. You know yourself better than anyone else, and you know how you feel. Trust that knowledge. You are the protagonist of this story. You are the narrator. This is your story to tell.
And it’s also okay if you don’t really know how you feel, or if your feelings change over the course of the project!
Once you’ve given some thought to how you’re feeling about the project, it’s time to…
Identify your available resources
Think about resources in a broad and inclusive way.
This isn’t just the money, time, and space that you’ll need for the project. It’s also the social resources – that friend who is always available to tell you that you’ve got this who adds to your resource list, or the family member whose skepticism is always lurking at every family gathering who is a drain on your resources. It’s the internal resources – your sense of resilience, hopefulness, and self-efficacy (your belief in your ability to take action and to have your actions positively influence the outcome).
Sometimes it’s also domestic resources – help with laundry and the dishes, or the ability to order in when the project gets heavy, or the knowledge that you’re on your own to carry your own weight or the weight of the family, and needing to plan accordingly.
It can help to make a list of all the resources you have available, and to let that list be expansive and even silly.
Do you have an inner Elf Commander who can marshal your internal troops for a big productivity push? List that as a resource!
Do you have a family member or friend who will be your cheerleader? List that!
Are you creative, curious, compassionate, or committed? List them all!
Let yourself sit with this for a while, because often new resources will float up to the top of your mind the longer you let yourself look at yourself and your life through that lens. Keep the list open for at least a few days, and just keep adding to it as you think of things to add.
It can also help to make a list of the resources you might need. Are you going to need money, time, or energy that you don’t currently have? Be honest with yourself about that.
Finally, it can help to make a list of the things that will drain your available resources. This list is important because it can help you decide where to set boundaries and how to protect yourself as you move through the project.
If you end up adding a lot of the people in your life to that list of things that will drain your resources, chances are, you feel bad about it. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay. You are not a bad person for recognizing the way that some relationships and some social interactions drain you. And that drain does not mean that you’ll cut those people out of your life or stop being a support to them. It just means that you’re recognizing your own needs.
Assessing our resources, and being honest about what we have, what we need, and what drains us is always an exercise in vulnerability. It’s tough! And it’s also really valuable.
Once you’ve assessed your feelings and your resources, it’s time to get your hands onto that project!
Find The Challenge
Jane McGonigal writes, “A challenge is anything that provokes our desire to test our strengths and abilities and that gives us the opportunity to improve them. Crucially, a challenge must be accepted. No one can force you to tackle it. You have to choose to rise to the occasion.”
Regardless of how you feel about your project, you can choose to accept the challenge and to meet the project on your own terms. That’s the first step in turning the project from a threat into a challenge. Any project can be a challenge that you choose to tackle, even if (especially if) it’s a project that you don’t want to start, are afraid of, or don’t have a choice about. Gamefulness will help you avoid the hopelessness and the feeling of powerlessness that can accompany a project that we don’t want and don’t have a choice about.
What you’re doing when you find the challenge is switching from a threat mindset to a challenge mindset, and the reason that’s valuable is because it shifts the narrative and opens up new ways of engaging with the project. Threat mindsets focus on the risks, the potential losses, and the potential harms. It’s important to recognize those things, but when you’re about to tackle a project (or you’ve been dropped headfirst into a project), a threat mindset can get in your way.
(And, at this point, I want to make a super important point. Many of us are habitually in a threat mindset because we have consistently faced loss, risk, and danger. It makes sense to view everything as a threat when everything is scary! Shifting your mindset is not about blaming yourself for seeing everything as a threat, and it also isn’t about gaslighting or victim-blaming yourself. If you struggle with this, that is okay. It takes practice! And it works best when we start with shifting our mindset in areas that are low-threat, rather than trying to shift something that feels like it’s life-or-death.)
In contrast to a threat mindset, a challenge mindset focuses on the opportunity for growth, and brings realistic optimism to the table.
From SuperBetter, “In a threat mindset, your fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, which activates your sympathetic nervous system. If your sympathetic nervous system is engaged continuously for hours, days, weeks, or longer, your immune system can become compromised, and you may experience more illness. With a challenge mindset, however, your nervous system finds a better balance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic (calm-and-connect) responses. This balance helps you avoid nervous exhaustion and burnout.”
McGonigal also says, and this is really critical, “a challenge mindset does not mean living in denial of potential negative outcomes. It simply means paying more attention, and devoting more effort, to the possibility of positive outcomes or personal growth.”
So, how do you do it?
One way is to frame your project as something you’re moving towards, rather than away from. Find a potential positive outcome, and use this project as a way to get to it.
These potential positive outcomes might be increased resilience, increased independence, increased creativity, increased health. However, these potential positive outcomes are not always apparent or available. When that’s the case, another way to find the challenge is to identify (or create) “the unnecessary obstacle.”
From SuperBetter, “The key is to identify an obstacle that you feel capable of tackling within the larger obstacle, an obstacle that other people might not choose to tackle.
Use your imagination to answer this question: What would be the worst possible, least helpful reaction that you – or anyone else in your shoes – could have to [this project]? You don’t have to be completely realistic here. Let your mind go to extremes for a moment.
Now: What is the opposite of that worst reaction?
Whatever the opposite of your “worst possible, least helpful reaction” is, consider adopting that as your unnecessary obstacle. Challenge yourself to do something that requires more strength and determination than what someone else might do in your shoes.
Why it works: When you imagine the worst possible reaction you could have to the adversity, you highlight your agency in the situation. You do have options. And as long as you’re not doing that worst possible, least helpful thing, you can challenge yourself to do something better. It may not feel like total agency and choice, but it involves some agency and choice – and that’s enough to activate a challenge mindset.”
Once you’ve found the challenge and decided to tackle it, it’s time to…
Break Your Project Down Into Steps
Set yourself small, achievable goals along the way to your big end goal. Think of ways to reward yourself along the way, and consider how you can find the challenge in each of the smaller steps of the project.
When you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of your project, take a breath (again! Gosh, so much breathing in this process!) and find a smaller goal to accomplish within the larger goal. You have choices about how this project gets done!
Design Your Self-Care Plan
Lean on all of the work you’ve done leading up to this.
Take a look at your resource list, especially the parts of it that are vulnerable – the places where there’s lack, or where there are significant drains on your resources. Think of self-care tools or activities that can help recharge you in those areas.
Remember that community care is a big part of self-care. Build social self-care into your plan! Ask a friend to be your cheerleader, or find a professional cheerleader in the form of a coach or counsellor.
Write a list of self-care tools that you know work for you most of the time. Put the list somewhere accessible, so that when you get tired or discouraged, you don’t have to think too hard before you can implement some self-care.
Turn self-care into a game, by setting yourself self-care goals and giving yourself points or rewards along the way.
Make a list of “power ups” – drinking a glass of water, texting a friend, walking around the block, whatever works for you! – and try to power up at least once a day.
Fill in the blanks!
What’s missing from this post?
What kind of self-care do you find helpful when you’re starting a new project?
What other advice would be helpful here?
This is the second part of a Patreon reward post series for Dylan. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write you a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too! Consider heading over to my Patreon and signing up if you want to support this work!
You can also read Part One – Narratives of Quitting.
This series of posts attempts to address the topic Dylan posed. They said, “I’m so tired and stretched thin across multiple projects so I apologize if this is not helpful. It’s kind of hilarious that this is about self-care and I’m not really doing awesome on that front atm. I was thinking about self-care as it relates to quitting because I’ve made a number of difficult changes over the past couple of years that required working through these ideas. I gave up on many hobbies as a kid because I didn’t want to face the horrible anxiety that came with pursuing hobbies: fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people… I started to think of myself negatively as a quitter and that has nagged at me as an adult such that I have a difficult time quitting or changing directions once I set myself onto a path. But quitting can be such a vital part of self-care because sometimes we do need to change directions or leave to protect ourselves.”
This second part of the series looks at the factors that influence when/whether/how/what we might quit (or not quit).
There are so many factors that can influence whether or not someone decides to (or is forced to) quit something, or, equally complex and common, factors that influence whether someone decides not to (or is unable to) quit something. I narrowed these factors down to a core set, with the understanding that this list is incomplete and that these factors blend together into a nearly infinite range of potential influences.
I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the factors that influence quitting without addressing the way that trauma impacts, long-term, our response to threat situations (and to situations that look like they might be threatening, whether or not they actually are threatening). It’s too easy to approach the topic of quitting and self-care from a rationalist perspective, distanced from personal histories of trauma, and when we talk about quitting only in terms of the “rational” or “reasonable” response to influences or situations, we end up contributing to the stigma and shame that already weighs heavy on trauma survivors.
When we quit, how we quit, why we quit, whether we quit – our histories inform these actions in a major way. (And each of our histories influences this – family histories, success and failure histories, and trauma histories. But this section is about trauma histories.)
These trauma histories (which include any Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs, such as abandonment, abuse, childhood poverty, or watching a caretaker struggle with addiction, abuse, or financial/emotional/mental instability or illness) echo through the rest of our lives, and although I sincerely believe that we are both the protagonists and the narrators of our own stories, I also recognize that our stories happen in contexts that we do not, and cannot, control.
So, how do these histories inform how/when/why/whether we quit?
I mean… how do they not? But for the sake of this post, we’ll look at four common responses to threat, how they can be influenced by trauma histories, and how they can influence a decision to quit.
Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn are four common responses to threat.
When you’re making a decision about whether/when/how to quit, if you’re responding to a (real or perceived, internal or external) threat, and if you have a trauma history (as so many of us do), then your ability to access each of these responses will be impacted. In lots of ways.
Fight – When we feel threatened, one response is to fight.
Making decisions about quitting outside of a trauma history, the story of fighting might be one of the protagonist recognizing an injustice or other problem, assessing their available skills and resources or determining that the situation is untenable and has to be challenged, and fighting it. These stories are the stories of people who didn’t “just” quit, and they are often among the most highly praised stories.
However, the story of a trauma-infused fight response might look more like the protagonist “lashing out” and “making the situation worse” – these stories are often far less acceptable, and when the person fighting is marginalized – a woman, femme, disabled, fat, poor, neurodivergent, racialized, addicted, or otherwise marginalized person (whether they’re fighting from a place of trauma or not) – the fight response is often used to blame them for any harm that they experience.
Trauma-informed fight responses can also be hard to control, and the flood of adrenaline can make it difficult to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. It is hard to fit trauma-informed quitting decisions into an acceptable Narrative of Quitting, and this is particularly true when the response is a fight.
Flight – Another response to threat is to run away.
Outside of a trauma response, flight stories are often easily understood and accepted, because flight is non-confrontational and clearly acts to end a threatening situation. These stories can even sometimes be retroactively rescued into a Triumphant Quitter narrative, especially if the protagonist is marginalized. (Marginalized folks are expected to flee and punished for fighting against a threat, and vice versa when the person is not marginalized. This means that someone with privilege – a white, male, abled, cisgender, straight, wealthy, educated, or otherwise privileged person – will often feel a significant amount of shame for fleeing rather than fighting. Fleeing is often perceived as a sign of weakness, and groups that are already considered weak can flee without challenging the dominant narrative of who they are, but they can’t fight. And people who are perceived as strong can fight, but they can’t flee without challenging that dominant narrative of strength.)
When flight is a trauma-informed response, and is a panicked cut-and-run that seems, to an outside eye, disproportionate to the situation, there is a lot of shame attached to the flight response (even though it is often a very reasonable response to threat!).
Trauma histories that push us towards flight can make it difficult to stay in situations even when staying might be a better choice.
Freeze – Another response to threat is to freeze. For trauma survivors, this might look like dissociating, disconnecting, or mentally checking out. In a moment of freezing, we are unable to quit and unable to move forward. Being stuck in a freeze response can end up making the choice for us by default, either because we keep moving forward on the energy of our inertia, or because we’re forced to quit when we’ve stopped taking productive actions.
Freezing fits tidily into the Weak-Willed Quitter narrative, and into cultural narratives that lean hard on victim-blaming to explain away the long-term and pervasive impacts of our violently racist, sexist, classist, ableist and otherwise oppressive culture. According to bootstrapping ideology, doing something is always preferable to doing nothing, and freezing is, in many ways, the least validated response and the hardest to rescue into an acceptable narrative.
Fawn – A final possible response to the threat is to fawn, or try to appease the threatening person. This is often the safest space for someone who is under threat to stay, but it can feel corrosive to be submitting to a threat and appeasing rather than escaping harm. When we have used this coping strategy to keep ourselves safe, it can be challenging to change the pattern and we can feel a huge amount of shame whenever we slip back into submission-for-survival. This coping strategy also gets slammed in self-care and psychology settings, framed as codependence, anxious attachment, and other problems that frame this as an unreasonable and dysfunctional strategy. Although it’s true that this can become a maladaptive strategy, especially once we’re in safe relationships, the blaming doesn’t help. If this is how you cope – if you submit to other people’s needs, act as a “people pleaser” and make your choices about whether or not to quit based on what other people with power want, it’s okay. Like every trauma-informed decision, it can be hard to explain and hard to understand, but it is also a valid survival strategy. And if you want to learn how to relate in other ways, that can happen without blaming and shaming yourself for what you needed when you needed it.
We have a lot of cultural narratives around fear, and they’re everything from Frank Herbert’s famous “fear is the mindkiller” to Gavin de Becker’s “the gift of fear.” Everything we want, according to the platitude, “is on the other side of fear” and we are admonished to “choose love, not fear.”
And fear is a huge influence when it comes to our decisions about when/why/whether to quit.
We might be afraid of success (or failure), and quit to avoid getting the dreaded answer to the question “do I have what it takes?”
We might be afraid of what it will take to keep going, and quit.
We might be afraid of being seen as a quitter, and not quit.
We might be afraid of disappointing ourselves, our partners, our friends, our professors, our communities, our parents, and not allow ourselves to quit.
We might be afraid of burning out, and quit.
Some fears tell us we’re in danger, and listening to those fears, and quitting before we get hurt, is wise. Allowing ourselves to identify, understand, and act on those fears is an incredibly difficult and valuable self-preservation skill.
Some fears tell us that we’re running low on resources and we need to quit before we run out entirely – the fear of failure, for example, can seem like a fear that should always be “overcome” or pushed through, but there are times when the cost of failure is too high, and listening to the fear is the wisest choice we can make.
Fear can also be an indicator that it’s time to keep pushing – there are times when we feel fear and it’s the fear that accompanies a challenge, rather than a threat. This fear says “this is scary but keep going! We’re on the right path!”
How do you tell the difference?
How do you tell the difference if you deal with anxiety?! (One definition of the difference between fear and anxiety is that fear is a response to a situation you are currently experiencing, and anxiety is a response to a situation you are anticipating. Anxiety is about the possible-but-theoretical future, and fear is about the present and immediate future. This is obviously not a perfect definition, because wouldn’t that mean we feel anxiety, rather than fear, about failure or success? I would say that if the feeling is stopping you from starting a project, it’s anxiety – reacting to a theoretical. If it’s impacting whether you continue or quit a project, it’s fear – reacting to an ongoing situation. I also think that it doesn’t really matter what words we use, as long as we know what we mean, and these hairs might not always need to be split. Another definition, which I personally find very helpful, is that fear is situational and passes when the situation changes, and anxiety is pervasive and lingers even after the situation changes.)
Y’all… I do not have any easy answers for this one.
I know that I feel fear and anxiety on a nearly daily basis, and panic less often but still regularly, and that my fear has become an excellent and reliable (if irritating and painful) guide. The fear that tells me to keep going feels different in my body – it’s not the hollowed out fear related to threat that tells me to stop, go home, turn back. It’s a crackling electric fear related to challenge, and it has the power to generate change and growth.
I only know the difference sometimes, and often only retrospectively, and I only know it after years of practice (and years of failure – pushing into the wrong fear and staying in damaging relationships, for example, because I thought the fear was wrong, or giving up at the first flutter of fear without giving myself time to learn which flavor it was).
Fear of failure, and the equally stifling fear of success, are two that dog me constantly. These are the fears that influence my decision to quit working on a writing project before I submit it, or to create marketing plans and not act on them, or to look into Masters programs and not apply. These fears are so real.
Dylan’s original question included references to “fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people” and those fears are also so real, and can push so many of us out of hobbies, jobs, communities, and even relationships that we might sincerely enjoy and want to engage with. Sometimes it is true that what we want is on the other side of fear, but when we’re looking at fear as an influence in our decisions to quit, we need to be compassionate with ourselves. We are not fearful for no reason, and we are not fearful because we’re broken, weak, or foolish. Our fears come from somewhere, and we can’t just set them up as enemies to be overcome – often we need to sit down with that voice of fear, pour a cup of tea, and really listen.
What are we afraid of?
Can we address that fear compassionately and intentionally?
Once we’ve listened and understood our fears, we can make better decisions about whether to quit.
There is so much shame associated with being a quitter. You didn’t have enough guts. You weren’t smart enough. You weren’t strong enough. You weren’t tough enough. You just weren’t enough. If you had been, you could have stuck it out.
Even when we quit for the best reasons, and even when quitting is the right choice for us (as it often is – none of us can continue in every venture we begin indefinitely, there isn’t enough time and energy for that! And we grow, we change, we quit so that we can start something new) still, shame is always waiting to pounce.
And fear of that shame often stops us from quitting when we need to quit.
Shame is a silencer, distancer, suppressor – not only does it keep us tied to things we want to quit, and distant from things we want to embrace, but it also keeps us quiet about the experience.
Access to Resources
Access to resources is, in some ways, the most challenging and frustrating influence over decisions to quit. When we have to quit because we don’t have enough money to continue, or we don’t have enough energy to continue, or we don’t have enough support to continue – it sucks.
It sucks a lot. And it happens a lot. It happens to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.
For folks who are disabled or chronically ill, sometimes we lack energy and that can fuel a lot of shame, but often we also lack finances because of un- or under-employment, and we lack support because of pervasive ableism.
For poor folks, particularly people who are dealing with generational poverty (which disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous communities), there is often not only a lack of money, but also a lack of time and energy because poverty often means working multiple jobs, or working long hours for low pay. Poverty is also a significant social determinant of health, which means that folks living in poverty are also often dealing with health issues that sap time and energy and money. And poverty, particularly childhood poverty, can result in long-term trauma. Despite all the bootstrapping mythology in our cultural narratives, poverty forces so many people to quit so many things that they love and excel at, and it’s not because they are weak-willed or lack determination and stick-to-itiveness.
For trans, queer, racialized, or otherwise marginalized folks, that same intersection of frequent un- or under-employment, plus lack of social supports and a lot of stigma and pervasive oppression (especially in the form of microaggressions in work and play spaces) results in quitting things that they might otherwise enjoy and excel at.
On the other hand, gaining access to resources – through scholarships, living wages, more equitable distribution of domestic and emotional labour, supportive social spaces, and thriving communities – can enable people to not quit, or to quit in ways that feel right for them.
Gaining access to social supports and employment opportunities might allow someone to quit a job that isn’t right for them but that they’re staying in for the financial security. Gaining access to scholarships, housing opportunities, or food security may allow people to continue in post-secondary educations that otherwise would be out of reach.
We can collectively make a difference when it comes to this – we can vote for politicians who support living wages, daycare programs, and other social supports. We can put our money directly into the hands of people who need it, through crowdfunding and platforms like Patreon. We can advocate for accessibility and inclusivity in our spaces – particularly if we have privilege and our voices are more easily heard by people in power.
Access to resources also intersects with harm reduction, since a lack of resources can make it nearly impossible for folks to quit habits, addictions, or subsistence work even if they want to, and even if they would be happier and more fulfilled if they were able to. But, again, our bootstrapping narratives conveniently ignore the way that lack of access to social and material resources places barriers in front of people.
It’s easy to feel hopeless when it comes to access to resources. And I fully reject an individualist narrative that says this issue can be solved at the level of the individual – in order to make a real difference when it comes to access to resources, we need to fundamentally alter the social structures that uphold inequality. But just because it will take policy changes, doesn’t mean we are powerless.
We can push on this one, so that more people can keep doing what they love, and more people can quit doing what hurts them.
We hope things will get better.
We hope that they’ll get better if we quit, and hope influences us to quit. To seek something new.
We hope that they’ll get better if we stay, and hope influences us to not quit. To try and improve the situation from within it.
When we quit from a place of hope, often it feels liberating. Doing anything from a place of hope feels better than doing the same thing from a place of hopelessness or fear. (Now, if only hope weren’t so intimately tied up with access to resources, trauma histories, and social inequality…)
Self-efficacy is our belief in our own ability to successfully meet our goals or challenges and to generate a positive outcome as a result of our actions.
We can build self-efficacy through mastery experiences (having the personal experience of attempting something and succeeding at it), vicarious experiences (witnessing someone like us attempt something and succeed at it – this is why representation is so critical!), verbal persuasion (encouragement and support from influential people in our lives), and imaginal experiences (visualizing yourself attempting something and succeeding at it – there is interesting new research into increasing self-efficacy using VR and witnessing a personalized avatar succeed at a task).
Physical, emotional, and psychological states also impact self-efficacy.
If you’re interested in building your own self-efficacy, you might be interested in the gamification series of posts that I’ll be running weekly starting in October.
Self-efficacy impacts whether/when/how/why we quit because believing that our actions have the ability to result in a positive outcome is a huge factor in whether we feel empowered to keep going, or to quit when it’s right for us. Feeling helpless and ineffective often means we are more likely to quit out of despair and discouragement, and also more likely to not quit for the same reasons.
Want to be a writer?
Want to start your own business?
Change the world?
First of all, good luck. I think you’re amazing, and I count myself as one of you. Idealism and stubborn hope and the desire to make positive change in the world is beautiful.
And also, how are you going to pay your rent?
When are you going to get a real job?
What qualifications do you have?
Who gave you permission?
Who gives you permission?
The social pressure to get a “real job” is huge, and it intersects with issues of fear, access to resources, shame, and trauma histories. But outside of those intersections, the social element, and the social narratives around what types of work are valid is so huge.
Social pressure can keep us stuck when we want to quit – can keep us in marriages, in jobs, in degrees, and in communities that no longer serve us. And social pressure can force us out when we want to stay, from all those same places.
We are not supposed to “waste” our talent, and so if we’ve ever done something well, we should keep doing it.
And we are supposed to grow up and get a real job, and so if we dream of alternative jobs we meet a significant amount of skepticism (internal and external).
“Don’t quit your day job” is excellent advice, and horrible advice.
“Chasing our dreams” is also idealized and vilified, and it can be great advice when someone tells you to keep going, and it can be terrible advice when they tell you to keep going.
Social pressure and social support are also often linked. When we’ve received social support, we often feel indebted to our communities and their desires or expectations or fears can put a lot of pressure on us.
And, while it is true that this is your story and you are both the protagonist and the narrator of your story, it is also true that we live within families (chosen and given), communities, and societies that influence and are influenced by our choices.
Part Three of this series – The Things We Quit and Self-Care for Quitters – will be going up on my Patreon later this week, and will be available publicly a week after that.
This is the first part of a Patreon reward post series for Dylan. At the $10/month support level, I’ll write you a post on the topic of your choice for your birthday, too! Blog posts are available one week early for patrons at any support level.
I met Dylan in one of the first courses I took in my university career. They were smart, insightful, and hella intimidating. It has been an honour to get to know them over the last eight years, and I consider them one of my best friends. We are working on an ongoing project this year – a duoethnography on the topic of the experience of being non-binary in binary-gendered contexts. It’s pretty cool, and we even presenting a paper on one segment of our research at the Society for the Study of Social Problems conference in August! (I’ll be posting the presentation on my Patreon later this month.)
When I asked Dylan what topic they would like me to tackle for their birthday month post this year, this is what they said:
“I’m so tired and stretched thin across multiple projects so I apologize if this is not helpful. It’s kind of hilarious that this is about self-care and I’m not really doing awesome on that front atm. I was thinking about self-care as it relates to quitting because I’ve made a number of difficult changes over the past couple of years that required working through these ideas. I gave up on many hobbies as a kid because I didn’t want to face the horrible anxiety that came with pursuing hobbies: fear of public failure or embarrassment, fear and awkwardness of interacting with new people… I started to think of myself negatively as a quitter and that has nagged at me as an adult such that I have a difficult time quitting or changing directions once I set myself onto a path. But quitting can be such a vital part of self-care because sometimes we do need to change directions or leave to protect ourselves.”
They sent me the topic on August 9th. In the time since, I’ve sent them multiple messages apologizing for the fact that it’s not done yet. We’re now halfway through September, and their birthday month is in August, and the post is still not up.
I started, restarted, outlined, re-outlined, mind-mapped, doodled, wrote, erased, rewrote, gave up on, came back to, gave up on again, and finally sat down to actually write this post in earnest. And then stopped again. And then came back.
It was an interesting intersection of content and context – writing about quitting, and constantly experiencing the overwhelming urge to quit.
There were lessons for me in both the content and the context, and that is one of the most exciting and encouraging things about this process. Even in a topic that I feel deeply familiar with (the concept of quitting and self-care is one I’ve already given a lot of thought to, particularly as it relates to my divorce and to the times when quitting has been the best self-care available to me), I found that there are new layers to explore and new learnings to uncover.
It was also interesting to realize that my own hang-ups about quitting – my fear and shame, the narratives I’ve internalized – are still so real, so visceral, and such strong influences on my behaviour.
And, maybe most interesting for my self-care practice and my work as a self-care coach, I started to learn how to recognize when the urge to quit in one area is actually an indicator of unmet needs in other areas. Although my challenges and new learnings in the area of “quitting and self-care” were real, I have also realized that I just need time for posts to marinate. The pressure I was putting on myself to generate the post in a short amount of time – I didn’t get back from presenting at a conference in Montreal until August 21, and I planned to leave for Costa Rica on the 27th – contributed significantly to my anxiety and my strong desire to quit. I didn’t actually want to quit – I love writing these posts! – but I needed more time. That unmet need was felt as a desire to quit.
As a result of this learning, I’m going to change the wording of this reward tier on Patreon, and have these posts written within six weeks of receiving a patron’s birthday-month topic.
(Image description: ‘Quit’ in the centre of the page.
Text around reads:
Who: ‘quitters’, survivors, boundary-respecters (internal/external), people ready to move on, people forced to change paths, ‘weak’ people
When: ‘too soon’, ‘too late’, just right, when continuing hurts, when pressure builds, when resources are gone, when told
Why: burn out, self-care, lack of resources (internal/external/social), hopelessness, trauma, new opportunities, new knowledges (self/situation)
How: reluctantly, regretfully, joyfully, shamefully, spitefully, with relief, with anger, resignedly, respectfully, resentfully
Why not: shame, fear, resilience, hope, expectations, community, strength, resources, support, obligations)
I initially approached the topic by making a mind-map about quitting. I was interested in who quits, how they quit, what they quit, why they quit, and why they don’t quit. I’ve taken that original work and expanded on it in specific categories. Narratives of Quitting addresses Who and How, Factors Influencing Quitting addresses How and Why and Why Not, The Things We Quit addresses What, and Self-Care for Quitters addresses the self-care part of the post. A final section of Reflections caps it off. Since this post turned into a bit of a monster, I’m breaking it into multiple posts. (Part two, Factors Influencing Quitting, is up on the Patreon today.)
Who and how blended into a series of Narratives of Quitting. These are foundational stories that help organize our understanding of what it means to quit something, and to be someone who quits something. Which of these narratives fit us at any given time, and regarding any particular act of quitting, can shift and change according to the other narratives we’re working within. For example, it’s hard to maintain a Triumphant Quitter narrative when we’re dealing with depression or ongoing anxiety, even if that narrative would otherwise fit. And we reject some narratives out of fear of the consequences – for example, many of us would deny a Resentful Quitter narrative because of the shame attached to it, even if it more accurately reflects our experience.
Here is my incomplete list of Narratives of Quitting.
The Triumphant Quitter
This is the most acceptable narrative of quitting. In this story, the protagonist (the quitter) realizes that something is not working in their lives – particularly something big, like a relationship, or a career – and they quit. Quitting solves the problem, and after they quit, they are happier, more wholehearted, and more fulfilled.
This doesn’t mean it’s always easy for the Triumphant Quitter. Often the Triumphant Quitter is an Ambivalent Quitter who has made it through to some stability after the transition following whatever they quit. And it often takes time to get to the awareness and confidence to make the choice to quit.
The Repentant Quitter
This narrative is also fairly well-accepted. In this story, the protagonist realizes that something is not working in their lives, but misidentifies the cause. They thought it was the job, or the relationship, but really is was something else – usually themselves. The repentant quitter regrets their decision to quit, and goes through a process of reflection, growth, and learning, often having to make amends (internally or externally) for having quit.
The Repentant Quitter may be performing, rather than actually feeling, repentance – especially in instances where what they’ve quit doesn’t make sense to the people around them. Leaving the “perfect” job (because it was burning them out), leaving the “perfect” relationship (despite toxic dynamics not visible to people outside the relationship) or getting divorced as a religious person, abandoning a “beloved” hobby (that has ceased to be nourishing and has become anxiety-provoking) – all of these instances of quitting can be met with skepticism and criticism, and an “appropriate” amount of repentance and self-blame can mitigate some of that social pressure.
Other times, the Repentant Quitter really does go through a process of reflection, learning, and growth. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes – quitting too soon, quitting the wrong thing – and there is nothing shameful or bad about realizing it and owning that part of our story.
The Ambivalent Quitter
This narrative is much less accepted, even though I think it is the most common. We don’t know what to do with ambivalent quitters, and stories of ambivalent quitting are often silenced and pressured into more acceptable narratives of triumph or repentance. In this story, the protagonist either doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong but quits anyway, or they don’t end up feeling happier, more wholehearted, or fulfilled after they quit.
They quit the relationship, for example, and it was the right choice for them but now they are experiencing financial hardship. They may regret the fallout of their decision without regretting the decision. The ambivalent quitter highlights the ways in which individual choices exist within larger structural frameworks, and their ambivalence challenges the individualist ideals of contemporary neoliberal late capitalism.
They took control of their lives and made a choice to quit, but it didn’t fix everything. Their narrative introduces uncomfortable tension into our understandings of personal agency, self-awareness, even self-care.
The Reluctant Quitter
There are a few different versions of the Reluctant Quitter, and in each of them, the protagonist resists or hesitates before quitting.
In one story, the protagonist is afraid to quit despite their discomfort with the situation. The outcome is unknown, and the protagonist is worried about what will happen if they quit, or they are maintaining hope that the situation will improve and they won’t need to quit. A lot of us spend a lot of time in this story, weighing our options, feeling uncomfortable but not being able to take the step and actually quit.
In another story, the protagonist doesn’t want to quit but does not have the resources to keep going – internal, external, or social.
And in another story of the Reluctant Quitter, the protagonist is doing something that harms or makes someone else uncomfortable but they don’t want to stop it even after being told about the impacts of their actions. Many of us have been in this story, and the shame of it often causes us to reject this story and deny that it happened. We rewrite our stories to either erase our reluctance, or deny the discomfort of the other person.
The Resentful Quitter
In this story, the protagonist is forced to quit. This is often due to a lack of resources – quitting school because of lack of funding, quitting a beloved hobby because of lack of time or money, quitting a relationship because of lack of reciprocity, quitting a job or hobby because of a lack of energy after chronic illness or disability. There are so many different types of resources and any scarcity can force us to quit something we love or are committed to.
Like the Ambivalent Quitter, the Resentful Quitter is not a particularly welcome narrative. The Resentful Quitter challenges the idea that if we think positively, we can manifest the resources we need. The Resentful Quitter challenges the idea that “everything happens for a reason” and that our lives inevitably move in an upward spiral. Resentful Quitters also challenge the idea of the ever-effective bootstrapping out of hardship.
The Resentful Quitter makes people uncomfortable.
There is another Resentful Quitter story, where the protagonist is forced to quit because their actions are causing harm and they are stopped. When they have access to power, they can try (or succeed) in retaliating against the people who forced them to quit what they were doing before. This version of the Resentful Quitter also makes people uncomfortable.
The Preemptive Quitter
This is the story that we socially love to hate. In this story, the protagonist quits before it gets awful. They’re afraid – of failure, of mockery, of pain, of missed chances. They’re lonely, or isolated, or they see the potential for a negative outcome and they bail before it happens. There is a lot of shame attached to this story, and the Preemptive Quitter is rarely praised for having foresight and self-awareness, or comforted and met with empathy for dealing with fear and anxiety. Instead, the Preemptive Quitter is criticized for “giving up too easily.” Find yourself in the Preemptive Quitter story too often (and sometimes once is all it takes) and suddenly your story becomes that of…
The Weak-Willed Quitter
In this story, the protagonist is too “weak” or “lazy” to keep going. I don’t actually believe that this story is often true, because it doesn’t have nearly enough compassion or awareness. In this story, quitting is not a factor of circumstance, or access to resources, or self-awareness – no. In this story, quitting is a personal failing, a character flaw, a punishable offence.
The spectre of the Weak-Willed Quitter looms behind every other quitter narrative. Even the Triumphant Quitter can be tripped up by this narrative. When something goes wrong, even if it’s unrelated to what we quit, there is the temptation to look back at paths we’ve abandoned, imagine them going in more productive directions than where we find ourselves now, and retroactively label ourselves too weak or lazy or foolish for having quit.
Because late capitalism values labour and productivity over everything other than profit, quitting – ceasing our labour and changing our productive focus – is always fraught. Even when it’s the right choice, it’s a choice loaded with the potential to fall off into this hurtful, harmful Weak-Willed Quitter narrative.
Part Two will continue this exploration of quitting, examining the factors that influence when/how/why/whether we quit something.
This is a Patreon reward post, though it was a few weeks late. Every Patreon supporter at the $10+ level can have a self-care post written for them, on the topic of their choice, during their birthday month. Sound interesting? Head over to my Patreon! All patrons, regardless of support level, get access to posts early and are able to offer feedback and make suggestions.
Rachael’s requested topic was “mindfulness and self-care.”
I was inspired by Rachael’s ability to successfully inhabit multiple roles, which gave me the idea of integrating various selves through different mindfulness practices. I’m really drawn to narratives and frames that incorporate the elements as metaphors for and aspects of the self – I use elemental interpretations of my tarot spreads really frequently, and I find that it’s helpful for viewing myself and my situations as parts within a whole. By explicitly pulling the mental, physical, emotional, and creative/spiritual selves out, I’m better able to see how the different parts of me influence the whole.
I used this framing to build the structure for my online courses, and leaned on it again for this post. (And on the topic of the online courses, keep your eyes open for the fall course, on emotional self-care, launching soon!)
One reason I wanted to use the elements in this prompt is because mindfulness so often so often, the idea of “mindfulness” is connected exclusively to ideas of meditation or deep breathing. It doesn’t always show up in how we understand other aspects of ourselves, and it can seem out of place in our emotional or creative lives. Although meditation and deep breathing are valid (and important) mindfulness practices, they aren’t the only ways to bring mindfulness into your self-care routine. So, here is my woo-influenced four-part mindfulness and self-care post. You can ignore the woo and just go for the self-care strategies if that’s a better fit for you.
The air element (the sword suit in tarot) is all about the mental self.
We’re starting with the air element and the mental self because “mindfulness” is all about being present, but that’s tricky when we’re talking about our mental selves. For so many of us, being present in our minds looks more like over-thinking, over-analyzing, and over-intellectualizing than anything else. The mind overtakes, and mindfulness takes on a new meaning – full of mind, full of thoughts and thinking. The swords are sometimes called the “suit of sorrow” and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Swords are not just about the mind, they’re also about the truth. They’re about insight, knowledge, and awareness.
They’re double-edged. The truth hurts, indeed.
So how do we practice mindful self-care when it comes to our mental selves, especially when we often find so much pain in our minds?
My favourite tarot blogger, Beth Maiden at Little Red Tarot, says this about the swords – “Don’t let your mind be your own worst enemy. Laugh at it when you can – the swords and all the insecurity and strife they represent can be helpful, even when you think you don’t want to know… Seek the truth. Face the truth. Accept the truth…or change it.”
Based on that insight, here are a couple mindfulness exercises for mental self-care:
Laugh at it when you can.
“Comedy is defiance. It’s a snort of contempt in the face of fear and anxiety. And it’s the laughter that allows hope to creep back in on the inhale.” – Will Durst
Many of us (I would venture to say most of us, in this current political and social climate) are operating under persistent, pervasive, chronic stress, anxiety, and existential dread. We are definitely living in the swords – the painful edges of the truth are cutting so many of us as we realize (or re-realize) how hateful and cruel our fellow humans can be, and are.
Laughter feels challenging in this context.
It can feel disrespectful to laugh in the face of so much danger, violence, and hate. And it’s a fact that too much comedy has become disrespectful, leans too hard on punching down.
But laughter itself is powerful medicine. And, although mindfulness often brings connotations of Very Serious Business, mindful laughter is a real thing, and can be really helpful!
So, find a way to be present with your current experience, and, if you can, find some way to laugh – at it, about it, despite it.
If you need tarot inspiration, turn to the Nine and Ten of Swords. In these cards, everything is so awful that sometimes you just have to laugh. These are the nightmare cards, but together they become mockable. Is it really so bad, they ask? Yes! Yes. And still, it’s possible to laugh at them, at ourselves within them, at the situation that calls them out.
Make a list of all the things that are wrong and horrible in your life and in the world right now. How many of them are so wrong and horrible that even five years ago they would have seemed like a parody?
Find a way to frame them as being as ridiculous as they truly are.
Draw them as a cartoon.
Write a story that highlights the what-the-fuckery of the situation.
Or even just look at the situation all around us, see it, and laugh.
Find a way to laugh – for yourself, in a way that is healing and mindful for you. Use laughter as a tool to pull yourself out of the dread, and to allow yourself to be more fully present with your experience.
(Laughter can also be used as an avoidance tool, and that would be counter to this exercise. It can also be used as a weapon against people more vulnerable than we are, and that, too, would be counter to this exercise.)
Tell the Story
If you can’t stop yourself from overthinking – and seriously, welcome, join me, this is where I live – then stop trying to stop yourself and simply observe yourself. Rather than rejecting and shaming your overthinking mind, start watching and narrating what it’s doing. You might find that you’re overthinking a specific issue because your mind is (wisely) trying to get to the root of it, or find a new way out. You may discover that the overthinking is triggered because the current situation mirrors a situation from your past, and by making the links explicit, you can start to see the differences between the two situations.
So, when you start overthinking, just take a small step back, and start narrating the story of your brain in its activity.
Imagine yourself narrating what’s happening in your own mind (picture Morgan Freeman or Ron Howard’s voice, if it helps). Be gentle and honest.
Your initial narration might look like – “Right now, I am thinking about what happened three years ago. The story I am telling myself is that this situation is the same as that situation. I can’t stop thinking about how it felt. I am worried I’ll feel the same way again.”
Once you know what’s happening, you can make choices from a place of compassionate self-awareness.
The earth element (pentacles/coins in tarot) is all about the physical self.
Mindfulness and the physical self is the entire focus of my summer online course, so this has been my life for the last 6 weeks! (It’s also, by far, the most challenging element for me – dissociation has saved me so many times in so many trauma responses, and I spend time in this body only reluctantly and hesitantly. I’m working on it, but it’s still tough. For my other trauma bbs out there, who use dissociation as a valid and effective coping strategy, solidarity. It may not be where we want to stay, but it’s where we are sometimes.)
Despite all of the work I’ve done to bring mindfulness to my physical self-care, and even the many successes over the last year of focus on this, I still find that my favourite mindfulness exercise when it comes to my physical state is an old one. The new skills I’ve learned – breathing exercises, grounding exercises, body scan meditations – are useful and valuable, but this simple three-step process is still the one that is most accessible to me in difficult moments.
Breath, Posture, Grounding
A couple years ago, I went through an extended period of depression, anxiety, and general Life Suck. My friend, Jim Tait, would send me regular messages – “breath, posture, grounding” – whenever I seemed to be spiraling. It was a gentle, non-judgmental reminder to come back to my body, and I found it easier to engage with than more elaborate mindfulness exercises.
I would sit up a bit taller, let my shoulders drop down from my ears, and gently coax my spine back from its question-mark hunch.
I would take a breath and feel the air fill my lungs. Sitting up opens up so much space in my lungs, and I would feel the tightness across my clavicle as the air filled me up (or tried to, anyway).
I would feel myself on the earth – either my feet on the ground, or my hip bones on my seat. Grounding is always the hardest for me, especially when I’m spiraling in anxiety or lost in depression, but finding a way to connect back down to the physical world and to my physical body within that physical world is always so valuable.
So, that’s the exercise I leave you with as well.
Just a gentle nudge to be present with your physical self, even more a moment – breath, posture, grounding.
Touch the Earth
Emily Goss (from groweatgift) suggested this additional exercise, and I love it.
“Dig your hands into the soil in a forest. Trees are all connected through the wood wide web. Feel the connection with something larger than yourself by joining the conversation. When you return home, plant a seed (perhaps a tree seed you’ve collected) and nurture it into growth.”
The water element (cups in tarot) is all about the emotional self.
It is incredibly difficult to bring mindfulness to our emotional selves. When we’re angry or afraid, we lose connection to our mindful selves when the fight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system kicks in. When we’re embarrassed, ashamed, or humiliated, we disconnect not only from ourselves but also from anyone around us. When we’re having a trauma response, dissociation is an incredibly common reaction. And even when we’re joyful, we often get caught in what Brene Brown calls “fearful joy” and anticipate the loss of our joy.
So, how do we bring mindfulness to our emotional selves, and how do we do it in a way that is compassionate, intentional, and self-aware? How can we practice mindfulness in our emotional lives without completely letting go of the necessary coping strategies that get us through difficult emotions?
It takes practice. And it takes an awful lot of gentleness and patience, because it isn’t easy.
Emotional Mindfulness (in five not-always-easy steps)
1 – Pause. Notice that you are having an emotional reaction (good or bad or awful) and take a moment before proceeding. It can be helpful to practice this when you’re having positive emotional reactions at least as often as you practice it when you’re having negative emotional reactions. It’s often easier to bring mindfulness to our fear, anger, or sadness because we notice them more easily. But bringing mindfulness to joy, happiness, and calm can help us recognize those feelings in our body and practice accepting positive emotions when they come (which is surprisingly difficult for a lot of us!)
2 – Name the emotion. Give words to the experience. Not only does this help you understand the experience, it also acts as a reminder that you are the expert in your own experience, and you are at the centre of your own story. You are the narrator. You have the knowledge and insight to be able to name and know your emotional self.
3 – Accept the emotion. For me, this one is hard. It is helpful for me to remember that acceptance is in this moment. If I am afraid, I can name it (“I am afraid”) and accept it (“I am allowed to be afraid, my fear is acceptable”) without committing to it as a permanent state. Accepting that I am feeling what I’m feeling doesn’t mean I have failed or that I will be caught in this feeling forever. And, if the feeling is joyful, accepting it doesn’t “jinx” it. Acceptance just means intentionally and compassionately allowing the emotion to be what it is.
4 – Remember that the emotion is temporary. Whatever it is, it will pass. This is where all of the ubiquitous river imagery comes in – life flows along, and our emotions flow with it. Nothing is permanent. Nothing stays the same forever. This can be an impossible truth to hold when the emotions are overwhelming us, or when we are terrified to lose the feeling, but it is true, and once we accept it, we can allow the emotion to flow through us without getting stuck. Imagine yourself on the shore of the river, the emotion flowing past you. If it is a joyful emotion, let it continue to flow without trying to trap it, because the act of trying to hold it changes it and often stifles it. If it is a fearful, angry, or shameful emotion, also let it continue to flow. It will pass, and you will still be here.
5 – Once you have noticed, named, accepted, and allowed the emotion to flow, take a deep breath and consider your response. What, if anything, do you need to do with this true and temporary emotion? Allow yourself to act, with awareness, compassion, and intention. Trust yourself. You are the expert, and you know what you need.
Have a Bath
Another suggestion from Emily, that bridges the physical and emotional selves, and ties more directly to the element of water.
“Have a bath with oils that feel right to you. Slough or scrub your skin while imagining your frustrations being shed with your old skin. Make your own toiletries from sea salt and oats, or other natural products to reduce the strain on the planet. We are all part of the same world and respecting the planet shows self respect. After your bath, use the water to water plants – your dead skin sells can provide nutrients for the plants (and it avoids water waste).”
The fire element (wands in tarot) is all about the spiritual and creative self.
This element is all about passion – fiery energy that fuels creativity and connection. Not everyone has a spiritual self, and not everyone identifies as creative, but we each experience passion. This part of ourselves shows up in unique and beautiful ways.
Because creativity and spirituality are both so individual (and come weighted with so much narrative baggage – who is allowed to be creative, what spiritual experiences are valid), I found it difficult to choose a mindfulness exercise for this element. But because this element is so important to my own experience, and because I associate Rachael so much with this element, it felt important. So, you get two.
Pick a creative activity. Pick anything – drawing, writing, painting, dancing, singing, baking, origami, game design, coding, songwriting, guitar strummin’, flute whistlin’, knitting, crochet, etching, woodcutting, Lego, gardening, science experiments, beadwork, jewelry-making – any activity that feels creative for you. If you’re really stuck and this pokes you in some vulnerabilities, pick something ridiculous. Macaroni art, for example.
Clear some space.
Get your materials out.
Take a deep breath.
Set your timer for 15 minutes.
And then just keep breathing and doing your creative work. Stay focused on how it feels to be creating something, whatever that something is.
When your judging mind leans over your shoulder and says “Really? Rotini? I thought we were going for more of a impressionistic rigatoni look here,” just lean back in your chair, look that judgey self right in the metaphorical eye and say “Inner critic, it’s okay. I know that you are afraid someone’s going to laugh at this, but it’s okay. We’re creative and we’re doing this. I appreciate the penne for your thoughts, but I’m going to re-fusilli to respond with anger.” (And then laugh at those sharp swords of self-doubt dulled to dry spaghetti by your wit and self-awareness. Look, we’re back at Air!)
Keep doing your work. Feel the materials you’re working with, look at what you’re making, be present with your creative self. Keep coming back to that creative self. Whenever you get pulled away into judgement, or fear of the future, or remembering failures of the past, just come back to this moment of creativity.
When the timer goes off, take another deep breath. Assess. Are you done? If not, keep going. If you are, that’s awesome. You did it!
I struggle so much with this myself, as a former evangelical Christian, former capital-a Atheist, current pagan-of-some-flavour, tarot-reading, here-for-the-queer-witches something-or-other.
But after many weeks of thinking about it, I landed on this:
Pay attention to the moments when you feel connected to something bigger and deeper than your normal everyday self. You may perceive this as a spiritual experience, or not. What you’re listening for, watching for, feeling for is a sense of connectedness.
(This is not a “do it for five minutes” exercise – this is a “watch for it throughout the next week” exercise.)
When you feel it, note it.
Just give it a little nod of acknowledgment. Maybe even take a note of what was happening that helped you feel connected. Were you outdoors? Were you with people? Were you doing something ritualized (often ritual allows us to drop into that connected space more easily) or were you trying something new?
Note it, acknowledge it, and keep going.
The more we learn to see these moments of connection, the less alone we feel throughout the rest of our days.
And this is not necessarily a spiritual practice – secular ritual is something I’ve been researching for almost a year now. So, although I am calling it spiritual because I experience it as spiritual, you can dip your toe in this exercise even if you are a staunch atheist.
Build a Fire
Another suggestion from Emily.
“Make a fire by hand and use your breath to turn embers into flames (being careful not to burn yourself – sparks can fly!) There’s something magical about making a fire happen from scratch (but don’t feel ashamed if you need to use a lighter/matches instead of a flint).”
Integration: One Last Mindfulness Self-Care Exercise
Because our selves all co-exist and are each integrated (to various degrees) within a single bodymind, a final mindfulness self-care exercise focused on integration.
This exercise is one that I use when various selves are flipping out – when my inner trauma child is frightened or angry, or when my shame gremlins are on the prowl, or when my Gender Feels are making some noise.
Mindfulness is, after all, nothing more (or less) than being present in the moment. Bringing awareness and non-judgement to the present moment, and accepting that it is what it is. In my own practice, mindfulness extends into intentional compassion, to the acts that weave together into sustainable self-care.
So, in the moments of dis-integration, disassociation, dysfunction, distress – be present. As much as you can, take that steadying breath, take a look across your inner selfscape, recognize the fractures and bends and the negative spaces where parts of yourself have gone into hiding. Let yourself see the disintegrated self, and accept the disintegration, and extend compassion to it.
I don’t believe that mindful integration requires us to heal all the wounds, fill all the gaps, join all the points of disjuncture. I believe that all we have to do is be present with ourselves, accept ourselves in whatever state we are in, and in that process of gentle acceptance we will start to make space for those wounds to heal, for those selves to slowly slide back into the negative spaces they left when they bolted.
So many of us who have trauma in our past have so many of these gaps in our experience of self.
We can be present with ourselves as we are now, because we are still good, now. We have everything we need. The small childself hiding in the closet in the dark corner of our mind is still there – they just need some gentle safety to come back out. We are whole, even when we are broken. We are good enough.
We can breathe and be present with ourselves, however we are, whatever that looks like, and bring ourselves through the experience of distress.
A Tarot Bonus
This is the spread I use most often, and I find it helpful when I’m trying to decide what sort of self-care I need.
I shuffle my cards, cut the deck, lay the cards out (centre card first, then air, water, earth, fire) and then flip them over. Whatever card shows up in each position, I take as an indicator of what I might need in that area, or as an invitation to think about the narrative I’m investing in when it comes to those elements.
This is a Patreon reward post, and the first draft of this post was available to patrons last week. At the $10 support level, I’ll write a self-care post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month. And at any level of support, you’ll get access to these (and other) posts early.
This post is for Shannon, who is one of the strongest and most courageous people I know. She deals with chronic anxiety and other health issues, and yet is always doing as much as she can with the tools and resources she has available. She is an inspiration to me. Her requested topic was sensory overwhelm – what it is and how to handle it.
I decided to take this prompt in a different direction than my usual, and drew a comic for her rather than writing a post. There’s a longer post on the Patreon in the first draft, so if you want my long and slightly incoherent ramblings about what sensory overwhelm feels like for me, you can check that out as a patron.
After thinking about it, though, I think the comic is better without the explanations. I realized that one of the ways I try to process and mitigate sensory overwhelm is by over-thinking it, analyzing it into the ground, intellectualizing it, because being present with it is just so effing uncomfortable. But that over-analyzing, over-thinking, over-intellectualizing gets in the way of getting through the experience.
When I lose myself in sensory overwhelm, it’s often in those moments of trying to think myself out of my body. Sometimes it works better to just try to stay grounded while the overwhelm overwhelms, to let it happen and trust that there’s another side to come out on, to breathe even when the sound of the breathe is too much, to push my shoulders down from my ears even when the movement is too much, to close my eyes and know that I am alive, I am okay, I will be okay, even when everything is coming at me amplified and awful.
So, here’s my comic. This is how I experience sensory overwhelm.
Panel One: A disjointed stick figure, with none of the limbs connected. “I feel disconnected and out of sync.”
Panel Two: A stick figure stands and covers their ears. Yellow and red lines and wiggles surround their head. “Sound are overwhelming.”
Panel Three: A stick figure stands. The sun is in the top left corner of the panel. Red and yellow starbursts cover the stick figure’s head. “Light hurts my eyes.”
Panel Four: A stick figure stands. Green wiggly lines surround them. “Smells are so strong and bad.”
Panel Five: A stick figure stands, surrounded by a spiky red field. “I feel like one giant exposed nerve.”
Panel Six: No image. “Sometimes I lose myself for a while.”
Panel Seven: A stick figure sits cross-legged. Blue and green concentric circles radiate out from their torso. “Eventually I can breathe and centre.”
Panel Eight: A stick figure stands. “And then I am back in sync.”