“He’s crazy”–Mental Illness, Power, and Transgressions

[CN: Discussion of violence against women, racism]

There are a few courses I took in undergrad and grad school that have especially stuck with me through the years. One that I think about often was an upper-level Women’s Studies course called Monstrous Women which looked at the ways we frame women who transgress the bounds that society places before them. And how women who fail to perform “womanhood” adequately (whether through eschewing motherhood, being overtly aggressive, responding to male violence with violence) are transformed into “monsters”–both as a control mechanism and because we don’t know how to reconcile women who don’t perform mainstream womanhood in our brains.

Continue reading ““He’s crazy”–Mental Illness, Power, and Transgressions”

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In the wake of catastrophe, a few thoughts

courage

If you have found your way to this blog you are likely, like me, devastated. And afraid. You made it through a never-ending campaign of bigotry and hatred and boasts of sexual predation only to be faced with four more years of it, with an emboldened contingent of racists and misogynists and rapists who will see themselves reflected in the White House come January.

I’ve shared a few thoughts about what this means and, if you’re a fellow white person, you may not like them. But please, please don’t turn away. Please read it and if you find yourself angry or defensive sit with it. Continue reading “In the wake of catastrophe, a few thoughts”

Seven Self-Care Strategies for Those Struggling

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My phone’s lock-screen and my touchstone for the last several months.

Just about everyone I know is struggling right now–between brutal acts of police violence against Black people in the US, the Orlando shooting, climate catestrophe, the spectre of a Donald Trump presidency, Brexit, and everything else we’re inundated with constantly, people are struggling with self-care, mental health, and just being okay.

Because I talk a lot about self-care people seem to assume I’m a champ at it. Rather, I talk a lot about it because it’s something I struggle with, and something I see as a fundamental part of doing justice work. So in that spirit, I’m offering a few of the things I’ve been using in the hopes they may be helpful for others. They may not ring true for you and that’s totally cool, we all have different needs and histories and self-care will look different for all of us, but they’re here if you want to give them a go. Continue reading “Seven Self-Care Strategies for Those Struggling”

Food Rules: The good, the bad, and the ugly

To Thine Own Self Be TrueFood rules are a pretty contentious topic–some people live and die by them. Some feel that healthy eating habits (especially for those in recovery from disordered eating) can’t include them. Some like to reframe rules as “guidelines” and some seem try to delude both themselves and their audiences that their food rules are different and, no matter how restrictive they seem, they aren’t like that other person’s restrictive food rules.

If you’re on Facebook (or the internet) you’ve encountered a plethora of food rules: Whole30, Paleo, plant-based, vegan, raw vegan, “clean” eating, Weight Watchers, intermittent fasting, etc. etc.

I’ve tried more than my fair share of rules: raw vegan (cold all the time but felt great–possibly because the body’s response to starvation is a push of energy); Eat to Live (that way madness and–with 3 pounds of produce and a cup of beans a day–pooping lie); extreme calorie restriction; Geneen Roth’s (generally sane) guidelines; obsessive calorie tracking; and the one freeing but problematic rule: fuck it all. I’ve tried intuitive eating (and had a fair bit of success). I’ve done low(ish) carb (as an ethical vegan there is only so low one’s carbs can go). I’ve done low GI. I’ve paired both extreme calorie restriction and a more moderate intake with obsessive exercise. I’ve toyed with orthorexia.

What I’m saying is, I’ve tried a lot of rules. They’ve all, with the exception of intuitive eating, been a substitute for the control I was lacking in life, and a tool with which to punish myself.

I, like many of us, was never taught or modelled healthy eating/food patterns. So, when I’ve thrown off the shackles of culturally supported food bullshit, whether out of burgeoning self-love or politics (and, let me be clear, my self-love is intimately tied to–and a result of–my feminist politics) I have found myself floundering. What does a healthy relationship with food actually look like? What is normal eating?

This is a remarkably stressful question. Because, really, in this culture at least, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. If I were to try to answer that question it would look something like this: a pattern of eating that keeps you nourished without angst or worry.

But what does that look like in practice?

I’ve been working through Making Peace with Food by Susan Kano. It has been revealing and hope-inducing. From it, I have incorporated three rules into my life. Rules that feel sustainable. Rules that give me a framework within which I can eat with freedom and care for myself, by nourishing both my body and my soul. The rules I’ve incorporated are:

1. When you are craving something, eat it. Indulge that craving. Enjoy it whole-heartedly.
2. When you’re not craving something particular, eat health-promoting food (fruits and veg, whole grains, protein, etc.).
3. When you start feeling stressed or compulsive about food flip the script from “Can I resist to this?” to “Do I want this?” If the answer is yes go to number 1. If not, go do something else.

In order to embrace these rules I have had to (start to) accept that weight-loss might not be in the cards. That my choice might be sanity at this size or angst at, well, this size. And that I can focus on a healthy and nourishing relationship with food and I can focus on getting really strong, fit, and capable, and that the mental/emotional work is to accept that my body will do what it does within those habits.

And that sounds like a pretty damn good place to be.

Self-Care Minimums and Dealing With Depression

self-careThis topic has come up multiples over the past week or so, both with clients and friends, so I thought I’d write about it.

One of the trickiest parts of dealing with depression is that it not only saps your motivation, but it makes you believe things that are untrue–things about yourself and your worth, things about your place in your community, and things about how to take care of yourself.

I like to broach this topic by sharing that I’ve noticed in myself and others that there are depression-promoting behaviours and depression-challenging behaviours. And that the really hard part is that depression makes us think depression-promoting behaviours are in our best interest.

When you’re depressed (or anxious, or triggered), staying in all weekend, not answering the phone, binge-watching TV, and not getting dressed sounds great. It might even sound like “self-care.” And aspects of it can be self-care. But self-care is not just about soothing yourself in the moment, it’s about setting up the supports and structures that let you be okay enough in your day-to-day life. So while depression says “let’s watch Buffy instead of doing the laundry” the reality is that tomorrow you’re going to wake up to clothes everywhere, nothing clean, and one more thing you haven’t done–which will add to the guilt and shame that seem to come hand-in-hand with depression.

On the other hand, depression-challenging behaviours are hard and not fun in the moment, but set you up to a) have small victories (SO important when dealing with mental health issues), b) have some structure and routine in your life, and c) set up the support and structure to let you deal with the root of your issues or cope with issues that aren’t going away anytime soon.

Going grocery shopping and eating enough nourishing food can feel insurmountable, but are going to be a lot better for your mental and physical health than subsisting on what you can get at the gas station at 2 am. Tidying your house and making sure you have clean dishes and clean clothes might feel like climbing Everest but the pay-off is immense (for me, at least, just being around clutter and dirty dishes is stressful). Reaching out to a friend or setting up a therapy appointment can feel like the hardest thing you will ever do, but they provide you the support not only to deal with what’s going on, but to have positive social interactions and, with your friends, to have some time when you aren’t “person dealing with depression/trauma/anxiety” you’re just “person who is hilarious and loves ice cream and action movies.”

I am, thankfully, in a really good place with my mental health, but I have a really emotionally demanding job that requires a lot of self-care, and I need to be mindful that my self-care is actually helping me to be sustainable in this job rather than applying a bandaid to deal with the stress of yesterday. To that end, I have “Self-Care Minimums” that I strive to hit every day, and I encourage my clients to consider if they would be useful for them. For me, my self-care minimums are:

AM
-Sunlight or SAD lamp in the morning
-Morning medications/supplements
-Emptying the dishrack
-Morning stretch/flow
Anytime
-Intentional movement/exercise
PM
-Cleaning the kitchen
-Tidying the living room
-Start bedtime routine at 9:30
-Turn off all screens at 10

These are the minimums I’ve established I need to feel good in my house (waking up to a clean kitchen is so important to my day) and good in my body (getting enough good-quality sleep, moving my body), to be able to show up every day for my clients, and to be able to show up every day for myself.

For some people these minimums may feel like maximums. For someone who’s really struggling their daily minimums might be:

-Brush teeth
-Talk to another person in person
-10 minute walk
-Eat breakfast

Your minimums will change with your mental and physical health, resilience, and individual life circumstances, but I think they can be a good way to make sure that you are including some depression-challenging behaviours (and/or sustainable mental health-promoting behaviours) in your life when things are hard, not just when things are good.

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This piece was inspired, in part, by this great piece called Everything is Awful and I’m Not Okay: Questions to ask before giving up which I have been recommending all over the place.

I am a big fan of lists and especially of lists that give me the satisfaction of checking things off of them. To that end, I used this template to make my Daily Minimums List, laminated it, and stuck it on my fridge.

Why I Don’t Leave It On The Field

There are two interesting and contradictory trends in fitness I keep seeing. The first is the “leave it on the field” (or workout ’til you vomit) trend and the latter is, seemingly, a backlash, mostly found in more feminist (whether explicitly or not), body-positive spaces that argues training and movement should be additive–they should positively benefit you and support your other activities rather than eclipsing them.

This post was inspired by (among other things) this post about a Spartan race in California that resulted in a dozen people being sent to the hospital, including broken bones and two heart attacks. It’s also inspired by the ongoing conversations about the sustainability of Crossfit as well as the influx of Tough Mudder, Spartan Run, and Mud Run pictures crowding my Facebook timeline. And it’s inspired by my own past all-or-nothing tendencies that saw me doing two hours of cardio a day, running myself ragged in pursuit of…something.

So I want to think about what that something is and why so many of us fall prey to the pursuit of it at the expense of our health, wallets, and time. And I want to think about how it’s probably related to the neoliberal conception of health and fitness. I’m going to be totally gauche and quote myself here:

Both Schee (2008) and Guthman and DuPuis (2006) borrow Foucault’s concept of governmentality to describe the ways that dominant forces shape a self-governing ethic that creates a “hypervigilance about control and deservingness” which then “creates divisions between active citizens, those who can manage their own risks, and ‘targeted populations’, those who require intervention in management of risks” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443). Colls and Evans (2009) argue that even those who are at a ‘normal’ weight are considered at “risk of becoming ‘overweight’ which in turn is a risk for becoming ‘obese’” (p.1013), thus all bodies are subject to that hypervigilance and surveillance. Those currently construed as active citizens are viewed as self-disciplined and rational, while those who fail to achieve the twin duties of eating and thinness are viewed as irrational and lacking discipline (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006). It is in this way that class (and its corollaries race and gender) is performed through the body (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006).

Because I think this idea may be at the root of the popularity of balls-to-the-wall fitness trends.

It is not enough, in our culture, to strive for moderation, something that is hard enough to attain in our current obesogenic environment (a not unproblematic term, certainly, but I haven’t found a better one that attends to the constant availability of hyperpalatable foods, the billions of dollars that go into advertising and lobbying, the agricultural conglomerates that receive subsidies for calorically dense crops while fresh fruits and vegetables are out of reach for many, and the car culture and other forces that encourage sedentary lifestyles). Rather, we divide ourselves between those seeking ritual self-flagellation, couch potatoes, and the growing number just trying to find sanity and health in their food and movement practices.

One thing that strikes me about Crossfit and its ilk is that it may stand in for church in our increasingly secular culture. It is somewhere you go regularly, where you have community, and where you are promised some form of purity–whether that’s in the form of punishment for your sins (try doing a WOD hungover, I promise you’ll feel punished) or in doing something few others can (or want to) do. Of course there are those who just enjoy a CF workout and like hanging out with their friends while they sweat their buns off. And that’s fine. Do what makes you happy and healthy. But let’s not ignore the larger cultural forces at play to avoid stepping on toes.

From Crossfit to SoulCycle, the last few years have seen a rise in exercise-with-the-fervour-of-religion. Which, I think, dovetails nicely with the idea that the good citizen keeps themself under constant surveillance, making sure to both consume and sacrifice at the same time. Crossfit, SoulCycle, and obstacle races like Tough Mudder are populated by primarily middle (to upper) class white 20-40 year olds who are willing to spend boatloads of cash on fitness. They are able to consume (spending money on classes, races, gear, and swag) while remaining slim and self-disciplined. The neoliberal problem of inelastic demand (we can only eat so much, own so many houses, drive so many cars) paired with the failing health of a population that is overworked, overfed, over-stressed, and lacking the basic right to affordable health care (still an issue in the US despite the Affordable Care Act) is fixed by a culture that “returns improvement to the individual” (Guthman & DuPuis, 2006, p. 443).

Rather than looking at systemic issues like how to ensure quality nutrition for all, a healthy work-life balance, adequate and safe housing, safe outdoor spaces, and the systemic barriers facing marginalized people, these exercise cultures focus on the individual and the path to purity through pushing beyond your limits.

And these exercise cultures burn people out because bodies aren’t meant to go 100% 5 (or 6 or 7!) days a week. We aren’t meant to tax our immune systems and nervous systems every day at the gym, pushing harder, harder, harder, until we puke or faint or rupture something. And while some people can keep that intensity up for a surprisingly long time, eventually the body gives. And, in the meantime, we are sacrificing so much for this ritual purity. How many times have you given a workout your all and then found yourself lying on the couch the rest of the day because you were spent? How many times have you pushed too hard, too fast, too far, then limped for four days, cursing every time you sit down on the toilet because your legs are on fire?

That is not sustainable, it is not loving. It is self-flagellation. It is seeking punishment for sins defined by a dysfunctional culture.

Which isn’t to say never go hard. I fully believe a sustainable movement practice can (and, ideally, should!) incorporate hard days. I’ve been incorporating clean-and-presses into my practice lately and you have got to be all in to do them. Every part of your body focused, engaged, working hard. But that can’t be every day. Not just because your body can’t sustain it (ever tried running the day after a heavy deadlift? It’s hell on earth) but your mind and soul can’t either. It wears you down. It strips the joy from movement and thus life.

Movement should be additive. It should enable you to conquer the massive floating log at Wreck Beach with ease (SO MUCH FUN) and then walk up the one million stairs to get back to the road. It should enable you to help your friend move with ease (seriously, moving is so much easier when you deadlift!), it should shore up your resources for times of high stress. In short, it should let you do the hard work of living–it shouldn’t be  the hard work.

On Worth, Body-Image, and Beauty

This is an old piece I wrote for a now-defunct blog but it is as true now as it was then and a good reminder to all of us. Our words and actions help shape our realities, so let’s shape them with as much kindness for ourselves and each other as possible.
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A very long time ago I made a decision that I would not indulge in negative body talk out loud with other women. I would not let it be a form of bonding, and I would not bear witness to its use for that purpose by others. A gentle but firm “hey, that’s not a very nice way to talk about your body” or even a “hey, I don’t do negative body talk” is surprisingly effective. And it miraculously cuts a tension in the room you weren’t even aware was there. It’s like all the women collectively breathe out. Whoosh.

And because of that decision I came to realize that I can’t have one standard for myself and my friends and another for celebrities and strangers. I can’t say that I deserve kindness while snarking on some other woman’s body for failing to live up to some impossible, made-up, oppressive standard (even if they are, as celebrities, a hell of a lot closer than I’ll ever get). And so I stopped. I stopped commenting to myself and others that so and so’s nose is weird, or so and so has gained a bunch of weight, or that actress x isn’t even hot so why are people fawning over her?

And the amazing thing is that when I stopped saying it I stopped thinking it. When I put body snarking and shaming off limits verbally it followed naturally that it was off limits internally—for self and for others. And here is where the real magic happened: when I stopped snarking, when I stopped looking for ways to attack other women for the ways I felt I was failing, for the things I was ashamed of, I started seeing how much beauty there is in the world that isn’t captured in mainstream conceptions of it.

I saw beauty in women who look nothing like the women on TV. I saw beauty in women who are curvy, in women who are fat, in women who are thin, I saw beauty in women whose disabilities and/or ethnicities and/or gender-nonconformity challenge the mainstream conception of beauty. And I started to see that beauty existed in women who looked just like me. And in women who looked nothing like me.

And when I noticed those bodies so similar to mine and the grace with which they can move, the beauty they can exhibit, I realized that mine too can do that. That my body, too, can be beautiful.

That doesn’t mean I always see beauty in my body. It doesn’t mean my body is always beautiful. But finding the beauty in my body was not just powerful, it felt intensely political. It felt radical. It felt like another small way in which I can stand up and say “I’m here. You can’t ignore me. I am here and I matter and I demand to be counted.”

A Primer on Mental Health Hygiene

[content note: vague discussion of eating disorders, depression, PTSD, and sexualized violence]

We’ve all heard about Sleep Hygiene, right? You know, no drinking before bed, use your bed for sex and sleep only, take your TV out of your bedroom, etc. It’s amazing how many of us know these things (if only because we’ve seen it in a million magazines) but refuse to actually put them into practice (turning my computer off an hour before bedtime did WONDERS for my quality of sleep but my consistency could use some help). And it’s amazing how many of us have poor sleep hygiene, refuse to actually institute good habits, and then complain that NOTHING has ever helped our sleeping problem.

I got to thinking last night, as I broke one of my cardinal mental health rules (no reading triggering things right before bed) that maybe a mental health hygiene guideline would be helpful for folks. Obviously this is no substitute for mental healthcare from a licensed practitioner, but it may be something to add to your toolkit. Mainly this is written for folks with ED histories and/or trauma histories, but I can imagine there are pieces that may be useful for folks with other mental health stuff going on (e.g. depression). So here it is:

MENTAL HEALTH HYGIENE GUIDELINES

The Basics:
-eat enough to support your activity
-get enough sleep
-be active in ways that make you feel good (one of the best tools for overall wellbeing–if you have dealt with obsessive exercising/overexercising in the past work with your treatment team to determine what level of movement is safe for you)
-cultivate a network of friends and family that can support you and love you as you are
-utilize your treatment team as necessary

Self-Care is Important
-go on Facebook, cull every group or “celebrity” that does not make you feel good. If you’re dealing with ED, leave/unlike/unfollow any group or person that talks about cleanses, “clean eating”, eating “naughty” food, having “cheat days”, “toning those trouble spots”, and anything else that gives off even a whiff of body-shaming. Do the same with blogs, magazines, shows, and books.
-if you have friends/family members/colleagues who post things on facebook that make you feel bad, unfriend if you can, unfollow and hide if you can’t. You owe no one your attention at the expense of your mental health
-if you have a history of violent trauma STOP WATCHING LAW AND ORDER: SVU and any other movie/show that uses rape as a proxy for character development for women, or as a symbol of “WORST THING EVER” for male characters. It’s lazy, it’s damaging, and it can be triggering as hell.
-do not, I repeat, do not watch or read things you know will trigger you right before you go to bed.
-more generally, if you do not have the emotional resources to read something triggering, don’t read it.
-learn how to set healthy boundaries.
-speak to yourself like you would a child–gently and with love.
-create a toolbox of coping mechanisms: journaling, having a bath, walking your dog, chatting with your friend, making an elaborate ritual out of teatime, screaming into a pillow, punching a heavy bag, meditating, cleaning–these are all safe, positive ways to deal with scary/sad/bad feelings.
-when you go for a negative coping mechanism instead, understand the miracle of poor coping mechanisms and come up with a better plan for next time

Fake It Til You Make It
-don’t isolate yourself. Many mental health challenges try to trick us into isolating ourselves but that just makes it worse.
-if you have crazy-brain happening (ED, PTSD, depression) don’t trust it. Ask a trusted friend or family member if what your brain is telling you makes sense. When you’re stressed out and tired and scared your brain telling you 800 calories a day is enough may sound reasonable, but your best friend is going to tell you that’s just crazy-brain talking. (DISCLAIMER: only take your crazy-brain questions to people who aren’t battling their own crazy brain.)
-don’t wallow. This is a hard one. Many mental health challenges rely on and reinforce negative views of self. We feel bad so we tell ourselves how bad we are which makes us feel worse. Stop that. Here’s my script: “Hey! That’s not a very nice thing to say. You’re not ______(bad/stupid/worthless) you’re having a hard time and healing from _______ (ED/physical health stuff/trauma/depression). These voices are normal but they aren’t right.” Say it until you mean it. Then keep saying it until you believe it.
-keep a regular schedule. For some folks depression leads to staying up all night then sleeping all day which leaves you disoriented and socially isolated.
-act like the healthy, happy person you want to be: get enough sleep, don’t engage in negative self-talk, exercise, etc. etc. Some days it will seem impossible. Do ONE THING. Make yourself a meal, even if that’s toast with butter. Clean your bathroom sink. Phone your grandma to wish her a happy birthday. When crazy brain is screaming, ask yourself “what would a happy, healthy person do right now?”
-have hope. Even if you feel like you have no reason to have hope right now, do it anyway. Do it because some stranger on the internet told you to. Do it because continuing on like this is too hard. Do it because you deserve better. Do it because it will be sunny one day.

If you have other ideas, feel free to leave them in the comments! Take care of yourself and each other.

Boundaries–How and Why

We live in a culture that is constantly testing, pushing, and obliterating our bodies. From the littlest ages when toddlers are made to kiss Great Aunt Gretchen who they’ve ever met before to teenagehood when many kids don’t feel like they can say no to people or situations that make them uncomfortable, to adulthood where we are pressured to keep our phones on at all times and be constantly responsive to email–never mind the epidemic of sexual violence in this culture–we aren’t taught how to set good boundaries. In fact, we often aren’t even taught that we have a *right* to good boundaries. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been harassed or accosted by some creepy stranger and then been yelled at or followed when she politely turned down his advances. And the thing is, you shouldn’t feel a need to be polite when some dude licks you on the bus or tells he he wants to fuck you like an animal, but women are taught from a very young age that we must be NICE above all else. If we can’t even set firm boundaries with the creepy guy on the bus who we will never see again, how are we supposed to set boundaries with our parents/partners/bosses?

At my old job one of the things I did was facilitate workshops on boundaries/consent/healthy sexuality for young people. I’ve distilled the major lessons around boundary setting into this post with the idea that it might help folks who are doing really hard, sacred work around body image and love but are surrounded by people who think they get to weigh in on their bodies. But it’s also accessible, useful information for literally every person ever.

There are five major components to having healthy boundaries: understanding the need for them; recognizing how/why/when they’re being breached; identifying the boundary to be set; actually setting and maintaining the boundary; and revisiting your boundaries.

1. Boundaries keep us safe–physically, mentally, emotionally. They let us get what we need to do done while still having the time to do what we want. They let us have healthy relationships based on shared values, respect, love and safety. They are an act of profound self-love, and an act of love to another. They are a recognition that we can’t do everything, we don’t want to do everything, and martyring ourselves for others is an unkindness to self and not a healthy expression of love to others. They are a recognition and enactment of self-worth.

2. Now, this part is best done interactively, but that’s okay. The way I teach identifying when boundaries are being breached is bodily (it involves string, personal zones and people you don’t know very well standing too close to you. It’s fabulously effective!). Think about a stranger standing too close to you, and feel what your body does. Maybe you stiffen, have shivers down your spine, feel slightly nauseous, breath shallowly. Now think about how you feel when emotional boundaries are crossed. Maybe you’re irritable, feel disrespected, slightly nauseous, tense all day, can’t sleep, can’t concentrate.

The how varies wildly. It can be unrealistic demands on your time, energy, abilities. It can be asking you to shoulder an emotional burden you’re unable or unwilling to take on. It can be consistently asking you to work too many hours. It can be talking about things you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable talking about–such as your body size, your eating habits, or your exercise regimen. These are all things that other people can do to us, but also things we can do to ourselves.

The why is usually down to either unclear boundaries, poor boundary setting, or the fact that we live in a culture that neither teaches us nor respects healthy boundaries. Sometimes it’s because the other person just doesn’t respect our boundaries. In which case, the same rules apply to you, but the last step may be extricating yourself from the situation, relationship, whatever.

3. This part can be really hard, if you’re not used to establishing boundaries. You may be very good at identifying, in some manner, that your boundaries are being pushed or even bowled over but not sure what boundaries actually need to be set. When I’m struggling to identify what boundary needs to be set I ask myself “what do I need to do to feel safe/okay/respected?” I react physically to emotion, conflict, unease. So when I’m trying to figure out what boundary I need to set I’ll see how the idea literally feels to me. Does it make my stomach hurt less? Do my shoulders relax a little bit?

Another part of figuring out which boundary to set is figuring out what you’re willing to do, what feels non-negotiable. Even within the non-negotiable, there are ways that you can set boundaries. For example, you will attend x to support your partner, but you need an hour in the morning beforehand to go for a run, or you will see Aunt Sally but there can be absolutely no weight-talk. The details are unimportant here, what’s important is the understanding that it’s your right (and, not to get too heavy-handed here, your obligation, if you’re committed to a healthy, equitable relationship) to ensure that the things you’re doing feel okay for you.

4. This is the really hard part: setting the boundary. So the model I like to suggest is called the Gentle Refusal Model. It’s something I use in doing support work, something I use with my family, with my friends, with my lovers, and with myself. There are three parts: Reflection, The Refusal and The Offer.

Reflection
This has two purposes. The first is to make sure both you and the other person are clear on what they’re asking from you. If you’re misunderstanding them they can clear it up, which may change the boundary you thought you had to set. If you’re understanding them correctly, by reflecting their request you are both letting their needs be heard, and being clear that you understand what you’re being asked and what you’re refusing.

The Refusal
This is the hard part. The way I like to do it is with an “I can’t/wont’/don’t want to x because y”. This way it’s about you, not them, and you’re giving them an explanation rather than just a no, which is often enough to make people both understand and respect your boundary.

The Offer
This part is somewhat optional (with certain requests no offer can be made, or should be made) and can take a lot of different forms. I like to use it for a couple reasons. One, it ends the conversation on a positive note. Two, it makes the other person feel like you care and are willing to do what you can for them.

Example 1: I come to you and say “I know it’s super short notice, but can you take care of my cat for the weekend? I got called away on business. Also, can you bake her a birthday cake and decorate it with a feline pastiche?” You say, “I know that you’re going away and need someone to take care of your cat (refection) but I’m afraid I can’t do that because I’m allergic to cats(refusal). If you want, though, I can call my friend Janet who loves cats and professionally catsits (offer).”

Example 2: My mother comes to me and says “I’m really concerned that you’re eating ice cream every day! Dr. Oz says you will get the ‘beetus and die if you don’t start snorting ylang ylang!” So I respond with “Mom, I hear that you’re concerned about my health (reflection) and I appreciate that, but I don’t talk about my health or diet with anyone but my doctor (refusal). I’d love to start walking together on Sundays, though (offer).”

Sometimes the offer can be as simple as wishing someone good luck, or letting them know you care about them.

This model can feel a little stiff at first, somewhat scripted, but it becomes natural as you use it, and you’ll start using it a lot and without being conscious of it. It’s gentle, kind, honest and effective. And if you have a friend or other trusted person that would be willing to practice it with you that would be great! One other thing to note is that sometimes you have to revisit. For example, you set your boundary and I say “okay, no cat-sitting, but what about the cake?” so then you go back to reflection and refusal. If the other person is really refusing to respect your refusals, you can outright say “I’m setting a boundary here, and I really need you to respect it.” It doesn’t often come to that, but some people really, really don’t want to respect the boundaries of others and having it said explicitly puts them in a place where they essentially can’t keep pushing you. If they still aren’t respecting your boundary you may need to walk away–either literally in the moment, or in a broader sense from the relationship (probably not over making a cat’s birthday cake, but over larger and ongoing boundary violations).

5. Boundaries change. With time, new knowledge, different dynamics, etc. what used to be a perfectly reasonable boundary may not be appropriate anymore. (For example, the diet talk you used to engage in with your friends now makes you feel really shitty.) Don’t be afraid to revisit boundaries, and remember that maintaining them is an ongoing process. Figuring out what boundaries are still necessary and what needs to change will help you see how positive having healthy boundaries is, how they allow space for everyone’s needs to be met, and how they allow healthy relationships to flourish (or can be used to mitigate the harm of less than healthy relationships/situations you can’t get out of e.g. family).

Finally, know that you deserve boundaries. You deserve to be happy and to be healthy, and the people who love you want you to be both of those things. It won’t be easy at first. You may not be used to doing it, some people aren’t used to you doing it, so when you start refusing to do things it may not be received so well. You’ve just got to push through that, be firm, and know that you’re doing it as self-love. Plus, I think establishing clear boundaries with those close to us is an immensely trusting and intimate act. It’s saying “I want you in my life, and I trust you enough to respect my needs so I will show them to you rather than closing up and running away or sacrificing myself because I don’t think you can handle it.”

You (yes, YOU!) are a profoundly beautiful human being, and you deserve to be happy, safe and fulfilled.

If you have questions, want clarification, etc. etc. please feel free to ask!

Happy boundary setting everybody!

The Context of Our Bodies

I have been journaling a lot lately, which is new for me. I was always strongly averse to it–I think because I was caught up in the “Dear Diary” recounting-of-days idea that has never appealed to me. But I’ve been journaling in response to the prompts given by Gala Darling’s Radical Self Love Bible (I’m only three weeks in but so far I’d definitely recommend it!) which has lead to my own prompts. And it turns out that writing through the hard stuff is useful! And easier than I thought. And, unlike the thinking that comes with long walks, can be revisited long after it’s whooshed out of my memory.

So today I started thinking about how the context in which we view and experience our bodies impacts whether our relationships with them are healthy and happy and nourishing or dysfunctional and disordered and dangerous. And this question popped up:

Absent context, it’s just a body–so why not write my own backstory, fill in my own context?

And I realized that, though the cacophonous voices of body-shaming and regulation are ever-present in our society, I get to decide whether they get any credence, whether they are granted the privilege of taking up space in my soul.

Now, I don’t want to frame this realization as fait accompli–I know only too well how a day or week or month of body peace can be rocked and shocked and shattered by a seemingly innocuous comment or something from the past coming up–but I do want to make the point that we have a lot more power than we oftentimes grant ourselves in calling a truce with our bodies. See, we can’t control the triggers, but we can build up our toolbox for when they inevitably happen.

And one of those tools is rewriting the context of our bodies–stripping away the bullshit about cellulite and size and writing a story about the things that matter.

What started this runaway-freight-train of thought was watching this trailer for Embrace (a documentary about body image that is mid-kickstarter campaign). There’s a moment near the end of the trailer where the documentarian is in tears talking about meeting two women on the beach–two women who had been perfect strangers until the first had a moment of joyful recognition “ah! She has one boob just like me!”, rushed over and gave her a hug. And I thought, how dare I see my body as anything less than perfect?!

I have had my own health tribulations and been very, very sick (though certainly not in the same league as the women mentioned above) and my response to finally getting well again hasn’t been to dance in the streets and thank my body for healing, it’s been to get pissy because this go around my body’s bigger than it was pre-sickness.

I am reminded of Naomi Wolf’s brilliant quote:

A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.

Imagine what we would get done if we spent the years and billions of dollars we spend trying to hate ourselves thin marching in the streets, rabblerousing for an affordable childcare strategy, shoring up the leaks in medicare, ensuring every woman has access to safe, legal, and timely abortion, fighting regressive (and downright racist) immigration policies, and just goddamn living our lives!

If we rewrote our body’s contexts to be ones that nourish, accept, and love our bodies–that understand that they are instruments not decorations and utterly divorced from our worth and lovability–we would get a fuck of a lot done. Because our bodies would require only as much thought as a dog–they need to be fed and walked and loved and that’s it. There is nothing more complicated than that. No mental gymnastics to figure out if I can eat this if I do that many burpees; if I can wear that dress or maybe I should just skip the party entirely because I’m feeling fat; if losing 10 pounds will FINALLY make me loveable.

Cause all that shit? It’s distraction. It’s filler–it’s like mental asbestos. It fills cracks and crevices and is toxic as shit. And sometimes you need a professional to help you remove it. But when we rewrite our contexts, when we choose the value of our bodies based simply on their continued excellent service (even when it doesn’t feel so excellent) we free up those cracks and crevices for big, bold, radical ideas to take place and shake shit up.

Let’s shake shit up.