Automated/fake encouragement can be worse than saying nothing

I used to belong to an on-line writing group, where people were supposed to post their daily progress and give feedback on others’ posts. Though the whole point was to increase accountability, community, and support, what I often received was the opposite of that. I’d get messages saying “You rock!” and other empty crap on days when I hadn’t accomplished anything at all.

On the internet I’ve been seeing random messages like “You are loved!” pop up as if this is supposed to help an otherwise hopeless/suicidal person feel better, but for me, this is like putting salt in a wound of loneliness. If “love” is just computer-generated sap expressed by someone/something who doesn’t even know me, then what the fuck would make it worth living for?

Showing up, listening, being real – these things can really matter and help. But empty expressions of praise and love are the opposite of caring, and only make a mockery of what accountability, community, and support even mean.

Negative emotions are part of existence and resistance too

Some anonymous advice for resistance* that is making the rounds on the internet says: “No more helpless/hopeless talk,” with an insistence on “positivity” that sounds like it is being marketed by the self-help industry.

Expressing helplessness or hopelessness doesn’t make someone a bad person, or bad for the resistance.  It just means they are human, and understandably having negative feelings about very negative circumstances.

It is really not helpful to judge people for their feelings, suggest that they ought to judge themselves for their feelings, or suggest that they need to keep quiet about having such feelings.  Helplessness and hopelessness aren’t things people can just turn off or ‘snap out of’. The worst we can do for someone who is feeling that way is shame them into believing they have to do it alone, in silence.

We don’t need to look/be “positive” while we resist, any more than we need to have nice-looking makeup. If wearing makeup personally helps YOU feel more ready to face the world and get stuff done, then by all means, go for it. But don’t pretend that wearing makeup is a proven effective strategy or a moral imperative for the rest of us!

No, I’m obviously not suggesting that we should strive to say helpless/hopeless things to each other all the time. But clearly you realize that having a totally helpless/hopeless world and a world that judges and forbids all helpless/hopeless talk are not our only two choices?

If someone expresses helplessness/hopelessness to you, whether about the news or something personal, you can help them cope with these feelings by understanding and acknowledging them. (If you also want to suggest ways the person could change to feel better — like focusing on small concrete actions or taking breaks to focus on pleasant activities and relationships – great. But keep in mind that people rarely welcome being told what to do unless the advice is coming from a place of compassion.) Of course if a friend’s helpless/hopeless talk is really too much for you, you need to set limits to protect yourself from that. But if you can, first tell your friend that you’re concerned about the frequency of their helpless/hopeless talk, and maybe bring up the possibility of seeking professional help.

We’re all in this together — even those of us who sometimes feel helpless/hopeless, or angry, or fearful, or otherwise not so “positive”.  Don’t let silly self-help crap decide for you what thoughts/feelings are welcome and acceptable during a national crisis.

*Note that the version of the anonymous advice that I read yesterday had an additional (12th) line saying that we have to be “positive” and not angry/fearful. For the record, I thought the other 10-11 points on the list were good suggestions.

Your new year’s resolution: STFU about your weight and dieting

A friend who is in early stages of recovery from an eating disorder just posted a request on FB that others who made 2017 resolutions involving weight/food not talk about them around her.  My first thought was, it is cool that she’s asking this; there have been so many times in my life when I could have used a sign around my neck that said this, or little cards saying this to hand out to people. But then I thought, no. This message needs to go further than to just her current friends, and it shouldn’t be the responsibility of people like her who are currently suffering from eating disorders to tell the rest of us to be considerate and STFU.

In case you don’t already know how bad all the weight/food talk is, let me tell you in no uncertain terms, it is really bad. In the dining hall at college, lunch breaks at my jobs, eating meals with relatives, I’m constantly being forced to hear people talk about whether or not they have been ‘good’ (in terms of dieting/exercise). Would you try to tempt a person to drink while they were trying to stay sober, and make them feel ashamed for not drinking? If not, consider that your self-serving calorie talk does exactly the same thing to the people who have no choice but to listen to you, especially the people who are struggling with eating disorder symptoms that you may or may not be aware of.

Just to illustrate how bad this phenomenon is, one of the hardest things I had to do as a therapist-in-training was to spend my days with other therapists who considered themselves qualified to treat people with eating disorders. Someone would bring in a cake to celebrate a birthday, and the first piece would just get repeatedly passed around the table as if it were something dangerous or disgusting —  with one comment after another from my co-workers about their weight, dieting, and exercise.  This bothered me so much that I started always taking the first piece of cake, regardless of whether I wanted it, but I still felt upset that so-called “healthy” people could be so oblivious about the effect of their outrageous behavior on everyone else in the room.

Overcoming an eating disorder takes working like hell and I have worked like hell. My first 5 years of recovery were the hardest, but the next 10 years involved a lot of struggles and even now the problem flares up now and then.  I realized early on that having to listen to other people’s shit could undo my progress, and that it was up to me not to let that happen.  But I also didn’t want to be that person, the one who constantly lectures others on how obnoxious their behavior is to people dealing with eating disorders. Especially when I was in recovery, and others wouldn’t necessarily know from my appearance that eating disorders were a serious issue for me, I really didn’t want to have to bring it up.  So I chose the only responsible decision I could think of, which was to isolate myself, and to particularly avoid spending time with other women. Though I had close female friends in high school (before my eating disorder), I haven’t spent time in groups of women or become close to many of the women I’ve met in more than 30 years, and I’ve missed out on getting to know great women as a consequence.  This makes me sorry, and it makes me angry that anyone else should have to do what I’ve done.

Wherever you are in dealing with your food/body issues, ask yourself why you find it necessary to inflict them on the people around you, and do whatever it takes to stop. If you want to talk about these issues in private with someone you are close to, check how they feel about it before you proceed. And if you’re someone who CAN’T stop talking about your weight/food shit in public, even though this is likely to be causing other people harm, then I hope you’ll get help — whether for your own eating disorder or for your lack of compassion.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Sincerity might be both my greatest strength and deepest flaw. My concern with what lies beneath the surface is an aspiration, a compulsion, a phobia, a paranoia. I envy people who don’t care about being sincere, because they’ve got a lot more options. But I’m trapped in being me and can’t do anything about it.

Being unfuckwithable

Last year I was bullied by several students who thought they could pressure me into giving them higher/easier grades. They tried everything they could, including manipulation, lying, disrespectful behavior, turning their classmates against me, and complaining about me to other faculty. In the end, all my students received the grades they had earned based on my syllabus and grading rubrics, so the bullies did not succeed. But the bullies did manage to make me feel so awful that I stopped bringing my class the level of enthusiasm and finesse that my non-bullying students deserved. Now that I am preparing for the Fall 2016 semester, I find that planning the course material is the easy part. What I am most worried about is preparing for how I’d handle it if a student tries to bully me, so that it doesn’t take so much of a toll on me and my work.

I’ve come to realize that while student bullies can be a challenge for any professor, I have a particularly hard time with them because after being mistreated early in life by my father, my more popular classmates, and others, I spent too many years believing I didn’t deserve any better. For instance, among the people I considered my closest friends as a teenager, several openly excluded me from many things because I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough, another threatened to hit me, and a third offered my boyfriend a secret sexual relationship on the side. How did I respond to my so-called friends when they behaved like this? I made efforts to please them by trying to accommodate the new terms they were setting for our friendship, and even gave them elaborate, hand-made gifts! Similarly, even after relationship partners repeatedly cheated on me or engaged in other manipulative behaviors, I stayed with them until they decided to break my heart by moving on.

I think this history helps explain why when someone treats me with disrespect (or worse), my first reactions are to freeze and to doubt myself, thinking that I must have done something to deserve it. But such reactions are particularly problematic in the classroom, because when my students begin to perceive cracks in my authority, their bullying attempts quickly escalate. As a result, even students who aren’t bullies have complained that I seem to lack the personality of someone able to stay in control of the class.

Armed with the realization that my students’ behavior is triggering painful memories, my plan is to try to focus on the ways the current bullying situations differ from the earlier ones being brought to mind. I do not care if my students like me; I do not need them to like me. I completely reject the idea that only naturally dominant, extraverted people can be effective college professors worthy of respect. Regardless of whether any student perceives me as authoritative-looking, I actually HAVE authority over my class, in that no amount of bullying will stop me from grading each student according to my own standards. I am hoping that reminding myself of these facts will help me feel less flustered and self-blaming the next time students try to pressure me, and in turn, help me come across as more authoritative over time.

Not forgiving, but moving on

Many have suggested that forgiving my father would be a fundamental step in recovering from how he treated me. Of course my father is among those who have repeatedly tried to make this point with me, arguing that my failure to forgive him is yet another of my many self-sabotaging character flaws.

But I think the emphasis on forgiveness in our culture places an unfair and unnecessary burden on victims. Not forgiving doesn’t mean I am “stuck” in the past, on the contrary it means I am refusing to let my abuser continue to dictate the terms of our relationship. I am moving on by walking away.

An essay that I wrote about this, called “On not talking to my father” was published in an on-line magazine on 9/30/15, though apparently the link is now dead and the essay nowhere to be found. Since this piece was far too difficult for me to write to let it just disappear, I’m going to re-post it below. (I’ll remove it from here if the published version is restored, but I have no idea if that will ever happen.)

On not talking to my father

A few years ago, I decided to end my relationship with my father. I would still be polite to him at family gatherings, but would not engage in private conversations with him or read his e-mails. I told him I needed to set these limits because he had hurt me so badly growing up and had continued to say things that took a toll on me — and because I had come to realize he was never going to understand, feel sorry, or change.

His primary response was to become preoccupied with the question of whether or not I thought he was a monster, and also to become very insistent that he was not one. For months, he repeatedly went on rants about this to anyone in the family who would listen. From my perspective, the whole monster/non-monster question was irrelevant, but also more evidence of the futility of trying to mend things between us. He was trying to reduce the concerns I had expressed to a ridiculous caricature that could be readily dismissed, and to frame the impasse between us as if he were the one being victimized. Once I reassured him that he was not a monster, his concern about my decision to keep my distance from him subsided, and we went several years with only minimal contact.

My father’s anger is extreme and extraordinary. When he thinks that someone is doing something wrong, he becomes fixated on the idea that everything is about to be ruined, and becomes completely focused on getting this person to change his or her ways. Typically, this involves a loud stream of insults and expletives, accompanied by dramatic gestures. Once in a while he kicks or smashes and breaks something, cries, spits, threatens suicide, or suggests that the person making the infraction may as well kill themselves (since they’re ruining everything anyway). Afterward, he explains the whole incident in terms of something having made him “blow up,” as if he had little control of his actions once that something occurred. Over time I’ve come to realize that he doesn’t even remember most of these incidents or what had triggered them – because those memories are obscured by whatever is making him upset today. The current issue is the only one that matters, and it obliterates everything.

Apparently, sometime in childhood, I developed a habit of constantly doing things that could ruin everything. I got off to a bad start by not being born a boy, an extravert, or athletically talented — so when I came home in tears because I was being bullied in school, my father lashed out at me for not having been popular or tough enough to have won the bullies’ respect. I was also somehow incapable of writing a college-level paper at age 14, and while I had excellent grades, I never did anything that would make me a star. But I have to admit that some of the ways I most seriously disappointed my father were by choice – choosing to not to be interested in sports, wearing what my friends were wearing rather than styles my father would have found attractive, becoming a psychologist rather than a medical doctor, and so on. Often I was so oblivious to the objectionable nature of my choices that my father’s hateful reactions to them took me by surprise. One Sunday morning when I was about 8, I was quietly entertaining myself with a craft project when my father came into the room, grabbed my creation out of my hands and threw it away, shouting “What the fuck is this garbage?!!” Another odd violation I once made was to put sugar on my waffles rather than maple syrup. Suddenly my father was yelling at me that I was stupid and going to get fat and lose all my teeth — and my attempt to explain that maple syrup contains just as much sugar did not help matters. In fact, as I got older and tried harder to defend myself, he started mocking my voice in some exaggerated aristocratic tone, and saying that I might have friends if I didn’t act so uppity.

After his explosions I’d go to my room and cry — a lot. I found it very hard to stop crying, in part because I knew that what I was expected to do was to come out of my room and smile and act like nothing was wrong. Even just thinking about that would get me to start crying again, because it felt like having to betray myself. My father never physically bruised me, and in the presence of others he was the charming, actively involved parent many kids might wish they had. The brutality I experienced about twice a week for more than a decade seemed invisible to everyone else and I was determined to bear witness.

Often, after these incidents, my mother would tell me that I had to stop crying because it was making my father upset. A few times my mother started crying too, and said that since the rest of the family couldn’t treat each other decently, she wished she could just leave us and live on an island alone somewhere. I couldn’t even imagine losing her, and I was frightened and ashamed to think that in her eyes, I had done something to deserve that. When I was hospitalized for depression, anorexia, and suicidality at age 20, and a therapist confronted my mother with questions about abuse, she finally acknowledged that my father had been emotionally abusive to me. It meant a lot to hear her say that — but even then, she was quick to say that my father had never intended to hurt me. Apparently she had married a rare specimen of man-toddler who was capable of all kinds of intellectual accomplishments and other admirable things, but simply could not be expected to control the tantrums of the two-year-old inside him. She was trying to say, in other words, that he wasn’t a monster, but someone worthy of our care and helplessly in need of our patience.

Seeing my father’s cruelty as merely incidental to his good intentions kept me trapped in self-doubt. Why was I too stubborn or stupid or spiteful to be grateful for the intensity of my father’s commitment to my well-being? When I was in high school, he had cared enough about my future to tear up a several-inch-thick college guidebook with his hands and leave it at my place at the breakfast table where I would find it the next morning in the presence of a friend who was sleeping over. Just looking at that pile of torn pages, the conviction and rage required to have done that was obvious. It was as if he symbolically tore me to shreds to show me how wrecked and useless he could see me ending up if I kept failing to take his educational/occupational advice as seriously as it was intended. Perhaps my friend, who probably didn’t have a father who cared enough to leave a hand-shredded book at the breakfast table, should have felt jealous?

My father cared so much about me fulfilling his dreams that he was incapable of appreciating the person I actually was — and this did not make me feel grateful, it made me feel hurt and angry. Yet because my father continued to hurt me without intending to or even knowing that he did so, my anger was targetless and voiceless, much like the nightmares I still have in which I’m trying to yell and unable to make a sound. As I got older and saw friends grieve the loss of their parents, I started to wonder if I would someday be glad that I was continuing to try to understand and comfort my father after more than 40 years as the recipient of his oblivious disdain. But eventually I decided that the answer was no. Although I can’t predict how I’ll actually feel when he dies, I’ve come to realize that I have the right, as well as a need, to not maintain a relationship with him.

After several years of not talking, my father and I were recently forced to spend a lot of time together while waiting to visit another relative in intensive care. As I watched him try to exert control over several family members’ lives — and disrespect their own choices — I felt overwhelmed by emotions from the past, and told him so. His response was, “I know I wasn’t perfect as a parent. But as a psychologist, what do you advise a parent to do when they have a child who is like a drug addict, throwing her life away?” I was so stunned by his question that my response was incoherent. But I know what I’d say now. If I were advising the parent of a child with a serious psychological problem, I would suggest that the child get professional help – the thing he repeatedly prevented and dissuaded me from doing when I needed it. Moreover, what he views as me throwing my life away were just examples of me making age-appropriate choices that happened to differ from his own preferences.

The thing is, even though I knew by early adolescence that I often disagreed with my father and the tactics he used to teach me lessons, I absorbed his lessons anyway. What he taught me is that I am undeserving, selfish, stupid, ugly, backwards, uppity, friendless, crazy, and unable to trust my own judgment. Not talking to my father hasn’t erased those basic views of myself, but it has definitely been a step in the right direction.

Surviving until I could make my life worth living

I’ve spent most of my life wishing I were dead, and as a college student I tried to kill myself. The story of my survival, and of my promise to never try to take my life again, is posted today on the Active Minds blog, here:

http://activemindsblog.org/suicide-prevention-month-a-life-worth-living/