AFS #4: Does insecurity and mental illness make me unlovable?

I found this question from Mr. LordMacbethh on Reddit’s r/RelationshipAdvice, and it made my heart hurt, because I see myself in the question and it’s taken me years to get to the point where I believe I deserve to be loved in spite of my issues. Here it is:

I believe that people with Mental Illnesses and people who are insecure are just as deserving of relationships as everyone else. Of course they shouldn’t let these things negatively affect their partner or significant other.

On flip side, I believe that all of my insecurities and mental illnesses make me unlovable. I’m 19M and gay and I’ve just started talking to someone and I’m concerned that my problems may make me hard to love.


I’ve had many bouts with Anorexia, and that’s something that’s likely to continue. It takes me like 30+ minutes to get dressed and choose my outfit because I want my clothes to fit a certain way to cover my insecurities & I want my clothes to project a certain image. The idea of just putting on clothes or just wearing comfy clothes is completely foreign to me. I’m constantly checking my appearance in mirrors and adjusting things, some of my friends think it’s annoying. I control my diet very seriously and workout a ton. Being shirtless/ nude around a romantic partner makes me really really insecure. I just generally hate my body. I’m also just very insecure about my personality, I’m always concerned I’m not funny enough or too overbearing, etc etc.

I have anxiety, depression, and OCD and they affect me of course. I’d never project them onto my partner or let my issues negatively affect my partner but I would definitely need a partner who is very supportive, empathetic, compassionate, and patient with me. I’m not necessarily controlling, like needing to know where my partner is at all times but if for example my partners behavior was drawing attention I’d get very anxious. I also have a lot of family related trauma. I think these problems would make it hard to be a romantic partner to me.

So my question is, what are your experiences with insecure partners? Can someone with mental illnesses and who is intensely insecure find someone who loves them and can be patient with them or is it likely to constantly be a barrier in their relationships? Any discussion is helpful!

Oh, darlin’. Before I even get started here I want to lay down a blanket statement, and I’d like you to write it down somewhere you can see it and repeat it to yourself for as long as it takes to start getting seriously on your own nerves: You deserve to be loved, protected from harm, and treated well by those around you. No quality you possess, from insecurity to mental illness to a face like a foot, can change that. It’s what you deserve, it’s a fact, and it doesn’t require a lot of data to prove it – I know you deserve love, and I don’t even know your name.

But you’ve got a rough road ahead of you. You know that. You know that growing up as a gay man at this moment in history is still a lot scarier and more isolating than it looks on TV. You know that people, especially men, don’t often treat men’s mental health issues with respect or compassion. You know that the gay community can serve to reinforce body image issues at times, because there are a lot of guys out there very much like you who will try to soothe their own insecurities by needling yours.

None of this is news to you… and yet, you’re not asking, “How can I feel better about myself?” or “How can I find someone who will fix all my problems?” When you look at potential partners, you aren’t thinking of what they can offer you. You’re distressed because you feel like you don’t have much to offer them. And that right there sets you apart from most people, especially most non-neurotypical people your age.

I want you to acknowledge this because the first important thing you can do to protect the people around you from your issues is remember that they are your issues to manage. You’re already doing this. You’re already anticipating the ways your behavior might affect a partner and trying to figure out how to mitigate that on your own, before you even have a partner. So let’s first acknowledge that you’re already ahead of the curve: you are ready to do your own emotional and mental work to get better, not put it on someone else. You are ready to do the best you can to give yourself to someone, not your mental illness. Two things I want you to focus on about that, two things you already believe, because you’re acting as if they’re true:

  1. You are not your mental illness. (Relatedly: you are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You are a being inhabited by those things.)
  2. You still get to choose how you act, however shitty those choices may be, and you are responsible for how you treat other people regardless of what problems you may be having.

That is a big-ass deal. Those are some advanced lessons, okay? It took me thirty years to get that far. Some people never do. The attitude that made you ask this question is going to make you a fantastic partner for whomever you choose to be with.

One more thing… I’m not going to nose into your family trauma too much, because you didn’t choose to go into it, but the data points you provide – anorexia, OCD, lack of self-esteem, desire to go unnoticed but still be exactly correct if anyone should notice – they also describe my life, and they paint a kind of picture. I think maybe the reason you think you don’t deserve love is because someone who should have loved you made you feel that way. I think maybe the reason you’re worried nothing about you is good enough is because nothing ever was, once. I hope you’re somewhere else now.

I’ll make some suggestions later on, but for now I just want to tell you that I know some of those people, the people who made you feel that way. They had ’em when I was a kid too. It took me a long time, but I found out that those people are wrong. They’re wrong for days. They’re wrong up one side and down the other, man. They are so wrong they have no idea what’s going on, and you know what else? What’s worse than being stupid, they’re mean. They’re fucking mean! They’re supposed to help you, protect you, love you, and they’re not just hurting you “for your own good” like they say. They are, in fact, doing something that hurts you, something that will never, ever make you better in any way, and they don’t care that it doesn’t work. Hurting you satisfies them.

That kind of person doesn’t know anything you need to hear. That kind of person has nothing to teach you. That kind of person can’t tell you who you are or what you’re worth – they can’t even see you. They only see themselves, so their judgment is meaningless, them projecting their issues on you. I know more about you from the few paragraphs you wrote here than that person knows about you, and I’ll bet they’ve known you for years. I know that you are trying not to burden someone you love with your pain like someone burdened you. I know that at nineteen you’re more of an adult than any of those people, because you’re preparing, with compassion and introspection, to manage yourself like an adult and give a partner something you were never given.

Now that we have established that you’re a catch, son, we can get down to business. To my mind, you just need a couple of things to help you manage your insecurity in a relationship:

1. A therapist

Get thee to therapy. No, I mean it. And I’m talking to all the rest of the class as well, now – everyone can benefit from therapy. We all grew up in a capitalist hellscape that places the value of human life somewhere below that of last year’s iPhone. You don’t have to have any kind of issues to benefit from someone whose job is to listen to you and not judge, to demand nothing, to help you understand yourself better. If you’re poor, I feel it, but you still have options. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a whole division just for helping you find support near wherever you happen to be, and it’s free. If you’re super poor like your gracious host, may I also recommend Medicaid? It’s saved my life, literally. Thanks, Obama! F’real tho, thanks.

An important caveat: trauma makes therapy… difficult. People with trauma often find traditional CBT therapists make them feel more self-critical and aggravate their anxiety. That was certainly my experience. I went through four therapists before I found one who could help me. The keywords you want to look for are “trauma-focused,” “MBCT,” or “EMDR” – those last two are therapeutic methodologies that have been proven effective with people suffering from PTSD or CPTSD. Psychology Today is a really good search tool and my therapist tells me that, at least around here, doctors keep it up to date and respond to it quickly, so it’s probably reliable. It’s okay to dump a therapist if they’re not helping you. Sometimes it takes a while to find someone you can connect with, and that sucks, but you’ll have a leg up if you find someone who understands trauma.

2. Support outside your partner

One way to take some pressure off your partner to be everything in the world to you is to make sure you have other friends, other things to do, a life of your own. This is also a good way to find a partner in the first place! You’re 19, this is your moment to figure out how you want to spend your time generally, so go try stuff. Join groups, take classes, go places. Go do interesting things; you will become more interesting, and there will be interesting people there who might share your interests! Your anxiety and depression will try to make you stay home, and that’s okay – don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself. At my best I can manage about one social outing a week, so if that’s what you can handle, that’s just fine, do that. Don’t go with the intention of making a friend, that’s a lot of pressure. Go with the intention of staying for at least twenty minutes and talking to one person. (Person-talking script: “Hey, my name’s Macbethh, what do you like about this thing we’re doing? What got you interested in doing that?” People love to talk about themselves. Ask questions, back off if someone seems unenthusiastic, and you will make a friend.) If you have fun, go again. If you don’t, try it one more time – sometimes it’s just a low day – and then fuck it, try something else.

It sounds like you do have friends, and I suspect that you probably overestimate how annoying you are to them. We tend to assume other people are noticing a lot more about us than they actually are. One strategy I’ve found effective with this kind of insecurity is, when you start wondering what other people are thinking of how you look in some way, ask yourself… the person you’re worrying about, what were they wearing? Did they have cat hair on it? Was it stained? Do you remember their appearance with any kind of detail… or were you so worried about what they were thinking of you that you didn’t notice a damn thing about them? Here’s the big secret of life, seriously: everybody’s that way. Everybody, every single person is so concerned about how they’re fucking up they can’t possibly notice if you’re fucking up. The confirmation bias you have, the memories of people abusing you for your minute fuckups come from a vanishingly tiny minority of assholes, and once you’re an adult, you don’t have to listen to those assholes anymore. You don’t have to nod sagely and go, “Yeah, thanks Dad, I’ll contemplate your drunken wisdom at length once you put the belt away.” When someone says (like they never will in real life), “Hey, stupid, you’ve got a stain on your shirt!”, you know what you can say? “Why are you staring at my chest, weirdo? Fuck off.” You get to say that now. It works now. It’s nobody’s goddamn business but yours what you look like, because you’re an adult. Go out wearing your underpants on the outside like Superman, fuck ’em, what are they actually gonna do?

3. Strategies for advocating for yourself and asking for what you need

Minimizing the harm you do the people around you with your issues is mostly a matter of clear communication – asking for what you need and setting boundaries. Having a therapist and other friends will help you feel the confidence it takes to stand up for your own needs. Remember that whatever you need to feel secure in your own space and your own body is fine – you get to dictate that, and anybody who tells you otherwise is not someone you want to be anywhere near! You get to say, “Hey, I’m working through some stuff around my body image, and right now it’s tough for me to be looked at. Can we have the lights off for a while / you tell me some things you think are attractive about me / you just tell me I look great when you notice me fretting in the mirror?”

Your partner can provide support and do a lot to make you feel sexy and beautiful, but it helps them if you can give them concrete things to do, rather than saying, “I feel bad, please change your behavior till the bad feeling goes away.” In a perfect world, how would they respond to you? If you can figure out what outcome you want, that’s actionable data for your partner. If you can’t… it’s possible you’re just trying to find a source for your bad feelings, but there’s not actually anything your partner could have done differently, and that’s a case where you have to manage those feelings on your own. You can also ask for space to process your feelings, and generally it’s okay to ask for time to recuperate and be alone if you need that. As a mentally ill introvert, I can take about four hours, max, of anybody, even people I love, before I need to go crawl in a hole and not be a person for a while. When I meet people, I say, “I try really hard to be up for fun stuff, but sometimes my brain clobbers me, so if I have to cancel on you for no useful reason sometimes, please know it’s not because I don’t want to be around you, it’s just because I don’t always have the spoons for social interaction with anyone.”

Generally, don’t be afraid to overshare with your partner. If they can’t take it, they are a douche, and I’m sorry, but you might meet a few. It’s getting better; there used to be more. If you’re feeling shitty and you don’t know why, it’s okay to say that. Your partner will be relieved to know you’re not expecting anything specific from them. Being somewhat impaired at expressing my own emotions, my go-to phrase is, “I don’t feel good.” This almost never means a physical illness, it means I don’t feel good; it’s nonspecific and true without feeling too whiny for me to say. “Hey, I don’t feel good, can you snuggle with me for a bit / bring me food / tell me I’m pretty and kiss my face?” Someone who loves you wants to do those things and will leap at any opportunity to do them! They were just sitting there trying to come up with an excuse to kiss your face!

In summary…

This is already lengthier than I intended, so I think it’s time for a TL;DR.

  • You deserve love. You are compassionate, brave, honest and capable of self-analysis. Anyone you choose to be with will be very, very lucky indeed. Don’t ever forget it.
  • Get a therapist who specializes in trauma
  • Spend time with your friends. Do new things, figure out who you are, not just who your depression is. Believe your friends when they tell you they care for you. Dump the friends who don’t and make new ones. Being by yourself is much, much better than being with someone who treats you badly – don’t do like I did and spend all of your 20s putting up with bullshit because you’re afraid to be alone.
  • Ask for what you need, be honest when you don’t know, and give your partner actionable ways to help if you can. It’s okay to ask for compliments! I’m shameless about it, man, I just come in the room all shiny and say, “Hi, tell me how great I am pleeeeease!” Someone who loves you will think it’s adorable.
  • Try very, very hard to perceive it and believe it when someone loves you and is good to you.

That last thing is gonna be important. Your brain lies to you, you know that. It tells you that your friends think you’re annoying. It will tell you that your partner doesn’t want to be with you, that they hate you, that they’re fucking someone else, someone more attractive, more experienced, whatever. Your brain is going to tell you a shit-ton of lies. Most of the time it’ll be telling you that your life sucks a lot more than it actually does. The only way you’ll have a chance is if you try very hard to see the stuff your brain is pretending doesn’t exist: your successes, your talent, your beauty, the love and kindness other people offer you. Your depression can make you totally overlook those things even when they’re right in front of your face. My therapist once had to tell me I’d done a “good job” three times before I actually absorbed it and felt a glimmer of pride. She was talking right to me and I couldn’t hear her, because my brain doesn’t want to believe that I can do a good job. Your brain doesn’t want to believe that you’re gorgeous, funny, interesting, lovable… but you are. You are. You really, really are. Find someone who will tell you as many times as it takes for you to hear it and believe it. You deserve that, and so much more.

Advice for Sluts #3: Breaking up while polyamorous?

Check it out – a real live human asked me personally a question! This time when I critique someone’s marriage, it will be because I was invited to do so, not because I stole Prudie’s mail! You can’t imagine how pleased I am right now.

Quick recap before we get started here, since we’re doing this all official-like now: I’m a huge ho here to help you figure out how to ho it up in an ethical, compassionate, healthy way, whether for fun or profit. You can find the remainder of my qualifications, such as they are, in that post there, but the pertinent one today is that I’ve spent most of my dating life in polyamorous relationships, trying to figure out how to interact emotionally and sexually with a lot of people while keeping them and myself healthy and happy. Poly-related problems are, with a few exceptions, monogamy problems with an exponential multiplier – the issue is the same, but the feelings and the confusion are amplified for every additional person in the mix. Very often, when you think you have a poly problem, what you have is a relationship problem that you’re trying to solve with polyamory, and that’s why it’s not working.

Our Letter Writer today gives a great example of a situation where that’s probably the case – the relationship was already limping, and polyamory has simply complicated the fallout – but also an occasion where honestly, the source of the problem doesn’t matter as much as what you do next.


You don’t know me (duh) but (if I read it correctly) something on your profile said to ask you anything so I’m taking you up on your offer.

I’m married. Have been for a year and a half or so. Spouse and I are sexually incompatible, so recently we had a talk and discovered we are both poly! Yay!

Both of us went on dating sites and happened to find the exact same couple through the opposite person in it. That’s cool! Now we are all a little cube of love and stuff.


Except we aren’t. Spouse got really upset at me tonight. We had some hard times with cars and finances and had to take rideshares to work and the like for a while.

Well, one day, I accidentally ordered all my rides from my personal account instead of the joint account. I got like 4 overdraft fees tacked onto my account, at 40 bucks each.

So I didn’t realize this till tonight and told them i was in the hole. They freaked out and started yelling about how I always fuck up finances. I’ll admit I’m not great with them, but this was an accident.

Their yelling progressed to how they’re upset that I have so many friends that support me and that I get sick and get off work for 2 days while, when they’re sick, they still had to go in. Also how apparently everyone always asks them about me. About how their gf doesn’t talk to them much while I talk to my bf a decent bit.

This isn’t the first time they’ve gone off on me for something, and honestly they’ve said much worse things, but it really hit me today for some reason.

Since the argument, I’ve been looking for apartments and trying to balance a budget based on what I under-guesstimate I make. I honestly feel I need to leave this relationship to help my own mental health.

Back to the poly thing though. That nice little cube we have. I don’t want to fuck up the lives of two absolutely wonderful and supportive people because of stuff my spouse said to me. I’m scared that if I do leave then things might be said and I know what will happen.

Honestly I’m just really fucked up and I don’t know what to do. I still love them, but I need to take care of myself. But I also don’t want to hurt the other two people we’ve only just started relationships with.

I know this is something kinda fucking heavy to send at 12AM but I need help and I’m entertaining all offers, so…. here I am.

My apologies,

Alice


Okay. First of all, let’s get one thing straight – you have nothing to apologize for. Thank you so much for extending yourself, for asking for help generally and specifically for inviting me to comment on your life. That is a brave and openhearted thing to do, and I am so happy that you did.

With that settled… I think you’re asking two questions here, a poly question and a validation question. The poly question is: “How do you break up only part of a poly relationship?” And the validation question is: “Will you give me permission to walk away?”

I want to answer the second question first: yes. It seems like you want to leave, and I think your reasons for that are good ones. Just from what you wrote, I know a few things about your spouse – I know that when you alert them to a financial crisis, they do an acrobatic pirouette off the handle and start yelling at you. I know that this yelling is aimed at your character and your person – “you ALWAYS do this thing, which shows that you are part of a GRAND CONSPIRACY TO BE MEAN TO ME, one in which you are in cahoots with my employer to deny me time off.” And this yelling, which to me sounds like a dealbreaker all on its own, has happened before. There have been other occasions when this person said “much worse things” to you, possibly at yelling volume. I’m using more specificity than I need here so that you can be really honest with yourself about how you’re being treated.

I don’t think it takes any kind of diagnosis to say that this environment isn’t good for your mental health. If you’re looking for apartments, you’ve already decided that you need to leave, so let’s take that as read while we move on.

First, the safety stuff:

People who get hurtfully shouty can get hurtfully handsy, especially when their favorite shouting target tries to leave. I’m not making any assumptions about your spouse, but if you think this is even a remote possibility, you’ll want to keep your preparations very much to yourself. You have probably already done this if you were worried about it, but here’s another permission from me: it’s okay to trust your gut, even if you’re not 100% sure, especially with regard to your health.

There are a lot of organizations that can help you, even just with planning and guidance. LoveIsRespect is a great one, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline can guide you in putting together a safety plan and finding local organizations and people who can support you.

This is also a really good time to connect/re-connect with your people outside this relationship. Do you have family nearby (whom you like)? Friends not connected to these three people? A therapist? It seems like a lot has happened in the year and a half since you married – potentially discovering a sexual incompatibility, discussing and trying polyamory, meeting the other couple, time spent as a unit – and a lot of times, that means that you’ve been very focused at home and let some outside connections lapse a bit. It’s time to recover some of that, to remember who you are separate from your spouse and your metamours. This is critical, because in order to have the conversations you need to have, it’ll really help to have an idea what it is you want to happen.

Some things to consider while framing that picture…

I would be very surprised if your metamours were totally unaware that your marriage involves this level of yelling and personal attacks. Depending on the level of intimacy between all of you, either of your metamours could be in a similar position or getting similar treatment from your spouse. In the same way that I would feel obligated to be honest if someone I knew entered a relationship with someone who abused me, I think in this situation it’s important that you’re candid about why you’re leaving. When you do that depends mostly on your relationships with your metamours, but I wouldn’t suggest doing it before you’re prepared to execute your plan to leave, unless they live with you. They’re not under immediate threat and you are, so you need to deal with that first, and these conversations can’t remain one-on-one for long. Order of operations is going to depend on your sense of your own safety – swap around #1 and #2 and leave first if you’re at all unsure about how Spouse will react to the news.

  1. Inform Spouse of your intention to leave.
  2. Leave
  3. Talk to metamours.
    (This conversation doesn’t have to be in-person. I would want to do it ASAP, and I imagine you feel the same way, so it’s constructed in such a way as to not require input from them. You can leave it as a message on their voicemail/Intertube of Choice if you want, and if Spouse is blowing up their phones at the same time, that might be a good idea.)

I’m going to offer you some words I would use, because often I find people don’t tell you that – they tell you, “Talk to them!” which I think for most people leaves you right where you started. But you don’t have to use my words in any way.

If you follow a basic format with the conversation, you’ll be okay:
  1. Explain the situation without going into specifics about any one event
  2. Tell them what you plan to do next
  3. Tell them what you need from them, or what you would like to happen between you, in an ideal world.
  4. Invite them to share their “ideal” outcomes and work with you to bring them together, if and when they want to do that.
  5. End the conversation, give all of you some space to process and discuss amongst yourselves. This is a great moment to do some self-care or vent to a totally unconnected friend.

It’s not necessary to trash your spouse here, and it is necessary to let your metamours make their own decisions about their relationships. I would say something like:

“Spouse and I have struggled with some incompatibilities for a while, as you maybe sensed, and due to Spouse’s recent hurtful behavior during those conflicts, I don’t feel safe staying with them. It’s not for me to tell you how to handle your relationships, but in case Spouse has directed this kind of behavior at anyone else, I wanted to have it on the record.”

You can’t tell them what to do, but it will help them decide if you can tell them what you plan to do. If you need their help executing some part of your safety plan, this is the time to ask. That request might feel awkward or painful, because they understandably have complicated emotions about what’s going on right now. But when your health is at risk, it’s okay to ask the people nearest you to hold onto their emotional butts for a second and give you a hand out of this pit full of snakes. It’s okay to expect adults to manage their own emotions and deal with the business at hand if it’s a threat to your health. You gotta be alive to have feelings, so protecting your body comes first.

Complicating this will be the question of whether you’re comfortable seeing Spouse again after you leave. Only you can answer that. Be kind to yourself when you do. If you’re at all unsure, err on the side of a full block, especially if there’s a chance Spouse will, ah… resist being broken up with. Fully separating will require a little reorganization of how you relate to your metamours, and it might be challenging for them if they choose to continue relationships with you both separately, but that’s for them to choose, and it’s a choice any friends have to make every time someone treats their friend badly. It’s not easy, and it sucks, but those things are not your fault. You did not cause this. You are not creating the problem by making them aware of it. There are many ways they can handle the situation, and if you’ve got an idea, you can offer it. Do you guys usually do things as a group, and can those things be rejiggered to work in pairs or on other days when Spouse is not available? What things do you do with your metamours that you most want to preserve? In an ideal world, what would happen here?

“I’m going to move in with Soandso Who Is Not You Guys for a little while, figure out my next move. I care about you both deeply and I would love to continue (having our dates on Fridays/doing game night with you both and not Spouse sometimes/sleeping over on a different night than Spouse does) if you’re comfortable with that, but I understand that our relationship will probably change somewhat. I just want you to know that I love you and I want to protect my own health here while causing you as little pain and stress as possible.”

Then it’s time to put your phone away and take care of yourself. Give yourself 24 hours to process and rest. Nothing is going to happen that can’t wait a single day, even though people will probably try to make you feel like it is. Their emergency is not your emergency. My Buddhist therapist tells me that we have three obligations when we speak: to be honest, to be kind, and to be necessary in what we say. If you have been honest with everyone, told them exactly as much as necessary for them to make informed decisions, and done it as kindly as you can, you have nothing to feel guilt or shame about, and nothing more to offer someone who wants to argue with you. It’s okay to turn the phone off.

Take the steps you need to protect yourself, tell the parties involved with clarity, brevity and compassion, and then treat yourself with that same compassion. This won’t guarantee that no one will react badly, fly off the handle, make a bad choice – of course it won’t. But you can’t control that. It’s not up to you to manage how they feel about your news, and when you try to take responsibility for managing their emotions (or they try to make you responsible for managing them), it denies their adulthood rather than treating them as an equal.

Tell them what you want so that they can tell you if it’s something they can give. Don’t ask for less than what you’re worth. Don’t let Spouse make you feel smaller than you are. You are asking for the bare minimum in being treated like an equal partner, and the fact that you have other partners has nothing to do with that.

I wish you safety, and clear eyes, and a bone-deep sense of your own worthiness, Alice.

If you have a burning question of your own, be advised that
I am no kind of doctor
but I’ll tell you if what you’ve got looks weird at
adviceforsluts@gmail.com

The Internet is a Public Place – Act Like It

Working on other projects around the sonnet thing was one of the challenges I wanted to confront by doing the sonnet thing in the first place. It may not be obvious to others why this is challenging for me – my internal dialogue runs something like: “how come you can write this thirteen-thousand word post, but somehow writing two separate two-thousand word posts is too much for one day? Why is one accomplishment per day the limit of your capability?”

There are a lot of things that are hard for me that it seems like other people find easy, but I assume that I’m not alone in this, in part because I’ve been informed that I’m not. When I confess how difficult some ordinary things are for me, people respond with relief and gratitude. I voice my weariness, and all around me people set down their burdens. Making this kind of vulnerable connection with another human being is important to me, and in my opinion it’s vital to understanding other humans and living with them happily. In this endeavor, the internet has both helped and harmed our ability to interact. But that’s not the internet’s fault. It’s our fault.

Internet dating in particular is tough, in particular for men. There’s a supply-and-demand problem, for one – dick as a product is way over-stocked, and the demand just isn’t there. It’s clear that the best solution would be to periodically take dick off the menu, like the McRib, to get folks hankering for it, but unfortunately men seem totally unable to go their own way without making it all about obsessing over women anyway.

But there’s another reason men are having trouble, and it’s an issue that all of us, regardless of gender, struggle with: the internet is a weird fuckin’ place to approach people. It feels different from the real world, and we’re not sure if the same rules apply, and everyone you meet will tell you that you’re doin’ it wrong.

Long ago, in the wild, wild west…

The early internet was the province of dorks, early adopter tech-fetishists already involved in the tech community – in other words, primarily men. I’m about to piss on these people’s shoes a bit, so let me preface it by saying that I’m mostly intending it with love. As a femme-shaped person who plays videogames, I’ve been privileged to love a great many young, brilliant, geeky white boys; it’s like a sweet tooth for me. Unfortunately, my love often caused me to excuse their bad behavior, and that’s kind of how we got to this point as a society in the first place — decades of saying, “I know he said that horrible thing, but I can’t prove he meant it, so that makes saying it okay.”

These men were fostered by decades of the video game industry focusing on the young white male demographic to the exclusion of any other, decades of school and society teaching that “technology is for men, except sewing machines and food processors. Go back to your girl technology. Go back to your kitchen.

These young white males built communities that often were (and in some cases remain) aggressively hostile to non-white, non-male users. Usenet fed into Something Awful fed into 4chan and offshoot image boards and then into what’s become “the Manosphere.” While the internet expanded and user demographics changed, there were always a few communities that nurtured and fed pugnacious, vitriolic attitudes toward women, people of color, and anyone else who might fuck with the comfortable worldview of a middle-class white teenager.

Still, the internet feels like a refuge to all of us in some ways, not just white boys. Many of us who found the “real world” cruel and isolating have found communities online that make us feel seen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It makes sense that we’ve felt like the internet was somehow separate from the rest of the world, not subject to the real world’s rules and dangers, not requiring you to gird yourself when logging in the way you would when going out.

But the internet has grown up now, and so have we, and that means it’s long past time we started dealing with reality:

The internet is public.
You are “in public” right now.
You might want to act like it.

You’ll find that when you truly internalize this, a lot of the confusing questions you have about how to interact online fall away. If you wouldn’t behave that way in public, you shouldn’t behave that way online, because the internet is public.

Should I send a picture of my dick to that woman?

Would you whip out your dick and show it to a woman on the street? Would that be a great way to get a date?

Should I stalk this person’s social media and constantly pester and monitor them wherever they go online?

Would you follow a person everywhere they went in the real world? Would you expect that to make them like you? Do we have a word for this in the real world?

Should I flirt with that girl while she’s running her video game stream on Twitch?

Should you flirt with people who are at work, especially when their work requires them to a) stick around and b) be nice to you? Or should you recognize that a person trying to earn a living online is at work, quietly make your interest known with a private approach (a note, a DM) and let them make the next move?

Should I message that person some more if they haven’t responded to the last ten messages?

Would you continue prodding someone in the shoulder and saying, “Hey” at them every hour on the hour if you were saying it to their face? Would you be surprised to get punched for that kind of behavior? Would you still be so confused about whether this person wants your company or not if you could see them physically struggling to avoid you?

Should I jump into this involved debate that I don’t know anything about?

Would you charge into the center of two people having a conversation on the street? Would you expect those people to praise you for doing that? Would you be outraged if they didn’t immediately include you in their conversation, explain context to you, educate you?

Should I take this information as accurate without checking the facts from another source?

Would you believe whatever you read on a flyer stuck to a light pole? Would you take that flyer home, print up more, and share them around your family while defending the reputation of whoever the fuck stapled it to the pole?

Drooling demagogues on every corner

The internet is a place where people work and transact business with strangers, just like the real world. In that context, you need to treat people and information the way you would treat them on a public street.

Say someone runs up to you, slavering and babbling about conspiracy theories – in public, you’d step around the dude and try not to make eye contact, right? But when we’re on the internet, suddenly it’s, “Hmm, that drooly gentleman seems to have some trenchant observations about immigrants; I’m sure he’s done his research. Let me just subscribe to his newsletter.”

I’m sorry to be the one to burst this bubble, but just because you’re not wearing pants while you’re browsing, that doesn’t mean everyone who talks to you online deserves to see you without pants. Just because their voice comes into your living room, that doesn’t mean they’re the kind of person you should let into your house.

A convenient boundary

These days we all seem to muddle around the internet acting like it’s kind of public, like when we choose to expose ourselves, it’s public then, but when we don’t want that, well then the internet is our backyard, and how dare a stranger tell us how to act in our own space! It’s a convenient boundary that allows us to hand our keys to any corporation that wants them, wave our naked asses and genitals about wherever we go with unsecured browsing, and then get outraged when other people comment on the stuff we just dropped all over the public street. This is an Emperor’s New Clothes thing – we’re going out naked and then accusing the person who pointed it out of exposing us.

Now let me be clear – this is not me blaming the victims of doxxing for being doxxed. Being secure on the internet requires a lot more technical knowhow than being reasonably safe in the real world, and the people who know how to secure your internet often have a vested interest in stealing your stuff. Corporations who sell your data, and jerks who steal it, don’t want you to take care of yourself, so it is in their best interests to tell you that there’s nothing concrete you can do to protect yourself, that the rules are fluid and you can never know if someone’s trying to hurt you. They want you to believe that in this thrilling new era of human interaction, they get to set your boundaries wherever they want them to be, and you don’t get to complain.

We actually do know how to act

But this is not actually a thrilling new era, not as far as social interaction is concerned. Humans interact roughly the same whether we’re doing it with our mouths or our thumbs. We rage, we cry, we cheer, we fuck and love and hate and share, and we establish rules for doing those things so that we can all do them in the same space without too much violence and destruction. Even more basic than the higher-level social rules that we think of as “etiquette” – which fork, hold the lady’s arm, etc. Those things are social constructs of the time. But the fundamental assumptions we make in social interaction transcend culture and generation, because they’re the fundamental assumptions you need to make to have a conversation at all. These are things like:

  • “Overtly hostile or intimidating behavior is threatening regardless of intent.”
  • “Telling strangers everything about you instantly is not a great idea.”
  • “If you talk at the same time as another person, neither of you will hear the other properly.”
  • “Vulnerable people are more vulnerable in public.”
  • “Not everyone always tells the truth, and you should apply your own intellectual and moral standards to what you see and hear before investing yourself in it.”

By the time we’re adults, we know these rules – the “social contract” – well enough to not cause problems most of the time, even those of us with brainweasels that make social interaction taxing or frightening. By the time we’re adults, even the assholes among us do know when they’re acting like assholes, if only by the looks on all the faces around them – they just keep pretending they don’t because it feels like doing something wrong innocently is… slightly less wrong. The truth we’re trying so hard to avoid acknowledging is that we are not innocent. We actually do know how to act in public.

Every single day, we follow the rules we’re pretending we don’t know.

We know that we shouldn’t expose our genitals, or harass others. We know that we should try to protect children, and not display people’s private info in public places, and not interrupt working people with our non-work needs. The only time we get “confused” about those things is when we think we might be able to get away with doing the thing we know is wrong while pretending we thought it was okay “this time.” We split hairs and equivocate to relieve our guilt, to make it not SO bad that we went ahead and trampled someone’s boundaries. But… we still did it. We still did the thing we all agreed not to, the thing we expect no one else will do to us. No amount of excuses will change that fact. We knew better, and we did it anyway when it seemed like we could get away with it.

It’s the same as men who say, “I don’t even know how to act around women anymore!” They do know, though, don’t they? They actually know exactly how they’re supposed to act around women, because they’re grown men who manage to hold down jobs and not get arrested at parent-teacher conferences. Every single day, they follow the rules they’re pretending they don’t know. Apparently they know how to act when dealing with their kid’s teacher, or their female boss, or the librarian at the university… but when they’re dealing with a woman they have social power over, suddenly the lines get blurry. Because the confusion is them trying to get away with something they already know is wrong, while blaming the people asking them to stop for not making the rules clear enough.

Internet hygiene: how to Act Like It

When in doubt, ask yourself: “how would this look if I did it out on the sidewalk? How would a person react if I did this to their face?”

Ask yourself: “how would I feel about this information if it was coming from a person I could see? How much would I trust them based on the actual data I know about them, not what they claim? Would I change my life or make a major decision based on their input alone?”

Ask yourself, “If I treated someone like this in person, would I feel embarrassed? Is this the kind of conversation that I’d want to take a person aside to have, rather than say it in a loud voice in a crowded room, and if so, why is it okay to say it in a world-spanning voice in a room that includes, potentially, everyone on earth?”

Ask yourself: “if I wanted to feel safe going out in public, what would I need to do first? What information do I need to protect in public? How much could strangers see of me if I go out? Is my informational ass hanging out of my pants?”

And, just to get prepped for the coming Data Wars…

Ask yourself: “how much would I value the data corporations harvest from me if they had to pay me for it? Would I be okay with someone making money off me this way if, say, a guy at McDonald’s took a photo of me and then put up a billboard flogging hamburgers with my face? If they make billions selling my data, shouldn’t I at least know which parts of it they sell? And let’s be real – shouldn’t I get a cut?”

AFS #2: Help with dissociation?

I’ve been kicking this one around for a good long time, so today’s question comes from r/asktransgender as of about three weeks ago. I’ll dig through my bookmarks and get a proper link up shortly. (Here it is. Turns out I was even slower about this than I thought – it was two months ago!) The ensuing rambling includes some rough anecdotes from my own experience, and has the following content warnings:

  • Self harm
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Child abuse
  • Graphic firsthand descriptions of mental illness

If you’d like to ask me a question and hear me overshare in response, you can do that too.

Continue reading

Phrases That Make Me Swipe Left

and other reasons your online dating profile is not getting you laid

I am an attractive young white person who enjoys travel, long walks on the beach, and being a real human who definitely exists.

Once you’ve been doing the online dating thing for a bit, whatever app or service you use, your eyes start to glaze over. Especially if you’re femme-shaped, you see people calling for attention all day long, every day of the year, until they all start to look the same. The same happy, pretty pictures, the same generic phrases about work and play, the same copy-pasted, low-effort messages so nobody gets caught caring too much about the outcome… This will not do. For your own sanity, you have got to establish some hard-and-fast criteria for eliminating people.

The basic stuff, of course — a certain age bracket you’re comfortable with, certain red-flag topics that you definitely will not agree on, maybe you’re not into blondes or beards — that’s the first level of filtering. But you’ve done that, and you still have thirty-five dick pics to sort through. It’s time to get petty. Here are a few minor sins that will instantly send a profile to the nega-zone left of the phone, to languish forever among the bigots and catfish.

1. Headless chest or ab pics

If I see a beheaded bathroom-mirror shot of your sunken chest one more time, Trevor, I’m going to track down your Facebook and tell your mom how you’re acting on the internet. Here’s a pro-tip, straight men: women don’t give a shit about your abs. They really, really don’t. Yeah, I’m sure you’ve all got one Edge Case Bobbie in memory, one woman who was literally only into you because she saw your rippling pecs in her dreams, but that doesn’t change the reality. Statistically, women look at men’s faces first—when you ask women what features they find attractive in men, sure, chest and abs will be on the list, but they won’t be at the top. The top of the list is always a sampling of the following in random order: eyes, hands, arms, smile, facial hair. That’s what women look at, and men, that’s not news. We’ve been telling you this for decades. You know women aren’t as interested in your abs as in your face, and yet you continue to offer me pictures of your naked torso that cut off at your clavicles. You know what that says to me? It says you’re arrogant and self-involved, more concerned with enhancing your ego than sharing who you are with me. Hard pass.

2. “NO FAKES! Sick of being friendzoned. I value: loyalty! Honesty! THIS MEANS YOU.”

Listen. I know online dating is tough for men. I get that there are a lot of scammers and catfishers out there, I do. But you don’t need to dump all your resentment on every new person you meet. When you lead with aggressive, wounded warnings, when your profile is a laundry-list of what you don’t like and don’t want, it makes me wonder why you’re not writing anything about yourself. Is the huge chip on your shoulder the most attractive part of you? Are you interested in anything but your own pain and anger? If we go on a date and it doesn’t work out, will you add an all-new passive-aggressive rant about “people like me” at the bottom of your profile?

Don’t make the next person you interact with responsible for what the last person did, and don’t lead with your resentment. It’s one thing to express reasonable frustration about how tough online dating is for men. It’s another thing entirely to conclude that women are to blame for all your suffering, and they need to fix it by having sex with you.

3. “Things I can’t live without: air, food. I’m really good at: being myself. What I’m doing with my life: living it.”

Yeah, yeah, you’re hilarious. Just like the last ninety-five people who made that joke. It’s a dad joke, and unless you’re a dad, you need to let them have it. If you are a dad, you need to stop trying to date people the same age as your kids. Just sayin’.

4. “If I say too much here, what’s the point of getting to know each other? Just ask me anything you want to know.”

Both men and women pull this one, and it’s extremely rude. If you’re on a dating app or site that uses long-form written profiles, (and if you’re not, why are you reading this? Go back to waving your penis at innocents on Tinder) that means that all the people you’re trying to attract have put effort into their profile. Why did they do that? To help you. To give you things to talk to them about, to assist you in starting a conversation, to help you know ahead of time if you want to rule them out entirely. People aren’t writing these profiles for their fucking health. They did all that work to make your life easier before you even showed up, and the very least you can do is make the bare minimum of effort to fill out your profile. If you have so little personality that you’re able to spoil all of it in a box marked “What I’m doing with my life,” I promise you, we’ll be bored before dinner arrives regardless, because you are a boring person.

5. “I love to laugh.”

Holy shit, where have you been all my life? I’ve spent years surrounded by dour human Eeyores who cry out in physical pain when I crack a joke! I’ve never met anyone who enjoyed laughing before; you must be a unicorn!

If you’re saying you have a great sense of humor, fine — just say that. If you’re saying you like your partners to make you laugh a lot, that’s fine too! Use your words. But “I love to laugh” is right up there with “I’ve been eating every day since I was a kid” and “I would rather not be killed” in terms of telling your audience anything about you.

6. “I hate to lose.”

Another rare beast! Where do they keep finding all these mutants who don’t enjoy coming in second? I can’t be bothered with that; I prefer to surround myself with career losers, the kind of people who actively seek out failure and revel in it. I find they’re much more interesting.

The thing about someone who “hates to lose” is… they’re seeing losing as a blow to their ego, an entirely unproductive event that diminished them. They don’t see losing as an opportunity to learn, an attempt during which they gained experience and skill, or a genuine acknowledgement of someone else’s ability. They just see it as injury, an attack on their perception of themselves as a “winner.” Do you know anyone else who talks about “winning” all the time? Who needs very much to convince you that they are a “winner” but doesn’t have any actual wins to show you? Almost presidential behavior, wouldn’t you say? Swipe left.

7. Your Myers-Briggs type

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Myers-Briggs is pseudoscience. It’s loosely based on untested, inconclusive work by Carl Jung, it‘s stunningly unreliable, inconsistent, and incomplete even for the purpose it purports to serve, and it indicates nothing about you except what you would like to believe you are. Myers and Briggs were not psychologists and didn’t learn the psychometric testing techniques they used to back up their theory until after publishing the theory — in other words, they decided what they wanted to believe about human nature and then went out to find data that agreed with them. Between a third and half of the published material on the Myers-Briggs test has been produced specifically by the Center for the Application of Psychological Type, which provides training in the test and is funded by sales of the test. There is no evidence that this test relates to reality in any meaningful way. Myers-Briggs is a horoscope for people who think they’re too smart for horoscopes.

8. “I can’t see likes/I don’t pay money for this service, so just message me!”

Okay, class, eyes up here. Clearly I need to explain this shit, because no one seems to understand how this system works and that it’s working as intended.

Most dating apps use some permutation of the “like” and “friend” structure. In this structure, you can “like” or “favorite” someone you’re interested in, and “friend” or send them a message if you really want to get their attention and are willing to make the first move. When someone you’ve liked also swipes right on you, you’re both given a notification of that, to prompt you to start a conversation.

This means that the function of the “like” button is to indicate that you’re open to interacting with a person in a low-pressure way. We know you can’t see it — 99% of users do not pay money for these services; we can’t see the likes either. That’s not what they’re for. If you could see them, they wouldn’t be low-pressure. If someone isn’t brave enough to message you, they also wouldn’t use likes if they thought you could see them regardless of your interest. Online dating tends to appeal to people who find face-to-face interactions more intimidating — for this reason, dating apps have geared the service toward allowing you to put yourself out there without risking rejection, only interacting with people who have deliberately chosen you. This is a good thing. You don’t want everyone to see you, you want people who want you to see you. The only way you lose in this scenario is if your dating strategy was the shotgun copy-pasted message spammed at everything with tits, and sorry not sorry, if that’s you, you are the problem.

9. “I like watching Netflix.”

Do you get that this is the modern equivalent of saying, “I like watching TV”? What are you trying to say? You enjoy watching moving images, just any kind? Will a screensaver do? Maybe you’re a huge devotee of the Netflix corporation specifically? What if I don’t have Netflix, do you like watching anything else, or will you walk out if you see the Hulu logo? Please, I’m begging you, go get a personality. There are plenty on Netflix, just pick one.

10. “I love to travel.”

Nope. Nobody loves to travel. I’d believe you if you said, “I love traveling to relaxing beaches,” or “I love exploring Buddhist sanctuaries,” or “I loved all those years I spent hitchhiking in Europe,” but I do not for a second believe that you enjoy sitting in airports, carrying luggage, exchanging currency, worrying about your phone service, or driving long distances with someone you got sick of eight hours ago. Perhaps you’d like to tell me why you like traveling? Where you’ve been and why you picked that place? What you saw there? Because when you say, “I love traveling,” all you’ve told me is, “I’ve been privileged enough to travel a lot, and I intend to maintain that level of privilege if at all possible.” Cool story, bro. We’re all very envious. Sure is a shame you didn’t learn anything on your travels.

11. “I think outside the box.”

No, you don’t.

You Know Me – I walked past your sign to my abortion

I guess now we’re passing around abortion stories on Facebook.  I don’t know, man, I’m barely keeping up with social media here, I just got a Gram and that’s very confusing.  Too old for this shit.  I’ve been too old for this shit since I was ten.    

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But I endorse the aim.  I am indeed ashamed of the choice I made, as I was taught to be.  If shame were going to shut me up, though, it should have already.  I got a little long talking about this on the Book of Face, and now I’d like to get a little bit longer, because there’s a kind of prologue to this story that I’ve never told anyone.    

When I was 20 I was very lucky to have Planned Parenthood and my unflappable mother, who could scream the house down over my tone of voice but received the call every mother dreads with equanimity, saying calmly, “Okay.  What do you want to do?”  There wasn’t a lot of consideration to be done, and she knew it as well as I did.  I was working at a daycare center at the time, and I took two buses to get there in the morning. At the end of the bus ride, I stepped down onto a corner claimed by an older woman with a truly grotesque anti-abortion sign, one of those with pictures of dead babies on it. She screamed into traffic every morning, Monday through Friday, through every season in Tucson, Arizona. Her brain must have been baking in her skull.    

I walked past her for several weeks after taking a pregnancy test and before ending the pregnancy. I didn’t get in her face. I was scared, and ashamed. I felt stupid, criminally irresponsible, murderous. Everything she said I was. I felt that way every day until my mom took me to Planned Parenthood, where they were kind and softspoken, and they did something cold and painful downstairs while I stared at the clouds painted on the flourescent light fixture.    

Afterward I sat in a little room filled with egg-shaped chairs. They brought me weak lemonade and crackers, and nothing has ever tasted so good or so necessary. I was alone for a few minutes before they brought in someone else, sat her in the chair next to mine. I couldn’t see her, but I heard them give her the same gentle instructions they gave me: “Eat a little of this. Here’s an electric blanket – hold it against your stomach, it’ll help the pain a bit. The bathroom is there if you need it. You can stay here as long as you like, and when you’re ready to go, the door out to the waiting room is right there.”    

I stayed about twenty minutes. For the first five, it was silent in that room, just me and the other woman sipping lemonade in our separate little eggs. Then she started to cry, quietly, her face buried in a cushion just like the one pressed against my temple. Her tears freed mine. We both cried for a long time. We didn’t speak. I never saw her face.    

I heard her get up and leave through the waiting room door. I went out a minute later. Mom took me back to her place and put on movies while I swallowed gutwrenching nausea. We watched Batman Begins and the Peter Jackson King Kong remake. I don’t remember King Kong at all. I assume there was a monkey in it. The next day I went back to my broken-down apartment where the door didn’t close and the power was off one month in three, and the day after that I went back to work at the daycare center, past the woman with her dead baby sign, still screaming. I still felt ashamed. That never changed. It was never easy and it never got better, and I was very, very lucky to be able to access the help I needed.    

Here’s the part I haven’t mentioned before, because I don’t know how to feel about it.  Before I worked at the daycare center, I had a work-study job with the newspaper at my community college.  I wanted to be a journalist, for a little while, before both me and journalism took a few bad years straight in the face.  Then I got pregnant, and for two months I was very unreliable – I didn’t make it in on time, and when I was there, I spent half my shift in the bathroom drooling bile.  Fortunately I couldn’t afford to eat breakfast, so it was just bile.    

I think they knew, somehow.  I was the only one in the office most of the time, so I don’t think they could have seen me, but… I think they knew.  When they called me in to fire me, they sat me down on the other side of a pressboard table and said, “Is there anything you can tell us that’s been affecting your work performance?”    

I looked at the carpet.  I couldn’t understand why they were asking.  The idea that I might be fired at this moment wasn’t surprising to me – I deserved to be fired.  Why on earth would it matter why I wasn’t doing my job?  I shied away, as I always did, from telling the adults around me what I was dealing with.  Because I was ashamed, because my pain and my failure was my fault.  Because what would happen if I told them, if I paraded this private agony to keep my job, and it worked?  I would have to face them knowing, face whatever they might think, and when the pregnancy ended with no legitimizing infant to wash away my sins, I’d have to tell them what I had chosen.  I couldn’t do it.    

At the time it felt like integrity, maybe.  Maybe it was just cowardice, obedience.  I wanted to be good.  I was trying to do penance, trying to take the punishment I deserved for my stupidity.  I told them I had nothing to say.  They fired me.  A few weeks later I started work at the daycare center.  I met the woman with the gory sign, and twenty or so three-year-olds I adored more than their parents seemed to, sometimes.  I worked there almost exactly a year before I got fired – for smelling bad, because we still lived in the apartment with the broken door, and the power had been cut off in the middle of June, and I couldn’t afford to wash my clothes.    

I went home and made sort-of-hashbrowns out of grated potatoes and flour and fried them in oil – gas stove still worked.  Flour’s a dollar, potatoes five bucks the ten-pound sack.  Canola oil three bucks for the bottle, reuse it a few times before throwing it out.  I put a candle in a stack of potato mess and brought it to my boyfriend sitting on the futon in the living room, where we were sleeping because it was the coolest room in the house owing to its convenient broken window.  I sang him happy birthday.    

There was never another scare, even though it was another eight years with that boyfriend and I didn’t have access to birth control for six of them.  I learned that lesson if nothing else.  I still want to have a baby, maybe, if I can.  It feels less likely to be possible or practical every day.  I remember writing on my blog at the time: “What if this is the only chance I’ll ever get to have a kid?”    

I still don’t know.  I made the best choice I could at the time.  I was lucky to be given a  choice.

Why I Don’t Answer the Phone

I got into a conversation today about why abuse survivors feel like a burden on others.  This feeling has led me to a pretty suicidal realm at times, because it dovetails all too neatly with my other neuroses, but most people with trauma feel this way to some extent.

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This is the meme that started the discussion.

Some of it is projection – we tend to assume that people think like we do, unless we actively work to look beyond that.  So if we’re unhappy with ourselves, we assume that dissatisfaction is universal.  The bad qualities we perceive in ourselves must be tattooed on our foreheads, and the fact that these people tolerate us just shows how amazing they are by comparison.

I think there’s a larger factor here, though, and it’s that people raised by narcissists learn an adversarial game of love.  I believe that until you unlearn this game, you can’t gain energy from loving company, can’t be empowered and soothed by the company of the people you love – it will always be taxing to some degree.

an adversarial game of love

Part of being a kid is getting saddled with your parents’ values.  This just comes with the package – your parents can’t avoid expressing what they believe subconsciously, even if they’re careful about what they say and do in your presence.  So until you’re at a point where you can begin to question these things – and remember that trauma stunts emotional development, pushing that point further and further away with every blow – these things are just part of how you see the world.  These are your “received values.”

When you’re raised by a narcissist, you receive the values through a megaphone, because a narcissist makes the outside world responsible for their self-worth.  What does a narcissist value?  Only one thing: supply, or emotional sustenance.  It’s not quite the same thing as when you spend time with a friend and you feel better – that, hopefully, is a symbiotic thing, you and your friend supporting one another and giving one another energy in different ways that aren’t deleterious to either of you.

Narcissistic supply, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be positive.  Supply is provided any time the narcissist can feel that they are central to others’ lives.  Their centrality, the extent to which they feel important and focused on, is the extent to which they feel worthy.  If they’re feeling neglected, they will act out to increase the flow of supply, of attention and emotional energy, directed their way, whether this means asserting dominance, provoking others, or demanding their love and devotion.

you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are

So the narcissist wants supply.  Their emotional state, their relationships, their worldview and view of themselves as a person are all dependent on the level of that supply gauge.  Which means that if you’re a narcissist’s child, what your parent taught you is that you are valuable to the extent you provide supply.  To the extent you make your parent feel central to your life and identity, you are loved.  In a very literal way, you are valuable to the extent that you forget who you are.

The problem with this – well, another one – is that narcissistic supply isn’t the same thing as emotional support.  It’s like living on nothing but popcorn.  It fills you up, but it’s mostly air – you’ll need more in ten minutes.  So you might learn to supply your abuser with what they need, but as soon as it becomes routine – or the wind shifts – the demands will change.  This makes every interaction an adversarial game: can you divine the way the wind’s blowing, and assume the appropriate position in time, or will you make a mistake?  In a way, it doesn’t matter – either outcome provides narcissistic supply.  Either they get you to scramble and attend to their needs, or they get to excoriate you for not doing so.  Either one reinforces their starring role in your life.

manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you care let me catch you at it

So if you grow up being told that this is love, how is interacting going to feel to you?  Interaction isn’t a source of solace, or support – it’s like being in the room with a hungry animal, something unpredictable that you must nonetheless predict in order to be safe.  And when you try out the dubious skills you’ve learned on people outside the family, they call you passive-aggressive and manipulative.  That’s how it works.  That’s the narcissist’s edict: Manipulate me for my comfort, but don’t you dare let me catch you at it.

You learn a lot from this, growing up.  A lot of things that later you’ll have to unlearn, things like:

  • All interactions involve layer upon layer of emotional sparring that you will be punished for winning or losing.
  • All interactions are one person trying to get supply from the other, trying to drain their emotional energy.  At best, every conversation is a negotiation.
  • Your value to others is the amount of selfless energy you can provide them.
  • No one is ever being dishonest or emotionally manipulative except you. We have no idea where you learned that.
  • No one is interested in anything but themselves.
  • As a result, every second you spend expressing yourself in another person’s presence, rather than reflecting on and attending to them, is a drag and a drain.
  • Your inability to manage this situation with eagerness and enthusiasm is a disease that we need to cure for you to be normal and therefore loved.

And here we are.  If this is what a conversation feels like to you, even with people you care about, why would you want to interact at all?  Why wouldn’t you count the cost of it every second when you do?  Why wouldn’t you be certain those around you are doing the same, and why wouldn’t you, each and every time, come up short in that calculation?  You always have before.

do what the narcissist can’t

To get out of this life-sucking trap, where every notification makes you twitch and every phone call gives you a sick feeling of fear and shame as you stare at the phone, still not answering...  To get out of this state, you have to do what the narcissist can’t: you have to find self-worth that doesn’t rely on another person to survive.  I think self-worth, strangely enough, is a thing you build from the edges in, like a puzzle.  It’s going to be a very long time before you can envision the face of the person you’d like to be, the person who doesn’t live in this trap, the person who can love and be loved without counting the cost.

But you don’t have to envision their face.  Start with the edges.  Learn who that person is by watching their effect on the world.  You can’t help acting out your values, any more than your parents could, and I think you’ll find that yours are not simply the ones you were given, no matter how much effort was spent to indoctrinate you.  I think you’ll find that when you felt supported, when you felt safe, when you were able to act instead of react… your choices reflected the person you want to be.  What does that person seem to value?  How do they treat people?  Do they make others responsible for their pain, or do they strive to give more than they take, even if they don’t always succeed?

I’m going to bet that person is worthy of love.  I bet if you saw another person making the choices you’ve made, you wouldn’t even question whether that person was worthy.  Start from that value – you are worthy of love.  No one can diminish your value, and no one can increase it.  You are not required to bleed for those you love.  That’s not what we preach here.

love isn’t something you give or take… it’s something you do

Love can be painful, it can be stressful, but it is not adversarial.  They say all relationships are work, and they kick that one around the internet arguing whether it should or shouldn’t be so.  I’m gonna clarify it by generalizing like hell: everything in the world is work, unless you’re a sponge.  When the person next to you has the same goal in mind and is helping, work goes fast and doesn’t feel like work.  When the person next to you isn’t helping, or is working in a different direction, it will feel like every slogging, unproductive step is on you.

It’s not, though.  Love isn’t something you give or take – it’s something you do.  Do it for yourself first, and then if someone ain’t doing it for you, don’t do it back.

AFS #1: Should I tell my fiancée I’m trans?

So we’re currently at the ignoble stage where, in order to have anything to talk about, I’m appropriating questions from real columnists, like a mail thief who then shows up at your door to critique your marriage.  I think Prudie nailed it in responding to this question, and I think the practical advice is right-on.  Talk to your partner, for your own mental health, and get you someone else to talk to about it also.  I’m not here to disagree – I just wanted to talk about some of the underlying thoughts you may be experiencing right now.

Here’s the question, and Prudie’s response.

This is a familiar story to me.  When I was about 15, my parents sent me to a therapist.  It wasn’t explained to me precisely why, so when the therapist asked about my hobbies, I talked about Zelda and Starfox and D&D.  I also mentioned my best friend, and how important she was to me.  Almost at once, I was forced to insist that our relationship wasn’t sexual, that I was not a lesbian.  I had this conversation with my very progressive family pretty often too.  It wasn’t that they had any issue with me being gay – quite the opposite, in fact; my mother routinely ended arguments with my stepfather by turning to me and snarling, “Marry a woman!”

agony and uncertainty was where they started

It was that to them it was both fascinating – something they wanted to know about, and constantly – and yet also trivial enough to mock.  And to me it was frightening, and invasive, and diminishing to what I saw as the “purity” of my relationship with my friend.  It was dysphoric, is what it was, only I didn’t know that at the time.  I’d grown up surrounded by gay people, but because it wasn’t remarked upon in my family, none of the pain and confusion we can feel in the closet was mentioned to me.  I only saw the happy, open adults these people had become.  I had no idea that my agony and uncertainty was where they started.  I didn’t trust my family enough – for other reasons – to tell them what I felt, and when the therapist immediately started in with the same prurient curiosity, insisting that a close friendship just couldn’t be that close without something gay going on, not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that… I didn’t trust her either.

This is where my life divided.  I tell myself stories about it sometimes, like the stories you’re telling in your dreams right now.  In one story, someone explains to me that trans is a thing you can be, and that I do not have to look like my family’s idea of a lady to be worthy.  I register the fact that the person I always imagine myself growing up to be is a man.  In that story, I imagine, maybe I transition, and maybe I’m someone’s husband and that makes me happy.  Or however that ends up going.  Transition is no guarantee of eternal happiness – it would just have been a different life.

In the other story, the one that’s more detailed but less narratively satisfying because it actually happened, I don’t know until much, much later that the pain I feel is not normal, that it’s not just me being fundamentally deficient the way my parents tell me I am.  In this story, I do not tell anyone that I don’t recognize my own face in the mirror, and so no one explains to me that I should.  In this story, I spend the next fifteen years trying to become the woman I am supposed to be, the woman I don’t recognize.  The “lady” my grandmother wants to see.  The daughter my family could love.  I am told that if I obey, I will be safe, and so I do.  I obey the pain away.  I obey myself away.

I was a good girl.  Just like I imagine you’ve been a good guy, a good boyfriend, a good son.  So much unspoken weight is in that, not just the words but the promise and the threat: stick to the script and you can stay.  Do what we expect, and you’ll be taken care of.  Follow in our footsteps and you’ll always be safe.  It’s understandable, to a certain extent, that our loved ones feel that way – their path is the only one they know, and they turned out okay, right?  There’s only one life they can be certain is livable, and it’s the one they’re living.

But you can’t live in anyone else’s flesh prison, and the life they’ve found livable may be toxic to you in a way no one else can understand.  I got to 30 before the disconnection from myself nearly killed me.  My body felt like a space suit, loose, bulky and clumsy, with me screaming and lost somewhere inside, far away from the faceplate.  I couldn’t see forward – every life I could imagine ahead of me felt the same, that same grinding, choked, claustrophobic feeling, that same hopeless, worthless girl starring in every frame.  That girl I didn’t recognize.  I didn’t want any of those lives, and I couldn’t imagine any others.  I didn’t want to live at all if it had to feel like that.

nothing will ever feel real… as long as the person starring in your life is not you

If you can’t get out of bed, I think it’s a decent chance you feel some of these things too.  So I want to tell you that it doesn’t have to feel like that, and also to listen to those feelings.  I don’t say this because I’m unhappy with the disheveled machine ghost I’ve become, far from it – in a fucked-up way that I spend 90% of this blog trying to articulate, I value the life I’ve had.  I just know that nothing, not love, not success, not wealth, not the desires you don’t tell anyone – nothing will ever feel real and no success will make you feel enough as long as the person starring in your life is not you.

Before I came out, I was suicidal, because I couldn’t envision any future where I was happy.  No matter how flawless the vision, no matter how happy the ending, I wasn’t in it.  That girl wasn’t me.  Her victories meant nothing, and her sorrows seemed imposed, the result of trying to cut off every part of herself that made someone else uncomfortable.  So much of what that girl feared, needed, found challenging or impossible… I can’t even see now.  The message I was given, and you’ve been given, was, “You must fold and crush the person you are until you become someone who can be happy where we’ve put you.”  But that’s not true.  The demand can be sidestepped when you see that it’s based on a lie that many families, corporations, and governments would like you to believe: “Happiness is only possible through me and my way.”  That’s not true either.

I’ve got a different message for you, while you’re being scolded from on high.  “If you’re not happy where you are, as you are… move.  You don’t need another reason.”

a spicy bean

And that’s the final point I wanted to make.  I don’t mean “move” as in “don’t get married, sell your house and run off and transition and then join Cirque du Soleil or something” (although I would watch that movie).  No.  When I say “move,” I mean just that – make a move.  Take literally any step toward something you want.  A little one or a big one.  Any one.  Gamble even just a few minutes of your time on the possibility that what you think matters, that what you feel is right, that even if you’re wrong about the things you might enjoy or want, no one else is a better authority on you than you are, and your life is about trying things to see if you like them and want more.  That’s literally what life is.  “What’s this thing?  Put it in my mouth to see what it is.  Ow, it stung my lip.  That’s a spicy bean, I don’t think I like it.”  That’s all of life.  Here’s a thing – like it?  Want more?  There’s more over there, go get it.  And you are the first and last judge of what things you want more of in your life.  You might take in data from people around you to inform that decision, to tell you more about what might occur and which of those consequences you want, etc., but you are the only one who gets to decide, because you’re the only one who has to live with it forever.

So make one small change.  Talk to someone.  Start wearing a different coat.  Get yourself some earbuds so you can listen to music for a minute when you get stressed out at work, and actually do that.  Take a class on something your family thought was stupid, or go browse the memes on r/egg_irl and see if anything feels familiar.  Remind yourself that exploring this idea will not instantly result in the life you have crumbling to pieces.  Try to resist the feeling that this is an either-or, an irrevocable all-or-nothing decision between the life you have and being true to yourself.  It feels like that, because you don’t know what might happen, so you’re imagining the worst possible outcome.  But it’s not.  This is a long, complicated, hard process if you transition, and gender questioning is a long, complicated, hard process whether or not you ever do that, and it looks different for everyone.  All you need now is someone to talk to about how you might like it to look for you.

looking for reasons is looking for permission

And do it today.  Right now.  (Let me finish here first, it’s rude to run off when I’m pontificating.)  You will always, always find a way to convince yourself it’s not time yet, or it’s not worth it, or it’s too risky.  Looking for reasons is looking for permission.  You want something unequivocal that will take the choice out of your hands, convince you of the right move, and you’re never going to get it.  You will, however, assemble a thousand data points that convince you to stay in bed, so afraid to lose what crumbs of comfort and joy you have that you’re willing to pass up even the chance at not living on starvation rations.

You don’t need anyone’s permission to explore and express who you are – not your fiancée’s, not your family’s, not Prudie’s, and not mine.  You’ve been trying so goddamn hard, for so fucking long, to be what they wanted you to be, and the person who’s done that isn’t bad or wrong.  You don’t have to sacrifice everything he is to be the woman you truly are, because I’m willing to bet that woman is a LOT like the man your fiancée agreed to marry.  I bet that woman is every bit as considerate, as conscientious, as kind and as loving as you are in a man’s body.

The only real difference between that man and that woman, apart from a few years of medical nonsense and stress… is that the woman thinks YOU being YOU is worth literally any risk at all.  The voices that brought you here, the ones that are telling you to shut up and swallow this… they think that “not rocking the boat” is worth sacrificing every single bit of you.  When you’re questioning whether something you would be doing for yourself is “worth it,” remember that you’re really asking, “Am I worth it?”  To you, expressing yourself honestly should be worth literally any risk, any cost.  Start believing it now.  Then make your move.

Advice for Sluts

So… it may have become clear to you by now that I get around.  I’ve spent the past 30 years falling into beds with weapons-grade weirdos and navigating back out of them while drunk off my ass.  It turns out that I’ve encountered a lot of folks and situations that people seem to find… unique.  I’ve managed not to hurt any of them so badly that they won’t speak to me now, which feels like some kind of an accomplishment.  I’ve striven all my life to be an ethical slut.  I’ve often been clumsy, sometimes callous, but I hope I’ve never been cruel.

It’s come to my attention, also, that we’re short on advice that addresses sluts like me – the polyamorous and yet somehow lonely, the queer and nonbinary and transfolk who still feel invisible, the asexual people wishing cuddling was a sport, the kinky dorks who love porn but hate the slurs in the titles, the working-class Doms buying sex toys at Wal-mart… anybody out there rubbing (or not rubbing) their bits together in ways not approved by the manufacturer.  The puritanical attitude most of us were raised in permits no questions about this shit, and the ongoing tyranny of advertising means that we may not discuss any topic that would set off the ads poorly… like redecorating your living room to match the magazine.

But I’ve got nothing to lose and all the time in the world.  I’ve lived on the internet since it was built, I’ve seen every depth of human depravity you can not unsee, and nothing you’ve ever done will shock me.  And I seem to be given to ranting about other people’s issues at totally unnecessary length.  So I want to help you, if I can.

  • Are you a sub wondering if your Dom is treating you right?
  • Are you mentally ill AND poor AND queer and wondering how to even live?
  • Do you have an STD and need a suave way to disclose that to dates?
  • Do you need a translation of that weird person’s weird behavior?
  • Are you poly and not sure how to share that with your kids?
  • Are you struggling to deal with your spouse coming out?
  • Do you think you might be trans but haven’t experienced dysphoria?
  • Are you a transwoman frustrated with the paucity of porn out there that doesn’t insult or objectify you?
  • Do you just want to know what the fuck TERF means?

I can help you.

It’s okay to ask.

Asking questions about these things is scary, particularly because people the larger culture oppresses are often not interested – rightly so – in educating those with more privilege.  Many transfolk do not want to explain to you why misgendering hurts, they just want you to stop it.  But part of my privilege is a certain detachment from, well, everything, due to being a machine ghost, and I believe that if you’re asking a question in good faith, if you really want to understand, it doesn’t matter if you can’t keep up with the latest acceptable words.  Ask what you want to know, and if I can’t answer you, I can at least tell you how to phrase your question in a way that won’t get you curb-stomped by a queen in platform boots.

If you’re a weirdo, or a slut, or a queer, or confused by any weirdos, sluts, or queers, I can help.

Ask me at adviceforsluts@gmail.com

My demographics/qualifications, such as they are, if you find them useful in contextualizing (or dismissing!) my advice:

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My, How You’ve Grown

I’ve been reading this fantastic book, “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep”, about the history of prion research and fatal familial insomnia.  It’s incredible; I’ve been taking every excuse to babble about it all week.  The author’s approach is so compassionate and yet comprehensive – there are a lot of not-so-great people who nevertheless do important work in the field of prion research, and D.T. Max presents their crimes evenly alongside their discoveries, neither excusing them nor allowing their crimes to obviate their contributions.  It’s terrifying and inspiring and dense with super strange facts that will make you a Cool Guy among the “morbid history nerd” demographic.

But this isn’t a book review, because apparently my elders would prefer I chose more uplifting reading material – my grandmother came in to say, “Sigh. Life in general is so much more! As you “season” with age, you’ll see.”

Reader, I did an acrobatic pirouette off the handle.

I haven’t been subjected to that “when you’re older you’ll understand” bullshit in a good long while, because at 32, most people seem willing to sell me booze and engage with my ideas as if I were some kind of adult.  It’s true that we’re always children to our families, there’s no possibility of ever entirely discarding the trappings of that relationship, but I think it’s possible to honor a shared past without inhabiting it, to love the child we remember without erasing the adult we see.  It just requires a conscious effort to look for more than what we expect, to look at a person for their identity rather than their role.

it’s just a phase

Because that’s it, isn’t it?  We slot people into roles in our lives as appropriate – mother, father, partner, boss – and then we try to optimize our relationship according to society’s instructions for interacting with that role.  We look at our family and compare it to other families we see, and consider ours more or less successful based on how well it matches up to the cookie-cutter.  We catch our child misbehaving and crowdsource the answer, looking for how kids that age are supposed to behave.  Is this normal?  Is it a phase?

That word, phase – do people still say that shit to their kids?  “Oh, it’s just a phase, you’ll get over it. You won’t care about that in six months.  No, don’t spend too much money on that, she’s only going through a phase.” Really think about what that says for a second.  You’re saying to your child, “You have no expertise on your own feelings or desires. This thing that feels very important to you is not important, and the degree to which you lack understanding of that is the degree of your immaturity in my eyes.  It would be best to crush your enjoyment of that thing immediately and waste no more of anyone’s time liking something you might dislike in the future.”

the apex of human understanding

Note that “growing up” is always seen as synonymous with “agreeing with me.”  There is no world in which a child grows up, acquires experience and perspective, and still disagrees with you.  Your worldview is the apex of human understanding, and all life is a grim slog toward the enlightenment you’ve already achieved.  All of this is implicit when someone says, “When you get older, you’ll see.”

Trouble with that is, if you look at the world this way, you will only ever see yourself.  That’s all you’re interested in. It’s all you’re looking for, so it’s all you’ll find. You’ve told the people you love that what matters to them is only real if it also matters to you.  That what they are is only worthy if it matches what you were looking for.  Someone you love came to you and said, “Hey, this thing is super cool, and it fills me with the sublime joy of discovery and makes me want to learn more.”  And you said, “That’s not the kind of thing I figured you’d be into. Stop sharing your discoveries with me until you mature into someone who likes what I like.”

Is that the relationship you want to have with your family?

your irresponsible brother Dave

Aren’t you at all worried that you’re missing out?  Don’t you ever wonder who that person is? Not the role they’re in – not “your granddaughter” or “your partner” or “your irresponsible brother Dave,” but the actual person hidden behind the role you talk to when they pick up the phone.  Maybe actually talk to Dave, for the first time in years.  Dave’s forty-three – have you been calling him irresponsible since he was eight years old?  Does that not seem like bizarre behavior, to not update your opinion of a person for thirty years?  If you met forty-three-year-old Dave in a bar or a park, would the two of you get along? Would you even talk?

I think the sad truth is that a lot of people wouldn’t choose their family for friends if they’d been given a choice.  And it’s not because we don’t have things in common – shared space and shared time creates commonalities, and so does any attempt to shape your loved ones to resemble yourself.  One way or another, we usually have a lot in common with our families.

What we don’t have is any reason to seek out their company, a lot of the time.  The jokes about family time being as taxing as it is rewarding are pretty universal – why is that?  Why do most people not quite like being around their families?  A lot of those jokes rely upon this idea of having to perform, to live up to what the family expects of you.  Here we are again… “family” is conditional upon your ability to conceal what you are, to go through the motions, to avoid the missing stair.

someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose

Any long-term relationship is susceptible to this.  The older a relationship is, the more opportunity there is to create habits that wear into wounds.  You started joking about Dave being irresponsible when he was eight, and he laughed then, and so you kept it up.  Dave kept laughing because Dave didn’t have any power – if it bothered him, he didn’t have any safe opportunity or framework to say, “That joke actually does hurt me.  Could we stop joking about that and joke about literally anything else, please?” He’s hopefully never before been confronted with the idea that someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose.  That’s a brutal revelation, one that a child has trouble absorbing, and so he tries to ignore it. Dave keeps laughing.  If he conceals that it hurts, they won’t be hurting him on purpose.  If I don’t call it rape, I can pretend I wasn’t raped.  Faking it is less painful. It keeps hurting, but over time Dave gets inured to it. He doesn’t even hear the jokes anymore.  He doesn’t see his family much either. Not for any particular reason, they don’t do anything really bad. They’re just… not as good to him as his friends are.  And somehow that’s called “family.”

The word family whitewashes a lot of behavior that no one in their right mind would put up with from a friend or a partner.  We’re looking for the family we expect to see, the one media shows us, and when we don’t see it, we pretend to see it.  We play the role and the role becomes who we are.

our teeth are loving

That’s how a family gets to a point of taking pride in their dysfunction.  “We’re not like those lame, boring families that are nice to each other.  Other people can’t understand this thing we have, but you know our teeth are loving, this is just the only way we know to express our emotions.  You’re special for getting it.  Outsiders don’t get it.” This is how we immortalize abuse as family tradition. We convey the impression that in order to be “in the club,” in order to belong, those lower in status must submit to whatever treatment trickles down from on high.  More than submit to it – celebrate it. Being part of the family means laughing when we make a joke at your expense; can’t you take a joke, don’t you have a sense of humor?

These patterns don’t start as malice, that’s the problem.  We don’t start out trying to bulldoze the people around us.  We just don’t take it seriously when it happens, and so it keeps happening.  When we trivialize what someone’s experiencing – “it’s a phase, you’ll understand better when you’re older” – we teach them that their pain is not important.  So they stop telling us about it.

If we don’t create opportunities in our relationships for open communication that sets aside power and status disparities, we can’t ever have genuine, functional relationships with anyone.  Power, status – it’s not comfortable to use words like that with our loved ones, and we’d like to believe our families don’t work like that. But power disparity exists, and ignoring it is just a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility, believing that the word “family” is sufficient to keep the family together.  It’s not necessary to work on and improve those relationships the way one would with a friend, because “we’ll always be family.” Okay, but if family doesn’t mean “a group of people who love each other and look after each other’s welfare”… what exactly will we always be? We’ll always be connected by blood, but if that’s all that’s required, why does it matter if we spend time together?  You want family to mean something when it absolves you, but not when it requires you to do emotional work.

any part of this person you ground down

What if you made it a habit, with all the people you love – friends, partners, family, anyone you plan to keep around for a while – to check in?  Not in a “hey, how’s tricks” kind of way – you’re going to have to give them a framework to answer you, because we’re not used to being this honest with each other, and you’ve probably given them at least one reason to believe you won’t react well to anything less than a glowing review.  But there are a lot of ways to get at what you want to know, and what you want to know is if there’s any part of this person you ground down to make them fit into your family.

Try any and all of the following, as appropriate to your situation and relationship:

  • “Hey, I want you to feel like you can tell me the truth about what you’re experiencing and feeling – is there anything I can do or not do to make you feel safer in doing that?”
  • “What have you been really interested in lately that we haven’t talked about?  You’re getting into culinary taxidermy? Well that sounds terrifying to me, but we don’t have to like the same things for me to love you, so please, tell me what you like about it!”
  • “We go to church/play board games on Family Night/eat at Hooters every week, and we’ve been doing that for a long time, I just wanted to see if that’s still sparking joy for everybody.  Oh, you say you never liked eating at Hooters?  Well I definitely won’t say ‘why didn’t you mention that earlier’, because we don’t always know how we feel about things right away and conveying that uncertainty across a power disparity is very difficult, and I don’t want to punish you for answering my question honestly.  Instead, let’s try another place, and those of us who like Hooters can go tomorrow night.”
  • “Hey, I noticed when I made that joke that your laugh was a little halfhearted.  If I say something that makes you uncomfortable, please don’t feel like you have to laugh it off – please tell me instead, so I can not do that in the future, because I’d rather we both be having fun when we hang out.”
  • “Remember that thing I asked you to work on?  Keeping up with the dishes/not picking your nose in front of the dog/not yelling at me when I ask a question?  I wanted to say it’s been a lot better lately – you’ve been working on it and it shows, so thank you.”
  • “What are some things you’d like to do in life?  Let’s approach those NOT from the perspective of me showing you how to scale down your dream until it fits neatly into your standard-issue soul-dead consumer life, but rather, let’s you and I figure out how to break down the existing paradigm to make whatever you’d like to do practical.  I promise not to mention money or college in any way during this conversation, because a lot of things can change in twenty years, and my understanding of what the workforce will require from you is probably already wildly out of date, and also your value and the value of what you care about is not determined by the amount of capitalist wealth you accrue, so you should pursue what you’re passionate about and we will make it work.”

Demonstrate, or have the common decency to occasionally feign, interest in your loved ones outside the sphere of your own interests.  Acknowledge progress, not just error.  Don’t measure others’ success in terms of similarity to you or your dreams.  Provide opportunities for safe communication.  Be aware of power disparities rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, and be ready to swallow your pride if it gets in your way.  If you can’t hear good sense when it comes from the mouth of a child – or anyone you perceive as “lesser” – you aren’t worthy of any form of authority.  Don’t judge your children by how similar they are to you, or to other children, or to children from your day. That’s not useful info – why would you want your children to be similar to you?  They live in a completely different world and that will become more true every day.

Don’t look for your own reflection in the faces of those around you.  Listen to the person in front of you, right now. They’re giving you a lot of information – we all want to be seen, to be understood, and most of the time we’re broadcasting like neon lights, just wishing someone would ask us what we think or how we feel.  Each person is new, and they’re new every goddamn day. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss it. If you spend all your time describing the person in front of you, rather than listening to them, they’re going to disappear.