Today’s hashtag is #NeverForget – tributes to 9/11 flood our feeds. So many Americans have shared what they were doing that day, what their reactions were, how it affected them, how it affected the world around them.
All I can remember is the shock. Pure, unfiltered shock.
My mom was in town to help me choose my wedding dress for my May 2002 wedding. I was babysitting my step-son-to-be (he’s now 23 as much my son as anyone could be!). My husband-to-be was driving back from Utah with his family after attending his grandfather’s funeral, a Pearl Harbor vet. I had just started my first class in my master’s program for public policy. I was excited, full of promise and happily planning out my new life.
The husband-to-be called me from the road early that morning waking me up. “Turn on the TV,” he said, “a plane has hit the World Trade Center.” The words didn’t make sense until I reached for the remote and saw the enormity of what he was trying to tell me.
I screamed to get my mom’s attention, my kid still asleep in his room. She turned on the TV in the living room and gasped. We just couldn’t comprehend what we were seeing. And then, right then the 2nd plane hit. The shock, the magnitude of what we just witnessed was too much to describe. Hearing about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania only added to the confusion and dismay.
I personally didn’t know anyone who died that day, but I know two people that fate chose to save that day. My cousin, who is like a brother to me, worked in that building (and fortunately was at the coast celebrating his son’s 1st birthday). My mother-in-law was supposed to have been there that weekend but she was called out to Utah with the family instead.
And then the waves of grief finally started after I saw people throwing themselves from the building, escaping the fatal onslaught of fire, smoke, and falling debris, my heart broke with a permanence I still can’t fully describe. Empathy for the loneliness and desperation fueled by primal fear and a haunting inevitability. Witnessing someone’s last moments like that over and over – too many to count – so many I will never know the names of. When the kid asked why they were jumping, the tears couldn’t stop. I stood in the shower for 30 minutes just crying, letting the sound of the shower drown out my wailing sobs.
We kept the dress appointment that day because as mom said, we needed something to look forward to in the midst of sorrow. Trying on wedding dresses that day, knowing I made the right choice for the modest wedding of my dreams sounds like the most selfish, self-absorbed thing to do. But it was the only thing that could replenish the outpouring of empathy that was drowning my spirit.
Little did I realize that as an American, my heart would continue to break over and over again in the years since.
9/11 exposed some of America’s deepest vulnerabilities
As Americans, we felt vulnerable, exposed, and indeed, traumatized. We went through a collective mourning period – classes were suspended, we were allowed to be human beings with feelings, at least for a little bit. There was a precious moment of recognition in one another’s eyes about the unspoken horrors we had just witnessed. At the gas station, at the grocery store. For a few days we honored that flicker of recognition in one another.
But our consciousness can only handle so much darkness and trauma before it starts seeping deeper into our system, a quiet code of disquietude flipping switches on a dime, sometimes to protect us, sometimes to manipulate us. It happens in our everyday lives all the time. We swallow the words of the bully until they’re embedded in our system, stopping us from speaking our truth, maneuvering levers to spoil our successes long after the bully is gone. Victimization giving rise of paranoia, distrust, and a new system of “normal”. Our deep underbelly, both in corporate America and in our mundane, empty lives was disrupted by the coordinated and deliberate hatred of others.
It wasn’t long before things started shifting, before we started looking at one another with suspicion. Many were manipulated by lies about weapons of mass destruction. How many of our soldiers carry trauma from this fabricated war? But our vengeance must be served, is the programming we’ve been taught.
The pre-existing rift between left and right began to grow both between and within parties. We saw a growing rise of hate crimes and targeted discrimination against those of Muslim faith and Middle Eastern descent. We allowed compromises to both civil liberties and human dignity in the name of national security. Terrorism added a new violent layer of fatalistic aplomb to our public discourse.
And it has been growing exponentially ever since. We have been fed a steady diet of gradually paranoid narratives, the inspiration porn of populist one-upmanship, tolerance for the most extreme interpretations of the truth. Constantly exposed to provocative images of fear, nefarious gaslighting narratives we soaked up the stories that personalities that justified the weaponized surety of our own private victimizations.
9/11 felt personal
9/11 felt more personal than many things we’ve gone through as a nation. Yes, the rest of the world witnessed it, but we were the victim of a crime so heinous in reality and symbolic in identity that I think we are still uncovering layers of it. Unlike a natural disaster, we were targeted, we were unexpectedly knocked in the gut, costing thousands of innocent lives. Not on the battlefield. We were ambushed at work, on a commute. A normal ordinary day of no true significance other than the date these men collaborated to choose. This wasn’t a distant declaration on foreign soil, this was here, this now, this was personal.
We grew to see shadows in every corner of someone else’s life but failed to expose our own to the light of day. We resisted looking at the ways in which we center ourselves on narratives of pain and struggle but fail to empathize with the pain and struggle of others. We both want our pain recognized and we want it protected. We want someone to witness it, but to do so would be to expose it to the light of our own attention, exposing the uncomfortable depths to which it has embedded itself into our daily world.
The memory of that exposure of our vulnerable underbelly still hurts after all this time in some big and small ways. And in so many ways as a nation, we are still guarding this wound, lashing out at anything, anyone that might threaten us again. We want assurances of our safety and have been willing to even sacrifice one another to have it.
No matter how much we might have progressed and emotionally healed since then, there is a festering wound at the core of our political and cultural life. We all have expressed a deep distrust in the collective will of our nation to move forward together, hypervigilant ideological stubborn wars waged against one another with alarmingly high consequences. Each side battling for control over unwieldy systems that are crumbling under the weight of inequality, failing to deliver on the promises of this nation, the chosen promise on the declaration of inalienable rights.
We think we’re playing at tug-of-war, when in fact, the rubber band holding our planet together is about to snap from the pressure of containing such fiercely repulsive polarities of our illusions of separateness. All to protect ourselves from confronting the collective compassion fatigue we have steadily been experiencing since 9/11. It’s not that we don’t care…it’s that we’ve been through so much unacknowledged, unhealed pain that our capacity to care is overwhelmed by the state of “way too much” always.
I want more than anything for us to we recognize that these vulnerabilities are easier to bear when shared and recognized in our connections with others. We don’t have to understand what someone else has gone through in order to extend empathy and understanding. Instead of adding doubt and denial, we can choose to accept and recognize a shared reality – that we have been through some shit together.
It’s critical, now, more than ever, for us to find and create places for community and connection. Not to gossip and hate on others, but to share lived realities in the comfort of those who get you. More than ever we’re invited to share our truth, to open old wounds, and heal ourselves to save the generations to come.
As we carry forth the memories of this day to the next year, may we find the strength to stand up for one another.
May our lungs be full of the breath of inspiration to speak our truth.
May our minds be clear enough to recognize the truth in one another.
May we each find a pathway to create a better reality than the polarized forces we’re sponsoring today.
May those we choose as leaders prioritize the healing recognition we need and actively choose not to add more trauma to our already overloaded lives.
The rubber band of our uneasy tolerance holding the country together will snap unless we show up with our full integrity, our full honesty, and our full humanity and demand the same from our leaders.
If we can do these things, we will have honored those who died this day, we will have recognized the pain and tears of every mother, father, husband, daughter, or best friend who lost their beautiful love that day. We will have honored the brave rescuers who saved lives and sacrificed themselves in pure selflessness and duty to humanity.
And we will have moved a step closer to bringing us into the resolute safety of truth…the foundation for rebuilding ourselves and our country.
I started law school twenty years ago this week, in the fall of 2000. During that first year, where they program you to “think like a lawyer”, I realized that the practice of law was never going to be compatible with who I am, so I chose to pursue a dual degree with a master’s in public policy.
Our very first class was on the evening of September 10, 2001. The next class, the week after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, our curriculum had changed from learning the details of social and financial norms in policy to a new focus on homeland security and domestic surveillance. The syllabus and readings were changed, guest speakers rescheduled. It was a somber awakening to a new, grim reality.
One of the most useful classes I ever had during that program was “Analytic and Critical Thinking Skills for Public Policy”. We were given a topic to research and for each resource we used to form our opinion, we had to analyze the bias that it provided and journal about how we reacted to discovering that bias. We had to walk through the steps of how we analyzed this information and why we relied on it to form our opinion. We had no choice but to brutally encounter our bias, admitting when we saw a shift in our thinking.
The point was to recognize the how and why of the information we were reading and the policy positions we were taking. I learned how to research funding sources for think tanks, patterns of bias from academic researchers, and truly had to pick apart the logical fallacies of the evidence I used to recommend certain policy positions. Nothing could be taken for granted, especially our own confirmation bias (our tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of our existing viewpoint). And while I am known for my intuitive approach, the scorching scrutiny of real life pubic policy has given me an analytical framework that I continually evaluate and improve upon.
I say this now because over the past several months I’ve seen an alarming influx of misinformation coming across my daily feed. Often it’s positioned as “truth” with wording that often aligns with “do the research” without any guidance for what that might entail or how to navigate the sources found. I often keep an open mind to new information and have a history of changing my position if I find evidence that is compelling or challenging enough. Yet, when I read these theories most of these sources just don’t pass muster for how I professionally analyze information.
Media Literacy Basics
I am grateful that a few of you have reached out to ask my opinion on some of the more concerning and mysterious theories out there. I feel flattered to be seen as the intellectual Dana Scully to your “I want to believe” Fox Mulder. And while I could sit here and tell you what I personally think about each pet theory, my goal is toshare how I do this, so we all become better at drowning out the noise and clarifying the truth.
As part of my heart-centered leadership practice, I help emerging leaders understand how to solicit and evaluate evidence to become stronger, more resilient voices for their communities. However, media literacy is one lesson I am offering free for anyone who comes by here because it’s so important now between COVID19, the election, and climate change, to recognize reliable information. It is important that we’re working from at least a similar set of facts and concepts to create a better world without further victimizing one another. This is my mission.
Perhaps it’s the influence of social media or a misunderstanding on my part, but it seems that confidence has become a frequently maligned character trait. While certain character traits are intended to be non-threatening, assertiveness, for example, a sense of confidence seems to be viewed with disdain by many. At some point, a healthy sense of confidence became synonymous with arrogance. However, I believe that hiding your gifts under a bucket because they make others uncomfortable is neither fair nor healthy. When did confidence become a bad word?
Confidence is frequently viewed as threatening and aggressive, and sometimes it can be. I think we often assume someone may use their confidence against us as if it can be weaponized. It is common to feel threatened by someone who does a given activity better than you, but this does not mean you are being targeted. I think a large number of people feel threatened by a strong sense of confidence due to their personal insecurities. They dislike in others what they feel is a deficit within themselves. Rather than saying “I wish I had that” or even better “teach me how to do that” we fall back on jealousy because we do not want to face our perceived short-comings.
Has anyone ever felt jealous of someone due to their abilities or accomplishments? All of us have at one point or another. As I became a more mature adult, however, I realized if I felt this way towards someone it was because I had a problem, not them. I came to the conclusion many years ago if I was experiencing something as toxic as jealousy it meant I was feeling insecure about me. The good news is I am the only person I have total control over, so I can address my jealousy so it no longer influences me. I do not have control over anyone else so why should I feel negatively about their abilities? That doesn’t make sense to me anymore. Have I experienced this from others? Absolutely. It usually left me scratching my head.
Confidence resulting in overbearing arrogance and bullying is not true confidence, rather it is aggression. My quick and dirty definition of aggression is getting your needs met by taking from the needs of someone else. Our culture of winners and losers created this. A key concept here is that other people do not have to lose in order for us to win.
I am not speaking about athletic contests which are deliberately set up with a winner and “not winner” due to an agreed-upon set of rules. I am speaking of day to day life where we all have to navigate a series of challenges, some expected, some not. As a coach, when I help someone with their level of confidence, I have helped them develop a life skill that can help them across all domains. I am not helping my clients with this so they can step on others. I am helping my clients so they can develop themselves and thrive.
Confidence does not have to be arrogant or self-aggrandizing. A given individual may wield it in that manner, but I do not think that is its purpose. True confidence and assertiveness should work together like a hand in a glove. It is almost as if our culture views confidence as something in short supply, often resulting in judgment and criticism, such as “who does he/she think he/she is?”, or “You must think you’re so great.” Taken to its most extreme, this may look like “nothing makes me angrier than someone who feels good about themselves.” Absurd, no? Confidence does not have to equal toxicity unless you apply it through that filter. There is nothing inherently wrong with genuinely knowing you are good at something, particularly if it is something that required time and dedication to accomplish. A famous entertainer from the 1980s once said “If you try to stick your head above the crowd, someone will throw a rock at it.” Are we so connected to our perceived limitations that self-betterment is viewed as threatening?
Many people mistakenly view confidence as something that makes them better than others. Again, this is not what confidence is about. If my sense of self is sufficient and I feel I can learn what I need to learn to be competent or even excel at a chosen task… What is wrong with that? We are attached to our insecurities to such a degree that the accomplishments of others are frequently viewed as threatening. Is success a limited commodity only a precious few can attain? Is it only available while supplies last? The implication is we must get up early, stand in line, and hope we get some before it runs out. There is not a national scarcity of confidence and there is plenty for everyone.
In the U.S. there seems to be a cultural penalty for having confidence or even a healthy self-image. We experience too many mixed messages implying we don’t quite measure up (advertising for example) but changing that so we do measure up can often come with a penalty. It’s almost like we just can’t win. What is our cultural obsession with a) not feeling good about ourselves; and b) being angry with and attacking those who do? My personal observation is social media has made this worse. It’s easier to be shitty to each other now without the consequence or pressure of face to face interactions. That is likely a topic for another time…
Confidence is inherently healthy and it promotes other healthy behaviors. Learning new tasks is a common example of this. If I can learn one thing in a given field, I can likely learn another and another until proficiency and then later excellence is achieved. Can I learn all things expertly? No, probably not. But if I can learn things I enjoy doing and get myself paid in the process, I am likely in a good place. We have this cultural fixation on the strong, independent, rugged individual who marches to the beat of their own drum. We also dismiss them and sometimes target them outright and attack them until they “arrive.” After they arrive, they are still subject to cruel scrutiny by their peers or the media. Celebrity culture, anyone? This is why the aforementioned entertainer spent so much time dodging rocks.
I think if we can adopt a supportive attitude toward each other rather than viewing the accomplishments of others as threatening, we will be more likely to view confidence-building as a natural progression rather than an attempt to unsettle the rest of the collective. If we can view this as a natural progression we all go through, helping each other excel becomes a natural part of life rather than needless animosity. Let’s be good to each other.
Ted Morris is an experienced therapist, having worked in community mental health systems, working primarily with men engaged with the criminal justice system. He recently launched Audacious Growth, a personal development coaching business specializing in working with men who wish to deprogram toxic beliefs and patterns to more fully integrate the Divine Masculine into their lives.
The last several months have been a whirlwind of activity in my world. I have transitioned from grant writer to business owner, from private visionary to public spiritualist. I didn’t set out to do this, at least not in this way. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you get that inner knowing that if you don’t say “yes!” that you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. This was the same feeling I had when Warrior and I first got together.
When Warrior and I got together in 2008, I was so overwhelmed by the New Relationship Energy (NRE) that I wanted to step back and refuse the relationship altogether. But in the early days of that romance when Warrior saw so clearly that we were supposed to be together, it was the messages of spiritual ascension, of creating a more loving and sustainable earth, that ultimately convinced me to stay. The divine messages we both received made us throw caution to the wind and hook our fates to one another. We believed so much in a shared mission of raising consciousness that we were willing to endure the ire of anyone in our way to make this vision a reality.
Our spiritual re-union was founded in joy and calm we created together in the midst of pain and trauma. When we got together it opened old wounds for each of our partners and within each other. Many tearful nights were spent agonizing over how we could be together in the midst of all this pain and finding solace in each other’s embrace. Neither of us shrank away from that pain, but neither did we shrink from each other. We found healing joy and we hoped that in celebrating this love we have created together that our partners could likewise participate in that joy eventually. We didn’t ignore the pain that we and others felt, but found a anchor in one another to endure that pain and help them with theirs.
Neither Warrior nor I let ourselves forget the suffering of others. He worked in community mental health treating convinced sex offenders and crisis counseling for 15 years. I represented some of Colorado’s most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness and living with severe disabilities. His clients had to take regular polygraphs to uncover their full sexual history and identify other victims. My clients had to live on $189/mo and navigate complex systems designed to keep them down and out. We both have trauma histories as well, so we both are very attuned to the impact of human suffering, especially when inflicted by unhealed wounds and systemic pressures of inequality. Our spiritual union works because we choose to care about a world beyond our protective bubble and use the bubble to make us stronger to help the world.
Over the past week, I’ve been working on quite a few projects that align with the work I really want to do in the world. From launching a Patreon to recording a Divine Feminine Roundtable, my heart’s calling is taking off in ways I wouldn’t have dared imagine even a year ago, much less 9 years ago when I first started this blog.
Originally, it was a way to transfer my energy away from LiveJournal, to continue writing and share with anyone who might be listening. It was a way to reclaim myself after being outed for using my voice. This journey has been long and difficult, traumatic, and even heartbreaking at times. But it has also given a safe space to stretch out my voice and connect with people in ways that I hope help them feel less alone. It’s given me an opportunity to cultivate a vision and speak deeper truths.
But it’s also noticeable that I don’t post often. Perfectionism often gets in my way, but so has this burgeoning new project of me. So, I’m making a few changes and updates that hopefully will give us additional ways to engage with one another.
Welcome Warrior (aka Ted Morris/AudaciousGrowth)
Yep, the man you’ve read about on my social media posts, my polyamorous partner of 12+ years, is now going to be adding some of his own posts to this blog. Audacious Growth aka Warrior aka Ted Morris will soon be posting his own perspective on the SharpSweetBella blog.
Ted Morris is an experienced therapist, having worked in community mental health systems, working primarily with men engaged with the criminal justice system. He recently launched Audacious Growth, a personal development coaching business specializing in working with men who wish to deprogram toxic beliefs and patterns to more fully integrate the Divine Masculine into their lives.
Here is a video of Ted in action during the June #OneHeartOneEarth summit, presenting about the Shadow Masculine
I can’t think of anyone better suited for this work than Ted. Welcome, my love!
Patreon-Only: Password Protected Posts
You may have noticed that a new category has popped up called “Members Only”. I have made the decision to put some of the more NSFW (Not Safe for Work) or more personally deep or revealing posts behind password protection.
Part of the work I’ve been doing on myself includes holding better boundaries with the outside world. This includes how often the general public gets to access, use, and judge my image and words. There are some posts that are meant for the public, that align with my calling that will always stay public, but to get access to a deeper part of me, I need a way to ensure the safety of that content by ensuring that those who use and view it are more than casually invested in this aspect of me.
The launch of my Patreon campaign seemed a good time to start this process. This level of access is $12 and available to a limited number of patrons. There are other levels of support as well that get access to monthly messages, a community Discord channel and more. All of this contributes to the overall vision I am creating for my business: Rose Connections.
When I started this blog 9 years ago I didn’t have a specific vision of what I wanted it to be. loving the grey areas, the overlapping concepts, and celebrating being present in the flow of life. But I want things to be easy to find – for you and for me. So many categories will become tags and some really big tags will become categories. Most of you won’t notice, but hopefully, if you want more info about a topic, it will become easier to find.
Rose Connections YouTube Channel
Yes, you can now listen to me in addition to reading me on our various forms of media. My new venture focuses on three main tenants I view as the building blocks for creating a better world:
#RadicalReflections These are videos that are about self-reflection, growth, authenticity in truly knowing, and owning your own story. It’s about climbing your own mountain to see the world from a new perspective. You’ll hear me refer to this as “Silver Mountains”
#RelationshipReboot These are videos that discuss how to transform our connections with others. Whether it be professionally or personally, these videos reframe all of our human relationships to be more productive, understanding, and connective. You’ll hear me refer to this as “Rose Gold Flames”
#RadiantResilience These videos focus specifically on the leadership skills and analysis required to leverage our lived experiences into meaningful social change. Embracing vulnerability and humility, recognizing the patterns that have hurt humanity, and encouraging the authenticity of others is how we can create a better world for all.
You will also find a monthly Divine Feminine – Divine Masculine exchange with Ted (posted later today). I will also be posting Trauma-Informed Social Change videos from time to time as well – just my personal commentary on policies, ideas, and trends that highlight this new project of mine.
About a month ago, I taught a group of folks about trauma-informed care. During the presentation, I talked about the impact of inter-generational trauma. Specifically, I delved into how racial inequality, food insecurity, and other systemic injustices, such as police harassment stack up to create a traumatic effect. The goal was to get the group to realize how significant the impact of systemic inequality can be on the human system.
And when I spoke those words, in the Zoom chatbox came the phrase “Post Traumatic Slave Disorder” from the only black man in the group of 22. I was floored because it was so poignant, so true, so shockingly accurate. And I was honestly unprepared to be met with such a hauntingly visceral example of one if the most obvious systemic injustices.
This provided the perfect opportunity to touch on the concept of what some schools of thought call “cultural humility”.
Cultural Competency vs. Cultural Humility
Professions that often must deal with “diverse” (read: difficult) often have to take some class, workshop or continuing education course in diversity and inclusion. For many, the result is assumed to be “Cultural Competency”, a mastery of the ins and outs of how to work with diverse populations and workforces. But what “cultural competency” truly has become, is a massive cop-out for a lack of true inter-sectional solutions and equalized outcomes.
As an employer. especially in the social justice and nonprofit sector, the number of times I’d read a cover letter or resume that listed “culturally competent” was about as common as the word “passionate”. It doesn’t really say much to me, so when I’d interview, I would toss them a question or two about “why do you think people are homeless?” and watch as their supposed competency was revealed to actually just be complacency. The judgment and derision, the inability to grasp the systemic problems that contribute to if not directly causes homelessness and poverty were appalling for folks with masters’ level degrees.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in working with vulnerable populations it is that there is no single-serving, one-size-fits-all knowledge that prepares you for the rich variance in circumstances, stories and attitudes that we will encounter. We must be open, teachable and prepared to realign even our most cherished paradigms to the lived realities of those that we serve.
Of the people I hired or had a hand in hiring, 100% of them had lived experience in the system – such as personal experience with poverty, homelessness or disability or systemic barriers caused by racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, For many, their experience included being shoveled to lower paid positions or denied meaningful opportunities for advancement. Of the folks I hired, roughly 40% were black, 45% were white and 15% were Latinx. Within those races & ethnicities, 10% were Queer or Trans (self-identified) and 10% were immigrants and 35% disclosed a disability. I found them each to be highly qualified and worth hiring.
But I’m not going to applaud myself for my hiring practices, because I also know that for all those numbers, I was not always the best boss. I am constantly working through my conflicted feelings with being Chicanx from one side of my family, but wholly white in appearance and privilege from the other side. This often blocked me from seeing how I was using that to talk over others’ experiences or centering myself in discussions of race or bias.
I was a new supervisor, a new leader who was wholly insecure about my worthiness to even be in that seat. That insecurity often played out as arrogance and erratic decision-making which made work life miserable for some of my employees. This contributed to white supremacy in ways I was not even aware of at the time. It’s easier to see now that the stress is no longer clouding my reactions, I can see even more clearly where I still have lots to improve. Devoting sincere energy to better unfuck my own paradigms, dismantling the entanglements I have with white supremacy on levels I might not have seen before is just one way I can fix the impact of my mistakes.
Cultural humility is admitting that I do not have all the answers, that I’m not “competent” and thus, I have more to learn. It is about admitting when my own stupid white-influenced entitlement and pride can get in the way of hearing and seeing someone fully for who they are, letting them have the floor to share their experience without interruption or needing to tell my story. It is about listening, integrating, and implementing that knowledge to shape an even better framework.
So, what does this have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
Where cultural competency says, “You’ve said enough for today”, cultural humility says, “Please tell me more?” One is a constraint, the other an invitation. Competency is a shield to vulnerability whereas humility is an open-hearted embrace of it. And when we are dealing with traumas as deep as racism, for example, where centuries of ancestors are calling out for help, it is a big risk for them to trust us with those soul truths. We must prove our worth for that trust by being open, vulnerable, and willing to be good stewards of that precious fragment of their soul they choose to share with us.
As discussions have accumulated and unraveled online, I see too many white friends and acquaintances declaring “I’m not racist”. Definitively. As if they earned a degree and were granted a ribbon bestowing the title of “World’s Best Ally”. They flaunt it, like it is a settled fact. Except it’s not. It’s an opinion and a woefully incomplete one at that.
They are neither teachable nor rational. Racism is bad, they are good, therefore they aren’t racist. Their lizard brain says “danger! Someone might expose the evil racist we have within and it will make me feel bad about myself”. So they threaten, they point fingers and prove in every meaningful way that being seen as “not racist” means a hell of a lot more to them than the work of actually NOT BEING RACIST.
And when it comes to racism and systemic inequality, we MUST remain teachable and open to learning more. As we encounter more stories, more people who are awakening to this gross level of inequality, as more data surfaces and systemic biases become easier to recognize, we cannot truly say that we are “competent” in knowing how someone’s myriad of cultural experiences have molded them. There are no shortcuts or declarations that we’re done unfucking our own paradigms. We need to listen, learn, integrate, evaluate. Lather, rinse & repeat for the rest of our lives.
Humility requires us to turn the mirror on ourselves
After 2 years as a lobbyist, 3 years negotiating contracts, 5 years as a mediator and 5 years in disability and poverty law, the greatest lesson I learned is that we cannot ever assume anything. People will always surprise us with a lived experience that is counter to what our formal knowledge and personal experience has taught us. And yet, our personal experience isn’t any more valid than that other person’s – unless, we have chosen to value them less for some reason, to assume they are lying or exaggerating. Is that really about them, or it is really about just bolstering our own confirmation bias?
Right now, the most dangerous thing we could do is white-out the lifetimes of experience our black friends, co-workers, neighbors, and celebrities are sharing with us. There is no integrity in indulging our denial, our obstinance, our vanity by denying that we directly benefit from racism. It was codified, allowed, protected and none of us, particularly those of us who are white, are immune from its bloody inheritance. Not only does it dishonor the authenticity of that other person’s story, but it likewise absolves us of the responsibility of learning how to dismantle our own white supremacy to ensure it doesn’t continue.
We must challenge our internal echo chamber that presumes our own innocence and white-as-light purity. We ignore the vulnerability required to recognize, admit and understand our own roles in propping up white supremacy. Our ego resists, clinging desperately to the illusion that “I would never say something racist.”
And yet we do. All the time. Including and especially me.
We try to shift the burden because racism is so distasteful to us and yet, we aren’t the ones bearing our share of the load. We must dig deep to unroot it from the core processes of our own lives because we benefit in some way from this patriarchal, racist system. For all our presumed “cultural competency” we are awfully quick to uphold a system of inherent inequalities to avoid the humility of confronting our own racist attitudes and behaviors. We would rather trust the broken systems, the social and legal contracts of our nation, than fully examine the mortar and bricks that are crumbling under the ethical and moral weight of justice withheld.
I often say that all people want in life is to be heard, seen, and understood. And yet, the ability to do this is entirely dependent on our willingness and skill at setting our own opinions aside for a moment and being present with another person as they tell their story. The humility of that moment, to de-center yourself to listen to another, is where empathy awakens. And as we see things through someone else’s eyes, this is the start of a more transformative, connective and collaborative healing. Only in humility can we find hope.
We cannot survive unless and until us non-black people can humble ourselves enough to listen to the lived experience of black communities that we have silenced and talked over for so long.
Resources for more reading
Want to know how dismantle white supremacy in yourself and these arcane systems? Here are some resources to get you started:
As of today, it has been thirty-nine (39) days since my family started to voluntarily stay-at-home/quarantine. Over a month of social distancing, over a month that some have been unemployed, over two months of pretty serious messages about handwashing. Over a month of no contact delivery, masks, gloves, toilet paper, panic, calm, boredom and more.
And while there are some out there protesting that this social distancing isn’t necessary, there are others who view this as an opportunity to change something about the beliefs and systems that brought us here. At the heart of the conflict lies the fantastical hope that “after all of this is over things will return to normal” vying for media space with the growing number of economic, psychological and health care experts who believe that we need to start getting ourselves ready for a new normal.
In crisis we reach for the familiar to regain a sense of control
It isn’t that I don’t understand the deep, psychological needs for us to have a sense of normalcy in our lives. So many of us have worked hard to develop daily or weekly routines that maximize our efforts toward our most precious or mundane goals. Likewise, those in mental health or substance abuse recovery often rely on routines to aid in managing their symptoms, if even just for the built-in reminders for self-care such as eating and hygiene.
Especially difficult is the timing of this pandemic for those who were preparing for or undergoing major life changes – starting a new job, welcoming a new child, recovering from substance abuse, spiritual awakenings, graduations, taking that vacation you actually deserve, starting a new health regimen, moving on from toxic relationships, etc. Even positive events in our life can be stressful and the support of our various social networks (family, friends, even strangers) can get us through these transitions, reinforcing our confidence and self-esteem.
In particular, for me, I was just emerging from the self-imposed emotional isolation I’ve been battling as a result of vicarious trauma. I was coming back into who I am without all the stress and heartache. I have worked so hard toward a revival of my most authentic self, that the disappointment of continuing to miss in that more public celebration was making question whether or not this was really meant to be. The week we were to start self-isolating, I was supposed to meet three different friends for lunch, drinks or coffee. I was finally starting to show back up in the world and then the quarantine hit. I hid back in my old patterns, shutting down and burrowing into my isolation again.
But as much as I would love to declare, “yes, things will go back to the way they were before”, I join many otherobservers and experts who believe we will not be going back to normal anytime soon. Many pointing out that we are in the situation we are in because we refused to see that what qualified as “normal” wasn’t actually working for us. Specifically, that the inequality persistent within our systems of health care, labor, and coordinated crisis response were not just insufficient, but unsustainable.
It’s hard not to feel like everything is coming apart, because it is. Not just with our governments, but with ourselves. And even with the best social distancing, handwashing and cheerful masks, many of us feel powerless to do anything to control our own destinies. It’s natural to respond to a crisis by reaching for what’s familiar, what’s comforting and “normal”. We want safety, security and we need to know we will be okay. So it’s natural to want to hold onto the idea that we need to “get back to normal”.
Yet, was normal really serving us in our personal lives? How many people have been suffering from toxic relationship patterns, overwork, under appreciation, oppressive internal beliefs? This crisis has exposed not just our official vulnerabilities but our personal ones as well. A lot of us are facing a dark night of the soul whether we ready or not. The universe is reminding us that while we can love and respect others, we cannot hide from the call to love and respect ourselves.
Even in the midst of uncertainty, there is always room for opportunity
We sit at a critical crossroads, faced with a powerful opportunity to decide how we want to rebuild. If we choose to rebuild exactly as it was before, we risk exposing ourselves to the same wounds we’re suffering now. But we could take this opportunity to let go of those traditions, those beliefs, those systems that no longer serve us.
OR….We could take this opportunity to let go of the traditions, beliefs, and systems that perhaps have worn out their usefulness. Designed for a society without nearly the kind of global reach and interconnectedness we have now, it is up to us to re-imagine the world we actually want instead of the world we are stuck with
Can we dare to dream of a world with more inclusive systems, more equitable values, more empathetic societies, more balanced goals, more healing connections? Is it too much to form the strategies around how we emerge with universal health care or basic income guarantees? Is it too bold to decide to let go of what no longer serves us?
And while many of us are rightfully directing our energy toward ensuring our leaders don’t leave anyone behind with our next steps, we also need to see this opportunity for ourselves. What are we holding onto that is no longer serving us? What toxic patterns have been interrupted because of this pandemic? What baggage are you holding onto that you don’t want to be part of your post-pandemic life?
This is a beautiful and powerful moment for us to take leadership over our own lives so we emerge from this crisis the strong, resilient and radiant people we not only want to be but deserve to be.
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.”
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.
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
Stay away from anyone of the preferred sex who you might ever be in any context potentially attracted to or who others might perceive that you’re attracted to even if you’re not.
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:
If you don’t give your loved one complete and total access to every corner of your life, you are untrustworthy and uncommitted.
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?”
You know me. You always find me at the crossroads. Smoldering sweetness. Transient memory. Dark benevolence.
I have burned with you in the fires; I have resurrected you from the despair. I've held your hand in the depths of your darkness. I've given you light to lift you. I've been here each time you've prayed out loud or cried silently.
Sweet and bold. Powerful and quiet. I will never leave you, my Love.
Blissful and melancholy. Radiant and cursed. Sensual and familiar. Rough and blessed. Vibrant and smooth. I embrace your duality and all the space in between.
Strike at the soul and be consumed within these flames.