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.

Thoughts on Resilience

In preparation for a workshop I will be leading at Many Gods West I am contemplating resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”

An orientation toward resilience assumes that one will meet adversity, trauma, tragedy, or stress at some point in life. A blade of grass is resilient because you can step on it, and once the pressure’s off it will eventually return itself to its original angle and shape, or one close enough to keep getting sunlight. A pack of wolves is resilient because it can keep itself intact, responsive, and generative even when it loses members. Forests are resilient when a diversity of species contributes to the ecosystem—if one species suffers significant disease or loss, others could pick up the slack.

All of these models of resilience have limits, of course—paving over the grass will likely override its resilience. Even then, over time as the concrete breaks up and tiny cracks form, life will emerge. The concrete itself has a certain amount of resilience, but lacking life and people willing to invest in infrastructure maintenance, it will inevitably break apart and never put itself back together.

From sandy ground, a tiny plant grows, casting a long shadow.

Photo by Evan Kirby.

Life rebounds. Life repairs itself. Life adapts even to the greatest stressors. If we identified with life itself, thinking through the history of the organism on Earth from the first DNA strands weaving together in some ocean to my fingers typing on a keyboard, life is amazingly resilient. Our species is quite resilient, able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems, catastrophes, food sources. Though we can look at history and see some remarkably self-destructive behavior, in sum we are a species geared toward survival—and not just our own personal survival, but the survival of our groups, of things greater than ourselves.

Here I approach spiritual thinking, but spirituality offers much in terms of resilience. Ritual binds people in an experience of shared meaning and connection with something larger than the self—such as community, nature, deity, or a personified ideal. An intention for one’s life, a commitment to a cause, service to a community or deity, close personal relationships, even a beloved pet may be enough to keep us going through the hard times until we recover.

Though excessive pain and trauma is overwhelming and not desirable, being resilient isn’t about a life free of pain and hardship. Avoiding conflict, hardship, discomfort, and painful experience decreases resilience. Our muscles become stronger when they’re torn apart in concentrated exercise, then allowed to rest and rebuild, then torn apart again.

When I was a barista, I became rather inured to scalding hot water. In my early days, if I spilled the water on my skin, it would obviously hurt a ton and I’d stick my hand under the cold faucet water and shout at my coworkers, “We GIVE that to people to PUT IN THEIR BODY!” After three years, I would simply shake the water off and keep going, then remind myself it was still a good idea to apply the cool water. We can become too insensitive to pain and damage which will affect our long-term resilience in other ways.

We need rest and challenge, and sometimes we need one when we most think we need the other. When I get too comfortable and too fearful of leaving my house to do something challenging, that’s usually the time I need to push myself to take a risk. Likewise when I get super rigid in my practices and keep forcing myself to do things even when it’s hurting my body, that’s often a time when I need to relax, rest, or make a change.

One practice that helps is articulating and returning to intention. If my intention is to run a marathon, then my practices around becoming stronger and giving myself rest should serve that intention. If I get injured, I would want to follow my healer’s recommendations but all in service to the goal of running a marathon. Perhaps I reach a point where that intention no longer seems worth the pain and effort, but then that points to whether I have an even larger intention that running a marathon may or may not serve. Do I want a life filled with exciting experiences? Do I want a life where I live long enough to see great-grandchildren?

Perhaps you can’t state an intention today, because you’re not sure what you want. That’s okay. It can take a while to figure it out, and perhaps the intention today is to explore possibilities until you figure it out. One thing that helps me is to ask myself, “What quality do I want to experience (or express) in my life?” Then sit and listen. Maybe all I get today is a bodily sensation that I cannot name, but even that’s information. It might be the quality I center around, what I seek out and nurture in my interactions. The crushed grass perks back up, pointing toward the sun. This quality could be the sun you seek.

Releasing the Charge of Difficult Memories

Sometimes we carry intense emotional memories that continue to affect us today. I am talking about memories that still bring up feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, regret… all the greatest hits of our emotional repertoire.

Some folks get stuck in these memories, where a core story was born that continues to rule their lives—something like, “That’s when I learned no one would ever take me seriously.” Though they know it’s in the past, they can’t help but recall it often, talk about it, feel trapped by it.

Other folks get stuck as well, but have learned to avoid or suppress the memories. “It happened in the past. There’s no point in talking about it.” The problem is that these memories still carry the emotional charge, they are alive for us just as much as the folks in the previous example.

There are a number of therapeutic approaches to dealing with these kinds of memories. Here is one practice I do with myself and the occasional client to work through memories that carry deeply stuck shame, guilt, or anger. (I do not, however, encourage this exercise for traumatic memories, especially if you are not currently in a strong therapeutic relationship to heal your trauma response. The reasons why would be too long to explain in this post but I suspect most folks with traumatic memories will get it when they read through the exercise.)

Step 1: Identify a specific memory that is highly charged.

Specificity is very important, perfect recall is not. For example, something like, “My mom was always critical when I tried to make her happy” is too general for this exercise. Detail brings up more of the emotional intensity and ultimately reveals more important information that helps us to move. You do not have to get all the details exactly, though, because this isn’t about being right or confronting another person. It’s simply accessing the memory as it is currently alive for you. (For the purpose of this exercise, I would practice with something on a 4-5 in the scale of intensity, with 1 being no intensity and 10 being nuclear meltdown.)

Step 2: Imagine the memory as it occurred, in as much detail as you can recall, and record it.

I like to imagine the memory and type out the memory as I’m having it, but that is easy for me. It might be easier for you to narrate the memory out loud and record it. If you can find a person to listen to you and witness, that is even better.

Step 3: Identify a key figure of someone else involved in the memory. Retell the story of what happened, but this time from their perspective. Record this.

If there is a person in this memory who is a “villain” or a “victim” or simply a person who was part of the conflict, imagine what happened from their perspective. This works surprisingly well if you don’t over think it, analyze it, or try to justify it, just re-imagine the scene as though you were “in their shoes” and tell the story as it unfolds. Unexpected details may come out, things you can’t possibly know, or things you do know but finally make sense from this perspective. Don’t censor it—again, this isn’t evidence for a court of law, it’s to help you bring to light your unconscious beliefs and intuitions about the situation.

Step 4: Imagine the memory one more time, this time as though you were a camera or an impartial observer. Record this.

Step 5: Review all of your recordings.

If you have a trusted ally who saw you narrating these out loud, ask them to tell you what they observed.

Notice what is different from each perspective. What can you learn about yourself and the people involved from these different lenses? What does one lens show that wasn’t available to the other? What does this memory and how it unfolds tell you about ways you deal with similar situations today? What are the strengths and limitations of that approach? What would you have done differently if you had all this information?

A femme person in a pink dress opens her arms toward a wave splashing the rocks.

The joy of bringing flow to the unconscious. Photo by Danka & Peter

Step 6: Think about a next step to honor this work.

If you have felt guilt, shame, or anger about the memory, consider if there is some action you could take to bring closure. Perhaps you need to make restitution for harm done, or offer yourself forgiveness for a situation that can no longer be rectified. Perhaps you need to apologize, or to go confront someone after all.

In some cases, I encourage revisiting the memory and imagining what I would do now if I could intervene in the event as it unfolded. Go help that part of you still stuck in the pain and emotions to get out of it. It doesn’t change the literal events of the past, but it changes the ongoing meaning and emotional charge of those memories, which frees you to rewrite the present and create a future.

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.

Loneliness and Emotional Labor

I got walloped by a cold this week and decided to focus on resting and recharging, so I do not have much original content to offer. In lieu of that, here are some links to things I’ve been reading and thinking about. Folks who follow my professional Facebook will have encountered a few of these:

How Loneliness Begets Loneliness – An interview with John Cacioppo about the physiological and social consequences of loneliness. His book on Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection is an excellent read that provides an accessible survey of his clinical research on loneliness, as well as his suggestions for working through it. This interview provides some of the high-level takeaways from the book.

Emotional Labor: What It Is and How to Do It – This is an excellent article by Miri explaining the concept of emotional labor and providing clear definitions of what it looks like and how it largely falls to women and femmes to do it. This is really instructive to pair with the Loneliness article, as so much of emotional labor is about relationship tending and repairing, skills that are necessary to avoid loneliness. Emotional labor, however, may be taken for granted and exploited by less savvy partners and friends, leading to loneliness for the laborer.

Emotional labor is often divided along lines of privilege and marginalization, with the less socially powerful position expected to do the emotional labor for the more socially powerful person. Thus in heterosexual relationships, women are expected to do the labor for men. In other kinds of relationships, people who are working class are expected to do emotional labor for upper class people (such as always being smiling and happy in your customer service job!) and people of color expected to do emotional labor for white people (such as, don’t do your activism in a way that causes me to feel upset or ashamed!).

In relationships where one partner does all the emotional labor, the non-laboring partner is running a huge risk. Should they lose that laboring partner to death or other causes, suddenly they are alone and bereft of social connections, leading to worsened outcomes around mental and physical health.

Romantic relationships are not the antidote to loneliness, as I often say to disbelieving single people. We can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely, if we live with shame and the fear of authentic connection. We can live with someone and feel lonely, if we feel they do not understand or see us. Cacioppo offers a useful framing in his book around the kinds of loneliness and connection, which I will paraphrase as: connection with self, connection with intimate partners, and connection with community.

One might look at emotional labor as a skill to break out of loneliness. According to Cacioppo, one path out of loneliness is to offer altruistic service to another person, extending one’s self without expecting anything in return. It is not simply receiving attention but also meaningfully participating in other’s lives that helps us to feel less alone. I think pairing these concepts, Cacioppo’s thoughts on loneliness and Miri’s thoughts on emotional labor, helps me to see where my loneliness might be coming from an imbalance. Perhaps I am lonely because I am extending myself too much and not receiving anything back, or perhaps because I am not doing enough to extend myself and am too focused on what I’m getting. There are more options, but this is simply a place to start with reflection.