Thursday, 27 June 2019

What we get WRONG about Toxic masculinity

Hello lovely people,

Today we are going to be talking about Toxic Masculinity.

I want to preface this blogpost by saying that I wrote an article about Toxic Masculinity way back in 2017 and whilst some of my opinions and ideas have remained the same, as my understanding of myself, the world around me and all things gender-related has evolved and changed, so has my take on Toxic Masculinity. This essay will provide a comprehensive (if not exhaustive) argument to support the claim that mainstream narratives around Toxic Masculinity are hindering social progress.

Content Warning: between the two ***** there is discussion of suicide (the sections entitled 'Male Suicide' and 'Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics')


What is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic Masculinity as a concept is challenging to define - Psychologist Terry Kupers offers the following definition, which in my opinion, provides a accessible starting point for discussion: (toxic masculinity could be defined as) "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence".

I would also like to add ableism and transphobia as central components of toxic masculinity. In addition, for the white male population, there are many cross-overs between white supremacy and toxic masculinity (e.g. asserting masculinity through racist remarks/behaviours) .

With the knowledge that gender, and gender roles, are technically social constructs, how can we begin to unpick the mess that is Toxic Masculinity. Beneath the violence and the oppression, is there a squeaky clean, healthy version of Masculinity just waiting to be embraced?


Let's investigate....


The Fear of (Un)manliness

'Toxic Masculinity' is used to describe both a system of privilege and oppression and a set of individual traits found in men. There tends to be one dominant narrative when it comes to the origins of Toxic Masculinity; it is widely accepted that it was created by (and is perpetuated by) *The Patriarchy*, everyone's favourite group of guys.

Here's where it gets sticky - if it's the Big Bad Patriarchy who control Toxic Masculinity, who can be held accountable for its consequences?

More on that later...

Toxic Masculinity has become somewhat of a buzzword over the last few years. Often, when we use the term 'Toxic Masculinity', we are doing so in conversations about male mental health, usually in reference to 'men being shamed for expressing emotion/vulnerability'. Furthermore, this discourse usually centres the fact that displays of emotion and vulnerability in cis het men are associated with being a 'girl' (or a 'pussy') or being 'gay' (or a 'fagg*t') and are therefore fundamentally 'unmanly' (and this devaluation of masculinity, in turn, has a detrimental effect on men's mental health).

Despite the fact that this blatantly upholds misogynistic and homophobic understandings of both gender and emotion, it is cis, straight men who are time and time again unduly victimised by this narrative.

How are we (as people of marginalised genders), suppose to empathise with supposed 'oppression' that is caused by negative association with marginalised peoples - that's not how oppression works. As a result, when we centre this narrative of Toxic Masculinity in feminist discourse, the good and valiant fight for 'gender equality' can often feel like repeatedly running into a wall - here's why:

When we equate men's hurt feelings with the threatened safety of marginalised genders, we describe an 'even playing field' where there simply isn't one. Oppression is not and never will be, a two way street - issues of health, safety and accessibility should never be compared to emotional illiteracy or creative inhibitions. The imbalanced power dynamic between cis men and marginalised genders means that whilst centring cis het men's 'vulnerability' may seem like a progressive plan (and even one which encourages empathy with marginalised genders), it is in fact counterproductive, as it only hyperbolizes cis men's hurt feelings into 'oppression', when they categorically aren't.

Besides that, we need to ask ourselves why cis men are afraid to appear 'gay' or 'girly' in the first place - is it because they are afraid of experiencing misogyny and homophobia (thereby confirming some level of awareness and understanding of the dangerous implications of Toxic Masculinity for marginalised genders)? Are men in fact afraid to experience what other genders are already experiencing (often at the hands of men)? Isn't this pointing to an alternative set of priorities altogether?


I ask you to consider this analogy:

(Content Warning: Discusses use of firearms)

Toxic Masculinity is a gun, which men are firing, the bullet is homophobia/transphobia/misogyny/ ableism. The ricochet from firing the bullet causes some discomfort for the men firing the guns. This ricochet (emotional suppression, curbed creative expression etc.), whilst causing discomfort, does not make men the target of the gunfire and will never equate to the life-threatening sting of a bullet wound. The most privileged men have rapid-fire machine guns and experience minimal discomfort whilst lesser privileged men experience more rebound. The targets are marginalised genders (i.e. everyone who isn't a cis man), who according to their individual privileges may have some protective armour which can act as a buffer between them an the bullet of Toxic Masculinity (in the form of cisness, heterosexuality, wealth, whiteness, thinness, able-bodied-ness etc.).

Even if the man puts down the gun and stops firing it, he will remain on the safe side of the shooting range, and although he may no longer engage with Toxic Masculinity and may even encourage other men to do the same, he will never be its intended target or be able to empathise with those who are. Did any one individual man set up the shooting range? No, it was created by the Patriarchy, which was created and is sustained by (shock horror) many, many men. Just because an individual man did not single-handedly create an entire oppressive system does not mean he cannot be held accountable for the ways in which he both perpetuates it and actively benefits from it.

BUT but buttt.......Can't women or other marginalised genders perpetuate Toxic Masculinity too? Can't they fire the guns? 

Nope, but they can provide ammunition. Women can certainly offer bullets of misogyny. Trans people can certainly offer bullets of transphobia. Gay people can certainly offer bullets of homophobia. This is due to having internalised patriarchal values. However, they cannot fire these bullets (they are still in the 'target' side of the shooting range) and they cannot guarantee that they themselves will not be hit by these bullets. Having said that, if they have more armour (i.e. more privilege) it is easier to to take this risk. They may believe that collecting ammunition in this way will gain favour with the Patriarchy, and provide them with some temporary shielding - a "Shoot them - not me" situation. This does not mean that cis white women cannot be racist or transphobic or that able-bodied non-binary people can't be ableist or anything like that - there are many intersections of oppression and privilege within the group of marginalised genders oppressed by Toxic Masculinity. Any analogy that attempts to describe an entire political system is going to be an over-simplification in some way and it is important to remember that this serves as a descriptive tool and nothing more.

The point of this analogy is to illustrate the power dynamic between cis men and marginalised genders and to demonstrate how even though men may experience discomfort, hurt or upset as a result of Toxic Masculinity, they will not be targeted so that their fundamental safety is compromised and in many ways they are in fact protected by it. By upholding male dominance, socially, economically and politically, Toxic Masculinity ensures that resources (in the form of power, money, property etc.) will always be more easily accessible to men. I have often read discussions of gender equality that state 'Women can uphold patriarchy as much as Men can support gender equality' (often in an attempt to be progressive) - however, as we have just discussed, this is not the case.

Gender equality (as it is currently framed within political discourse) is a pointless project because 'masculinity' actively exists at the expense of 'femininity'. This is the way the system was designed. The fight for 'gender equality' more often than not, upholds the gender binary and refuses to acknowledge the intersections of privilege and oppression within marginalised identities.



******

Male Suicide


Inevitably, the topic of 'male suicide' is thrown into the conversation at this stage.

Let's do some rapid fire questions to address some of the most common issues related to this topic:

Do I believe that masculinity as a construct (and therein Toxic Masculinity) is violent towards men? 

Yes - it's an inherently violent system (however this violence exists on a spectrum and is not the same as systemic oppression).

Do I believe that Toxic Masculinity is an oversimplification of issues that lead to male suicide? 

Yes. 

Do I believe that male suicide statistics are utilised in socio-political discussions as a way to digress from the wider impact of Toxic Masculinity within society and derail feminist discourse? 

Yes. 

Do I believe that issues such as poverty, unemployment, isolation, individualised trauma and lack of healthcare services are more significant contributors to male suicide rates than Toxic Masculinity (*cough cough* Capitalism *cough cough*)? 

Yes. 

Do I believe that discourse surrounding male suicide rates compartmentalises gender based brutality by focusing only on comparative cis-female suicide rates and ignoring issues such as rape culture and domestic violence?

Also yes. 

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

(quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli (popularised by Mark Twain), 

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics".

In addition to this, the 2007 survey carried out by the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England (here is a link to the Guardian article where it is cited - unfortunately the original study has since been closed off to the public....I wonder why..) found that women were not only more likely to experience suicidal thoughts but also more likely to act on those thoughts and carry out an attempt. However, due to the "non-violent" methods used by women (e.g. poisoning), suicide attempts were less likely to be fatal. Men, on the other hand were more likely to use "violent" methods such as firearms or hanging. Therefore, it could be argued that the primary reason that male suicide rates are higher is due solely to the methods used.

This leads me to ask - what conclusions can we really draw from statistics that don't include attempted suicides in their data? It is quite a leap to imply that this statistical discrepancy is because men are unhappier than women, less likely to seek help and less likely to be treated for a mental health condition and furthermore that all of the above is a result of Toxic Masculinity (which is the narrative we constantly hear spewed by media and healthcare professionals alike).

In fact, there is evidence that contradicts this entirely: a recent Danish study found that on average women get diagnosed 4 years later than men, for the same conditions. Misogyny within the healthcare system often proves to be fatal, for example, the above study found that cancer diagnoses took on average 2 and a half years longer to obtain for women than men.  It is important to be noted here that misogyny is not the only form of medical discrimination - racism, ableism, transphobia and homophobia within the healthcare system also have devastating effects - with black women and trans people of colour being at a particularly high risk of maltreatment. Studies also show that frequency of mental health conditions (especially anxiety, depression and insomnia) are 20-40% higher in women than men (though other studies claim the stats are higher).
Despite this, there are very few studies researching gender based medical discrimination and even fewer that investigate the disproportionate rates of mental health issues in women (and the socio-economic factors that contribute to them). Find further statistics on women's mental health conditions and rising suicide rates in teen girls in Ireland here.

Moreover, LGBT suicide rates, particularly trans suicide rates (which are much higher than their cis male counterparts), and even trans murder rates, at the hands of Toxic Masculinity are almost entirely erased from public consciousness.  I don't believe that statistics are a viable means of assessing gender-based violence. I don't believe they ever will be. Often all the evidence we need is staring us right in the face and yet we insist on waiting for confirmation in the form of rock hard proof from 'official/authoritative bodies' (as if the dead bodies of trans women aren't proof enough).

We will likely be waiting a very, very long time for anything that even closely resembles the research and studies needed to match the attention given to men's mental health and the Toxic Masculinity narrative that accompanies it.

*****

Critical Analysis

What we need to ask ourselves is - who is funding these studies? Who is profiting from this studies? Who sits on the ethics/University panels that green-light (and or decline) these studies? What beliefs are stabilised as a result of the findings of these studies? How do phenomena like confirmatory bias and selective publishing (i.e. publishing findings that align with existing expectations and not publishing any results that may contradict those expectations or are inconclusive) impact the statistics we see?

The point I am trying to make is that, if critical analysis of Toxic Masculinity does not exist (and at this point it largely doesn't) and the corresponding congruent social attitudes do not exist, then the statistics (and the studies that generate them) will also not exist and certainly will not be popularised or made accessible to the public. Studies and results that do not uphold the status quo will most likely be deeply buried underneath 'cure for cancer' and 'social media causes depression' type studies that are eye-catching and satisfy current public levels of education and enlightenment, whilst also playing right into the hands of Capitalism and Conservative political ideals (what a surprise, it's almost like they're all connected).


In Summary 

In summary, I don't believe that men's mental health should be ignored or disregarded, however, to suggest that it is primarily men who suffer at the hands of Toxic Masculinity is both incorrect and dangerous. The strategic use of statistics to evidence false claims about men's vulnerability further stabilises an imbalanced power infrastructure by providing an illusion of victimisation where there is nothing more than a wolf in sheepskin clothing. Individual traumas and tragedies will not suffice in supporting such distorted claims - the bottom line is that toxic masculinity benefits men more than it will ever hurt them. As well-intentioned as the male mental health movement appears, it only further prioritises a population who already hold significant privilege. Besides that, it is not the responsibility of feminism to parent, educate and in any other way prioritise men's needs and it never will be (check out Chidera Eggerue's excellent essay on this issue here). Until we are willing to place accountability front and centre of discussions surrounding Toxic Masculinity, it will continue to serve as yet another tool to uphold Patriarchy.


Disclaimer: The above article is based on my own thoughts and opinions, my own research and my own lived experience as a white, medium sized, able bodied, genderqueer person. Any bias towards my own level of privilege is unintentional and I will be happy to discuss it further (and/or amend any details) with anyone interested in speaking on it.



I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and perhaps learned a few new things.

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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx

Sunday, 5 May 2019

SHELL (poetry/art/photography)

Content Warning: Contains description of an eating disorder


SHELL

How dare you grieve what tried to kill you

- - - - - - - - - -

How dare you nuzzle into the cheeks of those who
abandoned 
you

- - - - - - - - -

Why must you grieve her?

porcelain
pale
bloodless
being

barely alive

half worn shell
cracked glass smile
waxwork eyes

- - - - - - - - -

Why must you hold that which tore you to shreds?

That ate your guts and spat them out again?

- - - - - - - -

You were dying

You cannot grieve your own decline

-

No

I must grieve the one who tried so hard to make herself alive

I must grieve her dreams

her hopeful dreams

She did not want to die

She wanted to kill off each piece of herself that did not 

fit in

that was not loved

that was not wanted

- - -

oh! pity her!

She only wanted love

Don't we all?

Don't we all.

And by God, did she fight for it

even when her face was hollow and her skin was grey

she fought for it

- - - - - - - - -

I am left with the grief of a thousand empty promises

- - - - - - - - -

what do I tell her  
how do I tell her 
that we're never going back
that the dream is dead
and that searching for it will only kill us too

-

how do I tell her
that she was right all along that
she was right all this time
confirm each perfect suspicion
validate each unwanted emotion


how do I tell her

that when she felt fear

she had every right to

and when she felt love

she had every right to

-

h (o w)? 

- - - - - - - - -

I do not grieve them

the ones that drained me

the ones that painted the walls with my blood

then promised it was all a dream


I do not grieve them


I grieve her

I grieve for her

because a thing who is so full of death at least deserves a funeral

at least deserves a farewell

at least deserves a kiss on the forehead

and the promise of eternal rest

-


Oh       you       can      sleep      now
creature born in battle
human raised in war
I will fight for you now
I will hold your grief
whilst you sleep an innocent's sleep


- - - - - - - - -


we cannot fix the unfixable

we cannot wish it all away 

even though we came so close to destruction

i promise to love you anyway


you are not the one who is rotten
                 
                                                                 broken

                    split wide open


your heart is too strong for that

too pure for that

too overflowing with you for that

-








[ this art piece was inspired by my eating disorder. when i came across this nude bodysuit at the back of my closet (itself a metaphor for so many things, not least my hidden queerness), i knew it deserved a commemoration of sorts. i can't even remember being so tiny that my torso was the same size as my hand. this is the final garment that symbolises the height of my eating disorder and deserves a full final farewell for the ways it tried to support me. when I was thin, i was a shell of myself, much like the empty, gangling bodysuit hanging on the washing line. my skin hung from my bones. there was no life in my eyes. yet the jarring blue sky in the background alludes to a brighter future. one where i may be whole, expansive and completely myself. in the final image we see a shadow scene, perhaps a past and present self meeting for the first and possibly last time. ]


head to my instagram @itsmeniamhalice to see a bonus video!


I hope you have enjoyed this online art installation!

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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

read this when you want to die

Hey you,

I know that things are really tough right now. And you have every right to feel sad and disappointed. I am so fucking angry for you. You don’t deserve to feel this way. It’s not fair - none of this is fair. I’m not going to try and convince you to stop being sad. I’m not going to try and convince you that things are better than they are. I’m not going to try and convince you that the world is better than it seems. Life is hard and I’m not going to lie to you or patronise you or attempt to brainwash you into believing otherwise. In fact, right now life may be the hardest it's ever been.

I could insert hundreds of cliched quotes about how you’re 'so strong' and 'you should just keep going' and 'life isn’t about the destination it’s about the journey' and all sorts of other bullshit. Maybe those things are true, maybe they're not, but I know that they won't cut it right now because right now everything seems too much. I believe that you have every right to want all the pain and hurt to end and all the difficult thoughts to go away. And I believe that you are trying really hard to keep going. I believe that you deserve relief from these feelings. I also believe that you deserve comfort and contentment and joy. Of course you deserve these things. They may seem like foreign, alien ideas in this moment. They may seem so far away that they’re in an entirely different galaxy or even a parallel universe. The truth is, if you were to die it would break my heart because you deserve so much more than this. You deserve to be so full and so wrapped in love and warmth and affection. You deserve to feel unconditionally loved. It is your birth right to feel this way. Of all people, you deserve to feel this way. 

I understand that it may seem as though you will never feel this way, or that these feelings are not meant for you or that life is simply too bad. I can’t promise that the world will become a gentler place but I can assure you that your mind can and will become a gentler place for you to live. Your brain has done everything in its power to keep you alive and even though it sometimes gets it a bit wrong, it’s trying its best under difficult circumstances. In fact, every single cell in your body is rooting for you. Every single cell in your body cares that your heart stays beating. You don’t have to try any harder than you already are. You just need to give yourself a break and understand that it’s not your fault that you feel so hurt and so sad and so full of despair. It may seem like you can’t remember a time when you didn’t feel this way and I trust that you know your life better than anyone. Having said that, I believe that each and every person on this planet has the capacity to feel at peace with themselves and I believe that each and every person on this planet is worthy of that. You don’t need to do or achieve anything to be worthy of peace - just being you is more than enough

You have such capacity for love and I know this because you have such capacity for grief - you have such capacity for feeling. Sometimes we get stuck in one feeling because it feels safe or familiar to us or perhaps it’s becoming part of our identity. This is just how we’ve learnt to survive. Despite everything, despite every adversity you have ever faced, you have survived 100% of your time on this earth. I am in awe of the courage that it takes to choose yourself every single day. I am astounded by how hard you try. And I believe that you deserve complete forgiveness for any times you may have been at fault. It’s simply a part of being human and all humans deserve forgiveness. The only thing certain in life is change and this way you are feeling will change. To want relief from what is painful is the most human of things. In order to get relief, we have to be alive to feel it. 

I’m so incredibly proud of you for the ways in which you have learnt to survive. I believe that you deserve the safety to be yourself (with all your quirks and 'flaws'). I believe that you deserve love just the way you are, right now. I believe that you deserve all the stars in the sky. I am so glad to be here on this planet with you. The world would not be the same without you in it. It’s okay to feel lost, confused and even hopeless sometimes. I don’t believe that wanting to die means you are selfish or indulgent or deluded. I think you are overwhelmed and it is very hard to make any decisions when we are overwhelmed. It’s very hard to take care of ourselves when we are overwhelmed. I believe that we deserve blankets of compassion.

When we are burnt out we see things differently. Imagine how you would see the world and your place in it if you were completely taken care of. If you felt loved and reassured and completely rested and supported - how would the world look then? 

Remember when you were five years old? Do you remember what you looked like? What haircut you had? Maybe what your favourite toy or book or TV show was? I want you to try and picture that five-year-old you in front of you now. Imagine that you are this child's protector, parent, older sibling or perhaps a guardian angel. Do you believe that this child deserves to be sad? Or do you believe that this child deserves the best in life? Imagine reaching out and giving that child a soft, warm hug. Imagine the relief you feel giving that child a hug and telling that child that they are not alone. This is how loved you deserve to feel.

I’m so sorry that people have let you down. I’m so sorry you felt disappointed and abandoned. This is where the healing begins. You deserve complete support in your healing. None of this is your fault.

Sometimes it rains for so many days that we forget what the sun feels like on our skin. That doesn’t mean that the sun isn't there, just waiting for the perfect moment to peek out from behind the clouds and bathe everything in a warm golden light. When we feel that warmth, we can’t understand why we ever doubted the sun in the first place.

Did you know that we are made of the same particles that created the universe? Did you know that we are in fact billions of years old? The oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and all other heavy atoms that float around are bodies were created in the heart of a star. You are a scientific wonder whether you realise it or not.

So, stardust-filled-person (if I may call you that), we’ve established that you’re pretty fucking incredible, unbelievably resilient and deserving of rest, love and support. You have a right to experience everything you want to experience. You have a right to dream and love and hope. You have a right to be silly and playful. You have a right to complete and utter peace. You matter, so much, and to nobody more than yourself, to little five year old you and to future you. They are so proud of how far you’ve come, I would even say that you’re their hero. You don’t need to fight any harder, you have done more than enough fighting for now. You just need to let yourself hope. If anyone can find hope, it's you. One small step at a time. I believe that hope runs in our veins (even if it hasn’t yet reached our brains). There is always a tiny voice that hopes. You’re allowed to listen to that voice. It might just be the most rebellious, badass thing you’ve ever done.

I’m sending you so many virtual hugs and a big invisible shield of protection. I’m so fucking proud of you for reading this blogpost. I’m so grateful (and honoured) that you took the time to do so. Thank you for staying a little while longer, I hope your world becomes a little softer, each second, each minute, each hour and each day that goes by. I hope the sun has the courage to peep out from behind the clouds. I can’t wait to see all the belly-laughs you will have, all the animals you will pet, all the yummy food you will eat and all the magic that you will create when you finally see all the magic that you are, and always have been. It’s all waiting for you, it’s what you have always deserved, you brilliant, beautiful, vibrant being.

If you'd like to chat with someone call:

116 123 if you're in Ireland or UK

or you can email jo@samaritans.ie

and receive a response after 24 hours

If you're in the US, check out http://suicidehotlines.com/national.html to find the right resource for you.

Check out the 'I Need Help' tab at the very top of this page for more support options.

Surely I get to post one cheesy inspirational quote, right? This happens to be one of my favourites ;)
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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why does SHAME hurt so much?

Hello lovely people,

Today I want to talk about shame, partly because I am fascinated by its cultural significance and partly because recently, shame has reentered my life in a big way (not least in relation to this very blog). What is shame? Why does it exist? Why do we never talk about it? What impact does shame have on our daily lives? Is shame always a destructive force? Can it ever be a force for good? In the following article, I will answer these questions and provide a new, comprehensive definition for shame.

What is shame?

Renowned Shame and Vulnerability researcher Brené Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection".

In my mind, this is a pretty accurate description of shame and how it may come about. However, Brené also says that she believes shame to be the source of "destructive, hurtful behaviour" and that she does not believe that shame is "helpful or productive" (See the link above for the full article on her website or check our her book Daring Greatly, which contains similar discourse, and which I would definitely recommend).

It is my firm belief that emotions are not inherently unhelpful or unproductive, and certainly not inherently destructive. Even intense emotions like anger can bring about positive action in the right circumstances. At the very least, I believe that emotions are inherently neutral. Yet, shame seems to be the exception to this rule. How could something that makes us feel so bad be anything but destructive?

Perhaps because shame is not an emotion. Let me explain...

I believe that shame is a totally valid human experience, and looks much like the 'feeling' described by Brené Brown, however, shame is categorically unlike other emotions and operates very differently. It is my belief that this anomaly can be explained by a simple mistake in classification. Shame is indeed an utterly crippling experience which can be highly obstructive and in many cases, highly destructive. This leads me to theorise that shame acts as an explosion or implosion of uncomfortable feelings that results in the person experiencing shame doing everything in their power to avoid feeling that way ever again. In this way, shame shapes the way we live our lives by dictating which experiences are 'safe' and which experiences may lead to another eruption of extreme discomfort.

Let's look at an example:

Trying on clothes in a changing room and catching the wobble of your stomach in the mirror could ignite feelings of shame and even result in you leaving the changing rooms and abandoning your shopping plans entirely. Sadness, frustration and even self-disgust are unlikely to elicit such an extreme and often immediate succession of events. This is an experience that I'm sure will resonate with many people, myself included. That feeling of wanting to crawl out of your own skin, have the ground swallow you up and never have to look at yourself in the mirror again - that's shame (and in this instance, internalised fatphobia, but let's focus on the shame piece for now).

Shame can hold real power over us. 

I believe that the reason shame is so impactful (more than emotions) is because it is a "compound" experience. What I mean to say is that shame is comprised of different emotions that undergo a transformative experience which changes their fundamental function in our lives. My theory is that shame is created when guilt and humiliation are fused together by fear, specifically, the fear of abandonment. This 'compound experience' functions entirely differently to our emotions.

It is likely that we initially develop feelings of shame as a social tool and coping mechanism. We learn at a young age what is and isn't socially acceptable, beyond what is morally right and wrong. We learn what is desirable and undesirable, in our behaviours, in our appearance and all aspects of ourselves. Usually when we learn that something we have done is morally wrong, we feel guilty about it. As expressed by Brené Brown, guilt is a healthy emotion required to provide a moral conscience - in other words, to prevent us from hurting each other with no consequence. Guilt teaches us accountability and responsibility and is an important feature of childhood development both socially and emotionally. Guilt is usually followed by a change in behaviour and it is this learning that allows children to grow into adults that operate successfully in wider society.

Having said that, when we do something socially unacceptable, but morally correct (or neutral), we are unlikely to feel healthy guilt for the simple reason that - we have done nothing wrong! There is always a part of our brain that knows this, usually because the thing that is socially unacceptable feels good.

Let's take a look at another example:

A young boy enjoys dressing up as a princess but his peers laugh at him and his teacher tells him to take off his princess dress and play with the "boys' toys" instead. This instance may have a profound effect on the boy's self-esteem and self-confidence and since there is no healthy guilt involved (because the experience was not morally wrong, and was in fact fun) but the same demand for a change in behaviour, the boy may experience shame. Shame is formed as a protective coping mechanism to allow the boy in question to integrate with his peers and most importantly, not be left behind or 'abandoned'. Shame motivates the change in behaviour required for this to happen. This is very much a question of survival. Thinking back to when we lived in tribes, our ability to function cohesively as a community was quite literally a matter of life or death as we existed interdependently and relied on each other for basic human needs such as food, shelter and protection. In the present day, societal integration is still an issue that effects quality of life and indeed, for those of us that stray too far from mainstream acceptability, not 'fitting in' with our peers can even pose a threat to our lives. That same boy could be the victim of a homophobic attack - that is a very real threat and in that instance, shame is a very real survival mechanism.

The actions that we do or don't take as a result of shame, as painful as they are, may in fact be protecting us in some way. Therefore, it could be argued that shame is in effect 'given' to us by other people, a kind of secondhand emotional baggage; we internalise their beliefs rather than abiding by our own. However, as we have just seen, shame can act as a social protector meaning that this issue is more complex and intersectional that we may have first thought.

Consider this analogy:

Shame is like a gas, for this analogy let's say that shame is like Sulphur Dioxide. Guilt is the copper turnings at the bottom of the flask, humiliation is the sulphuric acid being poured on top and the fear of abandonment is the flame beneath it which heats up the two components and in turn, creates Sulphur Dioxide. Sulphur Dioxide is neither a metal or a mineral acid (even though it requires both of these components to be created) and thus behaves very differently. Similarly, shame is not an emotion or a traumatic memory and yet requires both these things to exist. Furthermore, shame operates differently in our lives. Gas, if released (organically or not), is almost impossible to compartmentalise: the same goes for shame.

Therefore, it is easy for shame to expand into all areas of our lives. You may experience shame when trying on clothes in the changing room, but that same shame may show up in your work or personal relationships. This happens because shame is always connected to a belief and that belief is easily transferable. This belief usually stems from a traumatic memory and was likely formed as a protective mechanism. This memory can be mildly traumatic or extremely traumatic or a series of mini-traumas.

For example, if an ex-partner made negative comments about your weight, the shame that followed may have centred around the belief 'I'm not good enough as I am'. Even though this shame may be primarily experienced in romantic relationships, it's plain to see how such a belief such may have detrimental effects on other, seemingly unrelated areas of your life. A key aspect of the shame experience is that this belief about self, whatever it may be, is always accompanied by self-blame. Not only are we 'not good enough', it's also entirely our fault.
This can be exacerbated by the overarching belief that we have complete control over our feelings, our lives and everything in them (this is especially apparent in weight-loss 'communities'- we think we can control our weight and thus, people's perceptions of us). So, when things go 'wrong', we default to blaming ourselves. This may also be because, it is not safe or 'appropriate' to blame others, even if they are indeed in the wrong. Again, this shame we experience when things are out of are control, can usually be traced back to an initial shame experience, during which we learnt that blaming ourselves is the safest, most viable option.

Shame, in its most basic, raw form is unexpressed fear. However unlike fear, which serves to respond to dangers in our immediate environment, shame is rarely a fleeting experience. As discussed in my previous blogpost, emotions are designed to be experienced temporarily. Shame on the other hand, is usually a lingering, prolonged experience - there is rarely a climax (followed by relief), rather a dull, niggling sensation of disappointment and despair, directed internally.
Another feature which distinguishes shame from fear is that it is rarely expressed. Often (somewhat ironically) we are ashamed of experiencing shame. In addition, because shame does not usually cause the intense physical symptoms that fear does (heart pounding, sweating, palpitations, unable to breath, dizziness, tensed muscles etc.), it can be harder to recognise and therefore harder to express. Besides that, we don't really know how to express our shame. There is very little research on the topic and even less information providing practical ways to express and manage our experiences.

So, how can we effectively deal with shame?

In my humble opinion, the first and most important step is to recognise shame when it comes up, name it and acknowledge the times and places where shame arises in your life.

Secondly, it can be helpful to acknowledge the ways in which you deal with experiences of shame, whatever they may be.

For me, bottling up shame for long periods of time usually results in self-harm, which is usually followed by more shame and so the cycle continues. Often the ways that we deal with shame are destructive and unhealthy, however, this does not mean that we are destructive and unhealthy.

We are, believe it or not, just trying our best.

Wherever and whenever you experience shame, know that even though it may be a painful experience, it probably has good reason to exist and was created with the best of intentions. Like any coping mechanism, it exists to serve you, not destroy you. Shame is never a long-term solution - having said that, it is neither inherently necessary or unnecessary. However, there are often situations or circumstances in our lives that are out of our control, which cause us to experience shame.

Like Sulphur Dioxide, a sudden rupture may cause a release of concentrated gas (or distress in the case of shame). However, this only really happens when a flame is nearby, likewise, our shame only erupts in this intense way when we ignore it, bash it and get really angry at it.

This leads me to conclude that compassion is the most effective antidote to shame. If we can be soft, gentle and compassionate with the parts of ourselves and our lives where we experience the most shame, then slowly but surely, we will heal. In many ways shame is a cry for help - if we can nurture and nourish ourselves (and in some cases re-parent ourselves) and speak the words that we needed to hear as a child, we can assure our brain that shame is no longer needed to survive. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown cites vulnerability as the antidote to shame, and truly I think that the two go hand in hand. However, for me, it is self-compassion that has been truly transformative in my life. Vulnerability without compassion is just abandonment.

So how's that comprehensive definition of shame coming along?

Here goes!

Shame is, in essence, a build-up of repressed concentrated emotions (with an accompanying self-fulfilling prophesy in the form of a core belief, rooted in trauma) which thrives on secrecy. It is a compound experience (that behaves differently to singular emotions) which is multi-layered and often self-perpetuating. Shame can also be aggravated by unsafe environments (which are sometimes the result of systemic oppression). The 'take-away' message from this article is that there is nothing shameful about experiencing shame and there is nothing shameful about being incredibly distressed by it. Years of emotional upset are being distilled into one intense experience. In the same way you wouldn't drink a litre of undiluted spirits all in one sitting - you don't have to address all of your shame in one sitting either. This will take time to unravel, and that's OK. The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and the ways in which you have learnt to survive.

Artwork by the incredible Kelly Rae Roberts - buy this print here!
I hope you have enjoyed this blogpost and perhaps this has offered you a new perspective on all things shame related!

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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Coming Out (Again!)

Hello lovely people,

Today I'm going to talk about me (there's a surprise). I'm going to talk about who I am, or rather who I understand myself to be. I'm going to talk about my relationship to gender. I'm going to talk about how this influences my sexuality. I'm going to talk about how both those things influence my relationship to my body (and how this ties in to eating disorder recovery).

I'm nervous to speak about these things. As I type, I can feel my stomach clenching and my breaths become fast and shallow. The truth is, I don't want to 'come out', it's exhausting having to explain yourself over and over again. But, I don't want to be closeted either - being closeted is like sitting is a swirling void of anxiety and silence and loneliness. The options are rigged, the aspect of 'choice' is illusive.

In my last blogpost, I spoke about the concept of 'self-dedication', of showing up no matter what, of choosing not to abandon yourself, ever. So, here I am, showing up, in the best ways that I can. Speaking about my gender is different to speaking about my sexuality - whilst the two are related, gender is much more of a 'controversial' topic than sexuality, and by that I mean, whilst homophobia is no longer socially acceptable, transphobia/enbyphobia very much is.

Who is allowed to move through the world with ease? Who is allowed to use labels and identifiers without experiencing 'gatekeeping' and harassment? Who is allowed to truly express themselves for who they are and how they feel without constant, violent invalidation? Who is allowed to be seen and who must remain erased and invisible?

I am not a woman. I am not a man. 

What am I?

This question fills me up sometimes, and other times it leaves me empty and dried out.

I guess you could say I'm genderqueer. I guess you could say I'm genderfluid. I guess you could say I'm agender, genderflux or non-binary. I guess you could say I'm all of these things and none of these things at all.

How does my experience of gender differ situationally? 

Well, I'm glad you asked.

I feel gay when I fancy guys and I feel gay when I fancy girls. I feel really fucking gay. I feel really fucking queer. I feel super-duper queer when I fancy other non-binary people. I feel like a feminine - masculine person when I like guys and I feel like a masculine - feminine person when I like girls. It varies day to day. I feel super masculine when I'm exercising. I feel super feminine when I'm washing/bathing.

How does my experience of gender affect my relationship to my body?

I mainly experience social dysphoria, however, having said that, the more invalidated and erased I feel within my gender identity, the more uncomfortable I feel in my body. The more I am hurt, the more I feel betrayed by my body, particularly my breasts. It hurts to admit this, I know how much my body has been through - I want to love it, I really do.

I sometimes imagine what it would be like to have a penis and no breasts at all. I don't think I would like it all the time, but perhaps sometimes, it seems an attractive prospect. Like I said, I mainly experience social dysphoria, so unsurprisingly when transphobia and queerphobia get me down, I want to shrink. I feel 'too much'. I feel exhausted. This can trigger eating disorder thoughts and behaviours, but so long as I can recognise the root cause, I can manage these feelings. Internalised queerphobia was one of the driving forces of my eating disorder, after all. I feel dehumanised by society - this contributes to the disconnect I feel from my body. In other ways I feel very connected to my body. To how it holds me, feeds me and stores all my unexpressed rage. I love the way it shows up no matter what. I love the way it accepts my queerness unconditionally.

As I type this, I can feel my shoulder blades tighten. The violent transphobic messages perpetuated by the media swirl around my head - "you're an attention seeker, you're sick, you're ridiculous, you're not real".

I wonder if my story would be as captivating to my largely cis-straight audience if it weren't filled with trauma. 

Queer tragedy has weighed heavily on my mind and body as of late. Our existence on the fringes of mainstream culture is only permissible when we are tragic, self-loathing, traumatised, rejected and neglected. We are only permissible when we strive to be accepted by mainstream culture and aim to mirror cis-het people in every aspect of our lives. Crucially, we must never be accepted within mainstream culture, we must never be able to define ourselves, we must always be abnormal, we must always be classed as 'different'.

I don't want to be accepted by cis-het people anymore - I just want to live my life as myself. I don't dream of marriage, monogamy or any other bedrocks of straight 'culture' (is it a culture, really? or should I just say patriarchy?). I dream of queer friends, queer lovers and queer spaces, queer literature, queer movies and queer art. I don't dream of black and white boredom, I dream in colour. I dream in abstract shapes and metaphors and oceans of emotion. I dream of being, unapologetically, of breathing, of having the space to do so. I dream of rest. I dream of bodies without shame, of bodies wrapped in love, of bodies detoxed from the otherness placed upon them since birth.

I am hesitant to label my gender.

This is not because I don't want to, but because I feel the steely-eyed gaze of the cis-hetero-patriarchy paired with the familiar loaded statements: "prove it!!!" "pick one identity and stay with it forever" "I don't believe you".

So I want to speak back, to allow myself to stand tall for once, to gather up my remaining scraps of energy and roar.

Dear cis/het people (and truscum, and anybody else who has internalised cis-hetero-patriarchal standards),

Stop telling us to 'prove it': my existence is the most rock-hard proof there could ever be.
Stop policing our inherent fluidity: if you're allowed to change your job/partner/hair colour/favourite flavour of ice-cream, then I'm allowed to change how I experience queerness. It's not change or fluidity you have an issue with, it's queerness.
Stop saying you 'don't believe us': start saying you don't believe in yourself, start saying that our power intimidates you, start acknowledging your jealousy and feelings of inferiority, start realising that you wish you could lead your life with the same integrity that we embody. 

Start saying sorry. 

Start saying, I want to love myself enough to accept myself the way you do. 

Start saying, I want to be better. Start doing the work. Stop expecting LGBT+ people to educate you for free. Pay us. Buy our work. Google shit you don't know. Stop taking, taking, taking and calling yourself an ally. Stop appropriating our culture. Stop supporting some of us but not all of us. Stop defining queerness through a white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchal lens. Stop saying that we don't know who we are - none of us do honey (straight, queer or otherwise), but that doesn't mean you have to be a bitch about it.

Stop telling us you have queer friends, family etc. - your proximity to queerness and your tolerance of our existence is not triumphant or even noteworthy and most certainly does not absolve you from your privilege and the ways in which you perpetuate oppressive cisheteronormativity. All it does is centre yourself in a narrative that has nothing to do with you - it's not empathy, it's entitlement

Stop turning up to Pride when you're a transphobic piece of shit. Pride is first and foremost, for trans and gender-non-conforming POC - Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought for everything that cis, white gays take for granted, and white people in general. 

Why am I saying all this? 

Because I don't want to explain myself to you only for you to turn around and shake your head in 'disagreement'. I don't want to pour my heart out only to be showered in your wilful ignorance. I don't want to suppress all my rage just so you can freely express yours.

I can't talk about my gender without talking about all the shit that surrounds it. There is no separating the personal and the political. There is no separating my experiences from my conditioning. There is no separating oppression and identity. There is no separating trauma and truth. There is no separation. Yet the message we hear is loud and clear: accept help for your trauma but expect to be misgendered, eat dinner with a family member but expect to be invalidated, seek acceptance from yourself but expect society to continually reject your existence, love all parts of yourself, but don't expect anyone else to. Expectations for queer people are at best unrealistic and in truth, utterly destructive. I can't even begin to tell my story without removing the cultural/personal/systemic baggage that surrounds it and even that cannot be done alone.

Who is allowed to be complicated and multi-layered? Who is allowed to be complex? Who is allowed to take up space?

I think of Hamlet's soliloquy, I think of cis white men whose existential anguish is celebrated every day in every way to the point where we must study it and learn in by rote so we can never escape its imposition in our lives. Cis white men can be 'mysteries' by just being mediocre, by whinging, quite frankly. There must be no mystery about the rest of us; any 'mystery' could be deemed as victimhood, desperation or even madness. Anything less than explicit is open to interpretation. We must be hyper-vigilant in order to protect ourselves the best we can. We must be ready to fight or run away at all times, yet often all we can do is freeze.

Check your privilege. Check your power. Check how easy it is for you to navigate the world. Check who built this world. Check who it was built for. Check your bullshit. Check your learnt beliefs. Check how 'good' a person you are.

I don't believe in good people. I don't believe in bad people.

I believe in actions.

I don't give a shit who you are deep deep deep down.

I don't give a shit what you did yesterday.

Show me who you are today. Don't tell me, show me.

Artwork by Captain Magenta - an illustration of Alok Vaid Menon, who is possibly my favourite human in the whole universe- check them out @alokvmenon on Instagram and Facebook and buy their work!!!!

Thank you for showing up and reading this blogpost, let me know if any of the above resonates with you.

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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx
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