Image description: On the left a paper heart hanging among many hearts, on the right a single torn paper heart. Text in the centre reads “it’s complicated.”
There is already so much good writing available on the topic of love, and I find myself hesitant and slow to write this post, which feels so important but feels so superfluous, redundant, pretentious. What can I say that hasn’t been said better by others?
I think that this, the stumble at the beginning of this post, is part of what and why I kept coming back to this text file again and again over the last month. Can anything new be said about love? Does it matter? Is what we want to say valuable even if it is not new? There are questions here about authenticity, originality, value and voice. Discourses of love.
So, first, I want to share some of the great writing that has inspired and moved me on the topic of love. I’m sharing these at the beginning of the post rather than the end, because within those questions of value and voice there is also the question of privilege. Whose voice am I lifting up? And many of these pieces of writing come from people who are more or differently marginalized than I am, whose voices need to be heard.
The entire seventh issue of Guts Magazine, on the topic of Love. Every piece of writing in this issue has something to offer, something liberatory and complicated. Read all of them, if you have the time. It’s worth it. From the editorial:
“Why look for The One, when what we want, what we need, is the many? The multiple? Not partners, but practices of love. Why is single (singular, alone) the opposite of the couple? Why is the alternative not an even greater plurality? Again, not only of lovers, but of life-sustaining arrangements of relations that we navigate without containment?
This issue is an attempt to locate and articulate ways of shoring up against the hurtful shape of love we’ve been handed by the state, by colonialism, by the family, by patriarchy. The artists and writers featured here are seeking a less deadly sort of love—forms of love that are not so easily weaponized against one another.
It’s about clearing and defending ground for new shapes to emerge when we see them struggling into life. This issue is looking for those nascent configurations about to come into view.”
Caleb Luna’s article, “Romantic love is killing us: Who takes care of us when we are single?” at The Body is Not An Apology.
“I don’t want to be loved. I want to be cared for and prioritized, and I want to build a world where romantic love is not a prerequisite for these investments—especially not under a current regime with such a limited potential for which bodies are lovable. Which bodies can be loved, cared for, and invested in.
It does not have to be this way. We can commit to keeping each other alive despite our sexual capital. We need to care for each other to keep each other alive. The myth of self-assurance is neoliberal victim-blaming in an attempt to obscure, neutralize and depoliticize our actions in the name of independent thoughts and actions and to skirt accountability.
Can we care for each other outside of love? Can we commit to keeping the unloved and unlovable alive? Is this a world that we have the potential to build?”
Shivani Seth’s article, “What’s next in the culture of care?” at Rest for Resistance.
“When we see our interactions and our strengths as ways to give to each other, as a flow back and forth, it’s easier to see how self-care and community care are naturally intertwined. We move the nexus of self-care to the community and spread our relative wealth out. Like a microloan or a community bank, we can take what is too small to support one individual and enlarge the potential impact by pooling our collective resources. We begin to work on trusting each other in slow, small ways.”
Samantha Marie Nock’s article, “Decrying desirability, demanding care” at Guts Magazine.
“This brings us back to the beginning: my anxiety about being abandoned. In reality, I should be calling this, my anxiety that all my friends are going to find romantic partners and leave me behind and I’m going to lose the world I’ve learned to live in. I cried recently, in a cab at 5am, because I had an anxiety attack at a party sparked by my friend showing interest in someone. I know this isn’t normal; I’m well aware, delete your comment right now. This was super embarrassing but my friend and I talked about it and I admitted why I had a melty. It has been a good and ongoing discussion and a growing opportunity. But it was the first time in my entire life that I have ever expressed this fear to someone, especially a close friend who is implicated in this anxiety. My friend is really supportive and didn’t run when I unloaded years of hurt and trauma onto the living room floor. Living in my body also means being terrified of telling anyone anything that might scare them because you don’t want to be “crazy” and fat. You already feel like you’re too difficult to love. So laying out my vulnerabilities shook me. I’m still shaken, and I’m still processing. It’s scary to straight up tell someone: “I’m scared that one day you’re not going to care for me like you do now because you’re going to do something that is completely normal and expected in our society that I can’t participate in on an equal level.” It’s scary to ask someone to rip apart the world we live in and help you create a new one where you feel safe.”
And there’s more. There’s so much amazing work being done on the topic of loving, and liberating love from oppressive discourses, demands, expectations, entitlements. People are telling their stories, and their stories are incredibly moving.
Unexpectedly persistent queer love.
Please share your favourite links in the comments – I would love to read more.
Languages and/of Love and/of Loneliness
I’ve been thinking about love languages a lot lately. And I’m always thinking about stories – the stories we tell and are told, about ourselves, about each other, about what’s real, what’s valid, what’s worthy. I’ve been thinking about loneliness and the language of loneliness, lately. I’ve been thinking about connection, and collective action. Community, and communities of care.
I’ve been thinking about silence and silencing and quietness.
I’ve been thinking about love.
(I’ve been thinking about leaving Facebook and starting an email newsletter.)
I’ve been thinking about the apocalypse, and about neo-liberal fatalism. (Articulated by Paolo Freire, this is “an almost casual acceptance of ongoing social inequalities as inevitable,” and a sense that just because the solution has not been discovered, it does not exist. This is particularly prevalent among privileged progressives, and I am absolutely guilty of it, of not seeing a way forward and feeling deeply fatalistic about this. Powerful antidotes exist within Indigenous feminism, Black feminism and Afrofuturism, and in the insider knowledges and transgenerational survivance of so many oppressed peoples.)
I have been thinking, especially, about how we speak our love, hear our love, receive and transmit our love within scarcity.
I have been thinking about the loneliness of “burn-out.” I agree entirely with Vikki Reynolds critiques of the discourse of burn-out (link is to a PDF of her article, “Resisting burnout with justice-doing”). Reynolds calls out the discourse that frames burnout as an internal rather than contextual problem, and suggests that one way to resist burnout is through solidarity and collective care.
I think, yes!
And I think, how?
From October 2017 to October 2018, I participated in the Tender Year project with two of my dearest loves. We each engaged with the project in our own ways, and our ability to participate actively ebbed and flowed over the course of the year, but in that year, I felt myself to be actively in solidarity with community. The project has been over for months now, and I still miss it. I have not managed to maintain that feeling of connection.
I am lonely.
I struggle to do the work of connection and cultivating community in ways that feel nurturing to me. I do the work. I can even say, and believe, that I do the work well (sometimes, in some ways). But do I do it in ways that feel nurturing to me? That is an important question. It feels critical, actually. How do we tell stories about ourselves in loving relationship, in community, in connection, in ways that honour the prickly static that surrounds so many of us who are living in pain and under financial pressure?
How do we tell stories that honour the complexities of our experiences, that resist reducing our experiences down to totalizing narratives of connection or disconnection, love or lovelessness, hope or hopelessness? How do we hold space for this complexity? How do we find language for these contradictory and still concurrently true stories?
Because it is true that I am lonely these days. I feel this truth so often, particularly in weeks (and there are many of them) when all of my interactions are somehow related to my work.
And it is also true that I am blessed with an abundance of love in my life.
I know that I am not the only person experiencing this complexity, and feeling guilty and overwhelmed at my own emotional responses.
I feel that if it is true that I am surrounded by loving community, including: loving partnerships, some of which have survived multiple major relationship structure transitions, one of which includes co-parenting, all of which are deliciously and actively and intentionally anti-oppressive; loving platonic friendships; loving family-of-origin relationships (shout out to my amazing sister, one of the foundational relationships in my life); loving chosen family relationships; and loving extended community relationships – if this is all true, and it is, then what right do I have to feel lonely? To feel isolated? To feel stretched too thin and with support that does not meet my needs? What kind of ungrateful, entitled wretch am I?!
And the companion narrative to this self-flagellation – when will everyone realize how ungrateful I am, and abandon me? And, even more profoundly present in my life – when will everyone in my life become tired of subsisting on the little I have to offer, and abandon me?
So I feel simultaneously overwhelmed with gratitude when I think about the people and the relationships in my life, and overwhelmed with guilt for the fact that I am still struggling and the fact that I feel I often have so little to offer outside of (and even sometimes within) my work.
I rarely see my people outside of work contexts, except the ones I live with. (And even there, do I do enough work around the house? Do I tidy up enough, do I cook enough, do I do enough childcare? The uncharitable answer I provide myself is no. Absolutely not.)
I am too busy, all the time. I am achy. I am tired. I am always, always (almost always) feeling overwhelmed. I don’t get enough done. I’m barely keeping up. Yesterday, I forgot to call someone who wanted to talk about working together. A referral! Of all the things to forget. I forgot to email someone potential dates for our next narrative session. I’m behind on everything, constantly. My editing work. My freelance writing work. My own writing work, which is precious to me, and yet constantly falls away. The blog posts and zines that seem to constantly be “getting there” but never actually get there.
There is a pervasive feeling of chaos in my life, and this feeling can obscure the concurrent truth that I do actually get a lot done.
When I reread Shivani Seth’s piece before writing this post, I felt the sharpness of my longing for just a little more time, more rest. More ease. More space for more care.
My pain has been unreal this last month. Every day, it hurts. My body hurts. My head hurts. This means my heart hurts. And I question myself constantly – who am I kidding, thinking I can be a narrative therapist, thinking I can make this my life? When that means that I need it to be financially sustainable… I can’t even finish these thoughts. They trail off into the abyss.
This impacts the experience and the language of love.
When I send a message to a partner or a beloved friend or to my sister or someone else, and I say, “I love you,” I mean this with such intensity and intentionality. And when they say it back, I believe it. And also, I struggle with it.
One of my community members recently described an experience of being “immune to niceness” and another described a type of “dissociating from affection.” These descriptions resonate for me. It’s like stress and contextual pressure and fear of failure and fear of abandonment create a buffer of static around me, and the feeling of being solid in the love ends up dissipated and repelled.
But this is complicated. This story of static and fear is not a true story that exists in an absence of other true stories. There is also the true story of receiving and knowing love. I am thankful for this complexity. I am thankful for stories that do not ouroboros into a tidy bow, stories that contradict themselves. Like this story of scarcity and fear, which contradicts itself constantly.
Earlier this week, I shared the following:
I often have considerable anxieties about my narrative therapy practice.
Like, I’m not accredited as a counselling therapist and I probably won’t be unless I do another degree.
And I don’t work with an organization.
And I have a ton of community organizing experience but does that count *really*?
And I have some pretty strong political views and they absolutely are present in my narrative sessions.
And sometimes I’m a bit of a “down the rabbit hole” kind of person, and often it works out but every so often it doesn’t.
Like, these concerns come up really often for me. There have been so many times when I’ve sat in front of my computer, or stood in the shower, or been driving, and my head is just *full* of thoughts like, “what do I think I’m doing? why should anyone trust me?”
Do I actually know what I’m doing?
Am I actually making a difference?
And the stresses of living under capitalism also come into play – am I ever going to have enough business to make this sustainable? How will I develop this business without cooperating with the overwhelming whiteness of the wellness industry (because I am not willing to do that)? A lot of folks have said that I need to find the folks who can pay my full rate to subsidize the folks who can’t, and I need to aim my marketing towards that, but… that implies I know anything about how to do marketing in the first place?
And I know that narrative therapy, narrative practice, explicitly and intentionally welcomes people like me – outside of institutions and organizations, working in community, noodling along without as much formal training (or the kind of training) that is expected. But still. That anxieties are there. A lot.
What I’m saying is!
I have these concerns pretty often and then other times I just feel so good about my practice, and I love what I do, and I love joining with my community members to co-research the problems in their lives. I just love it. And it feels like home for me. And there are times when I have a narrative conversation and I’m like, “damn. this is exactly what I want to do with my life. I am going to keep doing this, and just have some faith that it will work out.
My community showed up for me with such incredible words. Here is some of what they shared:
“As someone you have helped I want to say that you have made a difference in my life, and that what you do matters, and that you’re very good at it, and that I hope you continue doing what you do. Also, thank you.”
And someone else responded, “I couldn’t have said it better. Ditto!”
“I keep meaning to tell you that I got one of your fridge magnet in one of my event bags like last year and it’s still on my fridge so I can remind myself of the advice on it. In case you ever wonder if you are making a difference.”
“Our medical system is incredibly broken, especially when it comes to mental health and wellness. To do the amazing work you are doing, and want to keep doing, it’s probably actually part of your incredible strength and versatility that you _don’t_ go through the systems of control and conformity that characterize “accredited” mental health care. <3″
“You are a true gift to me and so many others like us.”
“Tiffany, I can confidently say that you have opened windows in my heart that I didn’t know were closed. I have referred many friends to your blog writing and Facebook page because what you say and how you say it is profoundly validating and stimulating. Keep going, you must!”
“Could some of what you frame as anxiety or self-doubts be part of your own process of self reflection? Is it a way of exploring your space/faith in yourself and shaping the balance between the more rigid spaces in healthcare and capitalism? I’m a part of the mainstream healthcare system, and I intentionally try to point out how little capitalism and the way it shapes the societal rituals and beliefs has anything to do with humanity and wellness. And part of how I measure success has to do with feeling uncomfortable in the space I’m in, and knowing that I simultaneously want to be of service to my community and also stay aware of the fundamental flaws in the system I’m a part of. When I read your words I feel like there’s a lot of similarities. I feel like your niche and your place of belonging is more focused than mine, and we’ve touched on the difference between narrative therapy and OT. I pretty much just want to give you a big hug and remind you that marketing is the word capitalism uses to frame networking and connection and building community capacity and recognizing skill and ability and specialization that doesn’t make someone better than another person. I love the scope and heart of what you do. I love your bravery and not compromising your ideals and values in order to ease your path.”
“I definitely see value in your narrative therapy practice! I could choose to go to a counselor who’s accreditation is acknowledged in Alberta and have part of the fee reimbursed by my insurance provider… But I find way more value in meeting with you. Your political stances create a space where I feel safer, as I know I am unlikely to experience queerphobia or fatphobia in that space. I could be wrong, but I’m also guessing that working outside of an organization might mean you are more accessible to people who are typically oppressed by organizations (especially health and mental health organizations). The sustainability piece I’m totally feeling right now. That might be the toughest one to figure out, but that also has little to do with your skills as a narrative therapist (cause you are amazing with that), and everything to do with capitalism and gatekeeping of access to mental health care.”
“I’ve often had these ideas and fears along the way…especially when starting out….it gets pretty scary at times…but not as scary as some other places I’ve been. There is a real accountability with the folks we meet when doing this work in these ways….not just accountability as an abstract idea. Keep going till you can’t I say!!”
“All of those concerns are exactly why you are going to be & are great… its the self awareness … please remember to use a great narrative mentor of your own … I’d certainly pay for your services as one.”
“I don’t have any words of wisdom, but want to say that I also experience these feels and impostor syndrome likes to push me around. I’m only just starting to get to know the way that ideas in social work/counselling like “competence” and “credibility” and “professionalism” bully me into thinking that I don’t know enough and don’t deserve to be paid the “big bucks” unless I meet the “qualifications” and become “registered”. (oh man, just putting all those words into quotations felt good and took some of their oppressive power away for a moment!) Anyway, from not knowing you very long and having never met in real life, you’ve already offered me emotional support and been thoughtful and kind when you witnessed something happening that you felt wasn’t right. You reaching out to me at that time was exactly what I needed. I am thankful that you exist and that you are able to be there for your community members.”
I’m going to put these into a book of reassurance for myself, and keep it in my office.
I’m going to keep doing my work.
I’m going to keep cultivating my loving relationships, across the wide range of their expression, and I’m going to continue to speak the language of scarcity and fear while I’m doing it.
I’m going to let this be complex.
I think that’s my primary love language – if I love you, I will step into complexity with you and for you. And that’s also how I want to be loved, with contradictions and complications.
That’s what I have to offer, and what I hope to receive.
(Maybe with a little bit of ease in there, too, sometimes. Just a bit. A bit more. More. A little more than that. Okay… maybe a lot. Someday, a lot.)
Image description: Kate’s incredibly stylish orange cane, leaning against white drawers with silver handles, on a wooden floor.
This is a Patreon reward post for Kate, and was available to patrons last week. Patreon supporters at the $10/month level get a self-care post on the topic of their choice during their birthday month. These supporters make my work possible! Especially as I head into my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program, my patrons ensure that I can keep producing resources and self-care content. (And wow, there are some really great resources in production! Check back tomorrow for a post about that!)
Kate and I have known each other for a few years, and got to know each other while we were both going through some challenging times (though we didn’t actually meet in person until quite a bit later, and still aren’t able to spend as much time together as either of us might like!)
Kate has been one of my most outspoken supporters, and I appreciate how she is always willing to leap in with an offer of help or a suggested solution.
Her birthday is in January, and her topic is, “maintaining intimate relationships and partnerships with a chronic illness or chronic pain.”
I struggled with writing this post because I am experiencing my own spoon shortage. I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, have been sick for the last two months, and my fibromyalgia pain has been spiking. All of these spoon-hoarding gremlins are impacting my own relationships, challenging my sense of who I am and how I navigate the world, and putting gloom-coloured glasses on my view of the future. When I write about self-care for folks who are struggling, it’s easier when I can write about a struggle I am not currently experiencing. It’s easier if I can yell back into the labyrinth from the safety of the outside. Easier, but not always better. It is a myth that the best insights come from people who have “figured it all out” – I believe the opposite is often true. When we are in the thick of it is when we have the most relevant and meaningful insider information. Our struggle is not a barrier to our ability to help each other – it is the fuel that allows us to help each other. This is one of the key principles of narrative therapy, and as much as it challenges me, I am trying to bring it into my own life. Can I write something worthwhile from the heart of the struggle? Yes. Well, I think so. Let’s find out.
What Kate asked about was maintaining intimate relationships while navigating chronic illness or pain. In relationships where one person experiences chronic issues and another doesn’t, those issues can create a significant disparity in ability and access to internal resources. (And in relationships where multiple people are experiencing chronic issues, the pressure resulting from reduced access to resources can grow exponentially.)
Being in the position of having (or perceiving that we have) less to offer often triggers shame, fear, and stress. In my own relationships, I worry that I’m not worth it, that my partners will grow tired of me. I worry that I’m “too much.” I have heard the same worry from my clients.
This anxiety is so natural, and so understandable. Our society does not have readily accessible narratives that include robust “economies of care.” Our most common narrative has to do with “pulling our own weight” in a relationship, and our definitions of balanced relationships rely so heavily on ideas of equality rather than justice. Split the bills 50/50. Take turns washing the dishes. You cook, I’ll clean. My turn/your turn for the laundry, the diapers, the groceries.
And it becomes more complicated when we consider the intangible labour of emotional support and caregiving, which is disproportionately assumed to be the role of women in relationships with men, and, since women are also often the ones experiencing chronic pain or illness, this can compound into a messy and unjust situation pretty quickly. (To back up these claims, check out the links at the end of this post.)
Thankfully, both of these problems – the tit-for-tat approach, and the unjust division of emotional labour – are being challenged by writers, activists, and communities on the margins.
In Three Thoughts on Emotional Labour, Clementine Morrigan writes, “We can name, acknowledge, honour, perform, and yes, accept emotional labour, instead of simply backing away from it because we don’t want to be exploitative.”
This is so challenging for so many of us, because we do not want to exploit our friends, our partners, our communities. When we experience chronic illness or pain, the fear that we might slide into exploitation and “being a burden” becomes amplified. Morrigan suggests that we can ask three guiding questions about the emotional labour we are offering or accepting – Is it consensual? Is it valued? Is it reciprocated?
If we can answer yes to each – if we are discussing what we need and what we can offer, if we are valuing what we are offered and if our own offerings are valued, and if there is reciprocity – fantastic!
But what does reciprocity look like in situations where there is a disparity in access to resources?
Morrigan suggests that:
“It is important to acknowledge that some of us need more care than others. Some of us, due to trauma, disability, mental health stuff, poverty, or other reasons, may not be in a position to provide as much emotional labour as we need to receive. We may go through periods where are able to provide more emotional labour or we may always need more care than we are able to give. We may be able to reciprocate care in some ways and not others. This is totally okay. We need rich networks of emotional care, so that all of us can get the care we need without being depleted. We need communities that value and perform emotional labour—communities that come through for each other. Reciprocity is a commitment to building communities where all of us are cared for and no one is left behind; it is not a one for one exchange.”
It is not a one for one exchange.
This is so critical.
And it’s so hard to make space for this. It’s hard to see our worthiness and the value we bring to a relationship when what we offer has shifted from what we were able to offer before the chronic issue grew up within us and between us.
Not only that, but it’s often hard for our partners to recognize what we’re bringing to the relationship. Not because they don’t love and appreciate and support us, but because they are also caught within the web of accessible narratives and ableist norms.
In order to answer “yes” to Morrigan’s “is it valued?” question, we need to be able to look clearly at the work our partners, friends, and families are doing for us and acknowledge that work. And we need to be able to look clearly at our own work and speak openly about it, so that it can be valued. Neither side of this is easy.
Becoming aware of the skills and insider knowledges that we develop as we live our new pain-, disability-, or illness-enhanced lives can help with recognizing, articulating, and allowing people to value our new contributions.
In A Modest Proposal For A Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered By Disabled, Femme of Color, Working Class/Poor Genius), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:
“Sick and disabled folks have many superpowers: one of them is that we often have highly developed skills around care. Many of us have received shitty, condescending, charity-based care or abusive or coercive care—whether it’s from medical staff or our friends and families. We’re also offered unsolicited medical advice every day of our lives, mostly coming from a place of discomfort with disability and wanting to “fix” us.
All of this has made us very sophisticated at negotiating care, including our understanding that both offering and receiving it is a choice. The idea of consent in care is a radical notion stemming from disabled community wisdom. Ableism mandates that disabled people are supposed to gratefully accept any care offered to “fix” us. It’s mind blowing for many people to run into the common concept in many sick and disabled communities, that disabled people get to decide for ourselves the kind of care we want and need, and say no to the rest. This choicefulness has juicy implications for everyone, including the abled.”
I love her wording here. The juicy implications of choicefulness! Imagine the possibilities of this.
And yet, even as I revel in this juicy and nourishing framework, I remember my own deep and ongoing struggle with the concept of pain, illness, and disability as invitation, as superpower, as self. This radical reorganization of labour within relationships does not come easily, and one of the reasons it’s so challenging is because our concepts of fairness are so influenced by one to one exchanges.
Piepzna-Samarasinha addresses this fear later in the essay, reminding us that, “Disabled people often run into the idea that we can never offer care, just receive it. However, we often talk about the idea that we can still offer care from what our bodies can do. If my disabled body can’t lift yours onto the toilet, it doesn’t mean I can’t care for you—it means I contribute from what my particular body can do. Maybe instead of doing physical care, I can research a medical provider, buy groceries for you, or listen to you vent when one of your dates was ableist.”
We forget that there is still care, still reciprocity available within our relationships even when our ability to perform the tasks we used to, or the tasks we wish we could, has shifted.
Learning how to navigate this shift is challenging.
Searching for resources to share in this post, I was discouraged by the sheer volume of academic research performed by normatively abled “experts” on the outcomes for relationships that include a disabled partner. Once again, the centre scrutinizing the margins. It creates such a disempowering framework.
I was also dismayed by the fact that “should I date a disabled person” was one of the suggested related searches. Gross! GROSS!!!!
These are the narratives, and the social framework, within which we try to navigate our relationships as pain/illness/disability-enhanced individuals.
We need more robust, inclusive, intersectional, and hopeful resources. Not hopeful in the “look on the bright side” gaslighting-via-silver-lining sense. Hopeful in the sense of possibility-generating, hope that, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “animates a struggle.” Hope that reminds us that there are narratives possible outside of the ableist norm, and that we can write those love stories within our own lives.
The parts of ourselves that do not fit tidily into the ableist ideal show up in our relationships in many ways. In order to write those inclusive love stories of any kind – platonic, romantic, familial, or parental – we need to recognize and learn to navigate all of it. Financial, social, emotional, physical, mental – very aspect of ourselves that requires tending and care.
Chronic illness/pain/disability impacts our financial lives – we are often less able to work within normative capitalist models. The 8-5 grind doesn’t work if you can’t manage a desk job for 9 hours a day, and many other jobs are also out of reach. This adds pressure to our partners and social supports. Money is a huge source of shame and fear for many of us, so learning how to talk about requiring financial support, how to shift the balance of contribution in a household – overwhelming! Be gentle with yourselves in these conversations.
I find this particularly challenging. More than almost any other way in which my chronic issues impact my relationships, the financial instability that has been introduced as a result of my no longer being able to work a full-time job feels humiliating and shameful. I am working hard to carve out a living for myself, to build my business in sustainable and anti-ableist ways, to do what has to be done to pay my share of the bills. But my partners still take up more than what feels “fair” in the financial realm, and it’s hard. For me, engaging with writers, activists, and advocates who are challenging capitalism and neoliberalism has been helpful. Recognizing that there are other economic models available has opened up some space for me to still see myself as a contributing member of my partnerships and society.
Chronic illness/pain/disability also impacts our social lives – getting out to see friends can become more challenging. Our partners can end up taking on more social caring work for us, being the ones we talk to when we aren’t getting out (or when we don’t feel safe to talk about our struggle with others).
The aggressive individualism of our current anglo-european culture means that we are often isolated, and this can be so discouraging. Again, I struggle with this personally and I don’t have easy answers.
And searching for resources on parenting with chronic pain, illness, or disability is similarly challenging and disheartening. Parenting with any kind of divergence from the ideal is difficult. The weight of judgement, assumption, erasure, hostility, and isolation is so real. Although more supportive and inclusive blog posts, research papers, and articles are being written, the perception of a weirdly-abled parent is still one of lack, inability, and pity.
We often want to provide everything our children needs, without outside help. That’s the expected ideal. The nuclear family is still the celebrated norm, and the ideal of a normatively abled, neurotypical, stay-at-home, biological parent is still the target to meet. We may recognize that “it takes a village” but we resist the idea that part of what that village offers may be physically chasing after the toddler, lifting the baby, doing homework with the teen, helping with the rent. Just like we need to expand our conception of emotional labour and economies of care within relationships, we need that same expansiveness and redefinition within our parenting relationships and roles.
Which is easy to say, and incredibly hard to do.
At Disability and Representation, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes, “What so many able-bodied feminists don’t get is how profound an experience disability is. I’m not just talking about a profound physical experience. I’m talking about a profound social and political experience. I venture out and I feel like I’m in a separate world, divided from “normal” people by a thin but unmistakeable membrane. In my very friendly and diverse city, I look out and see people of different races and ethnicities walking together on the sidewalk, or shopping, or having lunch. But when I see disabled people, they are usually walking or rolling alone. And if they’re not alone, they’re with a support person or a family member. I rarely see wheelchair users chatting it up with people who walk on two legs. I rarely see cognitively or intellectually disabled people integrated into social settings with nondisabled people. I’m painfully aware of how many people are fine with me as long as I can keep up with their able-bodied standards, and much less fine with me when I actually need something.
So many of you really have no idea of how rampant the discrimination is. You have no idea that disabled women are routinely denied fertility treatments and can besterilized without their consent. You have no idea that disabled people are at very high risk of losing custody of their children. You have no idea that women with disabilities experience a much higher rate of domestic violence than nondisabled women or that the assault rate for adults with developmental disabilities is 4 to 10 times higher than for people without developmental disabilities. You have no idea that over 25% of people with disabilities live in poverty.”
So that fear of embracing a new normal, subverting the neoliberal individualist norm, creating new economies of care and radically altering our relationships to be just rather than equal… this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We aren’t just subverting norms and creating new relationship methods – we are doing so, as parents, under the scrutiny of an ableist and highly punitive culture. We are conscious of the fact that our subversion of norms, which may be possible within adult relationships, may make our parenting relationships more precarious, more tenuous.
Access to external help is readily available to the professional upper class – nannies are a completely acceptable form of external help, and parents are not judged for needing a nanny when that need is created by long working hours. Needing help in order to be more productive? Sure thing. (You’ll still face judgement, of course. Can any parent do it “right,” really? Nope.)
But needing help because of pain, illness, or disability?
That is much less socially sanctioned, and there are far fewer narratives available that leave space for that choice to be aligned with a “good parent” identity.
And yet, many of us do parent while in pain, while ill, while disabled. And we are good parents. Just like we have valuable superpowers of caring that can be brought into our adult relationships, we have the same superpowers of caring to bring into our parenting roles. What we do may look different than the pop culture ideal. How we do it, when we do it, who helps us with it – that might all look different. And that’s scary. But the value it brings to our kids is immeasurable.
One of the invitations that chronic illness, pain, and disability extends is that it pulls the curtain back on how harmful the neoliberal ideology of rugged individualism really is, and asks, “is there another way?”
I’m not great at saying “yes” to that invitation, but I’m getting better at recognizing it when it shows up. I don’t need to have all the answers, because I have a community around me that is brilliant and incredibly generous.
So, when I was struggling with this post, I asked my best friend and one of my partners to help me.
H.P. Longstocking has been dealing with the long-term effects of two significant concussions, and in a moment of discouragement at my own inability to write this post, I asked if she could help me get started. What she sent touched on so much of what I wanted to write about, so eloquently, and I’m ending this post with her incredibly valuable contribution. She is a parent, a scholar, and an integral part of the social net that keeps me going. I think there’s hope in how she has responded to this.
While I am no stranger to depression or anxiety, I had never experienced a chronic debilitating illness and I found that my self-care habits and techniques were no longer usually helpful or even always possible. Last summer I had several concussions. Because I had sustained so many as a child, these two accidents completely changed my life. Most of the summer I was not safe to drive or even walk as my second concussion happened when I tried to walk out of my bedroom and due to the concussion symptoms, I cracked my head into a wall. I could not look at screens, read, handle light or loud noises, and was told to stop having sex. All of my self-care habits were taken away.
I have always been an active person. Running and cycling have been my times of meditation and recalibration. Dancing brings me joy. Physical activity has been an integral part of my self-care since I was a small child. To have days, weeks, and months where walking short distances is the most physical activity I can safely manage, and some days not even that, has had a detrimental impact on my body and my emotional well-being.
I used to love to read. I devoured books and articles. I had just started my Masters and was supposed to be immersing myself in the scientific literature. I could not do any of that. I still struggle. Reading was my escape, my lifeline, my lifeblood, and I hoped, my livelihood. Now it causes me pain.
I was not prepared for the constant, chronic pain. Previously, I had headaches so rarely, I did not recognize them the few times a year I would experience one. Now, I have a hard time recognizing it because I am never without one. I find that I have my face screwed up in pain after someone reacts to me as if I am scowling at them. My coping mechanisms for the pain are to hyperfocus on something so I am unaware of most of the world around me. Unfortunately, this is usually my phone which in the long term makes it worse, but also as it gets worse, I have less self-control and ability to stop myself.
All of this has impacted my relationships. Without the ability to drive, I am often limited in who I can see and where I can go. Even without that, I am easily tired in social settings and my words begin to slur in mental exhaustion. I cannot handle loud spaces for very long, or if I do, I pay for it with days of recovery. I often feel isolated, alone, and incapable of taking care of myself, let alone being the partner, parent, and student I aspire to be.
But, I have adapted. Instead of reading, I listen to audiobooks. Instead of digesting dense theory or the latest studies, I listen to light narratives and fiction that has a plot so predicable that I can fall asleep and not miss much. I go for short walks instead of long bike rides.
My relationships have also changed.
It is hard to feel like you are not carrying your weight, especially in this neoliberal culture where people are valued according to how much productive and profitable output they can do. It is hard to be a partner with someone when you are more dependent and roommate than lover. It is hard not be able to see people, leave the house, focus on what someone is saying, or do what they are doing. It is so isolating and would be so much more so with poverty added as well. It hurts to see your kids do an impression of you which is just sleeping.
My friendships have changed. I am slowly learning to ask for help. To say no. To cancel plans last minute because it is not safe that day for me to go out. I cancel plans so often now that I am scared to make them. Much of my socialization now is online and sporadic. There is a price to pay for too much screen time. I am spending more time with people I do not have to hide my pain from. I do not have the resources to put up with mind games and people who suck energy. I have a few friends that make safe spaces for me to come and just nap around them so I won’t feel alone. My life is rich, even though my world and abilities have shrunk.
Self-care looks entirely different to me now. Instead of the sun on my face and the pounding of my feet on running paths, I sip tea wearing sunglasses. Instead of pushing through discomfort, I am learning to listen to it so that I do not make things worse. Instead of losing myself in the written word, I find comfort in story, sound and other sensory delights. Some of the people I spend time with have changed, and the ways I spend time with people have also. I do not know which symptoms will resolve and which I will have for the rest of my life, but while I grieve for friendships and opportunities lost, I am also grateful for the capacity to change and adapt, and trust that relationships worth holding onto can withstand the changes as well.
Further reading on emotional labour:
- Wondering about women’s differential experiences of pain? Check out the trans-inclusive Popaganda podcast on Women and Pain.
- And this Everyday Feminism article on how emotional labour defines women’s lives will give you insight into women’s experiences of differential expectations of emotional labour.
- And, if you want to challenge the gender disparity regarding emotional labour in straight relationships, check out 7 Ways Men Must Learn to Do Emotional Labour in Their Relationships.
- It’s also important to bring an intersectional lens to any discussion of emotional labour, and this article on Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women is both an excellent article on its own, and full of worthwhile links out.
- The Emotional Labour of the Closet: A Look at Trans Women’s Socialisation touches on the specific emotional labour that trans women are expected to offer.
- And we can’t discuss differential expectations of emotional labour without acknowledging misogynoir and the demands on Black women to be caregivers for their own communities and the white communities around them. Misogynoir and Black Women’s Unpaid Emotional Labour touches on this issue.
- And then, tie it back to chronic illness, chronic pain, disability. Disability and Emotional Labour talks about these issues, and although it’s an article related specifically to activism, it comes into our lives and relationships in many ways.
Image description: A stick figure stands on a road labeled The Path. Small paths lead away, labeled Why?, Is there another way?, What do I want for my life?, Who drew this map?, Where does my heart want to go? In the bottom right is a small Tiffany Sostar logo and a link to www.tiffanysostar.com
The inspiration for today’s #stickfiguresunday came from a good friend sharing their life-changing experience of realizing that further grad school would not actually get them where they wanted to be, and that there were other paths to their goals that felt better, easier, and more wholehearted.
More grad school had seemed like the best, maybe even the only, path towards their goals. But when they started questioning what they wanted, why they wanted it, and how to get it, they realized that grad school was not only not the only answer – it wasn’t even the best answer.
In that same conversation, we talked about why I had gotten married. I was on The Path – date, fall in love, get married. What I wanted was to move out of my parents’ home, experience freedom and independence, and feel capable and supported. Marriage seemed like the best, and at the time only, option. I loved him, we had been dating for quite a while, it was the logical next step. But if I had been able to ask myself some of these questions with compassion and curiousity, I could have found other paths toward my goals – paths that may have ended up in less pain and heartbreak for myself and my ex-husband.
It doesn’t help to assign blame to past selves who didn’t know that questions were possible – we make the best choices that we can with the resources and information we have available.
But it is helpful to invite ourselves to question the paths we’re on now.
Why are we on this path?
If the answer is that the path is right for us, awesome! We can stay on it.
If not, then we can start exploring alternatives.
Is there another way to get what we need?
If the answer is yes, it can be worth exploring what those other paths might look like, and whether they feel like a better fit for us. This line of questioning is most helpful when we feel trapped or forced into a certain path. Exploring alternative options with creativity, compassion, and curiousity can help us feel more grounded in our agency and self-efficacy – if we explore the options and find that this path is, indeed, the best or only path that gets us to our goals, then we can make a choice to stay on the path. Rather than being passively pushed forward by inertia or external pressure, we can make choices about what we do with our time and energy.
This is important, because there are not always better options. Sometimes we are on a rocky path and it truly is the only path available. It can hurt to look that reality in the eye, but once we do, we can start making choices about how we move forward on the rocky path we’re walking. G. Willow Wilson said “There is not always a way out, but there is always a way forward,” and that motto informs so much of my personal philosophy. Questioning our path can help us find the way forward.
What do I want for my life?
Taking a more expansive view can help. We’re on this path – towards marriage, towards grad school, towards a career in the trades, towards a big move or a friend group or a hobby or a habit or whatever else – and this path is not the only one that we’re on. We live multi-storied lives, meaning that our lives are made up of a huge number of events, experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and situations that create the stories we tell and are told about ourselves. There are many paths we are walking simultaneously. What do want for our lives? What is the bigger picture, and how does this path fit into it?
Who drew this map?
Why did I believe that marriage was the only way I could successfully move out of my parents’ house? To my older self, that is very clearly a false belief. But there was Life Map that I was trying to follow, and marriage was the next stop. I wasn’t navigating from a place of self-awareness, compassion, and intention. And that’s okay! We all have maps that were drawn for us by our society, our families of origin, our communities, or our histories. Those maps are not bad or wrong. But it’s worth examining who drew the map we’re following, and making a choice about whether we want to keep using it.
Where does my heart want to go?
What makes me happy?
What helps me feel whole?
What daydreams or imaginary selves keep tugging at me?
It’s worth paying attention to those gut-and-heart knowledges, even if they seem to contradict or challenge what we know with our rational minds.
So, what path(s) are you on?
How did you get there, and do you want to stay there, and where do they lead?
Let yourself ask the questions gently, compassionately, and with as much curiousity as you can muster.
This process can feel overwhelming and scary – if we question our path, does that mean we’ll have to abandon everything we love? Does it mean we’ll end up ostracized, alone, and broke? Does it mean we’ll realize we have no choices? (The answer to all of those is “no” but I totally understand the fear!)
If nothing else, start looking for the small question marks that pop up. When you start asking yourself about your path, as my friend did about grad school, let the knowledge unfold. What do you want? It’s okay to ask. And you might love the answer!
(Image description: A cloudy sky with reflecting sunrise light is seen through tall trees. Photo was taken by Stasha Huntingford.)
A Year of Sacred Attendance #tenderyear
We are nearing the end of #100loveletters.
Would you like to do another thing after that?
This was the question Nathan Fawaz posed to me, and the answer was an easy and enthusiastic “yes!”
The 100 Love Letters project has been transformative for me – it has been a thread of connection back to myself during a summer that included too much travel, too much stress, too much emotional upheaval, too much existential dread. The love letters were a daily reminder to sit down and breathe into a space of compassionate self-awareness. The letters were permission to take time, even five minutes at the end of the day, to love myself in the middle of the hard weeks and the bad weeks and the overwhelming weeks. They built space into my day, and gave me new tools for self-care and new methods for engaging my narrative. (You can find the posts related to this project here, and the PDF will be added to this section as well.)
The 100 Love Letters project was also an opportunity to build community, and I have appreciated the new friends I’ve made as a result of the project, the connections that have grown and strengthened as we witness and support and encourage each other through the process.
The 100 Love Letters project will continue on in various iterations – Nathan will be presenting their 101st letter at an event on October 14 (you can find out more about that event here), and I will be putting together a PDF that will be available for free download on my website, with prompts, encouragement, and a “how-to” section. (I’ll still be available to support anyone who started the project on a different day, too. You can always email me or find me on Facebook or Instagram!) I’m even working on a book proposal about the project!
But the 100 Love Letters project, in its original form, is coming to an end today, September 29. It’s 100 days since we launched at the beginning of the summer, and it has been a beautiful journey. It’s time for those of us who started our 100 days a season ago to shift into something else.
If you want to shift with me, consider this an invitation to a Year of Sacred Attendance.
This project, co-created by Nathan, Stasha, and myself, is that ‘other thing’ that was gestured into being with Nathan’s question. I think it will be amazing.
We started from another of Nathan’s ideas. They had said, “One thing that is coming up for me is the idea of attention, attendance.”
Being present with ourselves, attending, bringing attention, and tending to ourselves – that’s one of the most powerful elements of the love letter project. We each wanted to maintain that spacious, gracious sense of intentional, compassionate attendance. And we wanted to push gently against the edges of other aspects of our lives that could benefit from this kind of compassionate, intentional, regular tending.
Around Stasha’s kitchen table, the framework for a yearlong project coalesced. It was, and is, a collaborative project generated by the powerful narrative spellwork of the three of us, but we remain individuals within the project and we are so excited to share the project with as many of you as want to join.
The Year of Sacred Attendance will run from October 1, 2017 to September 30, 2018.
Each day of the week has a unique focus. You can participate in all of them, or pick and choose the ones that resonate for you. We will be using #tenderyear for every post related to the project, with daily tags as well (to make it easier for folks to find each other on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter).
Meditation to Challenge the Binaries. #challengethebinary
Meditation is a flexible form here – the goal of this day is to invite participants to think about binaries, opposites, exceptions, and subversions. Think of Venn Diagrams, exceptions that subvert the rule, grey areas that provide productive space for expanding and exploring our narratives. On Sundays, we look at The Normal and The Other, and we grapple with that. We look at The Thing and The Opposite of The Thing. You can engage with this focus through art, writing, or any other method that helps you dig into the topic.
Attending to the Questions. #questioneverything
A significant focus of this project is inviting and facilitating compassionate self-awareness. You can ask yourself whatever questions feel right for you – the focus of Monday is simply to take time to ask yourself how things are going. If you’re not sure what to ask, here are some sample questions, and you can answer whichever feel right for you. Not everyone participating in this project will be working on creative projects, and not everyone will feel comfortable with a goal of presence – trauma is a real factor in many of our lives, and can make presence a real challenge. These are just a place to start:
What are you creating?
What do you need?
Do you feel present?
Could you try something different?
What are you wondering about?
Love Letter #100loveletters
We wanted to keep the focus on self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-care, and self-love. The 100 Love Letters project continues on in the Tuesday focus.
Drop Into A Moment #wednesdaymoments
Find a moment to fully experience. This focus is about sensory awareness, mindfulness, presence, and about paying attention to our lives. You can participate in this through art, writing, photography, or simply pausing to observe yourself as a physical being within a physical world.
As Above So Below #fiveelements
Thursday’s focus builds on the physical presence of Wednesday, and is about connecting to the world around you.
Friday’s focus can take so many forms. Reflect on your week, reflect on your relationships, post a selfie, take a picture of a reflective surface – the beautiful thing about reflection is the many ways it can be interpreted.
Affirmations for yourself, for your communities, for the world. What do you need to hear? What do you need to affirm for yourself or for your people?
The #tenderyear project is open to anyone to participate, and participation can happen online or offline. Participating online can happen privately in messages or between friends, or publicly. We will be using the #dailypractices and #tenderyear hashtags throughout the posts.
There is an email list, similar to the one that was available for the #100loveletters project. You can sign up here. I’ll be sending out mostly-weekly emails with prompts, links to blog posts, interviews with participants, and encouragement and support. There will also probably be give-aways, like the handwritten letters that were sent out to Love Letters participants.
To give you a sense of the what and why and who behind this project, here is a mini roundtable with the co-creators.
How did this project start?
Stasha – For me the 100 love letters made sense as resistance to oppression, and as a lifesaving intervention. When Nathan and Tiffany also participated in the 100 love letters, it opened up a space in my heart. I was able to cheer on their resistance and to witness them both weaving powerful magic in inspiring their communities. I think after feeling that daily magic, all of us knew that sharing and sustaining this magic is vital. Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other with this even more so. I spent so much of my life stigmatizing parts of me that had been shamed by society, I didn’t survive 37 years to live in shame. I survived by transforming my pain into empathy and learning. This project assists me in that alchemy, a most sacred healing magic.
Nathan – Somewhere between letter sixty and letter seventy-five, I noticed this sensation within me… the sensation had been there since the very first letter, really, but it took me a while before I could identify it… anyway, I noticed this sense of space. That’s the best word I have to describe it. This sense of space. And, at the same time, I really began enjoying in the community that was emerging as part of #100loveletters. As I got closer and closer to letter 100, I found myself wondering what I could do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself. And how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.
Tiffany – Just like the #100loveletters project started with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Stasha’s original post about her project, this new project starts, for me, with a “Yes! Can I do that too?” in response to Nathan’s “Would you like to do another thing?” In both cases, I felt like I was being gifted a new tool to expand my self-care practice, my community care practice, and to share with the individuals and groups that I work with.
Stasha said, “Loving ourselves is a revolutionary act, supporting each other even more so,” and Nathan said, “[What can I] do to help support the spaciousness I was just starting to find for myself, and how can I help nourish this connectedness I was observing.”
These two origin stories for the project echo and overlap with my own – this project, for me, starts with trying to open up space for self-love and self-compassion, for myself and for the people around me, and to support and foster connectedness and love within my communities. It fits so perfectly with the work I want to do as a self-care and narrative coach, it feels like a gift. Two gifts! (Which is totes a double entendre because I am referring both to the two projects AND the two people. Clever!)
What do you find exciting about this project?
Stasha – Everything. The sacred belonging and acceptance that I already feel is amazing. I love working with people who understand how tenderness can bring down oppressive systems. What could be more radical than tending love in this world? Already we have done so much by creating a public space where we celebrate insanity as necessary for problem solving and community building. We have made a place that includes our hearts, our fears, our bodies, our chronic illnesses, our genders, our minds, our ptsd, our communities, our joy, and our pain. One of the most painful things about participating in groups, is that often parts of me are not welcome. This project allows me to participate as a whole person, which helps me nurture love.
Nathan – Everything. I am excited by its potential for compassion, and self-compassion. I am excited about its accessibility. I am excited to make this commitment in community, both online and in person. I’m excited for the container of this project. And I am curious to see what it will hold.
Tiffany – I am excited by the idea of making space for ritual and for the sacred in my life. I think it’s possible to engage with this project without ever engaging with any kind of spirituality or sense of the sacred, and that would be totally valid, but for me… I have been writing about, talking about, thinking about, and longing for a sense of ritual and connection for a long time. But I haven’t done the work to create space for ritual in my life – I’m always too busy, I’m always too scared of doing it wrong. I love that this project is flexible, expansive, and that it offers opportunities for sacred ritual but also for goofiness and lightness. And, a year is a long time. I’m excited about the opportunity to go through the first exciting month or two, and then the drudgery when it gets old and weighs more, and then the renewal when I find the excitement again. A year is long enough to cycle through a few times, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to helping others through that cycling, too. That’s been one of the most rewarding things for me about the love letters project.
Who would you like to see participating in this project?
Stasha – Honestly, I think we all need this kind of love in our lives. I hope to model a year long spell of mindful intent, and learn from others as I go.
Nathan – I am interested in anyone participating in this project who is drawn to participation. There is no outcome. No certificate. It’s a process. Mostly gentle and generative and sometimes takes the long way to get to gentle.
I am most interested to see who will find themselves a small home in the space of this project. Who will tend toward it.
Tiffany – I would really like to see anyone who feels lonely, alienated from their own heart, scared to connect with themselves, struggling with shame and anxiety and fear of failure and fear of success – I would like all the queerdos and weirdos and sad pandas to find this project and find community and support and a way to connect back to themselves, to centre themselves in their stories, to renew themselves through this year of attendance with themselves.
What are you hoping to get out of this project?
Stasha – I am working on the theme of listening for this project. I struggle with interrrupting people, and asking rapid fire questions without listening to the answers. I work on this because I want to be more respectful of other people, and I want to learn from them. I value being listened to, and I want to give others the same gift. This work will help me to survive in an oppressive world. It also improves the world by focusing on connection, and trying to understand the world by changing it. I believe that the focus on how we are part of the earth, is vital in these times where that connection is denied. The practice of tending must be tended, us doing that together is very powerful.
Nathan – I am hoping that through this project, and the gentle tending of it, that my own rhythms, interests, way of dreaming, way of loving, further emerge into the space that they need.
I am curious to see what will happen.
Tiffany – One million new followers. Just kidding! Not totally kidding. I am hoping to build my base with this project, by offering support and resources and encouragement. But I am also hoping to find space for myself within the project. I want to find that sacred ritual.
October 23 – December 4
$125 / $60 for Patreon supporters or returning participants (sliding scale available)
Online course – all content delivered in PDF and email format, with an optional weekly Google Hangout and a closed Facebook group for participants.
Email me, comment here, or message me through Facebook to register.
This course is for the heartbroken, the burnt out, the sad and the afraid. It is a course for bruised and bleeding hearts. It was not originally supposed to be – when I mapped out year of content, Autumn was always going to be emotional self-care, but I had intended a more lighthearted course. But the world, in the 10 months between designing the year of courses and running this course, has turned more overtly and explicitly brutal. There are a lot of broken hearts in my community.
We are grieving, collectively, for what feels like the loss of our future. Climate change, far-right ideologies, economic instability, and the chaos that existential dread can create within relationships – so many of us are dealing with so much. Loss, and the loss of hope, and the loss of joy, and the loss of stable ground under our feet.
Six weeks is not long enough to heal a broken heart, transform a trauma into something bearable, refill the cup or relight the candle that’s been burned out. Six weeks is certainly not long enough to address the great grief of climate change, political upheaval, economic collapse. So this course is not about healing our collective, or our individual, grief.
Instead, this course is about feeling our way into the grief, loss, trauma, and heartbreak so that we can do the long work of healing individually and collectively over the next months and years. The goal of this course is to offer tools and skills and a safe space for talking about how we begin to recover. How we find our way back to ourselves, so that we can find our way back to community, so that we can find our way back to hope.
This world needs us.
Those of us who have broken open and broken down in response to the pain in the world and to the losses in our own lives – our empathy and sensitivity is needed. Self-care and community care and deeply linked, and sustainable self-care is only ever the result of awareness, compassion, and intention in our actions. Those of us who feel deeply and who are struggling right now have already been practicing emergency self-care. That’s how we got here, searching for tools and answers and skills. We already have the ability to bring awareness and compassion and intention to the self-care that we practice individually and that we model and share within our communities.
My goal for this course is to help foster that awareness, compassion, and intentionality in your self-care practice. To give you a few new tools and a solid base of support and scaffolding to continue healing, growing, and renewing yourself.
The course has two sections.
In the first three weeks, we will work on mapping out our current emotional state, identifying our emotional needs, and finding the edges of our remaining positive emotions. For many of us, heartbreak, trauma, and burnout cut us off from our feelings of joy, hope, and self-efficacy (our belief that we can make positive changes within our own lives). The first three weeks will focus on connecting back to those feelings, without demanding that we “stay positive” or find the “silver lining.”
In the second three weeks, once we’ve established a thread of connection back to our joy, hope, and self-efficacy, we’ll start working on recognizing and responding to the needs that originate in our feelings of loss, heartbreak, trauma, and grief.
The course will use three core strategies:
Narrative – If you’ve taken any of my previous courses, worked with me one-on-one, attended my workshops, or read my writing, this one won’t come as a shock. Narrative therapy is my jam. I believe that using narrative – understanding our lives through metaphors of story, seeing ourselves as the protagonists of our own stories, and giving ourselves the space to tell our own stories – can be life changing. We will definitely be talking about narratives of loss, grief, heartbreak, and healing in this course.
Mindfulness – The self-awareness and compassion piece of the self-care puzzle requires that we spend some time being present with ourselves, observing what’s happening and what we’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing, without judging ourselves for it. In order to tell our stories effectively, we need to know what we’re trying to tell. That’s the mindfulness piece.
Gamefulness – This one is new to my courses, and I’m excited about it. We’ll be using some of Jane McGonigal’s research into how “living gamefully” can facilitate healing and growth, and trying out some of the games, challenges, and exercises from her book SuperBetter.
Over the six weeks, you’ll develop stronger self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-care skills.
It’s going to be great.
(This post is part of the #100loveletters challenge, which started June 21. The challenge is open to anyone, at no cost! It’s really easy, and really hard – for 100 days, from June 21 to September 29, or 100 days from whenever you start, write yourself a love letter. It can be short, it can be long, it can be a stick figure or a sonnet or a flower or a song. It can be written down, or it can be an act of love. Share your pictures, comments, thoughts, and stories in the hashtag #100loveletters on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or in your blog, and find a community of people practicing a summer of daily self-love, or participate offline. You can also enter to win a hand-written letter by emailing me. I’ll be drawing a random name every twenty days over the course of the challenge. You can also join the email list to receive writing prompts, encouragement, and success stories.)
I interviewed Stasha at the beginning of the 100 Love Letters challenge, since she was the inspiration for the challenge.
Now, three weeks into the challenge, I was lucky enough to interview her again on the topic of writing ourselves love letters when we’re in the middle of feeling shame, anger, fear, or self-hate. This is a topic that has come up again and again for challenge participants, and it’s worth digging into. So, here we go.
Stasha – Question the first?
Tiffany – Yes! Excellent. In our first interview, we talked a lot about the beginnings of the project, and what it offered you in terms of that deep well of self-loving actions and accumulated evidence – I loved the image you shared of having that big stack of love letters to look back on.
We’re into the #100loveletters challenge now, and quite a few people have sent me messages asking about how to write a love letter when you’re hating yourself. My answers have mostly been “just start with whatever you have available, even if it’s just a walk or a post-it note or a mug of tea” but I wondered if you had wisdom about this, since you’ve been through the full 100 days.
How do you write – WHAT do you write – when you’re feeling self-hate?
Stasha – I’m just looking through my letters because I felt a lot of self-hate during the process…
One example, I was feeling really rejected, which is a feeling that I can get easily stuck in. So, I tried to think of the opposite of rejection and wrote those words around my heart. Another time I did the same about interrupting, because I was trying to listen better.
Tiffany – Oh, I like that a lot. That fits with the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy skills I’ve been working on in my own life – looking for opposites, and intentionally choosing an opposite and incompatible word/thought/action.
Stasha – Oooo yes dbt forever! I love the story of dbt creation and I try to fight the professionalization of the system of dbt. (Tiffany’s note: The New York Times recently ran a profile on Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT. Her work is particularly important because it came out of her own experiences of borderline personality disorder – still such a stigmatized condition – and extreme self-harm. If “nothing about us without us” is your rallying cry, her work is worth exploring.)
Stasha – I externalize things like anger monsters for my coping/healing work all the time, so I used that to try and remind myself of good. Example: I get to be in the same world as this tree. One externalizing technique about love letters is that even if you were really disappointed in someone you loved, you could probably still summon a love letter for them. I kept going because I wanted to show myself the same care.
Tiffany – One thing I’m thinking about, that I’m not sure how to talk about… So, forgive the awkwardness/uncertainty of this.
Stasha – Uncomfortable is required to learn, so I’m ready.
Tiffany – But I have had times in my life when a project like this would have hurt so much, because I just could not summon anything resembling a love letter for myself. I think that some of the people who have been watching the project develop, and have been wanting to participate, may be in that space. Right now, I can do this challenge. I have spent years working on self-compassion and on being able to act with love even when I don’t feel love.
The reason I find this so tough to talk about is because I want this to be a tool that is accessible to everyone – we can all show ourselves care even when we don’t feel it! We can all invest this time in ourselves! – but as I speak with people, and as I think through my own history, I am recognizing that there are times when this really isn’t possible. And I want to acknowledge that, without framing it as failure, and also offer some hope or some alternatives.
Do you have any insight or thoughts for people who maybe want to do this now but are really struggling with it?
Stasha – Yes. This is so important. Me too.
One thing that I do, that many professionals define as a symptom of trauma, is pick up treasure like a crow. Bits of glass or rusty things or worm-eaten wood.
Tiffany – I love that image. Corvids forever.
Stasha – In my love letters the symbol of the crow is recurring and was a way for me to have this as a positive image while I gathered that summer’s treasures together in a copper pot.
Nowadays I get rid of the treasures by giving them to the river in the fall, before I kept them. I knew that I was going to reengage this coping mechanism, even though I had not done it for awhile. So, I summoned my corvid power and listed the pros of crows when I couldn’t list them about myself.
Tiffany – Oh, I really love that. Having something you associate with yourself (like the crow for you, for me it would be fae folk), that you can list beloved or positive traits about even when you can’t list them about yourself.
Using your patronus / alter-ego / animal friends in your love letters
- What do you associate with yourself? If could be an animal, a character, an idea, an object. Think of the Patronus idea from Harry Potter – something powerful, associated with who you are as a person, that can be summoned to protect you.
- What are your favourite things about the animal/object/idea you associate with yourself?
- What makes that creature/concept/thing so cool?
- What is one story or myth or memory associated with that animal/object/idea that you treasure?
Stasha – When I felt broken or as if I had a giant hole in my spirit I would weave paper and fabric into a letter. I learned that one year at Equinox Vigil, a really neat Calgary event about the need for public mourning of grief of all kinds.
Tiffany – That sounds like a valuable tool, too. (And I am thinking a lot about sensory stuff as I build the summer course – registration is still open for one more week! – I love how that practice of weaving a bandaging or healing letter would blend tactile and visual senses with fine motor skills – bridging left and right brain selves, and helping both from a narrative perspective and also from a physical perspective.)
Stasha – Yes to mind melding our own minds!
I used the metaphor of growing A LOT. And home. I wanted to be home and safe when I was with myself. Big difference between with myself and by myself. That meant confronting the shit.
One love letter was a rock with a hole through it from persistent water drops.
Tiffany – Oh, that is lovely. And I love how fluid and flexible your definition of love letter is. I think that’s something I could definitely improve for myself. Or, maybe to put it more gently, that could be an invitation to more flexibility in my own thinking.
How much time did you spend on this project per day? Did you find the time commitment overwhelming? How did you carve out and protect the space for that?
Stasha – Ha! Gentle is good. I usually would write the love letter in the morning, so it could be based on what I needed for that day, and then at night I wrote 3 things that weren’t terrible about that day. I love structure for my healing, so those bookends really helped me to accomplish my other goals.
Tiffany – I like that idea. I might try that for myself, because the last-thing-at-night love letters don’t feel so good for me – they feel like avoidance and dismissal, you know? And it’s funny – even though I feel that, I haven’t shifted it. But I like your idea of bookends and of the love letter giving you what you need for the day.
Stasha – I showed myself evidence that other people loved me, when I felt less able to do it myself. I drew stick figure me and cut out my name from birthday cards to show myself that I was surrounded by love.
Dear Tiffany, If you need some material for your love letters you can look into concepts such as Radical Hope, which you demonstrate every single day. You could interview someone who loves you about your great qualities, even though it is scary. – Stasha
Tiffany – I love that so much. Thank you!
I have been struggling with that concept of “deserving” all week. I have been avoiding writing my letters – I usually write them ten minutes before bed, long after my brain wants to be done, and if I weren’t running this challenge publicly, I don’t think I would be doing them. They feel indulgent and … “bad” – selfish, ridiculous, foolish, arrogant.
Stasha – So write them to the fairies and fae. Write them to the crows and elf leaders.
Tiffany – Yes. I love that idea! And maybe we can invite others to help us see ourselves through a loving mirror, when we’re not able to do that for ourselves.
Interview Questions to ask someone who loves you when you’re struggling to write your own love letter (you can use this template as-is, or adapt it):
Hi, I would like to ask you some questions. It’s totally okay if you’re not able or don’t have time to answer. This is challenging for me to ask, because I’m struggling with not liking myself a lot right now. I’m asking you because I trust you, and I trust your insight and your ability to see me clearly. I know that you love me. I appreciate you taking the time to answer these for me.
- What comes to mind when you think about me?
- What is your favourite memory involving me?
- Can you think of a time when I did something well?
- Can you share a story that demonstrates something you admire or enjoy about me?
Tiffany – Do you have any other thoughts on the topic of doing this project while experiencing self-hate?
Stasha – I do all my projects while experiencing self-hate. I think a shocking number of us do. I think I drew brick walls 3 times in my letters, not as barriers but as symbols of the cumulative effort required to get that shit voice* to also listen to compassion.
Tiffany – It is so common. So, so common. I think you’re right
Stasha – My 100th letter I painted a life size tree, while naked. I took lots of pictures of that PROCESS, because that was the gift to myself: the wonderful process of fucking up, exhibiting symptoms, lying to myself about my worth, and listing 1-3 non-crap things per day. Otherwise known as messy healing, the most sacred of love spells.
Now this process of seeing other people struggle within this same process, is so validating and healing. Because sometimes I forget how awesome I am or the amazingness of the things that I have tried. Just like you and you and you. It is really nice to try stuff together.
Tiffany – One thing that comes up repeatedly in the narrative therapy training that I’m doing, is the idea that people need to know that their experiences and knowledges can help others. Maybe one motivation for getting through the 100 Love Letters challenge is so that in a year or two years or ten years, when we have someone else in our life struggling, we can draw on these experiences and offer them hope and help.
Just like you are doing now, because you ARE amazing and badass and wise and resilient!
Stasha – Awwww thanks friend. Pulling knowledge out of pain is the original chocolate chips* out of shit! Just like YOU are doing now. Part of my 100 love letters process was to do it for me instead of for other people.
Tiffany – One thing that I did a few years ago was to give myself stickers for every positive or useful thing that happened or I did in the day. I think it was a similar process. It helped me start to see myself as competent and worthy, at a time when I did not experience myself as either of those things. I don’t even know where I got that I idea, but I used it to claw myself up out of one of the darkest holes I’ve been in.
I think that we are often so much more resilient, and so much more wily in our survival strategies, than we give ourselves credit for.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom about this! And for sharing this project. It’s a good one!
Stasha – Wily af! Thank you for building on it, there has been so much learning, and it is early still in the process!!
Tiffany – I know!! We are not even a fifth of the way through, and already so much wisdom and generosity has been shared. I’m excited to see the project continue!
Stasha – Way to grow!
* Stasha’s Chocolate Chip Wisdom (note on this section for discussion of eating shit)
Stasha – Now. Everyone loves chocolate chips.
Ok not everyone, but many do.
I describe this process [of finding self-love in the middle of self-hate] as picking chocolate chips out of a pile of shit.
It has been my direct experience that kids who are coping with abuse from primary caregivers, particularly neglect – are really, really good at picking chocolate chips out of piles of shit.
So we like chocolate. But when you are picking your chocolate out of shit, you are going to also eat a lot of shit.
And this shit will get inside you. And this shit will give you a mean belittling voice that will tell you that you are no good.
Sometimes this shit will destroy you or tell you to destroy yourself. It will always tell you that you are no good. That you don’t deserve 100 love letters.
I think though that I found a loop hole here, because the shit will never tell you not to write 100 love letters, only to not write them to yourself!
It is sad because everyone except us knows that we deserve this love. That shit gets in the way.
(Running the #100loveletters challenge is possible because of the amazing support of my community, especially my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to keep this work going, consider checking out my Patreon, or liking my Facebook page, or following me on Instagram.)