[Speech given at Gallaudet University for the National Coming Out Day, October 11, 2013.]
Today I want to talk about negativity and its uses in our survival, which may seem like an odd topic for a presentation on the National Coming Out Day: most people perhaps associate National Coming Out Day with celebration, pride, hopefulness, and other positive emotions and activities, and not with negativity. I want to be clear that I am not here to promote negativity: if positivity works for you, that’s wonderful! What I really want to talk about is how positivity and hopefulness do not work for all of us, in fact it can exacerbate difficulties we are experiencing, and how we can cope with them and support each other better if we could build a greater tolerance and appreciation for negativity.
But before getting into my discussion, I want to give a heads up about the content of my talk. As you might imagine, I will be talking about many things that the audience might find triggering. I will not give graphic details of any violence, abuse, or self-harming behaviors in my own life as well as in many others’, but I will talk about them, in hope that some of what I say resonates with you. But if you find any part of my presentation “too much,” please do not feel obligated to stay in your seat; do take care of yourself in whatever ways you know, including leaving the room. I will be available after the presentation to talk privately if any of you wish to.
Okay, so what is negativity? It is our emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to difficulties we face in our lives that are uncomfortable for us and those around us, or those that are inconvenient for the society. It is expressing emotions that the society considers inappropriate, such as anger, depression, desperation, numbness. It is behaviors that the society labels “unhealthy” or “maladaptive,” such as substance use, self-injury, eating “disorders,” promiscuity.
Sometimes, we react negatively to things and it harms us further. But often, the harm is not necessarily the direct result of our reactions, but the result of the society not understanding or supporting our negative reactions. New York-based performance artist Penny Arcade wrote:
Being a bad girl is not about wearing too much makeup, too short skirts, or fishnet stockings. It’s about being cut out, and left out of the society because you can’t handle the pain in your life in a way the society thinks is appropriate.
My struggle to make sense of my propensity for negativity began when I started talking to someone at a rape crisis center in a rural college town. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse as well as the dysfunctional child welfare system and as a queer disabled fat Asian girl in and out of sex trade, my self-esteem was predictably low. Trying to be helpful, someone loaned me self-help cassette tapes (yes, this was in the mid-90s) that were supposed to help me heal myself and build self-esteem. I listened to them on repeat, but it did not work. And not only that, it made me feel like I failed once again.
I didn’t–and still don’t–know what healing was. Our common understanding of trauma–whether it is violence or war or accident or whatever–is that it is exceptional and disruptive rather than the norm. We as the society take for granted that everyone pretty much lives a normal life, and only occasionally experiences traumatic incidents that leave us with physical and emotional injuries that require healing and restoration of the normal. But when life is a constant stream of difficulties, as it often is for children and adults in abusive long-term relationships and for people who face multiple layers of oppressions such as racism, poverty, homophobia/transphobia, and ableism, trauma becomes the norm. I could not imagine a normal norm to which I would return to after healing, or the true self that I would become once trauma ceased to define who I was. Again, it felt like a failure on my part.
The society prescribes a model of healing that is linear and short-term, as exemplified by the for-profit health insurance system that limit counseling to a certain number of sessions, if any. Even within survivor advocacy, we often hear about the linear progression from being a dreadful “victim” to empowered “survivor” as the idealized path toward healing. For example, a website for sexual abuse survivors states:
Yes, you are a victim of sexual abuse, but a victim stays in a victim role and never moves further and changes any behaviors that might change the outcome of the feelings that you are suffering from. You can’t change what happened to you… but you CAN change how you will react to it and how you want your life to be from this day forward! Once you make the decision to recover, you have the power to change your life!! Your abuser does not have to win! You can take back your power and move on and not stay stuck where you are!
D.C. Rape Crisis Center disagrees with this progression model of healing, and yet it continues to uphold the victim/survivor dichotomy:
You have made it past the assault, and you have earned the title of “survivor” rather than the depressing identifier “victim.” It takes courage, bravery, and strength to tell your story [...] Being a survivor [...] means that you are not letting yourself or your life be defined by your assault. [...] Identifying as a survivor is a major step in the healing process.
Many people prefer the word “survivor” to “victim” because “survivor” feels strong and proactive. I understand that, as that is precisely how I felt for a long time also, but I started to think that we need to honor and embrace weakness, vulnerability, and passivity as well, or else we end up blaming and invalidating victims (including myself) who do not feel strong some or most of the times.
The society views victimhood as something that must be overcome. When we are victimized, we are (sometimes) afforded a small allowance of time, space, and resources in order to recover – limited and conditional exemptions from normal societal expectations and responsibilities – and are given a different set of expectations and responsibilities that we must live up to (mainly focused around getting help, taking care of ourselves, and recovering). “Healing” is not optional, but is a mandatory process by which a “victim” is transformed into a “survivor”; the failure to successfully complete this transformation results in victim-blaming and sanctions.
This is the function of “victim role,” an extension of sociologist Talcott Parsons’ theory of “sick role.” The society needs victims to quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship so that we can return to our assigned positions in the heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements in order to resume our productive and reproductive duties. That, I believe, is the source of this immense pressure to become survivors rather than victims, a cultural attitude that even many feminist anti-violence advocates have internalized.
On Mayo Clinic website, a physician wrote:
Everyone has setbacks, disappointments and frustrations. But the way you respond to these challenges and opportunities is what defines you. Whether you become a victim or a “seasoned survivor” depends on your attitude and the way you view the setback. [...] Whatever has happened, you can choose to whine and complain about it, or to profit and learn from the experience. Whining is not only unproductive, it also pushes away your support network. Friends and colleagues will listen for just so long, but then it is time to move on. The choice is yours. Your life depends on it.
Note that this was written by an oncologist, so I assume that he was addressing to people who survived cancer rather than interpersonal violence. But there are striking similarities between societal attitudes toward sufferers and survivors of cancer and those experienced by abuse survivors, as I gather from Barbara Ehrenreich’s work on the former (she wrote an article titled “Smile! You’ve got cancer” criticizing the societal pressure people with cancer live under to be cheerful and positive).
Mayo Clinic physician’s article is a clear example of victim-blaming: victims who “whine and complain” are blamed for causing their own isolation and suffering by pushing away our support networks, as if our mentality is the only barrier for us to thrive. He pretends to offer “choices,” but he is clearly promoting the normative survivorship that whitewashes negativity over “unproductive” whining and complaining, suggesting that those of us who remain “victims” deserve what we get because of our failure to live up to the societal expectations.
Victim-blaming of course is a common occurrence against victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. When activists decry that we live in a rape culture, it doesn’t just mean that rape is ubiquitous. More importantly, it means that we live in a culture that provides excuses and justifications for sexual violence under the premise that the perpetrator could not help the urge, and the victim deserved it because of how she or he conducted themselves. Unfortunately, survivor advocates end up replicating the victim-blaming pattern when they prescribe a particular way for victims to heal and deny survivors a room to whine and complain unproductively without losing support.
Blaming of people experiencing negative feelings is closely connected to the popular ideology of positive psychology. Positive psychology, or at least its popular versions, announces that we all “have the power” to change our lives through transforming our attitudes, neglecting how our power is constantly being weakened, undermined, and stolen by violence and societal injustices in our lives. If we all “have the power” to be happy simply by changing our minds rather than material reality of our everyday struggles, it reasons that those of us who are unhappy are to blame for our own misery.
The society prescribes “healthy” ways for us to cope with difficulties in our lives, and admonishes us for using “unhealthy” ones. “Healthy” coping strategies include exercise, consistent eating and sleeping schedule, accessing support (but not too much, or you will become a “whiner”), hot bath. “Unhealthy” ones involve substance use, eating “disorder,” self-injury, and other “negative” things that push away our support system. When we engage in these “unhealthy” coping strategies, we are blamed for causing more problems to ourselves.
The Icarus Project, which is a network of people living with experiences that are labeled “psychiatric illnesses” but reject the conventional medical model of “mental health” and “mental illness,” published a handbook specifically about people’s uses of self-injurious behaviors to cope with difficulties in our lives. In it, the authors provocatively provide a long list of activities that might be described as “self-injury,” but often not, which includes:
- working very hard
- exercising excessively, or not at all
- walking on high heels
- getting tattoos
- playing football
- working in a job you hate
Each of these acts may cause pain, injury, and other undesirable consequences, but they are generally considered normal. What are the differences between socially appropriate and inappropriate self-injury? There may be many factors, but one of the tendencies I observe is that self-injurious behaviors that are compatible with capitalism and uphold societal hierarchies (sexism and classism in particular) are generally considered socially appropriate, while those that undermine our ability to be productive workers and happy consumers are considered inappropriate.
I believe that “unhealthy” or negative coping strategies that we use some or most of the time must be validated and supported. It does not necessarily mean that every coping strategy is equally valid all the time, but the validity and desirableness of coping strategies need to be evaluated by the person experiencing it, rather than externally imposed on her or him by the society or by the advocates.
This includes suicidal thoughts. I have long struggled with thoughts thoughts about suicide and self-harm, but I have since come to accept suicidal ideation as a coping strategy rather than merely a symptom or a warning sign. After all, every time I contemplated suicide, it helped me survive. The failure to recognize our resilience in suicidality makes it difficult to have honest conversations about how we truly feel.
That said, the Mayo Clinic physician does have a point about how negativity pushes away our support system. Negative survivorship often presents a challenge for our friends, family members, and other people in our lives. I feel that the blame we receive for engaging in “unhealthy” coping strategies or remaining a “victim” rather than “survivor” has more to do with how they make other people uncomfortable than with our well-being. The feeling of uncomfortableness is understandable and valid, but we need to own up our uncomfortableness and deal with it rather than blaming the victim for it.
I think I have the similar experience related to my physical disability. My body is weak (even though I am big and swim every other day) and I have bad balance, so occasionally I fall to the ground despite using crutches. People who see me fall often rush toward me and begin pulling my arms to get me up without bothering to ask me if I need any help or how they could help. I believe that they are genuinely trying to help, but at the same time I feel that they are also extremely uncomfortable seeing someone clearly in pain and distress, and can’t stop to think if what they are doing is actually helpful before rushing to make my reality of disability disappear from their sight.
Experts working with people who are dealing with major depression advise that friends, family members, and others to avoid attempting to “cheer up” their loved ones who are depressed. It almost always backfire because it leads the person to feel invalidated and misunderstood, and deepens the sense of isolation and alienation that she or he feels. It is often more helpful to simply be there for and with that person without getting too caught up about finding the solution.
I am often socially awkward, but one thing I feel I am good at socially is that I have a high tolerance for negativity of people around me who are having difficult times. I have developed the ability to tolerate negativity through my own negative survivorship, especially from finding peace in having low expectations of life and accepting insignificance of my existence. Having low expectation of life does not prevent me from being hurt, but it shields me from disappointments, at least some of the times; accepting insignificance of my existence helped me stop worrying about meaning or purpose of my life. This place of peace allows me to sit with my friends who are depressed or even suicidal and validate their feelings without judgment.
Seattle-based organization Northwest Network which advocates for LGBTQ survivors of relationship abuse started a program called Friends Are Reaching Out, or F.A.R. Out, about ten years ago. The purpose of F.A.R. Out is to “build capacity within our community to resist isolation and sustain meaningful connections” among friends in the queer/trans communities, especially queer/trans communities of color who are often left out by the mainstream anti-domestic violence programs.
The idea behind F.A.R. Out is that relationship abuse often first manifest in the isolation of the victim from her or his community outside of the intimate relationship with the abuser. This is allowed to occur because we often feel uncertain about what our friends are actually experiencing in their relationship with their intimate partner even when we see potential signs of abuse, and unsure as to how to talk about it or intervene. We feel too uncomfortable witnessing these signs and yet not knowing what to do, so we often withdraw, leaving our friends in potential danger.
F.A.R. Out is based on the idea that we might be able to prevent abusive patterns from developing if our communities and friendships were more resistant to the initial attempt to isolate the victim. To that end, it facilitates intentional dialogues about what healthy relationships would look like in our communities, how to tell when something is going wrong, and what we want each other to do if we notice something unusual, even if we are not 100% sure about what is going on. This program builds on existing friendship networks and makes them more resistant to abuse that can occur to any one of us (or that any of us might engage in without the help of our friends).
Relationships are key to our survival, and it is not just negativity itself that isolates and alienates us when we are in distress. It is the lack of resilient communities and friendship networks that have mechanisms to resist isolation; it is the inability for us to own and take care of uncomfortableness that we feel about the negativity that some of us–or many of us–employ in order to cope.
Since this is the Coming Out Day, I want to make some comments about the popular representations of what is promoted as “giving hope” to young people who are struggling with homophobia and transphobia, whether it is societal, familial, or internalized. Obviously, I welcome the fact that there are far more books, music, films, websites, resources, and organizations that are supportive of young people who are LGBTQ than I had access to when I graduated from high school in the mid-90s in rural southern Missouri, which was zero.
There is a stark contrast and contradiction in the popular discourse surrounding LGBTQ youth: the news media is filled with stories about bullying, harassment, and suicide of young people who are in fact or perceived to be queer or trans; the pop culture presents promotion and celebration of individuality, pride, and positivity, often as exemplified by successful mostly white gay men and lesbians (and straight celebrities) speaking on the behalf of all LGBTQ people.
Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign combines the two, suggesting that the dreadful reality young people are experiencing now is only temporary, and with time things would get better, especially if they move to a big city and become middle-class professionals like themselves. I’m sure it works for some young people (especially if they are white and middle-class and can reasonably expect things to get better once they are on their own), but I find it alienating in the same way that telling a depressed person to “cheer up” backfires.
Things do sometimes get better. But in my experience they mostly shift and move and change shape, constantly, rather than taking the linear upward trajectory. The idea that things would just get better with time is unrealistic, invalidating, and alienating for those of us who have lived through a long stream of multiple trauma and oppressions in our lives. “It Gets Better” could have been an interesting project if it were promoted as a way for middle-class, middle-aged gays and lesbians to reflect on their own lives, for themselves, because that’s what it really is. But as it is, I worry that it is taking too much space, shifting attention away from media and creative projects by young people themselves that tell their own stories to cope with whatever “it” is, and possibly changing “it” at the structural level.
I want to end by reading a poem I wrote about how I hate survivor poems. I’m not saying that I dislike poems written by survivors, but I hate the cliche that are survivor narratives that we are expected to repeat.
i don’t write survivor poems
i don’t write about the journey
from a survivor to a thriver
from a wounded child to a
bad-ass feminist revolutionary
that is not me most of the time
i don’t write about healing
about grief and letting go
i don’t write about strength
i don’t write about the courage to heal
and i never want to hear again
oh you are so courageous to speak out
about your story
that i haven’t even began to tell
i don’t write to inspire
i don’t write about finding purpose
about finding jesus
about finding self-love
i don’t write about the truth
because truth is too fragile
like a particle whose location and velocity
cannot be simultaneously observed
i write instead
about the lack of counseling
that is actually competent and affordable
i write about the fake sympathy
and the lynch mob that robs me of my rage
and repurposes it to build more prisons
i write about the need for validation
even if our survival involves slashing on the wrist
not eating overeating and purging alcohol drugs
avoiding sex having too much sex
i write, in fact, about survival
through not just the abuse from the past
but survival in the society that doesn’t give a fuck
i don’t write survivor poems
because my story is not for your consumption
i don’t write a coherent and compelling narrative
and i don’t exist to demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit
i write survival poems
Happy (or not so happy—and it’s okay!) Coming Out Day!