Don’t tell me how I feel

I’ve been reading Controlling People by Patricia Evans, after hearing it recommended by a lot of other abuse survivors. I actually bought and started reading it quite a few months ago, but stopped within the first couple of chapters because I found all the warming-up text really tiresome. In general the more a writer tries to tell me how surprising and essential the insights they’re about to share are, the more skeptical and disengaged I become.

Eventually I got through that, and have found the meat of the book really helpful in the way it frames interactions that our society tends to treat as normal. Here’s an example, not from the book:

Them: You forgot to pick up this thing from the store even though I asked you to! Clearly you don’t listen to a word I say, and you don’t care at all about me if you can’t do this one little thing.

Me: I…. I’m sorry? But… I do care. But… I’m sorry. [goes away feeling both guilty and indefinably violated]

I’ve had exchanges like this since childhood, and in most of my formative relationships. Sometimes it’s about small everyday executive function things like remembering to do something I was asked to do, or arriving somewhere on time. Sometimes it’s about bigger relationship issues like not communicating about something effectively, or not realizing how hurt my partner would be when I did this-and-such.

Big or small, though, it always takes this form: they express how upset they are AND they say some things about my state of mind that they assume to be true based on what I did. And I end up feeling like I can’t say anything. Because yes I did screw up, and they have a right to be annoyed/angry. But their expression of hurt came with lots of statements about who I am and how I think and feel, statements that are almost never true.

It feels really awful to hear someone telling me, wrongly, how I feel and how I’m thinking, and it also damages the relationship. And yet I don’t feel like I can argue against because, after all, I’m the one who did something wrong.

What Evans does is treat it as completely incredible and absurd that anybody would think they can know what’s in another person’s mind. She points out the logic of that: of course nobody outside my head has better access to what’s going on inside it than I do. Of course any statements they make about my inner state are completely imaginary, made up, not based on real knowledge they have. But in my world it’s so normal for people to make such statements. It took me several chapters of Evans matter-of-factly labeling this dynamic as ridiculous and irrational before it really started to sink in.

For me, this was harder because I grew up in a religion that had gaslighting at its very foundation. I was taught that my mind and heart were entirely sinful and corrupted. It didn’t matter that I cared about other people so much it hurt — by definition, I was selfish and depraved, and if I didn’t believe this, it was a further sign of sinfulness and pride. I was never taught to know myself and trust my internal knowledge. I was always told that some outside authority knew my inmost heart and mind much better than I did.

In my teens, having somebody else tell me what I was really thinking and feeling was my ideal of intimacy and romance. Someone who understood me better than myself, who could see into my heart (and love me) — that was the dream. I can see now, looking back, that my relationship to myself was broken. My overwhelming desire for a romantic partner was largely because I did not feel I had permission to know and love myself. I needed someone else to know and love me — I craved it.

In adulthood, I started to develop a good relationship with myself and being alone became more comfortable. But I still had those long years of conditioning, that made me very vulnerable to someone telling me what I was “really” thinking and feeling — especially when the “real” thoughts were bad. That has been a factor in all of the badly-ending relationships I’ve had in the last several years. Over and over, a partner would tell me, not just “you hurt me,” but “you hurt me and you did it for this reason” or “you hurt me and that is a sign of these essential thoughts, feelings, and qualities in you.” And I would be left trying to figure out how to apologize and make amends while also asserting the truth of who I am. (I never did figure out how. I tried, a few times and a few ways, but only ever met with resistance and doubling-down.)

It took a while but I’m down to a pretty much zero-tolerance policy for this kind of nonsense. The people I’m close to now are all really good about taking responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings, and letting other people be the authority on theirs. Someday I hope I can be like Evans and look at somebody telling me how I feel as if they’re telling me I have two heads. But for now, the plan is to stick close to people who respect me as the authority on myself, and avoid people who don’t.

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Healthy Masculinity Does Not Equal “Nice Guy”

As I’ve been working on this project, I’ve had a nebulous fear that every time I say “healthy masculinity,” people are going to mistake it for something else , and I’ve just recently realized that something else is “nice guy.” Then, as I began working on this post, I realized that “nice guy” in turn has two separate but related implications that I want to unpack. There’s the nice guy aesthetic, and then there’s Nice Guys TM.

To me, “nice guy” provokes a very specific image. It is of a cisgender heterosexual man wearing a powder blue buttoned shirt. He might be wearing slacks or jeans, but if they are the latter then they are very clean and pressed jeans, not something worn for manual labor. He might work as an accountant or software engineer, or editor or any number of other jobs, but its definitely something that requires him to wear a tie. You would not know how to describe his hair because it is cut in a style so simple the eye slides right off of it. He’s clean shaven. He drives a car, not a motorcycle. He drinks coffee and beer, but not too much of either, and he definitely doesn’t smoke. If he’s been married for more than a year or two he has kids. If not, he plans on having them soon.

In other cultures the image of a nice guy might vary, but I suspect they all have one; a hodgepodge of fashion, career, and lifestyle choices that are guaranteed to be inoffensive. Ultimately though, it is not a proof of inner character. It’s an aesthetic. And, while it’s also perfectly fine. Some people who fit the nice guy aesthetic are secretly rather immature or even outright manipulative jerks underneath, but others are as wholesome and nice under the surface as they seem to be at first. That shouldn’t be surprising. Basic human decency doesn’t come with any particular fashion sense.

What I do have a problem with is the Nice Guy TM; the above image, but with a morose look on his face because some guy with tattoos and probably a motorcycle is getting all the girls. You most likely have heard plenty of “nice guys finish last” spiels, and I certainly hope you have heard some of the awesome smackdowns that are out there. Here are a few good ones, including one by Ginny.

Because of all those great preexisting commentaries, I don’t want to go into all the issues with the Nice Guy TM. Plenty of people have covered that already. Instead, I want to point out an unspoken assumption. There is this idea that with the correct gender expression comes a range of benefits and entitlements. This idea appears twice in the Nice Guy TM spiel. There’s the idea that because the speaker fits the nice guy aesthetic, he is entitled to girls, and then there’s the idea that the hypothetical bad boy is winning girls by virtue of his more edgy gender expression.

There are a number of ways that our culture encourages people to expect rewards or punishments based on their gender expression, and all of them are shitty. You aren’t entitled to a job or a relationship or anything else based on your hobbies, appearance and lifestyle choices. If you are doing what feels right and makes you happy, that should be reward enough; if not, try making a change.*

That’s the issue I have with many people who I have seen talk about reforming masculinity. Often they end up essentially arguing for everyone to solve the problem by putting on the Nice Guy Aesthetic, and that’s not going to work. It’s just another rigid gender role. In my last post I went into what I meant by healthy masculinity, but to recap; I mean an attitude towards masculinity that embraces a diversity of expression. It includes everyone who performs masculinity, whether men, women or non-binary, and it allows everyone to perform it in their own way, as well as validating those who don’t identify as masculine at all. I call this healthy masculinity because it is incompatible with the gatekeeper attitude that enforces and underpins toxic masculinity.

The nice guy aesthetic is compatible with healthy masculinity, it just isn’t inherently any more compatible than a tattooed motorcycle rider aesthetic, or a cowboy aesthetic, or a dapper steampunk gent aesthetic. Whinging that “nice guys finish last,” on the other hand, needs to go.

*I realize that some people do live in circumstances where their most comfortable gender expression would be highly stigmatized and might result in serious bullying or loss of a job that they need to survive. If this is you, I’m so sorry, and I hope you don’t mistake my earlier statement for judgment on your situation. There’s a difference between compromising your gender expression to survive and feeling entitled to certain things based solely on that expression.

Two metaphors for healing

I was trying to explain to my therapist where I stand now in relationship to the recent traumatic years, and I was struggling. Then, in a comment on someone else’s blog, the right metaphor came to me.

The bad years are a mountain range I was driving through. When I was in them they were my whole reality, and a lot of the time I couldn’t even tell that I was in an abnormal terrain. Then I started coming out of them. There was a time when I could see level ground and knew it was where I wanted to be. There was a time when I was definitely headed toward it, even though the mountains were still all around me.

There was a time when I was finally on level ground. I had made it out. And adjusting to a wide, smooth road, without sudden turns and sharp bends that demanded hypervigilance, was a project in itself.

And now I’ve been driving level for a little while, it’s starting to feel normal, I’m starting to relax. But the thing is, when I look in my rearview, all I really see is mountains. Everything that came before it is blotted out, and everything that came afterward is tiny in comparison.

I’m well out of the mountains, and driving toward whatever comes next. But it’s taking them a long time to get any smaller in the rearview mirror.

***

I have a patch of skin that’s recovering from a bad allergic reaction. There are patches of new pink skin interspersed with dry scabby areas. I’m eager for it all to be new and smooth, but I recognize that the dry, rough bits have their purpose. They aren’t pretty or nice to touch, but they’re needed, to protect what’s still tender and re-forming. They aren’t for always.

To accept that I need these rough spots, these dry and insensitive protective pieces, isn’t to accept that I will always be this way. I am still healing: in some places the healing is mostly finished, in others there’s a lot of work still to be done. If I try to rip off the scabs before it’s done, I just risk re-infection and further damage. So if I am a little prickly, a little insular, a little unforgiving, those are my scabs. Those are the defenses that help keep my heart safe while it heals. They aren’t for always, but they’re needed for now.

Defining Healthy Masculinity (Or Not)

So, this year I want to talk about healthy masculinity, and I should explain what I mean by that.

By healthy, I mean something that is generally good for you and the people around you; something that encourages you to take care of yourself and treat others respectfully and responsibly. I mean it to contrast toxic masculinity, which encompasses the attitudes that encourage people to abuse themselves and others in the name of seeming more masculine. That part of the definition, I think, is fairly straightforward.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is anything but.

If you look throughout history and across different cultures, our conceptions of what is and isn’t masculine have changed drastically. Nowadays the association between male homosexuality and effeminacy is widespread, but this wasn’t the case for the Ancient Greeks or Japanese military, while in Norse culture men on the penetrating end of homosexuality weren’t emasculated, but those on the receiving end were. These days, Western male fashion is supposed to be very understated and dressed down, but go back a couple of centuries and men were decked out in frills and tights and had long flowing curls.

cavalier-man-2

Aw yiss. Check out my manly lace.

Often when a word has a meaning that changes over time or depending on context, many people try to pin it down. They want it to find an objective meaning that lies beneath all the alterations, and throw out everything else. I used to be one of those people. Now, I think that some concepts are most useful when they are allowed to evolve and adapt to the needs of the current time; concepts like marriage, gender, grammar, art, language, even values like honor and justice. If there is some objective underpinning behind those concepts, it does not need defending, and if not, why fabricate one? And I definitely think masculinity is one of those concepts.

In fact, when I look at toxic masculinity, a constant feature is rigid, unyielding gender expressions and roles. Masculinity must be chained to maleness, and maleness must be changed to a positively Victorian concept of gender roles. As a society, we are trying to correct our ideas about women’s roles, but not update our corresponding ideas about men’s roles. Given that old ideas of masculinity were wedded to outdated and oppressive ideas about femininity, it is easy to see how this rigidity harms everyone. It hurts women because it reinforces sexist behavior, it hurts men by creating identity crises and insecurities where none need to exist, and it hurts people who don’t identify as either by erasing their very existence.

So when I imagine a world of healthy masculinity, I don’t have a specific image of what that masculinity would look like. Instead, I see a world where masculinity is acknowledged to be a social construct, and in future generations is constantly evolving to suit the needs of people of all genders.

But for now, what I want to see is masculine people rising up and taking back the definition of masculinity from those rigid gatekeepers. Whatever your gender is, and however you express your own masculinity, I want to see you recognize that masculinity is not some object that someone else rations out. I want the whole concept of revoked and bestowed “man cards” to die a swift yet painful death, and I want this bullshit idea that masculinity has to defend itself against being tainted with femininity to die even quicker. If some aspect of masculinity resonates with you, then that is yours, and nobody can take it from you. Whether you’re a knitting stay-at-home mom who also loves cars, sports, video games and Clint Eastwood, a person unsure of their gender but drawn to a butch aesthetic, or a classically masculine hetero cis man who doesn’t like how his culture has been associated with sexism and gay-bashing, you have a right to whatever part of masculinity feels right to you, and you don’t have to put anyone else down to claim it.