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.”
This is a Patreon reward post, and the first draft of this post was available to patrons last week. At the $10 support level, I’ll write a self-care post on the topic of your choice during your birthday month. And at any level of support, you’ll get access to these (and other) posts early.
This one’s for Stasha, who has been one of my most active supporters and cheerleaders. I appreciate her comments and insight so much. She was also the inspiration for the #100loveletters challenge that I’m currently running, and her willingness to be visible in her experience of working towards self-love is empowering an ever-widening circle of participants in the challenge and beyond.
Her requested topic was visibility, and the complexities of doing self-care while invisible or hypervisible.
These are two sides of the same issue –
Being invisible – having parts of your identity illegible and unrecognizable and unacknowledged by the people around you – can make you feel crazy and alienated from your own experience. Invisibility can become a deeply damaging, traumatizing experience of being gaslighted by the entire society around you.
Invisibility takes many forms. Often, invisibility brings the double-edged sword of ‘passing’ – we are invisible (in whichever of our identities is unwelcome in the context) and that invisibility causes incredible internal harm and pain while also granting us conditional privilege as we appear to belong to another, more welcome, more acceptable, more safe, group. Passing as straight. As cisgender. As white. As neurotypical.
There are so many identities that become rendered invisible in most contexts. Where the assumption of normativity – the assumption that we fit society’s definitions of “normal” – is stifling. Crushing.
Queer invisibility – the harm felt by queer folks in heteronormative spaces, where we are automatically assumed to be heterosexual. Our queer identities are erased by the assumptions of the people around us. It hurts. We have to choose, each day, in each interaction, which hurt we want to experience – the pain of erasure, or the battle of fighting to be seen. Do we come out? Is it safe to come out? What are the consequences of coming out?
Trans invisibility. The experience of trans men and women who ‘pass’ – who are perceived as their gender and assumed to be cisgender – often have their transness rendered invisible unless they come out, and this can be both painful and comforting. Sometimes at the same time. Is it safe to come out? Is it safe to get close to someone without coming out? (Passing is a hugely contentious and fraught issue.)
Non-binary trans invisibility is a whole other issue, and one that I can speak to more personally. I am ‘read’ as a woman in every context except those ones where I have explicitly and decisively come out as genderqueer, and even in those situations, the illegibility of my identity is often clear. I’ve said the words “I am genderqueer – I do not identify as either a man or a woman” and have still found myself lumped in with “us girls” or “the ladies” or whatever other assumptions of womanhood people have, even by people who have heard me come out and have acknowledged the validity of my identity. They are trying to see me, but they just… can’t. Don’t. Won’t?
Femme invisibility within the queer community – the assumption that women with femme gender presentations are automatically straight. Also within the queer community, bisexual invisibility – a huge issue that remains pervasive.
Invisible disabilities, both physical and mental. Invisible neurodivergences, and the incredible pressure on neurodivergent communities to ‘pass’ as neurotypical. (The fact that we consider it a marker of success if an autistic kid is able to get through a class and “you’d barely even know they’re autistic!” is such a problem.)
And other invisibilities, invisibilities of experience – the invisibility of addiction and the experience of being sober within intoxication culture (many thanks to Clementine Morrigan for that phrase), the invisibility of childhood poverty in academic and professional contexts, the invisibility of trauma.
One of my heroes is Amanda Palmer. In her book, The Art of Asking, she said that so much of her artistic life has been spent saying, over and over, in song after song, performance art piece after performance art piece, in every way, again and again – “see me, believe me, I’m real, it happened, it hurts.”
I saw her live at one of her kickstarter house parties, and she was talking about the experience of being a woman and being tied to reproductivity – that question of children being a defining question. Another person in the audience, a genderqueer person like me, but more brave than I was, pointed out that not everyone with a uterus is a woman, and not every woman has a uterus – that this experience is not tied so tightly to gender. Amanda Palmer blew past the question, erased it, made a comment about how if you have a uterus then you are a woman and you will have to deal with these questions.
It wasn’t malicious, but it was violent – invisibility is not neutral, it is not passive. Rejecting someone’s effort to be seen is never a neutral act. Being made invisible in that way, particularly after making the effort to be seen, hurts. It hurts a lot. It took me a few years after that to be able to listen to her music again, and I just started reading her book this week.
(It’s a separate issue – the necessity of making space for imperfection. The story is relevant, but the healing process is a post for another time. Amanda Palmer is not perfect but I still find so much value and even validation in her work. This is one of the most exhausting challenges of having invisible identities – we still need community among the people who can’t, or who won’t, see us.)
So, how do you do self-care while invisible?
And what about self-care while hypervisible?
Hypervisibility is a separate but related issue.
Hypervisibility is when, rather than being assumed to be part of the normative group, you are visibly Other and that otherness becomes your defining characteristic. It is as much an erasure as invisibility – you lose the nuance of your whole and complex self. When people see you, they don’t see you – they see your visible characteristics and don’t move past that.
Most often, hypervisibilities are written on the body. The colour of your skin. The sex you were assigned at birth. The size of your waist. The movement (or not) of your limbs.
I don’t experience hypervisibility very often – I’m white and thin, with class, language and educational privilege that helps me blend into most environments, and my disabilities are all invisible (unless I’m trying to be physically active). When I do experience hypervisibility, it is in contexts where my assigned sex or my gender presentation are conspicuous – primarily cis-hetero men’s spaces.
Hypervisibility brings the threat of violence. Racist, transphobic, homophobic, and sexist violence can all be sparked by the wrong person seeing you and seeing you. Violence against fat and disabled people is similarly tied to hypervisibility. Violence against homeless or visibly addicted people is similar.
Hypervisibility doesn’t offer the option of passing, and the fight is often chosen for you – rather than choosing between the harm of erasure and the harm of exposure, hypervisibility means constant, constant exposure. They don’t make an SPF high enough to protect from that.
It is possible to experience hypervisibility and invisibility at the same time – to be a Black queer femme. To be bisexual in a wheelchair. To be non-binary and homeless. In those moments of compounding erasure – one identity hypervisible, every other identity erased – self-care becomes even more challenging.
Self-Care and Visibility
It is an incredibly difficult thing to be a loving mirror for yourself when all around you are mirrors that either don’t see you, can’t see you, or only see some parts of you. But that is the core of self-care and visibility – the ability and the necessity of finding a loving mirror within yourself and within your communities.
Find that one friend who sees every part of you.
Be that one friend who sees every part of you.
Get to know yourself.
Get to know every part of yourself – the invisible bits and the hypervisible bits. Write it down. Make a list of all the things you are, and solidify yourself for yourself.
It can help to take a page from narrative therapy and write yourself a small Document of Authority that states who you are, and to keep it with you as a talisman in situations when you know you either will be invisible or hypervisible.
Another self-care strategy is to practice recognizing, naming, and countering the gaslighting that comes with both invisibility and hypervisibility. Start to notice when people make statements that assume you are something other than what you are, or that flatten you down to a single identity. Note them, name them (out loud or just to yourself) and counter them with the truth.
Speak yourself into being, and into complexity.
It is the hardest thing in the world.
It’s why representation matters so much.
But I believe in you.
I know that you are real, and that what you have experienced is real, and that what you are is real and valid.
You are the expert in your own experience.
You know who you are, even if you can’t access that knowledge consciously yet.
Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Makes You Watched, but Not Seen, by Megan Ryland at The Body is Not an Apology. This post is brilliant, and is part of a two-week series that ran on the blog in 2013.
The 5 biggest drawbacks of hypervisibility (and what separates it from the constructive visibility we need), by Jarune Uwujaren at Resist. Another great post that clearly outlines the harms of hypervisibility and the double-bind of being expected to be grateful for being seen.
Hypervisibility and Marginalization: Existing Online As A Black Woman and Writer, by Trudy at Gradient Lair. Trudy’s work revolutionized my understanding of misogynoir and the specific issues facing Black women. Her writing is excellent, and this post is no exception. (She no longer blogs at Gradient Lair but has generously kept the content available there.)
Queer Like Me: Breaking the Chains of Femme Invisibility, by Ashleigh Shackleford at Wear Your Voice. There is so much to love in this post (and many of the posts on this site).
10 Ways to Help Your Bisexual Friends Fight Invisibility and Erasure, by Maisha Z. Johnson at Everyday Feminism.
The Importance for Visibility for Invisible Disabilities, by Annie Elainey. I rarely link to videos (because I dislike watching videos most of the time), but Annie’s are absolutely worth watching. Her engagement with disability, and so many other issues, is fantastic.
(I am so thankful for the work of women and femmes of colour who have generously offered their insight and wisdom and emotional and educational labour to create these resources. Many of these content creators and sites are reader-funded, and if you’re in a position to support them, that’s rad!)
(Image is from gratisography.)
This is (sort of) 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! Because this topic ended up generating so much meaningful discussion about ageing, rather than trying to cram everything into a single post I have expanded it into a three-part series. All substantial blog posts are released to Patreon patrons one week early.
This is Part Two of the three part series. In Part One, we talked about the fear of ageing, and how to care for ourselves through those fears. Part Two is about the joys of ageing. Part Three, on the topic of fear of death and end-of-life preparation, will be next.
I struggled with writing this second post in the series. So often, an acknowledgement that joy is possible becomes weaponized – rather than gesturing towards a possibility, joy becomes an obligation.
Because so much of our culture, particularly in the self-help and self-care communities, focuses so hard on “manifesting” positive outcomes through positive attitudes, with the corollary victim-blaming coming along for the ride, I find myself hesitating even to talk about joy for fear of how it will be interpreted and how it could be turned as a weapon against the vulnerable, the hurting, the fearful among us.
The vulnerable, the hurting, the fearful – these are my people. Although I am a playful, sparkly, joyful person, I identify strongly with the parts of me that are almost always fearful, almost always hurting. My joy is a sparkle in the dark, rather than the other way around.
And so, part of my resistance to this second post was also my own cognitive distortions – my tendency towards all-or-nothing thinking (if joy is possible, then joy is always right and fear is always wrong!); my internalized victim-blaming (if I could just be happy, then I would be happy!); my fear of joy. Brené Brown writes, “I think the most terrifying human experience is joy. It’s as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we’re setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect us from pain.”
Although Brené Brown’s description of fearful joy is not universal, it certainly does ring true for me, and is part of why I often hesitate to embrace joy in my own life. Letting go of the fear feels as if it will open me up to tragedy. If I am constantly afraid, maybe I won’t end up hurt?
But is it not possible to fully engage with the range of responses I got from people without engaging with the joy that some of them expressed. The anticipation. The freedom that they saw in ageing, and the carefree delight of it. An honest engagement with my research means pushing through my anxiety and digging into this rich and uncomfortable soil – the terrifying possibility that joy is lurking.
What I learned from the generous responses of the people I spoke with is that ageing isn’t all bad, and our relationship with ageing doesn’t have to be one of fear and dread. This is true despite the fact that many fears that people expressed are completely valid and grounded in the reality of ageism (and the many other intersections of marginalization that exacerbate the impact of ageism), as well as real economic and social threats. Some people are able to see the positive sides of ageing, regardless of the scary things.
This joyfulness is not solely the realm of the privileged. There are people facing sexism, racism, cissexism, binarism, ableism, sizeism, and many other marginalizations who still find joy in the idea of ageing, and there are many people with various privileges who view ageing with significant fear. It’s important to acknowledge that each person responds to situations in their own individual ways, informed by their culture and family of origin, their available resources (including social, emotional, mental, and material resources), and with their own unique outlook. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach ageing – the fear is valid, and so is the joy.
And, importantly, the fear and joy often coexist.
Emily, who also talked about fearing increased pain and loss of mobility, says, “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.”
Although Tammy expressed anxiety about losing physical and mental abilities and being on the receiving end of our culture’s abysmal elder care (such a common, and reasonable, fear), she also said, “On the positive side, I menopaused at 47 and am quite happy with it. I also love being able to do whatever I want as my kid is now an adult, I have no partner, and I don’t give a flying f*** what anyone thinks.”
Similarly, Nicole talked about fearing loss of mobility, but started by saying, “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.”
That sense of confidence and self-assurance was a theme in a lot of the joyful responses, and it makes sense. One of the benefits of ageing can be a more solid sense of self, and less concern with what other people think about you.
Nadine’s comment exemplifies this. She says, “I enjoy getting older a lot. Possibly because I don’t associate my childhood and teen years with the kind of vitality most people ascribe to “youth”. I wasn’t a particularly strong, healthy, nimble or attractive to my peers as a child or during my teens. I didn’t have much control over my circumstances. I had strong instincts but lacked the maturity, intellectual skills and verbal ability to articulate or even fully understand what those feelings were about.
The more time passes, the more I understand my mind and my body. I know a lot more about how to take care of myself and my health. I’ve accepted what I look like. I can express my inner thoughts and emotions. I have some agency in my life. I don’t love how crunchy my knees are, but apart from that, getting older is my jam!” (Nadine is a fantastic sex educator, and specializes in supporting sex positive families – coaching parents and providing resources for kids.)
Margaret also expressed joy at feeling more confident. She says, “I’m turning 44 this year. Not afraid of aging. Kind of enjoying being treated less like a sexual object and more like a social subject. Increasingly feeling competent and confident. Slightly afraid symptoms associated with aging (physical problems, etc.). A little vain about how I look as I age, but finding a style that works for me.” (Margaret is an academic activist, and when I was but a wee little researcher and had recently come out, finding her Introduction to Bisexual Theory syllabus online changed the trajectory of my academic career, and started the journey that led to my community activism.)
Andrea says, “I know I’m still quite young, but aging is something that I’ve really enjoyed. Physically and mentally, I’ve never felt a desire to go back and even tho the future is daunting sometimes it’s something I constantly crave. Physically (this is what I hear emphasized a lot from people in my life) I’m not in a hurry for things like grey hair and wrinkles but my impression of them is that when they do come I will have earned them. I think they’re cute and, like, stretch marks or scars, they’re a sign that your body has existed in time and space, and has been literally shaped by experiences.”
I really love the idea that the inevitable signs of ageing can be “sign[s] that your body has existed in time and space, and has been literally shaped by experiences” fits to beautifully with my own narrative approach to self-understanding. Grey hair (which I’ve had since my teens) and wrinkles don’t bother me, but other changes in my body, particularly related to the fibromyalgia, have really bothered me. I sat with the idea of these changes being signs of my body being marked by my time here, and although I’m still pondering it, I do think there’s something valuable in the idea.
I’m conscious of the impact of trauma on the body, and how adverse childhood experiences and histories of abuse can impact our bodies. It’s one of the things I work on in my writing workshops and coaching sessions, and it’s something I’m very interested in in my own life. Although I’m not sure where this little thread of thought will end up, I wonder if there some valuable restorying that can happen if we take our bodies’ responses to trauma and see them as signs of existence and experience.
Another factor in finding joyfulness in ageing has to do with our exposure to old people and to the process of ageing. Being around old people is one way to reduce our fears of ageing, and to recognize that life does continue past the wrinkles and walkers. (Again, this is not always true. A traumatic experience with witnessing ageing might have the opposite effect.)
Another Margaret says, “Growing up I was very close to my grandfather who is vibrant and alert and still working up until very sudden death the age of 86. My grandmother died she was 92. Ageing never seemed scary to me as they set an example of independence, connections with family friends and community, constant learning and enjoyment of life.”
A 2013 study into the perceptions of successful ageing among immigrant women from Black Africa in Montreal found that the old women identified four elements that they considered essential for successful ageing. These were social engagement, intergenerational relationships, financial autonomy, and faith.
Social engagement, intergenerational relationships, and financial autonomy are all linked to both the fears identified in Part One, and the joys identified here.
The 2014 paper, “Strategies for Successful Aging: A Research Update,” found that physical activity, cognitive stimulation, diet/nutrition, complementary and alternative medicine, social engagement, and ‘positive psychological traits’ were all correlated with a higher likelihood of ‘successful ageing’ (though this term itself is contested and complicated).
These ‘positive psychological traits’ include a wide range of qualities such as resilience, adaptability, and optimism, and the reason the range is so wide is because they are most often self-identified among people who consider themselves to be ‘successfully ageing.’
(Again, that flutter of anxiety that identifying these potential helpful traits will be turned into obligations and used to blame people for their own struggles. I think this fear is a side effect of doing so much reading in the self-help section as research for my work as a coach, and being bombarded so often with weaponized positivity!)
But rather than taking a prescriptive view of these helpful traits, I think that we can take a narrative approach and part of our self-care around ageing can include looking for the stories in our own histories that demonstrate resilience, adaptability, and optimism – the times when we bounced back, when we adapted to a new situation, when we kept our heads up despite the weight of discouragement and the times when we didn’t but we also didn’t stay down.
This feels important, because it gives the stories we tell about ourselves and about our psychological traits power and meaning, and we can change the stories that we tell even when we can’t change the situations around us. This does not mean that we can remove ourselves from the toxic soup of racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, cissexism, etc. with the power of our minds. But it may mean that we can mitigate some of the damage, and give the systems that want to destroy us a gleeful middle finger. (While also recognizing that financial security as a determinant of successful ageing is one of the cruelest things imaginable in our current context of late capitalism.)
So, what does that mean for our self-care practices?
I think that these stories of joy and anticipation can be an invitation to look for opportunities to view ageing differently. Our self-care can include intentionally looking for ways to engage with joyful approaches to ageing.
We can also start to examine our views of ageing, and look for the stories that we’ve internalized about the ageing process and about what it means to be older. Our fears are valid, but there is also joy possible.
We can try to incorporate more intentional social engagement, particularly across generational gaps, into our lives.
We can keep our brains active by allowing ourselves to be curious and enthusiastic about our interests.
And, I think, we can work at accepting our ageing bodies – seeing the beauty in these signs that our bodies have existed in time and space, and been shaped by our experiences.
Alyson Cole’s article, “All of Us Are Vulnerable, But Some Are More Vulnerable than Others: The Political Ambiguity of Vulnerability Studies, an Ambivalent Critique.” This paper is behind a (significant) paywall. If you have access to it through a library, it’s a worthwhile critique of vulnerability studies, and since I cite Brown in this post, it’s important to acknowledge and examine the ways in which her framework fails to do justice to complex issues.
On a similar theme, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s essay, “Shame and Disconnection: The Missing Voices of Oppression in Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’,” which is available freely on The Body is Not An Apology.
Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson’s article, “Walk A Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments.” This is such an interesting study, with very cool implications for challenging our own negative stereotypes about a range of people, including elderly people. I would highly recommend reading this one.
Jeanne Holmes’ 2006 dissertation, “Successful Ageing: A Critical Analysis.” I haven’t read this whole dissertation, but I found parts of it very helpful in understanding the differences between how we conceive of successful ageing and how older people themselves experience it.
(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