‘How we are avoiding misgendering’ follow-up

The conversation on December 11 was so lovely. It felt good to be in community, speaking about how we try to take care of trans and non-binary people in our lives (for many of us, that includes our own selves). 

One participant wrote afterward and said, “it was the most generative convo I have had in such a while and felt so good to be apart of <3!!” 

I received the transcript back from Shara (they are always such an important part of this work!) and have started pulling out themes and quotes to get started on the collective document. 

The thing I’ve been thinking about most often since is how important relationships are in this work:

  • Our relationships with ourselves (our own experience of gender, our own learning and unlearning of gender expectations and the gender binary, our own safety as we decide whether to speak up or not in various contexts)
  • Our relationships with trans and non-binary community (our families, our partners, our friends, our communities, the people we don’t know but with whom we still want to be in solidarity, the safety of those people as we decide whether to speak up or not in various contexts and how we choose to speak when we do, the legacy of trans and non-binary advocacy we join when we act in solidarity)
  • Our relationships with people who may be acting in alignment with gender essentialism, cisnormativity, or even transphobia (these may also be our families, our partners, our friends and communities!)
  • And even our relationships with ideas and ideals, values and hopes, curiosities and possibilities.

The original topic was “how we avoid misgendering others”, and I had imagined a conversation about how we’ve unlearned our own cisnormative habits and the skills and strategies we’ve developed for our own internal relationship with gender and gendering. I’d like to talk more about that, still, but in the conversation on the 11th we ended up speaking more about how we respond when we witness misgendering, which is a related (but also very different) thing.

We talked quite a bit about the barriers that get in the way of acting in solidarity, and part of this conversation was bringing some nuance to the idea of what ‘acting in solidarity’ can mean. It is not a binary or a single correct answer – there are always a variety of actions available, and when we determine which action we take, there are many relevant factors. We are always responding based on our position in the specific context, which means thinking about things like – are we the person being misgendered, or are we witnessing someone else being misgendered? what is our relationship with the person engaged in misgendering? what do we know of their values and hopes – if they are someone who cares about not misgendering, then correcting them is almost always the right call, but if they are someone who will become angry, we have to consider what the fall-out or backlash will be, and whether that will compromise our or someone else’s safety. In those instances, other actions, like texting to check in with someone, or finding something affirming to do later, might be the better option. These can be uncomfortable calculations, because it can feel like failure, and I hope that one generative outcome of this work is that we find ways to speak about our desires to be in solidarity and to avoid misgendering and to respond to misgendering with compassion and rigor. 

I’m going to get started on the collective document soon, and will be sharing the draft here.

If you would like to contribute, there are many ways you can do this!

I’ve created a little google form for people to contribute asynchronously. You can find that here

We’re also going to have a follow-up conversation in January, and I’ll share that date once it’s set.

You can also email your thoughts to me, or comment here.

The questions in the form are:

  • Is there a particular person you are making this effort on behalf of?
  • What’s important about getting people’s pronouns, names, and gender right?
  • How did you learn to care about avoiding misgendering?
  • Who knows that you care about this? (Sometimes we can feel isolated in our efforts, and one goal of this project is to make visible the community around us and the legacy of solidarity that we are part of when we take care in this way.)
  • How do you practice getting people’s pronouns, names, and gender right? (This can include practices you use for yourself, too! When we avoid misgendering, that includes our own precious trans and non-binary selves.)
  • What practices do you have for when you get it wrong?
  • What difference have these acts of care (both for getting it right and responding when you get it wrong) made in your life or the lives of others?
  • What would you want others to know about avoiding misgendering?

You can respond by email or in the form. 

Narrative therapy and polyamory: Horizons Conference presentation

Back in 2018 I presented at a conference that was also organized by my delightful and brilliant metamour, Pedrom Nasiri.

This presentation, on the topic of narrative therapy and polyamory, is going to be featured in an upcoming free online course that the Dulwich Centre will be offering! That’s pretty cool! I am sharing it here, as well.

If this is a topic that interests you, you may want to participate in tonight’s (March 18, 2021, from 6:30-8 mountain time) Possibilities Bi+ Community conversation on polyamory. You can register for the zoom link here. If you’d like to be involved in the project mentioned in this presentation, which is still in process, please get in touch with me!

(And I’m also going to come back to the project I talk about here, which got backburnered for a few years. The first nudge back in this direction will be in the Possibilities event this month, on the topic of polyamory. Mark March 18 in your calendar if you’re into that! And I’ll have a post up soon with all the March events.)

Here’s the video!

Here’s the transcript, if you’re more of a reader than a video watcher. (Plus the audio is not great – sorry!)

[First slide]

This conference is taking place on the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi, the Blackfoot, and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearpaw, and Wesley First Nations. This land, traditionally called Mohkinstsis by the Blackfoot people, is now called The City of Calgary, and is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.

Hi. I’m Tiffany.

And first I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this Treaty 7 land and the Indigenous Elders of the past, present, and those that are emerging.

This presentation is about narrative therapy, and it’s also about polyamory. We cannot talk about monogamy, polyamory, or ideas of kinship without acknowledging how ongoing colonialism shows up in these relational norms, as Pedrom talked about at the beginning. The nuclear family, with its focus on monogamous and couple-centric families, is a sharp contrast to the extended kin groups that many societies cherished prior to colonization and that they have maintained after colonization. The colonial project has never been successful – there has always been resistance. An awareness of colonialism, and the cohort of harmful ideologies that often accompany it, which is sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, transantagonism, racism, and others – is critical for talking about how to do therapy that is justice-oriented.

I also want to specifically acknowledge the Indigenous and Australian Aboriginal narrative therapists – the influence that they’ve had on the field and on my practice particularly. I am particularly indebted to Barbara Wingard whose writings have helped my work with community members invite “telling our stories in ways that make us stronger,” and to Tileah Drahm-Butler, whose work on identity migration and ethics of welcome have allowed me to understand and co-research the shifting landscape of relationship orientations that many of my community members go through, and also to Kylie Dowse whose work on “thwarting shame” in responding to men who have used violence in their relationships has been formative for me in responding to abuse within polycules, regardless of the gender of the people involved.

This presentation is about how to support polyamorous community members using narrative therapy, and it’s also about what narrative therapy can learn from the polyamorous community. I think that there is the potential to co-create resources and practice innovations that can benefit both therapists and also the community members who consult us, and my goal is to invite the community into an ongoing co-research project with me.

This presentation is, at its core, an invitation for you to join me in this project, with the goal of creating resources and conversations that can push the field of narrative therapy forward, and that can help develop more supports for polyamorous community members, whether they’re practicing solo poly, relationship anarchy, whether they’re in quads or Vs or the triads that Lindsay will be speaking about later, whether they’re parenting, and supports that recognize that many intersections of identity that exist within polyamory are also influenced by what happens by what happens outside of polyamory. Because these intersections do show up in polyamorous relationships, as we’ve heard earlier today; that neurodivergence panel was fantastic, a lack of responsiveness and awareness on the part of professionals can contribute to injustice, isolation, and struggle for people who are dealing with polyamory and with other intersections that can be amplified within their polyamory.

[Second slide]

Okay, so, what is narrative therapy?

According to Shona Russell and Maggie Carey, they define narrative therapy as:

Narrative therapy seeks to be a respectful, non-blaming approach to counselling and community work, which centres people as the experts in their own lives. It views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.

I don’t know why I’m so nervous, but I super am.

[Audience support follows]

Okay, so this is an important therapeutic orientation when working with the polyamorous community, because so often, folks can feel destabilized, disoriented, and uncertain about how to navigate their polyamorous relationships. There are fewer maps available. We don’t see ourselves very often in books, in movies, TV shows, or in the media, and when we do, the representation available is pretty narrow.

But narrative therapy assumes that people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, and values – many insider knowledges – that they are already using in responding to the problems in their lives. In my work with polyamorous community members, I have seen this over and over. Even when people don’t have the language immediately available to them, they have the insider knowledges into what works and what doesn’t, what they cherish and what they stand against. People are already the experts in their own experiences.

This presentation is based on work that I’ve been doing over the last year, as part of a Masters of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program at the University of Melbourne and the Dulwich Centre. My work has centered around a few key questions:

[Third slide]

● What do narrative therapists need to know about polyamory?

● How can these knowledges inform narrative practice?

● Which polyamory-informed narrative practices will be most influential in therapeutic relationships?

● How can these polyamorous-informed narrative practices be shared with other narrative therapists?

This last point is really important to me because I believe that polyamorous communities and individuals have valuable insider knowledges that could benefit the field of narrative therapy even beyond work specifically with polyamorous community members. This belief is supported by existing work on the topic of monogamies and non-monogamies, and the fluid and malleable boundaries between these two relationship states (Barker, 2011).

So, polyamory and monogamy are not a binary, after all. And many of the insider knowledges that have been developed within polyamorous communities, especially around consent, communication, valuing autonomy, community care, and collaborative approaches to responding to the needs of individuals, children, and extended families could benefit monogamous individuals as well.

Within polyamory specifically, I think that narrative therapy has the potential to significantly shift some of the norms within polyamorous discourse. I am particularly interested in exploring, deconstructing, and re authoring the norms that end up internalising problems; locating the problem within people by framing things like jealousy, insecurity, and anxiety as individual problems that can, and should, be solved by people on their own rather than problems that are external to people, with solutions that are contextual and collaborative.

By shifting our orientation towards problems, we can talk about jealousy as something that shows up in someone’s life, rather than something that is inherent to that person. I have never spoken with a person who is “a jealous person” and has never had exceptions to that problem story in their lives. These totalising narratives always have gaps, exceptions, and we start talking about what people cherish and value for themselves that the jealousy might be getting in the way of, and how they’ve been responding to this jealousy so far. And we can really start to loosen the hold that these problems have on people’s lives. And we can also invite other community members in, to present a united front that stands against the problem. This is a very different scenario than what can happen when we internalise problems, and when standing against the problem means standing against the person who is most being pushed around by it.

Externalising problems that are strengthened by mono-normative discourses, especially when we’re talking about jealousy, can be really powerful for polyamorous folks. We’ve already taken a strong stand against monogamous discourses that don’t align with our values. We already have experience, and valuable histories of action, that can help us in responding to problems when they show up.

By this, I mean that we’ve chosen not to cooperate with certain cultural ideals that dictate that we should find a single partner, that we should have a sexual and romantic relationship with this partner, that we should devote our entire lives to this partner, have all of our needs met by and meet all of the needs of this partner, and that if we love anyone else, we are cheating or have betrayed this partner. This does not mean that we have taken a stand against monogamy, because none of these norms are inherent to monogamy except the single partner bit, arguably, depending on how you define ‘partner’.

So what I mean is that we have taken a stand against certain monogamous norms. Sometimes these norms are referred to as “toxic monogamy”. And it’s important to be clear about that, because just as I wouldn’t want to locate a problem within a person, I also want to take a note from Sekneh Hammoud-Beckett, a Muslim-Australian narrative therapist, and be clear that the problem is not internal to the person, it is also not internal to the relationship, to the culture, or to the community. We can resist or challenge elements of monogamy without assuming that monogamy is itself a problem.

So when we can tap into the existing skills and values that have allowed us to stand against monogamous norms that we don’t agree with, we can approach problems like jealousy or insecurity from a position of stability. In narrative therapy, this is called “finding the riverbank” – if you’re in the river and there are snakes and crocodiles all around you, it’s very hard to figure out what you’re going to do about this. You’re just trying to keep your head above water. And this is often what it feels like when jealousy shows up and dunks us. By finding some solid ground to stand on, we can see the river from a bit of distance. We might be able to see a way through that wasn’t apparent before. And we might find that some of the crocodiles are actually logs.

[Fourth slide] Narrative Relationship Therapy

So Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, writing specifically about narrative relationship therapy, say:

We are all born into cultural stories, and they shape our perceptions of what is possible. For [relationships], stories about gender roles and heterosexual dominance, for example, may shape perceptions of what is possible. However, people do not usually think of the stories they are born into as stories. They think of them as ‘reality’. Cultural stories have the power to shape our experience of reality.

We think of relationships as being multi-storied. That is, every relationship can be expressed and experienced through a great variety of narratives; many ‘true’ stories can be told about any experience. Therefore, we do not look for health or pathology or quality of functioning in [relationships]. Instead, we look at the stories that are currently shaping a relationship, and seek to facilitate a collaborative re authoring process in which more suitable stories can be expressed and experienced.

So when we’re talking about the problems that show up in the lives and relationships of many polyamorous folks, many of these problems are strengthened by stories – which end up seeming to be reality; about what love looks like, and what’s possible within relationships. Culturally, we have ideas about what it means to parent, and it doesn’t usually include metamours. We have these ideas about what’s “developmentally appropriate” for children, and because of discourses that hypersexualise queer, trans, and polyamorous folks, polyamorous is framed as being “bad for the kids”. We have ideas about what it means to be in love, and even if we have taken a stand against some monogamous norms, we may find ourselves on the relationship escalator, waiting for that next logical step.

And maybe that works for us, but maybe we’ve already ridden that escalator with one partner, and we’re living together and we’ve got kids together, and then suddenly there’s a new person in our lives and we need to figure out if the escalator is still something we’re going to choose. If not, what are our options? What do we want?

Narrative therapy offers suggestions for how to approach this. We can explore the stories that are currently shaping the relationships, and start co-researching together.

● What matters to you in this relationship?

● What do you cherish or value about this relationship?

● Who taught you to cherish these things?

● Who supports you in these values?

● Do your partners share these values, a lot, a little bit, or not at all?

● How are you navigating that?

● What does it say about who you are, that you hold these values?

And even beyond exploring the ways in which dominant monogamous discourses influence the lives of polyamorous community members, I wonder what would become possible if we examined some of the stories that are frequently told within polyamorous culture.

As much as polyamorous community members have often written new rules for ourselves when it comes to relationships, we are still influenced by dominant culture.

[Fifth slide] Cultures of Therapy and of Polyamory

This list of principles is adapted from Michael White’s writing in “Notes on power and the culture of therapy”, and I try to be guided in my work by these principles. They are that:

● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory do not have a privileged location outside of culture at large.

● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the structures and ideologies of dominant culture.

● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the politics of gender, race, class, age, ethnicity, heterosexism, transantagonism, ableism, ongoing colonialism, etcetera.

● The cultures of therapy and of polyamory are not exempt from the politics associated with hierarchies of knowledge and the politics of marginalisation*

*And that’s particularly important because even though narrative therapy explicitly and intentionally takes a position that people are the experts in their own lives, as a narrative therapist, I am still influenced by the dominant discourse of therapy as something that includes an expert therapist and a client. I internationally never use the word ‘client’ when I’m talking about the people that I work with, because I wanna destabilise that, but it still shows up in the therapy room; it still has to be challenged intentionally every time it shows up.

So this – all of this [gestures at the slide on display] – became very apparent to me when I began this project, because it was the first thing that came up when I began my community consultations.

[Sixth slide] Consulting Community Members

And what I did was I asked members of the community to tell me what I needed to know, basically.

[Seventh slide] Community-assigned Areas of Focus

So, in these consultations, which are ongoing, I met with community members who were not looking for therapeutic help but did have ideas about what narrative therapists (and other therapists) should know about polyamory. I wanted to hear from people who had experience with seeking out therapy or counselling, and who had insider knowledge about what was, and wasn’t, helpful.

These are some of the topics that community members brought up. They suggested that I needed to know about:

● How to help people strengthen connections to histories of choice and agency

● I need to figure out how to invite stories of resistance and declining to cooperate with non-preferred monogamous norms

● I needed to figure out how to make visible the harm of marginalising discourses within polycules, particularly:

○ Ableism

○ Racism

○ Sexism

○ Hetero and cis-normativity

● I needed to figure out how to help people strengthen their connection to preferred values and

● Address abuse within polycules

● And I needed to figure out and understand couples privilege, which is the hierarchical norms that privilege married, domiciled, or pre-existing couples over non-married, non-domiciled, or newer relationships.

All of this work is informed by a strong ethic of collaboration. The polyamorous community has faced significant marginalisation, and this marginalisation has been differentially felt. I have not experienced all of the marginalisations that are felt by people in the polyamorous community. So I needed help figuring some of that stuff out, and I need ongoing help in that.

Black, Indigenous, and racialized polyamorous community members face an intersection of racism and mononormativity; disabled community members face an intersection of ableism and mononormativity; queer and trans community members face mononormativity intersecting with transantagonism and heteronormativity, or an assumption of non-monogamy based on stereotypes of queer promiscuity.

And yet, community members advise that these intersections are often unacknowledged in therapy sessions. All of these intersections, and many others, must be accounted for in the research process, or the work runs the risk of cooperating with dominant discourses that cause considerable harm. This is in line with other narrative projects, like Salome Raheim’s “invitation to address privilege and dominance”.

So with this information, I started wondering: How can these knowledges inform narrative practice? That was the second step.

[Eighth slide] Case Studies and Strengthening Community Wisdom into Practice

These are some of the areas where I’m trying to bring these insights into practice, I’m not gonna talk much about beginning polyamory, although that is in an area where I’m doing quite a bit of work. I want to focus on the last three, mostly in the interest of time:

So, polyamorous families, which we’ve talked quite a bit about today.

Parenting outside the box is often challenging. Parenting inside the box is also challenging, considering the unreasonable expectations placed on parents, particularly mothers, regardless of whether they are cisgender or transgender; whether they are biological or not. “The box” might include many different dimensions, but most often it is the way that parenthood is assumed to be the domain of people – most often women – who are heterosexual, cisgender, abled, neurotypical, monogamous, and biologically related to their children.

Speaking as a non-binary, non-procreative, bisexual, polyamorous stepparent, these pressures came down hard as soon as I started spending time in public with my nesting partner and his two children. This experience, of suddenly finding ourselves defined primarily in relation to the children we parent, is one that many of my community members also describe experiencing.

Narrative therapy offers helpful practices, particularly around deconstructing discourse, strengthening connection to cherished values and hopes, and inviting families, including extended kin networks, to ‘join together’ (Newman, 2010) in responding to the problem. Every polycule is unique, and I try to bring a spirit of curiosity to these narrative conversations (Freedman, 2002).

The social challenges and pressures facing polyamorous parents are often strengthened by the lack of language and available narratives for understanding polyamorous parenting. In this way, it is similar to any other step or blended or extended family. As Lisa Doodson (2016) notes:

Not only do we struggle as a society to define a stepfamily but also individuals often fail to identify themselves with the definition. Thus stepfamilies are often unacknowledged and unrecognized in society. It could be argued that a general negative perception of stepfamilies and stepparents can lead to a reluctance to identify oneself as part of a stepfamily and this, in turn, will perpetuate the under-representation.

These “negative assumptions” that she talks about can be compounded for polyamorous families, because there are negative assumptions associated both with stepfamilies/stepparents, and also with polyamorous individuals.

There are also sometimes fears of overstepping a boundary. For example, some of my community members have expressed concern over self-identifying as a stepparent in a polyamorous context, particularly if they have taken on parenting responsibilities within a family that still includes multiple biological (or pre-established) parents.

If there are already two parents parenting together, then is another adult in a parental role a stepparent? A live-in nanny? An occasional babysitter? An amorphous blob of emotional energy floating through the children’s lives?

This last is a joke, but it also reflects a real dynamic that I have seen in multiple polyamorous parenting situations, where the newer parent or parents, even after moving in or becoming significantly involved in childcare responsibilities, do not have any easily available label. The lack of accessible naming can invite problems into the relationship, because it can be, as one community member articulated, destabilizing.

There are all of the complexities of stepparenting, which is already a role fraught with expectation, assumption, and frequent invalidation, but without even the thin social acceptance that comes with “real” stepparenting: much of the responsibility, little of the social acknowledgement. If we are constructed in and through our relationships, as narrative therapy would suggest, then the labels and titles available to us make a difference in how we are able to construct ourselves in relation to the children that we parent.

This means that one focus of my work with polyamorous families involves deconstructing discourses around parenthood and family. For many community members, this involves specifically deconstructing discourses of motherhood, because of pressures felt by women and non-binary folks who are read as women are so deeply rooted in pervasive cultural narratives. Spoiler alert: misogyny!

I have found it useful to use questions like:

● Who taught you what it means to be a mother or a parent?

● Who is able to be in this role?

● Have you seen people in this role that you might not expect? Would they also be called mothers or parents?

● Does this definition of motherhood or parenthood feel like it aligns with your own values?

● Are there ways that you resist this definition of motherhood or parenthood?

● Are there ways that you enjoy this definition?

● Are there other words for this kind of caregiving role?

There are so many ways in which polyamorous families are strong, supported and supportive. One of the most important goals of my work with polyamorous families is to uncover the histories of the skills and values that are helping them navigate what is often a joyful, messy, rewarding part of their lives. Sometimes this joy can be obscured by the lack of structural support and by all the ways we get pushed around by monogamous discourses and fears for our kids. Strengthening connections to people’s values, hopes, dreams, skills, and insider knowledges can be helpful.

Narrative therapy with unsupportive family members.

One of the problems that many polyamorous community members are struggling with is unsupportive family members. This is particularly true when children are involved and grandparents are very worried.

Narrative therapy offers tools for responding to this. Many of these are adapted from work that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing at the Gender Health Centre in Sacramento, to help families of trans youth find ways to join together to support their young person despite their own fears and the ways they’re being influenced by transphobic discourses. This is also influenced by the work of Sekneh Hammoud-Beckett; she works with queer and gender diverse Muslim youth and their families in Australia.

In both of these spaces, one of the most powerful responses has been to search for gaps in the problem. So if the problem is that the parent is unable to see a positive way forward for the child, or the parent is unable to loosen the grip of the discourses that have a hold on them or are pushing them around, either transphobic discourses, or mononormative discourses, queerphobic discourses; there are always gaps. Problems are never as solid as they first appear to be. So parents or family members who are being influenced by transphobic discourses might have experienced the pressure of rigid gender norms themselves. Have they ever felt restricted by this? How did they respond? What let them know that a response was possible? It’s actually because of the way that rigid gender norms work; it is impossible to find a person who has ever succeeded at meeting those norms all the time throughout their life. And so at every point where they have not succeeded in meeting that norm, there’s an opportunity to talk about what was happening there, and bring that into a conversation about how they support their trans family members. Same thing with monogamy because the ideal of monogamy is this impossible standard that no one has ever been able to meet at all times, in all ways. So there’s always an opening, you just have to sometimes really dig for it.

So this can also be true when we’re talking about polyamory. Even many folks who are fully in alignment with the most rigid definitions of monogamy, have resisted cultural norms, either in monogamy or in other ways. Those stories can be a gateway to understanding and joining together.

It can also be helpful to explore their hopes for their family member. Why are they afraid of their family member practicing polyamory? What does this fear say about what they want for their family member or what they hope for their member? If they “just think it’s wrong”, who told them it was wrong, and have they ever questioned this authority?

At a recent presentation, Sekneh said that her work with the families of queer and gender diverse Muslim youth often takes years. In my own journey with my mom, who has struggled with my polyamory, this makes sense to me. However, I now have a great relationship with my mom and she knows all of my partners, and narrative therapy offers tools that can make this a bit easier than some of that struggle.

Responding to abuse within polycules.

I left this to last. This is the one that I am most passionate about in my work. It’s also the one where I see the least amount of literature. There is very little writing that addresses abuse within non-monogamy. Tonnes of writing about abuse, a growing body of writing about non-monogamy. I have not seen that intersection addressed specifically, and I think it’s really important.

In my work so far, I have noticed that there are polyamorous folks whose experiences of suffering abuse are minimized or made invisible through reliance on the individualising and pathologising narratives that have been taken up within polyamorous discourse. What I mean by that is that if someone is experiencing abuse and it doesn’t fit into a narrative that we have available to us, it can be way too easy to locate the problem in the person, and that this actually happens fairly often, and that pathologising discourses…I should have a spoiler on this subtext, or maybe I should just follow my script. Anyway, I’m gonna talk about it. I am curious as to how existing narrative practices can be adapted to respond to abuse in polycules.

I wonder: could a group be formed, and accountability circles be used in ways that adapt the work of Michael White, Kylie Dowse, and Kiwi Tamasese of the Just Therapy group. In my specific context, this seems daunting because I do not work with an agency, and I have already encountered the difficulties of engaging in open discussion of abuse in polyamorous contexts. So Kiwi Tamasese, who I just name dropped there, she worked with the Just Therapy team in New Zealand. They had a project called the “Stop Abuse” project, that responded to I believe it was a radio interview, and someone said something about the high rates of abuse within Polynesian, or Pacific Islander communities, and so the Just Therapy team heard this, and thought well, our community is not actually more abusive than any other community. The problem is not racialised communities being more abusive than other communities, and also there is abuse that happens within our racialised community.

On the Stop Abuse project, they were responding to abuse within the community and harmful stereotypes about the community, so the polyamorous community is also contending with both within-community and about-community challenges. We need to find a way to respond to abuse within polycules that doesn’t end up or that resists easily being weaponised against the polyamorous community.

I’m also curious, how can abuse be named and acknowledged when it is experienced by “secondary” or non-domiciled partners? There are so many discourses that suggest these partners should be “happy with what they’re offered” or that they “knew what they were signing up for,” and these discourses are present in discussion groups, they’re present online, and they’re present among many therapists. If you want an example of that, Franklin Veaux, in his book The Gamechanger (2015)[1], talks about a response that a therapist had to a secondary partner bringing up concerns with being treated in rally dehumanising ways, and the therapist saying well, didn’t you know what you were signing up for?

I’m also curious, how can this work address the particular vulnerabilities of “unicorns” (bisexual often women, often younger than the established couple, who are often brought into the polyamorous context at financial disadvantage), or other vulnerable community members who often end up in “secondary” roles? This is a particular struggle for me, because I find the language of hierarchical polyamory, particularly the “primary”/”secondary” thing really challenging, and in sessions where that language is introduced, I have to work pretty hard to maintain a narrative stance rather than centering myself.

I’m also interested in how couples privilege can be addressed in narrative ways. I have done some work in this area, adapting learning from my time interviewing therapists at the Gender Health Centre. David Nylund, who works there, suggested starting a narrative session by asking questions that encourage descriptions of why people chose polyamory and what they value about polyamory. In my discussions with folks I have noticed that “ethics,” “consent,” and “freedom” are words that are used often. So this can then become a framework for discussing whether their actions within the polycule align with these stated values, and asking questions that elicit stories of times when they have acted in alignment with these values.

How can issues of race, class, neurodivergence, and ability be addressed in this work? And how can abuse be discussed in ways that acknowledge how abuse experienced within the polyamorous context may be an extension of violence experienced in everyday life? This feels particularly important, and is one of the points that came up again and again in my interviewing folks about what they wished therapists knew about polyamory. A strong grasp of intersectionality and how intersections of marginalization and privilege operate within polyamorous contexts was a key requirement, and one that many folks had experienced as lacking in their experiences of relationship therapy up to that point.

I have seen that this intersection of polyamory and abuse can occur in a couple areas. I’m going to talk particularly about racism and ableism. Regarding racism – racism within polycules is quite common. Abusive behaviours rooted in racism are so commonplace in many polyamorous communities that it is, to quote another community member, “terrible but not unexpected.” I think that Kiwi Tamasese’s work can be adapted to this context, because we’re working on addressing ‘justice across cultures’ (White, 2007).

It can also occur in relation to ableism, where individualising narratives can serve to isolate chronically ill or disabled folks, and narratives of emotional labour can be weaponised against community members who have more or different needs than their partners. Ableist abuse is particularly insidious in polyamorous contexts, where individualizing narratives have taken root so strongly. Although polyamory offers hope and opportunities for community engagement and support, this hope can only be realized when internalised and structural ableism is addressed directly. Opening up conversations about what support looks like, how folks might value support, and challenging individualist discourses has been an important part of my narrative work with disabled polyamorous community members and their partners.

Polyamorous communities are often cut off from mental health supports, and are legitimately invested in maintaining an image of “an ethics based on honesty, respectful negotiation and decision making, integrity, reciprocity and equality” (Klesse, 2011). Polyamorous folks are, as Kevin Patterson in Love is not Colorblindphrases it, in a position of “forced ambassadorship,” where quote: “[t]he structure of your relationships, the success or failure of your relationships, and even your demeanor within those relationships will be used as an example by monogamous people talking about polyamory amongst themselves…forever” (2018). Facing considerable discrimination from both society at large and many therapists who are “under-educated about the lives and needs of polyamorous people” (Weitzman, 2006), polyamorous folks are often hesitant to speak with their therapists about their polyamory.

I think that this will be a particular challenge in adapting narrative practices to my work with polyamorous communities – how can I create spaces that invite conversation about experiences of abuse (both using abuse and experiencing abuse) in ways that “thwart shame” (Dowse, 2017), which is such a silencing factor, that name abuse and invite a breaking from its effects (White, 1995a), and that engage folks in rich explorations of how they have been recruited into abusive behaviours and how they have resisted (White, 2011). There are already barriers to speaking out about abuse, and narrative therapists have already been engaging with undermining and subverting and getting around some of these barriers. I suspect that these barriers are amplified in some polyamorous contexts and we would need to do some additional work to bring some of that good work that’s happened in narrative therapy already. To bring it into polyamorous contexts, we’ll need a bit of extra work.

Folks can sometimes expect less support from friends, family, and professionals when experiencing abuse within polyamorous contexts. If the partner using abuse is a nesting or married partner, the practice of polyamory can be blamed as the trigger for the abuse. Polyamory, like bisexuality, can invite what one narrative therapist called “the wild reputation that might have meant people wouldn’t believe me” (Kate, 1999) in terms of describing abuse. And when the partner using abuse is a satellite, secondary, or non-domiciled partner, the same victim-blaming rhetoric of “why don’t you just leave” or end a relationship can be amplified by monogamous-normative discourses that frame polycules as inherently unstable, less committed, less loving, etcetera.

It is already perceived that is is “easy” to leave an abusive partner, despite all evidence to the contrary, and this can be exacerbated in polyamorous contexts. What polyamorous folks want when seeking a resolution to the abuse may not be to “just leave.” Although she writes specifically about marginalised women, Amanda Burgess-Proctor’s work seems relevant to marginalized folks of all genders who have experienced abuse. She says: “Obviously, all women desire cessation of abuse. However, the prevailing assumption that women also wish to leave their abusive partners may not reflect the specific desires of certain battered women, including minority-group women” (Burgess-Proctor, 2008).

So there is complexity in polyamorous contexts. And in my own specific work, many of my community members are queer or trans. On that note of complexity, I wonder what is the role of a metamour in a polyamorous context when abuse is present? If a partner has witnessed or heard about their partner experiencing abuse from another partner, the maps for best action are scarce and confusing. This seems to me like an important area for learning and for working and for figuring out how we can invite collaborative action and community response to abuse in polyamorous contexts.

So one of the first times I presented at a conference was in 2013 at the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association’s first conversation. I spoke about the norm within polyamory to “not stick your hand in the crazy”; a phrase that had been used in a discussion group to describe the ways in which certain mental health challenges were understood to render people unfit to practice polyamory. I was a mental health advocate before I discovered polyamory, and I am exactly the types of crazy that were generally considered ‘unpolyamorable’. [laughs] So this norm did not align at all with my values. This norm still exists in many polyamorous contexts. One of my community members recently referenced the ‘rumour network’ that occurs within polyamorous communities, many of which are small and close knit. “So-and-so has Borderline; don’t date them!” is something that this community member has heard multiple times, and this has made their own experience of navigating, searching for a diagnosis and fearing a diagnosis particularly fraught. In contexts where a partner has been abused, and the abused partner has a diagnosis that falls under the ‘unpolyamorable’ category, their abuse may be minimised or dismissed and they may experience further isolation from communities that are often already small and dealing with the scarcity of social support resources.

At this point, it seems important to note the prevalence of Borderline Personality Disorder diagnoses, particularly among individuals who have experienced trauma. Even the research into this topic seems deeply embedded in pathologising discourses (Cattane, Rossi, Lanfredi, and Cattaneo, 2017). I see this diagnosis either formally offered by a mental health professional, or armchair diagnosed by friends, family or partners used to dismiss the experiences, particularly of polyamorous women, frequently in online spaces. And I also see this in the experiences of polyamorous women who consult with me. It is really important to note, and there has been research on this, that gender divide in who actually receives a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. Many of these folks seem to have been handed a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder despite this not being an easy or comprehensible fit for them (Druker, 2014). A BPD diagnosis is sometimes used to discount the insider knowledges or experiences of the individual who has been diagnosed. And this can leave these individuals more vulnerable to abuse and less able to access support. These patterns perpetuate the pathologising and controlling ways in which biomedical discourses have responded to “difficult women” (Dolman, 2015). There are always exceptions and resistances. I’m describing a problem, and so you know there are gaps in the problem.

People are always responding to and resisting the injustices in their lives. Two of my community members have self diagnosed as BPD and have found a significant amount of freedom and comfort in the diagnosis. Both of these individuals also use it as a partner selection tool, in this case weeding out the ableist jerks who can’t handle the diagnosis. I appreciate the skillful ways in which these individuals have taken a diagnosis that is often weaponised against vulnerable folks and turned it into a screening tool. Bringing a narrative stance into my session with these community members, and specifically maintaining an awareness that they are the experts in their experiences, and that they are already responding to injustices, allowed me to engage in conversations about BPD without cooperating with ableist discourses. That whole thing about how neither polyamory nor therapy are outside the culture is really real. It takes intentional effort to choose not to cooperate with harmful dominant discourses.

I’m just gonna side note here. These conversations with these two community members are slowly evolving into a collaborative project to create a resource that will be available for folks who identify with the Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis, and who want a resource that centres their voices. That’s probably not gonna happen until spring, probably. But anyway, if anyone here who self diagnosed, or has a diagnosis, or is interested in that project, you can get in touch with me, because I will be doing interviews with people to create this collaborative resource that centres BPD voices[2]. They’re often really missing from discussions of borderline.

Individualizing discourses are incredibly powerful. The experience of anxiety, depression, jealousy, or other difficult emotion or mental health experience becomes disconnected from the context within which they occur, and fall so easily into alignment with norms such as “own your own feelings” or “take responsibility for yourself.” As one community member put it recently, while dealing with an experience of jealousy, “none of us want to be a bad poly people.” When these experiences impact the polycule, they can be framed as an imposition, a problem that exists within one person. One way I have adapted narrative practices within my context is to ask questions that elicit stories of times when the polycule has joined together, or might join together, to respond to the problem. Since all the members of the polycule are already responding to the problem, whether that’s by ignoring the person who is having the problem, throwing bath bombs at them, whatever it might look like; everyone in the polycule is already responding to the problem, which means that we can find ways to respond in more preferred ways to the problem. So it’s just a short jump over to “joining in with” the person experiencing the concern directly (Newman, 2010). So I have a long quote here from Michael White (1995b):

The discourses of pathology make it possible for us to ignore the extent to which the problems for which people seek therapy are the outcome of certain practices of relationship and practices of the self, many of which are actually informed by modern notions of “individualism.” And the discourses of pathology make it possible for us to ignore the extent to which the problems for which people seek help are so often mired in the structures of inequality of our culture, including those pertaining to gender, race, ethnicity, class, economics, age, and so on.

I think that’s really important whenever we’re talking about a diagnosis or pathology to think about whether we are cooperating with norms that make context invisible.

Within my own polycule and polyamorous community, many of us deal with unwelcome guests such as anxiety or depression, or have experienced suicidal thoughts or have been bequeathed various diagnoses, which fit to varying degrees. Despite this insider knowledge, and the corroborating insider knowledges of my community members, there is still a lack of engagement in many polyamorous documents and in polyamorous norms to engage with mental health as something that does exist within contexts of structural inequality. Individualizing narratives frame these problems as being located in the people experiencing them, and invitations to join with each other to respond to the problem can be seen as impinging on freedom or autonomy, or falling into “codependency”. That’s a term I have seen used often to explain why a polycule might not join together, and it ignores the ways that the problem is already affecting everyone in the polycule.

Polyamorous writer and educator, Clementine Morrigan, writes about the “discourse that bemoans the exploitation of emotional labour but simultaneously does not acknowledge the ways in which emotional labour is the glue that holds our communities together” (2017). Avery Alder writes, “If we’re going to be politicising basic kindness between friends and community members, I worry about doing so with the language of labour. Because labour demands compensation, and I think “my kindness to you demands compensation” has insidious implications” (2017). Both of these writers, who are personal heroes of mine, are challenging some of the individualism that has crept into polyamory, and even into social justice networks. This challenge is important!

[Ninth slide]

Alright. This is near the end of my talk.

These are just some of the ways that I’m exploring narrative therapy and polyamory. I’m really excited about this work, and I’m looking forward to eventually generating resources that can be useful for community members as well as other therapists.

If you’d like to get involved in this, either by telling me what you think narrative therapists should know about polyamory, or by working together, get in touch!

Kevin Patterson says: “Once you’re aware of the struggle, we all need to find the room to be better and do better” (2018). My community members have taught me so much about the shape and contours of their struggle, and now we’re working to find the room to be and do better.

So, we have no time/some time? Oh right, we started a little late.

Question clipped for audience anonymity

So, confronting individualism and challenging that. I think externalising is actually the most effective way to do that. Like, just asking where is this problem being located, and if it’s being located in a person, shifting that. I mean, it’s not that easy, like it never is that easy, but thinking about problems as being specifically outside of individuals and not being the responsibility of individuals to fix themselves. So if you ask the question “where is this problem located?” and the answer ends up being “well, it’s…my metamour’s anxiety”, that’s something that is inside that person. Once you notice that, you can start asking questions like “I wonder when the anxiety showed up for my metamour; maybe we can talk about that”. “I wonder what strengthens the anxiety?” “I wonder what skills my metamour has been using since the anxiety first showed up?” “Where did I learn that anxiety is something that exists within people rather than within contexts; I wonder if I can think about that?”


Q: So I think that really interesting point about, – and spoiler alert for some of what I’m gonna talk about later, but – one of the areas the polyamorous I think are legally vulnerable is the stereotype and narrative that polygamy is inherently harmful and inherently abusive. And the overlap between polygamy and polyamory. And so I’m wondering, can you expand on that a little more about that interplay? Are there narrative therapists working on this? I think that narrative therapy’s a really powerful tool to address this too and the fact that it’s a legal problem, because it’s decentering the notion that this is a useful narrative.

Tiffany: So yeah. There is not a lot of writing within narrative therapy about polyamory. I know there are quite a few narrative therapists interested in it. I think the thing narrative therapy does best, that would be most helpful in this area, is collective narrative practice. So, reaching out to community members and collaboratively generating documents that demonstrate how people are responding to injustice or to hardship or to harm. In this case I would say the injustice would be that narrative. How are people responding to that? Because part of the reason that is such a strong narrative culturally, is because those are the stories that we’re surrounded by, so. And then maybe also get every legislator in a room and do some deconstructing discourse sessions; that would also be a way narrative therapy would be helpful [laughs].

Q: And judges. And lawyers.

Tiffany: Exactly. Alright. Thank you very much!\

[Audience erupts in applause]

Works cited:

Alder, A. (2017). What is the purpose of naming something emotional labour? Medium. Blog post. https://medium.com/@averyalder/what-is-the-purpose-of-naming-something-emotional-labour-2d65c95d6220

Barker, M. (2011). Monogamies and non-monogamies: a response to “The challenge of monogamy: bringing it out of the closet and into the treatment room” by Marianne Brandon, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 26:3, 281-287.

Burgess-Proctor, A. (2008). Understanding the help-seeking decisions of marginalized battered women. (Order No. 3312668). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304580274).

Cattane, N., Rossi, R., Lanfredi, M., & Cattaneo, A. (2017). Borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma: exploring the affected biological systems and mechanisms. BMC Psychiatry, 17, 221. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1383-2

Dolman, C. (2015). Re-contextualising conversations and rich story development. International journal of narrative therapy & community work 4, 12-24.

Doodson, L. (2016). Understanding stepfamilies. Open University Press.

Dowse, K. (2017). ‘Thwarting Shame: Feminist engagement in groupwork with men recruited to patriarchal dominance in relationship.’ International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 1-10.

Drahm-Butler, T. (2015) “Decolonising identity stories: Narrative practice through Aboriginal eyes” In B. Wingard, C. Johnson, and T. Drahm-Butler (Eds.), Aboriginal narrative practice. Dulwich Centre Publications.

Druker, A. (2014). What to do when a diagnosis doesn’t fit? International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work 4, 16-23.

Freedman, J. & Combs, G. (2002). Narrative couple therapy. In Narrative therapy with couples… and a whole lot more! A collection of papers, essays and exercises. Dulwich Centre Publications.

Hammoud-Beckett, S. (2007). Azima ila Hayati – An invitation in to my life: Narrative conversations about sexual identity. International Journal of Narrative Therapy, 1, 29-39.

Kate. (1999). ‘A story of survival’ In ‘Taking the hassle…’ Dulwich Centre Journal (2&3). Republished 1999 in Dulwich Centre Publications (eds): Extending Narrative Therapy: A collection of practice-based papers (117-124). Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Klesse, C (2011) Notions of love in polyamory – Elements in a discourse on multiple loving. Laboratorium 3(2): 425.

Morrigan, C. (2017). Three thoughts on emotional labour. Guts Magazine 8 (Cash). http://gutsmagazine.ca/emotional-labour/

Newman, D. (2010). Using narrative practices with anxiety and depression: Elevating context, joining people, and collecting insider-knowledges. International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2, 22-29.

Patterson, K. (2018). Love’s not color blind: Race and representation in polyamorous and other alternative communities. Thorntree Press.

Raheim, S. et al. (2004). An invitation to narrative practitioners to address privilege and dominance. https://dulwichcentre.com.au/a-continuing-invitation-to-narrative-practitioners-to-address-privilege-and-dominance/

Russell, S. & Carey, M. (2004). Narrative Therapy: Responding to your questions. Dulwich Centre Publications.

Tamasese, K. (2003) Stop abuse project. In Waldegrave, C. (Ed.) Just Therapy: A journey. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications

Veaux, F. and Flox, AV. (2015). The game changer: A memoir of disruptive love. Thorntree Press. (See footnote 1)

Weitzman, G. (2006). Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6(1-2), 137-164.

White, C. (2007). ‘Working for gender justice across cultures’ An interview with Taimalieutu Kiwi Tamasese by Cheryl White. In Conversations about gender, culture, violence and narrative practice, 99-107. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (1995a). ‘Naming abuse and breaking from its effects.’ In White, M. (Ed.) Re-Authoring lives. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (1995b). ‘Psychotic Experience and Discourse’ an interview with Michael White. In Re-Authoring lives. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (1998). Notes on power and the culture of therapy. In C. White & D. Denborough (Eds.), Introducing narrative therapy: A collection of practice-based writings. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (2011). ‘The responsibilities: Working with men who have perpetrated violence.’ In Narrative Practice: Continuing the conversations. Dulwich Centre Publications.

Wingard, B. & Lester, J. (2001). Telling our stories in ways that make us stronger. Dulwich Centre Publications.

[1] Given the revelations of Franklin Veaux’s own abusive behaviours, I am following the directives of the people who have shared their stories and leaving this reference to his work here, but sharing the information about what has happened. I would not recommend The Gamechangergiven the information that has come to light. If you would like to read more, you can find the survivor pod FAQ here – https://www.itrippedonthepolystair.com/frequently-asked-questions/.

[2] This resource now exists! Find the collective document, and links to other work by this group, at https://tiffanysostar.com/bpd-superpowers/.

An Ocean of Possibilities zine

An Ocean of Possibilities zine

The Ocean of Possibilities Zine is finished!

It was available to contributors and patrons a couple days early, and is now publicly available for today, Wednesday, September 23, Bi+ Visibility Day!!

The PDF is available for free, and you can download it here. If you’d like to purchase a copy they are $12 CAD, and you can order one by emailing me.

A line from Candice Robinson-Horejsi’s essay Living the Possibilities, “When nobody talks about bisexuality, how are you supposed to recognize it in yourself?”, overlaid on a pink jellyfish. Photo by Pan Da Chuan on Unsplash.

An Ocean of Possibilities is a zine by Tiffany Sostar, with contributions by:

Jocelyn LaVon
Candice Robinson-Horejsi
Gloria Jackson-Nefertiti
Aoife Byrne
Sheri Osden Nault
Marlena Chertock
Julene Tripp Weaver
Jan Steckel

I’m not sure how to introduce these essays, poems, comics, and fiction, and, like everyone else, I am swimming in the cold waters of exhaustion and overwhelm. Bi+ Visibility Day lands 6 months into the novel coronavirus pandemic. Every one of the contributors to this zine, from Aoife in Ireland to the folks in the US and those of us in Canada, are affected by the pandemic. 

Search for “bisexual health outcomes” and you’ll find years of studies that demonstrate that, as the HRC puts it, “bisexuals face striking rates of poor health outcomes” (you can read the Health Disparities Among Bisexual People brief here).

And we know that the pandemic has already highlighted multiple systemic health and social inequities. The economic impact, the differential access to health care – none of these fall equally on different communities. Fat folks have faced significant increase in fatphobic discourse during the pandemic. Women are bearing the majority of the increased burden of childcare and at-home education. Black, Indigenous, and brown communities are seeing the pre-existing unequal access to health care and social support escalate.

And it is not just the pandemic that impacts these (and so many other) communities. Overt acts of racist violence are more frequent – white supremacy and colonialism lashing back at those who are protesting. The pandemic arrived in Canada as the invasion of Wet’suwet’en was ongoing, and as the pandemic crosses the half year, more colonial violence is being enacted on Mi’kma’ki – coast to coast, Canada has escalated the violence against Indigenous communities. In the US, police violence (in response to protests against police violence!) has been going on for months.

In Alberta, where I live, Bi Visibility Day comes as disabled Albertans are under increasing and aggressive threat, as our government cuts funding from the most vulnerable.

These issues matter on Bi+ Visibility Day because the bi+ community includes fat folks, women, Black, Indigenous, and brown folks. The bi+ community includes parents, and folks who are living alone. This community includes trans and non-binary folks, disabled folks, poor folks, homeless folks. This community includes folks with difficult relationships to substances, and folks who have experienced trauma, and folks who are experiencing trauma right now. 

Every issue of justice is an issue that matters for this community, and when we ignore any part of this community – when we forget that this community includes all of these intersections, includes every intersection! – we just recreate the harms that are already happening.

So, how do I introduce a zine into this context that is so overwhelming?

A line from Osden Nault’s poem ‘habitat: Unravelling substrate-species relationships‘, “a soft and unshakeable belief that we could nourish one another”, overlaid on a photo of physarum polycephalum slime mold by Helen Ginger. CC BY-SA 3.0.

I think, first, by acknowledging that it is overwhelming.

And then, perhaps, by also acknowledging that despite these daunting realities, there is also a resilience, a persistence, a revolutionary ongoingness within this community.

It is worth celebrating our lives and our experiences.

It is worth being visible, today and every other day.

The pandemic, the colonial machine, the vice-grip of capitalism, the clenched fist of patriarchy – these things are not more meaningful than this community.

We exist within these hostile waters.

We exist, and we have always existed, and we will continue to exist. 

We are jellyfish – you can find us in every ocean, in every part of the ocean.

A line from Marlena Chertock’s poem Water bear body, “I can exist through anything” overlaid on a black and white image of jellyfish. Photo by Greg Ortega on Unsplash.

The pieces of writing in this zine touch on issues of aging, parenting, and navigating relationships (with others, with communities, and with selves). They include poetry, essays, fiction, and art. 

Multiple essays address the tensions between bisexual and lesbian spaces, and the questioning of “queer enoughness”. 

This zine is not representative of the entire bi+ community. There are so many intersections missing in these 32 pages, so if you read this zine and find it interesting or inspiring or encouraging, I hope that you go out and find more. 

We are here in every space. 

We are telling our stories. 

We are visible, not just today but everyday, if you know how to see us.

Download the 32-page PDF here.


By Marlena Chertock

Hebrew, it would have been enough

I say to
myself each
day you are

not enough. 
It is so

tearing my
own self down.
Not strong, not

queer enough,
not a real
writer. Still,

deep down, I
know the truth:
I’m enough.

Repeat this
Believe it.

“Contributors” on a jellyfish background. Photo by Octavian Rosca on Unsplash.

Jocelyn LaVon is an A++ parent, friend, and community member. (This bio was written by Tiffany, not Jocelyn.)

Candice Robinson-Horejsi (Calgary, Canada). Wife, mother, engineer, NaNoML, writer, runner, knitter, nerd. Candice wears many metaphorical hats. You can find out more here: candicerobinson.ca

Gloria Jackson-Nefertiti is a breast cancer survivor, public speaker, workshop leader, panelist, artist’s model, published poet and soon to be published memoirist. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram as GloriaJacksonNefertiti, and on Twitter as @gloriajn. She lives in Seattle, WA.

Aoife Byrne is an artist living in Dublin, with her Partner and two Pups. She focuses on illustration, photography, animation or a combination in her work. She loves cosplay, choirs and dancing.

Sheri Osden Nault is an artist of Michif and mixed European descent, whose art practice and research are grounded in queer, feminist, and Indigenous world-views. Osden lives in Tkaronto on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations, under the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which precedes colonial treaties on this land. Through their work they strive to elicit a sense of social and ecological responsibility to one another on a damaged planet.

Marlena Chertock has two books of poetry, Crumb-sized: Poems (Unnamed Press) and On that one-way trip to Mars (Bottlecap Press). She uses her skeletal dysplasia as a bridge to scientific writing. Marlena is a bisexual writer and serves on the planning committee of OutWrite, Washington, D.C.’s annual LGBTQ literary festival. Her poems and short stories have appeared in Breath & Shadow, The Deaf Poets Society, The Little Patuxent Review, Noble/Gas Quarterly, Paper Darts, Rogue Agent, Stoked Words, Wordgathering, and more. Find her at marlenachertock.com and @mchertock.

Julene Tripp Weaver, a native New Yorker, is a psychotherapist and writer in Seattle. Her book, truth be bold—Serenading Life & Death in the Age of AIDS, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and won the Bisexual Book Award. www.julenetrippweaver.com. Twitter: @trippweavepoet

Jan Steckel’s latest book Like Flesh Covers Bone (Zeitgeist Press, December 2018) won two Rainbow Awards (for LGBT Poetry and Best Bisexual Book). Her poetry book The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction. Her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) and poetry chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) also won awards. Steckel moderates the Facebook group Bi Poets and is an active member of the Bay Area Bi+ and Pan Network. She lives in Oakland, California, USA with her husband Hew Wolff, host of Berkeley BiFriendly.

This zine was initiated and formatted by Tiffany Sostar for Bi+ Visibility Week 2020. Tiffany is a writer, editor, community organizer, tarot reader, course instructor, and narrative therapist. They are bisexual, non-binary, and chronic-pain enhanced. You can find them online at tiffanysostar.com and foxandowltarot.com or email them at sostarselfcare@gmail.com. You can support their work by picking up this zine, enrolling in An Unexpected Light, booking a narrative therapy session or tarot reading, hiring them to facilitate a workshop for your group, or backing their Patreon at patreon.com/sostarselfcare.

BPD Superpowers

BPD Superpowers

BPD Superpowers: What the borderline makes possible (clickable link to PDF)

o   The Superpower of Community (and community care)
o   The Superpower of Showing Up
o   Resilience
o   Endurance
o   Dialectics as a Superpower (holding multiple true stories)
o   Empathy and Compassion
o   The Superpower of Quick Turnaround of Emotions
o   The Superpower of Being Able to Get Out of a Bad Situation
o   The Ability to ‘Chameleon’

From the document:

This document follows a conversation, facilitated by Osden Nault and Tiffany Sostar, whose goal was to center the voices of folks who identify with BPD (either diagnosed by a professional or self-claimed), and to shift the dominant narrative about Borderline Personality Disorder. This document includes quotes from participants as well as quotes from BPD folks who were not at the event itself.

This event was the result of both Osden and Tiffany noting the lack of BPD voices in the resources available about, and especially for, the BPD community. So much of what is available includes harmful stories about what kind of people have BPD, and how difficult and even dangerous it is to be in relationship with them. These stories obscure the complex lived experiences of BPD individuals who have valuable insider knowledges into how to navigate big emotions and the ongoing effects of complex trauma.

Because we live in such a complex, overwhelming, and traumatizing social context, we hope that this resource might also provide help and insight for folks who do not identify with BPD but who have experienced complex trauma or are living with overwhelming Feels.

We also hope that this resource will help folks who are facing the injustice of inaccessible mental health supports. We recognize that the BPD community faces intense stigma and is also significantly underserved by medical and mental health professionals. If you have found this resource because you haven’t found anything else, we hope that it helps. You are valid, your experiences are valid, and no matter how much you may struggle with your big feelings at times, we know that you also have skills, strategies, superpowers.

There’s so much more that we could have put into this document, and we hope to continue this work both within the BPD Superpowers group and through engagement with other folks who identify with borderline personality disorder (either through self-identification or through a formal diagnosis). Maybe there will even be a book!

For now, here’s what you’ll find in this 43-page PDF.

  • A note on this moment
  • Making space for borderline wisdom
  • Borderline Stories
  • Deconstructing the Discourse of Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Experiencing BPD by Osden Nault
  • Navigating systems
  • Getting better?
  • BPD and the Mythology of “Letting Go” by Kay Fidler
  • Borderline Communities
  • Empathy on the Borderline
  • Borderline Chameleons & Identity Flags
  • A Strategy from Narrative Therapy: Escaping from Normal
  • Support and Solidarity
  • Suggestions for Everyone
  • Suggestions for Friends
  • Suggestions for Partners
  • Suggestions for Family
  • Suggestions for Service Providers
  • Who we are
  • Art by Osden Nault

A note on this moment

Acknowledging the political climate in which we are releasing this work and the intersections of oppression and mental illness / neurodivergence.

At this moment, Black people in the USA and marginalized groups worldwide are mobilizing against white supremacist, racist, and anti-Black violent systemic oppression. We are unequivocally in support of this ongoing struggle for more just futures. In releasing this document at this time, we wish to acknowledge the compounded effects of anti-Black racism, white supremacy, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and many more forms of violent oppression and marginalization on individual mental health and neurotypes.

An Indigenous participant has shared:

One of the first definitions of BPD I saw described it as resulting from a “genetic predisposition” and trauma. I immediately thought about my own family’s intergenerational trauma. At a point in time when we know ancestral trauma affects us to a genetic level, I wondered how the history of colonial violence plays a role in my present day neurodivergent experience.

We see the effects of violent oppression on physical and mental health, spanning generations and present today. In what Angela Davis has referred to as a “very exciting moment,” and about which she says, “I don’t know if we have ever experienced this kind of a global challenge to racism and to the consequences of slavery and colonialism,”[1] we acknowledge that there is a great deal of ongoing work and healing to be done. We release this collective document with free access and the hope that it will aid in the future and ongoing well being of oppressed individuals and communities.

With love and solidarity, The BPD Superpowers group

[1]   Angela Davis: ‘This moment holds possibilities for change we have never before experienced,’ Channel 4 News, youtube.com. 

Find other posts from this work:

Shiny! June speculative writing group

Shiny! June speculative writing group

Dearest magpies,

This will be another incomplete, last minute, hastily written letter. Still shiny, I would like to think, but shiny like the rainbow slick on a puddle – a brief glimmer in a storm.And wow, are we in a storm.

The Shiny! Speculative Writing Group will be meeting tomorrow, June 7, from 4-6 pm mountain time. Email me for the link.

There is never a cost to attend the Shiny! writing group, but I would like to invite any participants at tomorrow’s event to make a donation of whatever amount you feel the writing group is worth towards supporting a Black creative, or towards one of the organizations supporting protesters right now.

I recognize that this group includes a lot of folks who are living with financial precarity, made worse for the folks in Alberta by the UCP attacking AISH. If making a donation is not possible, I would invite us each to find some other way of offering support. Supporting the work of standing against anti-Blackness and police violence is so necessary. Being part of that work is so necessary.

I would also like to invite the non-Black members of this group to engage meaningfully with the work of Black writers this month. Not just the critical and necessary non-fiction writing about this current political moment, but also the writing of Black romance writers, humour writers, and, of course, speculative fiction writers. Check out the Spring book list at Well Read Black Girl for some ideas.

And some other ideas…

We are collectively witnessing a phenomenal volume of Black pain in the news, and it is so critical that we do witness this, that we see it, recognize it, understand that it is not ‘shocking’ or new. That we recognize how anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence are two strong threads in the rope of capitalist colonialism, and that we work to fray and unravel and dismantle that rope.

But we also have to recognize, and have to actively seek out, the other stories. Black lives matter all the time, not just when they are suffering. Black joy matters. Black imagination matters. If you are invested in supporting a movement for change, I really believe that you must also be invested in seeking out more than just the trauma.

(I also want to acknowledge the sheer volume of Indigenous pain that is also present and being made visible at this time, and invite us collectively to bring the same care and intention to how we witness and respond to this. For a wide range of book recommendations that include both Black and Indigenous writers, along with many others writers of colour, try this list from Art For Ourselves – http://www.artforourselves.org/reviews/read-bipoc-a-list-of-books-by-black-indigenous-andor-people-of-color-writers )

So, you may have guessed that tomorrow’s writing group will focus on what is happening politically right now.

It’s going to be a bit of a different session, more reflective writing than fantastical writing, though I think that reflection can also be speculative in nature. At its best, reflective writing invites us to speculate about our own preferred selves and lives, and can be incredibly future-enabling work.

My goal in writing these prompts was to find ways that we could engage as a group with what is happening culturally and politically in ways that generate and sustain hope without turning away from pain and struggle, and in ways that invite a variety of voices without appropriating stories or experiences that are not our own.

I wanted to invite us to step more meaningfully into our own story, rather than taking the too-frequent path of stepping into the story of someone who is marginalized in ways we are not. I didn’t want to set us up to “imagine what it’s like for someone facing this injustice” because, although I think it is absolutely critical that we read the first hand accounts of people who are facing hardship, and we believe them, that is different than trying to speak in their voices.

It is sometimes easier to imagine ourselves into a life that seems like it is harder than our own, easier to cast ourselves out into that other voice and experience, than to really sit with our own experience, and with the ways in which our own lives are entangled in systems of oppression and harm, the ways in which our own stories are shaped and constrained by colonialism and capitalism, the ways in which we have been invited to be complicit and the values we hold that do not align with these systems of harm. I hope that this event can help us polish off some of those shiny values.

So these prompts are meant to invite reflection on our own experience of this time, on the stories we are being told of this time, and what we can contribute at this time.

My hope is that this event tomorrow will leave participants feeling that their critical eye on the stories we’re being shared has been sharpened, and that their hope for the future and energy to take action in support of justice have been strengthened.

Here are our writing prompts for tomorrow:

What is the story of this time, right now?

This may not seem like a speculative writing prompt, but “the story” of any time is always an act of imagination. There is no single true story of any event. In this prompt, I want to invite us to consider what we are being told about the nature of this current political and cultural moment. Who is telling us this story? What is being valued in this story? Who does this story serve? Does this story align with our own experience or understanding of this time? What is the story we are telling of this time? What is the story we want to tell?

What is the story of this time, 50 years from now?

This is a more directly speculative prompt. What is the mythology of 2020 that evolves over the next half century? How do you imagine the grandchildren of this generation will speak about this time?

What is being asked of you at this time?

This is an invitation to use our speculative writing powers to imagine what we might have to offer, and what might be asked of us or needed from us at this time. What do we have to offer? What do we wish we had to offer?

If you plan to attend tomorrow, please let me know! If there are less than four confirmed attendees, I will be cancelling the event.


Recognizing BPD Superpowers

Recognizing BPD Superpowers

The following is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given on August 24, 2019. The second part of this event was an interview with Kay and Sam, which will be shared next week. Both of these posts are shared in celebration of BPD Awareness Month. The image is a still from the presentation., with Kay on the left, Tiffany in the middle, and Sam on the right.


Welcome to “Recognizing BPD Superpowers”, on the topic of sharing and celebrating the hopes, skills, insider knowledges, and experiences of folks who identify with Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD. This includes people who have claimed the label for themselves, people who have had the label applied to them, and people for whom both are true.

I want to note up front that this presentation will include references to self-harm, suicidality, and to some of the stigmatizing and pathologizing language that is often applied to folks who are identified with BPD. This has the potential to be triggering. If, at any point, you need to take a break – that is a-okay! Also, it’s a long post! Sorry!

Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you to my co-facilitators.

Kay D’Odorico is a queer, neurodivergent human of Indigenous and European descent. They advocate for Sex Workers and own and operate their own perfuming business full-time here in Mohkinstsís.

Sam is just a human pursuing her best possible self. She is passionate about her recovery, her intersections, and wishes to hold space for others while creating it for herself.

Both of these humans have been phenomenal supports and collaborators, and I’m honoured to have shared this space with them. The narrative interview with these two lovely humans, which followed this presentation, will be shared next week on this blog.

My name is Tiffany Sostar. My pronouns are they/them. I’m a narrative therapist, community organizer, editor, writer, workshop facilitator, and tarot reader – I do a bunch of different things, and they all sort of orient around engaging with stories. The stories people tell about ourselves and others, the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and others, and, especially, how we can tell our stories in ways that make us stronger. That phrase – telling our stories in ways that make us stronger – comes from Auntie Barbara Wingard, an Australian Aboriginal narrative therapist who has done profoundly meaningful work on many topics, including creating ways for Indigenous communities to grieve together in ways that are consistent with their cultures.

My own work is significantly influenced by the work of Indigenous narrative therapists and community organizers, including Auntie Barb, Tileah Drahm-Butler who is another Australian narrative therapist, and Michelle Robinson, who is a community organizer and politician here in Calgary. (You can find one of Aunty Barb’s projects, a walking history tour here, and one of Tileah’s project, a presentation on decolonizing identity stories here, and Michelle Robinson’s Patreon and podcast here.)

Colonial Violence and BPD

As a white settler who works in the field of mental health, a field that has historically been incredibly harmful to marginalized communities, including Indigenous, Black, trans, queer, two-spirit, fat, unhoused, sex working, substance using, and so many other communities who have come to professionals for help and been met with stigma and harm, I think that recognizing how much I have benefitted from the work of marginalized communities is critical. Any good work that I do in communities that are more or differently marginalized than I am myself is entirely due to the generosity and wisdom of the people within those communities who have shared their insider knowledges.

This workshop happened on Indigenous land, and this blog post is being written on Indigenous land. All land is Indigenous land. Here, I am on Treaty 7 land. It is the land of the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Kainai, Siksika, and Piikani First Nations, and the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, the Tsuut’ina, the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and all of the other Indigenous men, women, and two-spirit folks who are here as a result of child removals, forced relocations, economic pressures, or other reasons.

This work was inspired by Osden Nault, and we had been talking about getting this project underway for quite some time. We both noted the lack of BPD voices in resources and writing about BPD, and wanted to do something to address that. This presentation, and the resources that are currently under development, would not have happened without Osden. They also co-facilitated the first group discussion that created the foundation for this workshop. Osden is an artist of Michif and mixed European descent, whose art practice and research are both grounded in queer, feminist, and Indigenous world-views. Osden lives in Tkaronto on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations, under the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which precedes colonial treaties on this land. Even though they weren’t at this workshop, their influence was present!

This presentation was, and is, part of a larger series of resources that the BPD Superpowers group is creating around BPD, some of which will be shared during BPD Awareness Month in May of 2020. If you live in a colonial country and don’t know whose land you’re on, it would be worth looking that up. The land you’re on is now part of this project, too.

Here in Canada, the Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people found that:

“The significant, persistent, and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human rights and Indigenous rights violations and abuses – perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous Peoples from their land, social structures, and governance and to eradicate their existence as Nations, communities, families, and individuals – is the cause of the disappearances, murders, and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, and is genocide. This colonialism, discrimination, and genocide explains the high rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.”

Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

We must talk about colonial violence when we are talking about trauma-related mental health experiences, which many people experience BPD as being, because otherwise we risk perpetuating harm. For example, the 2014 research paper “Characteristics of borderline personality disorder in a community sample,” published in the Journal of Personality Disorders, finds that Native American and African American communities are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with BPD, and with other conditions such as depression, anxiety, etc.

I think that, knowing this, we must look at racial trauma, and acknowledge how racial trauma impacts individuals if we are going to talk about these experiences and diagnoses. Otherwise, we are missing key context.

Rebecca Lester, in her paper, “Lessons from the Borderline” writes:

“Most people diagnosed with BPD grew up in situations where their very existence as a person with independent thoughts and feelings was invalidated (Minzenberg et al., 2003). Sometimes, this entailed chronic abuse, either physical or sexual. Sometimes it was more of a grinding parental indifference. People diagnosed with BPD overwhelmingly experienced their early lives as involving constant messages that they do not – and should not – fully exist.”

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

How can we separate this from the findings of the Final Report, which identify exactly this dynamic of abuse and identity invalidation as having been directed at Indigenous communities since the beginning of colonization? I don’t think that we can.

What even is a “personality disorder”?!

So, borderline personality disorder, like many “personality disorders” is a contested and controversial term and diagnosis. Heads up for some stigmatizing and pathologizing language in this next section. I want to give you a bit of context for the social location of BPD, and for my own positioning here.

I have never received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Although there are many BPD characteristics that I do strongly identify with, and I share an experience of trauma that many BPD folks might recognize, I do not feel a strong attachment to the BPD label. In my own life, I am comfortable recognizing certain shared experiences without claiming a shared identity.

In my own work, I do not diagnose the community members who consult with me for narrative therapy, but I do respect and work with the diagnoses that people bring into our sessions. There are lots of reasons for this, but one important one for locating myself within this work is that as a narrative therapist, I am interested in externalizing problems – meaning, locating the problem outside of the person I am consulting with. I think that many contemporary ways of speaking about borderline personality disorder invite us to view BPD as a set of traits inherent to an individual.

BPD is often described as a volatility that can make people dangerous, an instability, a lack of cohesive identity – all of these ways of speaking about BPD locate it within the person, rather than within their context. I think that this obscures the many ways in which folks who have been identified with BPD respond to the problems in their lives. These ways of speaking, of telling a story about BPD, can end up having the consequence of giving BPD more agency than the person in front of us!

And I think that this is a problem.

I also think it’s a problem that can arise even when we’re not being malicious or trying to be stigmatizing – “You can’t help it, it’s the BPD” is a framing that invites neither accountability nor dignity and agency, even though it appears to be a compassionate approach.

Instead, I am interested in how people respond when BPD shows up in their lives. I’m interested in learning when this problem first showed up, what it wants, and how people have responded to it. What are they valuing when they pick up a DBT workbook and start developing their strategies for emotional regulation? What are they hoping for when they continue to show up in relationships despite the BPD voice telling them to bail? Who taught them that they could respond? Who in their lives knows what they cherish, and would not be surprised to learn that they are taking actions to respond to the problems in their lives?

Rebecca Lester writes:

“I understand BPD somewhat differently than my clinical colleagues who see it as a dysfunction of personality and my academic colleagues who see it as a mechanism of social regulation. In my view, BPD does not reside within the individual person; a person stranded alone on a desert island cannot have BPD. Nor does it reside within diagnostic taxa; if we eliminated BPD from the DSM, people would still struggle with the cluster of issues captured in the diagnosis. Rather, BPD resides – and only resides – in relationship. BPD is a disorder of relationship, not of personality. And it is only a ‘disorder’ because it extends an entirely adaptive skill set into contexts where those skills are less adaptive and may cause a great deal of difficulty. Yet due to the contexts in which the skills were developed, the person has a great deal of trouble amending them (Linehan, 1993). Since BPD resides in relationship, BPD can also be attenuated through relationship: it is not a life-sentence, and it is not even necessarily problematic if managed constructively.”

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

One of the foundational beliefs of narrative therapy is that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem, and the solution is rarely individual. I think that this is an important framing to bring to discussions of BPD.

So that’s where I stand.

Questioning the Discourse

How about the discourse around BPD?

In her fantasy book Borderline, author Mishell Baker, who identifies as BPD herself and has written a badass BPD heroine for the novel, writes, “Sometimes, the first thing people learn about borderlines is that you can’t trust them. And there’s not always much learning after that.”

That’s why it is so important to think critically about the stories we are telling about BPD, and about people who are identified with BPD. To keep learning. To interrogate what we have been taught or told about what it means to live with BPD experiences.

Does the story leave room for the dignity and agency of the person being described?

Does it position the person as the expert in their own experience?

Who does this story serve, and what are the potential outcomes of this story?

We need to ask these questions anytime we read an article, a post, a book, a webpage – what, and who, is being supported in this narrative?

What, and who, is being diminished?

Bring these questions with you anytime you engage with writing or speaking about BPD (or anything else!)

BPD is recognized as one of ten personality disorders in the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. In the ICD-10, the manual used by the World Health Organization, this diagnosis is named “emotionally unstable personality disorder.”  

The Mayo Clinic defines a personality disorder as:

“A type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people. This causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, social activities, work and school.”

Mayo Clinic, Personality Disorders

We’re going to come back to this idea of “trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people” because, in fact, many participants in our BPD Superpowers group identified themselves as being uniquely and specifically skilled in observing their environments, relationships, and selves, and in building community and empathizing and connecting with other people. Although it is true that many folks experience BPD as getting in the way of their relationships at times, this does not mean that they cannot perceive and understand what is happening around them.

BPD and Abuse

This framing, this story of what a personality disorder is, can be weaponized against a person who is identified with BPD. It can actually leave them more vulnerable to abuse, because it frames them as being somehow inherently and perpetually incapable of accurate perception. Even if this is not what a clinician might mean when they use this language, this is what you get from a quick google search. Very little discussion of the social contexts within which these so-called “personality disorders” arise, and almost nothing that describes the skillful and intentional ways in which people respond to these problems.

Gaslighting refers to actions that cause someone to question their own memory, perception, or sanity. Gaslighting can happen intentionally – lying about, denying, or misrepresenting what has happened.

But it can also happen unintentionally when we treat someone’s perception as unreliable, when we default to the idea that they are lying or mistaken, when we refuse to position them as the experts in their own experiences. The discourse of personality disorders as meaning that a person “has trouble perceiving situations” can create a context within which a person with BPD is being constantly, and often unintentionally and non-maliciously but still harmfully!, gaslit. It can leave people who are identified with BPD in the position of not being believed if they are subjected to abuse. It is not a helpful framing.

How are we witnessing BPD?

As an alternative framing, it might be helpful to ask ourselves what is influencing how we are witnessing the people in our lives who are identified with BPD. Are we kind witnesses to their experiences? Are we holding space for them to share their insider knowledges into what they need, what they are experiencing, and what is helpful for them?

And on the topic of helpful or unhelpful, here is what Wikipedia has to say about BPD:

“BPD is characterized by the following signs and symptoms:

  • Markedly disturbed sense of identity
  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and extreme reactions
  • Splitting (“black-and-white” thinking)
  • Impulsivity and impulsive or dangerous behaviors (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
  • Intense or uncontrollable emotional reactions that often seem disproportionate to the event or situation
  • Unstable and chaotic interpersonal relationships
  • Self-damaging behavior
  • Distorted self-image
  • Dissociation
  • Frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, or rage

The most distinguishing symptoms of BPD are marked sensitivity to rejection or criticism, and intense fear of possible abandonment. Overall, the features of BPD include unusually intense sensitivity in relationships with others, difficulty regulating emotions, and impulsivity. Other symptoms may include feeling unsure of one’s personal identity, morals, and values; having paranoid thoughts when feeling stressed; depersonalization; and, in moderate to severe cases, stress-induced breaks with reality or psychotic episodes.”


The wiki page also includes the Millon subtypes, which include Discouraged borderline, Petulant borderline, Impulsive borderline, and Self-destructive borderline. Fabulous.

So that’s Wikipedia, which is one of the first places that many folks look when they receive a diagnosis of BPD or when they are trusted with a disclosure from a friend or family member, or when they hear about someone having BPD.

If you are here as a friend, family member, or someone in community with folks who are identified with BPD, imagine what it might feel like to read that about yourself, and to have that be the dominant narrative of who you are. Imagine what it might feel like to know that people around you are reading this about you, and may be talking about you and people like you in these terms.

If you are here as a person who identifies with BPD, know that I and every one of the people involved in this project, and many people beyond this group, see you for more than these degrading and diminishing descriptors. We recognize your superpowers. We recognize your resilience. In one of the group discussions, a participant said, “Every single person with BPD who is still with us, and those that aren’t still with us, I think that we absolutely deserve to be acknowledged and that our hard work should be acknowledged. Not tokenized or pedestalized, but having that work acknowledged and witnessed.”

I agree.

And I agree with Rebecca Lester when she writes:

Through challenging embedded bias, honoring the testimonies of individuals, questioning of our own motivations, and renewing a commitment to reduce injustice, silencing, and suffering, our intellectual, clinical, and human potentialities are being stretched and, if we are fortunate, will continue to grow.

What I find most compelling about my clients with ‘borderline’ symptoms is that they are still struggling to exist despite the deep conviction that they do not deserve to do so. And they are still struggling to connect with others, despite being told again and again that they are manipulative and controlling and difficult. Far from being inauthentic, then, these individuals are reaching out into the world in the most honest, direct, vulnerable ways they possibly can, all the while bracing for the invalidation and hostility that they know is likely to follow. They cannot help but reach for connection, and to hold out faith, however dim, that they will find it. I find this incredibly inspiring; it puts front-and-center the impulse for growth and health that I believe exists in all of us, no matter how encrusted with despair, dysfunction, hopelessness, or defeat.

I learn from these clients every single day. Their struggles and their resilience humble me. They remind me that intellectual critique is but one piece of a much larger puzzle, and that they have experiences that deserve to be heard and validated, even when (perhaps especially when) they challenge our interpretations. They push me to become a better scholar, a better clinician, and, I hope, in the end, a better human being.

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

One of the contributors to the BPD Superpowers project, Dottie Ayala, shared the following on her facebook page and has given us permission to use this quote in the resource.

with my bpd symptoms, I just can’t handle cbt or dbt thanks to fucked up experiences in the past. And I don’t trust any therapists bc they’re only getting my POV about what’s happening and I think they side with me more than is valid sometimes. And also trusting someone else’s judgement more than my own is so damaging as an abuse survivor.

but I notice my reactions getting less and less severe over the years and that’s just like a combination of introspection, community, and also others holding me accountable. Plus realizing I have bpd helped me be able to recognize when I’m having a flare and prepare accordingly.

basically, mental health care can look really different for different ppl. I feel like my doctors act like I’m resisting treatment when really I’m just resisting being harmed more.

Dottie Ayala, Facebook post

Difficulty in relationships is one of the most common traits associated with BPD, and yet our group has maintained such a strong focus on community and the role of cherished friends and community members. This group, and so many folks identified with BPD beyond this group, prove how thin and simplistic are the dominant narratives of BPD.

I’m going to end with the list of superpowers that were identified in our group conversations. These superpowers will be explored more fully in the collective document, which I hope to have ready to share by the end of this month!


  • The Superpower of Community (and community care)
  • The Superpower of Showing Up
  • Resilience
  • Endurance
  • Dialectics as a Superpower (holding multiple true stories)
  • Empathy and Compassion
  • The Superpower of Quick Turnaround of Emotions
  • The Superpower of Being Able to Get Out of a Bad Situation
  • The Ability to ‘Chameleon’

Check back next week for the next BPD Awareness Month post, which will be the video and transcript of the interview with Kay and Sam.