On Interpersonal Badness
I’ve been doing a bad job blogging. It’s summer! My concentration has built a nest outside my window. Also, I am terrified of looking at my email right now. It’s reached that point of saturation where I am paralyzed by fear and wonder. Sorry – just need an email break, it seems.
It was my birthday recently. In the morning, I took a walk around a lake. It was meant to be a jog, but halfway through I was like fuck it, happy birthday, Harriet’s knees. So it became a rather pleasant walk instead. During the walk, I thought about how I’ve been dissatisfied with my writing. Not the quality, but the lack of sitting down and doing it. I looked back on what writing has meant to me over the years. I’ve loved it, it’s a talent and a joy, but it’s also been a coping mechanism, something to lose myself in when I can’t deal head-on. These last few years have been very focused on learning new ways to cope, so maybe it’s no surprise that writing took a back seat. Maybe I needed all my energy focused on moving forward instead of inward. And maybe now that things are better, I can go back to writing without the fervent desperation that IT WILL SAVE MY LIFE. Maybe I can tolerate discipline in a way that seemed too constraining before, when I really needed my arms and legs free.
So I’ve been trying to sit down and write a little bit each night, in absurdly expensive notebooks with absurdly expensive pens. I’ve been letting that take precedence over blogging, because it’s been a long time since I’ve done writing that had no hope or dream of readers, that wasn’t going to become public moments after I’d finished it.
As a result, I haven’t been thinking about blogging much. I’ll get back into it again, I figure, but it’s a little cool on me right now. Also, most of the blog topics that pop up have to do with my work, and I’m still figuring out how or if I want to keep writing about that. It’s a pretty big risk, and I don’t know if it’s one I should be gambling with in the current economy.
ANYWAY. NOW I HAVE AN ACTUAL POST FOR YOU. A few ideas that have been rolling around.
You Are Worthless, Let’s Be Friends
A friend of mine is going through a thing right now. He’s got a friendship that’s on the rocks. It’s been a long-standing, very good friendship in the past, which is the only reason it’s currently on the rocks instead of severed and done with. But the shit that put it on the rocks is obscene and squicky, and continues at a wild pace, so there’s no hope at the moment of talking it out or finding a solution. The water is just too creepy to even begin wading into.
The other friend, squicky friend, is being less than diplomatic. Zie extended an olive branch, but that olive branch was dipped in radscorpions. You know this interaction. “You are worthless, let’s be friends.” It’s when somebody ostensibly reaches out, tries to connect, makes an effort, forgives and forgets, apologizes, etc., but within that attempt at reconciliation they belittle, mock, and insult you tirelessly. If you get duped the way they hope you do, best-case scenario, then you are appalled at your horribleness and in awe of their ability to forgive such a one as you. Or, second-best case scenario, you take the bait and start insulting back. They clutch their pearls IN FURY, claim you have just proved everything they said about you, and can now tell everybody that your friendship ended because YOU are such a mouthy asshole. Worst-case scenario, you don’t get duped, and wonder why the fuck this person wants to be friends with you anyway, since apparently you are cold and unfeeling and have never exhibited a shred of decency in your life. If you’re so worthless and hurtful as a friend, why do they want to hang with you?
This is what my friend got from his squicky pal. It was a whole boatload of reasons why my friend is an awful, awful person who doesn’t truly understand friendship or family or love or loyalty. BUT IF YOU WANT TO CALL ME SOMETIME, MAN, I think I could overlook all that. I’m pretty messianic that way.
Luckily, my friend is not a dupe, though it’s hard to skip the bait on this one. While talking, he pointed out to me that he obviously has all the power here. This squicker wants to be his friend, but hasn’t got anything to bring to the table. Because zie hasn’t got anything worthwhile to offer up as a friend, zie is barraging him with attacks in the hopes that he will crumble and get vulnerable and confused. If my friend was such a bad friend as zie makes him out to be, zie wouldn’t want to be friends. And if my friend is not such a bad friend, then zie wants him back in hir life and has admitted that zie has no way to reciprocate, nothing of worth to give back. Hir offer is on the table, and it’s all gross and mean. I mean, put a fucking bow on it, yeah?
This was a pretty familiar dynamic in my marriage. Flint once regaled me with how I hadn’t tried hard enough to save us, hadn’t done my fair share, wasn’t willing to open up. He said, “I think the only thing you’re good at is working really hard.” I was pretty messed up and believed a lot of things he told me, but I just could not wrap my head around that one. He had meant to insult me, hurt me with that, but for fucking real? He took a compliment, said it in a nasty voice, and expected me to suddenly discover that working really hard was bad, and I was bad for doing it.
As I started the process of leaving him, the paradox of an abusive relationship became more obvious as he escalated his attacks. I was worthless. I never tried. I couldn’t love. I wasn’t sexy. I didn’t understand him. I was stupid. I was unable to understand how relationships worked. I was selfish. I was a nag. I was… hey, where are you going? Don’t leave me! I love you! Come back! I need you! It should have been obvious to me what was going on, because why would he want me so much and pursue me so diligently if I was such a worthless fuck-up? Instead, I believed that I was everything he told me I was, and I would only be worse if I left him. I would be those things AND alone. And maybe I could find some redemption by swallowing everything and saving this person who needed me so, who apparently couldn’t live without me. Maybe if I made him good, I would be kind of good, too, by association. Witness the dupe.
If somebody is investing time, resources, and energy into convincing you of your own worthlessness, that same somebody has revealed to you that they have a lot to lose if you don’t believe them. They’re protecting their own loss of power. Which means they perceive you as somebody who can take that power away. If somebody is putting in the work to knock you down, it’s because they’ve got something to fear about you if you’re standing up.
“Fear” and “power” are big words that make it sound like there’s going to be a Rocky battle. But it’s not like that, usually. The thing you could take away from another person if you live with worth and happiness could be something you have no interest in, something that’s entirely in their own minds. My friend and the squicker, for example. If my friend is a good and decent person and doesn’t want to talk to the squicker, then it stands to reason that there’s something unpleasant about hir. If my friend is a BAD AND HORRIBLE person, then the squicker is just fine, and needs invest no time or energy in self-reflection and terrifying realizations of existentialist nightmares. If my friend refuses to take the bait, it’s harder to credibly paint him as bad and horrible, and the squicker will have to come to closure and resolution on their own. Losing a self-image as the rational, righteous party when your life is spinning into squickiness is a pretty bad blow; losing a friend when you need one the most – when the squicky is tearing at you – is also pretty bad. By refusing to believe in his worthlessness, my friend has taken a lot away from the squicker. Nothing he necessarily wants, but he didn’t want the shit to get squicky in the first place. The squicky isn’t his bag, and that’s exactly why he’s refusing to hold it.
I’ve been trying to remember this in tiny bad interactions, with rude service staff or customers, or even trolls. There is something about my refusal to feel bad and back away that is frightening. Not to everybody – there’s a whole world that could care less – but the people who make an investment in silencing me have done so because they have made a cost-benefit analysis. Whatever it takes out of them to silence me is going to be less than what I will take from them if I don’t shut up.
A Field Guide to Being Heartless
One of the reasons my bear and I clicked when we first met was due to our family history. I have cut off wide, wide swaths of my family, with no desire to ever speak to them again. The door isn’t locked shut, but it does need some magic words to ever open again, words like “I am sorry for what I did, which I can describe specifically, and I will attempt to make it up to you, using methods I will also describe specifically.” I don’t truck with unspecific, generalized apologies that admit to nothing, and vague reparations that are fundamentally meaningless, since how can you repair something you don’t even admit happened? So, the details is what I would need to let my family back in my life, and it’s not something I ever expect from them. I’m okay with that.
My bear has also cut off members of his family. He’s also open to the idea of reconciliation, with similar expectations of what that means, and similar expectations of that shit never happening in this lifetime.
I know the cold cut-off isn’t for everybody. I admit I don’t fully understand why, but I suspect that if I did understand why, I wouldn’t have been able to cut my family off. My family didn’t provide me with anything worth staying for, and even during the best of times, I wasn’t loved or unabused. So there has never been anything for me to miss, or anything to go back for. If there had been, I’d probably get why cut-offs are so hard, because I wouldn’t have been able to muster one.
There have been plenty of times in life when I wish somebody had given me some real details about what an experience is like. Rape, especially. I didn’t realize just how fucked-up and shitty the day-to-day dealing with friends and triggers was going to be. I knew things would be tough and there’d be PTSD and maybe strangers would ask me ignorant questions, but not my REAL friends, and it won’t be THAT tough, and I can get through PTSD, and rape jokes, do I have to stop laughing at those now? So, in the spirit of that, I want to give people some tips on what the cold cut-off is like.
First, you gotta stay cold. The whining will go on FOREVER. They will call you directly. They will email you. They will put EMERGENCY in the email subject, and you will find the EMERGENCY is Why Are You Doing This To Me, You Selfish Brat. They will leave messages. They will call you at work, because they are just so worried, are you okay? If you respond to any of this, even just to say “I AM NOT TALKING TO YOU,” all you have done is show them exactly how often and in what ways they have to harass you until you respond.
After the harassment, there will be niceness. Honeymoon. You will get gifts. Concern troll gifts. My dad, he wanted to buy me a coat. It’s so cold out there, I don’t know if you know that. I am worried about your health YOU STUPID BITCH here I don’t want you to get sick now I AM GOING TO PUT YOU IN A MENTAL WARD. These will be patronizing gifts meant to guilt you about how much they love you and how you are unable to care for yourself properly. Also, there will be checks. With the checks will be little check-ins. Did you cash the check yet? I see you didn’t cash the check yet. Did you get it? Could you just tell me if you got it? I know you don’t want to talk right now and that’s fine, you need space, but just let me know if you got the check? Or when you’re going to cash it? That’s all. Can you not even do that? Really? Are you that immature? Do you need help getting to the bank? Because I can drive you. It’s just a check, for chrissakes, you can’t even take free money?
After that phase passes, there will be a period of radio silence. It’s not over. It’s just a break. When it revs up again, it’ll be through third parties. My coworker saw you at the cafe. I hope you’re not drinking too much coffee. Here, your mother asked me to give you this trinket from your childhood. She seems really upset. I don’t know what happened between you, but I think she’s been through enough, don’t you?
If you can chop your way through that, there will be mostly silence. Except on birthdays, or Christmas. Then there will be passive-aggressive cards and gifts and FUCKING CHECKS.
Let’s shoot forward a few years. Let’s assume the cut-off has worked and they’ve stopped trying to drag you back. Here’s some shit you’ll have to put up with:
You Should Really Forgive and Forget
Strangers, friends, acquaintances, anybody who hears that you have an estranged family member will tell you to forgive and forget. They will tell you that family is wonderful and really more meaningful than whatever you’re going through. Also, bonus round, but WHEN YOU GET OLDER YOU’LL UNDERSTAND, double bonus round, BUT BY THEN THEY’LL BE DEAD AND YOU’LL REGRET IT. After dealing with this shit for years, I’ve found it’s best, for me, to not respond. Maybe give them an mmm, oh, that’s interesting, but it’s not worth it to explain my circumstances or refute their assumption of my personal feelings. If they cared about my circumstances, or my personal feelings, they would have asked.
What people are telling you when they have this round-up toy spiel is what they are capable of. They are not capable of cutting off their family. They are not capable of imagining a life without forgiveness. They are not capable, perhaps, of imagining your life. They are not capable of separating the word “family” from “blood relations.” They are not capable of conceiving of happiness without traditions. These are not bad things. It’s just them, the way they prefer to live. You live differently. The only thing is, you probably don’t go around accosting strangers and advising them to cut off their family, and if they don’t, they’ll grow old and regret all their years wasted placating and living in fear. So, stay that way. Don’t be that asshole. Just understand that other people don’t have the strength to live as you do, and you do not have the strength to live as they do, and that is all okay, as long as they shut up sometime goddamn soon.
You Are Capable of Leaving Me and I Am Terrified
You will get this from partners and from friends. They know you are capable of cutting off people you love very much, people you are supposed to be with forever. There is a line and it can be crossed, and after that, you are gone from their lives forever. They never seem to hear the, “You could always make amends,” part. Just the, “I am not speaking to you anymore,” part. Some people can’t handle that. A surprising amount of people can’t handle that. They can’t handle the fact that if they were to call you on your birthday you would not be pleasantly surprised and decide that it was really all so long ago anyway. They can’t handle the fact that if they blew into town you wouldn’t have an obligatory cup of coffee, or if they got married you wouldn’t call just to say congratulations. They can’t handle the fact that you wouldn’t friend them on Facebook, or ask other friends how they’re doing.
They can’t stand the fact that you could erase them and still manage to exist in the world, without them.
A friend of mine from college had cut off her family, too. She told me about an argument she had with an insecure, needy, hurtful boyfriend. He was pretty much entirely in the wrong, and when he had run out of arguments, he lashed out using her family. “I guess I just get scared,” he wheedled, “Because you cut off your family, I feel like you could cut me off, too.” She didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah,” she said. “I could. If that bothers you, we shouldn’t be dating.” She and I laughed about it later. As if it was supposed to hurt us, the idea that we could protect ourselves, that we could cut out the riffraff. I mean, she had cut off her ENTIRE family — a boyfriend was supposed to get her shaking now? Get a better ultimatum, man.
Flint tried to use this, too. So did an ex-girlfriend. During fights, they’d spit out something about how I can’t deal with family since I don’t have one. The truth was, I couldn’t deal with abuse if I wasn’t having it. If family meant what they were doing to me right then, then yes, I could not understand, would not understand, and would not participate. And that was fucking unacceptable to somebody who needed me to collude in their madness. They knew that if I made the choice to cut them off, it would be complete. We wouldn’t fight. They wouldn’t have any access to my feelings, my thoughts, my experiences, anything they could use to hurt me or know me.
When people say these things, try to cut me down for exercising my ability to define my boundaries, they are letting me know that they want to reserve the right to hurt me in specific ways. They are letting me know that if I stopped being a part of their life, they would lash out and refuse to let me go. They are telling me they expect this of me, they need this in place if they are to continue being my friend. They need to know that I will let them hurt me as a price for any love we shared. They are telling me that this is what they think love is.
This is something that comes up over, and over, and over. It amazes me how much casual abuse people put up with and expect as a baseline in relationships, any relationship. It amazes me how angry people are when you place your baseline higher. It reflects on what I said above: if you persist in believing you are worth enough to have a higher standard, you take away from others the easy belief that this is just the way it is, and everybody has to accept it. You also take away from others the privilege to abuse you when they feel it’s right and necessary. People want to maintain the belief that the abuse they’ve resigned themselves to is normal and okay, and the abuse they subject you to is the only dividend they get out of that miserable cycle.
If you let it be known that you can and will cut a person off, you are unequivocally stating that you think your own sanity, health, and happiness is worth more to you than theirs is. And you suddenly learn how many people wish something far less for you.
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