My Feelings Do Not Determine My Activism

#homophobic & transphobic violence

The other thing I wanted to say about today’s Supreme Court ruling is that the emotions I happen to be having right now are not my final word on this whole question of queer rights and equality.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a lot of things that this ruling not only fails to solve, but fails to address. That means for some queer and trans people, today is not a day of celebration at all.

And that is okay.

I mean, it’s not okay that there is so much still undone. But it’s okay to not be happy about a victory that feels like it’s got nothing to do with you and what you need.

So I see all these posts from people that are like “Well I’m not celebrating today,” and I nod and I think to myself, “Okay.” But then I also see all these posts that are like, “If you’re happy/celebrating today then [a bunch of unfounded assumptions about your views, priorities, concerns, and attitudes].”

And that I’m just not down with, because I’m not down with telling people how to feel, or with claiming that people’s feelings are what makes them good people or bad people.

Often I see these things online about various causes: “If you’re not angry then you’re not paying attention,” “How can you even enjoy ____ when ____,” and so on. I’m deeply uncomfortable with framing anger as the only legitimate response to injustice, just as I’m uncomfortable with framing anger as an illegitimate response to injustice. Remember neurodiversity. Different people have a whole range of emotional responses to the same stimuli and that doesn’t make any of them necessarily wrong or broken. For instance, I almost never get angry, and when I do, it’s only when some specific individual has treated me badly. Does this mean I have no place in the fight for social justice?

We say all the time that you’re not a bad person if you feel sad when others think you shouldn’t be, so how could you be a bad person if you feel happy when others think you shouldn’t be? We don’t control our emotions. We control our actions.

But besides, you don’t want me to use negative emotions as the sole or main basis of my activism. You don’t want me to do that because it means that I will always be 1) prioritizing the issues most personal to me first, and 2) either struggling to force myself to have negative emotions about other things or, when I fail to do that, ignoring all those other issues. If anger is what makes injustice worth fighting, then I’m only going to fight those injustices which make me angry.

I understand that a lot of these posts are also based on the (legitimate) assumption that people are not going to act on all these other problems in the wake of this momentous ruling. And yes, unfortunately, that’s probably true of some people. Some people probably now believe that homophobia is over. But those people were never going to get their heads out of the marriage issue anyway. That was their issue. They cared about it. Now it’s over. I wish it weren’t so, but some people only care about what impacts them personally and directly.

Others of us who are celebrating today have known for a long time that this is just one battle of the war. I am not ready to declare the war a victory as long as queer and trans people (especially people of color) are losing jobs, failing to get jobs in the first place, being denied medical care, getting profiled and arrested on the streets, being brutalized by the police, getting deported, getting spat at and thrown bottles at, getting kicked out of their homes by their parents, being forced into conversion therapy, getting beaten and raped.

But feeling happy about what happened today doesn’t make my opinions (and my feelings) about that stuff any less real. There is nothing inconsistent in fighting those other battles while also crying of happiness because maybe one day I can actually marry someone I love, you know?

I want there to be more acknowledgment of the fact that people can have a lot of conflicting and contradictory feelings about the same things, that feelings do not necessarily determine political opinions (and shouldn’t), that activism can be motivated by something other than anger. It’s weird when we say that you shouldn’t judge people for having emotions in some contexts, but then turn around and judge them for it in others.

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The Emotional Performativity of Social Work Education

For me, the most stressful thing about social work school has nothing to do with homework, exams, or internships. It’s the constant demand that I share my emotions with near-strangers for everyone’s supposed educational benefit. And if I’m not experiencing emotions at the given moment or about the given topic, I must invent them, because nobody believes me if I say I don’t have any emotions. Moreover, that’s the wrong answer, because if I’m not having any emotions, then I cannot engage in the required “processing” or “reflection” and complete the assignment.

I understand why this is such a large component of social work education. Most people lack self-awareness, and therapists without self-awareness can do a great amount of harm to their clients–for instance, by subconsciously using the therapeutic encounter as an opportunity to get affirmation and then lashing out at a client who fails to provide it.

By nature, I have too much self-awareness. Without intervention, I am too aware of every slight emotion and reaction, every passing thought, every potential reason for those emotions, reactions, and thoughts. I’m constantly weighing possible sources of cognitive bias in my head. I’m constantly modeling how I must look and be perceived by others, physically or psychologically. In its worst excesses, the self-awareness leads to unstoppable rumination, which leads to depression.

The way I have been able to survive depression is by learning to ignore, postpone, or shut down my emotions.

But of course, this is not The Right Way. That would be to just “learn how to sit with the emotions as they come” or whatever, or methodically talk myself out of them every time. Quite frankly, I have neither the time nor the energy. My way works. I am (mostly) happy, I am productive, I am attentive to others, I am (mostly) focused. So what if my methods are unorthodox?

Other helping professionals really dislike this. If I’m distracting myself from my emotions, or–worse yet–not having them to begin with, surely they will all suddenly come back and crash down on me like a collapsing building because I have failed to properly do the work of Processing and Reflecting upon them?

But it’s been years of me successfully managing emotions and that still hasn’t happened. I truly don’t think that it will. The idea that it will is probably a vestige of psychoanalytic thinking.

And yet, my professors and supervisors seem to think we’re either “resistant,” lacking in self-awareness, or else just cold and inhuman if we’re not constantly experiencing a lot of emotions connected to our work.

Something happens with a client and my supervisor asks, “How did that make you feel?”, and I can’t just say that it did not make me feel anything. My supervisor simply wouldn’t believe me. Either I’m repressing it, or I’m being withdrawn and not participating in the educational process like I should, or something else bad.

But I really didn’t feel anything. I generally leave my feelings at the door during therapy sessions. Sometimes I have some feelings afterward, but rarely, and when I do, they’re usually gone by the time I come back to the office the next day.

So I have to perform emotions. “I felt sad.” “Why do you think that is?” “Because it made me think of times when I have experienced _____.” “Well, you know, it’s very important not to overidentify with our clients.” “Yes, I know.” All lies, except the last part.

“Please write a five-page essay about your own experiences with _____ and how that may impact your practice.”

“How did it feel when ____ dropped out of the group?”

“How did you feel when ____ terminated counseling?”

“I’m wondering if that session brought up any feelings for you.”

“How did you feel after watching this video?”

I can’t wait till I graduate and my emotions can finally be mine again.

“I’m wondering if this brings up any feelings for you.” Yeah, I’m fucking pissed off because I want my fucking privacy back.

“How might this impact your practice?” I dunno, maybe I’ll respect the fact that there can be many different effective, “healthy” ways of managing your emotions besides venting them.

“Please reflect on this topic in terms of privilege and oppression.” It is a privileged position to have feelings that are “acceptable” to share. We simultaneously marginalize and pathologize the feelings of women, mentally ill people, people of color, queer people, etc. Our feelings become something to be analyzed and “fixed.” Excuse me if I don’t feel comfortable sharing mine with an authority figure.

Further, the cultures of dominant groups determine which methods of coping we consider “healthy” and which we do not. According to the dominant frame, if I am not willing to share my private thoughts with a supervisor or professor, I’m the one who needs fixing, because there is something wrong with a person who is “distrusting” or “resistant.” No, my ways of managing feelings cannot possibly be healthy or effective for me personally, because they are not what people with authority over me are used to.

And if I’m really not having any feelings, that’s even worse. Then I don’t care. I lack empathy. I’m repressed. I’m pathologically numb. I can’t possibly be cut out for this work, because being a therapist means constantly feeling things on behalf of our clients, doesn’t it?

I don’t think so. I think my ability to keep a clear head in session is actually an asset, not a deficit. Of course I express empathy for my clients, because I have a strong sense of justice and fairness and I know that the things they go through are wrong and unfair. I know that they deserve better. I know that it must be very hard for them. I don’t need to feel anything to know any of that.

And because of that, I never get caught up in seeking reassurance or affirmation from my clients. I don’t need them to get better quickly so that I feel good about myself. I don’t need them to tell me I’m the best therapist they ever had so that I feel competent. I don’t need them to open up immediately, be polite and deferential, stop being so upset because that makes me sad, keep their voice down lest they hurt my feelings.

I’m able to actually just be there for them rather than mentally swimming around in my own issues.

But that doesn’t make any sense to anyone, so I sit in class and in supervision and perform emotions like a good social work student.

“Don’t Cry Because It’s Over; Smile Because It Happened”

Is anyone actually capable of following this advice?

I’m genuinely curious, because I’ve never been able to. As a child I would inevitably waste the last day of any family vacation crying because it was ending, and then crying because I was wasting the entire last day crying, and then crying because it was actually over and I had just wasted the entire last day crying.

Of course, that was probably for two reasons: 1) I genuinely found the majority of my day-to-day existence pretty dreary and miserable, not in the “maaan I could sure use a vacation” sense but in the “my classmates and my teachers are bullying me” sense; and 2) as perhaps follows from 1), I had some sort of proto-depression that later became full-blown depression.

Now I cry at the ends of other things, like visits with family or partners, stays in a particular place (moving is horrible for me), jobs and school things, and sometimes relationships (though, by the time they end, I usually don’t care very much anymore).

No matter what the actual thing that’s ending, there’s always this same horror that that might’ve been the last good thing in my life and now there will be no more. It’s not rational; it just is.

“Smile because it happened” assumes that the reason it can or should feel okay for good things to be over is because now you have all those happy memories of them. That might be the case for people who get any joy out of thinking about happy memories. I don’t. My brain immediately jumps to sadness that that thing is over or gone.

That’s why the only thing I can do is just to not think about things that are in the past. (Unless, ironically, they’re uniformly negative, because it doesn’t really make me sad to think about sad things that are over now.) This means I compartmentalize everything and largely avoid thinking about family, friends, or partners who are not here and who I can’t see often, or past vacations that I took, or cool opportunities that I had.

And I probably realize this as these things are ending. I realize that I’ll never be able to think about those happy memories without becoming very sad, so for me, the end of a particular experience is truly the end in a way that it might not be for most people. It’s not just that I won’t get to literally experience that same thing again; I also won’t really get to ever think about or remember it, except in certain controlled ways (and then rarely without tears).

I don’t know if this is a depression thing or a me thing. It doesn’t really make sense outside of the context of depression, though, because I think that a more mentally healthy person would be able to understand that good things will happen again. I am not able to understand that on any sort of serious level. I’m only able to repeat it to myself over and over like I could repeat “Unicorns exist” or “I have a million dollars.”

But then again, maybe if “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” were a thing that normal people could actually do, Dr. Seuss wouldn’t have felt the need to say it.

No True Lover

I was trying to explain polyamory to my mother a few nights ago (not for the first time) and we kept getting stuck on the same things.

She kept saying, “But wouldn’t he feel disgusted knowing that his girlfriend had just slept with someone else and now she’s sleeping with him?”

I said, well, anyone who feels that disgusted about it probably won’t be trying polyamory anytime soon. The people I know who practice it do not find that disgusting.

“But they should.”

Why?

“Because it’s just disgusting.”

To you. But not to them.

“Then there’s something wrong with them.”

Why is there something wrong with them?

“Because if there wasn’t, they would think it’s disgusting.”

And on and on it went.

This is something I notice otherwise rational people a lot, this circuitous post-facto justification of opinions that are actually based on one’s personal feelings about something. A lot of people think polyamory is Wrong because they personally find the thought of it unpleasant. I used to, too.

When I presented her with a few stories of people who had been happily living in polyamorous relationships/marriages for years, seemingly without feeling disgusted every time one of their partners came back from spending time with a metamour, she changed her argument.

“They don’t truly love anyone, then.”

Why not?

“Because if they loved someone, they wouldn’t even think of sleeping with someone else.”

What about people who cheat?

“Well, their partners aren’t okay with that.”

So if they are okay with it, then they’re not in love?

“Right.”

I asked her what it would mean if someone who feels themselves to be in love with their partner nevertheless wants to sleep with other people, too, and is completely okay with their partner doing the same. Not just a grudging acceptance, but an eager agreement, even a joyful encouragement.

“Then they must not really love them. Then you have never truly loved anyone.”

But what if I feel that I love them?

“Then you’re feeling something else and you’re calling it love.”

People who oppose polyamory with these sorts of justifications–not that it’s morally wrong in any sense (my mother is not religious), but that it’s a sign of something wrong with you–define their own feelings and their own sense of what is mentally normal in opposition to the behavior of others. A “normal” person feels disgusted at the thought of their partner having sex with someone else. Therefore, a person who does not feel disgusted at this thought is abnormal. A person who is in love does not want to have sex with anyone else. Therefore, a person who wants to have sex with someone besides their partner is not in love with that partner.

What I perceive love to be doesn’t matter.

In fact, I am quite certain that I have loved several people, and even though some of those relationships were monogamous (some never even reached the relationship stage at all), I don’t think I was ever able or willing to commit to a lifetime without so much as a kiss with someone else.

Some (including, most likely, my mother) would say that that’s mainly a consequence of my age, even though plenty of people have gotten married at my age or younger, and that at my age it is impossible to “truly” love someone.

(Again, defining things as is most convenient for you.)

I love, and I have loved. Maybe by my mother’s definition, it isn’t really love. Maybe I am incapable of feeling love like that. Maybe there is something horribly wrong with me. Maybe I am a broken person. Maybe my brain is wrong. Maybe I am missing out on a wondrous, unimaginable (to me) experience that humans have longed for throughout the millennia, written songs and novels and plays about, painted paintings of, suffered over, killed for, died for.

I have entertained all of these possibilities.

And to them, I say:

So what?

I like the way I feel when I love someone. What I call love, I experience in several varieties that all feel irreplaceably different. I don’t love all of my partners in the same ways. I don’t love all of my friends in the same ways. I don’t love all of the people I’m not sure whether to call “partner” or “friend” in the same ways.

I don’t really care if what I call love is what other people call love. If my partners love me back, I don’t care if their subjective experience of that love is the same as mine. Things like that used to concern me an awful lot–who loves the other “more,” who cares “more,” who loves the other “how,” all that other rubbish my depression filled my brain with–but nowadays I rarely think about it.

I hope that when my partners think about me they think about comfort, joy, lust, respect, admiration, gratitude, appreciation, beauty, fun. That’s what love basically is to me, with varying amounts of each of these depending on the person. With my boyfriend, the ones that jump out the most are comfort, lust, respect, and fun. With my best friend, it’s comfort, admiration, and gratitude. But they’re all there.

If this isn’t The Real Love Referenced In Famous Films And Novels, well, whatever. I’ll take what I’ve got, without the monogamy, the jealousy, the fights about what does and doesn’t count as cheating, the worries about trying to be everything the other has ever wanted sexually, the suspicion of ex-partners and relevantly gendered friends.

So I’ve never Really Loved anyone and never will. Fine by me.