Content warning: this blog discusses mental illness, trauma and mentions maladaptive coping mechanisms. It may be difficult to read for people who have experienced abuse.
When I finally got the consultation for the therapy I’d been waiting over a year for, the therapist was the first I’ve spoken to who actually seemed to understand me. She noticed things about me that no therapist has before.
“See that tattoo on your arm Gabe? If you’re going to do this kind of therapy, you’re going to need to take off your mask. Just like that. You have to be vulnerable and stop over intellectualising your feelings.”
Even though I knew this therapist could help me, I refused the treatment.
When I say I refused treatment, what I mean to say is that after extending a one session consultation to four sessions, both the practitioner and I came to a consensus that psychodynamic therapy is not right for me at this time. You’d think that after such a battle to get treatment I’d be angry or upset; I was referred to the community mental health service, who sent me to the trauma team, who referred me back to the community team again – with months of waiting in between. Worse still, this is only my most recent therapy journey: it is the latest in a chain of therapeutic misadventures that started when I was around seventeen. I was, understandably I think, growing increasingly desperate and frustrated with the system.
I’m not being dramatic when I say that the wait could have killed me; it nearly did. I was referred to these teams because I was in crisis, but now I am not. As I write this, I’m approaching six months of being sober from alcohol, and free from self-harm. I discussed my progress with the consulting therapist, and we came to an agreement:
Could I benefit from therapy?
Is this the right time?
There’s so much discourse URGING people with destructive behaviours to ‘GO TO THERAPY’. In fact, it’s a bit of a meme. What we’re really saying when we ask people to ‘go to therapy’ is: please develop a modicum of self-awareness, and do some work on yourself rather than causing people grief with your fuckboyish ways, or rather, please take some responsibility for your actions by learning how to express your emotions in a more constructive manner. It’s not quite as funny when we put it like that, right?
These are all good and valid reasons to go to therapy, but the realities of therapy are vastly more complicated. There are different types for different things: some therapy is about coping with the day-to-day, and some therapy (especially trauma-based therapy) has the potential to make your day-to-day life infinitely worse during the process. The kind of therapy offered to me, the kind of therapy I may eventually need, is more likely to make my immediate life a living nightmare than help me cope with it.
Let me explain this using the story that my therapist and I told together.
In my head there is a box, and in that box there is a creature. We don’t know what the creature looks like, though we can hazard a guess from the shadows it casts. We do, however, know that it is there and if I speak its name, it will change me forever. When I first got my referral, I was in crisis because I had discovered the box by chance, and (because I, like Pandora, am a curious bitch) opened it. I slammed the lid shut as quickly as I could, but it was too late. The creature had awoken and wouldn’t let me close the box properly. Just catching a glimpse of it changed everything I thought I knew about myself. It made me feel and remember things I hadn’t dared admit, and still don’t entirely understand.
I tried to weigh the lid down. I stacked books on the box to keep it closed, but they weren’t heavy enough. I couldn’t banish the monster from my mind – I was both fascinated and disgusted by it.
I didn’t know what to do: to close the box properly, I would have to open it again, and I was already so fucking weak. The creature’s presence dominated my waking life, and invaded my dreams. It became all I could think about. I tried various ways of appeasing it: I hurt the creature, I tried to get it drunk, I tried to starve it, and if you know me, you’ve probably guessed by now that I tried to fuck it too. None of it worked. The more I tried to silence the creature, the louder it screamed, and it became more and more difficult to block out the noise. It was hard. I was afraid to be alone.
Eventually I realised that living this way was killing me. Instead of giving up, I changed my strategy. I gave the monster a stern telling off, and scared it into stillness and silence long enough to give me time. I practised kindness as praxis and worked on becoming strong. Sometimes the monster tried to creep further out of the box, but this time, I’d recovered enough to drive it back. Eventually, after a lot of trying and failing, I managed to close the lid properly, this time, trapping the creature inside. It’s a victory, if a tentative and temporary one.
The box will always be there. Sometimes it oozes, and sometimes the creature whispers it will escape, take my sleep, and rob me of my sanity. I know that, one day, I will need to open the box and face the creature inside, but now is not the time. Right now the monster is manageable: when it makes a mess, I clean it, when it growls, I feed it snacks, and when it whispers to me, I tell it a story until it falls asleep. I’m still afraid of naming the monster, and afraid of what kind of person this monster has made me. However, most importantly, I’m not afraid to sit with it now – and sit with it, I must. It’s a lonely thing. The monster is open to polyamory, but it has to be my primary, or it gets jealous. It keeps its own schedule: google calendar is no good here. When it calls, I have to listen. I have to commit to it; I have to commit to myself.
My therapist said that I seem to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality sometimes, and that I use fantasy to make myself feel better about the bad things that have happened to me. She said it’s important to use fantasies to cope, but we can’t let fantasies undermine or invalidate the difficult realities of our lived experiences. The reality of therapy is that it’s like any treatment: you have to weigh the benefits against the costs. My reality is that I’m away from my support network to do a PhD. I’ve just managed to claw my way out of perpetual crisis, and doing this therapy would pull me right back in. Right now, if I want to finish this project, all I can do is damage control.
I’d like to open the box and face my monster. I’d like to sort through my issues, and get to the hope at the bottom of the box. The truth is, it’s not safe, and I’m not ready.
My therapist told me that one day, that to do therapy, I will have to take off my mask and learn to be vulnerable. The thing is, that mask is doing something – it’s protecting my face.
A note from the author:
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I wanted to update you on what’s going on with me right now, and to explain why therapy isn’t always appropriate. It was a really tough decision, and a part of me is still unsure. I am still having talk therapy once a week to cope, so I’m not entirely without support.
Have you had any similar experiences with therapy? If you feel comfortable, leave me a comment or tweet me! I’m always happy to hear from you! Please feel to share the post, if you’d like. I appreciate your support. ❤
I needed to cry and I couldn’t, so I made a game instead.
This project simulates one of the most difficult things to explain about my mental illness. Well, actually, let’s frame this not in terms of mental illness, but in terms of neurodiversity. This game explores the ways in which some brains function a little differently to others, and details some of the struggles that may be experienced by neurodiverse people when functioning within neurotypical romance ideals and dynamics.
Romantic relationships are often conceptualized as sites of comfort and security – things we can count on, at least for a time. More nuanced portrayals speak to their challenges, however, difficult relationships are often labelled as ‘bad’, ‘toxic’ or ‘unhealthy’. It’s rare to come across acknowledgement that what may be functionally a ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ relationship may be more difficult for one partner than another.
If there’s no harmful conduct, difficulties individuals experience in relationships can often be dismissed, such as when a mentally ill person is labelled as ‘high-functioning’. The appearance of ‘functioning’ or ‘good’ behaviour should not be taken as a marker of mental health, just as when a relationship appears ‘healthy’ its difficulty should not be taken for granted, nor the work of its maintenance dismissed. No relationship is perfect, and all relationships take work, but can we please admit that some of us need to work harder than others?
Some of us pay a higher emotional cost, and when that cost becomes too high it can lead to emotional burnout which can bleed into the rest of our lives.
So why do some neurodiverse people have to work so hard? Well, because our brains work differently, of course.
On Object Constancy and Emotional Permanence
Have you ever played ‘peek-a-boo’ with a small child, or do you remember playing the game as a small child yourself? This game plays with the idea of object permanence – a skill acquired in the early stages of childhood in which children develop the understanding that an object continues to exist, even when it’s out of sight. If you don’t have object permanence, once a thing is out of sight, it is out of mind.
Object constancy is the emotional equivalent of this concept: when you have object constancy, you are able to hold a positive impression of someone, and your relationship with them, in your heart, even when they’re not around and ‘despite the presence of setbacks, conflict, or disagreements’ (as explained on betterhelp). It’s a feeling of security – the possibility of loving and being loved by someone, even when you’re apart. For those who lack object constancy, every disagreement is a ‘potential break-up‘, which is why those with object constancy issues often fall into habits of people pleasing and may struggle to get their needs met in a relationship. It also makes us more susceptible to abuse, which is sometimes targeted.
When individuals don’t have object constancy, it can lead them to question their relationships to an unhealthy degree, especially when this difference isn’t accommodated for. Those who have not experienced a lack of object constancy may find it difficult to understand their loved one’s behaviour: they may take the stability of the relationship for granted, or view their partner’s requests for help or for overt displays of affection as ‘needy’, ‘self-absorbed’ or ‘high maintenance’.
Object constancy issues themselves are not mental illnesses, but they can lead to them without appropriate management. So why isn’t this kind of emotional support framed as accessibility? Neurodiverse people are capable of having happy, healthy relationships if strategies are in place to accommodate for their differences.
Narratives surrounding a lack of object constancy do not often directly name, or address the topic, but manifest as stereotypes and tropes in media, or in the language used to describe celebrities who exhibit socially dysfunctional behaviour. People with object constancy issues, or those who have trouble maintaining stability in relationships, may be labelled as ‘the crazy ex’ or ‘the needy girlfriend’ and described as ‘immature’, ‘acting out’ or ‘attention seeking’.
Even literature surrounding disorders which feature a lack of object constancy, such as borderline personality disorder, warn people not to be in relationships with those who suffer from these problems and feature case studies of people whose lives have been ‘destroyed’ by their mentally ill partners. I’m not going to link the literature, it’s prevalent enough that a google search will be revealing.
I’m not saying that people with such disorders can’t be abusive partners, but people WITHOUT these disorders can be just as bad. Having a disorder may affect the way a person feels about and towards something, but feelings aren’t abusive: it’s how we act which defines us. You can be a shitty person with object constancy issues, and you can be a shitty person without them.
See also: being a good person and having a disorder are not mutually exclusive.
You may not even be able to tell when someone has object constancy issues. They may not even know. Sometimes the condition only becomes apparent when the symptoms become unmanageable, as neurodiverse people often mask the problem to fit in, due to the stigma, or out of fear of hurting others. Masking the problem does not erase the suffering, and the energy required to mask takes a toll on the person doing so. If we are used to masking, we may only ask for help when our distress has escalated to a near unmanageable degree. We ask when we are desperate, and desperate pleas do not make for polite conversation: often the symptoms we see in media are at the extreme end of the spectrum.
The trouble is that issues of object constancy manifest when there is an object to attach to – meaning they involve other people. This makes the issue messy and difficult: no one’s mental health is your responsibility: support should be reasonable, boundaried and include external sources. Support groups (DBT focused groups, for example) have been identified as being particularly useful – but, sadly such groups are painfully rare. Furthermore, partners of neurodiverse people must be engaged enough to work on the relationship to improve it too, and may need to consider how they can make reasonable accommodations for their partner if they want to make the relationship work. I don’t feel that it’s fair for one partner to take on the burdens of a relationship alone, especially when aspects of relationships may exacerbate their problems.
Object constancy issues or not: every fight will feel like a break-up if you’re weighing the cost of being in a relationship against the value of your mental health.
The destigmatization and discussion of these issues, along with early intervention and treatment, could alleviate the suffering of neurodiverse people and better support their partners.
So about this game
I’m going to be honest with you. Even though I ranted about neurodiversity above, I didn’t make the game to provide representation or be an advocate. I don’t have enough distance from the thing to know whether it’s ‘good’ representation either, so if this makes us look worse, I am sorry.
I made it because I am angry. Angry and so fucking tired of having to explain myself all the time. I find it incredibly upsetting that such a common issue is so poorly understood, and that just because I mask my symptoms well, it’s taken for granted that things are easy for me, or I’m undeserving of help.
I am often frustrated that the work I do to achieve something resembling ‘stability’ or what people describe as ‘normality’, obscures my difficulties so much that I am not believed when I do need help. I’ve been working really hard on myself and am in recovery for a lot of issues, in a mostly self-directed way. I’ve been doing everything I can, but it feels like there are some things that I can’t change. I have hit a mental health plateau and I just want to scream. This game is the scream; so do take care playing. I was really surprised when people told me that the game is triggering, because it’s not about a particularly bad, or good day for me: it’s about most of my days, or how most of my days have the potential to go.
It’s not all anger, though. Love is important I suppose, and not all forms of love are difficult for me. This game is made with a lot of love. It’s a celebration of my hard-won self-awareness and my continuing fight against maladaptive coping mechanisms and suicidal tendencies. It’s also a celebration of my friendships and the people I’ve trusted to help me with the game, even though working alone is my default. It showcases my highs, my lows, and my struggle to find balance. Without love, I wouldn’t have the strength to work on myself the way I do, or to take responsibility for myself and for my feelings. I wouldn’t have the motivation to try and be better, for other people, or for myself.
Thank you for reading this and for playing the game. Do leave a comment, tweet me and share! I’m eager to know what you think.
– Revisiting the theory in light of constructive criticism
On mental health advice, hypocrisy and hope for recovery.
Looking back at that first blog post, I feel… Well, at first, I feel nothing, because it takes me a while to figure out what I’m feeling, but I think I feel… Shock. I remember the process of writing it in the midst of planning my grandfather’s funeral, during a pandemic, and I wonder… What the fuck was I doing? During a time of crisis I should have been focusing on my family and looking after myself, but instead I was scribbling out diagram after diagram in the hope that one of them would make me feel better. No wonder people were worried about me: I wasn’t worried about me, and that perhaps, is the most concerning thing. Although I was advised to take time off, I kept trying to work in one way or another. Did I step-back from the event I was co-running? Did I stop working on my thesis entirely? Did I fuck. I wrote a whole essay giving advice about how and why we should be kind to ourselves – none of which I took. I knew what I wanted to do in theory, but had no idea how to apply it to my own life in any consistent way.
I’m so grateful for everything that blog did for me: it helped me figure out the connections between my research and my personal life, it gave my work and writing visibility and led to the opportunity to present at some incredible events where I met fabulous people. All of these opportunities, and the amazing support I received in response, made me feel even worse. I publicly state that I hate when people give trite mental health advice and voice my distaste for how well-meaning mental health campaigns and academic writing obscure the messy realities of dealing with mental illness – whilst doing both of those things. We should be kind to ourselves, I said, whilst doing things in private which actively harmed me. Be kind to others, I said, whilst slowly isolating myself from the majority of people I was acquainted with because I lacked the internal resources to be kind. I was, and probably still am, a hypocrite. Writing about something is different from doing it.
I was trying my best the only way I knew how: by working. When I’m working I know who I am. When I’m working I can create useful things for people and I can make uncomplicated connections because I know who I am when I have a designated social role. When I’m working I don’t have to worry about my identity. My work gave me some level of stability, but doing it was just another way to avoid my problems. My theory of ‘Kindness as Praxis‘ was meant to be about how we can use our research skills to improve our mental wellbeing and personal lives, but my real aim was to be stable enough to be able to work – fuck the rest of it. I want to be a brain on a stick. Luckily for me, workaholism is baked into our capitalist society, which rewards my unhealthy habits and further obscures the difficulties I experience. Maybe that’s why I sadpost so much when I get upset; I have always been productive enough that few people have ever taken my mental illness seriously. I just want to be believed.
I was trying my best, but I still felt like a fraud. I was lucky to be given a little perspective in the form of feedback – aptly, through my work. I took my original ‘Kindness as Praxis’ talk to an event called [X]pertise run by the Learning Enhancement and Academic Development Service at the University of Glasgow which is run to promote communication across disciplines and give researchers a chance to showcase and talk about their work. This event was a little different to usual conferences as it included mentoring. After I ran through the talk, my mentor asked if I could explain about the practicalities of how the theory worked. What did it look like?
It was then that I realised I had no idea. I was doing what I hated: hiding behind academic theory and glossing over the difficulties of living with mental illness. I felt so out of place discussing my problems at an academic event, that I had omitted half of my story, which actually perpetuated the personal/private divide I was trying to speak out against. I did it to myself. I was lucky that my mentors were supportive and encouraged me to speak my truth. Instead of presenting a theory about making impact in a nebulous manner, I wrote myself into my presentation to show what the impact of living by my theory had been.
The following is a re-write of my ‘Kindness as Praxis’ theory, which turned a nigh unintelligible scribbling into what I hope is something that can actually be used, as well as something that highlights the lesser-appreciated skills that researchers develop throughout their studies.
Kindness as Praxis Revisited
I used the graduate attributes, which are the soft skills we develop whilst doing academic work in any field, to create an outline of what kindness as praxis might look like.
The structure has much in common with the stages of carrying out a project.
As easy as it would be to leave it at that, this methodology is not just a list: it’s a story.
A listicle, if you will…
Step one: finding a concept
Step one is much like finding a suitable topic for your research project: you have to identify your needs (as you would spot a niche that needs to be filled in your research field) and analyse the most viable way of meeting these needs. It’s like pitching a project to yourself: a self-improvement project *cringe*.
My step one happened after my break-up. I was still processing a lot of the traumatic things I had been remembering and realised that if I wanted to meet my goals as a researcher and (less importantly for me at that point – lol) as someone capable of living a long and healthy life, I needed to find a more sustainable way to cope. I was lucky to find a supportive GP who confirmed my suspicions that I am suffering from emotional dysregulation. I took this information to a psychologist who confirmed my BPD diagnosis and knowing this helped me identify areas in my life I wanted to work on.
Step two: research
Step two encompasses doing new research for your personal project and identifying the ways your academic research might be applied to your personal life.
Having my BPD diagnosis meant that I could find more effective ways of coping, because, though everyone experiences the disorder differently, it meant that I could at least narrow down my research and find resources more specific to my needs.
I also realized that I could apply some of the game design principles I had been researching to my personal life. The main thing that helped me was understanding different types of empathy as detailed in my original ‘Kindness as Praxis‘ post. Tl;dr: The conclusion of my findings was that sometimes I unconsciously shut down my emotional empathy because I have a tendency to experience overwhelming emotions and when I do that, I have to try and use my cognitive empathy to access, understand and process my emotions in a more mindful way. I try and apply this to my relationships, which makes them complicated. I’m doing better, but I’ve had to reduce my connections. I fail a lot and I can’t always tank the pain it causes. Relationships are risky for me.
Step three: creating resources
This step is one for all of you fellow admin lovers out there! Every good project needs resources to help you organize and present it.
Once I had narrowed down the things I wanted to work on, I created resources to help me work on them. Using my DBT workbook which I use (and threaten to set fire to) every day, I made a colour-coded diary including emergency action plans and coping mechanisms, as well as a list of positive affirmations which I have plastered across my flat.
My diary is a useful resource I can carry with me, so I have access to my action plans whatever I am doing, wherever I go (which is nowhere right now lol). The affirmations are written in strategic places around my flat so that when I’m having an episode so bad I can’t check my diary, I am reminded that what I’m feeling will pass. It will not last forever.
Step four: do it
This step is both the hardest and the least immediately rewarding – both with regard to completing a research project and maintaining one’s mental health. It’s doing something every day, forgoing instant gratification and thinking about the bigger picture. When you’re doing a research project it’s easy to procrastinate because there are other, more immediately satisfying things to do. When a project is going well, it doesn’t look like much is happening – it’s a case of quietly keeping yourself on track.
For me, this is similar to maintaining my mental health: it’s only really noticeable that I have a disorder when I use a maladaptive coping mechanism as a way to deal when things have gone wrong. Maladaptive coping mechanisms are the loud things, the noticeable things, the bad things; they’re an extreme way of expressing the severity of the emotional pain I am in and a way of escaping it. Although they’re very effective in the short term, these behaviours are things capable of doing long-term damage to both myself and my relationships.
Living well is often thankless. When things are going well, it looks effortless, when actually, I’m walking on a tightrope, carrying a pole on which my healthy habits are balanced. If I make one wrong decision, I risk falling, and there’s not a net to catch me. All I can do is keep walking and hope that, one day, my funambulism will feel as effortless as it looks.
Step five: editing
Like every piece of academic work, your self-improvement project will need adjusting and revaluating as you go along. There would be no point to research if we already knew everything, so it’s important to be reactive to our findings, so we can improve our work and adapt to overcome difficulties.
One of my worst relapses happened when I caught COVID, which developed into long COVID. I struggled because one of my main strategies to control my mood is physical activity. Being ill meant that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to do at first, so I fell back on my old, maladaptive coping mechanisms and it fucked me up. Losing my ability to be active made me realize I had been using it as yet another way of avoiding my problems. Being forced to slow down meant that I had to find other ways to cope: I FINALLY started doing DBT and facing my problems rather than (literally) running from them. Hopefully when I can exercise again, I’ll be able to incorporate it into my lifestyle in a more balanced and sustainable way.
Step six: communicating
Once you have a chapter of your project done, and something to say, it’s a case of finding a way to present the information that will make it interesting and comprehensible to others. This might include changing your presentation style for different audiences: are you giving a talk, or a paper? Who is the audience? Who are you communicating to and why? Is what you’re saying appropriate? What does your communication say about you? Apparently these considerations also apply in your personal life. Fuck.
Characteristically, I enjoy communicating when it’s for work: I give a decent presentation, and I’m an excellent teacher (with more to learn). However, everything else…
I’m still in the process of learning how and when to communicate my feelings. I’m lucky that I have a few people I can safely vent to about my silly problems which are not problems (more specifically, problems which were once problems, but are now feelings which appear disproportionate because they’re divorced from their context). They’re people who understand I’m still working really hard on steps 1 – 5; people who give me the kindness of the benefit of the doubt whilst I figure out more considerate ways of communicating in general. Otherwise, a kindness I can give myself is admitting that I want to be happy more than I want to be sociable. I don’t have to do friendships in the same way other people do. It’s a bit of a shit that fixing one’s interpersonal communication isn’t something one can do alone, so until I get access to a therapist I’ll be living a very careful life and making changes that help me cope a bit more easily.
The most valuable thing I’ve learned about communication in the past few months is when not to communicate. Isolating oneself is listed as something ‘destructive’ that people with BPD do, but taking time just for me is often one of the kindest things I can do for myself.
One of the adjustments I’ve made is my use of social media: the sadposting. I wanted people to understand me (which led to making some wonderful friends online), but I was also using social media as a form of self-harm. Using social media when I felt vulnerable and impulsive meant that I broadcasted information about myself that, actually, I would rather keep private. I didn’t enjoy the unsolicited advice, or attention I received from such posts – why was I posting when it just made me feel worse? I think perhaps, that my sense of self was so tenuous, that any kind of acknowledgement made me feel like I existed. I didn’t care about protecting my self-image because it didn’t feel as if I had one.
The truth is, I’ve been constructing a sense of self from almost nothing. I know that I was someone, at one point. I know that I liked things and wanted things for myself. I lost myself. I lost myself on purpose because it was too painful to be the person I was. I wanted to say goodbye to them. I wanted a new face, a new name, a new life, a new everything and found an even worse one. I became someone else. I hid. I moved from one dangerous relationship to another and pretended to be someone I wasn’t. It wasn’t her fault, but it is my responsibility.
I am not her any more. Was I ever? If she was anything, then she was my illness. I’m getting better now.
I have found myself again and actually I quite like them. I want to take care of them.
I’m finally mentally well enough to be able to appreciate my freedom.
Doing DBT has helped me remember who I am and what I value. I am not a story: I do not need to be told in order to exist. I am more than what I produce and more than what I can do for others. What I do is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Doing the thing, is more important than sharing the thing; being appreciated is wonderful, but enjoying what I do is more so. Extrinsic motivation is a nice supplement for intrinsic motivation, but, where possible, it should not usurp it. I am allowed to exist entirely for myself: alone, in an empty room, without an internet connection.
But OBVIOUSLY I care about your opinion babes, you’re not like the rest of them. Remember to like, share, comment and follow my blog! You mean the world to me.
Kindness as Praxis as a Methodology
A methodology is more than a selection of methods, it’s an approach to research.
Similarly, ‘Kindness as Praxis’ is a method, but it’s also an approach to life.
In all of my talks I included this slide:
I didn’t take my own advice. It was a form of internalized ableism. I was trying to apply neurotypical standards to a non-neurotypical problem by being ‘kind’ to myself in the wrong way. I advise people that our research is just one part of who we are, that being kind to ourselves is about having a life outside of work and that we should keep our careers in perspective and that perhaps we can use what we learn at work to fortify our personal lives: we should work to live, not live to work.
I agree with this advice: in principle, but not in practice.
Writing about something is different from doing it.
I still live to work and I’m OK with that. It’s not really about my career as such, but my capability to teach and to write. I’m privileged enough to be in a position where I’m paid to do both, but I haven’t always been and even back in the darker days I still made it work.
That’s why I need boundaries. I need to separate my personal from my professional life because I need something that’s simple. I need something that’s uncomplicated by my mental illness. My life is the best it has ever been and I would like to try and enjoy it, even if I still don’t feel like I deserve it.
Friendships and relationships are getting a little easier, but they are harder for me than an average, neurotypical person. I will neither concede that point, nor use it as an excuse to treat people badly. What I will do, is mitigate my risk. Maybe one day, I won’t have to treat every relationship like it’s a time bomb. Maybe one day, I’ll trust myself. Maybe one day, it’ll be effortless.
I see recovery as making the same difficult decision every moment of every day until it becomes a part of who I am. I still haven’t quite figured out how to be kind, but I’m very relieved that I have a self to be kind to and that I finally care enough about them to try;
Content warning: this blog contains themes including mental illness, trauma, self-harm, suicidal ideationand death. Please engage with this content responsibly. Also bear in mind that although I have a diagnosis, this in no way qualifies me to speak on behalf of others who share it. The only experiences I can speak to are my own.
When people ask me what I’m researching, I tell them that I’m studying single-player, narrative driven Fantasy video games, but that’s not entirely true. It’s roughly the type of content I’m investigating, but like most PhD researchers, I didn’t figure out my actual topic until well into my second year. Or more accurately, I didn’t realise it: the name of my blog ‘Digital Fantastic’, which I chose at the start of my PhD journey, should have been a tip-off.
To quote my own literature review:
“The Digital Fantastic is a state of hesitation that elides the binary between the digital and non-digital world via affective experiences in which the player treats digital characters (NPCs), as if they were people.” (Elvery, 2024)
It is a concept I’m developing which resituates a much contested piece of ‘Fantasy’ theory by scholar Tzvetan Todorov. I won’t go into a full explanation of my theory here – that’s what my thesis is for. This post, as usual, dear reader, is all about me. This blog is situated in the place where my research and personal life meet, more specifically, it details how my experiences have unconsciously informed my research interests.
I have been fascinated by Todorov’s theory of the fantastic ever since I first encountered it during my Fantasy MLitt. It’s lucky that our lecturer, Rob Maslen, included the text on the syllabus, as this theory’s connection to the genre of Fantasy and its content is tenuous at best. In fact, it is often argued that it’s only lumped in with Fantasy theory because the term fantastic and Fantasy are so often conflated.
For Todorov, in its most simple form, the fantastic is hesitation. It’s a state of uncertainty experienced by readers (often mirroring a character in the novel) that arises when neither the character, nor the reader, can explain the events occurring by attributing them to supernatural forces which disrupt the textual reality, or accept them as explained by the natural laws of the built world. Todorov’s fantastic is situated in liminality: for readers to experience it they have to read in a receptive manner which simultaneously accepts multiple textual meanings and be open to the notion that these meanings are shaped by the interaction of their subjectivity with an uncertain textual reality. The fantastic refuses to set discrete boundaries: the line between fantasy and reality is blurry, and the only truth perhaps, is an emotional truth, rather than an objective one. This is why it’s observed so frequently in literature oft categorised as horror – are the ghosts real, or are they a result of characters’ distorted perceptions of reality? If the events are not real, does that make the characters’ experiences of them any less so? By refusing to give answers, the fantastic denies anyone the authority to determine which interpretation of reality is more valid than another. If you’re interested in notable textual examples, two of my favourites are The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
I understand where Fantasy theorists are coming from when they say they consider the fantastic to be separate from Fantasy. Much of the literature we think about when asked to name works of Fantasy rely on us to buy into worlds which have been built according to a set of logical rules. World-building requires a level of certainty to work, which makes Fantasy literature more similar to mimetic literature than we may realise (for more on Fantasy and mimesis, see Kathryn Hume). The fantastic asks us to retreat from that certainty and consider a world where we cannot count on things being as they appear. The fantastic is, by nature, unsettling. It illuminates quite how tenuous the line between fantasy and reality is and asks us to consider that the way we experience reality is a matter of perspective. When we hesitate, however briefly, we make space, in that moment, for a multiplicity of realities to exist and it is only when we act that we choose one over another. Hesitation is the dialectic between fantasy and reality: it’s how we negotiate our emotional truths with the realities presented to us, which helps us consider how to best reconcile the two. If Fantasy, as my teacher Dr Maslen, often says, is ‘the literature of the impossible’, then the fantastic is the literature of possibility. But, it is more that. The fantastic is a mode of being, one which illuminates both the uncertainties of lived experience and acknowledges its potentiality.
Really then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I finally realised what the topic of my thesis is when I started to understand my situation with regard to my mental health. In part, it’s a result of my improved cognitive capacity facilitated by an intense regime of medication, self-care, and the understanding of those close to me. Perhaps it’s also because I have finally gotten a little closer to understanding what causes me so many problems. The answer, of course, dear reader, as you may have guessed, is hesitation. I realised that, at times, I occupy my own little realm of the fantastic: the dialectic between myself and my emotions is very much one of uncertainty. I cannot trust my feelings, which makes me hesitate about who I am, what I value and whether what I experience is reality. The fantastic is a space that I occupy, not just in my research, but in my daily life.
So about those feels…
I’ve heard that some people don’t think about their emotions much – they’re just something that’s there, something they feel. Maybe they question them from time to time, but often they’re just a fact of life, a function of being. Feelings do things.
A post on mental health blog Verywell Mind gives a brief overview of what feelings are for. Emotions are signals, they’re supposed to tell us something. Emotions can inform us about our environment, motivate us to take action, help us avoid danger, make decisions, enable others to understand us, and us to understand others. Though emotions are subjective and individual to the person feeling them, being able to understand and label our own feelings can inform us about where we are positioned in relation to the reality presented to us. Much of what we feel about things can inform us about who we are.
So, can emotions be wrong?
Of course they can, but by analysing them and checking our realities with other people, we may be able to come to some sort of compromise about how to reconcile the way we feel with the reality we’re presented with, and by doing so, form a judgement about where we stand on a given issue, which helps us understand who we are. When we consider this in relation to our interactions with other people, there may even be no objective facts, just the negotiation of different emotional truths as we all experience situations and relationships, differently. Even if we find out that we have been misinformed, it does not make the emotional experience of that situation any less real for the person experiencing it.
For example: if someone were to leave a message you’ve sent them on read without replying, you may feel slighted: what if they’re upset with you? What if they don’t like you anymore? Much of this can be solved by stepping back, curbing your emotional empathy (feels) and using cognitive empathy to try and understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. Perhaps they’re tired, maybe they’re just busy or maybe they read the message mid-task and forgot to reply to you. The feeling of rejection you experience is just a reminder that you care about the person and what they think of you, or in the case that you actually have done something wrong (like sent an unsolicited dik pic) it’s there as a warning that tells you that you should, perhaps, adjust your mode of social interaction and consider boundaries. As feminist Sara Ahmad explains, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion: “it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surfaces or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others”. By telling us how we feel in relation to external stimuli, emotions help inform who we are, figure out what we believe and adjust our values in response to the feedback they give us. Listening to our feelings and observing how they change when we interact with each other, brings us closer to understanding our own emotional truths.
Some people (*neurotypicals*) find it easier to listen to this feedback than others, it’s learned behaviour, automatic. For others, such as myself, understanding our emotions is a little more challenging. As I mentioned above, my whole life has been characterised by uncertainty. I have spent much of it being told that I was ‘too sensitive’, wrong to feel the way that I felt about things or to feel things AS LOUDLY and INTENSELY as I do, so instead of feeling my feelings I learned to avoid them in some of the worst ways possible. When I feel something, I don’t trust that feeling, I assume it’s not appropriate and push it away to the point of disassociation, which leaves me feeling numb and empty, which makes me panic and causes me to look for something, anything that will make me feel something and as soon as I do, I push that feeling away too because I don’t know how to deal with it – rinse and repeat. I have struggled so much to force my emotions to conform to what I perceive to be the ‘norm’ or an objective reality, that I have denied myself the experience of emotional truth. What I am coming to terms with is that I was never wrong to experience emotions – it was wrong that I felt I had to push them away. The more I ignore my feelings, the more loudly they scream for my attention, and the more severe they become, which makes me want to feel and express them even less. Eventually the screaming gets too loud to ignore and manifests as an emotional extreme.
I spill my coffee, I miss a train, I want to kill myself.
Of course, those things aren’t really what I’m upset about. The extreme emotions I experience about trivial things stem from an emotional truth, but through repression and avoidance have become divorced from their context and arise as perceptual distortions. Experiencing these distortions makes me trust my emotions even less. The dysregulation of my emotions means that they don’t always give me accurate feedback, which makes it hard to identify the ones that do. It’s not something within my control: I try my best, but my brain just works a little differently and I don’t yet have access to treatment that would help me. Whenever I manage to identify that I may be experiencing a disproportionate emotion I try and remind myself that I might be angry, or upset, about something that has already happened. Maybe it’s something I have not processed, do not understand, or I am experiencing a reaction that was once accurate to a past situation, but does not apply to the current scenario – except when it does. It is also important for me to try and learn when I am allowed to feel upset. I try and observe situations from the outside, test my reality and treat myself as I would treat a friend.
Still… It’s difficult to understand what I’m feeling about anything most of the time, but little by little, through a lot of hard work and failure, I am starting to listen to myself, create boundaries and police them a little better. My recent diagnosis has proved a useful tool to help me better understand why I might feel the way I do sometimes.
If I am triggered by something specific like a scene from a movie, or a situation I perceive as threatening, then what I’m upset about is probably in relation to my PTSD, as unfortunately, I have experienced trauma.
If I am triggered by a seemingly innocuous interaction with another person, it is likely that I am struggling with an aspect of my Borderline Personality Disorder which makes me doubt them, doubt myself and doubt the interactions between us. I experience emotion as a constant state of hesitation. Sometimes, experiencing hardship seems easier than living through a ‘normal’ day because at least then I have a reason to feel as loudly as I do – but it doesn’t work like that. More often than not, when something bad happens I feel numb; I push those feelings away because I am scared of what feeling them will do to me. They always, however, come back to haunt me.
Having emotional dysregulation makes it difficult to know who I am and what I believe. I spent many years silencing myself. I never allowed myself to have an opinion or express a feeling in public for fear of saying something incorrect or behaving in a way that was inappropriate – the shame I experienced (often disproportionate to the action) was so painful that it wasn’t worth the risk. I also tend to isolate myself, because getting to know people that I might hurt, or might hurt me, is a risk. I have reinvented myself numerous times, worn countless faces and taken many names. I allowed myself to be treated in ways I would now consider unacceptable, because I had no way of judging my emotional boundaries. It’s also easy not to care about how people treat you, when you don’t feel like a person yourself. I hid myself away in a place where I didn’t have to feel anything or be anyone.
Then I found Glasgow, returned to my studies and by studying Fantasy I finally started to come to terms with my reality. I gained recognition for my work and my sense of humour. I started to feel like I had something to say, to contribute. I started to talk to new people honestly, for the first time in years, and started posting on social media. Interacting with others allowed me to test my reality, and the reality is, that despite my difficulties, a lot of what I think, and feel, is valid and does matter. Over the past year I have gradually stopped the majority of my avoidant coping mechanisms to improve my physical and mental health so that I can focus on my research. I also knew that the things I was doing were increasing the chances that I would die a premature death. I had a moment of hesitation, and in that moment of hesitation I asked myself a question: is life really worth all this pain? In the middle of all my uncertainty, I had a moment of absolute clarity and I answered myself: Yes. My emotional truth is that I want to live. Little by little, I stopped avoiding life and I started living. I stopped running away from myself and turned to face all of my feelings. I started to feel them.
I am still uncertain about who I am and how to deal with my emotions, but I do know that I love to work and I love to write. I don’t know whether it’s apt, or ironic, that the only thing I’m certain about is my research on hesitation and The Digital Fantastic.
Thank you to my editor Marita Arvaniti for her continued hard work, support and honesty.
Thank you to my partner Ollie, who helps me to feel brave enough to feel my feelings.
Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Second edition). Edinburgh University Press.
Gilman, C. P. ( 2017). The Yellow Wallpaper. Wisehouse Classics.
Hume, K. (2014). Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature. Routledge.
Jackson, S. ( 2009). The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classics.
Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideationand death. Please engage with this content responsibly and if you are here for the acknowledgements then I encourage you to skip to the end!
Part one: reflections on reader reception
My writing about cognitive empathy received some really great feedback and generated some interesting discussions that partially prompted this aftercare post. After reading a draft of my last blog, some of my loveliest and wisest friends told me that the content was concerning and rightly asked me what I wanted to readers to get out of it: did I want to worry people? Had I thought about what people might think? For someone who studies reader reception theory, I am painfully ignorant of how my work might be received beyond ‘#mood’. But, it wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about my readers – I just hadn’t factored in that people that I know might care. Then when they told me, I went ahead and did it anyway.
So, did I want to worry people?
The answer is no… worrying people is just an unfortunate side effect of attempting to cultivate honest and meaningful relationships with new people when you are mentally ill and experiencing a relapse.
As much as I appreciated the advice, to listen to it on this occasion would have been to do myself a disservice.
After so many years negating myself and trying not to have an opinion, I finally feel confident enough to express myself loudly, live unapologetically and to be myself in public. The amount of pain I’m carrying around hasn’t changed, I’m just expressing it.
Sometimes the truth doesn’t fit into the comforting narratives of self-improvement that people want to hear – those narratives tell us that there is a solution. I’m not here to perform the emotional labour of reassurance, to wear a mask or to negate my experiences. I want people to know that if I can be myself in public that they can too. I want to be visible: if that hurts, avert your gaze. If it helps, then stay with me – you’re my reader. I’m here to tell you that you are not alone.
Thank you to everyone who comments on my posts, shares them and expresses their support: each message is a little miracle.
An even bigger thank you to everyone that has the AUDACITY to care about my wellbeing. Please stop (jk), but also, I’ve written you a little something in the last part of this blog because I really do deeply appreciate everything you do for me, though I’m still not sure why you do it.
If you are one of the people who is going to *do a big concern* please feel free to skip to the end to recieve your well deserved applause! Please don’t punish yourself with my writing if you don’t want to.
I love you whether you like my work or not. My writing is just a small part of who I am, even though it often feels like the only thing that matters.
This case study doesn’t show an upwards trajectory – which of course is what I hoped for. It shows that even though I do practice what I preach, my progress isn’t linear. You can do all of the right things and still feel like shit sometimes.
We try, we fail, we try again, fail worse and then and remember that sometimes that one good day can make all the shitty days worth it.
Until it doesn’t.
My cognitive empathy diagram and my current lifestyle are the culmination of years of trying. I do the things: eat right, sleep, take meds, stay in contact with people, work out, do creative things, try and help people. So, does it work?
I guess? I’m still here to post this, but also things are just difficult – such is life.
Part Two: new academic year, same volatile me
As I said, I kept delaying this post in the hope I could show you real progress. But, after coming out of a particularly dark patch, I realised that I was waiting for something that may never come, so I’ve chosen to mark the end of my first academic year as a PhD researcher instead. To make a new start – well, another new start.
With a new start comes a new notebook for the year:
– it already got rained on, which is fucking typical. I wanted to throw it away, because it felt ruined. I bought it to start something new. I wanted something fresh, untarnished: a blank slate.
This is black and white thinking, a habit which has dominated my life: if something isn’t perfect, then what’s the point? I’m either good person, or I’m a bad person. No in-between.
This is neither healthy, nor realistic. What it is, is a contributing factor to the pattern of increasingly severe suicidal ideation I live with. The urge is fairly common which is both sad and reassuring – it sucks, but we’re not alone. I can’t speak as to why others feel this way, but a small part of my own struggles with the desire to end my life stems from black and white thinking. I often feel that I’ve left it too late to be the person I want to be, that I’ve wasted too much time. Sometimes I want to die because life feels meaningless and sometimes it’s because everything feels too meaningful. Every little mistake I’ve made feels like one mistake too much. There are times when my desire to die is rooted in the sincere wish for a new start.
I’m always trying to feel fresh, untarnished: a blank slate. To go back. Sometimes I feel like if I can’t attain the perfection I’m reaching for then I may as well throw it all away, like that journal. All I want is something that doesn’t feel ruined.
What I should have realised, and what I’m coming to accept, is that we can’t wipe clean the experiences we’ve had. Not only is it impossible, but though starting over would rid us of all of the bad things that have happened, it would erase the good ones too. People aren’t blank slates by nature: we’re palimpsests and each new inscription makes up who we are and helps inform our experiences.
This feels like the kind of trite, inspirational insta-garbage I wish I could angy reacc to: I am suspicious of optimism, I hate being preached to and I hate getting unsolicited advice, so I don’t want to do that to you with this post. I’m not going to patronise us by spouting off ‘all the pain is worth it’, ‘beautiful things grow out of shit’ or ‘all hardship is just good backstory’ – ‘good damage’. Fuck that.
We are not all in the same boat. There is a social element to mental illness which is vast, complex and intersectional – some scholars within the medical humanities argue that mental illnesses are rational responses to the societal contexts which shape us, but that’s a topic for another time, or perhaps scholar. I’m just checking in.
I’m also not going to bullshit you by saying something like ‘scars are beautiful’ because they are an ugly reminder that I have covered with ink:
It’s a pretty tattoo, but it doesn’t erase the scars. They will always be there. The lyrics speak to that. It’s Emilie Autumn quoting Hamlet (sooo meta, right?). Without digging into the intertextuality of the quotation and just looking at the lines themselves, the lyrics are there to remind me that even when I’m at my worst I’m still capable of being good. The good may not erase the bad, but it can inform it. I am still capable of learning, but that learning takes struggle – some of it meaningless and unnecessary.
My old notebook is a tribute to that. It’s the first notebook I used to record absolutely everything without tearing out a page. It’s full of what seems like useless information – things I tried that didn’t work, the good days and the bad. It’s full of calories I should not have counted, schedules I scrapped, projects I started and never finished, ideas for my thesis that I eventually threw out, and the seeds of what would become a formalised structure of coping mechanisms that have helped me restructure my life.
These pages and accompanying social media posts are also a case study for the theory of cognitive empathy I’ve been using on myself.
It’s never fun to get a null result
– but that’s the black and white thinking.
It only feels like a null result, on a bad day.
I can’t claim an upwards trajectory, but I’m learning that progress is not linear.
I want you to know that I’m trying. I am ok, but I also want you to know the truth – you can try and try to do everything right and you’ll still have a crappy day.
All of this effort makes the bad days feel even worse: what’s the point of trying to hold it together so much if I still malfunction and fall apart? But, even though the bad days are dangerously bad, at least there are more good days now.
I try and think of my journal as a way of editing myself: any writer will tell you that it takes many bad drafts to create one piece of good work. That’s one of the reasons I’m a shitty writer – I’m still writing through my bad drafts in the hope that one day I’ll get to a good one. I’m still learning to edit.
It’s always good to have a second pair of eyes – or more if you’re lucky!
I never wrote acknowledgements for my dissertation, during which I felt very much alone. But now, I would like to write some acknowledgements, not for my writing (which I’m woefully short on), but for those who are facilitating my ability to work in the future. I want to thank the people who have really made a difference to my life in the clusterfuck of the last academic year.
It’s difficult for me to express how I feel, because I don’t want to imply that I need people. I want you to know that I’m quite capable of getting through this alone, but I am extremely happy that you’ve been here.
Thank you for your support, advice and company.
Charlie: You are persistent, smart, patient and giving. You always offer me a level-headed perspective and are an inspirationally strong woman. Thank you for talking about everything and anything with me. I’m proud of this friendship we’ve built together: my relationship with you is the healthiest and most enduring of my life (no pressure lol). Thank you for helping me maintain this ‘delicate system’ of a person.
Grace: You are a kind and clever person. Thank you for taking me in!
Larna: You have always been a wonderful friend and it has been a privilege to see you become an amazing mother. Thank you for never forgetting me, including me in your journey and letting me be a flighty aunt to my handsome nephew Jack ❤ You are a talented artist and a beautiful person. I am so proud of you.
Maude: I miss you and will always remember you.
Marita: Thank you so much for your wonderful company and excellent editing skills!
Ollie: You are an excellent influence. I’ll always be better off for the pleasure of your company.
Simone do Carmo: An amazing, holistic personal trainer. You are everything you advertise yourself as and more. Thank you for helping me cultivate a positive mindset, be kind to myself and change my relationship to food after years of struggling with it!
Steph: You are talented, hardworking and so very loveable. You’ve always accepted me as I am. Thank you for helping me be strong and (I hope) a little like you.
Ruth: You have been a source of excellent support and advice; you’re teaching me so many excellent things and I am incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful person in my life.
Thank you everyone. I hope that I’m here enough for you too.
On managing grief,mental illnessand orienting oneself towards kind research practices.
Trigger warnings: this blog contains themes including mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideationand death. Please engage with this content responsiblyand although I appreciate kind thoughts, please do not @ me with ‘you ok hon’. This post may display incorrectly on mobile devices.
If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that my grandfather died. That’s the objective truth. The emotional truth is that my father died: he was the one man in the world I could always rely on, the one man who loved me unconditionally, who supported me without expecting anything in return. The one man in the world that gave me hope that kind men exist.
It was the 11th of July at approximately 2am when he passed away whilst my grandmother and I slept at his bedside. I like to think he waited for me to make the long journey from Glasgow to Essex to reach him. If only I’d been a few days sooner, I might have got there whilst he was still awake. I held my grandmother and told her that it was OK to cry, that it’s a perfectly normal and healthy response to grief. Even as I held her close, I felt nothing.
It must be the shock.
Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet. Perhaps it’s such a colossal loss that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend it. It’s only recent, it makes sense that I’m still processing it – at least that’s what everyone tells me. I try to listen to them; it would be easy to dismiss this disconnect as a response to grief, but I can’t because it’s not an irregularity, it’s normality. My life is a series of extreme highs and lows punctuated by nothingness, the loud silence: the void.
The day my grandfather died, I performed the role of a dutiful and caring daughter. I did everything I could to raise people’s spirits: I encouraged them to tell stories and played our favourite songs. I asked how everyone was feeling. No one asked me; everyone thinks I’m strong and that I’m putting on a brave face – smiling through the sadness. What they don’t realise is that there’s no sadness to smile through. I passed through the arms of my family like a ghost, performing love and care without feeling it. I do this most days, with most people: I repeat patterns of social behaviour not because it’s what I feel, but it’s what I’ve learned is expected from me. I feel like I’m standing outside of myself, controlling my body like a meat puppet that is slowly rotting from the inside out. I jokingly compare myself to a corpse, but no one realises how serious I am. We laugh it off, say that I have cold hands because I have a cold heart, but the truth is that I feel like I died a long time ago. If only – lol jk (but not really tho).
When I’m in the void, it feels like forever, but it’s not. For there to be a noticeable absence, there had to have been something there.
F e e l i n g s.
But feeling is vulnerability and in a world like ours, vulnerability invites heartache. Far better then, to retreat into apathy and anesthetise myself. But even when I’m numb, there’s a part of me that remembers that the numbness is where love should be. Even when I don’t feel love, I act as if I do in the hope that it will come.
And sometimes it does. On a good day I get an ecstatic high, I pet the dogs, I smile at babies, I ask people about their days and care about their answers. I say ‘I love you’ and actually mean it. I want to teach, I want to take part, to make love instead of fuck. I want to be kind and trust that others are kind too, even when I’ve been so consistently proven wrong. The high can be just as dangerous as the low that follows. I deal with my feelings by negating them with alcohol, binge eating and isolating myself, or heightening them by indulging in intense emotional connections, sex with strangers, starvation and self-harm. I zigzag between extremes in fits of emotional vertigo. I’m always dizzy, always trying to catch my breath and sometimes I fall. Each time I get up it becomes a little bit harder. The more I neglect myself, the more I resent spending time with people. I isolate myself, try and reduce the emotional burnout I feel, tell myself that I’m happy alone, but it never lasts. I can’t help but love, care and take care of people.
But caretaking isn’t valued, nor recognised for the skill it is. Some of our worst paid professions are the caring ones: crafting human happiness is just not productive. You can’t quantify a smile. Kindness is viewed as something that people just are and do, rather than something which should be learned and practiced. During my PGCE we all joked about the Teachers’ Standards (Department of Education, 2020), which is an outline of the kinds of qualities a teacher should embody in order to be considered a professional. It includes points about upholding public trust, treating pupils with dignity, and behaving in a professional way. We took great pains to gather evidence to meet the standards and joked about how pedantic it was.
“Surely some of this about NOT being a dick, right? Just common sense?” (Giles, 2018)
Maybe we need a set of standards across the board to recognise that kindness isn’t innate: it’s a skill that must be encouraged and developed.
As I went about the day-to-day of bereavement admin and looked after my family with numb compassion, I realised that I had been so isolated (during lockdown and before) that I had almost forgotten how to nurture. Even at the best of times researchers often feel so disconnected from everything and everyone that it’s easy to forget how to be kind, especially when there is no perceived benefit. Taking time out of our packed schedules to make someone else happy can feel like an unnecessary distraction. But what if kindness was a standard that we were encouraged to aspire to? Is there a way to orient our research practices towards kindness so that when we don’t feel like being kind, we have a theory to fall back on?
I was recently listening to a Psychology of Video Games (Madigan, 2019) podcast for my research and ended up learning something about myself (because making EVERYTHING ABOUT ME is one of my greatest talents). In that podcast, Kelli Dunlap PsyD, outlines a model of empathy which is used to inform game design. Dunlap divides empathy into two types: affective (or emotional) empathy and cognitive empathy (12:11 onwards).
Dunlap describes cognitive empathy as “the mental ability to project yourself into the experience of somebody else and to understand what’s going on and why they might be thinking or feeling what they’re thinking and feeling”. Put simply, cognitive empathy helps us to “walk a mile in [others’] shoes and see the world through their eyes”. On the other hand, “emotional empathy are the feels”. If we see someone else experience strong emotion, we may feel these emotions mirrored in ourselves and this “gives us the motivation to care or to act, because it’s uncomfortable for us and we’re trying to decrease our discomfort”.
Dunlap explains that empathy works optimally when the two aspects are integrated:
“-because if you’re all cognitive empathy and zero emotional empathy, you’re basically Hannibal Lecter where you understand what everyone is going through, but you don’t care … and if you’re all emotional empathy, you’re a weepy mess and you have no idea why”.
Let’s break it down with some simple examples:
Acts of emotional empathy (action compelled by feeling)
Acts of cognitive empathy (action guided by perception of others’ needs)
Acting emotionally during an argument.
Stepping back from an argument to manage the situation.
Physical or verbal affection driven by feelings of connection, desire or to comfort.
Phatic exchanges, etiquette and hugging people (if you’re not a hugger).
Cleaning up after yourself because someone made you feel bad about your mess.
Cleaning up after yourself because you know not doing so will cause someone inconvenience.
Apologising because someone made you feel bad about your actions and you want to feel better.
Apologising because you understand why your actions may be hurtful, then acting to rectify the problem.
Improving social situations because you feel awkward.
Defending someone verbally, even when they aren’t present.
Thinking of gifts/dates.
Initiating text conversations because you miss someone.
Checking on loved ones when you’re busy/not craving their company.
Wearing a face covering because you’ve seen the effects of COVID on a loved-one, or refusing to wear one because of your personal feelings.
Wearing a face covering to prevent the spread of COVID because you know its potential effect on others, or not wearing one because you believe bullshit conspiracy theories.
Doing an activity someone you love likes because it makes them happy, which makes you feel happy.
Doing an activity someone you love likes because you want them to percieve you as a suitable partner.
Sending emails in the heat of the moment.
Crafting communications in advance.
Expressing your emotions to share them with others and help you understand each other.
Modelling emotional processing by simulating and/or talking about feelings, even if/when you don’t feel them.
Extremes of emotional empathy may include: – Oversharing – Lack of boundaries – Being a ‘mood sponge’ – Negating or minimising others’ pain to reduce your own discomfort. – Acting without consideration of others’ circumstances.
Extremes of cognitive empathy may include: – Policing others’ boundaries – Attempting to control others’ perceptions of you using social tactics. – Gaslighting. – Faking emotional empathy to help others feel better, or to manipulate their perception of you. – Assuming someone’s feelings and acting based on those assumptions.
Though I’ve separated them out, the same action can be motivated by a combination of both cognitive and emotional empathy. I will emphasise however, that being motivated by combined factors isn’t the same as faking emotional empathy – one skilled enough at cognitive empathy may not feel emotion at the time, but can use their understanding of others to perform emotion either in the service of others (altruistically) or themselves. This has can be termed “feeling with your head” (Thomson, 2020).
Dunlap’s explanation of cognitive empathy resonated with me. I realised that I often default to cognitive empathy in an attempt to control people’s perceptions of me, or focus on their needs to nuture them whilst neglecting my own. I experience a strange kind of amnesia that makes me forget who I am, what I value and why it’s important. I negate my personhood and allow myself to be defined in relation to others. But, because I do have feelings (ew), repressing them takes up a lot of energy, which results in emotional burnout and self-neglect. When it gets too much, I end up feeling all those feels all at once, to an almost unbearable extent.
But how can one avoid this? How can we go about integrating cognitive and emotional empathy after a life of swinging between extremes?
What if I was to treat myself like I’m someone I care about? Is it possible to use my cognitive empathy to take care of my emotions?
I know ‘self-care’ is a staple millennial cliché, but I’m late to the trend and I’m still figuring out how to turn my nurturing side inwards. The whole thing feels counter-intuitive; it seems so ridiculous to be doing so many things that will increase my lifespan when I spend so much of my time wanting to die, but I have to do it for the days when I remember how much I want to live. I’ve been trying to figure it out for years and never managed to get suitable help, so I’ve done what I do best: paperwork. I’ve made a diagram to refer to when times get rough, to try and keep track of how I’m feeling, what behaviours I want to avoid and which I want to encourage myself to aspire towards. Although it might not always be possible, the aim is to use my cognitive empathy in the service of my emotions and to treat myself how I would treat someone else in distress. The creation of the diagram is itself an act of self-directed cognitive empathy.
Whilst this specific exercise is perhaps only relevant to me, is demonstrative of one of the ways that we as researchers can put our capabilities to use in a way that benefits us as people, not just as professionals. I propose that we practice kindness as praxis. Use our creativity, apply the analytical and critical thinking skills we’ve developed; take the best we’ve learned about humanity and APPLY it to our lives. But, how?
Here are a few simple things we can do to enact kindness as praxis:
Establish self-care habits and routines to provide yourself with structure during more challenging times.
Monitor your mood and check-in with yourself as if you were a friend in order to better understand how your emotions may impact your workload.
Use your understanding of others to present your research in a way which is engaging to your audience, rather than one which serves your ego.
Think about how those outside of academia may perceive you as a researcher. Is there a way that you can make impact in a way that genuinely serves the wider community, rather than as part of a box-ticking exercise?
Consider how you interact with others in a professional setting and use cognitive empathy to temper your emotions in order to treat people kindly.
Use cognitive empathy to consider if there are any social/emotional/moral lessons to be taken from your research and think about how to implement them.
Of course, we’re not perfect. We’ve probably all fucked-up and are going to again, but using cognitive empathy to learn from our mistakes can help us course-correct and be better people, as well as more effective researchers. Be kind with your head, even if you don’t feel it in your heart. Use your skills to make someone smile – there’s a little impact for you.
I’m sure I must be feeling the loss of my grandfather. I’m sure that that one day the realisation will hit me. The loss. Until then all I can do is look after myself so that I can best support others. I just hope that when the emotions hit, I’ll be better equipped to manage them.
Maybe I can’t diagram my way out of grief, but I have tried to deal with everything as well as I can.
Before we proceed, I would like to remind everyone that as an unprofessional I have adhered to the strict unethical code of armchair psychology. As such, in response to the serious and important topic below, I have provided an answer that is both lacking in substance and facetious in nature.
As I don’t want to get sued care about my readers, I found it prudent to include further resources regarding support and suicide prevention at the end of the post. I would also like to advise anyone who is struggling with such thoughts to speak to someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about.
Now, let us begin before we all succumb to the inevitability of decay.
Dear armchair psychologist,
Ever since the beginning of the year I have had an unhealthy relationship with death. I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted. It has certainly helped me re-evaluate my priorities and I’ve spent less time on social media and more time with my family, but it also sends me into existential spirals filled with feeling of overwhelming dread. I guess I don’t really have a question, per se, but I struggle with keeping these thoughts in check and any help would be appreciated. Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it.
Yours faithlessly, The influential existential
To the influential existential,
Thank you for your question (even though it was really more of a comment). Before we dive into the listicle, let’s break down your problem.
‘I have had an unhealthy relationship with death.’
Out of all of the unhealthy relationships to be in, this one is a real doozy because you can’t break it off. Death is the morbid spouse you never asked for. However, you haven’t consummated the marriage yet, in fact, you haven’t even met. Your relationship with death is an inexpertly arranged marriage. Really, you’re in an relationship with the idea of death, rather an death itself. As death is an abstraction, rather than a reality, therefore, you may be able to improve your relationship to it by changing your perception of what it means. But how?
Not to worry! All will be revealed in the listicle below: point 11 will CHANGE your LIFE.
‘ I turned 30 this year and I feel like my life is over, all of these years wasted. ‘
OK. Let’s assume that you’re being honest and not overly critical of yourself. Maybe you have wasted time – but, don’t lose hope! In our youth-centric society, a ‘quarter’-life crisis is only natural, but you (probably) still have many excellent years ahead of you (excluding traffic accidents and terminal illnesses). Some people are late bloomers. There’s still time to turn things around, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
If a strong dose of personal responsibility doesn’t help, then try picturing yourself as one small part of a larger whole: the un/intelligent and spectacular/ly useful/less human race. If you think you’ve made mistakes pal, take a glance at the 200,000 years that humans have inhabited/destroyed the planet. Like your shitty decisions, our shitty decisions are what got us to this point. Flawed as we are, we tried our best under the circumstances. Could we have made better choices? Yes. But it’s too late to worry about it now. The Titanic is sinking: listen to the violins, have a scone and enjoy yourself while it lasts mate.
‘Mortality is just such a heavy topic and I have no idea how everyone walks around with this weight without talking to other people about it. ‘
In my unprofessional opinion, the reason that we are (mostly) able to cope with our impending extinction is because as a species, humans have repressed the shit out of it. We have distracted ourselves via displacement. To paraphrase A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis , displacement is the process by which someone shifts their emotional energy from one thing, to another. All of us know that death lurks behind every corner, so we distract ourselves by doing other things (like making listicles)… If you’re unsure about how to silence the crushing knowledge of your mortality, why not select something from the veritable buffet of distractions below. (Number 9 will SHOCK you…)
11 Ways to Ghost Your Existential Anxiety
Religion was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in religion for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose that scripture gives them and are consoled by the idea that life after death is more than just oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of an atheist edge lord to admit that you’re capable of faith, just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead. Clean your room bucko.
BDSM was CREATED to solve this very problem. People find comfort in BDSM for a reason. Some people enjoy the community it fosters, others relish the sense of purpose having a sub/dom relationship gives them and are consoled by the idea of being fucked into oblivion, others just enjoy being told what to do to give their minds a break. If you’re too much of a prude to don your gimp suit and call your Master ‘daddy’ then just watch some Jordan Peterson and he’ll tell you what to do instead.
Admitting that life is meaningless can unburden you from the responsibility of having to live a meaningful life (which is such a lot of effort). So just chill the fuck out, because nothing matters anyway!
Bro, have you tried walking it off?
Medical professionals and medical unprofessionals agree that exercise CURES ALL MENTAL ILLNESS, so ignore that crippling anxiety, remember that fatigue is an illusion and get on your bike you lazy shit.
Worried about death? Well try stretching in a silent room full of people without farting! That’ll take your mind off it.
6. Essential Oils
Just rub some lavender oil on it babe, it’ll totally cleanse those chakras! And if, like me, you want to be your own boss and set your own schedule, you can join my essential oils marketing team for the low, low price of a starter set (£300). Start your journey to self-actualisation today!
7. Join a Cult
If you’re down on cults, then you obviously haven’t seen Wild, Wild Country. I mean LOOK AT HOW HAPPY THEY WERE. Being a part of a tight-knit community can really help with what ails ya (if you can ignore casual acts of domestic terrorism).
8. Catch ’em all
If joining a cult is a bit too sociable for you, then you’re in luck! Playing Pokemon, or similar creature collection games, may be the key to reducing anxiety surrounding death.
Terror management theory, as summarised by McIntosh & Schmeichel suggests that people can reduce death-related anxiety by collecting things as these collections allow for the collector live on symbolically via their contribution after their demise.
There’s good news for stamp-haters! Game Studies researcher Sonja C Sapach suggests that this feeling can be digitised, as by collecting creatures, players obtain a feeling of immortality by ‘contributing to a fragmented database of collective knowledge’ destined to outlast them (at least until someone deletes their save file).
There’s no better reason to catch ’em all than to evade the fear of one’s inevitable demise. Though, it might be best to avoid Lavender Town if you’re maudlin.
9. Meme it
There’s no greater proof that many of our generation are existing under the rapidly gathering storm clouds of our impending personal and planetary demise than memes; death memes, depression memes, suicide memes.
Poor taste? Yes.
Hilarious? Also yes.
Though depression memes aren’t to everyone’s taste and may look like idiocy at worst and insanity at best to ‘normies’, you have to admire the creativity of the movement surrounding them. They’re part of a special form of displacement psychoanalysts term sublimation which is the process of channelling negative emotions into a productive activity: like music or art. It’s 2019. Memes are art now. Make a meme page and sublimate the shit out of it.
10. Make a plan
One thing that has helped me cope with my mortality is that knowing if I die, then at least I won’t have to worry about anything any more. However if you’re a Type A asshole considerate person and worry about what will happen to your loved ones after you pass away, try alleviating this anxiety by getting your affairs in order before you go. Make a list, check it twice, seek professional help.
11. Personify Death
OR Maybe you don’t like death because you haven’t got to know them yet. If you’re still having a tough time, why not try having a chat with death and see what happens? Turning death as an abstraction into something more concrete by personifying them might make the idea easier to deal with. You could write a letter, a short story, or a play. What would you say to death? What do you think death would say back? Read your conversation aloud, or leave it in the comments below. It might be cathartic.
Conclusion: death is millennial culture
If you think that you’re the only one walking around thinking about death all the time, then THINK AGAIN sunshine. You must be talking to the wrong people or visiting the wrong parts of the internet (or the right places, depending on your perspective). I’m sure that members of prior generations had equally bleak mindsets and equally difficult anxieties (don’t flame me boomers), but growing up with the internet has intensified millennials’ existential angst by giving us a never ending supply of depression porn (instant news) and a plethora of terrifyingly dystopian echo chambers where we can all gather together and masochistically bitch about it.
Speaking of dystopian echo chambers, come for a chat in my discord server!
I realise that in this post I’ve misused theoretical frameworks and left a lot out for comedy/convenience.
If you’re interested in a more thorough look at the topic, try the below resources which give a better overview of the psychoanalytic views on death anxiety and signpost more appropriate primary literature.
I’m struggling to move on from my ex, not because i don’t recognise that the relationship was dreadful for my mental health, but because I don’t find myself physically attracted to people very often and i am still very attracted to this ex. It is upsetting and frustrating because I can see that they are not right for me, but I haven’t been attracted to anyone since so I am finding myself thinking about them a lot. It isn’t healthy, I know. I am nervous that I will never be physically attracted to anyone ever again. Long shot but do you have anything that might ease my concerns?
YOU CUPCAKE, HONEYBUNCH, SUGAR PLUM, PUMPY-UMPY-UMPKIN
AWESOME HUMAN YOU
This was me trying to tell you (in the most patronising way possible – sorry) that I am so happy for you. I’m so pleased that you’re not in this toxic relationship any more. One way, or another, you are out of it. The situation may be painful, but being free of this relationship, and recognising how shitty it was for you, may be one of the best things that has ever happened to you.
So again, my congratulations!
…I realise however, that knowing this doesn’t make things any easier.
‘not because i don’t recognise that the relationship was dreadful for my mental health… It is upsetting and frustrating … It isn’t healthy…’
It sounds like you consider your feelings irrational, and you’re giving yourself a hard time about that. Thing is, emotions aren’t rational and you can’t logic them away.
WE CAN TRY THO.
Let’s ACTIVATE armchair psychology mode and start making some assumptions…
‘I don’t find myself physically attracted to people very often…’
If you don’t find yourself attracted to others very often, let’s assume that you might not have felt emotions like the ones you’re experiencing much before. We won’t assume that you haven’t had relationships, because romantic relationships ≠ attraction, but you might not have experienced this particular type of relationship before.
Like anything, feeling things and processing emotion takes practise. Your unconscious mind may not be used to handling things like this, so what you’re feeling could be a result of its imperfect way of dealing with things. You might want to consider engaging in some kind of therapy, or getting a therapy workbook to complete as this will help these emotions become conscious and perhaps enable you to practise processing them more efficiently. However, I’m NOT a therapist and this is a pretty boring answer, so it’s not something we’ll go into in detail about – it’s just something benign you might want to check out. If you’re not into therapy, at least forgive yourself for having feelings. Emotions are shitty and it’s not your fault that you feel them. Hopefully, in time, you’ll get used to it – or when the singularity comes we’ll all shed our human meat-cases and become flawless virtual presences living immortal lives w/o having to deal will this bullshit. Until then, we’ll always have emo.
‘I’m struggling to move on from my ex… i am still very attracted to this ex… I am finding myself thinking about them a lot’
This again, is very normal. Even Freud wrote about it. We may not agree with all of Freud’s shit, but I find that his work functions nicely as a metaphorical framework that makes emotions easier to understand. So, let’s cherry-pick some of his theories, take them out of context and use them in the most simplistic way possible BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT US ARMCHAIR PSYCHOLOGISTS LIVE FOR.
First, let’s talk about cathexis, a term created by Freud’s translators from the German ‘besetzung’ which means investment (Rycroft 1995: 19). This is basically a representation of the process of putting energy into a relationship, and has become synonymous with the modern term ’emotional investment’. By having relationships with people, you are effectively giving them a part of yourself – I’m not talking about spitting in their food or secretly feeding them your fingernails, but sharing things like your time, your energy, your body and perhaps even your love. Gifts such as these are more impactful than anything material, yet they are much harder to quantify. If you bought someone an expensive box of doughnuts you’d see the effect on your bank balance, but when you give your emotional energy to someone else, the effect is intangible. Yet, it’s something you can feel – especially if you don’t receive an equal of amount of doughnuts emotional investment in return.
When you break-up with someone, you may feel like you have given them your dignity. It can feel like you made a poor decision – you invested in stock which crashed. Instead of dealing with material consequences (though, that’s a possibility too) you have to deal with the social and emotional consequences of this decision and find a way to recoup your losses. It may not be your fault that this happened – all relationships are a gamble – but the losses are real and so are the feelings that come with them. The process of withdrawing your emotional energy (decathexis) is bound to vary depending on both the intensity of your emotions and how efficient your unconscious is at processing them.
‘i am still very attracted to this ex. It is upsetting and frustrating’
It seems like you have contradictory emotions which can make it difficult to understand them. It’s even more challenging because a lot of what you feel is probably unconscious – the feelings have been repressed because they’re difficult and confusing. Unconscious emotions are a little like mice living in your wall: you probably don’t know they’re there until they start making weird noises, and you might not even realise where the noises are coming from until the mice start leaving enough little shit pellets for you to notice them. These manifestations of your unconscious shit pellets can come in various forms: they could be neurotic symptoms, or obsessive thoughts.
In your case, it looks like the shit pellets you’re finding are evidence of ambivalence, a term coined by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911 (OH YES LOOK HOW UP TO DATE MY RESEARCH IS *SO NOW* AND NOT OUTDATED AT ALL). Basically, ambivalence is different to having mixed feelings for a person – which is normal because people can be wonderful, shitty, sexy and horrific all at once (Rycroft 1995: 6) – it’s about having contradictory emotions which are so extreme that they’re confusing.
Perhaps when you became attracted to this person, you put them up on a pedestal to bask in their sexiness because you weren’t used to experiencing the kinds of thing they made you feel.
Surely a person who could make you FEEL things like that must be GREAT – right?
When you realised that they are imperfect, it hurt even more because you let yourself be attracted to them, and maybe they weren’t worthy in the first place. Maybe it made you hate them just a little bit. Maybe they deserved it, maybe they didn’t. Who knows?
‘I am finding myself thinking about them a lot’
Anyway, the shit pellets can take the form of obsessive thoughts which may be the result of your unconscious trying to balance out the extremes of what you’re feeling (Rycroft 1995: 6). It’s such hard work that you don’t have enough energy left to repress your emotions, so they keep surfacing. Maybe you feel guilty because your unconscious is doing a shitty job and it knows it. So it’s time to stop trying to repress things. Stop ignoring the shit pellets. You need to clean them up and give the mice in your wall some cheese and some goddamn attention. Maybe then they’ll stop squeaking so fjucking loudly.
Be kind to the mice to be kind to yourself.
There’s a lot more that we can’t go into here, but I’d recommend checking out Mourning and Melancholia – reading the terms in context situates them within a more sophisticated framework of meaning than I can provide here.
Now we have a slightly better understanding of your feelings (well, the flimsy construction of your feelings we’ve made up)
and we should think about a possible solution to what you consider to be your current problem.
‘I haven’t been attracted to anyone since… I am nervous that I will never be physically attracted to anyone ever again.’
Before we get into this, I want to mention that when it comes to attraction, everyone is different – not being attracted to people isn’t a problem unless you consider it a problem. I’m making suggestions in the hope they will alleviate some of your discomfort, rather than change who you essentially are.
The stereotypical advice would be to TAKE SOME TIME FOR YOURSELF. FIND YOURSELF BEFORE YOU FIND A PARTNER. LEARN TO LOVE YOURSELF. DO SOME YOGA. RUB SOME COCONUT OIL ON IT.
Of course, as an armchair psychologist I’m going to give you this shitty advice.
BUT BEAR WITH
We’re going to mix things up a bit.
My advice is essentially to take some time for yourself and to date yourself (candles, chocolates and all) but
BY FINDING A HUSBANDO/WAIFU !!! ❤
Translation: have a romance with a fictional heart-throb.
For some people (especially late bloomers), letting oneself feel attraction can take practise. One of the ways we can practise is by engaging in fantasy. Perhaps crushing on a fictional character might help reignite the spark you felt when you met your ex, or at least get you back in ‘the mood’…
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE YOU PERVERT
this is a WHOLESOME blog, I’ll have you know
(until someone asks me cosmo-style question – I’d be fine with that)
Anyway, having a fictional romance can help you feel emotions again without all of the bother of dealing with someone’s imperfections. Some activities you could try include:
Playing visual novels (find one with pretty people and a good story – I won’t recommend any because idk what you like)
Playing a dating sim (Mystic Messenger is GREAT because it’s on your phone and is designed to feel like a real relationship – it also lasts a long time and has a lot of different paths to choose from which make it great distraction – sadly it’s just husbandos though).
Write a story/fanfic for the sole purpose of creating someone you can ‘fall in love’ with.
You could even read a book (IKR – CRAZY) but it might not give you the same feeling of agency.
Taking part in imaginative exercises could help you feel accustomed to the idea of being attracted to someone again. You were hurt the last time you felt physical attraction, so it’s natural that you might feel reluctant (even unconsciously) to feel that way again. Getting a waifu is a much safer way of accessing your romantic side until you’re ready to share it. Just remember that the deep backstories of fictional husbandos/waifus you spend time with are likely more glamorous than a real person’s baggage: try and be aware of that when you begin to make the transition to feeling something for a real person again.
HAPPY HUSBANDO HUNTING
The armchair psychologist
Aftercare: Would you ever engage in a fictional romance or do you think the idea is kinda creepy?
Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like to leave the armchair psychologist a question then please do after reading the health warning, and if you enjoyed this content then please consider leaving a donation.
When I find myself in times of trouble I dive headfirst into astrology, tarot, and other forms of cheap affordable divination because the idea of predestination makes me feel calmer and more focused. Why am I so against my own freedom as an individual? How can I outgrow this crutch?
Dear Astral Confusion,
Thank you for sending in your question.
Let’s begin by engaging with one of the most important traditions of the school of armchair psychology – making some broad, and possibly offensive, assumptions about you by deconstructing your question.
Your question shows a divide between your fatalistic attitude and your empowerment as an individual. We’ll look at your fatalistic tendencies first.
‘When I find myself in times of trouble… dive headfirst… the idea of predestination makes me feel calmer and more focused…‘
The explicit message here is that you find the idea of destiny comforting. You ‘dive headfirst’ into the murky waters of divination as if you’re trying to escape from something. Have you thought about what is it that you’re escaping from?
What kind of sinking ship are you abandoning?
Is the ship just doomed? Even though you did the health and safety checks and cracked open a bottle of champagne on its hull, somehow, the fucker still caught fire and sank?
Saying that you ‘find yourself in times of trouble’ suggests a lack of control. Indeed, sometimes accidents and bad situations happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Depending on your belief system it could be that the fault IS in your stars, or the world is just a shitty place full of shitty people who like to set fire to your motherfucking ship. (Or maybe someone just left their straighteners on.) There’s no denying that there’s just some things we can’t control, and need to escape from. If we can’t physically escape, perhaps we can at least emotionally escape by engaging in a pastime we feel may offer answers.
But let’s go back to my first question: what is it you’re escaping from?
Proceed with caution: this T is hot.
Maybe it was your fault the ship started sinking. Maybe you didn’t put enough lifeboats on the ship, then you steered it into a motherfucking iceberg.
Sometimes we fuck ourselves over. We might like to think that we just happen to ‘find’ ourselves in trouble when we, in fact, have been human and imperfect and have actually contributed to the shitty situations we find ourselves in. Denying our part in the hardships we experience can be a defence mechanism – a way of preserving our fragile egos. The idea of predestination may appeal to you because it helps you minimise your part in the trouble you ‘find’ yourself in. It’s tempting to repress that imperfection allllllllllllll the way down into our unconscious – where it belongs (jk). However, repressing something doesn’t make it go away – and I don’t think you need me to tell you this, because babes, it looks like you already know.
Let’s remember that diving isn’t falling. Maybe you’re ‘diving headfirst’ into the oceans of divination, because that’s where the treasure is.
‘Why am I so against my own freedom as an individual? How can I outgrow this crutch?’
I don’t think you are against the idea of your personal freedom, I think you’re trying to find your empowerment, but you’re afraid of it. By saying you want to ‘outgrow’ your divination habit and that it’s a ‘crutch’, you’re suggesting that it’s something that you shouldn’t be doing. But, crutches are useful things! Crutches help you get around, but, they might not be a permanent solution. Maybe don’t be so quick to discard something that helps you (especially something relatively benign, such as divination) and instead look at it as a prosthetic extension of self – understand why you need it and how it became part of your experience. Don’t see it as limiting your freedom, but an expression of it.
Now, let’s get mystical!
Divination, in general, is interesting because its origins aren’t quite as mysterious as you might think. The Ouija board was marketed as a toy, and tarot cards began as playing cards (Farley 2009: 3). They became tied to ‘divinatory interpretation’ in the 19th century when the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn adapted them (Farley 2009: 2). This isn’t to say that it’s all bullshit. Although they weren’t intended for divination, this doesn’t mean they can’t be used as such (Farley 2009: 6). Just because something isn’t meant to do a thing, doesn’t mean it can’t do a thing. The importance is the context in which they are being used – The New Age movement even used Jungian psychology in an attempt to understand the cards’ symbolism (Farley 2009: 2).
And WE ALL KNOW JUNGIAN PSYCHOLOGY IS LEGIT SHIT. LOBSTER DAD SAYS SO.
ALL HAIL LOBSTER DAD.
One way of engaging with divination is by taking a structuralist approach. You might want to consider that you’re engaging in a tradition of people who are attempting to find meaning, to find order in the chaos of the world. You’re trying to find where you fit in as a part of something bigger than yourself and by the very act of divining you are participating in a collective act and putting your individual spin on it. It can be nice to have structure, nice to have rules, and if they help you live your best life then that’s cool. Just don’t get obsessed with it. To avoid becoming insular, you can share this interest with others. Assuming you’re giving and receiving tarot readings for free – let’s not get into critiques of the way that such artefacts have been commodified and used to exploit people –
then you can use the tarot cards as a way to displace your emotions and talk about your feelings more easily and figure out where you stand in relation to the society you’re participating in.
If you’re getting annoyed at this post, you might be less of a structuralist and more of a postmodernist.
Since the rise of post-structuralism, divination has taken on new significance. The emphasis has shifted from interpreting symbols as static archetypes, and has become more about what they mean to the individual. A tarot card, for example, need not even have a fixed meaning.
SO EVERYTHING IS MEANINGLESS? What’s the point of living? We need to return to simpler times, to grand narratives, to binary gender, to rescue our fathers, to-
NOT NOW DAD. I’M BUSY
Actually, if nothing has a *fixed* meaning, then its meaning depends on perception and is therefore more meaningful to each person.
If we consider tarot cards in this manner, then their origins are less significant, as is their association with ‘ shoddy soothsayers and confidence tricksters’ (Farley 2009: 1) and their connection to a divine power. As the context of tarot shifts, so do the meanings of the cards. Since 1971, tarot readings have been more about coming to one’s own conclusions rather than being interpreted by someone else.
Considering the significance of divination as a means of self-expression and exploration, perhaps your fear of your ‘freedom as an individual’ isn’t being expressed by your use of divination itself, but your desire to outgrow using it. What you’re escaping from, or what you’re repressing won’t just disappear.
It’s calling to you.
Using divination is a way of understanding yourself. You might think you’re chatting with a spirit, but perhaps you’re communicating with someone closer to home. Maybe you’re really having a conversation with the parts of yourself, or your experience, that you’ve repressed. Perhaps the ‘higher power’ you’re in conversation with is your unconscious mind.
And if you ask me, that’s much more terrifying than any ghost.
The armchair psychologist.
Aftercare: I hope you enjoyed this post! I find divination fascinating and I have my own pack of tarot cards. Let me know how you engage with (or avoid) divination in the comments!
If you liked this post and would like the armchair psychologist to solve all of your problems, please post a question anonymously or, if you feel more comfortable contact me some other way.