7 Subtle Signs Your Trauma Response is to ‘Fawn’

Last month, I wrote about the fourth type of trauma response — not fight, flight, or even freeze, but fawn.

The term was first coined by therapist and survivor Pete Walker, who wrote about it in his groundbreaking book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.” And let me tell you, as a concept, it thoroughly changed the game for me.

In a nutshell, “fawning” is the use of people-pleasing to diffuse conflict, feel more secure in relationships, and earn the approval of others.

It’s a maladaptive way of creating safety in our connections with others by essentially mirroring the imagined expectations and desires of other people.

Often times, it stems from traumatic experiences early on in life, as I described in last month’s article.

It resonated with so many you, and since then, I’ve gotten a lot of questions on how to recognize this type of response in ourselves, particularly in our day-to-day interactions.

I can only speak from personal experience, but there are a number of commonalities among “fawn” types that I think are worth noting.

I’m going to share seven struggles that a lot of us seem to experience as people-pleasers. If it sounds familiar, you, my friend, probably know a thing or two about fawning.

1. You struggle to feel ‘seen’ by others.

If you’re a fawn type, you’re likely very focused on showing up in in a way that makes those around you feel comfortable, and in more toxic relationships, to avoid conflict.

But the downside to this is that you’re not necessarily being your most authentic self. The more you fawn and appease others, the more likely you are to feel unknown to others, even in your close relationships.

If no one sees your authentic self, it can lead to feelings of being misunderstood, and even resenting the fact that no one really “sees” you.

The painful irony is that often times, you’re the one obscuring their ability to see you in the first place.

2. You don’t know how to say ‘no’ to people.

Fawn types are almost always stretched thin. This is because we’re so eager to make others happy, we blurt out “of course!” and “yes!” before it even occurs to us to say “I can’t right now” or “no thanks.”

Your catchphrase might even be something like “it’s no trouble at all, really!”

Meanwhile, you’re silently dreading the mountain of favors you’ve signed up for — a list that only seems to get longer as the day wears on.

You’ve got a love/hate relationship with being helpful, and no matter how many times you try to break up with the word “yes,” saying “no” just doesn’t come naturally to you.

3. You’re either spewing emotions out of nowhere or unloading them onto distant strangers.

This might seem paradoxical, but it’s not, if you really think about it.

You want to make those closest to you happy, which means you’re reluctant to open up when you’re struggling — so you only do so when you’re on the brink of totally breaking down, because you’ve held it all in for far too long.

On the other hand, distance makes it easier to have feelings, too.

Which is why people we’ve just met can suddenly become as intimate as a best friend in a single conversation (and why I became a blogger, let’s be real).

A kind stranger in a bar? Sure, I’ll tell you all about my trauma. Oh, here’s a Twitter thread about the worst thing that ever happened to me. Here’s a frightening Facebook SOS— I mean, status.

We need an outlet for our emotions, but having emotions can be sooo off-putting, right? So we unload them onto people we aren’t yet invested in, that we won’t see again, or where a safe distance (like on social media) is in place.

That way, if someone bails on us for being messy or “too much” — otherwise known as being human — it stings less, and the stakes don’t feel as high.

4. You feel guilty when you’re angry at other people.

You might make a lot of excuses for the lousy behavior of other people, defaulting to self-blame. You might get angry, only to feel like an Actual Monster for having feelings at all five minutes later. You might even feel like you’re not “allowed” to be upset with other people.

I did this just recently when I was almost hit by a car, and immediately went to a place of wondering if I’d simply misunderstood what happened.

It’s pretty hard to “misunderstand” someone hitting the gas pedal when you’re crossing in front of their car, but I was convinced that somehow, some way, it had to be my fault.

If you struggle to get mad at people, opting instead to blame yourself or justify someone’s cruddy behavior, you’re actually fawning — because you’re pushing your feelings down, and rewriting the story, all in an effort to appease the other person involved.

5. You feel responsible for other people’s reactions.

Whenever I recommend a restaurant or a book to someone, there’s a moment or two of intense panic. “What if they hate it?” I wonder. “What if it’s not as good as I remember?”

Sometimes I just let other people make decisions on where we go and what we do together, because if something goes awry, it won’t be because I “failed” to make a good choice.

I once felt guilty because a friend of mine spent thirty minutes looking for parking near the cafe I chose to meet them at. As if I somehow control whether or not a parking space is available.

It’s a little nuts if you think about it, right? Because you can’t arrange someone else’s tastebuds, magically know their book preferences, or anticipate whether or not that art exhibit you want to see is actually worth going to.

Yet I take a ridiculous amount of responsibility for whether or not people are having a good time — so much so that I forget that I’m supposed to be enjoying myself, too.

This is just another sneaky manifestation of the “fawn” response in action (and a dash of codependency added in there, for good measure).

We’re trying to anticipate someone else’s happiness, because deep down, we feel responsible for it — and are trying everything in our power to ensure that the people we care about aren’t disappointed.

6. You find yourself compromising your values.

This can be difficult to notice at first. You might think of yourself as being agreeable, good at compromise, easy to get along with. But if you pay attention to the conversations you’re having, you might notice you’re a little too agreeable — to the point of validating viewpoints that you don’t really, fully agree with.

Sometimes it’s benign things, like saying you don’t have a preference for where you get dinner when you actually do. Other times it’s a deeper issue, like validating a perspective or behavior that you don’t agree with.

“Sure, the sexism in that movie really only bothered me a little bit, but you’re so right, the cinematography was top-notch.” “Oh yeah, she probably isn’t being a good friend to you, I can see why you sent that angry text.”

If you find yourself sitting on the fence as not to upset anyone, you’re likely fawning to some degree — and it might be time to self-reflect on whether or not you feel okay continuing to do so.

7. You sometimes dissociate in social situations.

Fawning often requires that we shut down emotionally. The less we have distinct feelings of our own, the easier it is to adapt to and accommodate the emotions of other people.

Sometimes this can lead to dissociating, where we disconnect emotionally. This can show up as daydreaming, spacing out, withdrawing, or even “going blank” when we’re overwhelmed in social situations.

This is also why fawn types can relate so much to other trauma responses, like flight or freeze.

If we feel that “fawning” is failing us in an argument, that it won’t work with a particular person, or that we just don’t know how to please someone, we might check out emotionally, or rely on other “escapist” mechanisms so that we no longer have to engage.

We’re more prone to anything that involves dissociation because we’re already distancing ourselves from our own emotions for the sake of others.

Sound familiar?

I think I need to put “Fawning Isn’t Fun” on a t-shirt or something, because it’s true: It sucks.

It can be painful to constantly silence yourself and push your emotions away, all while working overtime to anticipate the emotions of other people.

A number of people have asked of fawning, “Isn’t this manipulative?” But I think that misses the point. It’s disempowering, it stems from pain, and guilt is simply not an effective way of motivating people to unpack their trauma and show up differently for the people they care about.

But hopefully, if you start by noticing these patterns in your life, and have the opportunity to work with an awesome therapist, you can begin to reorient yourself toward a more authentic, fulfilling way of connecting with others.

Looking for more?

If you’re looking for more about fawning and how to challenge it, in addition to reading Pete’s book and the articles I’ve published around this, I also put together a zine for my patrons on Patreon that offers some actionable advice!

The zine includes writing prompts and guidance on how to notice this mechanism as it relates to your own life. And it’s really pretty, so if you’re a design nerd like me, you’ll probably appreciate it.

A lot of you have asked if you could chip in to support my work. Supporting me on Patreon is the best way to ensure that I can keep creating free mental health resources, so hop on over if you’re interested!

Either way, please know that I’m right there with you in this messy, complicated journey. It does get easier, though — I can promise you that.

And for what it’s worth, I’m proud of every one of you for taking steps to show up differently. It’s tough work, but you deserve to feel whole and seen in every relationship you have.

You work so hard to offer that compassion to others — why not offer that to yourself?

Sam Dylan Finch is the blogger behind Let’s Queer Things Up!, where he writes about mental health, body positivity, and LGBTQ+ identity. He’s also the Editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline.

As an advocate, he’s passionate about building community for people in recovery. You can find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, or learn more at samdylanfinch.com.

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash.

7 (Totally Wrong) Reasons I Didn’t Think I Had An Eating Disorder

When I was diagnosed with an eating disorder, there was one question I just couldn’t get out of my head: “How did I miss this?”

Coming out of denial has been such a terrifying process. It’s like discovering that I’d fallen asleep at the wheel, and, eyes open now, I’m forced to assess the damage I can’t even remember causing.

One minute, I swear, I was on the road — the next, there are wires attached to my chest, and I’m getting an EKG and wondering how the hell I got there.

The shock comes in waves, and some triggers feel more sensitive than others. My stomach drops every time I hear my dietician say the word “refeeding.” I cringe when a doctor says “starvation.” They feel like heavy words, too grim, and the gravity hasn’t set in for me just yet.

I can’t decide what scares me more — the fact that I’m so malnourished that I have to reintroduce my body to food, as though we’re strangers to one another, or that my fear of food still, at times, outweighs my fear of destroying my own body.

How could I have fallen this far down the rabbit hole and not noticed?

I want to share what I’ve realized about my own denial, not just to get it off my chest, but because I think it speaks to the larger issue of how eating disorders are characterized.

Because as I began to unpack the reasons why I missed the signs, one thing became obvious: It’s not that I missed it.

It’s that our culture never gave me the tools to recognize an eating disorder in the first place.

1. My eating disorder wasn’t as ‘obvious’ as I thought it would be.

My eating disorder didn’t present in what I considered the “typical” way.

I wasn’t obsessively weighing myself, I wasn’t counting every calorie that I consumed, and I hated exercise. I didn’t cry if I ate a slice of pizza or have a deep-seated fear of butter. I didn’t fit the stereotype, which made the denial much easier to cling to.

My relationship to food and my body, though, was still dysfunctional.

Food caused me so much anxiety — the decisions involved, the binary of “good” and “bad” foods, having “too much” of something and “too little” of something else, and all the pressure of making the “right” choice.

Even with all of that anxiety, I pointed to the fact that I wasn’t trying to lose weight as “proof” I didn’t have an ED. I just wanted to stay exactly the same — which I insisted wasn’t about my body image or a fear of fat.

If I was always just a little hungry, I reasoned, I could prevent my body from ever changing. No one told me that an obsession with size, even if it’s not about getting smaller, is still an obsession rooted in a fear of fat.

Basic things like cooking or even looking in the pantry could send me spiraling. That anxiety led to cycles of restricting, in which I would eat very little, just to avoid the obsessive, overwhelming thoughts that emerged each and every time I had to make a decision around food.

It escalated, too, to the point of being unable to feed my own cats, for fear of making the “wrong choice” for them.

My partner is still solely responsible for determining what our cats eat and giving them food, because the panic I felt about their diets became too unmanageable for me.

My eating disorder also wasn’t as static as I expected. I had periods of time that I ate more, but as my life stressors increased, my restricting did, too. I thought eating disorders had to be constant and consistent, and mine wasn’t. I figured that let me off the hook, because it was “just stress.”

All of this is still dysfunctional, but in my mind, I could only picture the stereotypes that I had heard. I could eat pizza and ice cream! I could eat takeout! I wasn’t vomiting!

I was quick to point to the things that normalized my behavior, but eager to deny the things that were clearly disordered.

2. My body didn’t ‘look’ sick.

The one thing that still boggles my mind about eating disorders is that they truly have a mind of their own.

I knew, logically, that eating disorders can impact anyone of any body size. But I still denied having a problem, because the body that I saw in the mirror didn’t look emaciated.

Where was my terrifying “before” picture? And even if I tried to get help, who would believe me if I wasn’t “thin enough”?

But eating disorders don’t describe a type of body — they describe a specific relationship to food and to our bodies that causes psychological distress.

It took a long time before I was willing to accept that my body didn’t reflect whether or not I had an eating disorder; my state of mind did.

3. Everyone around me had disordered eating.

Disordered eating is everywhere. Skipping meals, weight loss resolutions, detoxes and fasts, even smoothies that replace meals are totally ubiquitous and, at times, inescapable.

When you’re immersed in diet culture, recognizing that you have an eating disorder can be impossible when everyone around you is validating your mentality, however unintentionally.

Being transgender especially, it’s normal for people to struggle with their bodies, and to push themselves to change as quickly as possible, no matter what it takes. And while gender dysphoria is a very serious struggle, I often used mine as an excuse to dig deeper into my eating disorder.

“It’s not an eating disorder,” I’d tell myself. “It’s just dysphoria.” But these aren’t mutually exclusive — in fact, this is why transgender people are at such an extraordinarily high risk for eating disorders.

How could I know that what was happening to me was dangerous if everywhere I looked, it was presented to me as normal and even desirable behavior?

4. My justifications for restricting seemed totally reasonable.

My eating disorder was really good at pointing fingers. For every disordered behavior or thought I had, I could always come up with a hundred excuses for why I engaged with food that way.

I went vegan for ethical reasons. I just hate cooking, okay? The kitchen is too messy. I’m saving money by skipping lunch. I don’t really have any food in the house. I’m a picky eater. I’m just lazy. I’m not good at meal planning. I’ve been so busy. I’m just saving room for dessert. I just prefer snacking throughout the day. I don’t need that. That doesn’t have vegetables. I’ll eat later.

I think a lot of people imagine that an eating disorder is a deliberate and conscious decision like a structured diet that spun out of control, but in reality, it’s a lot sneakier for many of us with EDs.

I didn’t wake up one morning and decide that I was going to stop eating. Rather, these little excuses that popped into my head enabled my restricting one meal at a time. And before I knew it? I had a much bigger problem.

My eating disorder wore down my defenses a little bit at a time — look how much creamer I put in my coffee! That’s practically breakfast! — which allowed it to escalate in an insidious, practically unrecognizable way.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in the doctor’s office, trying to explain what I was eating on a typical day (“Trail mix,” I explained, “and then I eat ice cream if I think I might faint”), that it finally hit me that I’d been duped.

5. It became my ‘new normal.’

Eating disorders are built on a house of lies, but if it’s the only house you’ve ever lived in, you just won’t see it that way.

One of the things that’s been most jarring about eating disorder recovery is realizing how skewed and even broken my barometer was around food.

I don’t remember what it’s like to feel “full” because I’ve spent so long being hungry. Things that I considered “a lot of food” turned out to be very little food to everyone else. I didn’t understand the difference between a meal and a snack.

I was convinced that hunger wasn’t a prompt that our bodies give us to eat, but rather, something that I had to fight to suppress by calculating the minimal amount of food I would need to manage. In other words, to me, hunger wasn’t natural — it was an ailment or a problem to “fix.”

When you have a relationship like this to food and to your body for a long time, it becomes the only reality that you know.

It’s like when my dietician asked me to have a nutritional shake and trail mix for breakfast, and I blurted out, “In the same sitting?” Hearing myself say that made me realize that, all along, I’d constructed rules that were strictly define by my fears, rather than the reality of what my body needed.

Recovery, for me, has been about completely dismantling that house of lies. It’s learning to be skeptical of everything you believed to be normal, and rather than allowing your eating disorder to dictate what “normal” is, it’s letting your body guide you to create an entirely new paradigm.

That paradigm is one that doesn’t react to hunger from a place of fear and trauma (fight or flight), but rather, from a place of body trust.

6. Having an eating disorder didn’t feel the way I thought it would.

I genuinely believed that if I had an eating disorder, I would have felt miserable all the time.

I was supposed to be angry, volatile, depressed! Instead, even in the midst of my disorder, I didn’t have the extreme despair that I assumed would accompany something as serious as an eating disorder.

But the reality is, eating disorders don’t always co-occur with a mood disorder. Mine didn’t — I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, not depression.

So if you’re expecting yourself to be constantly depressed? That may not be how EDs show up for you specifically.

You might actually feel “fine” — but it doesn’t mean that you are.

Mood swings can be part of it (and I certainly had my fair share), but some of us are more likely to experience emotional numbness, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, or even euphoria, rather than depression.

There is so much happening chemically in the midst of an eating disorder, it can be hard to predict how our emotions will respond, except to say that they can be super unpredictable.

Eating disorders are coping mechanisms, and as such, there really is no way you are “supposed” to feel in order for your eating disorder to be valid.

Truthfully, I felt the most depressed and despondent in recovery, when I first tried to start eating again. When I had to actually sit with my fear and discomfort instead of restricting, that’s when my mood absolutely crashed.

The misery that I felt when I started in recovery made it even harder to believe I had a problem, too. I kept thinking, “If this is treatment, shouldn’t it be making things better?”

But I promise you, that’s normal! Sometimes it does get worse before it gets better — and that’s just part of the process.

7. I thought I ‘knew better.’

I wrote about this in my last blog but it bears repeating: Anyone, even mental health advocates who write about this shit for a living, can have an eating disorder.

One of my gorgeous friends in recovery said to me recently, “Sam, you’re talking about eating disorders as though they aren’t mental illnesses.”

And that was the crux of the issue, really — I believed that if I had the right attitude, the right meal plan, or shared enough body positive Instagram posts, I could worm my way out of having an eating disorder.

But eating disorders are mental illnesses and they have to be treated as such. Reading a book or taking a selfie in a crop top can be empowering, and it can open the door to recovery, but eating disorders require more than positive thinking.

I needed help.

Eating disorders are so much bigger than an attitude adjustment. It’s asking you to create an entirely new relationship to your body, to your food, and to the world around you. That is a lifelong process — but a worthwhile one, too.

I’ve had an eating disorder most of my life, and yet it was unrecognizable to me.

And I can’t help but feel that, in a culture that was simply more informed about what eating disorders are and the diverse ways they show up, we’d all be much quicker to recognize them in ourselves and our loved ones.

That’s ultimately why I’m sharing my experiences so openly. I want each one of us to be able to embrace recovery, knowing that our struggles are valid regardless of how they compare to anyone else’s.

Please know: If you’re struggling with food for any reason — if it scares you, makes you angry, overwhelms you, whatever it is — there’s no harm in reaching out and talking to someone.

I’d recommend getting in touch with the National Eating Disorder Association, where you can chat with folks who are the experts in recognizing these complex disorders.

You deserve whatever support and affirmation you need to have a safe relationship with your body and with food.

And I hope that someday, we’ll live in a world where those relationships are modeled for us, so that we never have to question what that looks like.

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Want more real talk about recovery?

The conversation continues over on Patreon, where I film weekly videos talking about mental health, recovery, self-care, and more. This week’s video dives deeper into how social media can perpetuate denial in recovery — go check it out!

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

11 important ways my loved ones supported me during a mental health crisis.

A few months ago, I wrote an article encouraging folks with mental health struggles to reach out, offering some concrete suggestions on how to do so.

And don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a critical conversation! So many of us want to ask for help, but we don’t know exactly what to say.

Yet… there’s another conversation that we need to have about reaching out. More specifically, we need to talk about how our loved ones can do better in reaching out to us.

In a perfect world, anyone who was having a hard time could issue the “bat signal” and get every ounce of love and support they deserve. But it rarely works that way, because mental illness is so stigmatized to begin with. Many of us are simply too afraid to reach out.

I’ve been lucky to have some loving people in my life who, in many ways, have modeled the kind of compassion that is so critical during a mental health crisis.

And I want to share what they did — because I think we all have something to learn from them.

If you have a loved one that’s struggling with a mental health crisis, there’s so much you can do to help, whether you realize it or not.

Here are 11 things that my loved ones did for me that made a difference — and why it was so important.

1. They did a lot more listening than talking.

I know this is cheesy, but it’s worth repeating: some of the most meaningful moments I had when I was struggling were when my loved ones just… listened.

There was so much to process during that time. Having a hot cup of tea and being able to talk about all the messy things I was feeling meant the world to me.

They didn’t pry, they didn’t lecture — they followed my lead and let me share what was on my heart. Sometimes, being there for someone really isn’t any more complicated than just, well… being there.

2. They were sure to ask what I needed instead of assuming.

No two people will cope with a mental health struggle in the exact same way. This sounds like it would be obvious, but so often, we don’t take this into account.

What helps one person isn’t always going to be helpful to someone else — and figuring out how to best show up starts with asking the right questions.

Some of my favorite things that people have asked me during a rough time:

“Is there a particular activity we could do together that might take your mind off of things?”
The goal here isn’t necessarily to make someone feel better, since they might not be in a headspace for that. Instead, offer up a distraction or an escape. And if they don’t know what to do? Suggest a few activities!

“Do you need help with anything around the house?”
That stack of dishes in the sink has a bigger mental health cost than you might expect.

“Have you been eating? Drinking water? Talking to people? Taking your medications? Sleeping okay? Would it be helpful if I…”
Can you send them their favorite takeout meal or a cute, reusable water bottle? What about a text every morning to say hello, or every evening to make sure they’ve taken their medications? Could you pay for a monthly or yearly subscription to a meditation app to help with sleep?

Whenever possible, pay attention to where someone is struggling, and tailor your support accordingly!

3. They learned more about my disorder.

In my experience, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a very complicated thing — a lot more complicated than people realize. And rather than asking me twenty million questions when I was diagnosed, my loved ones took it upon themselves to do a little research of their own.

This helped them not only better understand what I was going through, but it ensured that they didn’t unintentionally make things worse.

4. They sent me thoughtful gifts that I could hold onto.

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The necklace that my parents sent me. 🙂

I’ve saved every card, every letter, every care package (except for the chocolate, which I obviously ate), and every keepsake that my loved ones sent me to let me know that they cared. While it obviously didn’t magically lift me out of a crisis, it did make me feel loved and cared for.

One of my favorite things I received was actually from my parents.

They sent me a mental health awareness necklace when I was first diagnosed with OCD that I really cherish. They put a lot of thought into it, too — the pearl they chose was teal, the color that represents OCD awareness.

It was their way of letting me know that they supported me, and that they were with me every step of the way. It means so much to me to have a tangible reminder of that to this day.

5. They took a team approach.

One person can’t do it alone, which is why I appreciated my loved ones’ efforts to connect with each other, and at the very least, make sure that there was a healthy network of support around me.

If you’re not sure how to get that ball moving, here are some of the questions they asked me that could be helpful:

“Who else is supporting you through this and how can I get in touch with them if something comes up?”
Having some names and contact information means that, if there’s a crisis you’re not prepared for, there are others you can call on.

“Who do you live with currently and how can I reach them if I’m concerned about your safety?”
It’s often dangerous to call the police during a psychiatric crisis, so if there’s an emergency, make sure you know who that person is living with and how to connect with them if needed.

“Do you mind if I reached out to (mutual friend) if I need support?”
The buddy system is critical to make sure you have a safe space to process your own fears and frustrations, too.

“Can we compile a list of phone numbers that you can text or call if I’m not available to support you?”
Hotlines, local clinics, friends, a therapist — create a shared spreadsheet that’s easy to access, so that your friend knows there’s always someone available whether you’re there or not.

During any kind of crisis, the more support, the better. So if your loved one doesn’t seem to have a lot of support, that’s priority #1 — it’s time to figure out how to build out that network, whether that network is in the real world, or simply online.

6. They didn’t lecture me about what ‘treatment’ was best.

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I genuinely adore my friends.

No lectures about “have you tried yoga,” no misguided rants about antidepressants being overprescribed, and no recommendations for fad diets that would supposedly “cure” me. They just offered compassionate, gentle support as I did my very best to make the decisions that I felt were best for me.

When it comes to dealing with mental health — or any kind of health — that’s a decision that’s made between that person, their health providers, and whoever else they choose to consult.

Unsolicited advice is never appropriate, especially when dealing with something so personal.

7. They helped me navigate the mental health system.

The mental health system is a monstrous, complex, and frustrating thing. It can take months to secure proper support, even years — and when you’re already at the end of your rope, it can be discouraging enough to make you give up entirely.

I can’t describe how helpful it was to have loved ones who were willing to help me track down a therapist, drive me to appointments or clinics, pick up my prescriptions, stay with me in the emergency room, or connect me with support groups.

If your loved one is struggling with the system, ask if there’s a way you can lighten the load — chances are, they’ll be glad that you offered.

8. They worked hard to keep my trust, even when they didn’t approve of my choices.

Like quite a lot of people with mental health struggles, I have a history of substance abuse. Back then, it would’ve been easy (and pretty justified) to look at some of the decisions I made when I was in crisis, and say to me, “Sam, what the hell is wrong with you?”

But I was fortunate to have people close to me who, instead of criticizing me, did everything they could to make sure I remained honest.

When I wound up making decisions that weren’t in my best interest, my loved ones said a few things that really stood out to me:

“Do you have a plan for what you’ll do differently next time you’re feeling this way? Can I help you come up with one?”
Sometimes we made rash decisions because we felt we didn’t have any other options. Coming up with a plan for next time can make a real difference. I actually talk about some of my favorite “mental health hacks” that can be helpful in those situations in this article.

“I’m not here to judge you. I just want to figure out how we can keep you safe.”
Letting someone know that you’re not judging their behavior is so critical to ensure that they won’t isolate themselves.

“If there’s a next time, can you give me a list of three different people you’ll reach out to before you act?”
Remember the phone list I mentioned above? This is the perfect opportunity to remind them that it exists — and that they can and should use it.

These conversations aren’t easy, because sometimes, the decisions folks make in crisis can be downright frustrating. But the reality is, when a person in crisis is no longer honest because they feel judged, they’re less likely to tell someone the next time they’re in a dangerous situation.

Keep the communication as open as possible. And when needed, reach out to someone else in their support network to ensure you don’t burn out in the process.

9. They kept checking in, even when I seemed ‘better.’

Six days before one of my best friends died by suicide, they used the hashtags “#happytobealive” and “#happytobehappyagain” in an Instagram post.

The honest truth is, just because someone seems to be “better,” it doesn’t actually mean that they are.

In fact, many people who attempt suicide often appear to be at peace or even upbeat when they’ve decided that they’ll end their life — it can actually be a warning sign of something very serious going on.

Appearances are deceiving, which is why I’m so grateful that my loved ones know to check in on me, even if I “seem fine.”

10. They didn’t view me as disposable.

A person with mental illness is not disposable.

Let me repeat that again, with emphasis: People with mental illnesses are not disposable.

As someone who has supported a number of people in crisis, I understand the temptation to “ghost” or cut ties with someone who is in a very difficult place. Burnout is real, and we don’t have an infinite amount of energy and love to offer someone, no matter how much they’re struggling.

But there’s a difference between self-care and abandonment, and sadly, I’ve witnessed all too often that there are people who just don’t know the difference.

If you’re not sure how to take a step back from supporting someone during a crisis, here are some suggestions that were immensely helpful to me, both as the person struggling and as the person offering support:

“My life is getting a little bit hectic right now; I’m not sure how reliable I’ll be the next couple weeks. What other forms of support do you have in place?”
Remember the phone list? Pull it out. Make sure (as best you can) that if you’re taking a step back, there are other forms of support in place.

“I’m starting to struggle with my own mental health. If I hibernate a little bit this weekend, is there someone else that can check in with you?”
It’s okay to take care of yourself. Just make sure that you’ve let your loved one know that you’re taking a step back, and if possible, for how long.

“This isn’t at all a reflection of how much I care about you, but I’m running low on energy lately. I want to make sure you’re okay, though. Who else is supporting you right now and how can I get in touch with them?”
Avoid blame — the last thing a person in crisis wants to hear is that they’re a burden. If possible, connect with someone else in their support network, and let them know that they might need some extra check-ins, if they’re available to offer that.

“If I step back for a little while, can you promise me honestly that you’ll keep yourself safe?”
If someone can’t promise you that, it’s an emergency — and it’s time to call for backup.

“Let’s set up a time to check in on…”
If you set a deadline, it’s less likely to feel as though you’ve disappeared. If you can, set a date and time to check in again, so this person knows that you’ll circle back.

Simply bailing on someone in the midst of a mental health crisis can do real harm, and it’s not okay — unless your own safety is at-risk — to carelessly “drop” someone because you’re overwhelmed.

While there’s no perfect way to step back, it’s important to at least make an effort to do so thoughtfully.

11. They didn’t wait for me to ask for help.

I wish, more than anything, that folks with mental health struggles would feel empowered to reach out. But because of the stigma and emotional toll that mental illness can take, I understand that often times, they won’t.

What I appreciated most from my loved ones is that they didn’t wait for an invitation to check in on me, and they didn’t assume that somebody else would.

Lately, I’ve noticed something of a “social media bystander effect,” where we suspect someone is struggling with their mental health, but we assume they have an abundance of support and we disengage.

The sad reality is, though, that “heart reacts” and “hope you’re okay” comments on Facebook, however well-intentioned they are, often aren’t substantive and meaningful enough to carry someone through.

If every one of us is assuming someone else will reach out, chances are, no one will.

Whenever possible, we have to make the active choice to not be a bystander when someone is having a mental health crisis.

And my hope is that, by sharing how others have supported me, we can all feel just a little more empowered to reach out to someone who needs us.

You never know what kind of difference it could make.

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If your goal in therapy is to ‘be happy,’ you might want to rethink that. Here’s why.

When I first walked into a therapist’s office when I was eighteen years old, I had one goal and one goal only: “I just want to be happy,” I said.

Up until that point, I couldn’t really remember what that felt like. I didn’t know at the time that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (as it turns out, it runs in the family), and that my near-constant state of guilt, panic, and rumination wasn’t actually the way most brains operate.

I thought happiness was the whole point of this “mental health” thing. So I became something of an emotional hypochondriac — if I wasn’t happy, something was wrong.

Suddenly my very human experiences like sadness, anger, and anxiety were all “problems” that needed to be “fixed.” I had this unreasonable expectation that, if I worked hard enough, I could minimize the presence of every other emotion to become capital-h “Happy.”

That’s not exactly the healthiest mindset, if you really think about it.

Ask anybody what they want out of life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing I told my therapist all those years ago — it’s about being happy, isn’t it?

But happiness is just one emotion. And humans aren’t built to experience one emotion and one emotion only.

So we set ourselves up for failure. We internalize this idea that life is about sustaining something that can’t actually be sustained… but we pretend that, with the right attitude, it can be.

And then we wonder why we keep getting let down. It just doesn’t leave room for the whole spectrum of emotions every one of us is going to feel.

The thing is, if our goals for therapy (or recovery generally, or even life) are setting us up for failure, they aren’t really serving us. In fact, they’re probably going to discourage us. This becomes doubly true when we’re talking about marginalized people, where societal circumstances basically make it impossible to be happy all of or even most of the time.

And if your goal for therapy is impossible? You might give up before you ever get to the good stuff.

The really paradoxical thing about mental health recovery is that the goals that lend themselves to happiness usually aren’t about happiness at all, at least directly. A lot of people find that the less they focus on “being happy,” the more they’re able to make changes that contribute to their happiness.

Being happy with greater frequency and intensity just becomes this weird (and totally cool) side effect. At least, it was for me.

So if you’re not going to therapy or living life to become happy, what’s the point? I started asking the same thing. And what I learned along the way kind of blew my mind wide open.

If you’re wondering what might be helpful to work towards (whether it’s with a therapist, a life coach, a spiritual guide, in a support group, or even as prompts for your journal), that’s what I’m here for.

Here are five goals that I’ve found to be especially important for therapy — and why ‘being happy’ isn’t one of them.

1. I want to live a life that feels more meaningful.

Arguably every goal on this list circles back to this one. There’s an awesome TED talk by psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith unpacking this exact thing (I highly recommend it — it’s based off of a book she wrote that’s rooted in her work in positive psychology, pulling not just from research, but also from philosophical and spiritual traditions).

We can’t be happy all of the time, but if we can create a greater sense of meaning, it gives us something even better — a life that feels worthwhile. It can motivate us to invest in ourselves, our communities, and our world in a way that doesn’t depend on whether or not we’re happy in a given moment.

In other words, it’s more sustainable. Smith outlines the key pillars of a more meaningful life by breaking it down into four categories: belonging (feeling affirmed by people around you), purpose (serving others in some way that reflects our values), storytelling (which I’ll talk about a little more below), and transcendence (moments that fill us with awe or wonder).

I personally found belonging by joining groups in my local queer community and purpose by volunteering locally around causes I care about. I’ve found transcendence by going to concerts and becoming a drag performer (music and art have always made me feel like I’m a part of something bigger) and traveling a little more.

It’s worth mentioning, I was able to do this after I found the right balance of psychiatric medications to better manage my obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD.

So I do recognize that this requires a strong enough foundation on which to build — luckily, a shift in goals can help us determine what exactly we’re working towards which can inform what kind of support we need.

2. I want to create a better narrative for and about myself.

I’ve heard many times before that who we are is just a compilation of the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves — whether we realize that or not.

For the longest time, I’d written myself off as some neurotic, broken person that just needed to be “fixed.” And that deeply impacted how I treated myself and the choices that I made.

Working with a trusted therapist and even blogging about my experiences helped me construct an entirely different story for myself. In processing and unpacking my life experiences, I could see more clearly that I had done my best, learned from my mistakes, and emerged on the other side a stronger and more determined person.

I realized my identity was simply an interpretation of all the events I could remember. And as it turned out, there were many different ways to interpret those events that I’d never thought of.

Up until recently, I chose to interpret difficult events in my life as a reflection of my own inadequacy and failure, rather than a journey of personal growth and new insight. Practicing this reframing of my life, especially with a therapist, helped me construct a new story and a new appreciation for who I am and who I’ve become.

There’s actually plenty of research that backs this up, too; internalized narratives play a big part in our overall satisfaction with life.

The tricky thing is, we’re not always aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves (the fish in the bowl doesn’t always see the water, after all).

But when we uncover these narratives, and start to question where they came from and what we can learn from them, it can make a big difference in how we perceive ourselves (and by extension, how we feel and behave — cognitive-behavioral therapy, anyone?).

I don’t believe for a minute that we “choose” to be happy or unhappy. I do believe, however, that brains are pretty malleable things — and with practice and support, we can find a different story to tell ourselves and learn to believe in it, too.

And if our identities are really just the interpretation of a life story, those interpretations can change our whole selves.

3. I want to cultivate more intimate, fulfilling relationships.

Our relationships play a big part in our day-to-day. I’m constantly amazed, as I do more work with a therapist, at how often I’ve gravitated towards toxic relationships without fully realizing it.

Many of us have patterns in how we engage, the kinds of people we seek out, and in what ways we invest in others (or don’t). Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about one of my worst patterns as a people-pleaser. I suspect we’d be a lot more satisfied in life if we were more aware of these things, but that awareness takes work.

Being more aware of our relational patterns is an awesome goal, and it can wind up making us happier in the long run. It benefits ourselves, the people we care about, and the communities in which we live.

If you’re not sure where to start, there are some questions worth considering:

  • Who are the people I spend my time with? How do I feel before I spend time with them and how do I feel after? I wasn’t able to answer the second question at first, so I had to start being more mindful when I hung out with people. And let me tell you… it was mind-blowing to see how some of the people I invested in most made me feel worse.
  • How do the people closest to me express their care, investment, and affection for me? How do I reciprocate and how often? This helped me to become more grateful for the generosity that I wasn’t always the best at noticing, and also made me aware of the relationships in which I was giving a lot more than I was receiving. (Relationships are rarely an equal transaction, but being mindful can help us make better decisions around where we want to invest our energy.)
  • Who are the people, if any, that hype me up? And how can I find them or connect with them more regularly? I sat down and thought of three people that consistently make me feel good about myself. And no joke, I threw them in a group chat on Facebook and now we get brunch together most weekends. I even have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the relationships I’m nurturing. I can honestly say that my life improved instantly when I did this.

If you don’t have close friends or loved ones that hype you up or make you feel good, that’s also important to know. It might be time to start expanding your social circle, whether that’s online or off!

4. I want to develop resilience and healthy self-reliance.

I’m by no means saying that pursuing happiness is totally futile! It’s important to do things that you love and bring happiness into your life.

But I also think, along with seeking out joy, it’s a good idea to couple it with learning how to cope with the difficult stuff, too.

Being happy is awesome, but being able to roll with the punches becomes really important at those times in which happiness isn’t feasible or possible (because your boss is the worst, or the president tweets again, or life just happens to suck for a while — it happens!).

When there’s a setback, how quickly do you bounce back? Are there ways you’d like to be able to take care of yourself, but find are difficult to do? In other words, how often do you feel helpless or stuck, and are there opportunities to change that?

Rather than becoming unhappy and looking to “fix” it, berating myself for feeling negatively, or getting flustered as I tried to figure out how I got there, I started accepting how I felt in the moment. After all, thoughts and feelings come and go, because that’s kind of how brains work (they are super imperfect meat machines, basically).

So while waiting for the clouds to pass, I started grounding myself in the moment and asking, “What can I do, right now, to make this moment a little better?”

Therapy, for me, has been the best route in learning new coping skills (along with antidepressants, because sometimes our brains need an assist). But I realize not everyone can access super great therapy (a rant for another day).

That’s why I’ve written about mental health apps that can teach you some new skills, shared many of my favorite self-care resources for those that might need it, and am a strong advocate for self-help books, online communities, and support groups. The internet can open up access to a lot of these things. Go forth and educate thyself!

Resilience is an important goal (or process really). It allows us to live in a world that’s constantly changing, and gives our brains permission to be the finicky and unpredictable things that they sometimes are.

5. I want to uncover where I’m making life more difficult for myself.

Everyone on the planet has self-defeating patterns. I mean, I don’t necessarily have any research to back this up, but I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot with some regularity.

Some people with depression make themselves sad on purpose because it feels “safe,” as an example (I explain more about why in this post).

More often than not, the coping skills we developed when we were younger aren’t so great for the adult world. The rules and environment are completely different (and also, we likely just weren’t as skilled in general at taking care of ourselves — wisdom and experience and all that).

Recently I noticed just how much avoidance makes me miserable. I’d avoid things that stressed me out (like going to the dentist or answering important emails), without fully acknowledging that I was only prolonging my pain.

But here’s a fun discovery: The momentary discomfort of facing what stressed me out was a lot easier than the lengthy, drawn-out anxiety attack that occurred while I put things off.

The more I plugged my nose and walked through the stuff that I hated but needed to face, the easier and easier it became to tackle my stress. Don’t get me wrong — I hated every freaking minute of it with a fiery, burning passion… but that misery was temporary. Never addressing the problem, however, was permanent.

This might seem obvious to you (like, hello Sam, you’re how old and just now getting this?), but when we’re in the midst of it, we don’t always connect the dots.

We might also assume that we’re helpless or powerless despite the circumstances of our lives being very different (read about “learned helplessness theory” at some point, it can be really helpful to know about).

And oftentimes, to notice and break these patterns, we need help — because this stuff is ingrained and most likely exists for a very good reason.

In the past, these patterns might’ve made sense to minimize your immediate stress as much as possible. But I think most of us reach a point when those old tricks start to interfere with the longer term stability we’re trying to achieve.

Learning more about these patterns, then, is what can help us start to unlearn them. And honestly? Every single person on the planet could benefit from working on that.

Yes, this is all easier said than done. But that’s why it’s a process!

Remember, the stuff on this list is meant to give you a sense of direction as you work towards mental wellness. They aren’t destinations or achievements — they’re simply part of a larger process that some of us call “personal growth” and others simply call “life.”

It’s ongoing, but in therapy especially, it’s always good to set up some goalposts where you can.

My goalpost of “be happy” wasn’t working for me. But the moment I stopped expecting myself to be happy all the time, my life got a whole lot better (and calmer, really) in ways I didn’t expect. Things like purpose, growth, intimacy, and resilience made a bigger impact than “happiness” ever could.

We live in a world in which happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes. But the good news is, we can have meaningful lives — lives in which we grow and connect with others in meaningful ways — without being constantly happy.

Besides… no one needs that kind of pressure!

When we start thinking about happiness as the awesome byproduct of personal growth, rather than making happiness itself the goal that we chase, we wind up with a much stronger foundation for mental health.

And weirdly enough, when we’re not obsessed with happiness and so terrified of losing it, it becomes a lot easier to be happy — and appreciate it, too — than it ever was before.

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15 Mental Health Resolutions For The New Year

2017 was pretty momentous, as far as mental health and recovery goes.

I was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which was one of the most important realizations I’ve ever had. It’s also the year I finally said goodbye to alcohol and hello to online therapy (both A+ decisions). As far as personal growth goes, it was kind of a banner year for me.

It wasn’t easy, though. 2017 was also an important reminder that healing takes hard work. The combination of political and personal turmoil landed me in the hospital last January, and a series of unchecked compulsions finally led me to seek professional help for my OCD after it tore through my life like a relentless tornado.

That’s because, my dear internet pals, healing isn’t linear. When you think you’ve got a plan in place, the universe often laughs in response.

So why make resolutions at all? Well, I believe it’s powerful to begin a new year by saying, “I’m choosing me.” 

Every year for the past few years, I’ve shared my resolutions with the internet with the hopes of inspiring folks to choose themselves, and to be thoughtful about how they’ll care for themselves in the new year.

These resolutions are affirming our right to commit to and prioritize our wholeness; they’re the map that reminds us that to give to others, we have to first nourish ourselves.

These are fifteen resolutions that I have for 2018. I hope that you’ll steal them, throw them up on your vision board, tattoo them on your body, whatever — if you feel inspired, I hope you’ll carry them with you as you navigate the new year.

1. I will stop looking for permission to be happy.

I’ve noticed that I shy away from things that make me happy in favor of the things that make… literally everyone but me happy. I’m a people-pleaser by nature, but in 2018, I want to start unapologetically seeking out things that bring me joy, even if I’m the only one enjoying it.

2. I’ll think twice before I do something out of a sense of obligation.

I have a very difficult time saying “no,” especially as someone with a strong sense of empathy and loyalty. In the new year, though, I want to reconsider just how often I’m doing things because I feel obligated to — especially from people who could be taking advantage of my generosity.

3. I’ll focus less on what my life “should” look like.

Instead of living a life that looks good on paper, 2018 is going to be the year that I focus on self-reflection and building a life that makes me happy, regardless of how it compares to anybody else. Because sure, there are people in their late twenties that are traveling the world or working themselves to the point of exhaustion. But neither of those things actually appeal to me — so why should I measure myself against them?

4. I’ll commit five minutes to doing things that make me anxious.

I’m a chronic procrastinator. One of the antidotes I’ve read about is setting aside five minutes to Do The Thing, and giving yourself permission to stop after that if you don’t want to continue. Why? Because getting started is the difficult part, and it’s easier to commit to doing something for five minutes than trying to tackle the entire task. So this coming year? I’m going to do my best to commit five minutes to the stuff I’m dreading.

5. I’ll embrace being “too much.”

I’ve worried a lot about loving too hard or having too many feelings, or otherwise being “too much” for people. But what I’m realizing is that my intensity and depth of emotion are an intrinsic part of who I am. It’s a part of me that doesn’t need to change.

6. I’ll set boundaries even if it’s difficult for me or the other person involved.

I’m a pushover. I’ll admit it. When people demand my time or energy, I often cave immediately. And when I try to set limits, the faintest sign of disappointment or resentment will send me into a tailspin. But this next year, I’m setting boundaries and sticking to them. My heart is worthy of protection.

7. I’ll savor the time I spend alone.

This past year, I talked about how difficult I found it to be alone. But more recently, I’ve started to really enjoy it. In the new year, I want to take myself on more dates, embrace long walks for daydreaming, and give myself the space and time to reflect without interruption.

8. I’ll try to ruminate less on what I could be doing and enjoy what I’m actually doing.

How often do I worry about what I could or should be doing instead of just being present? Easier said than done, but rather than feeling guilty for how many hours of Netflix I’ve watched, I want to get in the habit of simply asking myself, “Is there something wrong with what I’m doing now?” And if there isn’t, maybe I can just freaking enjoy it for once.

9. I’ll let myself tap out if I feel like I can’t support someone emotionally.

There are people I’d literally fall onto a sword for. That doesn’t mean that I should, though. And if I find myself depleted, I want to make sure I’m taking care of myself instead of burning out.

10. I’ll give myself permission to ask “ridiculous” questions.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit how often I don’t understand something or pretend to know what people are talking about, just because I’m afraid of looking uncool or clueless. But what would happen if I just asked more questions? In 2018, I guess I’m going to find out.

11. I’ll practice naming exactly what I need from the people that I love.

I’m pretty sure this has been a resolution for me three years in a row now. But that’s because it’s so, so important. I want to keep practicing being direct when I need support. It’s the best way for folks to know what to offer me when I’m struggling.

12. I’ll curate my social media more intentionally.

I’ve started spending most of my online time on Instagram now. Why? Because I (purposefully) follow accounts that are positive and affirming, so it’s basically my only safe haven at this point. I highly recommend being thoughtful about who you follow and what you expose yourself to. It’s important to be informed, but it’s also important to take care of your mental health, too. (I talk a bit more about this in this blog.) Next year, I want to continue curating all of my social media accounts to be more balanced.

13. I’ll pause sometimes and make sure I’m doing what I actually want to be doing.

How often did I go along with someone else’s plan just because they were more assertive than me? How frequently did I default just because it was easier to? While it’s totally fine to go with the flow, every so often, I want to check in with myself and make sure I’m spending my time in ways that feel fulfilling for me, too.

14. I’ll ask the folks I care about what makes them feel loved.

I want to get in the habit of asking the people that I love what makes them feel appreciated. It’s different for everyone, right? Some people want to be showered with encouraging words. Some folks want physical touch or a thoughtful gift. So why not ask the people that are meaningful to me what makes them feel cared for?

15. I’ll resist letting shame control me.

Remember when I mentioned being diagnosed with OCD earlier? It took this long because I was so ashamed of my intrusive thoughts and bizarre rituals that I kept it to myself. Not anymore, though. This next year, I’m not going to let shame discourage me from getting the support I need. Often times, the things that make us feel like monsters or weirdos are actually common and very human experiences. No more shame.

So, readers, here’s to a brand new year.

After what was a difficult year for many of us, I hope these resolutions inspire you to invest more deeply in your own mental health and happiness. A year of honesty, authenticity, and self-care — in other words, the year that each and every one of us deserves.

You’ve got this!

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Looking for some extra resources to make 2018 a better year?

I’ve got a few to recommend!

If you need to get organized: ADHD Survival Guide: How I Stopped Procrastinating and Got My Sh!t Together

If you’re thinking of getting some extra support: 7 Signs That Online Therapy Might Be Right For You

If you’re looking to incorporate more self-care into your life: 5 Awesome, Immediate Self-Care Resources For When You Feel Like Actual Garbage

Happy New Year!

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For The Mentally Ill Folks Who Didn’t Think They’d Make It This Year

The year had only just begun when I heard my psychiatrist, his voice quiet on the other end of the phone, telling me to go to the emergency room. “Will you go?” he asked me.

And I remember in that moment feeling like my cells were crawling and clawing in my body. The mere state of “being” was painful. I wanted to ask that doctor if he knew what he was asking me to do. How could he ask me to stay when everything hurt this much?

Last January, I couldn’t think of one good reason not to jump in front of the next train.

It’s December.

There were a million reasons not to.

Here’s what I would have missed: Trying my first veggie burger at Burger King. Learning I had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Eating sushi for the first time. Getting the first job that I’ve ever loved. Finding the best therapist I’ve ever had. Adopting a cat named Pancake that makes my heart so much fuller. Discovering how much I love yoga and learning more about astrology.

Buying the best pair of boots I’ve ever owned. Listening to Lorde’s best album and witnessing Kesha’s… everything.

Holding a dear friend’s hand while they waited for an ambulance. Crying with my partner when their father died. Learning a best friend’s new name. Trying out the word “no” for the first time. Looking in the mirror at my body and feeling gender euphoria for the first time. Figuring out (finally) that I actually am an introvert. Remembering what it feels like to believe in magic (and making a little magic of my own).

All the times I picked up the phone when someone needed me. All the times I said the right thing to someone that needed to hear it. All the times my being here made someone else feel like they should stay. All the times I said “I love you” and had the honor of hearing back, “I love you, too.”

All of the many, many moments this year when I woke up and thought, “I’m so glad I’m still here.”

It wasn’t easy. I relapsed spectacularly. I had to leave (what I thought was) my dream job. I almost lost my apartment along with it, and came within inch of losing everything else. I had to watch Trump celebrate his inauguration on a flickering screen in a psych ward, next to a poster from 1995 with “stress-busting” tips like, “Stop worrying so much.”

I was in that hospital for a week. In the last two days, it rained so hard that my ceiling leaked, drenching my group therapy handouts on the shelf below. You know, the handouts that were supposed to teach me how to be well again. And for a moment, I remember being flustered, thinking that maybe I should just throw them away.

I laid them out carefully to dry.

When I was discharged, I brought them home with me. And I started to rebuild, day by day.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say it wasn’t easy for you this year, either. I won’t presume to know why and I won’t tell you how to feel. But from one survivor to another, there were a couple things I wanted to shout out into the big internet void, hoping maybe the right person will read them.

Because you and I? We got through it. And the mere act of being here is a tremendous thing.

1. You are remarkably strong.

How do I know that? I guess I don’t exactly. But I have a hunch. Because it takes real strength to keep yourself alive, especially when your brain isn’t cooperating. You’ve had years now to throw in the towel, and yet, here we both are.

And yes, I suspect there were setbacks and close calls and tantrums, even, and all of that is valid. There was rage and grief, because if life is anything, it’s definitely not fair. I don’t doubt that it took everything in you, maybe even things you aren’t proud of, to keep going. And looking at where you are now, you may feel scared that you don’t have what it takes to rebuild.

But you’re here. Holy shit. You’re still here. And of all the jobs you have, staying alive is the most important one. You had the guts and resilience it took to survive this year. That was you.

Sometimes it was recklessly running into battle because, fuck it, what do I have to lose? Sometimes it was having an impulse, and choosing the less destructive one instead. And sometimes it was swallowing the pills you didn’t want to take, dragging yourself out of the bed you didn’t want to leave, or slowly sipping that nutritional shake to make sure your body had something, anything to sustain itself.

Whatever you had to do, you did it. And you should be so, so proud of that.

2. You belong here.

There have been more moments than I can count when I wondered if I ever should’ve been born. If there was really a place for me in this world. If someone like me could exist someplace like this.

That’s been an open wound from the moment I realized I wasn’t like most people (though, to be truthful, I have to wonder if there was ever a time I didn’t feel that way). I was queer, I was transgender, I was traumatized, I was sensitive, and by most accounts, I was crazy.

I certainly wasn’t the kid my parents were expecting. And I was never going to be the kind of person this world was built for.

I was lucky to find people, though, who taught me that while this world wasn’t built for us, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for us here.

And we might be a little rough around the edges. We might be a little wild, a little unsteady, and a little weird. But we find ways to grow no matter where we’re planted. Some of us make art, create zines, speak in poems. Some of us throw our bodies on the line for shit that matters. We speak truth to power, we stare down our fears and our demons, we exist despite everything that tells us we should not.

We show up for one another. We take up space. And we keep trying, knowing that there are kids like us growing up in the world that are going to need us to look up to.

We keep trying for them, the way we wished someone had been there for us.

…one of them was probably born, just now. (Let’s hope they find themselves a little faster than it took for us to find ourselves.)

This is the legacy we’re here to build, the legacy we’ll someday hand down to them.

3. Please be gentle with yourself.

Be gentle. Be soft.

There is an inner child within all of us, I think. Someone who’s doing their best in a scary world they were never prepared to enter. Someone who, every day, is hanging on tight as life does what it does best — changes.

And just when we think it’s settled, it changes some more. Sometimes for the best, but often for the hell of it, and almost never in the ways that we expect.

You are allowed to make mistakes. You are allowed to be messy, emotional, unsure. You are allowed to be afraid (in fact, I’d be surprised if you weren’t). And being human in all of these ways? That doesn’t make you “too much,” no matter what anyone else says.

You deserve compassion. You deserve patience, understanding. You deserve all the space and support you require to grow.

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It’s easy to ruminate on what you wish you’d done, or the ways in which you disappointed yourself or someone else. That’s a feeling I know all too well; I think everyone, especially folks with mental health struggles, knows how that feels (which isn’t exactly comforting, but hey, at least you’re in good company).

I hope that when you find yourself going there, you remember what I’m telling you now: You are worthy of kindness and care. And whenever you can, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to receive it.

4. You aren’t alone.

I don’t say this to you as an empty platitude or promise. I say this because it’s the truth.

Mental illness and trauma can so easily cut us off from our connection to the outside world, making everything and everyone feel like it’s a million miles away.

But feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. And I can almost guarantee you that someone out there has walked in those same shoes before — or at least wears the same size.

This year, I was finally diagnosed with “pure obsessional,” a very difficult form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I spent a lot of years with painful and confusing obsessions that I couldn’t control — and it convinced me that I was some kind of monster, the sort of monster that no one could ever understand.

When I got my diagnosis, a whole new world slowly opened up to me. I started to learn just how many people in the world were a lot like me, even people that I knew and talked to every day.

Shame and stigma are like a fog sometimes. We can see ourselves and our struggles so clearly, but it’s difficult to see anybody else. But that doesn’t mean other folks aren’t out there.

And if you keep searching, keep reaching out, the figures in the distance will become clearer. There is someone that’s been waiting for your story.

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I know it’s terrifying to venture out into that fog, not knowing who’s out there. I know it’s scary to be vulnerable, to ask for help, or to share a piece of yourself with someone else. More than once, I’ve wished I could gather up the words I just said and shove them all back into my mouth.

But then someone says those words — “I thought I was the only one,” “You feel that way, too?” or my personal favorite, “YES!” with a bunch of frantic hand motions or snapping — and it suddenly feels worth it. Or at the very least, it gives us just enough courage to keep venturing out.

So here’s to this year and everything it took for us to survive it.

And the next one, too, whatever it may bring. Here’s to another year of stumbling through the fog. Here’s to all the people who waved their flashlights, giving us something to follow; here’s to all the shoulders we cried on, and the right words that came at the right time.

For what it’s worth — and I really hope it’s worth something — some very tender boy in California (hello, that’s me!) sends his love. You survived. And I, for one, am so glad that you did.

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You can care about social justice and care about your own happiness, too.

It feels strange to write a headline like this.

On the one hand, maybe it should be obvious — we all deserve to have joy, pursue meaningful connections and experiences, and invest in our own mental health. But somewhere along the way, I think I forgot what it meant to be happy just for the sake of it. And based on the burnout I’ve seen, I don’t think I’m the only one.

I was talking to my online therapist recently about how (yet again) a post about sexual assault on my Facebook feed had triggered my obsessive-compulsive disorder. When he gently suggested I take a deeper look at my social media usage, the conversation that ensued drudged up a lot of intense realizations about how I view happiness and self-care.

Namely, that I wasn’t giving myself permission to unplug, because I viewed that as betraying my values.

I realized through this process that very rarely do I do much of anything just for my own happiness. Blogging was an opportunity to support folks in my community. Self-care was a chance to “fix” my mental health so I could do more work. Most of my correspondences online had become me trying to support folks through crises or trauma. My social media was an endless stream of injustice and calls to action.

Every single thing that I did — what I read, what I watched, what I said, what I wrote — became an endless pursuit of doing better, doing more. 

If it wasn’t in service of other people, it simply didn’t have much value, and I didn’t prioritize it.

Last year, I noticed a number of things about myself. For one, I was lonely and burnt out. When I wasn’t working my day job at Everyday Feminism (which involved deep dives into the trauma of marginalized folks), I was either consumed by the news cycle, writing about social issues, opening my own wounds to educate others, or working really f*cking hard to support other folks in the community who were burning out for all the same reasons.

For a while, it was a running joke that I didn’t know how to have fun. “What’s fun?” I used to laugh.

Because when you understand the full extent of injustice in a system like this, fun can feel selfish, trivial, useless. It never seemed important enough. Meanwhile, I bounced in and out of intensive psychiatric programs, with my clinicians shouting after me, “Wait! Slow down? Maybe take more time?”

Even as I write this, I’m riddled with guilt. How many folks get the privilege of uplifting folks in their community on this kind of scale? How many folks get the chance to devote themselves to world-changing work? And most importantly, as an editor, I’ve had the privilege of holding space for so many experiences, stories, traumas… how could I take that for granted?

To be clear, I’ve found so much joy, meaning, and fulfillment in the work. But I have to wonder: When did I decide that my own happiness and wholeness — just for the sake of it, and just for myself — was too self-involved? When did I decide that taking care of myself was not just selfish, but unnecessary?

I’ve shared the “self-care isn’t selfish” memes countless times, and yet here I am, struggling to give myself permission to be happy.

After my second psychiatric hospitalization in the beginning of 2017, it became clear that my time working at Everyday Feminism was done. Walking away from that work was gut-wrenching. I had a lot of late night conversations with my partner, wondering how I could’ve “ruined” an opportunity like that.

Rather than listening to my body — which had been telling me for months, unequivocally, that the work wasn’t sustainable — I spiraled. I began questioning my dedication, questioning my investment, questioning my values. What kind of person has an opportunity to do such important work and, instead, loses their mind, drinks to excess, winds up institutionalized, and then walks away?

For a long time, I thought that my breakdown was my own fault, some kind of indication that I was ungrateful or selfish or incompetent, or that I wasn’t committed enough to my activism.

Here I had an opportunity to make an impact and I’d come undone. It was a dedication issue, I thought, I’m just not trying hard enough.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about the ways in which we fail to support folks doing this work. Structurally, so much social justice activism in underfunded, underpaid. And things like call-out culture can skirt the line, at times, between being necessary vehicles for accountability and being outright dehumanizing. This is all made worse with harassment and doxxing for those of us who primarily do this work online.

All of that makes it challenging to do this work and remain whole, to say the least.

But it also comes down to a very prevalent idea: that we must dedicate ourselves to this work at all times, and that joy is an afterthought, certainly not a priority.

There’s a level of perfectionism in the work that can be toxic. The reality is, there will always be more to do. There will always be more to read. There will always be more pain, more work, more need. And caring deeply about everything and everyone, you can get caught up in this unhealthy cycle of prioritizing everyone else at the expense of yourself.

This year it finally reached a point where I felt like digital activism was the only thing I really knew how to do. It eclipsed my entire identity, my entire self.

And when you determine that your only value is in what you can provide other people, you lose yourself.

After my hospitalization, I had to begin rebuilding my life. I started to wonder who I was in the absence of the work. What did I like? What did I enjoy? What interested me, excited me, energized me?

I have to wonder, how many of us working towards social justice don’t actually have answers to those questions outside of activism? Because my answers before would’ve all circled back to one thing: helping people. But if everything I do is for someone else, it can only be sustained for so long.

So I changed careers and found an unexpected joy in telling a different kind of story. I blogged when I felt called to, about what felt meaningful in the moment, instead of repeatedly opening my own wounds every week. I let myself blog about things that made me happy, too. I enlisted some help in managing my growing Facebook community, and gave myself permission to unplug.

And I started doing a heck of a lot of therapy. Because when we confuse total self-sacrifice for social justice, that’s a wound we immediately need to tend to.

I’ve started going outside. Drinking coffee. Laughing. Reading books. Letting myself get lost in articles about interior design and street style. I got a cat (he’s perfect). I meditate sometimes. I’ve started picking up the phone and calling friends. I completely overhauled my social media (I’ll write about how next week, if you’re wondering) to be a lot less triggering.

Through this process, I’ve realized that by abandoning my own happiness, I had also destroyed my capacity to meaningfully support others.

The reality is, social justice isn’t an all-or-nothing equation of either being committed or complicit, informed or uninformed. It’s all a process, and one that we can invest in while also investing in ourselves.

And if there’s no room for joy? It simply isn’t just. We all deserve to be well, to be whole. And if we don’t protect our own heart when we do this work, we deny ourselves the very thing we’re fighting for.

There are very good reasons to be angry. There are very good reasons to be furious, devastated, even unhinged in light of the world that we live in. But that makes it all the more pertinent, I think, to take care of ourselves, and to ensure that we’re prioritizing joy.

We can’t let injustice consume us to the point where we’ve lost everything that makes life meaningful and worth living.

Being joyful in the face of injustice is not a betrayal to the movement or to those who are struggling. It’s a loyalty to yourself, affirming your right — and by extension, everyone’s right — to wholeness.

Human beings need connection, fulfillment, and joy. So I ask you very sincerely: When’s the last time you gave that to yourself?

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