Dangerously Pretending That You’re Separate From Your Body

Maybe at some point I’ll write a longer post about this. For now, I just want to point out strong tendencies I’m seeing on multiple fronts – in commentary on sexuality, pregnancy, dieting, surgery, and other topics – where the body gets treated as something separate from you as a person.

The tendency to think of the body as an inert meat sack. Or as a mere machine. Or simply as a glove you’re wearing, nothing more. That the “real you” isn’t connected to your body.

That you can have all kinds of things done to your body or do all kinds of things to your body – physical harm, modifications, deprivations of different kinds, sexual acts you’re gritting your teeth to endure, the commodification of organs or the body as a whole – and that somehow this will leave your mental well-being untouched. (Or at least, you can move on quickly if you just don’t think about it too much.)

Ignoring the body is easier than ever with all the distractions around you. Is your body persistently sending you signals that you’re always ignoring? Even if you think your body is “misfiring” in some way – for instance, warning you of a danger that you don’t think exists – it’s still important to make note of how your body communicates with you. Maybe the danger is legitimate. Or maybe you’re experiencing an anxiety that you need to learn how to understand and soothe. Regardless, it’s important to engage with yourself. Ignoring your body isn’t a long-term solution. Any underlying problems don’t go away.

Talking about the body sometimes gets you accused of “reducing people to body parts,” but this usually isn’t the case. The body is made up of complex, interconnected systems, which of course include the brain. People’s experiences of worthiness (vs. degradation) and well-being are deeply connected to their bodies. Mistreatment, whether from others or perpetuated by the self, undermines the self.

Excessive Tribalism Enables Abuse

Whenever a new report emerges about an abuse scandal in some community or organization, a common reaction is a tribalistic “us vs. them.” For instance:

“How horrible! That sort of thing would never happen in my community.”

or

“That’s terrible. But of course it’s going to happen among [people of a certain religion, political leaning, race, sexuality, ethnic group, nationality, or profession].”

A distancing mechanism comes into play. People acknowledge that sexual abuse or other kinds of abuse have occurred. But the main reason they’re fine with talking about it is because the problem lies with some other group, or perhaps with an individual they never really liked.

What happens when it occurs among people they feel an affinity for? (Such as congregants or leaders at their religious institution, popular athletes they admire at their school or in major league sports, politicians or celebrities they love, a long-standing volunteer at a respected charity, a political activist who rails against injustice, or a local business leader who’s an upstanding citizen in their small town.) What happens when the abuse emerges close to home?

In that scenario, the reactions are much more likely to involve:

  • Looking the other way or actively covering up the abuse, including blocking or derailing an investigation into it.
  • Calling abuse something other than abuse, to make it seem weaker or more sanitized. Sometimes saying things like, “Nobody’s perfect, ok?”
  • Dismissing, vilifying, misrepresenting, harassing, and/or threatening victims. Coming up with justifications for why the victims “deserved it” in some way. Doesn’t really matter how much strong, compelling evidence emerges to support the victims’ claims.
  • Making excuses for perpetrators (“so-and-so was under a lot of stress or struggling with some psychological issue, and they’ve done a lot of good, so maybe this one thing isn’t such a big deal…”). Generally showing much more mercy for the perpetrators than the victims.
  • A refusal to see any patterns of institutional coverup or abuse-enabling norms by claiming that the perpetrator is just “one bad apple.” And if more perpetrators crop up, they’re just more bad apples. Apparently these bad apples exist in a vacuum.

Virtually no community is free of abuse or the potential for it. It doesn’t matter how virtuous, just, kind, or moral you think your group is. What allows for abuse to go unchecked?

  • When you have power differentials and a lack of accountability and scrutiny.
  • When there are certain groups or individuals deemed above reproach, untouchable in some way (they can “do no wrong,” they should not be questioned, their behavior can be downplayed or excused entirely).
  • When the reputation of the group/community/organization and everything they stand for is deemed much more important than the trauma and profound betrayal of victims.
  • When people have invested so much of their identity in someone or something that they don’t allow themselves to confront the possibility of abuse. It would damage the affiliations they use to help define themselves.
  • When people are afraid to speak out in favor of an investigation or in defense of the victims because they’ll be socially ostracized, financially damaged, or threatened with violence by other members of the group.

Excessive loyalty to a group makes life much easier for perpetrators of abuse. They know which roles or positions will deflect scrutiny or vest them with authority and a sufficient degree of power. They can determine when people are likely to look away and deny what’s happening. They know what language to use (such as religious pieties or political jargon) to downplay the abuse or wave it away with a superficial resolution (such as a weak apology or call for immediate reconciliation) that silences the victims.

And if abuse is something that can only happen somewhere else, perpetrated by people who aren’t like you in some key way, it continues unchecked. Outsiders can help uncover the abuse, but an investigation becomes much harder without the cooperation of a group or organization.

It’s possible to feel loyal to a group while remaining aware of the following:
– The potential for abuse exists in pretty much any community or institution.
– Perpetrators of abuse often don’t appear to be outwardly monstrous, but may in fact be individuals who are largely admired, respected, or well-liked.
– The extent to which you like someone often has little to do with whether or not they’re capable of abuse. (Perpetrators of abuse may be quite nice to people generally – though obviously not to their victims.)
– It can hurt badly or be painfully disillusioning to face evidence of abuse. However, looking away from it or actively quashing an investigation into it is extremely harmful. In many cases, it’s possible to preserve a group while instituting better safeguarding measures. An abuse scandal can be an opportunity for meaningful reforms in policies and practices. Victims don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping certain people free of accountability or maintaining the illusion that everything is just fine as it is.

Does Hitting Something Else Stop You From Hitting Yourself?

Self-harm can take on many forms. Among them are self-inflicted slaps and punches.

Even with the pain, bruises, and possibility of internal injuries or permanent damage, stopping this behavior can be difficult:

  • The self-inflicted hitting may have already become habitual or compulsive.
  • The behavior has been serving as a reliable (though damaging) way of coping with overwhelming emotions, such as intense fear, anger, and self-loathing.
  • The idea of seeking help often fills people with shame or embarrassment.

One way to resist and weaken the impulse to self-harm is to come up with other techniques that replace the self-harm behavior (e.g. squeezing a stress ball, doing jumping jacks, taking deep breaths and counting them, repeating a mantra or talking to yourself until the urge to harm yourself fades). Sometimes, the suggestions include hitting something else – some soft object – to avoid hurting yourself.

Does Hitting Something Else Work?

Some people try to avoid hitting themselves by hitting a pillow, couch cushion, or mattress. This seems like a good idea, and of course it’s better to hit the cushion instead of your own leg, arm, or head. But reacting to intense emotions by hitting things, even objects, doesn’t necessarily help in the long run.

The underlying association between ‘overwhelming emotion’ and ‘hit something’ may become reinforced and strengthened, and you could wind up turning it on yourself again. In the absence of a soft object, you might punch a wall and injure yourself.

Also, people often assume that hitting objects will calm them, when instead it may inflame their underlying emotions even more, making them angrier or more upset. So be careful about using this as a long-term strategy – especially as a solo strategy, and especially if you don’t want to rely on any sort of hitting as a coping technique.

This advice isn’t absolute. For example, you may find that a workout with a punching bag helps you a lot. However, there’s a difference between 1) incorporating an exercise routine into your life that you commit to even in moments when you aren’t overwhelmed by emotions and 2) heavily relying on hitting during the intense, overwhelming, and painful moments that prompt self-harm behaviors (and you’re not always going to have a punching bag nearby, though maybe a bit of shadow boxing is one alternative in that scenario).

Another point to consider is whether the hitting is part of something constructive. For example, some people cope by making something out of clay. The sensations of punching, kneading, and squeezing clay gives them some relief. Maybe this is better than hitting a pillow, because you’re creating something with the clay. The hitting is part of a productive, creative act.

In any case, here are some additional points to think about:

– Be aware of the possibility that punching other things may have drawbacks (though again, it’s better to lay into a pillow than your own body).
– Try to stay attuned to what you’re feeling when you rely on the strategy of punching or hitting something else. It may be helpful to some degree, particularly as a form of immediate release. But maybe you don’t feel much calmer or in control for long, if at all, because there’s still a difference between reacting to emotions in a less controlled way vs. responding to them with more control. And the underlying problems remain.
– Develop additional strategies for managing self-harm behaviors. Confront the issues underlying your self-harm and how you understand and respond to emotions. Speaking to a reputable, compassionate therapist or counselor can definitely help, or you can start by texting a helpline or calling one (this is something that can be done fairly quickly, even in the middle of intense emotions).

When You Tell Yourself “I Shouldn’t Be Feeling This Way”

“I shouldn’t be feeling this way” is a common thought. The question is what to do with it.

Whether or not you “should” be feeling a certain way is less important than what you’re going to do with the feeling. You recognize that you’re feeling angry or sad or envious or gleefully vindictive. Or maybe you’re not feeling anything at all in a situation that seems to call for strong emotion. What follows?

If you start to dwell too much on whether you should or shouldn’t be experiencing a certain emotion, a few things usually happen:

  • Your stress levels go up more. An additional layer of stress settles over a stressful situation.
  • You feel guilty, inadequate, unworthy, or strange.
  • You get distracted from thinking of ways to best respond to your emotion and to the situation you’re in.

It doesn’t help that sometimes other people tell you what you should be feeling. Depending on what the situation is, they may want you to feel love or happiness or grief, and when you don’t meet their expectations, they don’t react well.

Focusing too much on the “shoulds” isn’t helpful. You feel a certain way. Rather than beat yourself up over the feeling itself, think about what you can do with it.

Maybe what you need is to just keep going about your daily routine. Other times, you may need to talk to someone you trust, and sometimes you may need to reach out for urgent help. In many cases, what helps is to write, draw, go for a walk, listen to music, garden, read, knit, hug someone who will welcome your hug, work on a project, or sign up to volunteer in your community. You may need to develop habits of thinking and behavior that help you with overwhelming emotions. (For example, some people find that unplugging from social media for a while helps them become more calm and level-headed when confronting various problems in their lives.)

Brooding on “should,” however, doesn’t help you change anything. Standards of “should” may be arbitrary or based on ideas you don’t have to subscribe to. An unusual reaction to something isn’t necessarily a sign of a mental health issue (and if it is, beating yourself up over it won’t help). Experiencing emotions that are ungenerous or crude doesn’t mean that you’re compelled to act on such feelings or that your feelings will never change. Also, you don’t have to feel a certain way simply because of your sex, race, or other demographic characteristics. Even if the people around you all express the same kinds of emotions or sentiments, the reality is messier. They aren’t all feeling the same way, definitely not all the time.

“But I shouldn’t feel this way…” Whether you “should” or “shouldn’t,” the fact is, you do. So what do you do next?

Progress Washed Away During Lockdown

Along with the threat of the disease itself, one of the great challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is how it has washed away people’s progress in different areas.

– Savings eroded or gone.
– Businesses run to the ground.
– Carefully planned projects that need to be abandoned, maybe never to be picked up again.
– People who have just started to become healthier in some way, physically or mentally, only to find themselves slipping (or crashing).

One person I know who has social anxiety made some efforts in recent months to get out of the house more. She started attending meetings of some local groups that share her hobbies. Since the lockdown, she has been struggling in isolation, and the gains she made regarding her anxiety feel largely illusory, as if they happened to someone else.

(Although there are video tools for connecting with people, and these tools may be better than nothing, they aren’t a substitute for in-person interaction. I’ve found this to be the case myself. Also, video calls can be mentally draining – the Harvard Business Review offers some advice on how to deal with “Zoom fatigue.”)

To the heartbreak, frustration, or despair that may result from the COVID-19 crisis – including its social and financial effects – there are obviously no simple answers. It can be stressful enough if your daily schedule has changed or you had to cancel certain plans. But I’m thinking right now about people whose hold on the world may be made more fragile because of the crisis. People cut adrift, with relationships severed, major opportunities lost, and progress seemingly reversed.

One thing that may help (at least a little) is to provide yourself with written reminders – in a journal, for example – about who you are, what you have done, what you hope for, and how you promise to give yourself time to get through this day by day. When there’s a massive amount of stress in your life, it’s easy to lose sight of many things, to disregard yourself, and to forget your capabilities and potential. Your current emotions may be so terrible and overwhelming that you can’t think of how they’ll ever end, even though they won’t last forever. You may not be able to see how your current situation could ever improve, but you don’t have all the answers (even though discouragement or despair may offer you answers that seem definitive).

Reminding yourself of who you are can also help you remember the ways in which you’ve been healing and the ways you have met particular goals in the past. Even if you’re feeling lost now, you aren’t starting from absolutely nothing. You may be struggling with the types of problems that have dragged you down before, but you bring with you more wisdom from your previous experiences and some evidence of how things can improve – if not immediately, then one day. You’ve managed to do it before. Will it be harder the second (or third) time around? What will restarting look like? Are you trapped? Write down your thoughts, and keep your thoughts flexible. The answers may change over time. You don’t know for sure.

If you’re keeping a journal, and you don’t think you can write anything about yourself at the moment, then maybe just write today’s date. Then tomorrow’s date. Maybe a short line with each entry. I’ve done that on days when I didn’t think I could write more, and sometimes that’s how you mark the day and step forward into the next one.

Keeping a journal doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t magically restore a lost job or shattered career. But if it helps in any way – helps you fight off bouts of despair or cope with the feeling that your life is horribly unreal – it could be worth a try. In ways you aren’t able to picture clearly or even conceive of at the moment, you may be able to regain at least some of what you’ve lost or discover or create something new.

(It’s also worth mentioning that you can rant on paper if you need to. Some people sit for 10-15 minutes and write down their anxieties, their rage, their grief, and then tear the paper up into tiny bits and throw it away. This exercise could become an outlet for releasing some of what’s in you, removing and destroying it so it possibly has less of a hold on your mind.)

Coping With a Pandemic When You (Think You) Have No One

The COVID-19 crisis is marked by turmoil, grief, and anxiety for many people. Having others to rely on during this time can mean a world of difference in how you’re coping. But what if you’re alone? (Or truly feel yourself to be alone?)

There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for dealing with social isolation and related problems. Your age, health, job, and living arrangement are among the factors affecting what will work for you and what won’t. But I’m going to offer some potentially useful links here. If you have some suggestions of your own, please share.

The following links apply to people in the U.S., where I live. If you’re outside of the U.S., you can use these for ideas when looking for analogous services in your country.

What Does It Mean to Be a Warrior of the Increments?

In recent years, I’ve been encouraging myself to get into the mindset and habits of a Warrior of the Increments. (Putting it in caps makes it sound like an official title that’s going to stick, and I hope it does.) But what do I mean?

– A Warrior of the Increments places secondary importance on grand gestures and primary importance on the small tasks and day-to-day efforts that may not seem like much when looked at separately but that do amount to something much more over time.

– These smaller efforts help change bad habits and sustain better ones. They help you work towards goals and create conditions in which well-being, understanding, and success are more likely to be the outcomes.

– Generally, the most difficult battles you have in life are with spiritual inertia, self-destructive habits, the sluggishness of the mind, and the frailty of the body. Working on changes, bit by bit, is crucial.

– A Warrior of the Increments doesn’t think only in terms of all-or-nothing battles. Sometimes you are fighting alongside something, not merely against it. Other times, you’re settling down for diplomatic talks and negotiating a workable peace.

– A warrior of this kind is very much a “one foot in front of the other” type.

Deliberately Choosing Life, Every Day (A Response to a Hoagland Essay)

I’m writing this post for a reading challenge, Deal Me In (hosted at this blog). Though it’s difficult to write it at the moment, because of what’s going on with the pandemic and the serious economic problems we’re facing, I find blogging helpful, so I’m keeping at it in between various obligations.

Edward Hoagland’s essay, “Heaven and Nature,” deals with a topic people tend not to want to think about: suicide. His meditation on suicide encompasses everyone, including people who don’t – at least outwardly – appear to be troubled by anything.

Our faces are not molded as if joy were a preponderant experience. (Nor is a caribou’s or a thrush’s.) Our faces in repose look stoic and battered, and people of the sunniest temperament sometimes die utterly unstrung, doubting everything they have ever believed in or have done.

The bleak discussion of human nature is tempered somewhat by Hoagland’s matter-of-fact tone. And in the bleakness of this essay, there are some kernels of light.

He discusses what it takes to negotiate the cracks and fissures of the self and of life. Sometimes it’s a matter of not dwelling too much on misery. Love and prayer are other answers. However, he doesn’t present them as a quick fix. Meaning to say, if you pray, you need to work out, over time, what prayer means to you, what you believe in, what you think can sustain you. This may not be the same from one year to another, or one decade of your life to another. Similarly, with love – habits of love are key to making love a powerful force. You need to stay open to “new and sudden insights” and/or engage in a “long practice” of love. And this can mean love in different forms, not limited to a romantic relationship.

He also talks about the urge to achieve a unity with something larger, to transcend the self, and for nature itself to be wedded to Heaven. However, this unity is also something to grapple with, to sustain or work towards actively. There are no guarantees of complete freedom from harrowing doubt.

Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a self-help essay. It’s not an easy read either, and Hoagland isn’t doling out solutions (and especially not one-size-fits-all sorts of solutions). Reading this essay can be a challenge, and may not be for everyone in every frame of mind.

I think what helps sustain me is the belief in the meaning of life and holiness of life. Not to regard people as sentient sacks of meat or bags of water, as organic trash. Seeing the moments of life, day to day, as holy and meaningful requires active practice and choice, habits that you develop and that hopefully don’t become merely rote. It also involves some flexibility and adjustment over time. To not let yourself dry up spiritually is a matter of deliberate, consistent effort. And if you do dry up spiritually, to not proclaim that you’ve reached your end. Instead, to keep walking through that desert, experiencing the desert and finding meaning in it (which is not the same thing as finding happiness). And staying open to the possibility that the landscape will change or that you will find things in that desert that are still meaningful, wondrous even.

I write this as someone who’s religious. Religion itself is a regular practice, a deep grappling. It isn’t a source of pat answers, though the practice of it may become stale and crumble into clichés. Regardless of what religion you practice – or whether you even consider yourself religious – you need to find what it is that sustains you and then sustain it through repeated choice, through practices that you may need to alter as the years pass. What are your relationships with others, with the world, with what transcends you? If you don’t know, keep thinking about it. Keep searching, and be patient. Keep choosing life.

It’s interesting how an essay that deals with a grim topic can bring out a response that affirms life, but it had that effect on me, even with an awareness of the doubting, the fear, the darkness.

YouTube Exercise Channel Recommendation: Koboko Fitness

I recently discovered Koboko Fitness, and while I haven’t tried every workout video, I like the ones I’ve used so far.

– There are a variety of exercises and routines.

– The routines vary in length. Some may be 5-10 minutes, while others are half an hour. I like that, because sometimes if I have a free 10 minutes or just want to take a break from work, I can fit a shorter routine into my schedule.

– For some of the exercises, you may want to have dumbbells, but they aren’t strictly required. A yoga mat or towel can be helpful for floor exercises, but you don’t need to go out and buy any equipment to participate.

– You sometimes get presented with low-impact and high-impact versions of the same exercise. Depending on your fitness level or how you’re feeling on a given day, you may want to go with one or the other. You can also introduce your own intensity level – for example, instead of doing a wall push-up, do a regular push-up on the floor if you can. Or if you don’t want to jump your feet out during a burpee, maybe walk them out and then back in.

– The instructor and creator of the channel is a positive, encouraging person who is dedicated without being a fanatic.

– Although the channel is geared towards women, there are many exercises (maybe even all of them?) that men could benefit from. So if you’re a guy who wants to try out some of the routines, go right ahead (during a workout, you might get called a “beautiful goddess,” but maybe you can cope with that).

Here’s one routine I did today:

Here’s another good one:

And if you’re wondering, no, I’m not affiliated with Koboko Fitness, and I haven’t been paid anything for this post.

A Book for Boomers (but Not Only Boomers)

I recently read 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White, even though I’m a couple of decades younger than 55. Although the book might be most useful to Americans of the Boomer generation, the reader’s age isn’t so important, because people younger than that (and some in the 75+ crowd) might benefit from it as well.

55underemployed

What brought me to the book to begin with? I happened to see it at the library and read through its section on employment issues (fewer full-time jobs with benefits and pensions, more part-time/contractual/freelancing/gig work, and age discrimination in hiring practices), and then I checked it out.

I recommend it as a kind of ‘starter guide,’ as it addresses a number of important issues, including:

  • Social isolation, shame, and anxiety.
  • Options for more affordable housing, along with things that need to change, such zoning restrictions that don’t suit current needs.
  • What to do if you don’t have enough saved for retirement (most Americans don’t have nearly enough).
  • What to do, and how to cope, if you aren’t finding a good job or any job.
  • Finding the right mindset for making your life worth living and meeting the difficulties head on, even if your life isn’t turning out the way you expected it to.

Anyone can use this book to plan for future problems or find insights into current difficulties. One of the book’s strengths is the number of resources the author shares – a large number of organizations and their websites covering all kinds of areas, including assistance with work and housing.

I also liked the author’s tone. It’s compassionate, firm, and straightforward. She obviously supports taking responsibility for your life, but she also doesn’t ignore various issues that people don’t have control over (such as the recession of 2008). She’s a level-headed person, and she’s clear about the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for each problem she discusses. You might read through this book and find little that helps you, but even if you get one or two ideas for what to do next, it could be worth it.

The book is also full of short, often moving contributions from other people. Sometimes, they share their struggles, and you can commiserate. Other times, they share solutions for what works for them.

It’s worth checking this book out.