Yes, I’m Racist

Yes, I am.  Yes, I understand that (for those of you who know me) I talk about social justice issues, including race and intersectionality a lot.  Yes, I understand that I educate people, and I do my best to update myself, my words, and my behaviors as I learn new things.  

^^^^^

That’s the important part.  I have to update.

Even putting intellectual and emotional work into seeing and trying to correct for racist tendencies in myself has not rooted it all out.

I’m not done.  Just knowing about it doesn’t fix it.  

Knowing some parts of it is only the tip of the racism iceberg.  Even if I could see the whole iceberg, I may sometimes still hit it, even if I’m trying my hardest not to.

Why?  

Before I start, try this thing out?  It is a relatively short exercise and an incredibly valuable source of information.  I recommend doing the one about race first, but absolutely go back and try other ones later if you so desire.  Go on, I’ll wait.

Do you want to know what my results were?  I have a strong preference for white people over black people.  How can my results come out like that, even with everything I do?  

Our emotional brain is a different animal from our conscious or “logical” brain.  The logical brain is the part of us that talks and thinks of ourselves as “I.”  It is the part of us that makes intentional decisions, and the part of us that we’re aware of.  It is one of the “newest” parts of our brain if you think in terms of evolution, and part of what separates us from most other animals.  The logical brain is capable of reasoning and arriving at the conclusion that it is wrong to be racist, and that black people are just as good as white people.  Yours probably believes in civil rights.  It probably believes we’re all equal.  

One problem.

Our logical brain is a very small part of our brain and what it does.  It takes more energy to use this part of our brain.  It is weaker than the “older” parts of our brain, the emotional parts.  Most of the time, our emotional brain is the one in charge.  It operates below our conscious awareness and functions in feelings and hunches, on autopilot.  The emotional brain can influence our logical brain in ways we have no idea are happening.  The emotional brain is what  is measured in the test I linked above.  The emotional brain is also very fast.  As best we can understand right now, it works in systems of associations and schemas.  It takes in information from our environment and helps us make snap decisions about things.  This is a large part of what our “gut instinct” is.  

Now, that emotional brain is necessary.  It helps us survive.  We would not be able to function without it, because there is no way we can consciously process everything that hits our senses on a moment-to-moment basis.  There are very good reasons why we have evolved with this system in place, and it is actually a really cool and complex part of what makes us human.  Remember the way you flinched last time someone threw something at you that you weren’t expecting, or the anxiety you felt when someone close to you said “We need to talk.”?  That was your emotional brain at work.  

But it is an older system.  Some of the things it does do not help us as much now, or rather, can cause us to stumble in our highly complex and changing world.  One of those things that used to be helpful is the part that figures out who belongs to our “tribe.”  To early humans this was really important.  As social animals, we needed to know who we could count on, who would be there if we needed help, who was “us,” and who was “them.”  If we were wrong about this, we could be killed, or end up trying to survive alone, which was a death sentence for our ancestors.  Fighting for and defending one’s tribe was how we stayed alive.  

That was great then.  But now we have resources that allow us to start viewing and treating all humans as fellow allies.  We don’t have to compete quite so much to stay alive.  This is a really positive development, and these are the kinds of changes we can and should start initiating from our logical brain.  But that doesn’t stop or change all the patterns the emotional brain still has built in.  Even though the logical brain can “change its mind” on a dime, the emotional brain is MUCH harder to make changes to and requires a lot more time and effort to shift.  

Here is where the problems start.  Our emotional brain does not consciously parse every single bit of information it picks up out of our environment.  It can’t.  It is built to be efficient, and to sift through lots of information all at once, and to only pick out the things it thinks are important, which are usually things that relate to survival, although it also works with stuff that “feels good” and stuff that “feels bad” as how to think about and deal with different things in our environment (think about how no one has to teach you not to touch a hot stove a second time, or to keep seeking out sweets).  

Now imagine for a second if a lot of the times your emotional brain encounters black people is when they are represented as “thugs” or “criminals” in popular television shows and movies. Your logical brain probably knows that not all black people are criminals.  That is simple and easy to figure out.  Your emotional brain, however, does not take the time to make that distinction.  As far as the emotional brain is concerned, it is good to know who violent criminals are, because that could be relevant to your survival.  Your emotional brain is more worried about “better safe than sorry.”  It doesn’t care all that much if the information it is taking in is inaccurate or unfair to other humans.  Other humans aren’t you.  It is only concerned with keeping you safe.  If your brain sees a lot of black people portrayed as violent, it is going to start assuming that black people are violent, whether you want it to or not.  

And violence isn’t the only place where our culture gives us messages about black people.  It often depicts them as poor, as incapable, as ugly, all things that our emotional brain feels really negatively about and wants to avoid.  There are many places where our value representations skew very positively toward white people and very negatively toward black people.  From a very young age, we are exposed to situations that make us associate white people with positive emotions, and black people with negative emotions.  

What is the problem with that?

Back to a few paragraphs ago, our emotional brains are in control most of the time, not our logical ones.  It is very easy to assume we can just “know” something logically and that it means all of our behavior will fall in line.  But the emotional brain is tricky.  The emotional brain also likes to think of ourselves as good people, and in order to do this it can trick the logical part of our brain.  The emotional brain knows society believes it is bad to be racist.  So it tells the logical brain that we aren’t.  The emotional brain can fool the logical brain into coming up with what seem like perfectly good reasons (see section 1.2 and 2.6) why we acted a certain way that have nothing to do with race.  If we are told that our behavior is racist, we “know” the person telling us is wrong, because “we’re not racist.”  We know that equality is good.  We know that black people are as good as white people.  Of course we aren’t racist.  

Congratulations.  Many or most of us have overcome conscious racism.  We know it’s bad to hate black people just because of the color of their skin.  But conscious racism isn’t really what is causing the problems in our society today.  What causes the problems is racism in our emotional brain.  It is racism that we didn’t necessarily put there, and that we aren’t fully aware is happening.  It is invisible to us and we act based upon it without even realizing we’re doing so.  We aren’t bad people just because it is there in our brain.  But nothing changes the fact that it is there.  How’d you do on that test?  

Why is this important?  

These kinds of emotional or subconscious racism have real ramifications in the way we think about people, what kinds of feelings we have about people, and the ways we treat people based on those thoughts and feelings.  In a world where job applicants are often called or hired based on “gut feelings,” this is huge.  In a world where a police officer has to make a split-second decision about whether to use lethal violence or not, this is critical. 

Our “gut” is correct a lot of the time.  Our emotional brain is good at what it does for the vast majority of the jobs it has to perform.  There are many places where we can and should trust it.  Again, this system helps keep us alive and is absolutely necessary to our functioning.  But we need to be very careful to understand why our emotional brain reacts the way it does in certain situations, because these kinds of things cause real harm, and take real lives, even when our emotional brain is dead wrong.  In areas of race, it is wrong quite often.

And it is hard to understand the emotional brain.  It is good at hiding, and it doesn’t really like to be brought to conscious awareness, especially if it is motivated not to feel guilty.  Because if we admit there is racism in our brains, then it thinks that means we’re bad people, and that we need to feel guilty.  Were you afraid to take that test?  Our emotional brain is far more concerned with feeling comfortable and good about ourselves than it is with being right.  This is why I want us white people to start dropping the shame and guilt that come with the word “racist” and start seeing it as a natural side effect of how human brains work, combined with a larger structure of social conditioning.

There have been a lot of studies that look at these effects.  One of the oldest and most well-known involves looking at how children respond to a white or black baby doll.  See for yourself.  That video is heartbreaking.  Even children of color, who know that the black doll looks more like them, say that the white doll is prettier, nicer, and smarter than the black doll.  Can you imagine that for a moment?  Imagine growing up in a world where you already know at the age of five that you are considered less pretty, less intelligent, less nice, and less valuable, just because of the color of your skin.  What do you think that would do to you and the way that you interact with the world?  Here is another collection of resources that talks about Stereotype Threat.  These kinds of associations actually make it harder for minorities to focus, perform well, and aspire to various goals when they are reminded about how they are different from the “normal” population (read: white, male, hetereosexual, cisgendered, financially secure, and able-bodied).  

What about for adults?  Our emotional assumptions about race can lead us to be less likely to call someone back or hire them if they are black or if their name sounds black to us.  This means it is harder for black people to secure certain jobs, even if they are equally qualified, or sometimes even more highly qualified than the white candidates that apply.  And if you read the second link I posted above, you will know that we are capable of making up legitimate-sounding reasons (both to ourselves and other people) that have nothing to do with race to explain why we made the decision we did.  In one study, employers were handed identical resumes with stereotypically-sounding “black” or “white” names at the top.  People with “black” names were less likely to get called back, even though otherwise the two resumes were exactly the same.  When asked, the employers would say something like (for white people) “Well, they don’t have a lot of experience, but it looks like they did a really great job in school and that is a fantastic university for this job market,” or (for black people) “Well, they have a fantastic education, but what we are really looking for is someone with experience in the field, and they just don’t have it.”

Our emotional assumptions about race can lead us to be more likely to mistake harmless objects for guns in the hands of a black person. This means black people are more likely to receive violence, up to and including lethal force, from law enforcement and people on the street, whose emotional brains are telling them they need to be terrified of black people.  The messages we get as children when we see teachers more likely to discipline black children can influence the later behaviors of adults that are more likely to think of black people as “likely to break the rules.”  And so far I’ve only described physical violence.  There are lots of other types of violence that we are more likely to employ if we feel threatened based on incorrect information from our emotional brain.

These effects are very real.  These kinds of things permeate our entire culture, everything we do, and the ways we treat the people around us.  

Can you watch these videos, and read these articles, and tell me that we really have an equal opportunity here in the United States?  Black people make up roughly 12% of the population of the United States.  If we forget for a moment that these emotional reactions come from black people as well as white people (remember the children of color with the dolls?), can you imagine that a full 88% of the people in the world around you treat you as if you aren’t worth as much as they are, that you aren’t as qualified for a job you need to live, that you are more likely to be a life-or-death threat to them?  How do you think that would feel?  How do you think it would make you feel about yourself?

The race problem is urgent.   

Our need for human social connection is one of our fundamental survival requirements.  Babies who don’t receive touch and affection will die even if all their other material needs are met.  We thrive in places where we feel loved, accepted, and supported by the people around us.  After food, clothing, and shelter, these are some of our most basic and fundamental requirements.  Our emotional brain’s racism is preventing us from sharing these resources equally with black people as well as white people.  You know how you can kind of tell when someone doesn’t like or trust you, even if they don’t say anything directly?  Your emotional brain picks up on these types of signals too, the way someone gets stiff or avoids eye contact with you when you’re around.  Imagine now that a large majority of the people around you are more likely to act that way, just because of the color of your skin.  We commit errors in thinking about black people, who we perceive as “other” in very predictable and very natural ways.  This is why it is so hard to fight.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight it.  Humans, at a very basic level, are animals.  Our logical brain is one of the few things that separates us from other animals.  Our ability to use logic, our ability to reason, our ability to question the assumptions and decisions we are making, are things that are only possible because of this newer and more difficult-to-use part of our brain.  With enough thought, a strong commitment to awareness, and dedication to change, we can challenge the messages that our emotional brains are giving.  We can start the long process of giving our emotional brain new, updated, and more relevant information.  

We can also start pushing on a larger cultural level to stop putting out incorrect messages that children and adults alike will take in on accident in news, television shows, music, movies, and humor.  This goes far beyond any petty idea of “political correctness.”  This goes far beyond “offense” and “hurt feelings.”  People are dying.  People are struggling to be heard, to be loved, to be appreciated, to make ends meet, and to feel like equals in a society that prides itself on being the “Land of Opportunity.”  Let’s start trying to live up to that name.  It isn’t going to be easy.  It isn’t going to be fast.  We’re still going to keep making mistakes.  But the first step is to be aware.  The second step is to start leaning into that discomfort and doing the work to challenge it.  These are hard, but we can do them.

 

Now that I have your attention, I hope that you have gained something or learned something new from reading what I’ve written.  If you’ve even gotten through the whole post, you know more about this issue than most people do.  But if you’ve read carefully, you might realize that one of the reasons you were interested in reading the article was because I’m white, because I have a white sounding name, or because a white friend shared it.  If you are white, you should share this.  We need to start owning our racism just like I am here.  We should use our position of privilege to help signal-boost for those who don’t have that kind of power right now.  Take the shame away and start doing the work to change.  But we should also go start reading things written by people of color, and boosting their signals. (Feel free to include some that you are personally aware of below in the comments section.  For some people of color, writing is a primary source of income and linking to their content will give them the freedom to produce more of it.) They are the ones who can see it even more clearly than I can.  They are the ones that struggle to have their voices heard when they speak up about these things.  They are the ones that need you to start listening.  I’m glad you read my article, but that is only the beginning.  Go start looking into the world that was invisible to you before now.  

Yes, I’m racist.  So are you.  We can’t change it until we own it.  But we can start to change it.  If we really want to say that all lives matter and that we are all one human family, we must.

#BlackLivesMatter
#YesImRacist

 

If you’ve read all this, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed.  It is a lot of information.  Take some time to digest it and address the discomfort is has probably created in you.  I encourage you to not get discouraged and to keep educating yourself not only on implicit bias (the emotional brain), but on the myriad of ways systemic racism is unfair to people of color.  Other topics of interest might include:

  • The School-to-Prison Pipeline
  • Redlining and Housing Discrimination
  • Unequal Outcomes of Medical Treatment (specifically looking at pain medication distribution and treatment disparities in mental health diagnoses)
  • Appropriation (specifically making sure original artists and members of a culture get credit for work and earn profits off of cultural successes, and reducing violent or stereotypical references in popular culture)
  • Respectability Politics and Tone Policing
  • Coded Language and Dog Whistle Politics
  • Drug War Impacts on Race

Our implicit bias and emotional brain functions are only the tip of a much larger iceberg.  None of this is going to be fixed overnight, but nothing will change if we don’t start educating ourselves and trying, in the small ways we can, right now.  No one is going to get it perfectly right away, and you aren’t expected to.  Many of us have areas where we struggle or are marginalized on other axes like gender, sexuality, ability, and religion that make this kind of thing even harder, but please do what you can.  We all deserve to be treated as humans, with dignity and respect, and you have the power to start making that happen.

Relationship Anarchy Means We Choose

I see a lot of stereotypes and fear surrounding the idea of Relationship Anarchy from a lot of people. Perhaps these are inspired by real people calling themselves Relationship Anarchists. I haven’t personally run into many that fit these stereotypes, but I’ve heard intelligent people that I trust say they have. So I am going to assume for the moment that they exist, that they call themselves Relationship Anarchists, and that they’re assholes.

Guess what. Assholes exist in every relationship structure. There are monogamous assholes, celibate assholes, hierarchical assholes, poly-fi assholes, Relationship Anarchy assholes, and solo poly assholes. There are assholes in every group I didn’t mention.

It would be fantastic if we could all stop defining other groups by their assholes.

Yes, it is good to point out various weaknesses in every structure (or lack thereof), and the places where people make most mistakes within them. But for us to reduce any other group to the people within it that do it the worst is unfair and unethical. Each philosophy has its own strengths and weaknesses, and unique system of challenges to overcome. Being aware of these things helps us to know the risks we are taking at any given moment and what to prepare for in the various styles of relationships we might try on.

My purpose in writing to you right now is to communicate what Relationship Anarchy means to me, and what it doesn’t mean to me. Now, other Relationship Anarchists may disagree. That’s one of the terrible and wonderful things about the philosophy. Far be it from me to tell other Relationship Anarchists what they should think about it and how they should do it, or to speak for them. A unified definition is pretty much excluded as a possibility, based on the very nature of the philosophy. So is the idea of any one authority having the power to say exactly what Relationship Anarchy is. That’s kind of the point.

I’ll also make an argument for why I think this is the best way to do Relationship Anarchy, which I will from here on out refer to by its abbreviation, RA. It doesn’t mean anyone has to listen to me, but hopefully they’ll be motivated to do so if they find value in it.

At its most basic level, RA means that no one has any power over anyone else at a fundamental level. We each get to choose what is right for us, the agreements we enter into, and the commitments we’re willing to make, and if and how we’ll uphold them. We can give some powers to others, like the power to impact us emotionally, decisions to live in power-exchange relationships, and the power to move toward greater interdependence in areas like finances, cohabitation, and coparenting. But those powers are always ours. We give them always as gifts. We can take them back at any time.

This is the place where many people balk. It sounds scary to hear that someone you love and care about has the power to break a commitment at any time, to choose to walk away from the things you’ve built together, and to drastically change or scale back the level of intimacy you share without any input from you. It sucks when that happens.

But do hierarchical, monogamous, or any other kind of commitments protect us from this? Do they really? How many of you know someone who got married under vows saying “Till death do us part,” that are now divorced? How many of you know someone who has broken promises or commitments? How many of you have done it? Be honest.

The reality is that any concept of safety we have is ultimately an illusion. Just like anyone could be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, so could anyone change in a drastic and fundamental way that makes them incompatible with us, no matter what kinds of precautions we take to avoid that. RA is simply the only philosophy that I have found so far that doesn’t run from that or hide from it. It walks full in the face of that reality and allows for the space to love in authentic ways in spite of it.

Does every RA person do this perfectly? No. Does any RA person do this perfectly? Probably not. We’re human. We all have traumas in our past and places where we hurt, and ideals that we really love but haven’t quite lived up to yet. In my experience, those in the RA world that tend to be abrasive to those outside of it are the ones that have been severely burned by abusive and controlling relationships in their past. They might be hostile to hierarchy because hierarchy has been used as a weapon to control them. They might be hostile to the idea of commitments and agreements because they’ve experienced partners that use those things as a way to make their fears and insecurities their partner’s responsibility instead of their own.

But you know what? They’re allowed to take that space away from intensely committed relationships while they heal, or forever. They’re allowed to set their own boundaries around what they will agree to or not. And if that’s not what you’re looking for, you’re allowed to say no and walk away. What you shouldn’t do is shame them for being afraid or unable to commit. What you shouldn’t do is treat them like the relationships they do have are invalid or not “real.” What you shouldn’t do is assert that this means they are just “using people for pleasure,” and “not caring about anyone else’s feelings.” If they’re honest and up front with you, they don’t owe you closeness or intimacy they don’t want to give.

They don’t owe it to you anyhow, but being dishonest is one of those behaviors that lands people in Camp Asshole. There are some dishonest RA people. There are some RA people still struggling with deep emotional issues that create spaces of blindness and make self-awareness challenging. However, RA people do not have the market cornered on that and it is intellectually dishonest to suggest this is the case. These problems exist in every philosophy and every place on Earth where humans are.

But this is the gem I find in the middle of all of that. RA actually means people can be assholes. They can. They will, no matter what pet name they are giving their asshole behavior today. But it also empowers you to walk away from assholes. It empowers you to find relationships that fulfill you and make you happy. It means that there is absolutely no requirement to give second chances, to be emotionally available for someone who is hurting you, or to be understanding and patient with people who are treating you like shit. Instead of trying to guilt, shame, or force assholes to stop being assholes, it gives you the freedom to leave the assholes to deal with their own mess. It’s up to them to clean it up, not you.

Now, you can still choose to give those second chances. That’s up to you. You can choose to be patient and compassionate. I do these things all the time because I want to in the part of me that knows what is best for me in the long run. I prefer to act thoughtfully rather than on impulse because my experience has shown me that is usually what works best. People that are unforgiving and cruel often lose friends. But I also take responsibility for the risk I take in trusting someone who has already betrayed me. They’ve shown me what they’re capable of. It’s on me to decide if I want to give them that power again or not. The beauty and the terror of this philosophy is that no one call tell you what is right for you. Well, they can, but you don’t have to listen, and they’re probably wrong.

I actually feel a lot more security in this system. Seems paradoxical right? But think about it. Would you want someone to stay with you, even if they didn’t want to, just because of a commitment they made? Would you really want to have someone in your life that feels obligated to spend time with you and give you attention if that isn’t what fulfills them anymore? Would that be fulfilling for you? It might be. But I’m guessing for most of you, it won’t. I’m guessing that most of us want to be with people that want us right back. When I encourage the people in my life to be honest with me, to do what they want, and to set boundaries with me, then every person that I have around is someone that really and truly WANTS to be there. They have their freedom and their choice, and they choose me. If that isn’t a huge honor and a gift, I don’t know what is. I also don’t really want anything less. Why would I want to spend my own time and energy on someone who doesn’t want me (which is a valid choice for some people, even if I don’t understand it)?

Rather than extracting illusions of security for the future, I feel security in this moment that the person spending time with me is here because they haven’t chosen anything else, and they didn’t want to. One of the biggest gifts a person can give me is their unfiltered heart and soul. But in order to get that, I have to be willing to stare in the face of the things that might hurt me, the places they might reject me, and the things they don’t share mutual desire for. And I have to love and accept all of that if I want them to feel safe showing it to me. I really can’t think of any better way to show I truly treasure someone than to appreciate them for who they really are.

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t have your feelings about rejection, broken commitments, or spoiled expectations. However, your feelings are yours. You are responsible for deciding what to do with them. The only person you can control is yourself. Absolutely express your feelings. It hurts and it sucks to be rejected or told “no.” Be authentic. But consent is important. Your feelings do not mean you get to control another person. Your feelings do not make it okay to degrade them or abuse them. The fact that your feelings are about them do not mean they are obligated to engage with you about those feelings. You may need to express yourself to someone else. And I agree, they probably are a bad partner for you if you have a lot of needs they aren’t meeting. But the correct conclusion following that observation is not to pressure them to be a better partner for you if they don’t want to. Some correct possibilities might be to leave them, to transition your relationship to something less intimate, or to see if they are willing to negotiate different behavior in the future.

You can always set your own boundaries. They can always set theirs. You don’t owe them anything. They don’t owe you anything. It is shitty if they try to control you. It is shitty if you try to control them. Humans are messy, and sometimes people get hurt without anyone doing anything wrong. And I’m with you. That sucks. It’s great to be able to blame someone when we’re hurt. But sometimes there really just isn’t room for blame. We can’t really control how we feel about another person. It doesn’t make any sense to punish someone for their desires changing, and for them to act in accordance with their desires. This doesn’t help anyone to heal and only perpetuates the hurt.

Now, there are people that do this more gracefully than others. Some people like to set the world aflame, burn all their bridges, and leave a nuclear wasteland in their wake. Those people live with the consequences of that. It might be worth it to them. It’s why I move slowly with people who seem to be surrounded by a great many “hot spots.” Believe people when they show you who they are, even with other people. You aren’t special. Expect that they will treat you the way they treated their other partners. Sometimes people change, but change is a really slow and painstaking process. Setting up your own defense against high-risk people is your responsibility.

Now here’s where I get really contentious. I think someone can be RA and still participate in a hierarchy. Yup. You read correctly. It’s actually not that crazy of an idea. I believe that an RA person can participate in hierarchy just like I believe someone can be RA and participate in a 24/7 Total Power Exchange (TPE). An RA person can choose what agreements they make. They don’t have to avoid commitments forever and always to be RA. Personally, I don’t see any good reason to choose hierarchy. But other people might. That is their right. The important part is that everyone involved is choosing it, willingly and with information that is as complete as possible. This includes secondaries joining up with a hierarchically partnered person. Know what you are getting into. Don’t agree to stuff you don’t want. Don’t blame anyone else for the risks you take. Some relationship mistakes and hurts are part of the learning curve in how we figure out how to love other people. Sometimes we’ll get burned. That’s when we start learning to avoid the type of people that burn us.

The important part is choice. Just like an ethical 24/7 TPE should have some kind of safeword in place for renegotiation or termination of the relationship, so should hierarchies have these structures in place. People can negotiate away their power in limited and temporary ways based on their preferences and the kinds of lifestyle they really want to live. But it is important to remember that consent overrides everything else. Always. Anything else is (nonconsensual) slavery. Anything else is abuse. If you can’t safeword out of your own hierarchical dynamic, something is toxic and needs to be addressed.

All of this makes RA a pretty broad umbrella, maybe so much so as to make the idea meaningless to some people. But I really like a definition that is this simple, and this powerful. The idea that each and every person out there has the right to choose their life path, to change their mind, to do what they want to do, it’s scary. It’s a lot of power. It’s a lot of responsibility. But there is no other place I’d rather live from. I own my mistakes. I own my successes. I don’t have a predetermined path set out for me. It isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable. But my goodness the adventures I’ve had, the lessons I’ve learned, and the joy and fulfillment I’ve gained out of life. I wouldn’t trade it for all the security in the world.

Because RA might not be quite so much a relationship philosophy as it is a philosophy of life. See reality for what it is. Radically accept it and radically move within it in the way that is right for you. How we relate to others is an extension of how we relate to ourselves. Do you give yourself the right to choose? Do you embrace freedom and personal empowerment?

I trust myself to make choices. I trust myself to be able to deal with the consequences of my choices. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t trust me with these things.

Relationship Anarchy means I choose. Relationship Anarchy means you choose. Relationship Anarchy means we choose. That’s all.

Hard Polyamorous Truths

You may be thinking about trying polyamory for the first time, or you may have already started. Below are a few observations from a fellow traveler about some of the hurdles that must be crossed if one wants to keep at it. As you will see, I don’t think they mean people should avoid polyamory, but I think it is good to know and understand the risks you are taking on some level before you jump in. Some people aren’t ready for these challenges. Those people are going to struggle a lot harder with polyamory than others. Some people aren’t ready, but then rise to the occasion when the obstacle presents itself. Those people are the ones that can use polyamory for something positive. Actually, no one is really ready, but the willingness to grow, change, and keep moving, even if you are moving at a snail’s pace, is what will help you navigate your relationships, and your life in general, even if you decide polyamory isn’t your thing.  With that being said, here are some of the “ugly truths” about polyamory that people may not warn you about up front.

1) Polyamory will change you, and it will change the people you are close to.

Relationships are a mirror that help us to view ourselves through the eyes of another person. Other people are also infinitely variable, and no two people will reflect the same image back to us. As poetic and cheesy as the previous two concepts might sound, they are extremely true, and extremely relevant to anyone who enters a polyamorous relationship. The more people you have to relate to, the more you learn about the ways you relate to others, what feels good and what doesn’t, and what you really want out of life and relationships.

This can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, having more experience will help you to find more relationships that work for you, but on the other hand, the way to gain that experience is usually through making a lot of mistakes first, which can be a painful growth process (see point 3). The increased opportunities to learn raise the chances that you will be able to do more growth and actualization if you are prepared to do that kind of work, but they also raise the possibility that you and the people around you will grow into and out of relationships at different rates than anyone planned for or expected (see point 2).

Even if you ultimately decide polyamory isn’t for you, a person that you are in love with may decide it is very much for them. In that case, you will need to decide if you want to remain connected to someone who is poly while they have polyamorous relationships, see if they are willing to lead a monogamous lifestyle with you, or accept the reality that the two of you have now become incompatible, which means that you will still be leaving your polyamorous experience with a lot of changes to process and deal with.

It is a rare person or couple who can come to polyamory and walk away for any reason without having learned something new about themselves and/or their partner(s) that they can’t unsee.

2) If you enter polyamory in a relationship, even if the two of you intend to be primaries and lifemates, you are not safe from having that relationship change or end, even if neither of you does anything wrong.

Humans are humans. We change, sometimes drastically and very quickly. Our hearts are fickle, and there are many things about ourselves and the world we don’t know. No matter what our intentions are, sometimes we simply don’t know and aren’t prepared for what the world gives to us. This can mean falling out of love with someone we were absolutely convinced we’d spend the rest of our life with. This can mean falling deeply in love with a new person in a way that we never thought we could accomplish while still being in love with another.

The harsher version of this harsh truth: You should mistrust people making promises to you about “always” or “never.” They might be right, and they might be able to hold to those promises, but those promises can easily become something toxic, especially if they were made in a different mindset than the one a person is currently in. If someone promises to “always love you more than anyone else,” then it is very likely going to feel like a betrayal if they fall in love with someone on comparable if not identical levels. If someone says, “I’ll never want to have children with anyone but you,” it is likely going to feel like a betrayal if they meet someone amazing and suddenly have a strong desire to have children with that person.

These kinds of promises can also be a cage. If I promise to want to be by your side forever, I may feel guilty if I fall out of love and if I decide I want to leave. I may stay in a relationship that doesn’t feel good to me anymore (which isn’t fair to me or to you). I may feel like I have betrayed you and that I am an awful person for that.

The bottom line is that life and people are unpredictable. You may feel dead certain of something today. That doesn’t mean tomorrow is going to look like you think it will. It is better to avoid the comfort and temptation of making or asking for these kinds of promises. It is better to ask people not to make them to you and to refuse to make them yourself. Leave yourself and the people in your life room to grow. You’ll be happier for it in the long run, even if things get scary and challenging in the middle.

Now, there are some things, like treating people with respect, consent, and the best form of love they have available to them at the time, that seem like they might be reasonable to make these kinds of promises for. This is understandable. But people still fuck up. If someone acts disrespectfully, violates your consent, or treats you in cruel and unloving ways, this is already going to suck. Do you want the additional feelings of betrayal over a broken promise on top of that?

Humans are generally really bad at predicting themselves, their feelings, and their future behavior. This effect will multiply with added people. Be prepared for that. Make space for that.

3) You will likely experience more heartbreak, and it can even happen in more than one relationship at once.

Polyamory may be attractive to some people because they are looking for relationships that fill perceived gaps in their lives, or needs that aren’t being met. However, polyamory rarely acts as a fix for problems that are more adequately solved with personal growth. People may not take into account that if the possibility of one relationship ending is frightening, then it is exponentially more difficult to deal with more than one ending at the same time, or in quick succession.

This isn’t to say this is a guaranteed outcome for anyone who explores polyamory, but it is wise to make sure one is exploring polyamory for the right reasons. Polyamory will not fix insecurities, fulfill empty places in your heart, or do anything to fix an otherwise broken or toxic relationship. Polyamory is relationships on advanced mode. Instead of learning to communicate well and interact in a satisfying way with one other person, you have to learn more than one person at a time. Each individual is a universe unto themselves, and it is even more difficult to develop and maintain healthy intimacy with more than one other person than it is with one other person.

I talked in point 1 about how polyamory changes people. It is very relevant to this point as well. On top of keeping track of relationships to two other individuals that can grow and change at their own pace, you will need to be able to keep track of your own change and growth. Sometimes, you will find that you grow right out of all the relationships you are in at the moment, and that they either need to change or end for you to move forward in a healthy way. Being able to process and accept such a massive change is one of the most difficult and potentially most rewarding things that can happen in one’s life, and polyamory, in my experience, makes this sort of event far more likely to happen. It is good to be prepared, as much as one can be, for this possibility.

One of the quickest lessons many people who are new to poly learn is that you are ultimately learning how to have a good relationship with yourself. If you can’t do that, you are going to struggle to succeed in other relationships. Even though we all need love and affection and support as social creatures, we quickly learn that we can’t rely on those things from others to feel fulfilled. Learning how to self-soothe is important, especially when we take the risk of having our heart broken in more than one place at once.

4) Polyamorous people are not all enlightened relationship experts. There are still predators, otherwise toxic people, and holier-than-thou judgmental individuals in every community.

In my experience, many poly people and communities spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, how they relate to one another, and finding ways to do it all better. To an outsider coming into a community or interacting with other poly people for the first time, it can feel like you’ve stumbled into a nest of insight and enlightenment.

There almost assuredly is a lot of value and positive things to learn from these people. They probably do have perspectives you will benefit from.

However, it is good to remember that everybody grows in different areas at different paces. Someone who is incredibly enlightened and emotionally mature in one area can regress to a frustrating and childlike immaturity and irrationality in another.

Because of this, you will need to do your own work as well as learning from the work of others. You will need to learn to be able to discern the kinds of things that are right for you and what kinds of things won’t work for you at all. No one can do this for you. People you look up to might tell you you’re wrong, and they might be wrong. You won’t be able to just rely on other people to tell you how to do relationships right. Many of us are still learning. The wisest ones will recognize that, but even those people fuck up from time to time too. If something doesn’t feel right, pay attention to it. It could very well be that you have things you’re avoiding, but it could also very well be that something is wrong, even if a more experienced person is telling you everything is fine.

5) I’ve missed some pitfalls here.

These are just the main dangers that I’ve noticed that await the person trying out a polyamorous lifestyle for the first time. I’m one person, and this is a large, still-somewhat-uncharted territory. New philosophy about love and relationships is springing out of the polyamory world every day. Old philosophy that didn’t catch on right away or only caught on in isolated communities is just now finding its way to the mainstream and social media world. Not all of the mistakes have been made. I’m going to keep making mistakes. You’re going to keep making mistakes. The people you love are going to keep making mistakes. Our information will always be somewhat incomplete.

However, there is a bright side to all these hard truths, one that is a hard truth itself. They’re all necessary. The pain, the fear, the doubt, these are all tools we can work with to find our way to better selves and better relationships. Finding these truths out the “hard way” is often the best way, and sometimes the only way, to get to a much better place. As hard as these things will be to manage in their time, you can do it. If you really want to do better, none if this can stop you. If you really feel it in yourself to love not only multiple other people, but yourself as well, these are likely the price you will have to pay.

It’s been worth it for me. You are the only one that will decide if it is worth it for you.

Some Common Polyamorous Rookie Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)

Dear Polyamorous Newbies,

It’s wonderful that you have decided to try something new and scary, something that has the opportunity to expand your horizons and stretch your comfort zone. Welcome to this complex and challenging world, where you are sure to learn something about yourself and/or your relationship(s) whether polyamory becomes a lasting piece of your identity or not.

That being said, there are a number of errors that those new to polyamorous communities often make. One of the biggest and most often talked about is unicorn hunting. This is a situation where a couple decides to look for a third person to form a triad in an unequal balance of power. This is often a heterosexual couple looking for an attractive bisexual female. Since this has already been written about many times, I recommend doing some of your own reading on that subject if you aren’t already familiar about it, but I will not be focusing on that here.

What I am here to talk to you about are the things beyond unicorn hunting that don’t get as much air time, but can be just as detrimental to a smooth transition into a polyamorous lifestyle. Below are a few pieces of advice that will help you navigate the new environment you find yourself in, and understand why some of the things you might think are perfectly reasonable seem to be off-putting to other polyamorous folk.

1) Aggressive partner seeking

One thing I frequently see in people trying on a polyamorous identity for the first time is that they are incredibly enthusiastic to meet their next partner. While the freedom to partner up with someone other than your current relationship (or anyone at all if you are single) is very exciting, it is usually best to reign in that enthusiasm and instead point it in the direction of developing your polyamorous identity and figuring out what you want.

People in established poly communities will most often respond eagerly and openly to someone who is engaged in learning everything they can about polyamory, asking questions about what has worked for them in the past and what hasn’t, and actively challenging assumptions about their own ideas and relationships. They tend not to respond quite as readily to new people who are obviously just trying to get them on a date. Treat the people you meet early on in your explorations as friends and community members instead of potential partners.

This isn’t because they don’t like you. They don’t know you. Alternative communities are often tight-knit, and have a great many people in them who have learned from experience that people new to poly are prone to a lot of very predictable mistakes. It gets old being someone else’s training wheels. My advice is to take time learning from people around you as community members first, and only start approaching for dates once you’ve had a few months to develop non-sexual and non-romantic friendships within the community.

This isn’t just for the benefit of the experienced folk. Often the more experienced folk who are willing to jump right into relationships with people new to the community are predatory in nature. They might be taking advantage of someone who doesn’t know problem behaviors to watch out for and who isn’t involved in any of the drama they’ve built up for themselves. Taking some time before dating lets you observe community dynamics and maybe keep you from stepping in a land mine. Exercising patience makes it more likely that when you do make a romantic connection, it will be a better fit for you.

2) You already know exactly what you want

While it is a good idea to know what you want, rigidity about those desires is generally a bad idea, especially if you haven’t done a lot of reading about polyamory or talking to people who have actually done it. Many people who are new to poly have a significant number of preconceived notions about what will work and why, and while it isn’t always the case, they are often wrong.

While unicorn hunting is a good example, so is the idea that a particular format and particular types of rules are going to lead to a fulfilling experience or keep your current relationship safe.

One thing you are almost guaranteed to learn is that human beings are unpredictable, including you! There are probably some things you haven’t thought of that you may want, but you won’t realize it until it happens. Same goes for your partner. Same goes for the people you connect with. What happens if that new desire bumps up against an established rule? Are you and/or your partner(s) equipped to renegotiate your agreements or do the agreements have any flexibility built in for these inevitable surprises? If not, then requests to change the terms of the agreements can lead to many feelings of frustration, fear, and betrayal.

This isn’t to say you can’t have very specific things you are looking for, but also be prepared to be frustrated in your attempts to find the perfect person for the perfect relationship. The more specificity that you are searching for, the more difficult it will be to find it. People are messy. Generally, the harder you try to stuff them into a box, the more stubbornly they resist it. If you plan for this to begin with, and allow more flexibility and openness in the ways you think you can relate to others, you will likely be making things far easier for yourself and everyone else involved, even if it is a little bit scarier or seems more insecure to begin with.

3) You try to make it on your own without a community

Okay, maybe all these poly communities are just too pretentious and don’t understand you. You can stick to OKCupid and find people to date on your own.

I am sure this approach works for some people, but it is likely to be much more difficult to navigate this uncharted territory without the support, understanding, and experience that a community can offer. (Note: I am not talking to people who actually don’t have any local communities near them to interact with or for those who have found their local community to be unhealthy or toxic for them.  For individuals in that type of situation I highly recommend trying to plan to attend one of the many conferences around the country to at least participate in some classes and get a little bit of immersion in a poly world if only for a few days at a time.)

In any given community, when someone goes through a difficult experience, there is almost guaranteed to be someone who has gone through a similar experience. Having people around who have already been there once (or more than once) is an invaluable resource. These people can offer the kind of support and guidance that you may not be able to get from your monogamous social world. They also may be able to point you to professional resources that are poly-friendly in your area, like therapists and medical professionals, or even attorneys.

The note about predators above applies here too. Without community support, new people are unlikely to pick up on all the warning signs that a person might be toxic or manipulative. One way that some more toxic polyamorous people operate is by searching for freelance polyamorous folk, where they can be one of the only other poly people a person or couple knows. This is a good way to make sure the people they get involved with don’t get warned off of them before they get a chance to form an emotional attachment. If you are seeking partners outside a community setting, be careful and move slowly.

4) Getting bitter and discouraged on receiving a “No” response

Remember what I said about communities being tight-knit above? Many times, in polyamorous communities that are trying to build a healthy environment, consent culture is heavily educated and practiced. If you don’t know about this, please see this article and do plenty of your own reading up about it. This is one of the single most important pieces of information you can have when entering a poly world. Many of the things that consent culture require are not intuitive, do not come naturally to us, and go beyond just stopping when you are told “No.”

If you want to be successful in finding well-adjusted and ethical partners, you will need to learn to fully accept, respect, and even appreciate the boundaries others set with you (as well as learning to practice setting and enforcing your own). Try not to just walk away when someone tells you “No.” If you can, thank them for being truthful with you and having the courage to set boundaries for themselves. This shows that you are willing to accept and appreciate them for who they are, even if they don’t give you what you want. It also means that if this person ever does tell you “Yes” that they probably mean it, and aren’t just doing it because they feel guilty or out of a sense of obligation.

Many people over the course of their lives have been abused, or had their consent violated repeatedly by others, likely people they cared about and loved. Maybe they are still going through that now. When you act frustrated or hurt when someone declines a request you make, you are ratcheting up the price they have to pay to tell you “No.” Please don’t do this. If you experience frustration and hurt, that is a very valid response to rejection, and there is a time and a place to express these feelings. The time is not right when you receive the answer, and the place is not in front of the person you were asking. Vent to a completely uninvolved party and do it where the person who denied your request does not have to engage with it. Your emotional response to their rejection is not their problem, and you shouldn’t make it so. By taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions, you will start demonstrating to others that you are a safe person to be honest with, and it will make it more likely that people will warm up to you more quickly.

If you practice saying “Thank you” when people tell you “No,” you might be surprised at how very many “Yes” responses you start getting over time. Those who have been trained in consent culture appreciate people who ask questions or make requests and can be equally sure of themselves and content with either answer. If “Yes” is the only answer that won’t cause an issue, whether you are aware of it or not, you are engaging in manipulative behavior. Make it just as pleasant to tell you “No” as you do to tell you “Yes” and see how it works for you for a while. I think you will be pleased with the results if you do your best to make this your authentic approach.

5) Trying to make everything “equal”

Equality is a very lofty ideal, and while in some respects it is a good idea to keep in mind as you explore polyamorous relationships, in other ways it can create much more difficulty than it solves.

The things that should be equal in a polyamorous context are the amounts of respect, autonomy, and consideration as human beings that you grant to yourself and to any and all of your partners.

However, things like how much you love someone, how much time you spend with someone, and the types of activities you participate in with someone are incredibly difficult to measure and guarantee that everyone is getting an equal share.

And not everyone will want an equal share!

Perhaps you, like me, enjoy taking long walks at night for hours during the summer. I’ve had partners that have no interest in walking any more than a half mile. I don’t try to give them an equal share of long night walks with me because they don’t want it. Even if they did want it, maybe they’re slower than other people I take walks with and I don’t want to walk with them as often as I do with faster walkers. While it might be disappointing for them if I don’t want to go walking with them as much as I want to go walking with someone else, what I want to do is also important in the equation. For any activity to be truly mutually consensual, both people have to want to be doing it. This includes you!

It is good to set boundaries around how we divvy up our time, so that we make sure we are bringing our fresh and full selves to the time we spend with others. While sometimes we do things that aren’t first on our priority list in order to connect with our partners, we need to make sure that when we do this we understand that we are giving that time as a gift and not expecting our partners to do the same in return as a tit for tat. If we really don’t want to do it, or are spending time or participating in an activity with someone that we don’t really want to do on a long term and consistent basis, then we are doing damage to ourselves and our relationships. Trying for straight equality in all fields is a good way to fall into this trap.

6) Trying to convert monogamous people

Okay, so if the experienced poly people won’t date you, maybe you can just try to get involved with other people who are new to poly, or maybe you can even introduce someone to the idea.

This is also a practice that is likely to lead to drama and heartache. While you might be very excited about the brand new poly identity that you’ve discovered, and you might think it is superior to all other relationship styles, and that you are bringing gifts and knowledge to those poor uneducated monogamous folk, I would encourage you to put the brakes on.

Polyamory works best when it is approached by people who want to be there, not people who are dragged kicking and screaming, or people who just indulge someone in the hopes that this “poly phase” will pass.

Not to mention the fact that if you and/or your partner are very new to poly yourselves, then you are piling the education of a completely new person on top of your own education (and I promise you, you have plenty of your own education to do).

Again, this isn’t something that is utterly impossible, but some strategies are more successful than others, and new poly folk are generally some of the worst people to educate other new poly folk, especially if they still have a bunch of emotional things to work through with themselves and/or their partner. Which brings me back to

7) Aggressive partner seeking

This one is so important it bears repeating. Many of the mistakes above can be boiled down to this. I encourage you to view your polyamorous adventure as one of being open. Being open does not necessarily mean out looking for something. Being open means being open. Open your mind, open your heart, open your social life. Work on yourself and your already existing relationships. Make friends and carve yourself out a niche in your local community, whether it is the poly community, or a poly-friendly community that you enjoy spending time in.

It may seem like it takes an excruciatingly long time, months or even years before you have more than one partner. I implore to you take full advantage of every bit of that time you spend either single or with your existing partner. The stronger and sturdier you can make yourself, and the stronger and sturdier you can make your existing relationship, the more attractive you will become to others.

 

Sincerely,

Someone who has observed (and made) many of these mistakes

Greetings

Greetings Fellow Traveler,

It is wonderful to meet you! It is always such an honor to run into another universe of a being, a whole constellation of experiences and memories, hopes and dreams, an entity formed by the beautiful organized chaos of existence with its own unique perceptions and perspectives.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself, from the core of my being, to open the possibility that we might communicate to one another, soul to soul.

I love you.

I want you to experience all the wonderfulness life has to offer, and all the growth you are able to manage. That might mean pain and loss, but every loss makes space for something else wonderful, and I hope that is always the case for you. I want you to stand and love yourself and love others, openly, freely, wholly, and without fear.

I will do what I can to support you in this endeavor, although it may not always look like you want it to. I hope that you love me enough to tell me no, if what you need for wholeness is to refuse what I want. I will do my utmost to love you enough to tell you no, to share my truth and my honesty with you, if I cannot give what you need without destroying myself.

But I’ll make mistakes. So will you. We are human and that is what we do. That’s okay. I still love you. I can forgive you, even if I can’t return to the place we had before. I still hope that life brings you to the highest point you are capable of achieving, no matter how much pain or suffering your presence has brought to my world. Because loss is also a gift. I try to accept that gift, even if I do it imperfectly, because I want to love you enough to hear you when you say no.

I want to share what we can share together, in joy, in pain, in wonder, as long as it is mutual, as long as we both share it freely. I want to listen, to hear your stories ringing out of your heart, your magnificent beacon of being that you pour into our shared reality. These are the lifelines of our connection to one another, the way we communicate and replicate, and cross the vast distances between one being and another.

I want you to flourish. I want you to grow. I want to meet, and meet again, in the many forms we all take, in the many persons we are throughout our life, and in the ever present unfolding we live in each moment.

And I want to part ways, because at the end of it all, we each have our own paths to wander, and I would not dream to follow another’s. Nor would I steal yours from you by forcing you to walk mine. We forge our journey forward and upward, together but ever separate.

You are you. This is the best compliment I can pay you. You are everything you want to be, and everything you think yourself capable of becoming. You have already touched my life, and I have touched yours. Our fates have collided and who knows for how briefly or how long? But now we have seen each other.

If we are never to meet again, farewell. I will hold you in my unconscious memory if not my conscious one. You have been the flapping of a butterfly’s wings into my world, whether you were ever aware of it or not.

If we are destined to share some bit of life together, I look forward to knowing more of you, even as I know I can never know all of you, nor you all of me. For we are all ever shifting beings, and keeping up with ourselves is challenging enough.

Thank you for the gift of your presence. Thank you for the gift of your absence. Thank you for being you and for the place you hold in my world and any other. Thank you for the lessons you teach me, the pleasures you bring me, and the pain you show me I’m strong enough to endure.

I love you.

Just Because

Ablaze

Sneaking into my head again
Unbidden
Tantalizing pieces of fantasy
Imagined things
No matter how often I banish them
It is never long
Before I am again ensnared
Daydreaming
Lost in thought

And now
With words reaching out to me
Buttons pushed
And suggestions more maddeningly insistent
I find myself caught
Again and again
In delicious fragments
Of the delightful things I can imagine
And even these
Enough to catch my breath
To stun me momentarily

What, then, is the reality to be?
When my senses are flooded
With those things I cannot successfully create within my mind
Smells
Touches
Presence
When the keening builds to a fever pitch
An unbearable, unrelenting burning
That threatens to tear my sanity from me

What overwhelming blaze are we to ignite?
Scintillating stroking
Eliciting tingling electric energy
Charging heart pounding
Dissolution
Into waves of ecstasy
Blending boundaries
Becoming
Joining
Joy

We fight fire with fire
Should we be concerned
Playing with flames like this?
Remembering what we must
To enjoy the heat
The light
The beauty
And destroying only that which wants oblivion.

This is something I wrote while solidly in new relationship energy with a long distance partner at the time.  I hadn’t been able to meet them face to face yet, but I was very eager to do so.  He and I communicated mainly via email, and sometimes wrote poetry back and forth to each other.  While the relationship ended before we could meet, I still love this poem as one of the spicier things I’ve written.  🙂

Bigger Than This

Shackled and chained
Throughout my life
Guilt my master
You should do this
You must do that
This is your duty

Fighting at first
But always knocked down
Punished
This is for your own good

Tired of struggling
Succumbing now
To believe I’m wrong
I’m wrong
Something in me is dirty and wrong
I must be wrong
Stop trying to make sense of it

Until like a circus elephant
Internalized the mantra
The chain is there with my permission
I don’t know any different
I believe it is right
To use my power to escape these chains
That would be selfish
That would be wrong
Even if I could
I shouldn’t

Until a gentle lupine figure
Loping into my life
Neatly dodging chains
Unaffected
Brazen
Strong

And sees me

And says

You’re bigger than this

Terrifying words
Soft spoken gentle resonance
Growing within in pitch and volume
Until they rattle and shake through everything that is me
Demanding freedom
Resounding inexorably through heart and soul

This is right!

The chains are wrong
The masters are wrong
I’m no longer too small
Too weak to defend myself
Too scared to try

You’re bigger than this

Ready now to own my self
To stand up
To speak clearly
To stop accepting chain after chain
To break them with the ease I know is possible
With the strength that has always lived in me

I was the only one who could hold me down
I was the only one who could reign me in
This is why they taught me to do so
No more

You’re bigger than this

Yes I am.

This is a poem I wrote in honor of a person that is very special to me.  I was going through a very chaotic and painful time in my life, and as I started telling this person some of what was happening to me, they looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re bigger than this.  This is pretty bad, but you’re bigger than this.”  Those words stuck with me through all the following months, any time I wanted to doubt myself or give up.  These were the words that finally gave me the strength to start believing in myself, and to hold on to that in the face of what seemed like an insurmountable series of losses.  Thank you.