Normal

I’ve been musing about the many ways one can be considered normal or otherwise. Here, for your eyes only, is a list of generalisations and epiphanots worth precisely what you paid for it:

  1. You match the same criteria as the statistical majority. For instance, being straight is normal purely in the sense that the majority of people in our society identify as straight.
  2. You do not match the criteria for the majority, but you match the accepted criteria for a normalised (or at least recognised) minority. I think of this as “normal for X”. For instance, I have never been successful at performing modern femininity, largely because I have never bothered to try. The amount of upset that causes people largely depends on their expectations, so it can vary hugely. However, I have fairly consistently been reprimanded because I am not a lesbian (though never, to my knowledge, by actual lesbians). As it emerges, what is considered abnormal for straight women fits many people’s stereotype for butch lesbians. By stubbornly insisting on liking swords, chainsaws, and dick, I am breaking not only the rule, but also the accepted exception; and that, evidently, has the capacity to upset a lot of people.
  3. It ain’t normal, but it doesn’t come up. I get sensory overload in crowds, but I live in the country, so the issue has no impact on me or anyone else.
  4. It ain’t normal, but you’ve developed workarounds to manage it. I get sensory overload in airports, and sitting on a plane is simply hell, but I can block it all off with headphones and a book. The issue is still there, but I’m not having to deal with it, so I can manage. That doesn’t mean that being in an airport or plane doesn’t bother me, though; it still has an impact on how I feel afterwards, and it generally puts me off travelling by plane.
  5. It ain’t normal, but it only affects you. It is possible to be horribly affected by something and to still meet, or even exceed, people’s criteria for normal behavior. This is when things get gnarly, and painfully relevant to those with neurodivergences, hidden physical disabilities, mental health issues, and trauma. I got fabulous grades in school, but that wasn’t because I was a good student. I just had zero self esteem and could only gain worth by achieving at all costs. Those 100% grades barely filled the hole in my soul, and required so much effort on my part that they took an awful toll on my body and mind. But as that made my teachers and my mom look good, nobody minded that. In fact, had I found the strength to give myself a break and let myself get a B, I would have been punished for it.
  6. It ain’t normal and it affects others, but it does so in a way that benefits them overall, so they encourage it most of the time but punish it sporadically. I used to suffer from paralyzing social anxiety, but that fit in quite well with my family’s belief that children should be neither seen nor heard the vast majority of the time. It only became problematic when I was trotted out to perform for strangers, like a show dog. My anxiety usually made me mess up, and I thereby shamed my entire family and all of my ancestors for countless generations. This kind of situation can be literally crazy-making, because you are required to be two different people on demand.
  7. It ain’t normal and it affects people negatively, but that’s handy. Some groups need a scapegoat – a bad child, a bad student, a problem teen, a lazy worker, whatever. It is often the case that these people are not failing because they want to, or because they are not trying hard enough. They are simply not allowed the resources they need to perform satisfactorily, and that isn’t always by accident. Having someone to punish can be used as a means of strengthening group cohesion, as well as of keeping members into line – after all, if you slip, that could be you.

There’s a ton more scenarios, I’m sure, but this is all I’ve got at the moment.

So what? So, there is a huge difference between someone who doesn’t have a problem or need and someone who is managing a problem or need. Some workarounds require effort. Being affected in the moment but holding shit together until you’re in a safe place to let yourself hurt, doubly so. Masking your entire personality and replacing it with a front you have created just to fit in can corrode your very soul, and sucks the juice out of your life. Results may also vary; if something is a problem for you and it takes extra resources to deal with it, your ability to deal with it may vary from day to day, depending on a variety of factors: your state of health, other drains, whether you’ve had a chance to recharge after the last rodeo, and so on. And, contrary to popular beliefs, overworking that metaphorical muscle won’t strengthen it. As with physical efforts, exhaustion is a thing.

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Cheap today!

Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach is on offer for £1.99 on Audible today. I just checked it out and I like it a lot. It combines a lot of the stuff I love about Buddhism with the basic principles of the only form of coaching that’s ever done me any good. I think it would be beneficial for anyone brought up believing that there is something inherently wrong with them, for instance undiagnosed neurodivergent folk or LGBTQIA+ people brought up in bigoted environments. I suspect it may also help people who were brought up to believe that the universe is just, and have started believing that there must be something wrong with them after something terrible happened to them.

Caveats:

  • It’s no substitute for therapy (but then, who can get therapy for £1.99?)
  • If you’re anti-Buddhism, this might rub you the wrong way.
  • If you suffer from gender dysphoria, it could go either way.

Dunno. I like it. It’s cheap. Maybe you’ll like it too.

Who are they writing for?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend (hi, Jon!) that has been chewing at me ever since. We were discussing what books one can recommend to people who are starting on their road to recovery from violence/trauma/abuse, and are experiencing numerous or intense triggers. We were trying to think of books that are both useful and user-friendly in that context, and coming up with… not a lot. Most of our favourite books are solid with triggers.

STOP AND PAY HEED: Yes, we’ve all seen people claiming that they’re “triggered” when they’re actually “mildly bothered” or “just wanting you to shut up.” We’ve all seen the “lol triggered” “jokes”. However, that doesn’t mean that triggers are a joke. Suffering from triggers is not just upsetting: the reactions can be extreme, to the point of being physically dangerous, and they can last for days. Being triggered effectively means that your brain is putting you through your trauma as if it was happening all over again. If you think that’s joke-worthy, then I suggest you stop reading this blog and read up on PTSD and cPTSD. That shit is debilitating. End rant.

It was an upsetting revelation, and the most upsetting aspect of that was that some extremely useful books, books that can literally save lives, are totally unsuited to some of the people who need them the most.

I’m going to pick an example that’s gonna piss everyone off, because that’s how I roll: I loved “The Gift of Fear” when I first read it. It gave me the terminology to describe behaviours I’d seen and been affected by at a time when it was really important to me to learn how to stop that kind of shit from happening to me. I would, however, be extremely reluctant to recommend it to any person in recovery, because it’s a goddamn triggerfest. It literally sets off with the fictionalised description of the build-up to a rape. Starting with an anecdote like that is brilliant marketing, as well as a great way to get people to understand the real-life importance of the information to come, but it makes the book wholly unsuited to someone who is recovering from violence or trauma. The last thing they need is to be forced on an emotional rollercoaster like that. Aside from the fact that it could mess them up for days and set the clock back on their recovery, it adds nothing to their ability to process the following material.

Oh, yeah, fun fact: triggered people do not good students make. Sometimes, going through a triggering learning process is essential to getting over that trigger – e.g., if you re-enact an event to give yourself the opportunity to re-write that story with a better ending. That kind of activity is pretty damn risky, though, and requires a lot of prepping and aftercare. It also requires prior consent on everyone’s part. Surprising students with a rape story without prior warning meets none of those requirements, doesn’t give them the confidence that they could avoid that experience in the future, and is therefore likely to serve no practical purpose whatsoever.

The moral of the story is that I still like “The Gift of Fear”, and I’m still glad I read it, but I tend to refer people to its Wikipedia entry instead. It lists the Pre-Incident Indicators (i.e., the shit you gotta watch out for) without any muss or fuss, which gives the reader an immediate tool they can use for their own protection. Yes, the Wiki lacks the dramatic qualities that made The Boston Globe describe TGoF as a “how-to book that reads like a thriller”, but, precisely because of that, it carries at least half the book’s benefits and none of its risks. I call that a win.

The same kind of issues apply to many other books I have read and loved, but would hesitate to recommend to the people who need them the most, and this isn’t true only of self-defence books. There is a veritable plethora of books about trauma, mental health issues, and neurodivergences that are fabulous, except for the fact that they are written in ways that make them potentially damaging to people with traumas, mental health issues, or neurodivergences. And I’m not talking about the kind of trashy non-fiction that basically amounts to Damage Porn, whose sole goal is to give people the chance to ooh and aah at other people’s struggles as if they were at a Victorian freak show. I’m talking about books solid with useful information casually interspersed with totally avoidable triggers. The triggers add drama, but not content. They may allow for increased circulation, but they are a barrier to the readers who need the information the most.

I guess it depends on what a writer is trying to do, and why. Books help nobody unless they’re read, they won’t be read unless they’re sold, and if you gotta make them a lil’ bit spicy to sell them, that’s just how it is. I just wish that wasn’t the case, I guess. I wish more writers thought about the impact of their words on the people for whom they matter the most. Until they do, the people most likely to consume their work are those least affected by it: trauma tourists, mostly, and perhaps the odd trauma-adjacent reader.

(Note: I’m not claiming that I managed to make my books trigger-free. I bloody well tried, though. In all honesty, I’m not sure I’d have the guts to write something like the Toolkit ever again, because there’s just too much risk of accidental damage. But I fought tooth and nail to keep the examples in Trauma Aware SD Instruction as clinical as possible, as well as neatly contained in their easily-avoidable bubbles. It can be done. Whether it can be sold, that’s another story.)

High-passing

A wee while ago, I stopped having social anxiety. I don’t know exactly when that happened; hell, I couldn’t even tell you whether it left me by increments or all of a sudden. All I know is that one day I waited for it to show up and piss in my porridge, and it didn’t.

I cannot begin to express my surprise at its absence. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have social anxiety. I know that I was probably not born with it, but I remember it chewing at me before I hit kindergarten. By the time I started school, it was affecting every aspect of my life. It peaked in junior high and ebbed after University, but it has been with me for as long as I can remember. Now it’s gone, and I don’t know what to do with myself, because its absence has affected all the equations in my life.

Let me try and explain this. When I had social anxiety, every social interaction, however minor, caused me a significant level of distress. If the interaction went positively, that positive value was added to the negative value inherent in the interaction. If the final result was a positive, then that interaction added quality to my life, but that only happened rarely. Most superficial interactions just didn’t hold enough value to be able to offset the initial negative. Deeper interactions carried a higher potential value, but they also carried a larger initial negative because the stakes were higher, so they didn’t necessarily fare any better. In fact, when deeper interactions went wrong, the final results could be crushing. That was was why in school I avoided like the plague all the people I had a crush on: they were simply too dangerous to me. I was only willing to date people I didn’t really like, which went about as well as could be expected.

Things eased up a little when I hit university, but not enough to make me enjoy the company of all but a handful of people. Essentially, I lived in a world where interacting with people constantly took more than it added – which, incidentally, is why I genuinely can’t tell whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert. I honestly don’t think that those labels make any sense when applied to someone like me. Or someone like the person I was, anyway.

Now my social anxiety is gone, and its absence has left me a stranger to myself. So much of what I know about myself is built upon false premises. I can’t anticipate how certain situations will affect me, so I don’t know how to decide what to do. What kind of interactions do I want to make room in my life for? Do I want to try and get closer to some of the people I really like, but may not like me back? Do I want to expand my social circle to include people I’m not likely to ever be close to, because I might now be able to enjoy their company? Do I want to maintain turbulent relationships, even though the low points upset me? How will I react if things go wrong? Hell, is my concept of “wrong” still valid? It’s an interesting position to be in, and I’m not complaining, but it’s definitely weird. The weirdest thing has been realizing how much my anxiety has skewed every aspect of my past; or, rather, that “normal” people don’t live like that.

I’m tempted to look back at my life and count all the things I’ve missed out on, and I don’t mean just the things I didn’t do. I actually did quite a bit, all considering: I’ve lived on four continents, I’ve studied, I’ve worked, I’ve engaged in hobbies, and I’ve had relationships of all shapes and sizes. I did all of that while hurting, though. I had the experiences, but much of the enjoyment was lost. It’s the difference between walking up a mountain wearing well-fitting hiking boots and concrete shoes: in the latter case, you might still make it to the top, but I can guarantee that you won’t enjoy the trip half as much.

You’re also probably going to stumble a lot more. If people don’t realize what the problem is, they might wonder what the hell is wrong with you. Why do you turn everything into an issue? Why can’t you just get on with things, same as everyone else? Why are you so reactive? Do you gotta be such a fucking chore?

I recently read a post by an autistic person in which they made the distinction between “high-functioning” and “high-passing.” Before anyone decides to jump down my throat, I am not trying to compare autism with social anxiety. Similar issues around being “high-functioning” apply, though, and they also apply to depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and a whole host of other issues. You’re often evaluated as to whether you can perform to the satisfaction of “normal” people, regardless of how much that costs you. You Did The Thing! Hence, you are capable of Doing The Thing. The fact that you might have experienced huge levels of discomfort all the way through, or that Doing The Thing today means that you’re gonna be fucked for days, is utterly discounted: you’re evaluated for your performance in the moment – or, rather, for whether your performance in the moment inconvenienced any passing normies.

If you can Do The Thing, that often means that you won’t get any help or consideration. What do you mean, you need a day off today because of what happened yesterday? What do you mean, you don’t want to Do The Thing again? What do you mean, you can’t Do The Thing? I just watched you Do It! And you did great, which means that you can do it all the time! Or, conversely, you did really badly, and you ought to be punished for that, because I just know that you can do better.

I pushed myself to do so much in my life, even though I suffered through much of it, and I’m increasingly unsure as to whether that was a good thing. Maybe if I’d fucked up more visibly I might have gotten help a long time ago, and have lived a better life. Maybe I would have been left to fester with my problems in private, instead of festering with them in public. Who knows? The world has changed so much since I was a kid that I honestly can’t tell. What I’m fairly sure of, though, is that if I’d been given the right words to self-describe, I might have been kinder to myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have “achieved” so much, but I might have actually enjoyed myself in the process. For me, that matters.

PTSD

A person I still feel unworthy to call a friend wrote this a couple of days ago. I’m sharing this with their permission. It’s a hard read, but it’s important.

CW: the following meditation contains references to sexual and emotional abuse, gaslighting, and other material that may be triggering in the context of self-accountability and community accountability.

“I’ve been contemplating this week on a period during which I was really traumatized and having PTSD symptoms that massively interrupted my ability to function in the world, as a result of ongoing sexual trauma that I was unable to escape for about a year.

During that time, I started becoming increasingly paranoid and critical of other people because of how triggered I was. I was being legitimately violated and gaslit, but because of hypervigilance I was also less able to be charitable and fair toward people who were NOT violating or gaslighting me, but having much more normal levels of conflict with me. Some of the people who were hurting and gaslighting me started informing others that I was known to be a malicious liar who habitually made up hurtful stories about others.

During this time I was dating a young man who was definitely not a bad young man, but just kind of exuberantly heterosexual and invested in normative stories about how heterosexuality and romance work. When I broke up with him he said things like “I’m going to win you back” and I treated this as if it were itself an assault because I was very easily triggered at that moment. I was like “this dude is maybe stalking me and I’m in danger” and the reality is he wasn’t, and when I told him to leave me alone he absolutely did. Later, he started dating someone who had her high school listed on her Facebook as current and I told a mutual friend that he was clearly a pedophile abusing this minor child. The young lady simply had not updated her Facebook profile. This was IMMEDIATELY used to prove that in fact, nobody had ever abused me and I was simply a mean, bad person who lies to destroy Good Men.

I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep at that point in months, and was in reality just not a functional person. The people who suggested that I was a mean bad person who lies to destroy perfectly innocent men were in fact NOT perfectly innocent men, but a lot of the people for whom that story landed had pretty good reasons to believe them. Because at that point I was visibly in a mental health crisis. I was unable to tolerate the stress of even SEEING some of the people who had harmed me. I regularly broke down crying in public. I would launch into unregulated recitations of suffering at seemingly random points, often just having NO control over my emotions. I was visibly very ill.

And because I was clearly unwell and some of my readings at that point were genuinely bad, that story landed for a lot of people. And it was CERTAINLY easier than sorting through the ugliness of figuring out which of the things I experienced that were real and which were mistaken perceptions. As a result, I was basically disposed of.

I think about this a lot because part of what made it possible for me to recover was building community with people who 100% believed in my reality. Having people who believed and valued me and had unflinching commitment to my right to have boundaries, particularly about my body, and who said “as a community our job is to believe you” gave me the space to recover enough to revisit everything that happened and be able to reassess that some of the judgments I made were fair and some weren’t. That was a brutally terrifying process, because it required grappling directly with the accusations about my character and really evaluating whether it was possible that, as people said, I had made everything up just to hurt people.

Ultimately the PTSD became its own touchstone of reality. Okay, sure, let’s say I was paranoid and even delusional because of the PTSD. But whence the PTSD, if none of the abuse was happening? I cannot believe that I was so paranoid that I lost the ability to judge whether my body was being molested, or that I had imagined multiple lengthy conversations about boundaries and harms. I do not have any reason to believe I had experienced the kind of break from reality that might explain discrepancy of that size. But you can believe I checked my work.

It has made me very cognizant of how gaslighting works to validate the abuser, not just in the mind of the victim, but for the community. Paranoia is a very natural reaction to being gaslit–and paranoia naturally leads to unreasonable and unbelievable readings of events, which in turn damages credibility (thus protecting the real abuser from accountability because That Person Is Always Saying These Things). I’ve been thinking a lot about how this works for people of color and how “they think everything is racist” narratives might fit with this pattern. A lot of my work in cultural competency has to do with breaking this pattern by validating patient/client suspicion and taking it less personally by being more informed about patterns of trauma.

Since then, I’ve been through similar conflicts from other standpoints, including both being unfairly accused of things that were best explained in terms of traumatized lack of charity and watching traumatized others accuse people who they later realized had not done what they genuinely believed at the time.

It’s hard to navigate from any standpoint. Particularly because of the realities of gaslighting as a feature of abuse, there’s really no point at which you can say “hey have you considered that you’re actually wrong about your experience and just having some mental illness symptoms right now?” Because from inside that experience, that is literally indistinguishable from being gaslit. That’s the whole deal of gaslighting. It replaces functional community checkins with abusive editing of reality, and that makes functional checkins unpossible.

It has been really crucial for me to keep my own experience with trauma and gaslighting in the front of my mind as I’ve encountered others who seem to be in a place where they might be having similar experiences, or where they are making visibly dysfunctional attacks on community members. It is so easy to EITHER say “oh this person is a cruel jerk” or “oh this person is crazy and thus has nothing of value to say.”

Part of this for me is that there are people who believe things about me or about others that I think are very much not true things, but I think some people should believe them anyway, because being believed is necessary for them to get better. I’m not sure, given that, how to react to people who say “this person says you did x.” I didn’t, and also like. Go love that person so hard. Go believe that person. Go be that person’s sense of safety and community. Go tell that person that you’re not going anywhere. Maybe someday they reassess and maybe they don’t, but definitely they have very real hurts and they deserve to be loved through it.

I don’t know what it looks like to say “this person is hurting so much that their judgment is visibly compromised, but something real hurt them and we need to fix it.” But I know that it is crucial to healing our communities.”

NEW BOOK OUT, and you wanna read it.

We interrupt this hiatus (sorry, life’s been happening) because a new book is out, and I want people to read it. If you are someone who teaches martial arts/self-defence, you need it. If you are someone who wants to study martial arts/self-defence, you probably want to read it, too. If you do, you might end up knowing more about pedagogy than your teachers.

Don’t get me wrong: I love MA/SD, and I understand that the field has its own peculiar reaching flavour due to the way in which people rise to instructor positions. I’m all for meritocracies, and I’m not terribly appreciative of situations where “those who can’t do, teach.” Having said that, there are basic issues with rising through teaching positions by being very good at doing a thing. First of all, doing and teaching are actually two very different skill sets. People who have a natural aptitude for something can actually be appalling teachers, because they have not had to deal with the stumbling blocks other students encounter, and might not have solutions for overcoming them. Secondly, every teaching methodology creates a selection process. The students who do best under a specific teaching methodology may be good at the subject, but they are also good at learning in that particular way. Conversely, students who do badly under a certain teaching methodology may have no aptitude for the subject, but they may also simply not respond well to a certain learning environment.

I could go on here, but hey, I know someone who’s just written a book about this. It’s a damn good book, too. If it doesn’t revolutionise the way in which MA/SD is taught, then there’s something seriously wrong with the field. So, yeah, check it out.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: an innate or emergent property of neurodivergence?

Sounds kinda like a scientific paper, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It’s just me swallowing some random concepts and, huh, ejecting some ideas.

I just finished “The Silent Guides” by Prof Steve Peters. I think it’s a terrible book at a number of levels and I am absolutely NOT recommending it. However, it raised (and promptly failed to prove) an interesting point: that an adult’s ability to emotionally handle rejection is a skill learnt in childhood, and is dependent on several factors including:
– secure attachments with one’s care giver(s),
– self-confidence in one’s ability to handle situations, 
– and self-worth independent of achievements.

It also stated that children’s self-worth can be encouraged by validating their concerns and experiences, and that in order to foster children’s trust in their own abilities, it is essential not to face them with demands that are age-inappropriate.

The book blithely ignores the existence of neurodivergent people, but it made me think about whether rejection sensitive dysphoria is a symptom of ADHD per se – as in, a manifestation of the neurodivergence itself – or a symptom of the emotional damage a person with ADHD can incur by being raised in a family/school/society that does not validate their experience or accommodate their needs.

I mean… I have sensory issues. They’re not as pronounced as those of many people, but they’re definitely there. Most of my childhood consisted of me saying that something was too loud/too smelly/too scratchy/too sticky and being told that no, it wasn’t, and that I was being rude or difficult by suggesting that it was. I was making a fuss over nothing. That’s basically sensory gaslighting: I’m being told that my perception is wrong. As a result, it isn’t worth of being considered, and neither am I unless I learn to ignore it. Needless to say, the experience didn’t make me feel terribly secure in my relationships. It also didn’t teach me to respect my own sensations and needs as an adult, or to use them as guidelines on how to live.

I was also ahead of the curve for certain things (e.g. reading), but waaaaaay behind the curve for a ton of things (e.g. anything involving gross motor skills). I literally COULD NOT meet certain demands; in some cases, I still can’t. For instance, my inability to tell left from right used to drive my gymnastics teachers to distraction, and used to get me yelled at on a regular basis. Was I not paying attention? Was I doing it on purpose? Alas, the fact that 40 years on I still have the same problem suggests that my failure was not solely due to a lack of application on my part.

Throughout my childhood, I was constantly measured against criteria created for people with a brain that worked differently, developed at a different rate, or needed a different type of input. I had no idea that my brain was not standard issue, though, so I had no idea that other kids weren’t going through the same experience. I just figured that they were all better than me at most things, and that it was absolutely critical that I was perfect at the things that I could do to make up for my shortcomings.

Growing up like that has had a huge influence in how I see myself and react to the world. It has taken me years to realize that 100% is not the pass grade. I don’t know how to convert my past achievements into a sense of self-trust. I have only recently discovered that feeling constantly overwhelmed by absolutely everything isn’t how everyone lives. And, yes, I find rejection unbearably painful, and I’ve been told by experts that it’s “just” my ADHD, that it’s a common symptom and it’s normal – for the likes of us, anyway. But is it? Is it one of my inherent shortcomings, or just one of many skills I’ve not been given a chance to develop? If it’s the latter, can I, like, start working at it now? Because it’s no fun at all, and I’d rather leave it behind.

So, yeah, that’s my thought for the day. I could be full of shit. I’m not particularly looking for a debate on this, just presenting a theory I developed from a handful of statements I found in a terrible book I’m advising you not to buy. So yeah, pinch of salt or three, and please don’t shoot the messenger.

How to keep yourself safe on the interwebs. Part 1: Curation.

(I am toying with the idea of writing a booklet on how to keep yourself safe on the interwebs from an interpersonal relationship standpoint. It may or may not happen, because I’ve got other stuff I want to do, but I’m going to be chucking out drafts of sections whenever something gets my goat I feel inspired.)

Curation.

Curation is “the action or process of selecting, organizing, and looking after the items in a collection or exhibition.” There is nothing new to it. Librarians, who know their shit and are not to be trifled with, do it all the time. The only thing that’s new about it is that we have to decide whether to apply the practice to our digital life, and, if so, how far we are going to take it.

I only use Facebook, which is in itself a form of curation; I looked at other platforms and decided that they were not for me. A search may occasionally take me to Reddit, friends send me links to cute doggos on Twitter, and pretty pictures may make me visit DeviantArt, Tumblr, Pinterest, or Instagram, but I don’t live there. Therefore, I can only talk about curation in Facebook terms; if you decide to go for it, you will have to translate the concepts into platform-appropriate actions.

In a Facebook setting, curation is about deciding who and what we will interact with, and how and when we will carry out those interactions. Do we “friend” anyone who asks us? Do we “follow” all our friends? Under what circumstances do we “unfollow,” “unfriend,” or “block” individuals? Do we engage in conversations with people we don’t know, and if so, in what circumstances and with what boundaries? What groups do we join? What pages do we follow? Do we read the comments?

All these considerations should be familiar to most of us, because they are the same considerations that we make in our “real” life. We pick the people we befriend, and choose the places where we are going to hang out. We have boundaries on the behaviors we tolerate, and consequences we apply when those boundaries are not respected. We pick the papers we read and the programs we watch. In a nutshell, we pick who and what we are going to be spending our time and energy on – to a certain extent anyway. We might not be able to just walk away from our boss, obnoxious as they may be. Telling Grandma to fuck off may get us into trouble, too. However, it is pretty much a given that we have a right to make that kind of choice. In fact, making wise choices in that respect is often hailed as a virtue, because we are not committing the sin of Wasting Our Time.

Curating your “real” life is not always cost-free, particularly when you find yourself in situations where someone wants you to let them ignore your boundaries. If you stick to your guns and end up having to restrict your interactions or to stop them altogether, some people may push back. That makes perfect sense, if you think about it: if they were reasonable, respectful people, you would not have had to cut them out of your life in the first place.

Curating your online life is often no easier, for precisely the same reason: people who don’t respect boundaries don’t respect boundaries. I know that it sounds like a giant case of duh when I put it like that, but many people forget that in the heat of the moment. They find themselves blocking the same person time and time again and wonder what they are doing wrong, because their message is obviously not getting across. They end up blaming themselves for someone else’s misbehavior. IF this ever happens to you, take heart, and remind yourself that if you’ve had to block the same person multiple times, you were definitely right to block them in the first place.

There is another hurdle to online curation. It has become very fashionable these days to lambaste people who curate what the internet brings to their attention. Most commonly, they are accused of “living in an echo chamber”: how can they possibly learn anything or develop as human beings if they refuse to listen to people they don’t like or opinions that clash with theirs? What are they, scared of the truth or something?

There is a nugget of truth to this . There definitely are some people who end up with a very skewed and limited view of the world because they spend most of their online time guided by their confirmation bias. They search and focus only on information and people who confirm their pre-existing points of views until they are basically looking into a mirror. However, they are not as common as the anti-curating movement seems to believe, and their existence does not justify the wide-sweeping accusations routinely levied against anyone who ever tries to leave a conversation, or refuses to make time to read a certain source.

The sad truth is that listening to conflicting points of view can be informative, but it’s not always that informative. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Not all opinions are created equal. There is a subtle difference between reading a book by astrophysicist Brian Cox and a blog about the flat earth theory: the former is popularized astrophysics, and the latter is bullshit. I’m not saying that you can’t gleam nuggets of wisdom from all kinds of places, but they are more likely to turn up in certain places than others. You might want to give flat earth theory a look, just so you know what it’s about, but you might not want to dedicate much time or energy to that pursuit because you have better things to do, and there is nothing wrong with that.
  2. Not all opinions are original. This may appear shocking, but people don’t always come to their conclusions via independent experiments and thorough research. A whole load of people absorb what they hear and repeat it ad nauseam. Therefore, your Aunt Bessie’s opinion on gay frogs may not actually add anything to your knowledge of the subject, because you’ve heard it all before. Yes, you won’t be sure of that unless you let her go through her entire spiel, but you can probably take an educated guess, particularly if she’s just quoting sources you’re already familiar with.
  3. Not all opinions are rare to come by. This is probably not news to you if you are a member of a marginalized group. For instance, if you are visibly queer, you probably don’t need to work very hard to learn about the intricacies of queerphobia; there are plenty of people out there who’re more than willing to shove that information down your throat while you’re just trying to go about your day.

That’s one of the things that strikes me about the Curation Controversy: every time someone has shrieked at me that by not engaging with them I’m choosing to live in a bubble, they have been white, straight, and cis. I suspect – and this is only a theory, and could be nonsense – that it’s because people from marginalized groups know full well that a degree of curation is essential to self-preservation. They know how much trash is spouted both at and about them. They have said trash thrown at them on a regular basis, and they know how very little they are likely to gain by spending their time listening to the umpteenth repetition of a lecture on how much they suck.

People from marginalized groups also know that there is a cost to engaging in that kind of activity. I learnt the term “digital self-harm” from a Contrapoints video. In essence, if you are finding yourself spending a considerable proportion of your time looking for online sources on what a terrible, worthless person you are, you might have a problem. This kind of behavior is a form of self-harm, and it can impact your mental health. Worse than that, if you engage in this kind of thing, your mental health is probably already not that great; healthy, happy, functional people don’t spend hours on the internet self-flagellating, or letting others flagellate them. (If that’s your kink and you’re aware of it and happy with it, carry on as normal, obviously.)

This isn’t to say that all minorities live under a rock, or should do so. President Obama urged Americans to “(…) listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.” He didn’t urge people to live on the battlefield of ideas, though, or to pick up every gauntlet thrown at them. Not every fight is fair or useful, and exhaustion is a thing. Ultimately, if we want to fight a good fight, we need to pick our battles.

We might also want to pick our opponents. Not everyone wants to debate us in good faith, to exchange ideas with us and perhaps even learn from us. Some people just want a pulpit and a congregation. Some take particular pleasure in preaching to those who are most hurt by their words. You might find yourself in faux-conversations where you realize that your interlocutor has nothing new to teach you or won’t listen to your side of the story, and you might decide to still engage them for the benefit of any third parties… Or you might not: it’s up to you, and it should be up to you. It’s your time and your energy, and you get to decide how you want to spend it.

It is also up to you to determine whether the people who are discouraging you from curation are doing so because they have your best interest in mind, because they truly don’t understand your situation and don’t understand the impact of certain interactions, or because they want to hurt you. Typecasting (“Oh, so you want to live in an echo chamber!”), forced teaming (“But we are having such an interesting conversation!”), and ignoring no are standard predatory tactics. The fact that they are being used to “just” drain you of your time and energy and possibly adversely affect your mental health doesn’t make them any more benign.

A metaphor: if you’d like to know more about religions other than your own, you might benefit from reading about them, or having conversations with people who believe in them. You might not convert anyone and they might not convert you, but that’s not really the point: you will end up understanding each other a little bit better, and that’s useful. If a couple of missionaries come to your house, inviting them in and listening to what they have to say is not quite the same. They may teach you something new, but they’re specifically looking for converts, so you won’t really be having a two-way conversation. Still, you may benefit from the experience: you might not agree with anything they have to say, but now you know what they are saying. If missionaries from the same church turn up at your house every day, though, you might not want to invite them in every time. You already know what they’re there to say, and you know that they’re not there to listen, so the interaction won’t really benefit either of you. And if you are walking down the street, and a soapbox preacher starts yelling that people like you are subhuman, deserve horrible fates, and are going hell, you might not want to stop and listen until they’re all talked out.

Not all interactions are equal, and not all are beneficial. There are definite costs and risks to curating your online life, but there are costs and risks to not curating it, too. It is up to you to decide how that balance sheet stacks up. That decision may need to be reassessed periodically; for instance, if you are going through a rough patch because of life issues, or your mental health has taken a turn for the worse, you might have to take better care of yourself for a while, and shielding yourself from the worst of internet vitriol will probably be part of that. If you decide to engage, you might consider scheduling those occasions in order to limit the degree of harm to yourself. For instance, you might not want to jump into the fray first thing in the day, because it spoils your mood for the whole day, or before going to bed, because it will give you insomnia. Your online life should ultimately add to your overall quality of life; if it is damaging your health, you might need to reassess your priorities.

Like it or not, a level of curation is inevitable, because your time is limited. Try as you might, you will not be able to read or watch everything, or talk to everyone, so you have to choose. If you do not make those choices, they will often be made for you, and the results are unlikely to be wholesome. Trolls have no qualms about sucking up people’s time, while considerate people try not to impose themselves on others. As a result, if you let others dictate how you spend your time online, you risk spending most of your time surrounded by trolls.

CW: suicide

I’m about a third of the way into “Hardcore Self Help: F**k Depression” by Robert Duff, and here I am recommending it to you. Yeah, I’ve not finished it yet. No, I’ve not lost the plot. Look: it’s only £2.29. I’ve read it for about an hour, and I already feel that I’ve got my money’s worth. It’s short, sweet, and, thus far, useful. But that’s not why I’m trying to shove it down your throat.

The thing that sold me on it was chapter 4: “A Chapter About Suicide.” I come from a line of clinically depressed and occasionally suicidal people, I belong to groups with alarming suicide statistics, I’ve gone through three periods of severe suicidal ideation, and I’ve lost friends and acquaintances who took their own lives, so I’m a tad biased about the subject. To me, it’s a real and serious issue, so the amount of trash spewed about it angers me more than I can say. In particular, there are two commonly held myths that I’m pretty confident have killed a fair few people:

1. “Those who talk about it never do it.”

Statistically speaking, this could well be true, because talking about your suicidal ideation with people you can rely on is often a good first step towards recovery. It’s one of the pieces of advice Dr. Duff offers. However, that fact is often turned on its head, and the above statement is thrown around to dismiss people who try to talk about their problems. If they reeeeelly were suicidal, they wouldn’t be just talking about it! They’d be out there, getting on with it! The fact that most people who suffer from suicidal ideation would actually very much prefer to be healthy and happy is utterly disregarded. They’re talking about it, so they can’t really mean it. They’re probably just saying it for attention.

2. “If someone says they’re suicidal, just report them!”

The underlying idea is that if a person is really suicidal, they need professional help, so you’re doing the right thing. If a person is faking it, calling the emergency services on them will cure them of that habit. It sounds perfectly logical, but it ignores some key facts.

First of all, in some countries when you report someone in the middle of a mental health crisis, the emergency services dispatch a team of trained medical professionals to assist. In other countries, they send armed police, and that can place the person in question in very grave danger. This is particularly true for groups who are stigmatized, or for individuals who, for whatever reasons, are unable to comply with orders. Even if a person has lied about feeling suicidal, which is a supremely shitty thing to do, they probably don’t deserve to be shot for it.

Even in countries where that isn’t a risk, threatening people with forced hospitalization is more a gag than a cure. It may stop them talking about their suicidal thoughts, but that’s not necessarily because you’ve just called them out on their bullshit, or scared them into sanity. Forced hospitalization terrifies a lot of people for a number of reasons, ranging from having watched “One’s Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” to not wanting one’s children to be taken into care. I am not saying that hospitalization is never a valid solution; I’m just saying that waving it like a bogeyman at people who are already in distress won’t help them be any less distressed. It may encourage them to fester in silence about their mental health problems, though, which isn’t necessarily the best road to recovery, but will give you a quieter life.

If you believe that someone needs professional help, trust your instincts, but use your brain, too. There are usually better, safer, less coercive ways to achieve that than a call to the emergency services. If you’re in a relationship with someone who uses empty threats of self-harm to manipulate you, that’s seriously bad, and I’d advise you to get help – not for them, for yourself. They probably need help, too, but you won’t be able to help them unless you help yourself first. Hell, you might not be able to help them at all.

I’ve said it all before and I will probably say it again, because stuff that kills innocent people tends to anger me. I’m biased. Ignore me. Read the book by Dr. Duff instead. It will take a few hours of your time, but it could help you save a life.

Lanes

I’ve been reading a bunch of secondary literature about neurobiology. It puts me in an interesting position: I know just enough about it to understand what it’s about and to spot when its basic findings are being misused, but that’s it. I have absolutely nothing constructive to contribute to a conversation on the subject, but I find it so interesting that I won’t shut up about it. So for once, I can actually blend in seamlessly with the majority of the public. Yay. Just wait until I get into quantum physics.

One of the most fascinating discoveries I’ve made is how neuroscience is being used to explain most things. Every time a human zigs when hindsight shows that they should have zagged, there’s a neuroscientific reason for that. I wasn’t surprised because the idea that our brains are poorly programmed is new to me, or because I was unaware that our psycho-emotional baggage creates ruts through which our thoughts tend to flow, guiding our actions. What really surprised me was that, apparently, neuroscientists kinda stay in their ruts, too. They are very clever people and get to play with some really cool toys, but they can’t be spending much time hanging out with the likes of me. If they did, they wouldn’t come to certain conclusions.

An example of this is the neuroscientific explanation for the sub-prime mortgage crisis. There’s a theory about it that I should be able to summarize for you, but I can’t, because I tuned it out. I was too busy thinking back about why I bought my first house, back in 2002-2003. At the time, banks were handing out mortgages and loans like they were candy, actively encouraging people like me (younger, with some savings and a relatively secure income) to speculate on the housing market. That wasn’t what motivated me, though; my decision was simply the answer to the following problem:

Your take-home income is £900 per month. Your unavoidable monthly expenses are £350 per month, and that doesn’t include budgeting for any kind of foreseeable expenditures (e.g. vehicle maintenance). Would you rather buy a house for £450 per month, or rent one for £550? And, by the way, your wages go up by 2% max per year, while the cost of housing is climbing at about 10 times that rate. So you better decide quickly, or you won’t be able to decide at all! TICK TOCK!

I’m not saying that neuroscientists are wrong, and that there isn’t a basic wiring fault in the human brain that makes people overestimate the significance of immediate gains while discounting long-term costs. I’m not saying that entrenched optimism can’t fuck people up, either. I’m just saying that, at the time, my hand was forced by my circumstances. I didn’t think buying a house was a great investment, or even a particularly good idea; I just have a strange fascination for sleeping indoors, particularly in the winter. I can’t be sure, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of people were in pretty much the same position as me, and did what they could to meet their immediate safety and security needs. And I find it truly shocking that there are people out there, clever people whose job it is to study other human beings, who are apparently wholly unaware of this.

It makes me think about how often I see people being exhorted to stay in their lanes. Plenty of people would argue that neuroscientists shouldn’t make pronouncements about economic issues, because they’re not qualified to do so. Plenty of other people would argue that of course they should, because neuroscience offers insights that could inform the field of economics. As I see it, the problem isn’t that neuroscientists aren’t staying in their lanes; it’s that they live in their lanes. They either don’t spend any time hanging out with people from different demographics, or they do, and they don’t listen to them.

The best example I know of this phenomenon is the marshmallow test. I can’t wrap my head around it, because, to me and mine, its basic premise is so obviously bogus that I can’t comprehend how the experiment ever saw the light of day. And it’s not that I’m a superior human being, with a brainpower so vast that I know better than trained psychologists: it’s just that I went to school in a pretty bad area of town. I lived alone with my mom, who liked sweets way more than I did. Most of our arguments related to treats consisted of her trying to get me to eat them, when I preferred fruit. All of my schoolmates came from larger families, and their home lives were very different from mine. My best friend had two older siblings and two older cousins who basically lived at her house, because their parents worked. Treats were rare at her house because, with one working parent feeding 5-7 people, there was no money for them. If she didn’t immediately eat what she was given, someone else would snatch it, and it wouldn’t get replaced. My other best friend lived with his grandparents, because his parents had fallen off various rails and couldn’t look after him. He had learnt at a very young age that the value of a promise made by a grown-up can be close to zero, even when that grown-up allegedly loves you. And as for trusting adult strangers, we’d all learned how bad an idea that was by playing at the local park.

I can tell you exactly how me and my two friends would have responded to the experiment: they would have eaten the marshmallows immediately, because for them that was the only way to make sure that they actually got a damn marshmallow. I wouldn’t have eaten mine, so I would have gotten two, and given them to my friends. And it wouldn’t have been out of kindness: I just hated marshmallows and was sick enough of having them shoved down my throat at home. Had the experiment been conducted with cherries, or the ability to go out and play for ten minutes, the results would have been radically different, and I would have “lost”. Had it been conducted when we were a bit older, I would have taken the marshmallow, the plate it stood on, and whatever was left in any unlocked drawers in that room, and waltzed out of there as fast as humanly possible so I could sell or redistribute my loot, because fuck the authorities.

I can only think of two ways in which the marshmallow experiment could have come into being: either nobody at Stanford shared my socioeconomic background, or the people who did didn’t get speaking parts. The result was a clusterfuck of an experiment which, although obviously laughable, was hailed as a major discovery and is still in the process of being dismantled.

I guess this kind of problem could be avoided by people staying in their lanes. Problem is, when you actually look at the real size of most people’s lanes, the result would be very little progress in any field. All of us come from somewhere, and most of us kinda stay there throughout our lives. If we listed all the specifics of what informs our experience, called that our lane, and stuck to it, we’d end up with a very narrow field indeed. More than that, we’d end up with a field that we can’t look at objectively, because we’re too damn close to it.

I wonder whether the opposite approach would work better: to wander wildly out of our lane while being painfully aware that we’re floundering through unknown territories. To keep our ears and eyes open not only to new realizations, but to being told that our realizations are bullshit because there’s just so much we don’t know yet. To be all-unknowing, and to embrace that; I bet that we could do a ton of learning that way. We probably wouldn’t get to write best-sellers about it, though, so I guess it’s a non-starter.