Paradigm shifts.

“Psssssst, Anna! You know that thing you just wrote, that thing that’s not only a key aspect of your personal recovery strategy but also an integral and cherished part of your identity? Well, it’s messed up. It’s as messed up as a bucket of weasels, in fact.”
“What? Oh, goodness me! Thank you for telling me that! Would you like to be my friend forever?”

That is, pretty much, how it went. There I was, working on the Toolkit, passing it around people willing to test drive it. This near-stranger off Facebook told me, very gently but very clearly, that there was a serious problem with a part of it. The challenge was that the problem was built in pretty deep not only within my system, but within my identity. It was built into the way I looked at the world and at myself. It was a pretty big issue, and required a paradigm shift. So I said “thank you”, spent two days rewiring my brain and redrafting, showed him the results, and asked him to be my editor. We’re still working together, and long may we continue.

That’s not normally how it goes. In fact, expecting it to go like that is a recipe for disaster.

There were a number of factors in play which made me particularly receptive to getting told my thinking was out of whack:

  1. I was writing about a very sensitive subject, and very conscious of the possibility that if I said the wrong thing I could mess people up. I was infinitely more invested in avoiding that than in protecting my ego.
  2. I am very aware of how much I’ve messed up, over the years, due to faulty programming. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who can spot a bug in my code and can explain it to me in a useful fashion deserves a medal.
  3. My friend was clear but gentle. I know I’ve said it before, but this is important. Because he was aware of the extent of what he was asking of me, he approached the subject with a lot of care. As a result, I felt that I was getting help, rather than under assault.

Regardless of how incorrect or dysfunctional the belief you’re jettisoning is, paradigm shifts can be hard and painful. While in the long-term the change may be wonderful, something that improves your life forever, in the short term giving up one of the cornerstones of how you view and process the world is a big deal. Asking someone to go through that kind of process is dicey. It could very well be the last conversation you have with that person.

That doesn’t mean that you ought not to do it. However, it does mean that you ought to do it with as much care and tact as you can muster – and that’s not just to spare feelings. People absorb and process information much better when they don’t feel threatened or challenged. If you truly want to help someone, this is one of those situations where gently does it.

“Why won’t you go out with me?”

“Go out with me?”

Thank you, but no thank you.

“But I am male and you are female!”

You Tarzan, me Jane? How quaint. Howsoever, the fact that our plumbing is compatible is not a sufficient inducement for me.

“But I am right here!”

Alas, proximity is still not a sufficient inducement, and knowing that I meet your criteria by being “a vagina in your postcode” is kinda repulsive. I know I’m more speshul than special, but I still aspire to someone who wants me, not someone/anyone.

“But I like you!”

That’s nice, thank you. However, the level of your liking is not reciprocated.

“But we don’t have to have an actual relationship. You could just give me the pussy?”

Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I neither want to go out, nor in-and-out with you.

“But you have in the past given the pussy to X!”

Yes, I have. And to Y and Z too. Howsoever, I could have humped every letter of the alphabet and still not want to hump you. My decision to engage in coitus with new people is not affected by the fact that I have previously engaged in coitus with other people. Everyone gets evaluated as an individual. We’re neither in Iran nor in Victorian England; my standards haven’t dropped nor need to drop because I am no longer a maiden.

I gave the pussy to X because I wanted to. That’s the missing element here: I don’t want to give it to you.

“But that’s not fair!”

So, when did you become the mayor of Creepy Town?

Listen up and listen good: MY PUSSY IS NOT A PUBLIC SERVICE. There are no issues of “fair allocation”, because NOBODY IS ENTITLED TO ACCESS TO IT.

“So what’s he got that I don’t?”

Imagine a series of concentric circles. The largest circle is “people”. Then you get “male people”, “male people I know”, “male people I know and like”, “male people I know and like who are eligible”, and then and only then “male people I know and like who are eligible and I am sexually attracted to”, aka The Danger Zone. I am only willing to bonk people in The Danger Zone. And you, my man, are not only not there, but pushing yourself further and further away from it.

“Sexual attraction is a superficial and immature reason for getting into a relationship!”

Oh, to be sure. But sexual revulsion is a good reason not to want to let someone get in your pants.

“Relationships are not all about sex!”

Hmkay. So how about we have a relationship where we don’t have sex, ever? You know, like what we’ve having now?

“But you are currently single!”

Yes, that I am. However, I don’t have a desperate need to fill my life or my orifices with people just because of that fact.

“So you are saying that you’d rather be single than go out with me?”

Actually, this is what I’ve been doing my level best NOT to say for the last half hour. But yes, that’s about the gist of it.

“But why?!”

…and this is when things tend to really go south, because the question gives me two options: make some vague noises that won’t upset anyone’s feelings, or be truthful.

If you are vague: “That’s just bullshit! You don’t know what you want! No wonder you’re single!”

If you are truthful: “You’re a total bitch! No wonder you’re single!”

An Open Letter To Nice Guys In The Friendzone, From A Gay Man’s Perspective

Yet another stolen post. It’s not that I’m lazy; it’s that I’ve tried to put this into words for ages, and never managed to do it half as well.

Shock, horror. If you treat people as if they were replaceable cardboard cut-outs in a little scene you’re constructing for your own entertainment, most of them ain’t gonna like it.

Your problem is…

The flipside of my last post is that sometimes distance brings clarity. By not being personally involved in a situation, you may be able to make a more balanced assessment of what is really going on, while the people in it are too busy and too involved to look at the big picture. That can put you in a bit of a spot: how do you tell someone that their ongoing problems with a loved one are merely symptoms of a serious underlying condition? How do you tell them that, regardless of how hard they try, they can’t fix this?

Say you have a friend who has ongoing issues with a partner/parent/child. They are constantly dealing with the same problems – inappropriate behaviours, abnormal emotional reactions, minor issues escalating into crises, you name it. They are coming to you for venting and advice. They’ve tried everything they can think of, and they can’t stop the problem reoccurring. They don’t know what else to do. They are starting to think that there is something wrong with them. The person they are having the problem with supports this view.

From your perspective, you’re able to take a better measure of where normality sits – and yes, even in this tolerant age there are parameters for normality. Because you are uninvolved in the situation, able to look at it from a distance, it’s easy for you to see that the problem is not with your friend. The party they are having problems with shows behaviours and attitudes that are consistent, and consistently out of kilter. For instance, they may be consistently paranoid, neurotic, self-involved, grandiose, controlling, destructive, self-destructive, etc. You are aware that this can be the symptom of a personality disorder. You might not be able to advance a specific diagnosis, but you’ve seen enough to believe that the situation cannot  be resolved without addressing the underlying cause of the problems.

What do you do with that information? That kind of awareness can be a useful tool. In many cases, if you know what someone’s disorder is you can work around it, effectively manipulating them into a semblance of normal behaviour. It isn’t normality, though, and it requires you to constantly remind yourself that the person you are dealing with is very much unlike you, and never will be. It can help making the situation tolerable, but it creates a permanent barrier between you. Can you see yourself telling someone that their partner has antisocial personality disorder, so is effectively unable to return their love? That they will never have a normal relationship with their parent, or with their child? Can you see yourself warning them that if professional help is not obtained, their loved ones may be a danger to others?

And then there’s the other possibility – that the person coming to you with the problem is the problem, that it’s their distorted perception of the world that is causing the situation they are in, and making life hell for those around them. I’ve tried disentangling that a few times, and never managed.

Relatively functional.

Funny things can happen when people look at families from the outside and try to work out how to fix them. Without knowing how situations developed, or only seeing one aspect of them, it’s very easy to confuse reactions with causes. For instance, X roughly stood up to Y, whereby Y was visibly upset; hence X is cruel and callous. Without sufficient background information, they may not realise that there’s a lot more going on. For instance, it may be that Y is a self-obsessed life-sucking parasite whose demands X could never ever meet without submitting to vorarephilia of the soul. That’s not an obvious trait, though, and people can only see what’s in front of them. It doesn’t stop them judging, though. This poses an interesting conundrum to people who are stuck with relatives who have a personality disorder, but are relatively functional.

If you have a relative who is positively and obviously affected by a psychological disorder, chances are that you might reap a modicum of public support. That is not the case if you are stuck with someone who may be able to manage most aspects of everyday life – be decent neighbours, good acquaintances, reliable co-workers, whatever – but simply does not have what it takes for a closer, healthy bond. You end up stuck stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you treat your relative based on their stated role, as if they were normal people capable of healthy relationships, chances are that you will get screwed. If you treat them based on their disorder, you will be pilloried.

This is bad enough if the relative in question is a socialised psychopath or grandiose narcissists; they tend to be charming in the short-term, but either not deepen their relationships or wear thin on people. Vulnerable narcissists, however, are a different kettle of fish. They might not have many close friends, for the simple reason that they are terrible chores; the company of needy, neurotic, self-involved sad sacks isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This doesn’t mean that they can’t get a permanent fan club, though. There are plenty of people willing to tolerate them for short periods, either because they feel sorry for them or because their presence makes them feel superior. Those are often the people who will often tear you a new one if and when you dare rock the boat.

It can be hard enough to work out and accept the fact that someone with whom you should be able to have a loving, fulfilling relationship is just not capable of supporting it. On top of that, you might be struggling with the conflict between your familial responsibility and your sense of self-preservation; although you may be confident that you are doing what you need to do for your own sake, you might still struggle with feelings of guilt. Being subjected to public scrutiny and found sorely wanting is not precisely what you need to crown it all, but chances are it’s what you’ll get.

A new breed of monster.

I learnt something new last week. I was reading a pop psych article about narcissists, scoffing at how superficial and obvious it was and basking in my intellectual superiority, until it mentioned something I’d never heard about: “vulnerable narcissists”. I’d never heard that such a beast existed, though the concept is not new – a very good article explaining it dates back to 2011:

Evidence has accrued to suggest that there are 2 distinct dimensions of narcissism, which are often labeled grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Although individuals high on either of these dimensions interact with others in an antagonistic manner, they differ on other central constructs (e.g., Neuroticism, Extraversion).

In simpler (hence more inaccurate) terms, narcissists are people who are excessively self-preoccupied, have restricted empathy, and are often oblivious of their negative impact on people’s lives. I think of them as “mememe!” people. A proportion of them are the Grandiose Narcissists, self-confident and superior, constantly demanding adulation and respect from those around them and sometimes acting out if they don’t get it – “lookatme!” people. Ironically, those are the narcissists who have been getting most of the attention – the ones we commonly get warned against in popular books and magazines.

There is another facet of the disorder, though. Vulnerable Narcissists are still self-preoccupied and oblivious of others, but these traits are combined with a neurotic fear of rejection and abandonment, as well as feelings of low self-esteem, guilt, or shame. If people don’t treat them as they “deserve”, they may feel helpless, anxious, or victimized – I call them the “ohpoorme!” people.

Vulnerable Narcissists are are a plague upon the planet. If one of them manages to infiltrate your life (something you might not be able to prevent – we don’t all get to pick our co-workers, children, parents,…), you will have the opportunity to realise how keeping them on an even keel is a full-time job. Their need for reassurance cannot be quenched. Anything anyone says or does is about them, or aimed at them. Any choice you might want to make that clashes with their perceived needs or wants is clearly a manifestation of your cruelty. How could you treat them like that? How could you be so cruel?

To make matters worse, Vulnerable Narcissists are often able to attract a lot of popular support. Grandiose Narcissists, although flamboyant, tend to wear thin on most people in a relatively short period of time; once people spot their combination of selfishness and arrogance, they tend to not want to know. Vulnerable Narcissists, on the other hand, are life’s kicked puppies.

The people at the sharp end of their neediness may realise how oppressive, controlling, and life-sucking their behaviour is, but those looking on from the outside may only see a sad, unfortunate person. If you decide to address their behaviour or, god forbid, to finally jettison them from your life, it will be made out to be a sign of your cruelty. How could you treat them so badly, when all they needed was your compassion?


Once upon a time, a friend of mine had a total meltdown talking to me: I’m talking about full-on uncontrollable hysterics, to the point that I could not understand what she was trying to tell me until half an hour later when she’d finished sobbing and screeching. When she eventually calmed down enough to talk, the shocking revelation was that her husband would use the f-word when they had a disagreement.

Yes, folks: that was it. Her husband didn’t beat her or violate her or shout at her or threaten her or intimidate her or socially isolate her or financially control her or berate her or blame her or play mind games. All he did was occasionally drop the f-bomb in order to influence her behaviour.

Had he done the same to me, he would have gotten a pretty poor response. The only way in which anyone’s swearing affects me is inasmuch as it affects my opinion of them. (While I use plenty of swears as exclamations or adjectives, I don’t much hold with swearing at people. Yes, it’s idiosyncratic.) I wager many people’s reactions would be closer to mine than to those of my friend. Thing is, we aren’t the people at the receiving end of the behaviour. My friend was: the swearing was specifically aimed at her (the guy didn’t habitually swear), and she couldn’t deal with it. Not only it upset her, but it shamed her into silence, because she didn’t want to be “one of those women whose husbands swear at them.”

Now, it is tempting to class the entire thing as a non-issue. It could be that my friend was simply over-sensitive, and needed to toughen up and/or let it go. I’m a horribly suspicious bastard, though, and my money’s on another possibility. I wager that the guy was the cleverest abuser I’ve ever met.

My friend had a pretty solid social group with whom she was in regular contact. There were a number of forms of abuse she was immune to purely through having so many people ready and willing to fight for her; people who just wouldn’t have taken being dislodged from her life.  As a manly-man domly-dom douchenozzle, his options were pretty limited. The least hint of physical abuse would have landed him in a police cell. That didn’t matter, though, because he didn’t need to go that far. He had found the perfect handle to manipulate her; the one thing he could do that would hurt her hard enough to make her go entirely untogether; the thing that she would find so shaming that she wouldn’t mention it to anyone; the thing that, even if she ever did mention it, most people would probably have dismissed as over-sensitivity on her part. Maximum rewards and minimum risks. Bingo.

The whole incident made me reconsider my internal classification of what is “abuse.” Seems to me that it’s less about what is being dished out per se, than why and to whom. I’m still working on a word definition, but it’s along the lines of “deliberately using excessive force (in the broadest sense of “force”) for the specific purpose of the long-term non-consensual manipulation and/or injury of another person.” Or not. Something like that, anyway. Which would be no use whatsoever in a court of law, but as a personal compass serves me just fine.

Good Little Vulcans.

I tend to befriend people who are a little bit Vulcan about things, largely because I am a little bit Vulcan myself. We have the same approach to emergencies: we immediately focus on trying to deal with the practicalities in a pragmatic fashion. It’s not that we don’t care about the emotional side of things; we just prioritise the practical. It seems the only logical way to go about things: after all, unless you address the causes behind them, the emotional issues will just keep cropping up over and over again. If you don’t like people getting hurt, removing the thing that’s hurting them seems to be the best solution. For us, that’s obvious. For other people, however, that indicates that we’re “unfeeling” or “uncaring” or “robotic” or “borderline autistic” – and I quote. (Ho-hum, can’t please everyone.)

Being practical and pragmatic are rather functional attributes. Not only they make us better able to deal with our problems, but they can also enable us to help others dealing with theirs. Where they become dysfunctional is when we forget that we are, in fact, still humans.

It turns out we still have feelings – feelings that may be not only distracting, but even <shudder> illogical. Feelings that affect how we, well, feel, hence they impact on our quality of life. We refuse to be overwhelmed by them, which is cool. What is uncool is when when we refuse to accept, respect, or work around our feelings; or, worse, when we scrutinise them “logically” and judge ourselves when we find them sub par, like Good Little Vulcans.

Example 1: A friend of mine was sexually assaulted on her own sofa. She dealt with the perp and the event as well as anyone could. She restored her safety and sanity. Still, she found herself struggling with an aversion to the piece of furniture. This was clearly irrational; it wasn’t the sofa’s fault she got assaulted; the sofa was not increasing her risks of a future assault; the sofa was a perfectly good piece of serviceable furniture, with plenty of life still in it. To get rid of it would be illogical.

It never occurred to her that her feelings, though maybe illogical, were actual pretty natural; that most people wouldn’t want a perennial reminder of an awful event right in their living room. It also never occurred to her that, if anyone else had the same problem, her logical advice would have been to get rid of the damn thing immediately, the logic being that ensuring emotional well-being and speeding up recovery are infinitely more important than any damn piece of upholstery.

Example 2: A friend’s kid was unsuccessfully sexually assaulted. The kid did splendidly, coming out of it with no serious injuries and no criminal charges. As utterly shitty situations go, it had gone pretty damn well. My friend was also doing splendidly at supporting the kid, getting help, keeping things together, making plans for the future, etc. I firmly believe that nobody could have done any better. Still, my friend felt “agitated”, and kept berating himself about it.

I had to point out to the guy that that normal humans are subject to emotional reactions; that a modicum of agitation is the natural response to someone trying to brutalise your kid, regardless of the outcome; that he would have to be a pretty odd parent/person not to have an emotional reaction to that kind of event; that his feelings weren’t getting the better of him, as he wasn’t allowing them to cloud his judgement or push him into rash actions.

Being logical and pragmatic is grand. But when being logical and pragmatic becomes our main priority, it can makes us pretty damn irrational, or even mean to ourselves; and that’s counterproductive and illogical.

Read this.

Don’t read my blog today. Read this instead.

Yes, it’s from a female perspective. The writer is a female; that colours her experience. I have no idea if male survivors are “encouraged” to report in the same way, or told that it’s their fault if their rapist rapes again. I know it happens to a lot of women. I know that some self-defence writers believe it hard enough to put it in their books. (Incidentally, did you know that if you throw a paperback at a wall hard enough, you can make it rain pages?) I know that it can affect the medical care you receive, or fail to receive. And I know it’s messed up in a variety of ways, and it really ought to stop.

So please read this, absorb it, gender-neutralise it to your heart’s content, and hit people on the head with it until it sinks in. Please. Doesn’t apply 100% of the time to 100% of the people, but when it does it’s a right kick in the teeth.


I was indulging an acquaintance in her usual rant about the local roads and drivers. I mentioned that since I got my new-to-me-but-extremely-old van (aka Matilda), I’ve noticed a change in how other road users treat me. My driving hasn’t slowed down in the least; if anything, Matilda is a bit nippier than her predecessors. Still, a lot of drivers seem hell-bent on overtaking me regardless of all other considerations. I can be doing 50 on a 50 at the end of a 50 cars line, and they’ll still near-kill themselves to get past me. I attribute it to the fact that Matilda looks decrepit, and they make assumptions about my speed rather than checking what’s going on.

My customer had a completely different theory: “It’s nothing to do with your vehicle! It’s because you’re a woman!”

Now, as narratives go, that one is rather attractive. Me and my driving and my van are fine: I’m being oppressed by the misogyny inherent in the system! If my focus was on shifting blame as far away from myself as possible, this would be perfect.

The teeny tiny problem with it is that it is obviously bogus. People behind me can’t see me, so they can’t know that I’m a woman. If I was driving a Barbie pink Smart Car, ok, they might be guessing; but nothing about “decrepit ex builder’s van” suggests “chick at the wheel”. Could it be the seductive sway of my bumper?

I didn’t much see the point in challenging my customer, as she was happy with the narrative she had created (which, naturally, also applies to herself). I did get me thinking about a few people who seemed to go through a similar process, managing to find explanations for their problems that made very little sense, but suited their purposes.

A female colleague was adamant that guys never hit on her in bars because “they are threatened by a strong, independent woman.” I’ve always been puzzled by how that was supposed to have worked. Without talking to her, how did they know that she was strong and independent? Personally I wondered if it didn’t have more to do with the fact that she looked and dressed like a guy, to the point that she was routinely addressed as “sir” by strangers. She was aware of this, obviously, and routinely annoyed by it. Yet, she apparently never considered that it may be a factor affecting men’s willingness to try and pick her up.

A friend was convinced that women rejected him because of his back problems. He had been at the receiving end of the same not-back-related list of complaints, culminating in the same Dear John letters, a dozen times by dozen women, but those weren’t the “real” reasons. They were just excuses those women were making for dumping him because he was, eventually, going to be a cripple. The fact that his back problems started in his late 30s while his problems with women started in his teens apparently was not a relevant data point.

When I look around, this kind of mental process seems far from rare. I guess finding a soothing narrative is comfortable, or at least comforting, however incorrect that narrative may be. However, I wonder whether the comfort derived from it is worth being stuck in the same place, dealing with the same problems, time and time again.