Punishing #1

This is something I’m currently playing with (again: I talked about it in July. It keeps coming back up.). It’s something I increasingly see as a problem in myself and others, possibly because I’m more on the lookout for it. I don’t have a solution to it yet other than “just don’t”, which isn’t terribly useful. I might be wrong. I might be onto something brilliant, but that I’ll never be able to apply to my own life. We’ll see.

Pretty much all of us grow up thinking that we know what “punishment” means. The problems start when we go past the standard dictionary definition of the word, or even some of the more specialist definitions – or rather, when we think that we can do that. Even when we are using a strict definition of the term, most of us have a cosmo of associated thoughts and feelings that we have attached (or have attached themselves) to the term. Many of those thoughts and feelings may be extremely fuzzy and sometimes obviously irrational. The thing is, most of us learnt about punishment when we were tiny tots, quite possibly pre-verbal. Now we are trying to plug in a rational, narrow term to what can be a tornado of feelings and experiences in our head, many of which are subconscious.

The best introduction I know of to how our concept of punishment can trip us up internally is in the Caine’s Law: Book 4 of the Acts of Caine series by Matthew Stover. I’d recommend those books to everyone, except that they are extremely violent, that the part in question turns up in the fourth book of the trilogy (no, really), that it is a two-page dialogue buried in literally hundreds of pages, that you won’t get a feeling for what it means if you read it out of context, and that the whole series is brilliant, but fucking hard work and definitely not for everybody, as per demonstrated by  its reviews. I read that fourth book four times back-to-back when I first landed on it, and not for lack of other things I wanted to read. And then I read the entire four-part trilogy again. I literally go to sleep with the audiobook playing every night. It works for me. It might not work for you. If it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean that you are somehow fucking up by not getting it; it just means that we’re wired differently. Believe me, that is NOT a bad thing.

The crux of the matter is that most people are brought up to think that when they are getting punished it is for something they have done, so the punishment is something that they deserve. The link created is bad behavior => punishment, aka bad behavior => discomfort/pain. The problem can be when we flip that equation the other way round, so that when we are experiencing discomfort or pain we assume that it’s because we have done something to deserve that.

Yes, that makes no sense. Yes, part of growing up is understanding that the world doesn’t work like that, that it isn’t fair, that sometimes things happen for no reason, that terrible things happen to good people, etc. Or is it?

There are plenty of systems and people that insist that punishment IS proof of bad behavior. Some do so with the intent to hurt us, some to help us, and some to maintain the status quo. Many abusers will tell their victims that “they made them do it,” or that “it’s for their own good.” That is an obviously malignant use of the concept, but it isn’t unique. Many religions teach us that if something bad happens to us it is an act of god, and there is a reason for it; even if our pain isn’t a punishment per se, it is a test, something we mustn’t fuck up. Institutions will insist that they deal with us fairly, that we have nothing to fear unless we are at fault; for instance,  that the guilty go to jail and the innocent are set free. As long as we are Good People, we should have nothing to fear from the police, or the HR department, or the principal of our school. Well-meaning people try to smooth out the bumps in our lives  (or to smooth out the effects of our bumps on their lives, more like) by telling us that everything happens for a reason, that what doesn’t kill us make us stronger, blah blah blah. Sometimes this stuff helps us find courage in the moment and sometimes it doesn’t, but it all contributes to maintaining that connection: bad behavior = pain, pain = bad behavior.

We might rationally understand that this is bullshit, but that may not help us much. If we’ve not removed that equation from our subconscious, our six-month-old self who  got yelled at for barfing on mother’s favourite shawl is going to sabotage the hell out of us. The kid knows where it’s at: mother is not just our carer but our god, the source of everything that is good and the ultimate authority on what is bad.* She is the ultimate authority source, incapable of error. If she tells us we’re bad, then we are, regardless of what we think we know on the subject.

We can try and think our way out of this, but that may or may not work because we never thought our way INTO this. What’s likely to happen is that we will overtly think rationally, while being led by the nose by our subconscious thoughts and feelings on the matter. The more we insist that we’ve got it, that those irrational thoughts could never affect us, the more they’ll fuck us up. The fallacies that mess you up the most are those you refuse to accept you’re prone to.

Aside from messing up our own heads, and sometimes our lives, our subconscious context for “punishment” can completely obliterate any hope of us having useful conversations on the subject. We think we all know what we are talking about, and that we are all talking about the same thing, but a buttload of times we don’t.

 

[*Entirely irrelevant aside: sometimes, when I want to scare the crap out of myself, I think about what it must feel like for narcissists to have a child, to finally have someone who recognises them as the centre of the universe, to finally be at the receiving end of the appropriate level of adulation… and then to see that child grow up and start to erode that arrangement. How far would they be willing to go not to lose that feeling?]

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Check this out.

Posting it via the blog so nobody misses it. This website is a gem. I stumbled upon it by accident and I don’t know why it exists, but I’m telling you, you want to check it out:

 

For everybody: Sick Systems: How to Keep Someone With You Forever

 

Bit specific to people with family issues, but interesting in general, with many crossovers with stalkers/obsessive partners: Down the Rabbit Hole: The world of estranged parents’ forums

The part on Dysfunctional Beliefs crosses over particularly well to other settings.

Helpful.

This is going to sound like it’s all about me, but it isn’t. I’m not that special.

I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, aka SAD, aka “the winter blues”. ’tis the most socially acceptable of mood disorders, I wager; the vast majority of the time when I tell someone about it, the response I get is a friendly “oh, yeeeeaaaaah, winter suuucks, I geeet it.”

No, you don’t.

Spend the next four months sleeping 3 hours a day max, while having crushing PMS, while frantically – no, that’s not right: no energy to spare for that – while sluggishly trying not to fuck up your life because you know you’re not firing on all cylinders but there’s fuck-all you can do about it bar watch yourself fuck shit up. Then come back to me and we can talk about how well you’re getting it.

I should not bitch about this: the bottom line is that I can talk about my SAD and expect people not to freak out. They mostly don’t freak out because they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, but it is a subject I can bring up without fear of  a major backlash. Friends of mine who have other, less media-friendly mood disorders can’t do that. They absolutely can “out” themselves, if they so wish, but they have to be prepared for people’s panicked, uninformed, bigoted, or just plain mean reactions. If you don’t believe me, go out and tell ten people in your life that you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and see what kind of response you get. Pick people who can have an actual impact on your life – your boss, partner, closest friends, club leaders – otherwise it’s cheating. If you’re unwilling to do that, then I’m willing to bet that you already know what kind of reaction you’d get.

Anyhoo: I have a mood disorder I can talk about. That simple fact helps me manage it, because I can make the people around me aware that I am experiencing A Problem. Some may cut me some slack, some may not, but at least I can make them aware that something is going on, that there is a reason for my (mis)behavior, that I’m not being weird at them.

Outing myself that way can backfire, normally in three ways. Some people just tell me that either I don’t have SAD or there’s no such thing as SAD. I’m confused, misinformed, exaggerating, or straight-up making shit up. Whatever their reasoning is, it amounts to the fact that my problem isn’t there and I’m talking trash. Our interactions from then on will be marred by the fact that they don’t trust my reality and I don’t appreciate their invalidation of my experience.

Most commonly, as soon as I tell people that I have a problem, a proportion of them comes charging up at me with their solutions. That would be just fucking lovely if any of those solutions were new to me and/or implementable. Alas, 99.9999% of the times they are not. This should surprise nobody thinking rationally about the issue. I’m not a masochist, I can read, and I have access to the internet. If a simple, commonly-known, implementable solution could make my problem go away, I would no longer have that problem. Give me some credit, hey?

Dealing with a barrage of unsolicited, useless advice may sound like a non-issue if you’ve never been at the receiving end of it. Believe me: it’s exhausting. Aside from the time and energy it takes (which is an issue when I’m already running woefully short), people who push advice on you are generally not very good at accepting that you won’t follow it, or hearing how it doesn’t help. Rather than accepting that their advice is a poor fit, they tend to argue for it, which hugely increases the energy and time they are taking from you, which really doesn’t help. For the longest time I couldn’t begin to comprehend the phenomenon: why are so many people so attached to the advice they’re spewing? I mean, this is usually shit they picked up from random articles, not the summation of their live’s work. Then a friend explained to me that people aren’t really trying to help me; they’re trying to be helpful. It’s not about me and my problem: it’s about their ego, their role in our “community”, and our respective status. By rejecting their advice I’m lowering their status or some suchlike shit. I can’t even, frankly, and I can even less around January (ha ha ha; but no, really). Whatever causes the phenomenon, unsolicited, dud advice and the resulting fallout are pretty much guaranteed if any sniff of a problem ever gets out.

The third way in which outing myself can backfire is probably the worst one. I’ve had plenty of conversations where everything I said got brushed off by my interlocutor because “it’s not me speaking, it’s my SAD.”

Yes, that can be a thing. Mood disorders do affect your mood. However, it so happens that I can have SAD and also have actual problems in my life that are causing me distress. I can have SAD and be sad because I am not getting on with my partner and I might have to break up with them. I can have SAD and be scared shitless because I broke my damn back and I struggle to use the toilet on my own. I can have SAD and be lonely, upset by political events, worried about friends whose lives are imploding, stressed about work, and so on and so forth. My SAD is not the root cause of all the negative emotions I have from October to March, and does not invalidate them. In some people’s eyes, however, it does, and that is infinitely draining. It’s exponentially draining when I have to navigate that roadblock while I’m experiencing the symptoms of my SAD… which, if I mention it to those people, is taken to prove their point… so I might as well headbutt a wall instead of talking.

It’s a dilemma. If I don’t out myself and my behavior is affected by my SAD, people think I’m wilfully misbehaving and get pissed off. If I do out myself, I’m going to have to deal with umpteenth people pissed off at me because why won’t I just try yoooooga, and with a fair few people discounting anything I do or say from then on. Picking which possible problem to choose can be a great way to spend the winter.

An alternative solution I’ve used with relatively decent results is to bypass any mention of my actual problem and just discuss the symptoms. People don’t necessarily need to know why I’m so sleep deprived I can barely parse language; they just need to know that I’m sleep deprived. That still gets me the unsolicited advice, but it doesn’t make everyfuckingthing I do and say get put down to my SAD. It also avoids any risk of people acting like assholes because I have a mental health issue hence I am clearly cray-cray and a danger to people and property.

Why am I talking about this crap in the context of a self-defence blog? It turns out that people can expect very similar responses if they out themselves as the survivors of violence or abuse.

If you are a survivor and you’re still dealing with the aftermath, that may show in your behavior. If you don’t tell people about your experience, they won’t know why you’re “being weird” and won’t cut you any slack. If you tell people about it, some will freak out, some will deny it, some will pummel you with useless advice, and some will assume that everything you say or do henceforth is a reflection of your trauma. Let’s not even get into the victim blaming side of things, which is totally a thing, doesn’t just affect women or sexual assault victims, and is not going away just because so many self-defence instructors are determined to ignore that it’s still an issue.

The best course of action will depend on the people you’re dealing with, but it’s hard to know beforehand how people will react to an entirely new stimuli. And that’s assuming you have the option to decide whether to go “public” or not; if you end up in the media, that decision will be taken away from you. Discussing the symptoms you are experiencing rather than the cause may help in some cases, but not always.

What’s the point of this incredibly depressing piece? There are two, actually. Maybe we can’t do anything to stop people behaving unhelpfully towards us when we are working through difficulties, but we can:

  1. Remind ourselves that it’s not about us. It’s a thing people do. People default to their standard response script regardless of what they are responding to. Deniers deny, compulsive advice-givers will give advice, judgemental people will judge, and the assholes will be assholes. They’ll do that whether you go to them with a health issue, a broken down car, a sexual assault, or a hangnail. We just tend to notice it more for serious stuff because it impacts us more. If it’s happening to us a lot it’s because people are people all the damn time, warts and all. It’s annoying as all hell, but it doesn’t say anything about us, our lives, our worth, etc.
  2. Try not to behave that way ourselves. If being at the receiving end of that sucks, we can stop handing it out. If we don’t know what to say, we can say that. If we don’t know what people need, we can ask them. If we think we know what people need, we can still ask them what they actually want and respect their right to steer their own lives.

PSA

Y’all better stop the press for this one, because I’ve got a shocker for you:

People who are selfish and inconsiderate while trying to get you into bed are going to be selfish and inconsiderate in bed, and not much fun to play with.

People who are pushy during their “courtship”, imposing their attentions on you when they are clearly unwelcome; people who pressure you to do things when you’re not ready or in the mood, or things you just do not want to do; people who consistently put themselves first, prioritising their own needs, wants, and feelings over yours; those people are unlikely to morph into considerate, empathetic lovers the moment you get nekkid and start doing the nasty. People just don’t work like that. I’m not saying it’s unicorn-level impossible, but it’s pretty damn unlikely.

So what? So if a person is using any kind of underhanded means to get you into bed, that is not only a warning sign that they’re either hazy as to the true meaning of “consent” or underinvested in securing it, which is fucking dangerous, but also that they’re most likely piss-poor lovers. People who don’t care about whether you enjoy something or not will only ever tickle your fancy by accident. Unless being treated like a living sex-toy is your kink (in which case hey, have fun), you’re unlikely to be in for a great time.

Am I saying that dominant people are inherently crap lovers? Nope. I’m saying that sex, including sex involving power imbalances, requires a solid understanding and respect of the principles of consent first not because feminism tells us so, but simply in order not to suck. I am not going to attempt to disentangle the difference between “a real dom” and “a pushy asshole” because that’s firmly outside my bailiwick, but if you want to get into that kind of thing I’d advise you to do your research. And if you believe that the rando in a bar who’s coming at you with a handful of third-rate pick-up techniques is going to be the sexbomb who finally knocks your socks off, then I wish you the best of luck, but I will be genuinely shocked if things work out well for you.

 

Conversely:

If you’re willing to behave in a selfish and inconsiderate manner in order to get people into bed, then you’re probably a crap lover, as well as a crap human being.

This sounds just straight-up mean, doesn’t it? Too bad, because it’s true.

If you are pushy during your “courtship”, imposing your attentions on those who clearly do not welcome them; if you pressure your partners to do things they are not ready for or things they do not want to do either in that moment or ever; if you consistently put yourself first, because you believe that your own needs, wants, and feelings trump those of the people around you; if you’re just sheer oblivious as to other people’s emotions; then you probably suck in bed, and not in the fun, recreational sense of the word. You might get lucky, find someone who enjoys receiving what you’re handing out, and go on to have a mutually satisfactory sex life together; but as to the majority of people, they’d probably have more fun at home, alone, with or without battery-operated implements or some drying paint to watch.

So what? So if you consistently find yourself using underhanded means to get people into bed, that’s not only a warning sign that you really, really need to read up on what “consent” involves before you make yourself a rapist, but also suggests that you’re a piss-poor lover. Even better, your behavior is literally broadcasting that fact to anyone who knows what to look out for. I’m one of those people. We’re all watching you, and we’re painfully unimpressed.

 

And for those who missed the memo:

“50 Shades of Cack” sold a gazillion squillion copies, causing some folk to believe it to be indicative of What Women Reeeeelly Want (as well as causing second-hand shops to beg their customers NOT to donate their copies because there was such a flood of them… but nobody cares to mention that. Hmm.). I would like to bring to those folk’s attention the fact that the Harry Potter books sold 400 million copies, yet nobody’s suggesting that most people aspire to be emotionally abused orphans consistently neglected by their assigned carers and hounded by a psychopathic serial killer.

 

NSFW moral of the story: DO NOT BE THIS PERSON. EITHER OF THEM.

 

[This PSA is brought to you by the umpteenth young woman who came to me with a story of how a guy got her to have sex with him when she didn’t really want to by the simple means of being physically insistent regardless of her clearly-articulated nos (which is, by the way, straight-up sexual assault – no ifs, no buts) until she gave up telling him to stop, and who was then surprised and disappointed when he pumped thrice, squirted once, rolled over, and went to sleep, without any consideration as to her side of things. I am genuinely sorry about every person to which this happens, but we collectively and individually need to fit it into our heads that it is A Thing, a common phenomenon, the way this kind of thing goes because how else could it possibly go? It is not a freak occurrence. And it’s about time that we stop playing our part in it.]

Strictly business: talks

I am getting enquiries about doing talks in various places. The answer is: yes, but.

Things I can do:

  1. Drag my ass to various locations, particularly if they are not hellishly far away.
  2. Give presentations, kinda. There’s a reason I communicate mostly in writing.

Things I cannot do:

  1. Contact people and organisations in your town so I can plan a presentation for you to attend.
  2. Be out of pocket for travel costs, no matter how eager people are to hear me.
  3. Provide discount copies of my books. This isn’t because I want to get alllll the money I get from Amazon sales ($o.oo4 per page on ebooks, last time I checked) but simply because I do not in fact get cheap copies of the books given to me, so I don’t have anything to hand out.
  4. Speak coherently in any language other than English. Even English is touch and go.

Moral of the story: if you want me to descend upon you and talk at people; if you can organise all the details of said talk (venue, tickets, whatever); if you can cover my travel costs upfront (I spent over 6 months chasing my last cheque); if you can find me a floor to sleep on; if you accept the fact that not all writers are in fact speakers; then I may be able to do it. This applies only to Nov-Feb, because from March to October I am normally hellishly busy with my actual job.

Quirks.

I have a friend who is very clever. He is way cleverer than the average person and has all kinds of certificates to prove that. He doesn’t rub that in people’s faces, though, because he is not that kind of person. He gets really angry, however, when people won’t listen to him. He sees people struggle with all kinds of problems to which he has clear, obvious solutions, but the vast majority of the time his solutions are rejected. He knows his friends aren’t as smart, but he knows that they are smart enough. It logically follows that they must be rejecting his solutions out of some kind of stubbornness, a deliberate decision to ignore what he’s saying for their own petty purposes.

I’ve seen this dynamic unfold a number of times and I’ve come to a different conclusion. The problem isn’t that they are not listening to him, but that he is not listening to them. He’s so focused on solving their problems that he barely listens to them, jumps to conclusions based on incomplete information, and tries to plug stock solutions that are doubtlessly very good where they fit, but simply don’t fit there. He’s constantly going around frantically insisting that people should try to shove square pegs into round holes, and getting angry about the fact that they won’t even try.

His quirk used frustrate me, particularly when it was aimed at me. In fact, I felt insulted: why would anyone believe that they have a better handle on my life than I do? Why would they assume that a problem I’m struggling with could be gotten rid of by an obvious, simple solution? What am I, stupid? Then I got to wondering: why does he believe that it’s his job to fix everyone’s life, anyway? I understand how he’d develop the belief that he’s more intellectually capable than anyone else, but that doesn’t explain his urge to put right other people’s business. Are his “gifts” a bonus to him, or a burden? When and how did other people’s lives become his responsibility?

I have a friend who is extremely good at working out the hidden motivations behind people’s behaviors, even when they’re subconscious and the people in question don’t have a clue. He’s good like that: he can reverse-engineer what goes on in people’s minds easy as anything. That only works if he can understand those motivations, though. If he can’t, he still draws a conclusion, but it’s always the same one: those people are doing whatever they are doing purely for attention. It’s a clear binary split: either he can explain a behavior, or it must be just attention seeking. What exactly they are doing doesn’t matter, and neither does what they have to say on the subject.

His attitude used to vex the hell out of me because it seemed incredibly dismissive. Way to trivialise people’s motivations! Way to disregard the mere possibility of them being self-aware and honest! Then something occurred to me: how many times would a parent need to tell a child off for “attention seeking” before that child internalises that accusation? How many times would that child need to be dismissed for wanting something the parents do not understand or do not agree with before not only he gives up asking, but he convinces himself that he must have been in the wrong, and his parents must have been in the right, and that that’s the right way for the world to be?

I have a friend who reacts to each and every serious event, of any scale, by running around and urging everybody to ignore it and just hold on tight to their nearests and dearests. The whole thing used to enrage me: aside from the fact that some of these events ARE affecting my nearest and dearest, way to check right out of society. Way to give up rights, duties, and agency in one quick step.

Then I wondered: how many times does a kid have to wake up in the morning and put the house back together because mom and dad had a “disagreement” before they start to hold inner-tribe peace as the main priority? How hopeless and disenfranchised does someone have to feel before they decide that putting any effort into affecting the world at large is perfectly futile?

I have friends who have quirks, and I am a quirky friend. I have a number of non-standard reactions to common stimuli. Sometimes that gives me an edge over “normies”, particularly in emergency situations. In everyday life, though, I often just end up zigging where other people zag, sometimes bumping into them and causing a lot of unnecessary chaos. Sometimes I can look at the chain of events that brought me my quirks; where they come from, why they were adaptive back then, how I’ve been maintaining them out of context, and how they are maladaptive now. Sometimes I don’t have a clue; all I know is that everyone else does X when I do Y, but why the hell they do X is beyond me. I have to get right into my mechanisms, take them apart, look at their origins (often buried under seemingly minor events from the olden days), and then try damn hard to stop myself falling into them next time that kind of situation pops up. If I don’t control my quirks, my quirks control me. They are part of my automatic piloting system.

I know that some people are proud of anything that makes them different from the norm, but I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s because I don’t think the norm is so bad, after all. Maybe it’s because I’d like to bump into fewer solid objects, or because I’m not so attached to every part of myself that I’d like to keep everything, even the bits that suck. It seems to me that if something isn’t useful to me here and now, putting it on a pedestal under the guise of individualism, self-expression, or anything else isn’t going to change that. It doesn’t matter to me how baked into my identity it is: I want to do better, and if that means that I have to change myself, so be it.

Sometimes I wonder if the best we can all expect is to work out which Peanuts character we are and make the necessary adjustments. If we are Pig-Pen, we can make ourselves take a bath even when we don’t feel like it. If we are Linus, we can accept that nobody else is going to believe in the Great Pumpkin, and talk about something else instead. If we are Charlie Brown, we can remind ourselves that our anxieties have anxieties. Wanting to be better than we are is all very well, but ignoring that right here and now we’re kinda fucked doesn’t seem terribly helpful.