We’re going deep into the Jerkbrain today, so let’s start with nice things that I love.
First, a safe-for-work, short animated film, Address Is Approximate. It’s so simple and beautiful, and it punched me right in the heart (in a good way).
Next, Holly’s post about Consent Culture:
A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex–in fact, of human interaction–is centered around mutual consent. It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.
I don’t want to limit it to sex. A consent culture is one in which mutual consent is part of social life as well. Don’t want to talk to someone? You don’t have to. Don’t want a hug? That’s okay, no hug then. Don’t want to try the fish? That’s fine. (As someone with weird food aversions, I have a special hatred for “just taste a little!”) Don’t want to be tickled or noogied? Then it’s not funny to chase you down and do it anyway.
… I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general. Cut that shit out of your life. If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right. Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along. Accept that no means no–all the time.
…It’s good to practice drawing your own boundaries outside of the bedroom, too. It can be shockingly empowering to say something as small as “no, I don’t want to sit with you.” “No, you can’t have my phone number.” “I love hugs, but please ask me first.” It’s good practice for the big stuff. Simply learning to put your mind in the frame of “this person does not want me to say no to them, and they will resist me doing it, but I’m doing it anyway” is a big, important deal.
Go read the whole thing, obviously. She lays out a beautiful case that boundaries make life better and sex better, and that there are a lot of small things we can do to make the world better for each other. She also sets us up beautifully for today’s question.
I hope perhaps you might have some advice — or the crowd might — on how to stop being obnoxious. See, I’m pretty laid-back up until someone does something crummy to me. For instance! Once a dude forgot about a date with me, and when he remembered, went snowboarding anyway. Objectively douchey, but that’s not the problem — the problem is that once someone does a thing like that I WILL NEVER FORGET. I will obsess over it, picking at what happened like it’s a scab. I will quite likely resent them and want them to suffer, up till I forget who they are. Which does happen — bad memory — but takes too long to achieve. Leaving scorched earth behind doesn’t work that well in a smaller community as I’m likely going to have to interact with these people in the future. Or at least I’d like to interact, in a nice blasé way, and with none of the perpetual RAWWWWWWWWWWWWR that goes on in my head (and sometimes escapes my lips). It’s embarrassing to feel so strongly about stupid things from the past. I don’t want to lose the Dignity Game. Also, it’s tiring to keep the perpetual motion hamster wheel of resentment going in my head. It takes up so much space in there, which could be better used by remembering fun sex or something.
So! The question is: How the hell do I stop my brain from going over this stuff? How do I turn it off, or retrain myself? I’d like to keep my feathers unruffled, and stop embarrassing myself.
Shut Up, Brain
I think you could get a lot out of visiting someone who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and talking with them about how to work around habits and patterns of thinking. If one date-gone-wrong is sending you into a rage where you’re spending weeks or months working it over in your mind, it’s a sign you could use a visit with a pro.
What your letter (and Holly’s awesome post linked above) made me think about is how learning to set boundaries, speak up for myself, stand up for myself, and have conflict with people by expressing my feelings to them directly made me like people more and get along with them better. Learning how to say “no” is how you learn how to actually say “yes” when you want to.
As a kid and even later, I wasn’t encouraged to have or express feelings, at least not any negative ones. “Stop overreacting.” “That’s not true.” “You’re just imagining it.” “Just ignore him/them.” “You do too like egg salad, and you’re going to sit there until you eat it.” “Are you sure you were raped? If you were really raped, you would have handled everything exactly like I think you should have handled it, ergo, you must be lying.” “Are you still sad about that? You should be over it by now.” So like a good little soldier, I tried to teach myself to stop feeling that stuff. I still did express it, of course, in all kinds of dysfunctional ways. In some spaces I became Jennifer Who Is Hilarious, or Jennifer The Easygoing Friend Who Never Gets Mad At Anyone And Who Is Always Fine, Can I Do Anything For You? But in other spaces, I became Jennifer Who Does Secret Fucked-Up Things, or Jennifer Who Is A Mean, Obnoxious Verbal Bully, or Jennifer Who Suddenly Yells and Cries About Seemingly Innocuous Things or Jennifer The Toxic Complainer. That Jennifer was tightly wound, passive-aggressive, and easily overwhelmed, because she didn’t know how to express ANYTHING in a healthy way but still walked around like a geeky, needy open wound wanting to be loved and understood. In college and my early-mid 20s, that manifested as a combination of Pathetic Attempts To Turn Sex Into Love and Yes, You Can Count On Me To Do That Impossible Work Assignment, I Just Love Helping!
Enter total, horrible, crushing depression.
There is a time in my late 20s when everything broke open and I temporarily could not function. And I am lucky that everything finally broke, and I was lucky to find therapist(s) to teach me to ask the questions that I ask all of you: “But what do you think would happen if you just said ‘no, I don’t want to do it that way’? or ‘can we change the subject now, please’? I swear it won’t be as terrible as you think it will be, most people will just back off and apologize.” They helped steer me away from my own horrified imaginings of how if I ever pushed back at anyone I would immediately lose their regard and respect for all time and no one would ever love me.
I *could* of course disagree hotly and eloquently about (safe) intellectual or aesthetic matters. I could sometimes
talk about write a long, overwrought, over-thought email about difficult or emotional stuff if my back was really, really against the wall (at which point you can’t really have a low-stakes, mutual discussion about a thing because it’s built up for so long and been hijacked by OH GOD, WEIRD EMAIL).
But between me and the words “We’re not having sex enough for me” or “Please don’t talk to me that way” or “I can’t come home for Christmas this year, sorry” stretched Zeno’s paradox of infinitely dividing space. I could not step into that space and say the words with my mouth and listen to the words the other person might say. I placed this weird value on being laid back and easygoing, like that is something you should always try to be. I think I’ve told people “It’s really hard to offend me or hurt my feelings, so don’t worry about (that really awful thing you just said).” My relationships with others existed in a state of almost theological pre-forgiveness. I also had that NiceGuy(tm) passive-aggressive quality of assuming that just because I was so “nice” all the time that people owed me the same, and even though I hadn’t expressed my needs out loud. How dare people not read my mind?
(And yet, during all that time? I had great friends and great lovers who talked me down from my ledge and reminded me that we didn’t have to let it get to the weird email stage. They proved to me that I was worthy of love. Which is why I tell all you TERRIFYINGLY AMAZING people that you are also worthy of love, even if you are crazy and weird and sad).
What I found out in therapy is that I was not all that laid back. I found out that I have a lot of rules for how I want other people to treat me. I found out that I was in fact really angry about a lot of things, and because I was not expressing that anger in a healthy or timely way, it was all living inside of me, and it decided that if it couldn’t get out it was okay with being really angry at me and pointing out all of my faults instead. Hello, Jerkbrain! And I learned the word “boundaries,” and I started to stand up for myself in small ways and then in bigger ways and the world did not end and people did not hate me and it became easier to be awkward than to seethe.
When you first learn about expressing healthy boundaries, it’s rough going for the people around you, because you’re a little bit like a toddler who has just learned the word “no” and you have a lot of lost time to make up for. “Honey, do you want Thai food for dinner?” “NO I DO NOT!” “Dude.” “What I meant to say, is I’m feeling more like falafel.” There is a temptation to set all of your bridges on fire and then dance around in the warm pretty flames. There’s a reason I have six separate LiveJournal icons that are The Incredible Hulk, and that I started writing Hulk-ku, like:BLABBY PHONE LADY HULK SMASH YOU, SMASH TINY PHONE HULK NOT MISS MANNERS
Hulk is super-awkward, you guys, but things have been better since he came to hang out in here with Jerkbrain and me.
So Letter Writer, now that I’ve given you the short course in why I write this blog, I want you to examine the concept that you are “pretty laid-back up until someone does something crummy to me.” I think you might not be all that laid back? I think you might have a lot of rules and standards about how you want to be treated, and that’s okay, and that maybe you don’t have to get to the “objectively crummy behavior” stage before communicating and enforcing some of those rules?
And one way to not fixate on the bad behavior of people is to call them on it when or soon after it’s happening. “I appreciate your apology, but that’s a pretty crappy excuse for missing a date and you made me feel pretty awful the other day, so you’ll understand if I don’t want to make plans to go out with you again.” You’ve got to get it out of your system before it reaches the “I hate you forever/weird email” stage. And then you let it go, which is where therapy can probably help you, by helping you learn to reframe those negative thoughts when they start cycling.
I think what might be happening is you are saying “Whatever, it’s ok, no big deal” to the person who did the crappy thing (so that you can hold onto your idea of yourself as laid back, or conform to a social/cultural expectation that people like you are supposed to be laid back) and then chewing it over in your mind and complaining to your friends and coming up with all the stuff you wish you had said to him after the fact, which is prolonging the negative feelings. Then it comes out later, in an obnoxious way.
You don’t have to forgive people who do crappy things to you, you don’t have to roll over, and you don’t have to be the bigger person. But I do want to make an argument for saying something, out loud, directly, to the person who upset you. Say, “Hey, knock it off” as soon as possible. If you’re not good at speaking up when things are happening, that’s totally understandable – we’re not all snappy comeback machines, and as you’re learning to listen to your instincts and speak up for yourself there is often a delayed reaction. So, ideally within a few days, reach out and say “Your comment about x the other day isn’t sitting well with me, can you explain what you really meant by that?”
One reason I say “in the moment” or “within a few days“, especially with people that you’re not really close to like coworkers or casual acquaintances, is that whatever happened is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Memory is fluid. After too much time goes by, the conversation will become about “Did I really say that? Man, sorry if I did” and you’re not going to get a satisfying result. You look like the bad person for holding onto it all this time. You build it up in your mind. Getting in the habit of speaking up sooner allows there to be lower stakes overall. You can say your thing and then let it go. You can privately have a low opinion of someone and publicly interact with them just fine (at work, for example). If things get awkward? If feelings get a little bruised? It’s better than all that hate churning inside you, where right now it is only hurting you, and I think it might be hurting you real bad. Give yourself a time limit to speak up, and if the moment passes before you do then say to yourself (as my friend Kim does): “BYGONES!”
And if they really, really fucked up? You can stay quiet and let them fully, fully apologize to you and NOT jump in right away to say “Oh, that’s okay, don’t worry about it” and let them stew in their own shame for a little while? That’s just fun.
The other day, in one of the online communities I read, the poster was having an issue with a teacher and mentor who said some very toxic stuff in the classroom (without meaning to or thinking it through, but, as we know, intentions aren’t magic), so a few days later she went and talked to him about it and he promised to rethink how he talks about that topic. What struck me was that it only matters a little whether the teacher changes his mind, but it matters a lot that the poster is now a person who speaks up when things aren’t right, and she now has this experience of speaking up and being listened to, and she will never be the same again. That is going to ripple through the rest of her life in an amazing way, I think.
Back to Holly’s great post, I’m interested in building a world where people can say “Hey, knock it off” or “No thanks” or “That was out of line,” without it meaning “YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON AND EVERYONE HATES YOU NOW.” I am trying to learn how to be a person who can say that stuff and who can hear that stuff from other people when I fuck it up. I think you have to learn how to say no to things so that you can say yes to things, like figuring out what you want to do with your life and making friends and falling in love and negotiating sex and having adult relationships with your family. So I appreciate the roadmap that the kinksters have drawn for us, where “No, I don’t like that” is how you get to “I want.”