QUESTION #1: i have a fear of being wrong that makes it very hard for me to talk with people about anything that could lead to an argument. i think it stems from having parents who were very often verbally abusive and ingrained in me this idea that every conversation was something to win or lose. it also terrifies me whenever i feel like i’m being called out for my beliefs. i’m stressed and upset at myself and upset at other people and i don’t know how i can begin to unlearn my fear.
TROUBLE: The first thing I want to say is that I think you are right to link this fear to your background, and I hope you recognize how monumental that is. It might not feel like much, because just realizing where the damage comes from doesn’t heal it over, but you’ve given some coherence to the narrative of your life, and you’ve done so in a way that takes enormous courage. It’s so hard and sad to confront the ways people who were supposed to keep you safe instead were a source of danger. There’s tremendous grief in saying, to quote Kelly Clarkson, because of you, I am afraid, but there’s power, too. In fact they’re entwined: you give a piece of your heart back to yourself when you respect your lingering sorrow, your unfixable hurt.
I’m starting here because you say “I’m stressed and upset at myself” and you are never going to unlearn your fear while that’s the dominant thread of your self-conception. This is how I’ve learned to think about it for myself: growing up with profound fear freezes a part of you in time. You carry a little ghost-self as you grow older, as you mature, as you survive. The terror you feel during or even thinking about arguments, or feeling “called out”–that’s the scared child in you, making itself known. I’m not calling you childish; I’m saying this coexists with you, still living that moment, those many moments, where what it knew first and most primally was I am not safe.
If you saw a child crying, scared, would you be “stressed and upset” with them? Would you try, in their moment of fear, to rationalize away their feelings, using the kind of neat logic you’ve presented in your letter? Would you tell them, with increasing frustration, you’re safe already, just stop being so goddamn afraid? Would you expect any of those things to work?
I think if there is any hard wisdom your past has brought you, it is the certainty that the answer to those questions is no. You are kind and compassionate and you would never treat a child like that. I think you would try to comfort them. I think you would ask if they wanted to hold your hand, and nod and say I know, I know. I know you’re scared. I know it’s hard. I think you would tell them you’re safe without getting angry if it took them a while to believe you. I think you would try to ease their heart without pushing them to stop feeling before they were ready.
This is how you have to treat yourself: like you should have been treated long ago. Gently, patiently, with compassion and understanding. Not logical understanding–you’ve got that down, and that is huge. But fear doesn’t respond to logic. You have to spend some time making peace with your younger self, maybe with a therapist, maybe with a journal or a canvas, maybe in a kickboxing class, maybe crying and listening to Because of You over and over, letting the grief of it sweep you away like a storm, a force of nature, something you seek not to control but to survive, something which is brutal until suddenly it isn’t so much, anymore. Because of you, I am afraid. It’s not your fault because it wasn’t your doing. And its undoing begins with finding the courage to feel the weight you’ve been carrying, and forgiving yourself for struggling with the burden.
That’s big-picture. That’s the long process of learning to feel that you step on solid ground, of solidifying yourself so that you don’t feel a sharp wind as a threatening attack. While that’s going on, you can also start to build in some scaffolding to help you through those moments when conflict in necessary.
I know I said above that you need to address this issue with something beyond logic, but if you’re temperamentally someone inclined to use logic, it can help sometimes to use it to a point that feels almost silly, spelling out in small words the reasons what you need to say is legitimate regardless of the outcome. “I need to raise this with X person because my feelings are being hurt and I do not deserve for my feelings to be hurt. Because X is a person who cares about me they agree that my feelings should not be hurt and might feel weird but will probably want to fix the situation. If they do not want to fix the situation that is not because I said the wrong thing or do not deserve to be respected, it is for some other weird issue in their head that is not my fault.” God, that’s so tedious. But it can help. If you get trapped in recursive thinking, stuck on panicking about their reaction, it can help to write it out, at dull and exhausting length, to get you through to the end. If you have trouble believing you do not deserve to have your feelings hurt, or generally trusting your own instincts, a therapist or counselor can be really useful. When you’ve grown up with an overactive danger detector, an external voice can help you talk through what is safe and find mantras to ground yourself when you need it.
It might also help to reword your goal a bit. I don’t know if it’s always possible to really unlearn the kind of fear you live with. God knows I haven’t, and I haven’t seen the person who instilled it in me in a decade and a half. I still feel that familiar full-body flame, so strong my skin almost hurts, when something happens that sets off the YOU DID WRONG alarm bells in my head, in my body. When it happens, be kind to yourself. Breathe deeply and slowly and try to name what’s happening (I’m scared, I feel guilty, I hate this) without jumping to conclusions about what it’s mean (I’m bad, I’m worthless, I lost). If you can cultivate that habit (seeking support if you need it), you might be able to reach a point where the fear exists as something you can work through without breaking down, because you will have built up a file of evidence that fear is a survivable experience. Like rain, or this heinous winter we’re all somehow living through.
That’s the last thing I want to tell you, I guess: when you picture something brighter for yourself, it doesn’t have to be this fearless, unshakeable, godly creature. That can be inspiring, but it can also be alienating because it seems so impossible to reach. The bolder version of you can still tremble and cry. You can do those things at the same time as you stand your ground. You don’t need to be fearless to be brave. Brave is something you already are.
QUESTION #2: I’m 17 and have known I was gay all my life. Lately I seem to have forgotten how it feels to be attracted to anyone. Like, same as before I can still look at a girl and recognise that they’re hot, but my entire inner monologue has turned into a stream of “Do I like her; why don’t I want to kiss her; how is it so easy for me not to stare at her; why don’t I like her; what is my problem??!!?!???” and I have no idea what I’m thinking or feeling. I also constantly feel guilty for even worrying about something that seems so inconsequential. I’m haven’t been able to talk to anyone about this for fear of being outed as a ~fake lesbian~. This has been stressing me out for months. Thanks so much for letting me vent, xoxo
TOIL: Hello darling! Here is the first, and maybe only thing I have to say to you: you are not broken, or wrong. And this stuff isn’t inconsequential–how many songs are written about sex, commanding it to us? It might not be consequential, in that you can be lovely and healthy and happy without it, but it feels big. It feels like carrying a sack on your shoulders.
You are waiting for a feeling that is not coming. That is not to say that it will never come, but it is, for the moment, on a break. How Soon Is Now is a particularly perfect song for you. You are feeling like the son and the heir of nothing in particular. You are a human and you need to be loved, just like everybody else. The difference here, maybe, is that attraction and sex and sexuality are all tied into one particularly messy knot. I am always happy to bust out my queer educator persona, and this seems like a particularly fitting time. There are basically three spheres to anyone’s identity: gender, sexuality, and romantic attraction. It’s better not to make this poetic. You may already know all of it, but I’m going to say it anyway, just so we’re looking each other evenly in the eye and hold the same cards. You have a sex, that describes your genitalia as understood by the doctors around when you were born. Then you have a gender identity, which is most commonly given to you at birth based on your sex, although you are always able to decide that that assignation doesn’t fit. Your sexuality determines who you are attracted to. Last, but not least, but most overlooked, there is attraction. You can have a high sex drive, or a low one. You can like sex, but not experience romantic attraction. You can also just not experience sexual attraction at all. All of these things are perfectly legitimate. They’re lumped together because a lot of people experience them. It’s just the way that people’s brain’s work.
You might balk at the idea that you might be asexual. I also am kind of balking at the idea that I should attempt to tell you “what you are”. But let’s borrow the most hated phrase in the queer dictionary: “it’s just a phase”. No way am I saying that this is a phase for you. No way that I’m saying it isn’t- only time and you can figure that out. What I’m saying is, what’s wrong with a phase? Like, honestly, how dare people try and get in the way of someone’s self-discovery? I am particularly bristly about this, since it is something that is thrown at bisexuals every damn day. Did you ever get told this when you were discovering your sexuality? Did you have to grind your feel into the dirt and scream this is what I am even when you had moments of doubt? I hope not. I generally try not to be an asshole, so I wouldn’t wish that on people. People can be Asexual for a lot of reasons. It can be reactionary to a traumatic event, it can be a shift in the makeup of your brain chemistry, and mostly, it can just be what is happening to your body. The most important thing is that you are frustrated, and afraid, because you don’t know what is happening to you. You are a thing without a name. I will not command this name on to you; I get very frustrated by definitions. Your label is your name. You are you. There is nothing out there that is you-er than you. What is with the vindictiveness with which we say “just a phase”? We are not fixed states. We are not rooted. wanted to be a fireman, now I lost the desire man. There’s never been a worse feeling than putting yourself in a box because someone told you to (my apologies to my dog, but we had to take that road trip). It is time to let yourself breathe. There is nothing wrong with not feeling certain feelings. There is nothing wrong with you.