Find Your Dry Land: Cultivating Resilience Instead of Crisis

According to the American Psychological Association, “the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.” They further state that the following factors are associated with personal resilience:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

Link to Source.

One factor that I think is implicit but worth naming as an addition is curiosity, wonder, and an attitude of experimentation or problem-solving in response to challenges.

In contemplating my experience working with people in crisis, it occurred to me that a crisis could be characterized by the lack of these resilience factors. In my observation, a person in a crisis state often experiences some combination of the following:

  • Obstacles or stressors that seem inescapable, untenable, or impossible to cope with/overcome with current resources.
  • Overwhelming emotion—particularly the famous sympathetic nervous response called the “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex—or dissociation from that emotion.
  • Impulsivity in response, difficulty assessing available options and making decisions that are more beneficial than harmful in the long run.
  • Narrowing of perspective and fixation on challenges, setbacks, grievances, or fears.
  • Negative view of self and insecurity in strengths and abilities.
  • Feeling unsupported, alone, or actively opposed.

People in crisis are metaphorically drowning, and they bring up strong emotions in the people around them. When in crisis, we seem to invite others to freak out with us, join in our outrage or our terror, even though that’s not what we really want or need. We also start looking for a savior, anyone who can pull us out of this overwhelming situation and make the crisis end. We feel helpless, alone.

We are thus vulnerable to people who would exploit our crisis for their gain. We’re more likely to agree to harmful “solutions” that seem to fix the problem but get us stuck in worse. We’re more likely to give our power to people who promise us safety and security—two qualities guaranteed to no one in this world—only to learn later how much we’ve given up of our autonomy and values. When politicians and advertisers put out messages that stir up our crisis responses, we would do well to wonder what it is they’re trying to sell us.

People in crisis are like drowning victims. Those who want to help feel like we should get in the water to get them, but that runs a high risk of turning the would-be savior into the victim. (Link to source.) People who are drowning or in crisis want out as quickly as possible by any means necessary, so fixated on the existential threat that their brain’s capacity to evaluate outcomes and make reasoned decisions has been essentially turned off to focus resources on survival.

If you want to help someone who is drowning, the best way is to find your own stable ground, throw a line of some kind out to the person, and pull them back to stability. This is good advice for helping someone in crisis as well. Often what benefits folks in crisis the most is someone who can offer calm, grounding presence, who can listen while they process their distress and help them think through their options, find resources, and come up with a plan of what to do next. You might notice that this fosters resilience, as the supportive person is being that caring and encouraging relationship that helps the person reconnect with their strengths, manage the strong feelings, and think about the problem as something solvable.

If you want to find your stable ground, look to those resilience factors and figure out which ones you need to strengthen. Find someone who has experience and skill those factors, and build a relationship with them. You might start a sitting meditation practice to learn how to remain calm and observant in the midst of distressing emotions, but that is only one of many possible disciplines that can help with that. With practice, we can learn ways to move out into distress, surf its energies, and find our way back to calm.

Image of a man on a surfboard, cresting a wave, while another man watches.

Instead of drowning, we can learn to surf. Photo by Marcus Dall Col.

This post is a variation of a presentation I gave at a recent conference, which was followed by a discussion about community resilience. More on that discussion is written up in this post.

Conflict and Resilience in Spiritual Community

This past weekend I facilitated a workshop on resilience in spiritual communities for the Many Gods West conference. There was a spirited engagement from folks who have great experience building local communities and had seen successes and failures across the board.

Some of the memorable points I walked away with were:

  • Knowing the goal or mission of your community, to anchor your efforts.
  • Training and preparing leaders, almost from the first day, so they can continue the mission when the founding leadership is exhausted or passes on.
  • Identifying who is doing the work in your communities—including the invisible labor of organization and the emotional labor of tending and repairing relationships—and making sure they are supported.
  • As a complimentary point those doing the work who feel unsupported or overextended need to feel able to scale back their vision and labor to something that is workable today, to say “no” when needed, to delegate.
  • Skills around conflict are necessary for resilient relationships.

This last point became very important and highlighted during the presentation. We discussed how conflict avoidance in communities and organizations contributes to collapse and rigidity. Sometimes communities devolve into bickering, back-biting, and in-fighting where people attack and defend but never sit at the table to have an open-hearted conflict that brings them back to connection. The other extreme is when communities become hyper-legislative and make rigid requirements and rules to try to manage and process conflict, which similarly makes them brittle and unwieldy or prone to cover-ups when problems do arise.

This is not exclusive to spiritual communities, but in my experience these communities have a particular vulnerability to people acting out their wounds around attachment, their family roles, and their family styles of conflict management. We create powerful containers for connection and self-transformation, places where we want to feel trust so we can become more ourselves, and the spiritual framework often tends to heighten or mythologize the tensions and conflicts. Which provides the opportunity for even more potent healing and transformation… or more damaging explosions.

Image of a person of color holding a firework emitting thick orange smoke, which arcs overhead and obscures their face.

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey

Conflict is inevitable and normal, and successfully allowing and working through conflict strengthens and deepens relationships. So many of us feel that if we were truly honest about our wants and needs then we would be rejected, attacked, ignored, or some other terrifying thing. Perhaps at some point—or many points—in life this happened. Lacking this capacity to say and hear honest expressions of feeling restricts our ability to heal wounds and develop resilient, workable relationships.

Resentment doesn’t go away when we ignore it, it only deepens and becomes toxic. Turning toward and befriending resentment helps us to see the ways in which we’ve taken on tasks that aren’t ours to do, or ignore our needs for someone else’s, which helps us to set cleaner boundaries and even show up in relationship with more generosity and joyfulness.

One question that arose in the workshop was around conflict resolution, and fortunately there was a whole other workshop dedicated to that topic. What occurred to me in that moment was that many of us are not ready for conflict resolution because we still struggle to engage in open conflict. I have a style of conflict avoidance and people-pleasing that showed up during the workshop itself, when two participants began to have a conflict and I reacted by attempting to smooth it over and avoid it with some statement about “we disagree and that’s okay.” A moment later, I realized what I had done, and acknowledged that I had acted out the very dynamic we were discussing as a problem in our communities.

After the workshop, those of us involved in that exchange sat down to discuss where each of us were coming from. I cannot speak for those in attendance, but I felt heartened at the mutual sharing of concerns and emotional responses without shutting each other down. I do not know if any minds changed that night, but I hope the processing and softening of hearts helped us to walk away with things to contemplate.

Unhooking

As a kid, I learned in First Aid not to pull out a fish hook if it got caught in my skin. The barb of the hook, designed to dig deeper with resistance, would cause more damage. Instead, the recommendation was to push the hook through until one could clip off the barb with pliers, then back it out.

This wisdom may well carry over into relationships and community interactions. We use the metaphor of “baiting” people into conflict and refer to sharp, cruel statements as “barbs.” They hook us into emotional reactivity, and the more we struggle against them, the deeper they get “under our skin.”

We see this in Internet trolling, how people looking to stir up trouble throw out barbs, and then their prey gets hooked into an argument or reactivity until the troll is able to find some evidence to vindicate themselves. No matter how cruel and stupid the troll has been, they win because they have the greatest emotional distance and outward appearance of self-control. The fact that others respond to them is seen to be proof that the others are in the wrong.

An image of a person holding a freshly caught fish.

“Catch of the Day,” by Sticker Mule

It’s classic bullying. It’s unfair. The fact that it’s unfair seems to make no difference.

It’s a challenge for people who value living authentic lives, too, for expressions of vulnerability and appeals to compassion are not always safe or effective. Indeed, sometimes this seems to intensify the attack as the bully finds delight in the pain they cause. Or one’s efforts to advocate for one’s self while upset and hooked end up too messy and unfocused to be effective.

One sure sign of being hooked is feeling convinced that you have to get the other person to change their mind or stop their behavior. There is a fine distinction here. I’m not saying the bullying is okay. What I am saying is that bullies are unlikely to stop what they’re doing when they’re getting what they want. There may be things you can do to advocate for yourself and change, but what helps all of this is to start by getting yourself unhooked.

Emotional hooks find purchase in the parts of us that are vulnerable to the attack. Some part of me that quietly worries that the attacker is right about me, or feels I deserve the treatment, or refuses to admit that I’m hooked because I don’t accept my vulnerability.

This is where the powerlessness comes in—I have, let’s say, a secret story about being selfish. That being selfish is bad and I worry I’m a selfish person. So here comes someone who can defeat me by implying or outright stating I’m being selfish. Now hooked, I do everything I can to convince this person and everyone around me that I’m not selfish—I’ve already lost because now I’ve agreed with the attacker that their claim has enough merit to be defended against. I am on their ground. And I am trying to convince people whose opinions do not matter because they are not coming from a place of good faith. The person who first needs to get it is me.

So unhooking is following this inward, finding the emotional vulnerability, and pushing it out to expose the barb. What in me worries about selfishness? What is “wrong” with being selfish anyway? Perhaps I check in with people whom I trust to care about me and give me accurate feedback about my selfishness. Overall, I want to befriend this part of me that is in pain and give it loving witness until it is able to release the barb.

In this way, being hooked leads me to my next phase of inner healing work. The difficult situation may persist while healing, and may linger for longer than I’d like. Whenever a person brings out reactivity in me, I see where I am still hooked and where there is more work to do.

With time, however, I’ve discovered more emotional freedom is possible, which can lead to surprising ways of standing up for myself and changing the situation. Those attempting to bait or bully find instead a disconcerting self-possession that does not feed their hunger for victimization.

The Ego of Whiteness: Stories, Privilege, and Shame Resilience

Anti-oppressive work for people in privileged positions demands learning to tolerate and roll with the stresses to our cherished ego stories. According to Jones and Okun, white supremacy shows up in perfectionism, individualism, binary thinking, urgency, power hoarding, avoidance of conflict, and the belief in rational or objective positions. Those of us raised to identify with whiteness are often hesitant to step into the world of activism and consciousness-raising because our white-identified egos struggle to tolerate the shame of conflict. We personalize confrontation or generalized observations. If someone says something that brings up in us a feeling of shame, we’re more likely to attack that person for saying it and not exploring with curiosity the meaning of this shame.

In simple terms, my definition of the ego is “a story about myself that I want you to believe.” The more attached I am to that story, the more fiercely I will defend it against perceived assault, for beneath that ego-story is often shame.

My complementary definition of shame is “a deep story I fear is true about myself, one I don’t want you to believe.” In context with Jones and Okun’s article, I suspect my conceptualization of the ego is a psychological construct of whiteness that we impose upon each other and people of color, and not a descriptive feature intrinsic to humanity.

Mindfulness and meditation practice helps us reach deeper capacities of the inner Self, and work in community helps us access broader capacities of the collective Self. The deep Self helps us to recognize that stories of worthiness and unworthiness are simply that—stories that shape our experience but not the absolute truth of who we are. The broad, communal Self helps us to see how our Being and sense of worth finds function and expression in community.

A white guy sinking into the deeper Self. Photo by Isabell Winter.

This movement—downward into the Self or outward into Community—suggests strategies by which we can roll with and recover from shame. When I feel upset or “called out,” I immediately want to center my own feelings and react based on feeling attacked. This typically makes the problem worse. Here is a process I work with to move in a more generative direction:

  • Recognize that I am feeling ashamed/defensive or responding in a way that is harmful.
  • Name that out loud. “I’m being defensive/I’m feeling ashamed/I’m being really racist and sexist right now.” (This is context-specific and not always safe or appropriate, but it is remarkable in its potential to defuse reactivity. First of all, it stops me in my tracks. Second of all, it helps me move out of shame’s state of disconnection.)
  • Take a breath, letting my awareness drop into my body.
  • Sense the physical and emotional experience.
  • Take another breath, and expand around the uncomfortable feelings.
  • Ask myself—What is this person expressing? What are they asking for in this moment?
  • Identify a step I can take now to move toward what is being asked of me.
  • Take the step.

Notice that none of these steps involve telling the other person what to do, arguing with them, or agreeing with them without consideration. Often shame wants us to jump over the discomfort of the moment and defend or apologize excessively, both of which get in the way of us actually hearing what the other person is saying.

When I respond to a call-out with my ego, I notice that my responses often center myself or subtly try to make me look good (or really bad, if I’m in shame). Sometimes this is the best I can do. What I find even better is if my response centers the person I am talking to—not their perceived ego, but their expressed need and desire.

When a person expresses a need or desire to me in a way that arouses feelings of shame, it is tempting to want to dismiss or avoid the topic because I feel uncomfortable. My ego says that to take care of that person would be “giving in” or “rewarding the behavior.” Imagine if a person crossed the desert, was completely dehydrated, and standing behind you in line for the water fountain while you idly checked your phone. It would be understandable for that person to get impatient and loud in their need for you to move.

Your discomfort at being yelled at is less of a priority than their need for water in that moment, and from an outside perspective I think most folks would agree. Lecturing them about asking nicely is not helping anyway. Get out of the way, or if needed, help them get the damn water. Later you can discuss civility.

What trips up a lot of folks raised in whiteness is that pernicious wish to have the perfect response. It doesn’t actually exist, and believing we have it only throws us back into the dualistic ego dilemma. What we can offer is the loving response, one that has compassion for our own struggle and the struggles of the people we care for.

Boundaries are about Self-Respect

Acknowledging and respecting boundaries and limits is healthy and gives us power, yet I notice often folks seem to set boundaries in ways that are ineffective and self-defeating. Or we set boundaries but then fail to support them. All of this leads to frustration and dissatisfaction in relationships.

What helps me think about boundaries is to start with the most immediate and tangible one: my skin. My skin is a boundary between my body and the external world. It keeps things together. It is somewhat permeable. It delimits that for which I have responsibility and authority. Violating this boundary has immediate consequences and causes me pain. Your skin is your boundary.

Subtler psychic and interpersonal boundaries are not the same but ideally arise similarly from our own center and experience. All I really have control or responsibility over is myself, and even that comes from a process of expanding in consciousness and capacity for responsibility.

Responsibility, power, and consequences all play a role in boundaries. A boundary is not about controlling other people’s behavior; it’s about communicating my expectations and enforcing the consequences. Here’s an example: “I appreciate when you invite me over, but I can’t eat certain foods. When you ignore that, I get sick. I’ve told you my food sensitivities a few times, and every time you ignore them, I feel less interested in having dinner with you.”

This describes a situation in which the person with food sensitivities has been disrespected and endangered. This boundary is communicating both the personal consequences—I get sick—the good faith efforts to work with the other person, and then the interpersonal consequences—I don’t want to come over for dinner. The latter are the consequences that often we find hardest to enforce, but from this frame, there’s actually nothing to “enforce.” I’m simply letting you know how your behavior affects me and listening to my feelings. You can decide what to do with that information.

Image of a person spinning rainbow-neon lights in circles in a dark background.

Photo by Tyler Lastovich

This isn’t an ultimatum or a threat, and doesn’t need to be stated that way. Ultimatums or threats come from the belief that I can coerce you to do what I really want, which is sometimes successful in the short-term but rarely in the long-term. It’s a statement of self-observation. It’s listening to and respecting your self and not enabling others to disrespect you.

“What if they keep making food I can’t eat?” Then you listen to yourself and stop going over for dinner, or if you absolutely cannot stop then you can unapologetically make accommodations for yourself. For some, setting and enforcing boundaries brings up guilt and shame. That happens, but if you’ve told this person what you need and they proved unwilling to listen or adjust their behavior, you’ve done due diligence. It is painful and sad to recognize that people we want to be important to us are not behaving with respect. We can’t control them or force them to change. It is quite vulnerable to decide we are going to behave as though we’re worthy of respect, even if parts of us don’t quite feel that way. But threatening consequences that never happen only diminishes the power of our words. 

Your primary responsibility to the other person is to communicate your expectations and the consequences. In many cases, once you actually begin to have and respect your own boundaries, the folks who are used to disrespecting you will act out and try to guilt, coerce, or force you to continue accommodating them. Yet you owe them no further explanations or compromise. You can reiterate your expectations, or tell them what you need to see to rebuild trust, but you don’t need to sacrifice your health or dignity.

Nothing to Fix

In the past few years my thinking has shifted around the idea of “fixing.” I am of the opinion that when it comes to myself, the idea of being “broken” or needing to be “fixed” comes from internalized shame and is not useful for the work of becoming whole and in integrity.

This is a confrontational idea. We are so beset by ideas of who we are “supposed” to be. When we look to the harm we do to ourselves and our loved ones, or the harm done by others, it sounds bizarre to hear someone say there’s nothing to be “fixed.”

I do not suggest there is no harm being done, and there aren’t people who do and espouse evil. I simply do not think shame offers us anything useful for becoming whole and building harmonious communities. Shame as wielded today is a tool of dominance and social control. “You are bad” is all it has to offer. “You are broken.” “Fixing” has denotations of fastening into place as well as repair. “Fixing” is about maintaining things as they are, not transforming the lead of life into gold.

When we believe that judgment is an essential truth, then we have no room to grow or become better. If I’m bad, then everything I do to become better is still based on the premise of my badness. All of my works, my good efforts, my skills have been built over the shoddy foundation of my badness. As soon as I make any kind of mistake or hurt someone, or am myself hurt—an absolutely inevitable risk and reality of living any kind of enjoyable life—it cuts right to that foundation and seems to confirm it as the underlying bedrock truth. “See? You were bad all along. You simply hid it well.”

From a mindfulness-based perspective, this is an exceptionally convincing illusion. When we sit in meditation, we become aware of a deeper level of awareness and a broader experience of Selfhood that is able to experience pain and joy but is neither and both. It is the field on which these experiences play out. When I connect with that sense of spacious Self, I find myself fully capable of expressing the qualities of life I most desire. It is like I discover I already am the person I always wanted to be.

And then I get stuck in one of these smaller parts of me, the ones that carry all my doubts and fears and anger, and I forget that spaciousness and become convinced that this smallness is my truth. So I have to keep practicing.

This is why there is nothing to “fix.” The idea that I have to “fix” comes from this smallness, this idea that I am “bad” but I can make myself “better.” It is not coming from that spacious Self, and its solutions are inevitably limited and stuck in the smaller thinking that only maintain the problem.

A green glass alembic of Iranian origin

An alchemical Alembic of Iranian origin

If I start with the assumption that I am basically good, that everything in me is striving for wholeness and integrity, then I have to take my inner conflicts seriously without taking sides. The parts of me that cause harm, lash out, and interfere with my goals do so with a notion of my best interests. They try, in their painful ways, to bring something important to my attention, and my work is to—as best as I can today—drop out of my attitude of trying to categorize and fix and into a deeper listening, witnessing state. To really understand what these parts want and fear, and why this upsetting pattern persists in spite of all my efforts to “fix.”

At times this means putting limits on the parts of me that are causing harm, which is in practice easier when I am doing so from a place of acceptance and non-shaming. It is not about accepting all behavior and outcomes. It is about accepting the innate dignity of every part of me and a willingness to seek out what needs liberation within the painful and harmful impulses.

This process of listening and understanding allows these conflicts to soften and dissolve into each other. With time, a solution emerges—including facets of all—a way forward that moves out of the stuckness, reduces harm, and increases efficacy.

Changing the Things We Cannot Accept

At New Year’s Eve 2016, I was at a friend’s house and noticed a book on the astrology of 2017. Some of us picked it up and looked it over, in conversation. From the author’s picture I had immediate (and inaccurate) judgments of the content, thinking it would be a relatively shallow New-Agey text. When I flipped open the book, the first thing I saw was this quote was this epigraph:

“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing things I cannot accept.” – Dr. Angela Davis

Holy shit, I thought. Even the nice white New Age lady is pissed off.

Earlier this year I was thinking about mental hygiene during a propaganda war, which continues to be a worthwhile practice and point of contemplation as the United States’s traditional arbiters of meaning have gone to war against each other and insurgent communities are using this opportunity to flood us with noise, misinformation, and seductively simple answers.

No matter how powerful anger makes us feel, it’s exhausting to be angry and guarded all the time. It’s exhausting to feel overwhelmed and powerless. And as life-transforming as it is to accept what we cannot change, there are times when it is also necessary to change what we cannot accept.*

When I feel the most cynical, despondent, and powerless, that’s when I know I need to get off my ass and do something important to me. If there’s a cause that matters, then I need to make the phone calls to the congresspeople, go to the city hall meeting, even symbolic gestures like lending material support to works I care about. Powerlessness is a significant feature of several mental health disorders, which can lead to a complete surrender of agency like a major depressive episode or, seemingly paradoxically, into destructive expressions of rage.

We are made to be heard and seen, to have an impact on our surroundings, and to belong to a community. These days, it is unfortunately all too easy to lack any of these experiences of connection and personal or social power. And people who have felt powerless or victimized—whether we think it’s warranted or not—are quick to jump onto self-righteousness and gleeful joy in others’ suffering should the balance of power abruptly shift.

None of this is particularly helpful in changing the things we cannot accept. Spite often relishes the conditions that cause it. People nourishing spite love being attacked and persecuted, even if they accuse others of being “victims,” because the high of feeling self-righteous feels more enticing than the vulnerability of acknowledging how one has been hurt and what one truly wants.

This is one of the reasons why I am a proponent of setting aside labels like “good” “bad” “positive” or “negative” for our feelings—fixating on the “good”-feeling feelings and avoiding the “bad”-feeling feelings can turn us into self-absorbed assholes. Whereas embracing the value of all of our feelings, and understanding that taking meaningful action might engender painful or “bad”-feeling feelings ultimately contributes to true personal power. Changing the things we cannot accept is rarely easy and without stress, but these are the experiences that draw upon the virtues of courage and resilience—the qualities we celebrate in our heroes.

* Discerning between the things we can and cannot change is a subject larger than the scope of a blog post. However, I do think they are complementary. As I learn the things about myself that I cannot change and must accept, so am I better able to accept these things in other people. Then my efforts toward changing what I cannot accept are more effective, as I’m wasting less energy on things out of my control.

The Problem of the Successful Coping Strategy

A long time ago, people would tell me I was hard to read. I didn’t understand their problem, and was a little suspicious of what they wanted to “read” and why. For me, my feelings felt profoundly visible and all-encompassing, a shyness and sensitivity that was easily disturbed. A part of me believed the story of shame, that deep down there was something wrong with me that needed concealment—though, after years of deep reflection, I’ve come to believe there is no secret hidden thing. It was shame itself that didn’t want to be seen.

Yet I came to learn that, no matter how vulnerable I felt inside, most folks around me were unable to sense this. I’d learned how to mask my feelings behind a cool, neutral, unreadable expression. There are many possible reasons for this, but I think the most relevant is likely that as a kid I learned that showing weakness or vulnerability was like throwing blood in the water and attracting sharks. Better to not show how hurt I felt so they wouldn’t know how to hurt me.

As an adult, this became an automatic, unconscious, and crippling protection. While I hid my vulnerabilities well, so too were my warm feelings and my desires concealed. When I wanted to connect with someone, as a friend or a potential partner, I felt terrified of letting down the façade and sometimes couldn’t even figure “how to do it.”

Image of a number of people in silhouette at an aquarium, looking at a wide array of sea creatures.

Georgia Aquarium, by Matt Helbig

This was my coping strategy, this mask, and it worked well. Exquisitely well. People came to appreciate things about my neutrality. They could confide in me things that bothered them. And as I entered the adult working world, I could take on lots and lots of responsibility and I never let on when it was too much or I was struggling. I was rewarded for it, but it made me easier to exploit.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the perils of a coping strategy that is too successful. Coping strategies are the habits, practices, and patterns of being we rely upon to manage stress and pain, often with avoiding or minimizing suffering. A colleague recently distinguished these from true self-care strategies, which I find useful—self-care in this context being about tending and caring for the fullness of myself, even things that feel unpleasant or painful.

We know the coping strategies that are obviously unworkable. These are the ones that leave scars, break apart relationships, consume hours of our time and hundreds of our dollars and leave us feeling emptier and more fragile. The ones that create as many problems as they “solve.”

This time I’m thinking of those coping strategies that work too well, but are still merely containing our suffering rather than relieving it. The tendency to smile and say thank you when inwardly you burn with resentment. The hours spent at work, earning accolades and promotions while your inner life empties out and your home remains a cold, terrifying place. That ability to make people laugh and laugh while inwardly you feel you are dying and desperate for someone to care.

These strategies are pernicious and difficult to surrender. I couldn’t say if they’re easier or harder than the less workable ones, and comparison doesn’t matter. The point is that the person experiencing these, even the people around them, might not see them as problematic. Surrendering these coping strategies might feel irrational but also terrifying. They are the hardened exoskeletons formed around a soft, vulnerable interior, but  this protection also blocks deep nutrition and meaningful connection. Indeed, this might be protected even from our conscious selves.

Unfortunately, it is that which is vulnerable that needs liberation from the outworn coping. At some point we need to learn how to take risks, and with whom. My neutrality is not inherently bad, what was problematic was that it had become so automatic it was no longer a choice. Now I can bring that neutrality to situations where it is useful, where my inner responses need containment or time and I need to attend to others. But I have to work harder than I like to share my vulnerability with the people who have earned it.

Book Review – Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Society

Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Society by Chris Donaghue

Donaghue’s thesis is essentially that our sex-negative and oppressive society has created sexual dysfunction, and so instead of treating marginalized or “dysfunctional” sexuality, we would do better to embrace sexual liberty and a natural diversity of relational styles. He offers some strong justifications for this argument, pointing toward queer and postcolonial theory to discuss the State and patriarchal benefits of privileging some forms of sexuality and oppressing most others. Drawing upon observations of nature and biology, he illustrates a world that is naturally pluralistic in sex, gender, and sexuality. Those whose sexualities do not fit in the model of nuclear, monogamous, heteronormativity (which includes many straight people!) would find in this book some fodder to questions oppressive sexual norms.

The book, however, reads like a manifesto that largely draws upon his authority as a sexologist and clinician, without the supportive clinical research and applications I hoped to see. He clearly has some axes to grind with other therapists and practitioners who work in the sex addiction model, and while that makes for a lively book, at times I felt he takes for granted that his reader should trusts his judgment, instead of providing the evidence and argumentation to fully articulate and justify his alternative.

In many psychology books that reach wider audience, writers will include case studies that show a client coming in with a problem, the writer applying their theory to the client’s problem, and then showing how the client responded to this application and worked through their problem. Donaghue’s anecdotes are briefer, generally along the lines of: “A client had this problem, so I told them they should think this way instead.” We don’t see how or whether this suggestion improved the client’s life. We don’t have a tangible idea of what happiness and sexual fulfillment looks like in his model—to be fair, his position is that each of us should discover it ourselves.

Another missing piece for me is that Donaghue does not discuss in depth what would be considered problematic sexual behavior in his model. For example, he only briefly remarks on incest, rape, and molestation by referring some research that indicates what kinds of societies increase those risks. Important and relevant information to be sure, but he does not situate what is “wrong” with these behaviors within the model he is espousing. If he wants us to reject old sexual mores entirely, then I think it useful to be intentional on what mores will replace it.

I’m probably more cranky with this book because I think his vision is interesting and worth consideration, and find his reframes around certain particular dysfunctions liberatory. I agree with a lot of his introductory work to unpack the oppressive history around Western sexual psychology. I share some of his concerns about the DSM and agree with moving away from diagnosing mental illness as solely an individual problem, instead looking at how problems exist within larger cultural, social, and economic systems. I hope there will be more to come.

Film Response – It Follows

It Follows (2014)

Recently I was home sick for a weekend and decided to catch up on some movie suggestions. It Follows had come up multiple times recently in discussions with a friend, so one night I watched it. The next day, I watched it again. It still haunts me. Note: this is a somewhat dark reflection on the movie, and some details that might be spoilers.

It Follows is a film whose genesis was a nightmare that writer and director David Robert Mitchell had as a child, in which a shapeshifting monster followed the dreamer wherever he went. In the movie, the main character Jay learns after a sweet date and what looked like satisfying car sex that her lover has passed along to her a curse—she will be followed by a nebulous monster, invisible to everyone else but always visible to her, though its forms constantly change. The monster walks slowly, almost constantly, directly toward her at all times. If the monster gets a hold of her, it will kill her, and then start hunting the one who gave the curse to her. The only way out is to pass the curse to another through sex, and hope that they don’t get killed.

The dreamlike quality of this monster and its “rules”—which, will explained precisely in a scene that first appeared over-the-top and later makes complete sense—paradoxically immerse the viewer into the dread and anxiety suffusing mundane reality. The film trains us very quickly to constantly scan the background for people walking very slowly and deliberately toward Jay. Often we are more concerned and attentive than she is, as a few very masterful scenes suggest. We learn we cannot trust the film to communicate danger with the expected tropes of horror camera angles and music. The camera seems dispassionate, taking in all content with equanimity. That person walking could be a random person, or it could be the monster.

The transmission of the curse through sex naturally brings up connotations of sexually transmitted disease and the loss of innocence, but I think the film succeeds in not allowing its symbolism and weight be reduced to those tropes. Jay has had sex before, and she and her friends talk about innocent days of sexual experimentation, when they had no idea what they were doing until adults showed up to instill shame in them. There is a loss of innocence that happens as Jay becomes more conscious of the danger she is in and more calculating about the risks she must take.

It would be easy to demonize the man who passed the curse along to her, but the curse is in many ways like several dilemmas of adulthood: there is no way out without someone getting hurt. If she fails to pass the curse along, she will be killed, and then her ex-lover will be hunted again. If she passes the curse along, she’ll endanger her new lover, and there’s no guarantee she won’t have to deal with this problem again.

This film had me reflecting much on the experience of people with posttraumatic stress disorder: the hypervigilance; becoming alarmed at things others can’t perceive; the disturbing and intrusive images. The deep knowing that you could be hurt at any time, that there is nowhere entirely “safe” where a predator couldn’t emerge at random—It could be a stranger, or as one character says, “Sometimes I think It looks like people you love just to hurt you.”

Adults are curiously peripheral in the film, not sources of strength and support but rather inept, invisible, or themselves sources of potential danger. This could be a social commentary but it also suggests that every person is fallible and part of maturation is confronting that I must be responsible for my life and who I trust with it. Whether to succumb to the horror, to fight back, to pass it along—there is no right option, no choice to forever free one’s self of danger. I think that is the innocence lost in this movie—the belief in a world of safety and easy moral choices.

I think the film illustrates a dilemma trauma survivors in particular have to face, but truly all of us living in the United States (probably beyond) need to wrestle with at one time or another. We do not live in a world where safety is guaranteed, yet we are here and this is the world where our life occurs. How do we manage security and risk without wanting to regress into children seeking a strong adult to keep us safe?

Commentators on the movie suggest that the monster is laughable, as one could simply take a plane across the country and rest easy knowing it will take forever to walk toward you. But that’s the horror again. Eventually It will find you. And what kind of life would you build if you simply ran away each time It did? Instead of living forever isolated and on the run, Jay eventually decides to bring someone she trusts into her dilemma—a conscious partnership of mutual support. Though the film is ambiguous as to whether their fighting back is successful or not, the act of fighting back seems to have empowered her, wisened her, prepared her for an uncertain future.