Self-Love-Based-Improvement: Another Side of Body-Positivity

The third season of Queer Eye is out, and there’s one particular thing that I really appreciate about this season—they balance the concept of self-love with self-improvement. The fab five are always showering whoever is the focus of the episode with love and encouraging that person to learn to love themselves, but they also challenge that person to grow in the areas they are most struggling.

Sometimes, that’s in challenging one to practice social skills or find people to connect with. Sometimes that’s in buying somebody a gym membership and teaching them how to work out so that they can lose weight.

The idea that self-love and self-acceptance aren’t mutually exclusive from self-improvement goals is a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Quite a bit of the body positivity that I’ve encountered has been combatting this unhealthy approach to physical health—the inner critic that tells you that being thin is equal to being beautiful or that you’re a lazy slob if you eat a piece of cake. It’s a fucked up approach to dealing with diet, exercise, and appearance because it relies on bullying oneself and working towards goals based on arbitrary standards of beauty and acceptableness.

But at the same time, there are times when it is appropriate and healthy to want to exercise more or lose weight or change one’s consumption habits—just as it is healthy for one to want to grow in being able to reach out for emotional support or get a different job or improve one’s mind.

Queer Eye reminded me that it’s possible to have physical goals while coming from a place of love and acceptance.

Externally, the approach might look similar—watching what you eat, getting to the gym, etc. But internally the process is very different.

Instead of “I hate myself; I can’t love myself until I am like _____ (insert appearance-based goal)” or “I hate myself; I’m such a pig. I shouldn’t eat ____” or “I hate myself; I’m too lazy to get the the gym” the dialogue is “I love myself; therefore I want to see my body at a healthier weight” or “I love myself; therefore I want to be stronger” or “I love myself; therefore I choose to eat foods that will nourish my body.”

The universe is bringing this reminder to me at the right time.

For the last several years, I’ve been struggling with on and off injuries that I couldn’t seem to overcome. It limited my ability to be active, with the frustrating side effect of gaining weight. I watched myself lose the ability to fit into some of my favorite clothes, lose the stamina I had worked so hard to build in being able to run, hike, even do a yoga class, and lose my confidence in my sense of self.

At that time, I needed the reminder that my body isn’t only worthwhile when it looks a certain way or is a certain size. I needed reminders that it’s okay to be where I am, that I’m not lazy or unhealthy or worthless or ugly or any of the other messages that got instilled by media and advertising growing up as a girl in our society over the years.

But more recently I have begun treatment with a physical therapist for EDS—a condition that results in hypermobility (e.g. being able to partially dislocate my arm simply by raising it above my head). The physical therapy is focused on strengthening my body so that injuries don’t happen as often…and I’m starting to see results. I’m able to be more active as a regular rule rather than spurts of activity followed by a long healing process for whatever latest injury I have.

And I’m starting to get hope. I’ve begun monitoring my diet more, trying to encourage myself to adopt healthier habits like not snacking after 9pm, making sure I eat in accordance with how physically active I am so that my caloric burn is higher than my caloric intake, and choosing foods that are more sustainable and less empty calories.

It’s slow, but I’m beginning to notice results. I’m liking the changes I’m seeing in my body, starting to get hope that maybe I can wear some things I haven’t had the heart to get rid of but that haven’t really fit for a while. I’m also starting to be able to do things I love again that I haven’t been able to do for a long time–things that make exercise fun for me.

At first, I felt ashamed of the fact that I had these goals for my body, wondering if that was a sign that I wasn’t really able to love and accept myself.

But Queer Eye was able to remind me that it’s possible to want to change my body’s way of being in the world without it being about self-loathing. Loving myself doesn’t mean being perfectly content with where I am and never wanting to grow or change. It means respecting my limitations, seeing the value in myself as I am, and finding respectful ways to work towards my goals.

Most importantly, it means my goals are rooted in my love for myself rather than trying to make myself loveable.

 

Gaslighting: What It Is and What It Isn’t

When I was still living with my parents, just before I got married and made my escape from the cult, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I was under tremendous stress, and that on its own was probably enough to drive me a bit batty. But I had more than a little bit of help in reaching a point of actively questioning whether I was going insane.

It started subtly at first, with my parents denying things that had happened years ago—long enough ago that it made sense that we might remember those situations very differently. But then it increased to more and more recent events with my parents painting very different pictures of what had happened than what I remembered. At first, I didn’t think anything malicious was involved, even as I increasingly began to question my ability to remember something accurately even a few hours after it happened.

Then one night, the veil was lifted, and I saw clearly the terrifying reality that my parents were trying to destabilize my sense of reality. The night before, I’d heard the sounds of Pete’s Dragon wafting from the living room to my bedroom. I barely took note of it as I went about doing whatever I was doing. But then the next night, as I walked through the living room, I noticed they were watching it again.

I paused and asked, “Didn’t you just watch this?”

I didn’t need them to tell me that they had. I knew they did. It was more a question of why—why watch the same movie twice in a row?

But they looked at me and feigned confusion, so I clarified, “You watched this last night. I heard you watching it last night. Now you’re watching it again tonight.”

Without missing a beat, they told me, “No, we didn’t watch this last night.” Their faces were calm and direct.

I felt the familiar stirrings of the paranoia I had increasingly been experiencing rising up in me, but I was confident enough in my hearing, if not other aspects of my memory, that I reasserted I had heard the movie playing last night.

They denied it again…and again…and again. I lost count of how many times they told me they hadn’t seen the movie the night before. I knew it was impossible that they wouldn’t remember watching the movie twice in a row, but I never dreamed they would lie to me. The only other explanation was that my mind had officially broken.

I was on the verge of a panic attack and actively wondering if this was the moment I would go insane when their façade broke and they began to giggle, admitting that they had indeed watched the movie the night before. “We’re just playing with you!”

It was that moment that I realized they were actively enjoying my distress. I didn’t know what to call it at the time. It would be years later that I would discover the concept of gaslighting. But I could tell that it was intentional in that moment and that it was designed to unsettle me.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had the “but this happened”/”no it didn’t” argument with them. It wasn’t even the most serious incident because, honestly, them watching a movie twice in two nights had no bearing on my life. But it was the first time they had slipped up enough to lose the mask, their mirth leaking through.

I went back to my room, sick with the knowledge that for sport and control my parents were willing to actively fuck with my sense of sanity, that they were willing to lie to my face about my own experiences…and that they were damned good at it.

They never admitted to doing it again, but I recognized the signs from then on. I could not shake the paranoia they had instilled. Each time it happened again, I felt like my brain was going to snap. I resorted to transcribing conversations in my journal or on my computer immediately after they happened so that I had a record of what was said–and that it had even happened. Eventually I began refusing to have conversations with them without another person to witness, usually my fiancé phoning in over the phone, because I couldn’t trust them and had lost my trust in myself.

To this day, I get sick thinking about how close they came to causing a psychotic break in me. There are no words to describe the horror of feeling like your mind is someone else’s play thing.

Today, I see so many social justice activists tossing around the word “gaslighting” for anything and everything, and it concerns me to see how watered down the word has become.

Gaslighting is a terrifying and extreme experience. It’s a very serious form of abuse. But it isn’t what many people are using the word for.

Samantha Field has also spoken out on this issue, and I want to acknowledge that she has some great things to say but I want to expand on what gaslighting is and is not because I think it’s vital that social justice and the left stop using this word as a catch-all.

Gaslighting is not disagreeing with someone. It’s not disagreeing with their worldview, holding a different perspective from them on sensitive issues, or actively disagreeing with their interpretation of politics and society.

If someone thinks something is a result of sexism, it’s not gaslighting for another person to disagree with that and think that they’re misinterpreting what they experienced. That might feel silencing, demeaning, infantilizing, minimizing, and a whole lot of other things, but it’s not gaslighting.

It isn’t gaslighting someone to disagree with their interpretation of yours or someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions. None of us are mind-readers and none of us can know the internal experience of someone else. There is room to disagree when someone else is purporting to know what a person who isn’t themselves is thinking, feeling, or intending.

It isn’t even gaslighting to remember the same situation in different ways. People’s memories are made of what their brains perceived as salient at the time; therefore, it isn’t uncommon for two people to have been in the same situation and have different memories of that situation.

In a similar vein, gaslighting isn’t forgetting details of a conversation, encounter, or event that another person seems to remember well. (This is where it took me some time to recognize it happening to me because there was a genuine chance that my parents didn’t remember something from five years ago the way I did. There’s also a chance I could have encoded my interpretation as opposed to the actual words that were said).

It’s not gaslighting trying to persuade or influence someone to agree with you using emotionally persuasive or manipulative tactics. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, but not all manipulation is gaslighting.

I’ll even go so far as to say that denial and lying aren’t inherently gaslighting because gaslighting is a far more sinister technique that goes beyond merely trying to escape accountability.

Gaslighting is a campaign to undermine a person’s sense of sanity by making them actively question their ability to trust their memories and sensory perceptions (e.g. what they hear, see, smell, etc.). And it requires a relationship where the gaslighting person is in a position of trust and uses that trust to break down a person’s own ability to reality check themselves.

The term comes from a movie in which a husband actively drives his wife to the brink of insanity by insidious toying with her environment such as removing things from his wife’s purse and pretending she removed the thing and doesn’t remember doing so or causing noises and sputtering lights but then pretending that his wife isn’t seeing what she saw or hearing what she heard.

It’s part of what makes Shutter Island so terrifying, wondering if DiCaprio’s character has just been insane the whole time or if it’s all an elaborate plot to convince him he is because he knows too much. Once they can convince him he’s insane, they can control him.

This is not a tool in the average person’s tool box. It’s calculated and deliberately orchestrated. It’s not something a stranger can implement. It requires time…first to build up the victim’s trust in the perpetrator and then to erode the trust of the victim in themselves. I believe that’s important for people to understand.

As Samantha points out, misusing the term “gaslighting” whenever a discussion becomes uncomfortable and triggering waters down the meaning, but I’d also say that it discredits the word as well. People will remember being accused of “gaslighting” unjustly or seeing someone else unjustly accused of it, and it will influence how seriously they’ll take the concept.

Abuse survivors have a hard enough time as it is being believed when they disclose that they’ve been abused in various ways. False accusations, though comprising a small percentage of accusations, manage to undermine the credibility of all accusations.

In other words, those who cry wolf don’t just damage their own credibility, they damage the credibility of everyone who is watching out for wolves.

Which means we have to be careful about how we use terms that connote abuse like “gaslighting” (or “violence,” which could be a whole post on its own). We cannot allow these terms to come to mean merely that someone has made us uncomfortable by disagreeing, has stimulated difficult emotions, or has inadvertently triggered past trauma.

Those of us who know what it is have a responsibility to speak out when we see it being misused or misapplied. Otherwise, we assist the wolves. People will get so used to hearing “wolf!” that they’ll stop paying attention. They won’t see that someone is being psychologically eaten.

EDIT: my partner pointed out a caveat in which trust may not be present but extreme dependency is. I think it’s fair to say that in instances in which someone has power over defining someone else’s environment, as in the case of captivity, that gaslighting can happen in the absence of trust. The captive may not trust the captor but may not have another source of reality testing and validation available. For most people, that is not a circumstance they will encounter.

Mother’s Day with Archetypes

I’d say Mother’s Day is my least favorite holiday, but even that implies that there is some sort of favor. So more accurately, it’s my most loathed holiday.

For years Mother’s Day came with an endless supply of pain with a special heaping helping of guilt and obligation. I warred with myself as I strove to remain true to my own wounds while dutifully participating in the ritual of thanking my mom…for all the things she didn’t actually do for me very well.

Anyone who has experience with a neglectful, abusive, or difficult mother probably recognizes the impasse inherent in that war, and I often found the best solution to be drunk texting my mother a vague message that I would only vaguely remember sending later.

Well, I’ve managed to do away with the guilt and obligation. Going no contact with my family makes it a lot easier to abstain from the collective lies…but I still feel the pangs of grief that accompany this holiday every year.

The grief over what I did experience, and the grief over what I never had.

And perhaps to an extent, I will always feel that…but I’ve also learned to begin building a relationship with MOTHER-as-archetype in the various forms that it appears to me. Yes, my mom may have sucked at nurturing me, but I still know what “mothering” feels like. I still have a concept of what I long for when I long for a mom (though never my mom).

And it’s that Mother that I seek to connect with increasingly on this day. So this weekend, I compiled a list of my favorite mothers. I would love to hear about yours in the comments.

Lorelei Gilmore
I love Lorelei for the simple reason that she is a great mom who didn’t have a great mom. She’s not a perfect mom by any stretch of the imagination, but she has a strong relationship with Rory and genuinely strives to be the best mom she can be. She knows how to be gentle and when to give a push. When she pushes too far, she knows how to make amends. She embodies mother-as-friend, mother-as-cheerleader, mother-as-comfort, and mother-as-confidant. She also, in my opinion, is a beautiful example of the good-enough-mother.

Molly Weasley
Can there be a more fierce example of mother-love beyond Mrs. Weasley? She is protectress through and through. A little overbearing at times, but a woman whose children never have to doubt that she cares for them with her life. She and her family have struggles (financial and political) and one can see that life isn’t easy, but she never puts her own burdens on her children. She strives to protect them without filling them with a fantasy that the world is safer than it is or encouraging them to ignore the injustices so long as injustice doesn’t touch them. She embodies mother-as-activist and mother-as-protectress.

Queen of Cups
Okay, moving away from movies, the Queen of Cups is probably the only Tarot card that I think of as truly mothering, even though all the queens can be seen as a mother of their particular suit. The Queen of Cups, though, is all about nurturance and emotions. She’s the kind of mother that knows that she can’t save you from the depth of your feelings and won’t stand in the way of you going deep into your pain. In fact, she’ll often encourage you to dive deeply into it…but not alone. She’ll go with you and provide her empathy and love to sustain you on your journey. She is the kind of mother who knows that nurturing and comfort, like spirituality, were never meant to help you bypass the difficult things in life but to give you the strength you need to be able to face them. She embodies mother-as-guide and mother-as-wisdom.

Mother Nature
I don’t think I can talk about archetypal mothers without touching on nature and her myriad of examples of nurturing. She is the great life-sustainer herself but she is also filled with images and symbols of mothering. Whenever I need to feel re-energized and sustained, my surest bet is to connect with nature in some way. Last year, around this time, I witnessed a mama duck trying to cross a raging river with her little ducklings. Even though she could have gotten to the other side quickly on her own, she kept circling back to help her struggling young ones at the rough patches, finally getting to the other shore far down the river from where she probably intended to end up, but having managed to keep every single one of her ducklings safe during the process. For whatever role I need to see, in nature there is an example somewhere. Nature embodies the Great Mother in all her forms.

This is also the time of year when I get to feel my own mothering energy flowing most strongly as I plant my garden and begin tending my green babies towards bloom and fruit. That’s an important connection with the MOTHER-as-archetype because it reminds me that mothering is not just something I seek outside of myself. All of my external symbols ultimately serve to remind me to look within for the mothering energy that I myself possess.

Like Lorelei, I might not have had the best example to draw from, but I have the capacity to re-mother myself, offering to my own inner child that which my biological mother was unable to offer at the time. So as usual, I grieve this Mother’s Day for the mother I didn’t have and the mother I no longer have, but I temper that grief with the comfort, nurturance, protectiveness, and companionship of the MOTHER.

 

 

Pynk like the Anthem of my Heart…Maybe?

Since first hearing Janelle Monae’s new song “Pynk,” I have been listening to it over and over and over again, equal parts mesmerized by the beautiful choreography and the billowing vulva pants in the music video.

Despite how much work I have done in celebrating and reclaiming my body and sexuality from trauma, purity culture, and sexism, this year I have been reminded that that reclamation isn’t a static process. I don’t reach a point of loving myself and suddenly no longer struggle with the old messages and wounds of the past.

Old scripts of shame can come creeping back in, often in new disguises so that I don’t immediately recognize them for what they are.

Over the past year, I watched as the March for Women, which had seemed like such a unifying experience last year, devolved into in-fighting, with women taking offense at pink pussy hats for various reasons.

What probably could have been a mindful conversation about the different ways that women experience body-shame within our culture instead became more about whether or not women should identify with pink (because not all vulvas are pink…and really no vulvas are the pink of the pussy hats) or with having a pussy (because not all women have pussies).

While both critiques have truth, I also couldn’t help but feel the ache in my soul of needing to have a way to talk about the experience of having a vagina.

The experience of having a vagina in a world that glosses over vaginal pleasure and orgasm.

The experience of having a vagina in a world where someone decided that my vagina belonged to them and not me and abused and violated the boundaries of my body when I was a child.

The experience of having a vagina that sometimes I don’t even want to own because along with all the wonderful things my vagina is, there’s also the reality that it houses and stores memories, sensations, and emotions that terrify and paralyze me. It is a source of nightmares as well as ecstasy.

The experience of having a vagina in a world where a President can brag about grabbing a vagina without repercussions but someone who has a vagina can get banned from a discussion involving vaginas because she alluded to that body part.

Yes, we need to leave room for talking about the experience of being a woman without a vagina or being a woman with a vulva that doesn’t conform to societal standards, just as we need to leave room for talking about the experience of being a woman in many other contexts as well (size, shape, age, race, reproductive choices/options, and career).

But as I watched the conflict from the sidelines, I felt the tug back to a point I never wanted to return to and though I had left far behind–a point of feeling like it was wrong to talk about my vagina and about how having my vagina influences my world. There was a shame and silencing to the conflict that felt anything other than feminist to me.

Enter Janelle Monae, who is somehow able to create this beautiful anthem that both acknowledges women who have vaginas and those who don’t and celebrates the fact that pink is part of everyone’s bodies, be it their eyelid, tongue, vulva or heart. I love this song because it honors diversity while also reconnecting me with the beauty and power of my pussy and chasing away that shame script that had been trying to infiltrate yet again.

The Research Validation Trap

There’s a perspective on being trans that is beginning to gain traction in activist circles—this idea that gender is visible in the brain, that there are “female” brains and “male” brains. It’s been popular because it seems to offer credence to trans people’s experience. Researchers are studying the brain functioning of trans people to try to prove that trans women, though assigned as men at birth, have brains that function more like women’s brains than men’s, and vice versa.

I’ve struggled with this perspective—or any perspective that implies gender essentialism through the argument that women’s and men’s brains function differently. It seems antithetical to so much of the work that feminists have tried to accomplish over the years to claim equality and access. So much of that fight has been targeting the stereotypes and rigid gender roles assigned to women to keep them suppressed, and I’m suspicious of the possibility of this research to reinforce oppressive structures rather than dismantle them.

But I only recently began thinking about another aspect of this argument that grates against me, perhaps one that is more important—and it’s an angst that I’ve carried for a long time as a bisexual person. I have never felt comfortable with the idea that a person’s stated experience of their attraction or identity needs to be corroborated by genetics or biological function.

Researchers have long used research as a means of erasing or denying the existence of bisexuality, usually by deliberately ignoring people’s expressed attraction to multiple genders in favor of an “objective” measurement of their sexual arousal. There was the infamous “gay, straight, or lying” study that perpetuated the myth that men are being deceptive if they claim to be attracted to multiple genders. More recently there was the reverse, in which women were universally declared to be bi regardless of how they identify.

I’ve written about my frustration with this attitude and these kinds of studies before over here, but the basic idea is that I find the attitude that the researcher rather than the individual is the most important thing in determining the existence and validity of someone’s identity horribly off-balance.

Now, though, I see it happening in a different way. While the female/male brain argument seems to validate trans people, it’s a validation with strings attached. It’s a validation that says, “I will acknowledge your internal experience, not because I respect and trust you to know yourself, but because it aligns with my current hypothesis and means of measuring.”

Similarly to the gay gene search, the male/female brain studies (or the reliance on them as “proof” of the existence of transgender people) seem to imply that the only reason why trans people should be respected and accepted in society is because they have a biological imperative.

But do we really want societal acceptance to be based on “well, they can’t help it”?

Do we want the autonomy to define one’s identity and gender expression to be taken away from individuals and handed to someone else who is evaluating whether or not they are legitimate?

Do we really want trans acceptance to be rooted in reinforcing gender binaries and biological essentialism? (And where do all the non-binary folks fit in with this model?!)

Or do we want to work towards a world where people are treated with dignity and respect, where they have the choice of how to express themselves, the freedom to explore their identity, and the access to civil and human rights because they are human?

I don’t know about others, but I want to live in a world where I can say, “This is who I am attracted to and this is who I am” without someone else saying, “Well, okay, we’ll see if your genitals respond a certain way or if your brain functions a certain way. If it does, then I’ll accept what you say about yourself and grant you the right to exist in my society.”

Because underneath that response is the implication that it’s okay to erase me, co-opt my voice, discriminate against me, or harass me for failing to comply with that other person’s boxes and expectations of who I should be in society.

Looking to research to justify one’s dignity or validate one’s existence is a trap of asking for permission to be. Choice or Imperative. Nature or nurture. People deserve equality, respect, and freedom regardless.

Note: I haven’t read the actual studies that have been referenced in this way, so I am primarily speaking to the way they are being referenced and used in society (for example, in the recent Katie Couric documentary “Gender Revolution.”) I would eventually like to find the actual research to do a more thorough critique of methodology, application, and interpretation of results, but that is beyond the scope of this post. 

The Nervous System: The Most Important Ally Social Justice Needs

Reading Stephen Porges on the Polyvagal Theory has strangely converged on some critical thinking I’ve been doing regarding social justice, difficult conversations, and change.

I like to question.

I like to think.

I like to grow.

It’s just part of who I am.

In each of my classes, my professors had to face the realization that I was going to pick things apart. Rarely was there a day when I didn’t have my hand high up in the air like a grad-school Hermione Granger.

It’s how I learn.

I take the idea presented to me, break it down, challenge it according to previous knowledge and experience, and figure out how to integrate it. Even when I’m not taking classes, I will seek out books, articles, and videos that challenge my thinking and stretch my comfort zone.

Those professors who could appreciate and embrace my need to question found me an engaged and enthusiastic student.

But even as someone who values critical thinking and open-mindedness, I have limits. If I feel trapped into a conversation and unable to exit, if I’m not free to question all sides of the issue, or if I feel demeaned or forced to change, one of two things will happen.

I will shut down and refuse to engage.

OR

I will become actively suspicious, defensive, and potentially hostile.

Polyvagal Theory helps me understand why that happens. It’s not a function of being stubborn or hard-headed or unwilling to consider someone else’s perspective—it’s a function of a nervous system designed for survival.

When learning about the autonomic nervous system in the past, I got the impression that arousal meant fight/flight (the sympathetic nervous system engaged) whereas the opposite was the parasympathetic nervous system promoting rest and peace.

What Porges brings out is that safety isn’t about the lack of arousal. Rather, arousal also happens within the context of social engagement, balanced by the parasympathetic nervous system.

Creativity, exploration, and play all require a certain amount of arousal…but the arousal doesn’t signal the body to danger when the social engagement system is on and tuned into the smiles, melodic vocals, and eye contact of others that tells our nervous system that they aren’t a threat.

In other words, the difference between a playful wrestling match and an actual fight has to do with cues that our nervous system receives from others and sends  to others that “this is play, not war.”

If our nervous system receives cues of aggression or doesn’t receive cues of safety from the person with whom we are engaging, it is likely to switch into a fight/flight or shut-down mode without our conscious choice or control.

Which means that our creativity, open-mindedness, and willingness to explore will suddenly dramatically reduce or cease altogether.

Woah! Right?!

I mean, it makes sense when I think about my own experience. I can’t consider alternative points of view or think about creative solutions to a problem if I’m high into my mobilization energy or have disconnected from my myself because I’ve been overwhelmed.

But how often do we think about that when we approach a difficult conversation with someone else?

Reading about the nervous system has led me to completely reconsider certain concepts that seem taken for granted in social justice circles. Not that I hadn’t been rethinking those on my own. I’ve been considering the toxicity of the shame-culture and call-out culture with which I’ve become deeply disillusioned for quite some time.

But learning about the nervous system takes this thinking to a whole new level. I’ve gone from wondering if there’s a better approach to realizing that in many ways we have set ourselves up for failure as advocates if we aren’t paying attention to how the nervous system works.

Our conversations with those with whom we disagree are often riddled with tension, aggression, anger, and distrust…yet we want people to be willing to critically think, empathically engage with us, and be open to change—things which neither we nor they are probably capable of given the physiological state induced by the cues present in the conversation!

It makes me curious. What would social justice look like if we approached it from a neurophysiological standpoint?

Stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic!

 

Five Ways of Resisting Without Punching Nazis

Wow! It’s been a hell of a week, and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty damn raw and emotional.

There are many people who are scared, angry, grieving, etc. over the events that happened in Charlottesville.

Many are calling for measures to suppress free speech, seeing it as inextricably linked with the violence of the previous weekend. There are others arguing that we should go around and punch Nazis, harass them, send them threats, and “make them afraid” to show their faces in public.

I get it. I do.

But I can’t help but cringe at how these responses merely contribute to the problem. We’re dealing with extremism, and we have to be smart about how we deal with extremism. I believe, from what I’ve seen, that it’s safe to say that these white supremacist movements qualify as cults and that they have a very deliberate recruitment program.

And you getting pissed off enough to punch someone in the face for their ideology is part of that plan!

You getting pissed off enough to dox someone online or harass someone or prevent them from speaking at a college event is part of that plan.

Because they really want to convince angry, scared, and vulnerable people that they are being persecuted…and the more that you can give evidence of that, the better for their recruitment agenda.

But I also get that some of this extreme response to extremism stems from a very legitimate place of fear.

Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery writes about how revenge fantasies are not uncommon in response to trauma because they offer the illusion of rebalancing the trauma. People desire resolution, and sometimes the idea of becoming the big bad aggressor who makes the oppressor afraid the way they have been afraid seems like the only or the best way to go about resolving the trauma and regaining a sense of safety.

It doesn’t work though.

Perpetuating violence against others can actually compound trauma. That’s part of the reason why soldiers can get PTSD—it’s not just the threat to their own lives; it’s the memories of what they’ve done to others that can haunt them, even if that “other” was an “enemy.” (Edit to add: based on feedback from others, I’d like to clarify that I’m not condemning self-defense or protecting others and that those can be healthy responses to physical threat–they can also result in trauma, but not necessarily).

But we’re feeling helpless, and we need somewhere to turn, something to do.

So here’s a list of five ways that you can resist extremism and white supremacy that I think have a better chance of being effective than lashing out.

  1. Self-care. No seriously! Self-care is super important right now. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress (basically becoming traumatized from witnessing or hearing about trauma) are major risks, especially when there is very graphic footage that is being virally shared from last weekend.The symptoms of burnout and secondary trauma can compound the unhelpful aspects of this situation and interfere with your ability to think about and do things to help you and your communities heal.

    So, make sure you take breaks, get rest, meet your physical and emotional needs, do things that are pleasant, comforting, and hopeful.

    And if you notice yourself having nightmares, being hypervigilant, having intrusive thoughts or memories (or flashbacks), experiencing extreme mood swings, or other symptoms of trauma, consider seeing a professional and getting some extra support.

    You can read more about self-care after tragedies at this post. There are also some great resources on the Orlando Grief Care Project website for dealing with grief and stress that I would recommend you check out.

  2. Donate to Life After Hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or some other group that is working to counter the violence, racism, and extremism of our current times. I mention these groups specifically because they specifically focus on resistance without oppression.Life After Hate reaches out to people who have become embroiled in the cult of the alt-right. They are working specifically to help people leave these ideologies…which is way more effective than trying to silence the ideologies.

    It might seem like a slower approach, but every person that chooses to walk away from that movement is one less person at those rallies and one more person with connections to others and the ability to influence others who might be going to those rallies.

    The SPLC has released a handbook outlining how people can effectively counter white supremacists coming to campus without damaging the right to speech. I get that free speech doesn’t seem as valuable to many right now in the face of neo-Nazis, but if we are really up against a group that wants to implement fascism and we already have someone sympathetic to their cause in office, we definitely don’t need to help break down the protections of citizens. Once we start dismantling free speech for others, it’s only a matter of time before that gets used against us (see my post about Pussy Riot for a deeper discussion here).

  3. Learn some ways that you yourself can engage with cults and totalistic forces that are likely to be more productive than force.It’s important to understand why people get involved in cultic groups. They often don’t start out as radical as they seem after they join. Many join because they’re scared and angry and confused. Transitional/stressful times make people more vulnerable to cultic influence because cults promise to solve people’s problems and provide a simple worldview that clarifies all of the complexity that makes life scary.

    Cults offer certainty in a world of seeming chaos, and they subtly manipulate people’s emotions and beliefs in ways that most don’t recognize at first, sometimes leading to actions that baffle the rest of the world with their violence—the Manson murders and Jonestown being very prominent examples.

    But the good news is that there are ways of reaching people even while they are in a cult. Megan Phelps-Roper has a lovely Ted Talk about how she was able to break out of Westboro Baptist Church due to the compassionate but worldview-challenging dialogue that others offered her, and she offers some great tips on how individuals can engage with others in some of those difficult conversations. Her Ted Talk often reminds me that dialogue is the first line of defense against extremism.

    I also recommend reading the following for a better understanding of what we may be facing right now. These inform much of my own approach. Having the knowledge of how extremism and totalism work can go a long way in knowing how to reach out to those influenced by it.

    Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton
    On Tyrrany: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
    by Timothy Snyder
    Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan
    Cults in our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer
    The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo

  4. Do healing activities with your own communities and connections.It is healing to get together to sing and dance. It is healing to spend time with loved ones. It is healing to engage in comforting touch like hugs and hand-holding. While organizing or participating in events that involve art or music or dance or other touchy-feely activities may seem so far removed from the issues at hand, it can be just as important as self-care.

    Healing trauma for an individual often involves a dance between dealing with the painful issues and doing comforting or pleasurable things. And healing as a society from collective trauma, societal trauma, and historic trauma needs the same thing. Peter Levine calls it the healing vortex and describes how it can counter the vortex of trauma that tries to pull you into a repetitive, unhealthy cycle of avoidance, re-enactment, and re-traumatization.

    If you’re involved in activism, give attention to community healing. It doesn’t have to wait until racism seems to be conquered—it can’t wait until then!

    At a social justice conference I attended this year, I was struck by an observation made from someone who was an activist originally from a different culture. They said that Americans are too serious about our activism. We don’t learn how to laugh and have fun even while we are fighting oppression. This person had come from a war-torn region and talked about how dancing and laughing were essential in keeping the work going, essential to not being overwhelmed with despair.

    That message stuck with me, especially because my training in helping people with trauma as individuals also highlights that need for pleasure, comfort, and joy. In fact, it’s the foundation. Every trauma model I have studied begins with a foundation of creating a sense of internal safety and strengths through connecting to happy memories or doing positive activities.

    Activism that is, at heart, dealing with collective trauma from injustice needs to be grounded in a trauma model, which means we need to have opportunities for our communities, divided though they may be, to come together in these ways.

  5. Explore your own relationship to and feelings about racial issues. I’m assuming that most of the people reading this would identify as people sensitive to social justice issues, but I also think that everyone’s journey is different. SO…It’s okay to need space to explore these issues even if you feel you strongly disagree with “SJWs” or if you have negative feelings towards the left. You don’t have to be wholly aligned with the most liberal stance in order to explore these issues.

    It’s okay to have questions or make mistakes in your attempt to talk about these issues. Be willing to make mistakes because that’s part of growth, but also be willing to own up to and apologize if you make a mistake because that’s also part of growth.

    It’s okay to want to feel safe and respected while you struggle with examining your worldview, and I understand that those qualities tend to be lacking in many spaces. Call-out culture has become pretty scary and toxic, but that’s not how everyone operates. There are many lovely activists, advocates, and social justice ambassadors (my new term for differentiating from the more antagonistic ilk) who don’t resort to shame and aggression to control.

    Of course, also be willing to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is not the same as lacking safety…and it’s good to know how to differentiate between those. Talking about racial issues is uncomfortable. Challenging your worldview is uncomfortable. You shouldn’t expect yourself to tolerate feeling completely unsafe, but if you aren’t at least tolerating a little discomfort, you are probably not anywhere close to the growth edge.

    If you have a supportive group where you can feel safe to explore but still be challenged around racial issues, great! In person connections with people you know are always better for these tough conversations.

    You might be able to create a community yourself if you don’t know of one—but make sure it includes people who are respectful and compassionate as well as willing to challenge your thinking and allow you to challenge theirs. I’m currently in love with the deliberate dialogue movements that have sprung up and the idea that it is in the spot with the most tension that the solution ultimately lives.

    Just…don’t create yet another echo chamber. Make sure you’re not just talking to people who agree with you and validate your feelings (and for those who identify as more liberal, this might mean challenging yourself to talk with and explore a more conservative viewpoint. You help no one by insulating entirely.)

    Therapists are also a great place to go if you need a space that is confidential and non-judgmental but hella challenging. Therapists can help you explore your own assumptions and beliefs in a warm, compassionate way, supporting you towards the changes you want to make in your thinking. Generally, they also don’t let you off the hook of doing hard work (or they shouldn’t).

    There are also online groups, though I hesitate to recommend them because the Internet tends to be one of the more vitriolic spaces one can go right now. However, Authentic Allyship is an online group that seeks to provide a space specifically for white people to explore the emotions that come up around being white, including anger and the trauma of being part of oppression.

    It’s designed to be a safe space for “white emotions,” and from what I can tell, the person who runs it (who is, incidentally, a therapist) seems genuinely compassionate and highly principled about the work they’re trying to do. What I’ve read aligns a lot with the mindfulness-based, compassion-based, and non-violent activism towards which I tend to gravitate.

Bonus (because there’s never just five): Get to know the local groups already active in your area. This is something I am challenging myself on more as well. Online activity has always been where I most engage with difficult conversations because it brings me in contact with so many people all over the place. It’s also where I found my greatest supports in exploring my sexual orientation and exiting and recovering from cult life. But online has become more and more toxic lately, and I’ve started wondering if social media is exacerbating the problems we face. I want to give a social media detox a go, get to know more ways to be active “in real life” (which isn’t to say online isn’t important or real, just virtual), and test out other ways of staying informed that don’t involve being bombarded with catastrophic images and articles ALL THE TIME! So, I encourage you to do the same. As always, if you get involved in any group (online or otherwise) that starts to exhibit red flags for cultic or totalistic practices, it’s probably healthiest if you leave, even if you really like the cause they espouse.