Author Archives: Bella Rosa
It’s the night after Super Tuesday. Supporters of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are drunk with glee and supporters of Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren are processing their sadness. Each camp doing their thing in their own way – some are conducting outreach trying to bring displaced supporters into the fold, others are blaming anyone who dared to not support their candidate, and still, some others are just plain celebrating or mourning.
For what it is worth, I supported Elizabeth Warren in the primary (Castro had been my first pick) and like a good true blue Democrat, I’ve pledged to support the eventual nominee. At the time of this writing, Bloomberg has already dropped out and I’m hearing whispers that Warren might do the same. Yes, I’m disappointed that my candidate didn’t win more delegates, but I’m far more disappointed in the way each candidate’s followers are treating the relative winners and losers of this big political match-up.
And while this message applies to all (hi Republican friends!), tonight I focus almost solely on Democrats. It’s the party that raised and trained me, the party that has inspired and encouraged me. It’s also, right now the party most in danger of eating themselves alive.
I am a lifelong Democrat. I started in 1992, when I wrote a letter to Bill Clinton’s campaign asking some pointed questions about his stance on the environment, education and homosexual rights. I was in 8th grade. When I got to high school, I was involved in the campaign against Amendment 2 and organized around issues affecting our Latinx-majority school in the off years. I was devastated when Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched parties (he warmly responded to the letter I wrote him encouraging me to stay involved to fix things). I was one of the youngest delegates to the 1996 county and 1998 state conventions. I attended a handful of candidate training programs when I once thought about running for office. Over the years, I’ve grown more choosy about which candidates I’ll support; I will prioritize supporting good policymakers over the sparkle of pristine politicians.
Sometimes that means I’m on the losing end of things. And sometimes I actually win! But mostly, I’m used to my candidates of choice losing. I’m used to disappointment when my more progressive choices (Romanoff) don’t win, with a smaller experience of elation when others (Polis) do. I have seen great politicians make horrible policies (or not even care about it at all) and great policy minds lose at politics (because they care too much). I’ve also been blackballed by the party when I dared to work for and share passionate support for education reform. I have seen most aspects of how state and local campaigns work and how easily national campaigns can drown out the message.
The only reason I bring up my background is to remind you, and maybe also myself, that I’ve been a liberal Democrat for most of my life, trained by union leaders and involved in so many aspects of politics and policy to have some lived experience under my belt to evaluate emerging patterns. And what I see now scares me.
Because if we don’t stop inflicting shame on each other, we will never win, much less repair our fractured country.
First, a little about Shame
Shame by definition is a personal and painful emotion, aligning with a sense of failure to live up to some standard or expectation. Once experienced, the feelings of inadequacy can linger within us weighing us down with persistently resistant thoughts and self-judgments.
“Although we often use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, those who study these emotions are careful to distinguish them. Guilt is an emotion we feel about a specific behavior, while shame is an emotion we feel about who we are. Shame is a corrosive, destructive emotion that leads us onto the path of self-loathing where, in defense of ourselves and in a desperate struggle to break free of our painful feelings about our self worth, we justify our actions—and our identities—as caused by something or someone else. According to psychologist June Tangney, the more shamed we are, the greater our anger and the less we are able to feel empathy—because we so want to stop the painful feelings of shame that we realign our perceptions of the world so that we are not ashamed. It’s not our fault. We aren’t bad people. Everyone does it. We had no choice. Others made us do it. The process is called cognitive dissonance—our ability to distance ourselves from our pain by altering the way we perceive the people and events surrounding it.”Dr. Janice Harper, “Bullying, Mobbing and the Role of Shame” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-bullying/201309/bullying-mobbing-and-the-role-shame) (Emphasis added).
And while experiencing this emotion may be inevitable, inflicting it on others is entirely optional.
Using shame as a weapon isn’t at all a new concept. It has happened throughout history and even in our everyday lives:
- The co-worker who sneers at our new haircut.
- The parent who tells us we’re “not good enough”.
- The boyfriend who fat-shames us into dieting.
- The wife who calls our fetish “disgusting”.
Regardless of whether the expectation was expressed or not, whether someone said something mean or something nice, our exposure to conditions that inspire shame is a chronic experience for us all. And while shame can occur from really innocent things such as forgetting someone’s birthday, I’m fairly certain almost all of us can recall a time when another human passed along their own pain to us through shaming words and actions.
Public humiliation. Abandonment. Rejection. Mockery.
The best way I can describe weaponized shame is self-loathing inflicted by third parties. And to distinguish from bullying for my purposes, I’m focusing on using hostile means (shame) to reach a righteous outcome (get your candidate to win). It has become more than just a strategy, it’s become the currency of our current debates. It’s so familiar, we hardly even recognize it.
Face it, even with the best of parents, we’ve all experienced what it feels like for someone else to go out of their way to make us feel small. Even if our first moments of shame weren’t inflicted by parents (“You should be ashamed of yourself” after some minor transgression), it was likely inflicted by peers in school (“Smelly Suzie” taunts in the schoolyard) and even teachers or coaches (“Well, Jonny, are you happy now? Now the whole class loses the pizza party because of you“). It continues through adolescence when our first crushes reject us (“eww…who would want to be seen with you?“) and throughout our college lives (“Alpha Cow Omega” instead of Alpha Chi Omega) and into our workplaces (“If you can’t handle that client, .that sounds like a you problem. No one else had had an issue“)
For folks with anxiety or depression, for example, shame is particularly tortuous since we already worry about what others think of us. Hearing and reading those comments directed at us only amplifies those fears and gives them a face, a voice.
When I was outed by a small GOP gossip blog, I only had read a handful of comments about me before I started having panic attacks. One mused how much he might pay for a blowjob, several called me fat. But the one that detailed why my kids should be taken away from me sent me over the edge. The idea of losing my kids was terrifying and I couldn’t bear to read the rest. I shut down my life, I stopped going out, I stopped actively engaging in politics. I felt radioactive, only reinforced by the abandonment of my friends in the party elite. The experience of being so publicly ridiculed, dismissed, mocked, and scorned for being who I am was enough to drive me toward suicide as a last resort. And while I’m grateful I stopped myself, the experience is a major source of PTSD for me, a source of nightmares and one of the biggest reasons I’ve held myself back for so long.
Whether purposely or carelessly, when we choose harmful words, a disciplinarian tone, a rageful attack, make no mistake, the intention whether realized or not, is to make the person pay for their opinion with shame. Our pain, our hurt is so justified, so great that we have to make sure others have to suffer too. Our pride, our egos, our decisions are superior and thus we must righteously defend ourselves whenever they’re under perceived attack. And any mistake, no matter how small, will not escape our scrutiny. We will pile on until they acquiesce or leave public life entirely.
Because I left public life, outed for my “liberal agenda”, my persistence, my presence, and my insight also were absent from public life. So was my passion to bring people together. So was my energy for canvassing and phone banking. That one act of weaponized shame (by what I now suspect was an intern out to make a name for himself), not only removed me from politics entirely, it removed what some thought was a valuable voice from our party.
I stopped showing up because it was no longer safe to stand tall in myself.
We can’t win if people don’t show up.
And there is the problem, when we shame, when we destroy, when we wield punishment as if we have some authority to pass ultimate judgment, all we are doing is hazing others because someone hurt us. I was hurt, so you should hurt too. “Only the strong survive” is all well and fine, except with the 2020 election, we actually need everyone to show up. Not just those who can endure our punishment, but those who we’ve estranged as a result of it.
When we inflict shame on others, all we are doing to spreading the pain around, not to heal it, but to maximize its blast radius, to make the people like those who hurt us feel the same pain. Weaponizing shame by pushing people into a corner so we can control their thoughts, feelings, and decisions is abusive AF. Just another bully living out their revenge fantasies by proxy – since the candidate has no idea we’re doing this on their behalf. Controlling others, manipulating people into feeling shame and guilt might give us a temporary surge of power, but won’t change anyone’s mind. When we punish people for not meeting our expectations, we are telling them that we’re in control, we decide who gets in or out and we can destroy you if you step out of line.
Isn’t that exactly what we say we’re fighting against?
This has happened forever in party politics, but with social media has just grown louder, more persistent and with better documentation. We have the receipts now. So we can keep this going on forever. We can schedule tweets to piss you off hourly. We can post evidence of your mistakes and faux pax on Reddit and pop some popcorn as we watch them burn you. We can stalk, harass and pressure even more than before. Because we have to win, so the ends justify the means, right?
Bullying is bulling, no matter what cause we’ve attached ourselves to.
After a while, people are going to tire of the targeted shame and harassment, the inherited pain and collateral damage and will just stop showing up. Our democracy and indeed the entire Democratic agenda of defeating Trump depends on us being able to unify in large numbers against this rising tide of hatred.
And to do that we need people to show up!
If we want to be the voice of inclusion in this election, we have to live it.
In an era where we are challenged to come together to address collective and global crises (Coronavirus and climate change, for example), we are so distracted by our worst impulses and fears that we likewise succumb to our lowest selves. We classify our opponents and critics as “haters” or the “enemy”. We paint them with a wide brush and feed them hatred hyperbole for breakfast. And we feel satisfied like we’ve done the world, and our candidate a favor because we put the other guy’s supporters in their place.
“Guess what? That wasn’t your job, jackass,” says the universe.
We were supposed to bring people to the Bernie/Biden/Warren/Bloomberg party, not set them on fire because they didn’t show up to ours right away. We were supposed to persuade people to join our cause, not push them further away when they voiced concerns. We were supposed to sow seeds of growth for our vision of the party, not destroy everyone else’s.
We are far too quick to inflict emotional pain, and far too slow to listen and keep our mouths and keyboards shut. I have been dismayed at how easily we resort to belittling, mocking and bullying behavior. We push the boundaries of dignity and make veiled threats and jump to slurred half-cocked conclusions. But more than anything, we are damaging our own credibility – how can we say we’re for diversity if all we’re doing it shouting down anyone who expresses a different idea or priority?
But more than anything, we are damaging our democracy.
Democracy relies in no small part on the cooperation and trust of others. In a functioning republic, the representative democracy that we have, we elect people to faithfully represent our interests and work together toward the good of the nation. In my experience, trust and cooperation are necessary components for success. And because there will always be more than one way to solve a problem, more than one opinion about what to do, and more than a few feathers that are ruffled no matter which decision is made, we have to have something to anchor us in our collective purpose. Thus, we recognize and accept that to resolve conflicts and failures of trust and cooperation inherent in bringing disparate parties together for the good of the nation, we agree to be governed by a core set of rules and values and we put our trust in that.
We have opponents, we have rivals and even sometimes a nemesis might persist, but we are not enemies. We all are governed by the same rules, participate in the same systems, but have differences in how we experience those, augmented by the very authentic differences that make us so damn shiny – our identities, our communities, our lived experiences, faith, values and so much more. We each have a reason to shine and our political success should not depend on suppressing that authenticity but harmonizing it. That’s sort of the beauty of being a nation based on the core freedoms we’ve identified – we have such an array of experience, backgrounds, and insights that we have all the tools we need to succeed. Together.
Except we don’t want to be together. Because, as we all learned in school, group projects are hard. We get frustrated when we’re not heard. We hate when people don’t pull their weight. Our ego gets bruised when the group decides on something different. We have such poor conflict management skills as a society, that we would rather seal ourselves away in our echo chambers that we wouldn’t recognize a good idea unless and until it pierces that sacred space. We burrow ourselves in our false sense of righteousness and punish anyone who tries to share their insights. And so we shame, we belittle, we mock, we antagonize, we point fingers and call names.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t call out racism and sexism when we see it or that we shouldn’t correct ableism or transphobia when it shows up. We absolutely should call that out. Generational patterns of unhealed trauma and systemic violence has heaped a ton of unbearable shame onto communities that are righteously and gloriously fighting back. But that well of strength and energy are not self-replenishing. And sometimes, we need to tap into the talents of others who can either help us build a bridge or enforce our boundaries. We are not in this alone, which is sort of the beauty of it all Others feel the same, but have different talents, different stressors, different tolerance levels. Not everything needs our control or input.
Right now, our passion for our causes and candidates has caused us to take a weed whacker to the whole garden, cutting down all the new growth and ideas that we were cultivating. And with the amount of invincible ignorance we encounter, sometimes it feels like we’re playing a neverending game of whack-a-troll. We are only human – it is okay to step back, put the spade and shovel down and let nature take its course.
We can plant the seeds, nurture the message, leaving some room for the light to get in, pulling out the weeds of shame and fake news when they threaten the growth of a better world.
You can’t fight darkness with darkness. Limiting access to only those who have the perfect point of view, the right ideas, and the right opinions only serve to further exploit and marginalize others. By limiting the voices at the table, forcing them into lockstep with us, we are in danger of becoming the very opposite of what we say we’re here to do. We blur facts and with opinions, problems with solutions, feeling with reason until there’s so much dissonance that people start dropping out.
This is literally the opposite of what we want.
If we want to win, people have got to feel welcomed enough to show up & grow.
If we want to win, people have to feel valued enough to show up & grow.
If we want to win, people have to feel safe enough to show up & grow.
Shame threatens to remove some of our most vulnerable, valuable and marginalized voices from the conversation, thus removing our greatest chance of a solution. So if we are serious about winning, serious about repairing our nation and our earth we have to be in this together. We cannot afford for anyone to be left behind.
“I just want to go home”
The phrase was on constant repeat in my head in moments of desperation and self-defeat. Starting in my teens, I’d have this phrase pulse like a chant in my brain. A motto for when I was ready to give up all hope, all fight, all resolve. Sometimes I wanted to give up on school, Chicago, Denver, parenting, homeownership, polyamory, romance, the stresses of my first job out of law school, the bar exam. It was the easiest thing to cling to in those searing stressful moments – the thought of home. Especially when I was far from Colorado. When times got tough the most comforting thought in the world was to crawl up in my bed on the giant house near the Fountain River and withdraw from the harshness of the world.
[CW: mentions of suicide, PTSD, sexual assault, trauma but also resilience, healing, faith and sex]
The past five years have been professionally prosperous for me. I have gone from owning my own mediation business to providing direct service to people experiencing homelessness, culminating in a senior management position at a major nonprofit organization. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had. I am so very blessed.
But despite this extraordinary level of success in the past five years I have been increasingly unhappy. The chanting in my head didn’t go away with success, it only got more persistent. The stress breaking me down so it was constant drumming in the back of my mind, the first thing I’d hear in the morning and the last I’d hear at night.
It isn’t easy for me to admit that, especially here. More than anything I want my life to stand for something meaningful, powerful and inspirational – and deep in my heart I really, truly don’t hate my life. But the stresses, the accumulated traumas, the internalized doubt and toxic messaging of my internal world were constantly crashing into each other. I had never been great at prioritizing self-care, so when I was met with crushing amounts of vicarious trauma, fear and insecurity over the past few years, I spiraled even further into self-hatred, infecting my job, my family and my soul with a loathing I didn’t even know was a part of me.
I left my job at the end of October and left the organization last week. And what I’ve learned since then will help me survive the rest of this life.
I’ve been open in the past with the ways I’ve struggled with things like imposter syndrome and people-pleasing. When you’ve had such significant challenges with deservingness, that sort of meteoric rise can produce more anxiety and pressure than it alleviates. Until I found myself deserving of that kind of rise, it was never going to feel right.
I had too much that was working against me. The accumulation of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue made my soul ache for daily relief that never came. I was new to supervision and my lawyer’s brain was constantly overthinking everything I said and did. I had trouble with processing financial statements quickly enough to give my people answers about expenditures. (Nevermind that I was now using terms like “expenditures” and “write-ups” far more frequently than my little social-justice, romantic heart ever imagined). I wasn’t taking care of myself either – getting an average of 4 hours of sleep a night, working an average of 65 hours a week, eating only one meal by the end of the day. I was dehydrated, chronically cranky and progressively unwell.
And so, over the past five years, instead of my brain chanting “I just want to go home”, it began to shift to “I hate my life”. A phrase that rang relentlessly in my head, even with the smallest of mistakes. When my nerves really were at their breaking point, the chant would spill out of my mouth bursting unwelcome into the rest of the world. My employees have heard it, my kids, my supervisors, my husbands. And when I was alone, I would find myself screaming it out loud. Impulsive and destructive. Multiple times an hour, multiple times a day. After a time it was barely controllable and barely contained.
It became so destructive that I was actively contemplating suicide, for the fifth time in my life. July, August and September were a white-knuckle ride. Each day presented new challenges that I was increasingly losing the ability to address or control. These challenges weren’t just about work – they included retriggering events and encounters, strong shifts in my family including sick parents and grandparents and the normal Trump-associated threats to the world. The hits just kept coming and I felt I was letting everyone down no matter how I responded.
And while I won’t go into detail about the reasons or rationale, what is important is that I reached out to the people best situated to offer meaningful help, without imposed expectations or unsolicited advice. I called on my team, both mortal and ethereal, to assist me through this storm. I have worked too hard, overcome too much, and had too much ahead of me to go down without a fight.
And that voice urging me to fight was my Pueblo voice: The Priestess of Pride City.
Go Big Blue
There is something distinctive about being from Pueblo. We are home to more Congressional Medal of Honor winners than anywhere else in the US. Formerly part of Mexico, we’ve celebrated Cinco de Mayo with our sister city, Puebla, the site of that historic victory. We host the Colorado State Fair and welcome all of Colorado’s makers, farmers, ranchers, and revelers culminating with the crowning a Fiesta Day queen. We have the longest running high school football rivalry west of the Mississippi (Videos: Bell Game 2019 – Bell Rings Blue ). And recently, our Governor has stood up with pride to defend the honor of our mirasol green chiles, defining the taste of Pueblo.Read the rest of this entry
Since I now have some time on my hands, I’ve been going through all my various writing projects. Shortly after my son was born, 16 years ago, I started an online blog at LiveJournal. As I’m evaluating all of my current projects, I’m starting to look at some of my past ones. I think to get past the cringe factor, I need to spend a little bit of time with my past self so my future self has a better idea of where she’s headed.
I only intend to share the more relevant tidbits, the ones that have insight or perspective that is worth sharing. So, consider this a Rewind back to a more innocent time, a younger me, hopefully with some new insight and wisdom.
January 11, 2004
So, this year I am in the process of completing my master’s degree in public policy. As one of the requirements, I am taking a class that teaches us how to discern the bullshit from the real good policy information. While I believe this class should be absolutely essential to anyone who wishes to engage in public policy, it is interesting how many students in the class couldn’t be less interested.
Most of the students in the class need to wake up and inform themselves. Many of them have lived out their public lives under the impression that their view of the world is the right one–the only valid viewpoint. Most of them have entered public policy with the intention of conforming the world to their version of reality, not adapting the world to match the lived reality of others.
Most of them lack vision of any depth and even worse many of them will one day wield power and will become the rule-makers. They will have ignorance in their arsenals and hatred at their sides. So how can a class teach them to become enlightened individuals? Most of them reject the very notion of reason and instead cling to some far off belief system that has no basis in fact. Most of them live in this second level of reality which is only one step above pure ignorance. They can rattle off statistics to bolster their cause, but they have yet to answer whether it is a cause worth fighting for. We’ll see what this quarter brings.
Which brings me to another question–if someday I am to become a policymaker and shaker, how should I incorporate my knowledge and love of counter-culture in my policy considerations?
Where I am 15 years later
It’s jarring to think of where we are now. Where we are with “fake news” and climate change. Where are with what counts as leadership and what counts as outrage. Too many of us have been trying to make the world conform to our personal point of view, instead of taking the opportunity to see how the world is (or isn’t) working for others. Seeing what makes them successful, what stands in their way.
I have always felt out of place in the world. I don’t see things the way that others do, nor am I eager to learn how things have always been done. When I see the world not working for people of color, for survivors of trauma, for members of the LGBTQ+ community, for immigrants and educators, for public servants and nonproits…I feel justified in my resistence to conformity. When I see people bend public policy to suit their will, instead of creating it to be responsive to the needs of the people served, then I know it’s just an exercise of ego.
But ego is killing us right now. Our pursuit of the temporary glories of soundbites and ,ikes carry far greater consequences than we allow ourselves to imagine. We focus so much on the micro that we’re never questioning the macro. What is worth our time and attention, our collective consequence and action?
This post hit me in the gut right when I was at my lowest, mired in Imposter Syndrome and knee-deep in panic. This was a small light that emerged in the darkness, illuminating one of the deepest, hardest truths of my life.
Sacrifice as proof of worth?
I am not as familiar with the Giving Tree – I managed to encounter Shel Silverstein, without much time spent on this book. However, this criticism of this story rang a clear, resonant note of truth within. Sacrifice of talents…using them to meet the needs of others is a major reason for my anxiety and internalized pain.
This why I have a complicated relationship with the Catholicism of my youth. I still believe in the divine – I don’t call it god or any specific name, but I feel connected to something bigger than myself, far more infinite and loving than anyone can imagine. I’ve felt this presence since I was a kid, a guiding presence that was on my side, lovingly cheering me on even in my mistakes.
But Catholicism invaded at a very young age with messages telling me to fear God. The introduction of shame was packaged with meaning and redemption. The judgment meant I was answerable for every small transgression – such as merely thinking about sex. Any violation had to be confessed and absolved in order to still qualify for heaven someday. Humility or humiliation?
That isn’t to say that I didn’t genuinely love some aspects of Catholicism. I am drawn to a sense of ritual to anchor my spirituality. The Mass exemplifies the elegance in which all the senses keep your body present in the moment: incense, music, movement and body connection, the wine and bread, the visual presentation of the mass and its setting. There is something divine in the visceral celebration of our humanity like that.
But the spiritually connective ecstasy I experience in the rituals of faith are soured in seeing the shallowness of the people who claim community with me. The hatred they sow, the majestic righteousness they promote, the private deceitfulness they practiced were abhorrent. And because I was a “true believer” (in middle and high school), I had an obligation to be better than the average Sunday catholic.
That pressure was doubly true for a “visionary”, someone seemingly “chosen” to fulfill a mission. Someday I’ll share more about it, but at the young age of 12, I had been called to be the “hands of Mary”. My world changed. Faith was no longer an aspiration, but a leadership skill. Little old ladies asked for my blessing. Priests were at the ready to advise (I chose my confessors wisely).
My role always has been to provide healing, light and love in the world, to be the tangible and conceptual hands of the divine and loving feminine. The challenge of this role: this path would be paved with sacrifice, selflessness, imbalance and fairness, infinite patience, and the constant fear that I am not giving enough.
Someone else needed my gifts more than me.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed” . A moment in the mass that is so sincerely that I tear up anytime we get to that part (and I hate how they’ve changed it).
My parents taught me kindness and hard work, but Catholicism amplified those qualities so that anything less than perfect performance was swiftly declared a sin. A true examination of conscience reveals all the minutiae of errors in word and deed and imposed shame for the sin of having faults and bad days. Any kindness I refused my fellow human being was a black mark on my soul, a disappointment to god. Anything less than perfect patience was selfishness. Asking to be loved back or simply accepted was greedy. I was so good at turning the mirror on myself, at holding myself accountable, that I confessed the tiny little lies I tell myself to cover for my flawed self.
I was a literal expert at tearing myself down. Why pretend I am better than I really am? Why bring attention to myself by promoting my achievements? Why take the credit when others’ contributions were more significant? I viewed my pride, my selfishness and greed with such disdain. These were what was going to land me in hell, I knew it. I reasoned that if I put myself through hell now, I might not be judged as harshly later.
In high school, when I found out I was in the running for salutatorian, I deliberately blew off a couple of classes to ensure that I wouldn’t take that particular spotlight. I figured other people deserved it more and that I wasn’t harming them by taking myself out of the running. I didn’t want or need the spotlight and such attention feels inappropriately arrogant. To this day I can’t even take a compliment because fuck…how selfish would that be?
Self-Destruction isn’t Love
So…here I am at 41 years old constantly struggling with imposter syndrome, trying to lead a major arm of a local nonprofit and still trying to make a difference with the individuals I encounter. And this locus of worth, the laden expectations of the purpose I chose for myself is what is holding me back. I have so convinced myself that by possessing certain gifts and talents, that by choosing a larger purpose for my life, that I must deny any benefits that allow me to live in celebration or accomplishment.
The consequence is I have trouble believing in myself or in my own value in these roles. I chase after everyone’s goal-posts, trying to please everyone’s expectations of me at once. Constantly struggling with never feeling “good enough” or “smart enough” or “pretty enough” because I judge my best efforts as never enough – I could always do more, be more, share more. Thus, I am easily manipulated by others’ disappointment in me, including lovers, co-workers and random strangers. I succumb to the friends who say I’m not there for them enough. I break myself making it up to the partners who resent that I’ve chosen work instead of them.
I have impossible choices, all driven and decided by the lack of value I find in my own reward and happiness. I fall on my sword at every opportunity – because I should be held accountable for not being all things to all people. How fucking dare I not be infinitely grateful to serve in all the divine perfection I am allowed? How dare I not be grateful for the gifts god gave me? Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – for the greater glory of god.
The toll this has taken on my mental health cannot be understated or dismissed. “Just stop thinking like that” they tell me, as if turning off years of programming and self-flagellating reinforcement is simple because now I’m suddenly “worthy”. Nah, it doesn’t work like that.
That’s not to say I haven’t done heavy lifting on this subject, but when you’re “smart”, you are likewise talented at overthinking everything. And combined with the Catholic examination of conscience, it’s easy to feel like I’m not going to ever be good enough.
But more than anything, these noble messages that equate sacrifice with pure love during childhood imply that our gifts, our talents, or unique value aren’t our own. Our gifts are meant for the consumption of others. Our gifts are meant to be shared with humanity, even if it means we subsist on anxiety and eggshells the rest of our lives.
“You’re meant for something more” is what we tell our smart kids, our spiritual kids, our mature kids. And those kids become adults who sacrifice themselves at the altar of humanity’s betterment. We learn fast, are adaptable and aware. Our skills of observation, of reading the signs of adults around us serve as a shortcut to help us excel and thus generate more to share with humanity. The better we get, the more we have to give in return.
I am trying to find balance with this right now, which is why I had to take a sick day. But that one day of self-care cost me sleep the next night because my conscience wouldn’t allow me to let anyone down. Sacrifice myself so others aren’t ever challenged to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable.
I almost quit this time last week – for no other reason than the fact that I don’t find myself worthy of this level of responsibility. I have always felt my “accomplishments” were just a payment toward the debt that I owe to the divine for the weighty charge I have been given. I will forever be paying back a debt I never incurred. Whereas those who have taken of my time and energy will never be asked to replenish what was given. (Consider the analogous application to the environment).
I chose a life of spiritual servitude, that any other day of the week I choose gladly – but last week it just unraveled me because …I’m exhausted. Too many have asked for more when I clearly have nothing left to give. And it hurts when they fault me for not having enough for them when I don’t have enough to keep myself going. But no matter whether it’s work, friendships, family or more they don’t see or care what it is costing me.
I sincerely believe I am capable of giving my all in the name of love, but my biggest challenge is to demonstrate that love for myself, to allow myself the worth of replenishment. If I am worthy enough of scorn, I’m likewise worthy enough for their forgiveness. And with the gifts I have offered the connection will always feel incomplete until I’m willing to receive.
Each of us shares our life with someone.
In all actuality, we share our lives with many someones.
Our orbits pass through one another, sometimes crashing through the orbits of others everyday. With every action, with every word, with every choice, we send ripples of significance. We each influence someone, several someones, in our day-to-day lives and in the memories reverberating in those we may never see again. And even the most obtusely selfish among us can serve as an inspiration to someone else. One ripple sends another and another.
We are all connected. Maybe positively, maybe negatively – no matter how brief, no matter how intense, the connections we share are inescapable. What happens to one of us reverberates through the rest of us.
Even in the darkest of my depressions, it is this truth that keeps me going. This truth has been the basis of my life and my calling. It is the guidebook for my decision-making, the tome I refer to when I feel I’m off my path. I gravitate toward connectedness with others, even if it means breaking faith with what the world would have me do with its rules and expectations.
It is the universality of our connectedness that gives me hope for our future but likewise makes me fear for our present.
We live in unprecedented times. When I was 15, I cared deeply about politics, but it didn’t rule my every thought or conversation. I worried about getting my homework done, navigating increasingly more adult decisions. I didn’t have to worry about my life or the lives of those around me. We didn’t know the earth was dying.
My son is now 15 with a keen mind for politics and history. He doesn’t want kids because “why bother when the earth will be uninhabitable by the time they’re 10”.
It breaks my heart that my son, my bright light of hope in this world, cannot see any hope in our future. He watched with panic and anxiety when Trump announced, foreseeing a time that brown people would be locked up. Fearing for my Mexican family, that election was so difficult to endure for us both. It became real to us – we were being collectively targeted and threatened.
Combined with the regularity of lock-outs, the proliferation of cyber bullying and the rapidly empty responses to climate change, he has nothing left to believe in. He watched his country, the adults and parents who should be watching out for his generation, elect the most unsophisticatedly inhumane of any candidate possible to usher his generation into adulthood. Environmental protections are dismantled, a sledgehammer has been taken to a woman’s right to choose, and racism, sexism and discrimination is sanctioned and protected.
We have a generation of children who have been force fed a steady diet of fear and impulsive intolerance. Even for the kids not directly in harm’s way today, the multitude of dangers they have to navigate put my youthful grievances into clearer perspective. The trauma, the low, constant hum of human suffering accumulated slowly over time.
Who would they be if we hadn’t done this to them?
We all belong to each other.
This isn’t about my kid vs your kid. This isn’t about comparing our suffering. It’s about recognizing that we share the burden of carrying that experience with and for each other. Without your experience, how can I possibly ever understand mine? We serve as mirrors for each other, reflecting both the pain and the resilience, the fear and the healing. By sharing those experiences, we give context to someone else’s.
People often tell me that I share too much online. And I do. I know better than most the consequences of sharing so much. But I also know that dee in my soul, I share my ideas and experiences so that others might find something that resonates with them. If my story can help even one other person, then I experience a transformative effect for the pain I’ve lived through. I reclaim more of who I really am and I experience a greater freedom in living my most authentic life.
So many of us have been through some horrible things, things that we’re only now starting to find a voice for. Many of us are grappling with the outcomes and consequences of shame, guilt or trauma. That realization has a ripple effect around us, even momentarily altering how we see ourselves and the world around us. And if, in this moment we can collectively mourn for the people we never became, if we can reconcile the betrayal we feel, we might recognize that we have more in common than we think.
In these moments of crisis, in these days of uncertainty, we have a choice whether to silo ourselves away in a tower of enforced misery, or whether we might deserve the strength of sincere companionship. We have a choice to model for our over stressed and over burdened children how to handle emotions like fear or distrust, how to maintain resolve when it looks like all is lost. We can show them leadership. We can show them another way.
Connecting with one another, making ourselves vulnerable to share in the burdens, collaborating on solutions together may be the only way we can ensure that our children will survive their futures.
We all belong to each other.
We all want to be loved, to be found worthy of our intended’s affection, to be worthy of our parents’ pride, to be deserving of close friendships and to bask in the joy of romantic passion. Only by realizing and engaging with that connection will we be able to create a world of abundance, security and peace for us all.
I have been suffering from an overabundance of topics to discuss and not enough time to do it in. But I keep seeing articles and advice that address the idea of “safeguarding a relationship” by offering advice that dehumanizes our partnerships, prop up oppressive systems and essentially keep us stuck in the default mode of maximum effort for minimal fulfillment.
The inspiration for this piece was the gut reaction I had to this post:8 Rules Guaranteed to Prevent Infidelity To be clear, this advice doesn’t just appear on Christian Right pages but is found anywhere that people are fed on a diet of fear and suspicion, righteousness and possession. The jealousy, the resentment and the potential pain of an intimate partner cheating on us are well known to all of us, including those of us non-monogamous folk. However, seeking to control, to safeguard, to protect against any potential, possible, imaginary threat no matter how minor or insincere, is just another way of avoiding responsibility for creating trust, sharing honestly and openly with your partner and honoring boundaries and consent.
Healthy relationships are founded on a basis of equality
Oppressive beliefs are not a good basis for healthy intimacy
I believe that no matter how someone identifies or what they believe, that there are some basic relationship best practices that can be found when we start from a place of equality. The problem is and always will be that these best practices require us to engage with the best in ourselves, not always easy when lustful impulsiveness or rigid social conditioning urge us to do otherwise. Good relationships require thoughtful personal reflection, sincere vulnerability, and cooperative resilience toward a shared vision of the value of each person in that relationship.
When we fail to manifest these qualities in relationships, we invite our partnerships to be judged on default values. Threats are more likely to occur when your relationship is in default mode. Since needs and beliefs were never discussed, shared or revealed, what motivation does someone have to invest in the other person if all they’re getting is a pre-constructed ideal not built for them? Likewise, controlling your partner’s every communication and action to “safeguard” the relationship is the bigger threat to the relationship, a tactic that is easy to adapt into coercive control.
A healthy relationship understands that there is a balance between real life and the safety of the relationship. But treating your relationship like it’s a precious and fragile egg becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – eventually, it will break, no matter how careful you are. Because guess what? People aren’t things meant to be locked up and protected; people need the freedom to grow, learn and develop. Successful intimate partnerships recognize that each person is whole and valuable just as they are. The future is a cooperative scheme toward shared success and fulfillment.
Shame, judgment, and fear are toxic to growth and fulfillment. This includes the institutionalized shame of misogyny, the presumption that every woman is a temptress or that no man can control himself. Advice that relies on preserving rather than dismantling oppressive structures is suspect. The status quo only “worked” because people were forced to accept it, or suffer extraordinary consequences by the courts (by limiting the allowable circumstances for divorce), through family structure (by disowning kids who come out as queer) and public policy (limiting the rights of wives, daughters, mothers and sisters so they are dependent on men for basic survival – this was central to Jane Austen’s work)
For a while I’ve been tagging things with #RelationshipReboot because so much of the advice we’ve been given, not just by the Christian Right, but by magazines, talk shows, movies & books, has been built upon a framework of possession, of a right to “what’s mine” and protecting my right to “my man”. I just don’t believe that. I have never operated very well in a framework of ownership over others. What right do I have to dictate to my loved ones how they should live their lives? It’s not to say I haven’t been that self-righteous little princess before in my teens, but I outgrew it once I realized how amazing and precious the individual human experience is. Each person has a right to their own autonomy and consequences, their own choices and successes. I learned to listen and honor my partners by making affirmative agreements that speak to the commitment we each have to support the best in each other.
So, this will be a long post because I want to take some time to reframe these examples of toxic advice. I want to reframe the issue, reboot the core ideas at play and spin alternative advice that recognizes and honors consent and human dignity. To pull the shame and suspicion from the values and goals at play and find a better way to cope. Simple, affirmative commitments that we can make to be better at our relationship agreements.
Default Toxic Advice #1
Column Advice #1: I never meet alone with a woman other than my wife.
Column Advice # 5. I give “side hugs.”
Column Advice #6. I don’t engage in ongoing dialogues with women on social media
If someone cannot control themselves in having a conversation with a member of their preferred gender, no matter whether it’s in person, online or otherwise, that should be deeply concerning. Period. Maintaining personal and professional boundaries is a cornerstone of building trust, an essential component of a healthy relationship, no matter the context. If there is a heightened danger that someone cannot maintain or honor reasonable boundaries, there’s a bigger problem at play here.
Part of the problem with these suggestions is the presumption that all human contact with a member of the preferred sex is always sexualized. Handshakes aren’t any more or less sexual than a hug is – I’ve had men give lingering handshakes, holding both of my hands in theirs as they stroked my fingers or palm in a way suggesting way more than a simple hello. A hug can comfort someone in emotional distress and is a signal of friendship. Touch is a basic human need. These rules declare that the only person allowed to provide touch is the spouse, a pretty heavy job for one person alone, particularly if they are stunted in any way in how to express love and compassion through touch. It sexualizes a basic human need making it inaccessible anywhere else, and shameful to want to share with anyone else.
Much of this specific advice is rooted in the appearance of impropriety rather than the actual engagement of it. If a spouse is so suspicious of a professional lunch or a personal coffee, the marriage is already in trouble. There is nothing to safeguard because basic trust hasn’t even been established or was broken by past infidelities. Lunching alone with a member of the preferred gender isn’t the issue – trust and integrity are. There has either been a breach of trust or a failure to provide it in the first place. If fear of what others might think comes into play, perhaps there is already a reputation for not adhering to commitments that would cause others to jump to that conclusion.
At best this advice is performative, not reparative.
Relationship Reboot Practice 1:
I maintain and respect appropriate boundaries with others
Relationships are built on trust. There is no better way to create trust than to:
- Recognize that we each have a right to set boundaries for ourselves;
- Demonstrate through actions and words that you not only recognize but will work to honor yours and others’ boundaries;
- Be accountable for the commitments we make to others.
One of the things I’ve loved about my relationship with Warrior is that I know that when he hangs out with others, even if there’s an attraction that he’ll maintain his boundaries and our agreements. Likewise, when he was a practicing therapist he and I both know that there are distinct mechanisms, consequences, and laws in place that protect both him and his clients from inappropriate behavior.
Likewise, even though I stay friends with a lot of my exes, my partners know that I have my own personal code about how I’ll choose to engage that person in the future. Meeting with a married man is no more or less dangerous for me than meeting with a single one. Having coffee with a potential business partner isn’t more or less dangerous to my relationship than going out to drinks with my law school classmates. By maintaining good boundaries around my various interactions, staying consistent with what my partners can expect from me, I’m able to maintain the trust they’ve placed in me as well as signal to others what our interactions should consist of.
Finally, every day affords us an opportunity to model good consent practices. We have the right to refuse a hug. It’s okay to say “I’m not a hugger” and move on. It’s okay to refuse to go to coffee with a fan if they make you uncomfortable. We all have the right to both say and hear the word “No” without any further explanation. By honoring the boundaries of others, and ourselves, we create space for others to feel safe, to be more authentic and less suspicious of their trust in us.
Toxic Relationship Advice #2:
Column Advice #2. My wife gets copied on all of my text messages.
Column Advice #3. I share ALL my passwords.
This advice not only violates some pretty serious personal and professional boundaries, but this advice could also violate some pretty serious legal boundaries if taken too far. It violates the consent of everyone involved – the person on the other end of that text pouring their heart out about their father’s cancer diagnosis, the employer who has liability for HIPAA, the client who uses text to confirm their appointments. The potential for exploitation, abuse, fraud and identity theft with this advice is very serious and should be avoided at all costs.
What is really at issue is here is transparency, an accountability measure for trust. I think in our hearts, we all want to be honest and transparent, but little white lies can stack up over time and make truly innocent situations, such as calls with the neighbor about her father’s cancer diagnosis, seem suspicious. And as tempting as it is to give your partner 100% access to everything in your life to prove your devotion, this is dangerous for two reasons:
- No one else consented to your partner having THEIR information
- There is significant potential for legal liability or at least illegal shenanigans to take place as a result of this
It will backfire because transparency and honesty have to exist together. Requiring a partner to give passwords doesn’t guarantee that they haven’t built yet another profile under a different name. Nor does giving full access guarantee that something won’t be taken out of context. This strategy will backfire in a big, spectacular way.
Relationship Reboot Practice #2:
My priority is to keep my partner relatably informed of the important people, events, and situations in my life.
Why do I say “relatably” informed? Because this is about giving your partner the level of transparency and honesty that you need from them. If you want to know if your partner is viewing porn, it’s important then to share information about your own porn habits. If you want to know who from work is “just a friend” then you model this by providing them with the same information. And all of this can be done without invading someone else’s privacy or violating professional confidentiality policies.
I would much rather have my partner tell me, “Our neighbor, Sonia, is having a hard time, her father was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’m lending her support over text after losing my own father to cancer a few years ago” rather than invading Sonia’s privacy with an unprecedented level of access to Sonia’s words and feelings.
And if you cannot believe your spouse when they tell you “oh it’s just a friend”, the more worthy investigation isn’t into their personal texts and messages but into an examination of why you cannot trust them. Is it something they’ve done or something that has gone unhealed in yourself? Either way, full access to passwords won’t give you what you’re looking for – just more fuel to the panic you already started with.
Toxic Relationship Advice #3:Stay away from any material that has any hint of sexual content so as to not be tempted to view anyone else as sexually desirable than the person you are permanently partnered with.
Column Advice #4. I don’t watch porn or sexually-explicit content.
His next line is “porn is an act of mental infidelity” and he goes on to spout the normal, tired and debunked statistics on porn and porn addiction. These beliefs are rooted in some very flawed misunderstandings and misdirections about sex, attraction, and masturbation. These beliefs are built upon a premise that sexual desire for anything or anyone other than who you’ve chosen as a lifetime partner is shameful and weak, rather than normal and expected. And the judgments that are delivered because of these beliefs manifest in harmful ways that can damage rather than enhance a person’s ability to sexually bond with another. It incentivizes secrecy.
Yes, there are some whose porn viewership has reached a level of damaging, addictive behavior, where say, they are viewing it at work or instead of going to work. Again, it comes back to really recognizing and understanding boundaries. But if that’s the case, the compulsive pattern is the bigger issue, not the porn itself.
Relationship Reboot Practice #3:
I am comfortable sharing my intimate experiences, sexual fantasies, sexual values and feelings with my partner.
Instead of cutting it out entirely, use this opportunity to further the intimacy and trust to discuss sex, including porn habits and expectations with your spouse/significant other. Understand what are your own values around this, and be honest with yourself and your partner. Make choices together about works for you both. I know plenty of monogamous relationships that successfully integrate porn viewing into their sexual lives and have no infidelity concerns. Likewise, if your relationship cannot survive an honest conversation about sex, avoiding it will only make the issue grow more unsustainable. Discussing fantasies, experiences, values, wishes, disappointments go a long way toward eliminating the influence of shame in your relationship, making it more authentic, full and healthy.
Our happiest relationships should allow us room to grow, to be authentic, to be recognized and heard. Healthy relationships are robust, resilient, restorative, repairable, and redeeming. If it cannot withstand the storms of say, having lunch with a female work colleague, is it really worth saving? If a small whiff of attraction can dismantle your relationship so easily, will building additional walls really be worth the time either of you will invest in building new buttresses and moats?
At some point, if you’re constantly playing defense and cannot seem to let go of the rules, the suspicions, the fears, the jealousy, you have to look at what it is you’re really protecting here and ask “Is it really worth it?”
I keep a document on my computer called “scraps”. It’s the little phrases or bits of paragraph that I pull out of whatever I’m writing for this blog or the other writing projects I have going. When I write, I always take one pass to just get all the words on the page. One, big exhale of thought. No matter how circular, intricate or even scattered those thoughts are, I write down literally everything I can, feelings and all. I store so many ideas in my head, recognize so many connections between other concepts and themes that I can only make sense of It all by manifesting it in words – spoken or written.
I have always preferred writing to speaking, precisely because I can edit. Maybe it’s the perfectionism driven by my old Catholicism, or maybe it’s because I have more at stake with my writing if I publish it online, but one post could take me months to write and edit. I’m always paring down, not just because of word count (screw you, internet, I’ll write a 1200 word blog post if I wanna!), but for clarity, saliency, and simple relevance. As I pull out phrases that sound really awesome, bullet points that aren’t as relevant, paragraphs and links that will become the basis of their own posts, I can’t allow myself to let go of the idea, so I copy and paste into my “Scraps” document for safekeeping. This gives me the emotional freedom to edit without feeling like I’m losing an important thread of myself.
No edit button for real life
However, I can’t edit myself in real life or in real time. I can talk. Fuck, I can talk a lot. But most of what I’m doing is verbal processing of all the many connections I find between ideas, observations, and knowledge that are separated and disjointed. As I apply words to thoughts, it all starts to make sense to me. I start seeing the patterns, identifying areas of opportunity, understanding what actions I should take.
And in my most glorious moments, this is my realm, my territory, my kingdom: The intimately meandering conversations that all seem to circle around a profound point or theme, where topics range from science and pop culture to spirituality and personal trauma. Only by connecting and sharing with others with a genuine exchange of perspectives and experiences can I ever truly make sense of my own experience. I’m at my best when the conversation is organic, intimate, private.
My biggest stresses come from the inability to edit myself when I’m in a more formal, public and scrutinized environment. I am very purposeful with my words and I want the correct meaning to be conveyed at all times. When someone is hurt or offended or confused by what I say, it’s important to me to take responsibility for that, to learn from that experience, to do better the next time. But with that responsibility comes an inescapable compulsion to heavily edit myself before I say anything ever again.
I don’t want to ruin someone’s life because I was wrong about something I said
I’ve been public speaking since I was in 4th grade. That year I went to Space Camp and was asked to present to all the classes at my school about my experience. Eventually, I was also invited to speak at other schools as well. As time went on, as I participated in other experiences, I got very used to getting up in front of a crowd, rattling off something from the top of my head and delivering a succinct and precise message quite successfully.
It was one thing when I was a precocious teenager with ambition and spunk. It’s quite another when I’m an adult professional speaking with authority or as a subject matter expert. That shift, somewhere between college and law school, I started second-guessing myself. Maybe it was my first contracts class where the professor made an example out of the fact I hadn’t done the reading (my schedule changed that morning, jackass). Maybe it was the fact that most of my law professors agreed that I’d make a terrible litigator. I was too transparent in cross-examination to make a good lawyer. It definitely was influenced by the judge who dressed me down in front of the whole court for a typo back when I was a student attorney.
Once I graduated and progressed in my profession, I felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I had “authority” now, people would take what I said and might make life-altering decisions from the words I uttered. I don’t want to be wrong. I don’t want someone’s life to be ruined because of the advice that I gave. So paranoid am I am about it, that after every speech, presentation or class, I have a panic attack – not before a speech, but after. That’s the point where I’m wishing I had the ability to edit myself, to re-answer that one question, to double check that statistic, to not sound so full of myself. My anxiety spirals me into a place of such distorted fear and dread, that I need to remove myself from the event for at least 15-30 minutes to restore some equilibrium.
Control helped me survive; letting go helps me heal
Editing gives me a sense of control. Control over how others perceive me, control over how the how much information I share. Control over my environment and experience. Control is safe. Control is how I’ve been able to survive. When I’m able to write, I can pour my heart out, edit and present the small gem I carved out of the raw, self-indulgent mess.
But healing isn’t complete unless we can let go of the things that no longer serve us. An authentic life isn’t about controlling how others view you – not self-editing or hiding one’s intentions or persona forever. It is about trusting that you’re enough, that you can handle whatever happens, that you trust enough in the universe to support your attempts at authenticity.
At some point in our journey we have to step into the light and be seen for who we really are. Stripped away of the artifice and masks of constructed stories, letting go of the clutter of thoughts we have about what others want of us and decide for ourselves that it is simply enough for us to exist as ourselves in our present reality. Healing is letting go.
And as such, nothing from this post ended up in the scraps document. Because it is enough to just show up authentically as myself, without hidden agendas or constructed personas. I deserve to fully show up in the world as the raw, unedited me.