Snowflake

“Snowflake!”
It cried

Frantically grasping at insults
Impervious to those trying to gently educate
Compassionately call out
Explain themselves with warmth and in good faith

“Snowflake!”
It bleated

In terror at the anger
The heat
The passion
Finally erupting in the face of its assaults

“Snowflake!”
It begged

Running in cowardice
From the dream it thought would always reign supreme
Unable to face responsibility
Childish and desperate

“Snowflake!”
Screamed the cold
Stinging
Fragile
White thing
Falling from its place in the sky

Eyes shut and ears plugged to
The changing climate here
To melt and wash it away

Maintaining that gravity is just a theory
As it rushes to embrace the ground
Because when it hears the winds of change
It’s so much easier to believe they’re not coming for it

Surely

Just calling someone else a name makes it true
Means it’s not one of the weaklings going extinct
Because it refuses to evolve

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The Word Of God

For those of you who use your religion as a weapon, to deny reality, and to deny the rights and humanity of your fellow human beings, I am talking to you.

Who made you the sole authority on what God wants?

I mean it.  Ask yourself this.  I hear so many refrains about scientists “playing God” or insults thrown at atheists and nonbelievers about how “arrogant” they are to think they can decide for themselves how to be just and moral people without the help of God.

And yet you sit here telling me that YOU know what God wants, that YOU have some inerrant understanding of the creator of the cosmos based on a book written by other humans that claimed to be speaking for God.  YOU are the one who decided to trust and believe the people that told you this was true, from thousands of years ago and countless translations and changes and politics over which scriptures were “acceptable” to the politicians at the time.  YOUR judgment and YOUR perception of which other fallible humans to trust is the one and only true authority on the word of God.

How arrogant.

As generations of scientists have worked tirelessly to uncover the truths in this wonderful universe that YOU claim is not only a gift to us by God, but that we have been made the stewards of, you persecute them and you abuse them and you claim that they tell lies for uncovering all the beautiful miracles and unfolding mysteries that exist in this world that God gave us.

You wonder why all the prophets have disappeared?

They haven’t.  You’re not listening.  You brush off the horrors in our world by saying “God works in mysterious ways” and it never once occurs to you that those mysterious ways might include giving us the scientists that uncover God’s meaning, the very people that dedicate their lives to getting a better understanding of this gift that God gave us, to learning the language of the universe.  These people that show the most respect to our gift are the ones denigrated by you as pretentious or dangerous or sacrilegious because the miracles they are uncovering are too big for your feeble mind to understand.  These people might help to solve and mitigate the disasters and tragedies that exist for us as humans, and it never once occurs to you that these are the answers to your prayers.

And you pretend like you’d be ready for the word of God if you heard it.

God speaks to us every day.  If you aren’t hearing it, you have shut your ears as you have been deafened by false prophets telling you that the reason God is gone is because of followers of other religions or people having sex or the advancement of science.

God never left.  YOU did.

YOU turned away from the whole of existence.  YOU shut your eyes and picked and chose which parts of God’s creation were worthy of your worship and love.  YOU betrayed the request to “love thy neighbor” while pretending all the while that it was okay to hate your neighbor because they scared you, because they made you uncomfortable, because they were different and weird, because, maybe, they showed you something in yourself you didn’t want to see.

You hypocrite.

You don’t get to speak to me about God’s word anymore, as you build boats and museums dedicated to outdated understandings of our world, as you ignore the living God that still speaks to us and through us, the children of God that are your brothers and sisters that you are damning to a living hell because heaven forbid you actually do the hard work to find the beauty and the love in all of God’s creation.

You don’t get to speak to me about God’s word as you create the hell you are terrified of, throwing your fellow human beings under the bus in a scramble to make sure that, in the limited space of heaven your limited mind perceives, YOU are sure to get a seat.

You don’t get to pretend you are holier than everyone else as you keep funneling money into false prophets in mansions that tell you that if you just give a little more of your cash to them, it will save your soul, that if you keep punishing and controlling all of the “different” people, that you will earn your spot in heaven.

You are a wretched creature.  You are a coward.

You don’t get to speak for God.

You never get to speak for God when you persecute God’s children.  You don’t get to speak for God because you are only human.  YOU are not God, and YOU can be wrong.  And you are.

Maybe one of those “mysterious ways” that God works in is in all those atheists and nonbelievers, the people who have walked away from your perversion of what God is and what God means, YOU who worships the false idols of a cross, a list of commandments, and a Bible, graven images that tell you in their very words that this practice is wrong and you still do it anyhow.

How ironic would it be if the very reason atheists exist is because they cannot condone the hypocrisy that permeates the words and existence of all those claiming to speak for God?  How ironic if they and all our scientists are actually the one’s following true to God’s word, being stewards of the Earth as we were asked to do, listening intently for when God speaks through nature, through our universe, through the senses and the intellect that we possess, through the gifts that God gave to us?

The only real question is, are you too afraid to see that this is the truth?  Are you going to keep denying the language through which your God is speaking, paying lip service to worship while all the time pushing away and abusing every manifestation of God that comes your way in need of compassion, and kindness, and care?  Are you going to finally realize that you can be forgiven for this if you can just stop digging in your heels and start loving your neighbor the way you’ve been told?  Are you going to become a messenger of God instead of someone who scares every decent person as far away from the idea of God as they can get?

I believe you can.

You just have to admit your sin, the sin of worshipping false idols and holding your own ego above your service to the gift of our universe.  You have to ask for forgiveness.  And you have to start living a life dedicated to God, instead of to your own fears and prejudices.

So You Hate Laziness and Entitlement?

It’s frustrating to listen to you go on about everything you know is wrong with society.  You bleat and bleat about how nobody deserves handouts and sneer at people that are struggling because they must not be trying hard enough.  If they just work harder, if they just become better people, they wouldn’t need to ‘steal’ it from the real producers.  

I spent so long giving you the gift of empathy.  

I gave that compassion.  I worked so hard to see it your way, to understand where you were coming from, to show you that you didn’t have to be afraid.

After all, you had worked so hard for me.  That’s what you kept telling me.

An interesting trick, that.

Tell someone for long enough what a burden they are, and they’ll start to believe you.  

It certainly makes for hard workers.  If my existence cost you this much, I really should try to pay you back for that time.  Nothing in my mental and emotional reserves is as valuable as the slightest reduction in the weight of that guilt.  To prove that I can earn my right to exist.  To bring more joy than pain into the lives of those around me.  I’ll pare myself down until there’s nothing left if I can just relieve an ounce of the debt.  

Something in me has always known this wasn’t fair.  But I shut her up.  I can’t afford to be lazy.  I can’t be one of those people that whines and complains and just wants everything handed to them.  I’m not entitled to anything, and I need to keep working if I want to have anything.

Work so hard I become numb.  Work myself to the bone to keep at bay the crushing pressure of knowing that you wish you had never become a father.  

Can you admit that out loud to yourself yet?  

Did you hear yourself all the times you reminded me of everything you’ve sacrificed for me?  The way you speak with regret about your youth, and act as if it were stolen from you?  Have you listened to the way you speak about Mom, as a wet blanket, as the person ruining all of your fun?  

And then I found out I was unplanned.  See, that’s not necessarily a problem.  Mom doesn’t see it that way, and that’s why she was comfortable telling me.  She doesn’t regret becoming a parent.  

You, on the other hand?  Hearing that made all of your behavior click into place.  My existence is an easy scapegoat for all of your regret and pain, all of your what-ifs and if-onlys.  

Do you know how obvious you are in your rabid and vehement anti-choice stance?  Have you heard of a reaction formation?  The anger you experience when you hear about abortion is awfully suspicious.  The overweening declarations of how proud you are of me and how much you love me feel the same.  Your words say one thing.  Your actions have always said another.

No wonder I’ve been so susceptible to gaslighting my entire life.  My father is so invested in lying to himself that he has to drag his entire family through the lies too.  You’re so afraid to deal with your own emotions and shame that you destroy your own health, and punish yourself and everyone around you in your efforts to get even a little bit of relief.  

Here’s your permission.  You’re allowed to regret becoming a father.  You’re allowed to be grateful that I exist while still wishing you had taken a different path, one that didn’t create me.  You’re allowed to choose something different for your life.  You don’t have to stay with Mom for Mom, or for me and my brother, or for the dogs, or for the house, or for anybody else’s family.  You are not obligated to be a provider.  

We live in a culture immersed in duty.  I’m releasing you from that.  It doesn’t matter that I’m your daughter.  You’re allowed to dislike, or even hate, the person that I’ve become.  You’re allowed to be disappointed and to feel even more intense regret for becoming a parent.  

But what you’re not allowed to do, anymore, is to abuse me in the service of your feelings.  You do not get to control me or what I do with my life.  You do not get to make jokes at my expense or at the expense of other people I care about while I sit by silently and weather your barrage of pressure to “lighten up” or “get a sense of humor.”  You do not get access to my time or my energy if I don’t want to give it.

Why do you act so entitled?  

Maybe this is that reaction formation thing again.  You yell so much about people who just want handouts, but you seem to be very comfortable taking whatever you want from the people around you with no thought to how hard they have to work to give it to you, or what it costs them to keep letting you take it.  It doesn’t occur to you to amuse yourself, to comfort yourself, to validate yourself in ways that don’t come at the expense of others.  You’re entitled to get that from your wife and children.  It doesn’t cross your mind that what you are doing is theft because you feel like you deserve it.

Why are you entitled?  I get it.  It hurts.  It’s scary.  It is immensely difficult to reach into the dark corners of your own soul, and heal your own wounds, and process the abuse, neglect, and abandonment that you’ve been subjected to.  

But guess what, that is your job.  You are the only one who can do the work to ease your pain.  You are the only one who can seek healing for yourself.  And you haven’t been doing this work.  You have been exploiting and manipulating everyone around you to try to make you feel better because heaven forbid you do some real, honest, hard work on yourself.  

One might call that laziness.  

You can run from your discomfort for as long as people keep letting you.  I’m not letting you use me for that anymore.  I’m not going to stay around and watch as you pick up addiction after addiction in this insane race to the bottom because you don’t want to look at the ugly truth of yourself.

You leave the people you claim to love to try to clean up the messes you create, and to tolerate the abuse that you can’t be bothered to stop visiting on them because “it’s just how you were raised.”  I refuse to participate in this system anymore.  

I think the biggest thorn I put in your side is that your first born is a person who can spot a hypocrite.  I’ve caught myself at it too, and when I do I try to change it.  I can almost guarantee you there are things I’m still being hypocritical about.  It’s what we do.  We’re human.  

But that doesn’t excuse us from trying.  Sometimes we don’t know any better.  But when we LEARN better, we need to DO better.  I have no sympathy for you who keep refusing to learn better, who keep denying the reality right in front of you and blaming a whole mess of ambiguous ‘other’ figures (the government, liberals, women, gays, blacks, poor people, etc., ad nauseum) for the pain and fear and torment you feel inside.  You who refuse to take any responsibility for yourself or your actions.  

This doesn’t mean I don’t understand why you’re doing it.  Just like I’m sure you understand why a child would eat candy all day if they were allowed.  It’s easy, it feels better in the moment.  

But here we reveal the biggest betrayal that you have visited upon me in calling yourself a parent.  Parents are the ones who are actually supposed to know better.  They’re the ones that are supposed to give us a good example for how to live, and grow, and be better humans.  I learned how to do all that, not because of you, but in spite of you.  I had to teach myself how to set boundaries, how to defend myself against abusers, how to love myself and believe in myself, and how to reject toxic societal expectations for me.  In many cases, I had to be an adult because you refused to.  I treated you with kindness and compassion and understanding while you refused to give me any of the same in return.  I didn’t use unethical argument techniques against you when you were too young to fight back.  I never had the luxury of ‘because I said so.’  I let your own unethical arguments happen without calling them out.  I stifled all the anger I ever felt so that you wouldn’t be uncomfortable, so that you wouldn’t punish me any further for daring to question your authority.  I protected your feelings.  

Just like a parent must sometimes set boundaries with a child to teach them right from wrong, I have had to do with you.  Instead of having you as a healthy parent for me, I had to learn to be an adult before I was ever really able to be a child, because you never created space for me to question, to explore, or to challenge you.  Other things, maybe, but never you.  I had to carve and extract all that for myself out of the forbidding bedrock that is your pain, authority, and denial.  

And you wonder why I’m not too keen on becoming a parent yet?  It’s not because I don’t think I can do a good job.  It’s because I need some fucking fellow adults around me, who I don’t have to mother through their bullshit.  And it’s because I’m still learning to stop mothering other people through their bullshit and let them do it themselves, which is what I’ve finally done with you.  

So once again, I challenge you to clean up the shit in your own backyard before you start casting stones at others.  I dare you to stop accusing everyone else of being lazy and entitled, and stop being a lazy and entitled asshole that drains the life out of everyone around him.  

You want a cookie for providing materially for us?  Okay, good job.  We didn’t starve or go without shelter or clothing.  You have done slightly less than the bare minimum required to be an acceptable parent.    

That right there, being a ‘good provider,’ will never been an excuse to be emotionally abusive.  It will never absolve you for the cruelty you have visited on your family and which you still continue to visit upon us.  Start taking responsibility for yourself and deal with it.

Do I think you’ll read this?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure if extended family will link you to it or if you will care to read it if they do.  Will you actually try to understand it if you do read it?  I don’t know.  I doubt it.  If any of our interactions thus far have been any indication, I can be bleedingly honest and clear with you, and you are perfectly capable of pretending like it didn’t happen because it’s too uncomfortable for you to deal with.  So I’m sure that anything like this will just get dismissed as ‘acting out’ or some kind of ‘phase.’  

More gaslighting.  

Par for the course.

It couldn’t possibly be that I have something valuable to say.  It couldn’t possibly be that you’re wrong.

Here’s the thing though.  I don’t like seeing you miserable.  As angry as you make me and as much as it hurts me to be anywhere near you like this, as much abuse as you’ve subjected me to throughout my lifetime, I still don’t feel any need to punish you.  

I’m not doing this to punish you.  I’m doing this for my own survival.

You’re projecting your own tendency toward punishment onto me. 

I’m keeping you out of my life because it’s what I need, because I have no more to give you, because I need to start healing the wounds that you insist on ripping open over and over again, no matter how many times I beg you to stop and just treat me like an equal.  I am not your punching bag, and that’s all you seem to be able to use me for.

I’d love to see you go to therapy, and start growing and changing and living again.  You deserve that.  You deserve happiness.  You deserve to take charge of your life and your dreams and what remains of the time you have left on this planet to actually. be. happy.

What, in the name of everything that you consider holy, is stopping you?  Is your fear of pain really more important than becoming free from the weight of avoiding it?  

Maybe now you see why it’s so hard for so many other humans to escape from the holes they’ve dug for themselves.  You condemn them, but you are them.  You are one of those lazy and entitled people that doesn’t want to do any work and expects everyone else to carry you.  There is plenty of value in our society that has nothing to do with money.  Why don’t you start earning the respect you demand?  Why don’t you start actually working for the attention and energy you want from other people, instead of manipulating and exploiting them to get it?  

Something something glass houses and stones.  Something something pots and kettles.  Go find a leg to stand on before you start calling other people lazy and entitled.  

Tactics of Intelligent Bullies

Intelligence is wonderful. It can challenge us, impress us, seduce us. It comes in all kinds of forms. It is easy to believe that if a person is intelligent that they will excel at everything. But intelligence alone is not enough. By itself it cannot make a compassionate or ethical person. That’s what I want to discuss – Intelligent Bullies. I hope to show you how to recognize when an intelligent person is being a bully and what to do about it.

It is important to remember that many people who are being harmful are not fully aware they’re doing it, or that it is wrong, even highly intelligent people. Sometimes it is because they aren’t emotionally intelligent or don’t have the awareness to realize how their actions are affecting others. Others may actually believe they are the one being attacked and are merely defending themselves. Many intelligent people were outcast and bullied as children and may even continue to be outcast and bullied as adults for being different. It can be incredibly lonely and isolating having a higher level of intelligence than those around you. Just because someone is intelligent in one or more ways doesn’t necessarily mean they have the emotional or interpersonal intelligence to relate to others in healthy ways.

Why am I telling you this? One reason is to give you a glimpse into why an intelligent bully might be acting the way they are. They may have developed their bullying tactics as a defense mechanism against a world that has been very cruel to them. Chances are they aren’t necessarily evil or intentionally being unethical.

However, this does not excuse cruel or nonconsensual behavior. Using intelligence and deliberately confusing, insulting, or gaslighting other people is unethical, and likely even more dangerous than when the average person does it. An intelligent person can hide these tactics really well, and can use gaslighting to convince you or the people around you that you are the one that is being a bully, being unethical, or doing the gaslighting. An intelligent person will be able to rationalize their behavior more quickly, and find more plausible reasons for explaining away their actions. They will also be better at distracting you and pulling you off topic. They may even be so experienced with button-pushing as to be able to goad you into acting or speaking more aggressively or unethically than you normally do, thereby giving more justification for the image they try to paint of you as illogical, hypocritical, or dangerous.

In some ways, Intelligent Bullies aren’t any different from run-of-the-mill bullies. Ultimately, bullying is about devaluing another person and putting oneself in a position of power and control over that person rather than communicating on an equal, person-to-person level. A bully will be more concerned with “winning” an argument rather than reaching an understanding as part of a discussion. A bully will find a way to paint you as a “bad,” “stupid,” “selfish,” or “unreasonable” person rather than addressing concerns with you in a productive and compassionate way.

The intelligent ones can just be trickier to spot and defend against.

I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m writing this because I believe I’ve encountered a number of these people, and I see the damage they can do to others, themselves, and communities at large. I don’t know many good ways to defend yourself from them other than to stay as far away from them as you can if you see signs of them behaving in these ways. However, sometimes you’re already in too close to escape without fallout by the time you figure it out. The best strategy I’ve come up with so far is just to get out as soon as you can as fast as you realize it, and to stop engaging with them no matter how tempting it might be or how frustrated they manage to make you. Don’t allow them to inspire you to act in ways you’re not proud of. At this point in time, many communities don’t have an infrastructure to recognize and deal with adult-on-adult bullying, especially when one or more parties is highly intelligent. I hope that changes. In the meantime, you may need to be prepared to end up dealing with bullies alone without the aid of the people in charge.

Hopefully at some point in the future, I will be able to create a post to detail better ways of neutralizing bullying and protecting oneself and others when it happens.

The following list is in no particular order. Some of the concepts may overlap a bit. I actually may come back and edit this at a later date and I welcome feedback as far as things I can add or strategies I can share with others to deal with bullies.

-An Intelligent Bully will speak in snarky, sarcastic, or condescending tones intended to make you feel stupid. I do not believe consent culture has reached a point of explicitly dealing with this sort of interpersonal violence being considered a consent violation yet, but I hope that it does someday. Dynamics of emotional consent and emotional violence are going to be even harder to clarify than physical ones, so it may be a while. (Note for this and all other points that some adults may agree to engage in these dynamics as part of a mutually consensual power-exchange relationship. I am not talking about those people here. All of my points are meant specifically to address behavior that is not consented to and that the recipient doesn’t want.) The important thing to remember is that you have a choice in the people you will engage with, always. If someone is speaking to you in a way you don’t like, you have the power to walk away, and I encourage you to do so regularly. Whenever you let someone talk down to you or be intentionally insulting toward you without calling them out on it or stopping the conversation immediately, you are teaching them that they can get away with treating people (specifically you) like that. This bullet point includes cruel or disparaging jokes directed at you, labels you may identify with, or even labels they apply to you without your agreement. It can also include other signals like sighing, rolling their eyes, or making overly dramatic indications that you are trying their patience or that things “should be obvious.” These are devaluing tactics, something I talk about in my post about toxic relationships. If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it is probably to immediately stop and walk away from a conversation if someone refuses to speak to you respectfully. Tell them you will readdress the conversation after an hour, a day, or a week if and only if they are willing to treat you with compassion and as an equal.

-An Intelligent Bully will rapidly shift the topic of conversation, often reversing concerns about mistreatment back on you without ever addressing your initial concern. For instance, you might say, “I really don’t like when you talk to me like that, can you please use a more respectful tone,” they might respond immediately with, “Why are you trying to control the way I talk? If you can’t take the heat, then maybe you’re not cut out to have discussions about difficult subjects.” Notice that this puts you immediately on the defensive, and does not try to relate to you about your concern. Bullies are not interested in relating to you as a fellow person. They are invested in doing whatever they want with no consequences. Learning a little bit about argumentative fallacies can help you here, but this often happens too quickly to pick up on in the heat of a conversation. Straw men, red herrings, missing the point, and moving the goalposts are all really common tactics and pretty hard to call out in the moment. They keep you constantly on the defensive, and will quickly move away from anything that challenges their superiority or “rightness.” If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it might be to reiterate your initial point, and then refuse to discuss anything else until they explicitly address your point. If they seem unwilling to do this, or start trying to paint you as stubborn or irrational, leave the conversation. This may be very challenging to do in the moment, but it is generally never too late to walk away.

-Similarly to the point above, an intelligent bully can be well-versed in consent culture language, dynamics of abuse, and politics of oppression. They may very well use their marginalized identities against you and create situations where nothing you say is “right” or “valid” because you are in a position of privilege. BE CAREFUL HERE. Don’t get caught in the trap of defending your own privilege. Instead, make sure to acknowledge your privilege and understand the increased challenges that people in marginalized positions have. Make sure you are not leveraging your privilege and that you are legitimately allowing the other person time to speak and express concerns. However, your privilege doesn’t take away any of your fundamental rights as a human being. If someone is being disrespectful to you, shouting you down and not allowing you to talk, or talking down to you like you are stupid, this is not a healthy situation. It may very well come out of their own pain, trauma, and lack of resources, but it does not mean that you need to allow them to take their frustration, pain, and rage out on you. Please remember that most people with marginalized identities will not use those identities as a power play. The most common way that I have seen this, however, has very little to do with marginalized identities and a lot more to do with the language of consent and abuse. Intelligent Bullies will be adept at treating boundaries you set as attempts to control them, and will subsequently make you feel as if you are the one violating them by daring to ask them to stop. Intelligent Bullies will make you doubt your own perception and intelligence, and when you call this out as the gaslighting that it is, they will tell you that isn’t what they meant, it’s not their fault you’re too stupid to understand, and now you’re the one gaslighting them by projecting intent they didn’t mean into their behavior. This is an EXTREMELY delicate point. Be mindful of the boundaries the person you are talking with sets, even if you think they are only doing so out of spite or to make you look like the bad guy. The fact that they may be unreasonable with their boundaries (intentionally or not) it is not an excuse to violate their boundaries. Walk away. Admit that perhaps the two of you are incapable of having a productive or ethical discussion with one another. You don’t owe anyone conversation. Make sure to talk with other victims of abuse or marginalized people to check your privilege and behavior following the conversation (if they are willing to engage you) to figure out if you were contributing to oppression or doing some bullying yourself. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be careful when dealing with suspected bullying based on marginalized identities. It will likely be up to others with similar identities (read: not you) to call them out. The best you can do is walk away.

-On the opposite end of the spectrum, an intelligent bully is likely very aware of your own socialization and oppression, and can use their privilege or power over you in social settings much more fluidly and invisibly than their less intelligent counterparts. They may go out of their way to be incredibly respectful and clear-speaking to people in power around you or your friends, and only use aggressive, confusing, or devaluing techniques when the two of you are alone. They may pull other people into the conversation to gang up on you if they know your philosophy, identity, or concerns aren’t things that your local community knows how to deal with or is actively uncomfortable with, and use this situation to leverage respectability politics against you. In other words, they may frame you as being disrespectful or troublesome because something you believe is not consistent with the predominant view of your social group or community. Bullies that know how to do this are very dangerous, because they often know how to craft a strong position and be a well-respected person in a given social group. This makes it infinitely harder to call them out on unethical behavior, especially since other people have only seen them at their best. Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t know any way of dealing with this technique other than to cut and run away from the social group entirely. If a bully is able to triangulate successfully, and is intelligent enough to manipulate social dynamics to do it, there are very few people at all, or even leaders, who have any idea how to spot this or protect people against it. If you are willing to take the risk of being outspoken about your experiences with the bully, you may eventually act as a beacon to others who have had similar experiences, but that is a risk you will have to decide whether to take on your own.

-One way that Intelligent Bullies confuse their targets is by intentionally using jargon, extremely high-level vocabulary, specialized language without defining or setting the context, or using inside jokes that require a lot of context to understand. Now, as someone who has occasionally been teased for “using big words,” this isn’t always a bullying tactic. Sometimes intelligent people get passionate and don’t realize they’re going over someone’s head. The important thing to pay attention to is not that they use hefty vocabulary, but how they behave when you ask them to clarify. An intelligent person who is invested in communicating with you should be able to simplify, define, and clearly explain what they’re talking about. They may have to drop some breadth, depth, or nuance to do so, but they shouldn’t act as if it is shocking and unacceptable that you don’t already understand, or start treating you as if you are too stupid to get it. As I said above, disrespectful tones or trying to make you feel stupid should not enter the exchange. A good defense I’ve developed for this is to very clearly ask someone to “explain it to me like I’m five years old.” If they seem unable or unwilling to do it, this is probably a conversation you want to discontinue.

-A similar tactic to the vocabulary one above is that some Intelligent Bullies will type up mountains of text or craft long-winded and artistic-sounding responses that ultimately don’t have a lot of quality content in them. It might sound or look pretty, but it is either vague and confusing to follow, or it doesn’t arrive at a point. Give a real effort to understand what they’ve said or written, but don’t be afraid to ask them to give you their summary, “bottom line,” or to explain to you what the goal or point of the communication was. They should be able to do this. You may also be able to say things like, “I didn’t quite follow what you meant by ‘quote quote quote,’ would you be willing to try saying it in a different way?” If they seem unable or unwilling to do so, it may be a sign that they either don’t understand themselves exactly the point they were trying to make and have trouble articulating it, or they are deliberately trying to confuse you. I highly recommend avoiding people who find themselves completely unable to explain themselves clearly and in plain language. These habits can serve as an intimidation technique as well as being used to confuse others, and helps to keep Intelligent Bullies safe from being called out by most people.

-An Intelligent Bully is not interested in cooperative communication. This means that no matter how many times you try to correct for your wrongdoings, they may refuse to acknowledge, address, or repair for any of the harm they have done. They will be unwilling to work toward a mutually beneficial repair, and will keep all of the negative attention on you while making it all about their needs and their desires. If you admit to doing something incorrectly, they may cling to that and use it as a weapon going forward, or they may find something else to berate you about. They will not acknowledge the strength it took you to apologize, nor will they likely take any notice of or comment on anything positive you’ve done in the conversation. Even if you concede to absolutely all of their points, they may take this as an opportunity to gloat, make fun of you for being “stupid,” or proceed to completely ignore you instead of thanking you for acknowledging their points. This is again another situation where the only real solution I have is to walk away. If you point out that they are not contributing anything cooperative or positive to the conversation, or admitting any of their own wrongdoing, they will point out that they don’t owe that to you and then reframe the focus again on what you’ve done wrong and how you’re the one attacking them. Intelligent Bullies are “bad winners” and are unlikely to leave you a graceful retreat even if you admit to wrongdoing.

-An intelligent bully may apply a label to you that you don’t identify with, and they may use disparaging stereotypes of those labels or labels you actually identify with to devalue you. Overgeneralizing is an unethical tactic, and an intelligent bully may use it to reduce your identity and position to a straw man in their head or for the people around you, which they then make fun of or tear down and refuse to acknowledge any of the nuance in your position. You may be able to combat this by repeating something akin to, “That’s not what I believe,” over and over again. My experience, however, is that even if they concede that you don’t believe that, they may argue that most [people of X label] believe that or “real”[people of X label] believe that, and will likely continue to use the straw man stereotyping in future conversations, even if they stop for the one you’re currently in. Again, the best strategy upon recognizing this pattern is just to disengage and avoid, although you may have some success if you can manage to get them to agree to not use certain buzzwords or labels.

-An Intelligent Bully may get a rush out of causing frustration and anger, and may intentionally push others’ buttons just for the thrill of it. One of the ways you may be familiar with this behavior is through the idea of a “troll.” Bullies of this kind often announce themselves, and are proud of this as a sport. This is not ethical behavior. If a bully is doing something to you that pushes your buttons or triggers you even after being asked to stop, then refuse to converse with them after that point. Once they figure out a way to push your buttons, it is incredibly easy for them to re-trigger you and incredibly difficult for you to get out of the emotional rut caused by this interaction. This is, in my mind, the worst kind of bully (intelligent or otherwise), because they are literally getting pleasure out of the (nonconsensual) misery that they cause for others. There may still be insecurities and defense mechanisms running under their motivation to do this, but instead of their harmful behavior serving only a defensive purpose for themselves (and causing harm to follow), they also take pleasure in hurting others. Run like hell, block them, do everything possible to not engage with this person again. My experience of people with this tendency is that they usually eventually do it to everyone around them, and they are generally human wrecking balls of drama, but they get to seem cool as a clam while everyone around them is triggered and furious. People who hurt others, against their consent, simply for their own pleasure or amusement are the worst kind of toxic person. People are not toys. Don’t let anyone treat you like a toy. They may defend their behavior by telling you that you need to “get a sense of humor,” “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight,” or “need to stop being so sensitive.” None of these things are valid excuses or justifications for treating you in ways you have asked them to stop doing. This is a consent violation. Full stop. It may mean you need to avoid engaging with them, even if you see them doing it to other people that you would wish to defend. That sucks. It really sucks. However, you need to make sure to take care of your own mental health before doing battle with bullies. If a bully is picking on someone you care about, it can take a great deal of self-control not to get sucked in yourself. Obviously, standing up and calling things out is a good way to stop bullying, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your own mental health or safety.

-Just like with any other type of bully, an intelligent bully is also likely to make threats. Within alternative communities, these can take the form of threatening to reveal someone’s identity or “out” someone against their will. They can also take the form of threatening to spread rumors (true or not) with the intention of turning your friends, partners, or community leaders against you. I don’t have too much to add on top of this general idea that threats are bad and indicate that you are dealing with a bully. Intelligent Bullies are likely to just be more sophisticated with their threats, and more likely to be able to behave in ways that are harder to prove or trace back to them.

-Intelligent Bullies know how to make it look like your boundaries are unreasonable. They may act in friendly or familiar ways after treating you horribly, and act shocked and dismayed when you are no longer interested in being around them. They are able to appear to “take the moral high ground” of “they’ll come around when they’re ready,” to people who ask about it, but they won’t usually be willing to discuss real repair or acknowledge the harm or hurt they’ve caused. They will expect you to forgive them or to believe that their actions were justified (thus, you have no right to be angry) without them doing any work at all.

-One of the things an Intelligent Bully will often do when you try to set boundaries with them or leave an abusive conversation is to insinuate that you are a coward for not wanting to speak with them. They might indicate that your silence or lack of response means they are “right,” and that if you really had a valid point, you would be willing to keep engaging with them. They will use your boundaries as an excuse to call you a bad communicator or pick on you and make fun of you for “not being able to take the heat.” They will always find a way to have the last word, even if you have asked them to stop politely. They are doing this to keep you engaged, and the only real defense against it is to let them have the last word and not to re-engage. The above-mentioned button pushing will probably be used in these sorts of situations in an attempt to get you to respond to them. It can be incredibly difficult to ignore, so if you want to, you may have to take to the extremes of blocking or completely avoiding this person.

-On the flip side of the previous point, Intelligent Bullies will often also accuse the people they are arguing with of “trying to get the last word” even when they themselves continually rebut. I almost never see someone who is actually in an argument use this phrase who isn’t themselves interested in having the last word. This is a way a bully can shame you into silence, by making you feel as if you are unreasonable to keep discussing with them. And then they very may well use the point before this one to shame you for your silence as well.

Many of these points are difficult to remember and enact. Intelligent Bullies don’t want to make it easy to get away from their sphere of control or to set boundaries with them. Many of the tactics have roots in valid ideas about communication. For instance, it is probably a good idea to avoid someone who always stops a conversation dead in its tracks the minute challenging topics come up for them. However, the consent-based response to that is to simply stop having conversations with that person. The bullying response of teasing them, insulting them, or intentionally pushing their buttons for leaving conversations is not okay. Bullies will use the social stigma against “drama” and cutting people off to make you look like the bad guy when you avoid them or relate your experiences with them to others.

These are not things most people are trained to deal with, including many community leaders. Often, someone who is the target of bullying will get fed up with trying to play fair and start using unethical tactics themselves in a desperate attempt to regain some control. This almost always works to the bully’s advantage. They’ve been doing it longer, they’re better at it, and they know how to spin it to make it look like you’re the one guilty of treating them horribly and that they are just an innocent victim. Even if you don’t lash out or behave unethically in response to them, they may still manage to spin the situation in their favor in a given social group. I cannot stress enough how important it is not to stoop to a bullying level yourself.

It’s entirely possible I’ve used some of these tactics myself when I felt threatened. As a matter of fact, I know I have started engaging in some of these behaviors when I’m confronted with another bully, because it is very tempting to fight fire with fire. Maybe many of you have as well. My intention with this post is not to demonize people, but to recognize unethical behaviors and find ways to start eradicating them from our personal spheres. Sometimes that is really difficult. Managing to stay engaged ethically while being mindful of one’s own mental and emotional health is not an easy task. It is very tempting to punish those who have harmed us, even in small ways. It is my belief that this just perpetuates the cycle of harm, though. I’m not perfect at this yet. I still sometimes get triggered and behave in ways that I’m not proud of. I’ve done it to my friends. It is important to hold ourselves and one another accountable, and to be willing to see where we might be doing harm. It is good to be able to distinguish between someone who is a bully and someone who is slipping up. Someone who is slipping up is able to correct and repair for what they’ve done wrong. Someone who is a bully will not have any interest in this.

Seven Effects of a Toxic Relationship

There are a lot of articles like this.  I’m writing another one because a great many of the articles and posts I’ve read about toxic, unhealthy, or abusive relationships feel incomplete to me.  I’m going to attempt to explain why a lot of the resources I’ve read up until now don’t feel like enough, and how we can start thinking and acting differently about these relationships going forward using seven basic effects that seem to happen to people existing in a toxic framework.  

First and foremost, I want to correct one of the easiest temptations we have when it comes to thinking about toxicity.  It is one that I struggled with for many years, and can still sometimes stumble on today.  You might already know this or it might seem surprising to you.

Toxic people are typically not evil comic-book supervillians.  

When we talk about toxicity, it is good to keep in mind that those who are being toxic or abusive usually either aren’t aware of it, have no idea it’s unhealthy, or don’t have enough resources to grow and change in healthy ways even if they do.  They probably come from toxic and abusive backgrounds themselves, and the way they act is the only way they know how to process their pain and their insecurity.  

What does this mean?

It is more appropriate to ask what doesn’t this mean.  This does not mean that you yourself should become abusive, controlling, or violent to the person in question.  They are usually acting out of hurt, and hurting them further only perpetuates the cycle down the line.  Do what you can to protect yourself, but try to avoid doing more than that in terms of hurting them, or acting out of spite.  You may be able to find ways to set boundaries in compassionate ways, but if you can’t do that, you are always free to leave without any explanation.  Trying to control them or change them in return does not help you and it does not help them.    

But this also does not mean you should feel obligated to stay with someone who is toxic for you.  It doesn’t mean that you need to give them second chances, offer them emotional support, or stay anywhere near them at all.  No matter what their pain looks like, you should make sure that you are taken care of first, and only try to help the other if they genuinely ask for it (their consent is important too) and you feel like you are in a strong place with excess to give (probably unlikely if you are working to overcome a toxic dynamic yourself).   

I want to note at this point that you yourself could also be a toxic person to someone in your life.  This isn’t hard to do.  When someone tries to stay in a relationship with someone they’re incompatible with, it is a near certainty that the relationship will become toxic at some point, for both parties.  As you read this article, try thinking of the signs from the point of view of the person you are in a relationship with as well.  This will help you to figure out from both sides if there are warning signs of a toxic relationship.

With that being said, the thing I would like to focus on in this post is that the signs I give you of a toxic relationship should not be read with intent in mind.  Try to be more concerned with effects.  If a toxic person does not mean to hurt you, that doesn’t change the fact that they are hurting you.  It is the effect that is causing you pain, not necessarily their intent.  The effect is what you need to get away from, no matter how much they mean for their actions to be destructive or not.  

It is also possible that some types of behaviors fit into more than one type of effect.  For instance, nearly all of them have some direct or indirect relationship to the idea of control.  It is not critical to get hung up on exactly which effect a certain behavior has.  If it has one or more of these effects at all, you have a problem.  I will try to provide some examples for each effect, but my categorization will not be perfect.    

Some of these examples might seem insignificant, mundane, or petty.  Keep in mind that we are only just now as a culture learning about the nuances of consent and how it should work.  We are immersed in a culture that has power, authority, and control in its center.  Lots of this may seem to you like “normal” behavior.  Some of these effects may be small indeed, and not all of them necessarily indicate that a relationship has become or will become abusive overall.  That is solely up to the person that is in the relationship to decide for themselves.  Some of us have thicker skins and more patience than others.  However, it does not mean that those who are sensitive or easily hurt should be devalued or that they just need to “toughen up.”  We all deserve the ability to choose relationships (both romantic and otherwise) that feel good to us and that help us to be the kinds of people we want to be.  

You might also realize that you do some of these things to yourself.  This can happen from past toxic relationships or a toxic upbringing, and can make you more vulnerable to other toxic people and relationships in your present and future.  If you catch yourself doing these things to yourself, I highly recommend therapy with a licensed professional.  You deserve to have relationships in which you are treated well, including that which you have with yourself.

I will include some specific examples of each main type of effect, some of which can be observed in the other person, both toward yourself and other people, and some that rely on you being aware of something happening inside yourself.  These lists will not be all-inclusive.  Toxicity likes to hide and can manifest itself in lots of different ways.  Just like I am telling you to do with intent, try not to focus on my specific examples and instead focus on the effects.

The Seven Effects

1. Devaluation

Devaluation is anything that makes you feel “less than.”  When someone insults you or implies that you aren’t as smart as they are, that you wouldn’t be anything without them, or that you are worthless, this is degrading you and devaluing you as a person.  Most of the things that fall under devaluation also fall under the next heading, Doubt.  However, devaluation effects specifically make you doubt your own worth and value as a person, which is incredibly toxic.  When you feel worthless, you are more likely to give up your autonomy and control to people who you think “know better” than you do, or who you perceive to be better people.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling devalued as a result of someone else’s behavior, there is likely a toxic dynamic, whether they are trying to make you feel worthless or not.

Some possible examples:

  • They talk down to you in a condescending way.
  • They insult, mock, or scoff at you or your concerns.
  • They criticize your character rather than focusing on a specific issue at hand.
  • They demonize their exes.
  • They disrespect or treat poorly other people in their life.
  • You feel guilt or shame in yourself when expressing needs.

 

2. Doubt

Doubt is anything that makes you second-guess your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.  Gaslighting is one of the most well-known and common forms of instilling doubt.  Toxic people can use doubt in many ways, such as rewriting history, telling you that things didn’t happen the way you think they did, or telling you that you are overreacting to something they did that hurt you.  This is one of the places to be careful to read effects rather than intent, because a toxic person may genuinely remember differently from you due to their own cognitive distortions or think that your reactions are inappropriate.  That is why this is also a difficult effect to battle, because we sometimes worry (admirably so) about gaslighting the other person as well.  

A nuance here is how forceful and insistent the person is that their version is superior to yours.  Dangerous statements look like, “I didn’t say that,” or “That’s not what happened,” or “You’re making that all up in your head.”  A better approach if memories are at odds would be, “I don’t remember it that way, but we were both really heated, so let’s try to find some common ground and I will try not to do anything like that in the future,” or “I apologize if I said that to you.  I can’t recall saying that at the moment, but you don’t deserve to hear something like that.”  Memory slips and disagreements over what happened are normal when emotions are high, and can be expected from time to time.  This should not be a regular occurrence or pattern, though.  If you are feeling the need to start audio or video recording your conversations, this might be a sign that toxicity is present and needs to be addressed.  If one or both of you is always so heated as to not remember correctly what has happened, this indicates a serious problem in communication and conflict.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are experiencing a lot of doubt surrounding your relationship and interactions with someone else, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  Some people like to have relationships that are more competitive and employ a lot of aggressive humor, but this should always be understood as a game, and it should only happen when both parties consent to it.  This consent can be revoked by either party at any time, and these dynamics should not be evoking real feelings of doubting one’s self or reality.  

Some possible examples:

  • They tell you how you feel or should feel.
  • They put you on a pedestal and then use that standard to make you doubt your “less than perfect” behavior.
  • They create unrealistic expectations, making “always” or “never” promises.
  • They show resentment at boundaries you place.
  • You feel stress or anxiety about a relationship over long time periods.
  • You repeatedly forgive things that you know are cruel or unethical.
  • You find yourself questioning the quality of the relationship a lot.

 

3. Silence

Silence is a tricky effect to put your finger on, because it plays around the edges of consent.  Everybody deserves to have boundaries respected, including the ability to walk away from a conversation that is too emotionally overwhelming.  You never have to participate in a conversation that you don’t want to, and neither do the people around you.  This is important to remember.  Sometimes silencing techniques do exist in otherwise healthy relationships on a temporary basis when a situation gets too intense.  However, some people use silence as a way to never address problems in a relationship.  They do not have to address the problems, but it is also part of a healthy relationship to be able to communicate openly and authentically with one another.  If, for one reason or another, you or the other person become completely unable to engage with a certain issue on a more extended basis, it is probably a sign that you are incompatible, which is toxic even if neither of you is doing something wrong.  It may be that one or both of you need individual therapy to overcome certain barriers to communication.  Go gently here.  But remember that if you feel like you can never get any resolution, or that a topic that you need to address is constantly avoided, that this is a toxic dynamic.   

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling like you cannot get someone to communicate with you about something important, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  Even if they need to set these types of boundaries for their own health and security (which you should respect), it may mean that you need to leave the dynamic to have relationships with people who find it easier to communicate with you.

Some possible examples:

  • They are “high maintenance” in regards to how they must be approached or confronted, they might focus on your technique instead of the problem.
  • They are unwilling to clearly state their desires and intentions.
  • They refuse to talk at all about how previous relationships ended.
  • They don’t come to you directly with concerns or complaints, you always hear things through third parties.
  • They avoid you or avoid talking with you in general.
  • They can only have difficult conversations with the aid of alcohol or other drugs.
  • You find yourself frustrated or helpless to start a discussion.

 

4. Control

Control is present in nearly all these toxic effects, but here I am talking about specifically controlling your behavior.  This category includes things like direct consent violations, not taking “no” for an answer, and pressuring you to do something you don’t want to do.  If at any point you feel like you do not have the power or ability to make your own decisions or set boundaries that you need to set, there is most likely a control dynamic in your relationship.  Threats are included in this category.  This is one of the most widely talked about factors in toxic and abusive dynamics, and I do not feel the need to expand much upon it here.

Remember intent versus effect: If you feel like you are unable to make your own decisions or exercise your own autonomy, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  Some people may have many strict requirements about what they need in a person to be compatible.  It does not mean their needs are unreasonable or invalid, but it also does not obligate you to be that person for them.  

Some possible examples:

  • They violate your consent or physical boundaries.
  • They get jealous easily and use that to control you.
  • They make threats or demands toward you.
  • They talk about you in ownership terms.
  • They pressure you to get closer to them than you want to get.
  • They have double standards regarding what kind of behavior is acceptable from each of you.
  • They try to make rules for you that you don’t agree to.
  • You find yourself afraid to set boundaries.
  • You feel like you must do something you don’t want to do to salvage the relationship.

 

5. Deception

Deception includes lying by comission, where someone tells you something that they know isn’t true.  But it also includes lies of omission, where a person doesn’t necessarily tell you something untrue, but they leave out important information that might significantly change the way you interact with them.  

An example to illustrate this concept is that some people have different boundaries around information and what they need to know in order to feel safe and consent to a relationship.  People with stricter boundaries who require more sharing of information are not being unreasonable.  For instance, if someone you are close to does not like to inform you about their sexual behavior, that is something they should state up front, and let you choose whether to engage with them sexually or not.  If you need to know about their sexual behavior in order to have a relationship with them, they are deceiving you if they agree to this or accept the information without then telling you that they have no intention to inform you.  They may feel like it is “not your business.”  That is a boundary they can set, but it needs to be done explicitly.  Anyone can also set boundaries around being intimate with people who have high need for privacy.  You do not owe them sexual intimacy if you are not comfortable with the level of disclosure they are willing to provide.  If someone doesn’t want to share something with you, they need to at least let you know that they don’t plan to share that information.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling deceived or lied to in a relationship with someone, there is likely a toxic dynamic present, whether they think it is reasonable to share specific information or not.  Trust is important to a healthy relationship, and if you find yourself unable to trust a person in your life, it is not a good idea to stay close to that person.

Some possible examples:

  • They have a history of lying to or cheating on people.
  • They lie to you.
  • They demand high levels of privacy or secrecy between their mutual friends, for instance getting upset if you talk to friends about the relationship.
  • You hear different stories from them and from others around them.

 

6. Blame

Blame is one of the more common toxic patterns, and falls into the areas that may feel petty or insignificant.  It is also a challenging concept to navigate.  We absolutely need to be able to hold people accountable for the ways that they violate our boundaries, and to express emotions we have about the ways they treat us or talk to us.  However, it is important to remember that no one can “make us feel” anything.  We own our own emotions.  We own our own reactions.  Blame is often found when someone who is toxic or abusive is called out for this behavior.  “Well you were so out of control I ‘had’ to take charge of the situation and make you behave.”  There are many options in response to someone’s actions being upsetting to us.  We can walk away or we can set boundaries.  However, if someone chooses to control you in response to their emotions about your behavior, this is not okay.  They should not be making you responsible for their emotions or their actions.  This is blame, and foists the responsibility of their own choices onto someone else.  Someone else being toxic to you is never your fault.  Conversely, blame can manifest from the opposite side, such as when people claim to do things “for your own good,” when you haven’t asked for this.  It shows that they do not see you as responsible for your own behavior and may be an indication that they will not see themselves as responsible for their own behavior in the future, or do not generally see people as being agents or responsible adults.

Remember intent versus effect: If someone else is blaming you for their feelings or actions, there is likely a toxic dynamic present.  They may very well have a lot of strong feelings in reaction to you or what you do, but that is not your responsibility, and you shouldn’t feel like it is. (Please keep in mind that all of this is assuming that you are not violating their consent.  If you are not controlling or attempting to control them, and if their emotions are a result of you not letting them control you, then the responsibility is theirs.  If you are violating their consent, then they have a very good reason to be upset.)  

Some possible examples:

  • They refuse to accept responsibility for their actions.
  • They frame relationships around the concept of need instead of mutual and enthusiastic consent.
  • They display signs of addiction to substances or behaviors.
  • They dismiss your concerns because “their problems are worse.”
  • They project their own feelings or behaviors onto you.
  • They make you responsible for their happiness.
  • They have high levels of insecurity and demand constant reassurance.
  • They tend to manage you or do things “for your own good.”
  • They imply that they are a burden or a bad influence on you and that you are incapable of telling them “no.”
  • You find yourself cleaning up after their messes a lot.
  • You find yourself giving them advice or find them giving you advice a lot.
  • You spend a large amount of time obsessing over the relationship or trying to figure out how you can fix it without involving them in the process.
  • It seems like all the problems in the relationship are “your fault” and the entire responsibility for fixing them is put on you, rather than making a team effort.

 

7. Confusion

Confusion can be very similar to doubt and deception, but this is the category that most clearly illustrates that effects are more important than intent, and there is a reason I am distinguishing it from the other two.  It is one of the most “passive” categories.  Confusion happens, in its most basic form, when a person is a hypocrite.    A toxic person may genuinely think they are living by their high ideals.  They may not even be going out of their way to convince you of this (which might more accurately fall under gaslighting).  Their reputation might precede them, as is the case with many “big personalities” and deep thinkers.  But this doesn’t change the fact that when someone’s words and actions don’t line up, it makes it hard to call them out and to believe our own perceptions.  If we are motivated to think highly of someone, and to give them the benefit of the doubt, it can be really hard to recognize that they are doing the exact opposite of what they claim to be doing much of the time.  We might think they are unaware they’re doing it, and that is possibly the case.  But if this type of thing is hurting us, we are absolutely justified in leaving, no matter how well someone talks their talk.

Remember intent versus effect: If you are feeling confused and unable to put your finger on what a person is doing that is making you uneasy or hurt, there is likely a toxic dynamic.  If their actions and words don’t seem to line up or if their behavior doesn’t seem to make sense, this is an important red flag that something may be amiss.  

Some possible examples:

  • Their actions and words don’t line up.
  • They don’t seem able to be honest with themselves.
  • They keep bringing up an issue that you thought was resolved.
  • When having a discussion, they shift the topics rapidly to avoid resolving individual issues, otherwise known as “Moving the Goalposts.”
  • You feel like you are getting mixed signals.

 

Now, there is a lot of nuance in talking about power, consent, and boundaries.  These things can be complicated and confusing.  I’ve given some examples above, but I’d like to talk about them more in depth.  Everyone has a right to set boundaries.  Actually, I’d say everyone has a responsibility to set boundaries.  This is the only way we can communicate authentically with one another.  I’d even go so far as to say that most toxic relationships exist because people either fail to set clear boundaries, or ignore unclear boundaries even if they notice them.  They might not clearly set boundaries because they are afraid the other person will leave them if they do.  They might ignore unclear boundaries because they want something out of the relationship and don’t want to understand that the other person doesn’t want it the same way.

Please start setting boundaries.  The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship.  Always.  In order to be able to give consent to a relationship, the people within it must have a clear and accurate picture of who the other person is, to the best of their ability to communicate, in each moment.  It is a form of deception to not set boundaries with someone, and it opens to the door to feeling consistently violated when someone walks all over boundaries that were never told to them in the first place.  

In my observation, most toxic relationships are a result of one or both people deciding that their ability to stay in the relationship is more important than respecting the consent and well-being of the other person.  This is, on some level, understandable.  Our culture is riddled with examples of violating boundaries that seem completely normal.  “If you loved me you would….,” “I’m doing this for your own good,” “You should want to…..”  The dominant cultural romantic narrative is one of sacrifice and martyrdom for the ones we care for.  Because we have grown up in such a culture, these kinds of things seem normal, or even desireable.  However, I have not observed many cases of relationships governed by this narrative being healthy or sustainable.

Here’s the thing.  What you want is valid.  What they want is also valid.  If what you want and what they want are incompatible, then the two of you are incompatible.  That sucks, but it’s true.  Neither of you is a horrible person for not wanting what the other person wants.  However, if you decide to try to change yourself to fit another person, or if you decide to try to get another person to change to fit you, you are laying the groundwork for creating something toxic.  Yes, someone you are in a relationship to should want to meet your needs (within reason) and want to bring you happiness (while remembering that your emotions are your own).  But it is YOUR responsibility to find a person that really and authentically wants that.  It is not the responsibility of someone you want in your life to give those things to you just because you want that and you want it specifically from them.  It is not your right or responsibility to try to guilt, pressure, or force them to give it to you.  

While every single person out there deserves love, and deserves relationships that are fulfilling to them, there is not a single person on this planet that owes that to any other person on this planet.  The reality might be that people that are compatible with you are hard to find.  That reality might be challenging, and it might be unfair to you, but it does not entitle to you start pushing other people around to fit into what you want.

This is a long post.  It is long because toxicity is nuanced and rarely completely one-sided.  The only thing this post can do is to help you notice and pay attention to those things that don’t feel right.  It can’t tell you when it is right to leave.  It can’t tell you the best way to protect yourself or keep yourself safe.  It can’t tell you if a relationship is salvageable or not.  It can’t tell you when toxicity crosses the boundary into abuse.  The best that any of us can do in the face of toxic dynamics is to stop participating in them, whether that means setting, enforcing, and respecting boundaries, or whether it means walking away in full.  Ultimately, you are responsible for deciding if something is worth sticking around for or not.  I would encourage you to set high standards for this.

 

Ironic Reality

The lifetime struggle
Seeking that balance point
Riding the line between

Believing in myself
Yet knowing I’m human
That I’ll make mistakes

How to be able to see this
Perfect in my imperfection
Yet exactly what makes me perfect
Is that I can be improved

And what cost at either extreme?

Hubris
Arrogance
Walking blindly into disaster with the belief that I can’t fall

Or doubt
Paralysis
Never moving in fear that I might break something

Flow occurs somewhere in between
Not seeking to fail or destroy
But not fearing it either
A firm commitment to seeing what is
And moving in that reality

Life teaches
Some things need breaking
Even though their cost
In pain
In struggle
Might be astronomical

Sometimes those things that must break are things we’ve spent decades
Or centuries building

Those are the scariest edifices to topple
And sometimes the most necessary at that

It’s amazing to me how much building is in breaking
It’s not obvious at first
But just as with everything
Life dies to rot to make way for new life
New growth

Maybe the immortality we seek is not an ever-unchanging
Grey life like most seem to live
But an ever-changing
Death at every moment
Rebirth into new life
That careens spiraling ever upward
Laughing in the face of “I’m not ready”

Oh irony
The thing we run from is the very thing we think we are running toward
We run away from really living
So we can hide from losing our lives
We shy away from truly loving
So that we can shield our heart from having to be broken

What tragedy!
That in order to never lose we never gain
That we stifle our passions and silence our voices and clip our wings
Thinking we have victory
As we dance around the altar upon which we have sacrificed our joy

Thinking this is safe

I reject walking as a ghost upon this Earth
I am alive
To chase immortality
Okay
Yes
But only if the chase is a merry one
Only if we really grasp what this means

Only if we learn to be awake in a moment
Can we ever dare to dream of eternity

 

Just finished the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Feeling inspired.

The Most Underused Leadership Skill

This is probably applicable to any type of leader, but since most of my experience is in the polyamory leadership world, that is the audience I’m going to write to.

Talking authoritatively to fellow leaders is a really vulnerable sort of endeavor, especially to write about qualities that make a good leader. It’s one of the reasons I’m writing about it. Clearly there are things I don’t know. Advice I make and positions I hold right now are probably going to need to be revised and corrected in the future. I’m probably wrong about some (read: many) things. And I’m really young as a poly leader to boot. The nerve of me!

Anyhow, within the limited spheres I’ve interacted in, I’ve noticed something troubling. Many poly leaders, myself included, have some difficulty in leading by example.

What could I possibly mean by that? To a large extent, we do our best to treat our partners the best way we know how. We take responsibility for ourselves in the ways we’re aware we need to. We respect consent. We try to approach problems within our communities with level heads and open minds. We encourage and we show compassion and we give fantastic advice. Isn’t all of that leading by example?

Well, sort of. People need good models for all of these things. We’re doing great and very important work by modeling these things. But we’re missing something critical.

We need to let people see us fuck up.

We need to let people see us be vulnerable, raw, emotional, and broken. We need to let those of our relationships that fail do so publicly, in the moment, while we still don’t know how things will resolve and while we’re still hurting (within reason and respecting the consent of our exes). We need to publicly apologize. We need to admit that we have no idea what we’re doing. We can and should do this with as much tact and grace as we have in our toolbag, but we need to do it.

Many people do this in some ways already, but my experience is that it tends to be intellectualized. We talk about breakups long after they happened and after the scars have healed. We talk about consent violations, bullying, and abuse well past the point at which some of the fences have been mended and the people involved have either scattered to other communities or have rebuilt bridges with us. We give people play-by-plays…. after the fact.

We also pressure one another to do this. Whether implicit or explicit, there is still plenty of shame about sharing from one’s personal life, giving one’s personal opinion, or (heaven forbid) being a part of some major drama. We suggest that people should “not air their dirty laundry,” or that if they are going through a challenging time it might be better to step back or step down from leadership until they’ve “got it together.” Sometimes these people are too hurt and ashamed to ever try to come back. They’ve been silenced by people who are more concerned with how something looks than how it actually is. Instead of silencing one another, we should be supporting one another as leaders, in the ways that those requesting support ask for and need. What we think is best for them and what we think they need isn’t necessarily correct. Acting like we know better, even if we think we have perspective they don’t, is patronizing and unfair. They need their process just like we needed ours.

I get it. We want to model good behavior and we want other leaders to do the same. But here’s the problem. Our good judgment comes from bad judgment. We are showing an end product without any of the process. We lead by our actions in those areas we think it is okay to end up. We do not, quite as often, lead by example in times of confusion, pain, and despair (other than to act in ways that suggest that we should just keep it quiet and pretend it doesn’t exist). How do we expect people to figure out how to get to the same place we are (as in, an authentic, more developed, and fairly stable place for them) if they don’t see any of the mess it took to get there, or the continuing mess that it can and will be?

There is a necessary concern about how the larger culture views polyamory. It’s understandable to want to put our best face forward, to not look like hypocrites, and to show people that, “No really, we’re good people we swear.” But the respectability politics come at a cost. In some spaces and in some cases, that cost is worth it, but I think we pay that price way more often than we should, and often even within our own circles lest the outer world find out that *gasp* polyamorous humans make mistakes and mess shit up just like all the rest of us. After all, isn’t one of our most highly touted qualities honesty? That means we must be honest, even about the stuff that goes wrong, and especially about the stuff we know is right when the rest of society might disapprove.

And there is also a necessary concern about stealing the spotlight, being a rock star, and siphoning more support and resources out of a community than we put back into it. A good leader absolutely puts work in and provides resources and does so without recognition much of the time. But we must be careful not to fall to the other extreme. We are not perfect, and we need to show that with our actions instead of our words. We need to take risks, be human, and show our authentic selves in our positions as community leaders. We can show people appropriate ways to reach out to others for support when we are hurting, and that it is okay to do so. We can use our positions of privilege to set examples for the entire range of our lived experiences.

Because when we do it, we give others permission to do the same. When we share from the bottom of our soul, we show others that we’ve been there too, that we’re going through growth as well, and that it is okay to make a mistake. It’s way too easy to never state a strong opinion, or never have a conflict in a visible social media space, or never admit that you were wrong publicly. The end result may be that we never let someone observe us making a mistake, and I think that means we are doing our communities a huge disservice. We are suggesting, even if only passively, that our emotions, our struggles, and our disagreements aren’t appropriate to share.

I disagree. Just like silence and inaction favor abusers, so too do they foster climates of shame and control on a much larger level. We are not good advocates if we become blank slates of pseudo-perfection in our ivory towers. We are not good leaders if we don’t, in the words of the great Ms. Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” We are not setting a good example if we don’t allow ourselves to be transparent in those grey areas, places of uncertainty and doubt.

Now, I am not saying that people should be pressured to go public about things they aren’t ready to do so with. Some shit is so huge that the only way to deal with the trauma of it is to withdraw. Some people are in too much pain to spend time worrying about helping others to learn from their process in the moment. That is okay. They aren’t the kind of person I am talking to. But for those of us who can, those of us who have been around this block once or twice, those of us who are really only afraid to let someone see us fuck up…

Fuck up. Do it.

Fuck up loudly and shamelessly. And then, with just as much transparency, show how you are trying your best to make it right. This is what will help us to hold ourselves accountable, to see our errors and our missteps faster, to let others help to hold us accountable.

Because everybody needs good models for how to apologize after you’ve hurt someone. Everybody needs good models to see that self-punishment is an easy temptation, and a wrong one. Everybody needs good models for self-forgiveness, and those insecurities that still run through our minds. We might know how to deal with them now, but we didn’t always. If we can bare our guts more frequently, other people can learn from our mistakes instead of having to make all of them on their own.

And as leaders we need to stop shaming other leaders for this. Even if you don’t want to show people the inner workings of how you are human, shame on you if you shame other people for doing so. Shame on me because I’ve done it. Shame on the people who have done it to me. Shame on me for letting them. Shame on me for still being afraid to talk about some of it publicly because I fear backlash. Because I still am.

But no, shame actually doesn’t help anyone. Because the shame is what makes us still want to hide. See that, that was anger up there. That was betrayal. That was fear. I am admitting to you that there are things that have hugely impacted me that I am still having trouble being public about. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish I had the courage to just stand up and speak my truth without fear of how other people will react. I wish I had the strength to call people out for the ways they’ve hurt me. I’m getting there. Feel free to ask me about it. I won’t lie to you or hide from you, even if I’m not in a place where I can publish it yet. Even if you are one of the people that hurt me. I want to start having these conversations, even if they’re going to be messy. And I’d love to do them where we can be seen, where all of us can be held accountable for the path forward.

So I’m asking for us to create a new culture. Authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, these are things we talk about a lot. It’s time to start walking our talk. I’m not sure what to call it, maybe Transparency Culture. We have started building a culture of consent, which is fantastic. I think this is the next step. There are some leaders that are great at this, in some areas, most of the time. None of us are perfect at it, and none of us ever will be. But we can learn how to be better by putting ourselves out there and taking those risks.

And I apologize. There are people I’ve hurt. There are people I haven’t communicated well with. There are people I’m still trying to figure out how to reconnect with, how to repair. And with some of those people I still hold a lot of anger towards them for the ways they’ve hurt me. I’m trying to learn how to balance that with the knowledge that having them as allies will almost always be better than having them as enemies. And I’m trying to treat them respectfully, and I’m trying to make sure to communicate and enforce my boundaries for my own health in the meantime. And I still think about it a lot. And I’m still not quite over it yet. And that’s okay.

Will you work with me to do better?

p.s. One of my friends that read this first pointed out that I deflected and backhanded an issue early in the piece by criticizing myself for being young with some biting sarcasm before anyone else could do it. Thank you. You’re right. I’m leaving it there as an example of how non-optimal I can get when I’m scared to say something. I should have just come out with my message instead of being defensive right out of the gate.