The story of the friend
This is the story of a short term friend and my thoughts about our interpersonal drama, justice, pain and oppression. This friend could be triggered by almost anything related to intimacy and sexuality. The topic evoked memories of abuse and maybe boundaries got unglued, and there was fear and anxiety. The unexpected thing is when he got triggered, his response was to talk about the subject even more. He sent email on the subject, and took the initiative to change the topic to tell me all the bad stuff, but also asked me not to talk about it. When someone confides all that personal trauma to me, it makes me feel that I’m safe to them, and that I’m not a triggery person for them. I was not careful enough about those topic boundaries. One time, probably only our second meeting, I said what I thought was interesting about the kink scene (that power relationships are codified instead of coercive as with the culture at large) (not a good topic choice!) and he said he “would like to try that”. That surprised me to hear. I later learned the under stress he might say the opposite of what he believed, because he had been conditioned to never go against anyone. His response to a thing so terrifying was to put on the most convincing act to cover it up, sending the most intensely mixed messages I’ve ever experienced.
Our demons keep hurting us from the inside and they are attention seeking. When boundaries are broken, maybe we can’t tell if we’re looking at our demons in a mirror or if we’re seeing the outside world. It’s not like burning your hand and pulling it away; it’s more like burning your hand and leaving it there. The ongoing pain must have a source, and we’re always looking for it, and we see the demons in other people while feeling the pain.
Meanwhile I was fine with personal topics; it is easy for me to go there when someone feels safe to me, which he did. So we had a landmine of a friendship waiting for someone to set it off. Post-detonation, the narrative was that I was supposed to admit that I was wrong, wrong for doing something aggressive against him. The exact crime is a mystery but is possibly in the neighborhood of luring someone into a false friendship with bad intent, manipulating them to become vulnerable. (Now that I wrote that idea, it does seem likely that very thing happened to him in the past.)
I wonder about my role in relationship messes of course – sometimes it feels like I have no role, but nothing like this is manufactured entirely on one side. I was a simplistic and passive observer, didn’t take a stand, didn’t characterize our friendship any way, put no limits or expectations on it. If he said something I just took it at face value and didn’t consider much that he may have meant something else. I can’t usually see the build up of interpersonal problems, so unless you say otherwise, I assume that nothing is hidden and everything is fine. I didn’t have him in a “friendzone” or any other zone, just open. Some people hate about me that I can be so reflective and so much like an insubstantial breeze, not even quite there.
I’m the sort of person who tends to take the least comfortable chair in a room, because anyone else who comes in will automatically deserve the better chair. I have no business being pretty or having pretty things. I can’t possibly need anything special. “Don’t mind me.” It’s a struggle to believe I deserve the same as others or to put my needs or boundaries into language.
When there’s conflicts involving me, I usually don’t participate directly (I don’t even feel conflicts) but the person having the issue puts energy into pinning me down, labeling, characterizing me. It’s hard to strike at the breeze; the wind is like those inner demons, not really there; you can’t strike until you pin it down. My feelings are never a thing to talk about; I’m just the invisible force acting on their feelings.
My triggers are hard to put into language, but there are many things that give me anxiety spikes and make me shut down and feel sick, and they shorten my life. So yes I have feelings. Some things that trigger me are being told who I am or what I am, being told I’m worthy or unworthy, being put on a pedestal, and judgments of my intent. It’s all about being defined and pinned down when I’m not that way. I get to define myself, or choose not to define myself (who needs an identity after all?). Other triggers are hearing about sexual promiscuity or seduction (power imbalance!), indirect small talk, empty social gestures, and being told I’m responsible for magical destruction. That last one is what I think of as being superpowered – by which I mean people overestimate my actual power; they project magic abilities on me. My aunt would treat me as if I could ruin something by looking at it and my touch would infect an object permanently. When something goes sour, it must have been my fault or I must be the ringleader. When someone superpowers me, it’s a big anxiety trigger even now.
Here’s how I think about the superpower: Let’s say there was an aggression – I might have tripped you or struck you or insulted you, but could I have hurted you? Saying it like makes “hurt” an action, as if it is a specific intentional thing distinct from other actions. But really, hurting is an effect of doing actual things, so saying that someone “hurted me” is superpowering the aggressor. A real action is something the aggressor could either continue doing or stop doing; they have the power. Realizing that a hurt is an effect and not an action empowers the person who is hurt: it isn’t just up to the aggressor whether hurt happens. We all participate in our own oppression.
One of the arguments with my friend went something like this: “You hurt me / I didn’t mean to / It doesn’t matter what the intent was, only the fact that it happened matters.” Deconstruction: In law, intent does matter but also negligence without intent matters. If someone’s actions were legal and they had good intent and they were not responsible for others (such as a child), then any hurt that ensues is considered the victim’s own fault, for good reason. It’s the difference between blaming the victim and empowering the victim. Blaming the victim is when responsibility for an actual bad action is assigned to the victim, such as “if she wasn’t wearing ___, that wouldn’t have happened to her”. But if the action is magical (no crime was committed) then assigning responsibility to the victim is empowering. If I’m hurt by magic (by superpowering someone else), then I can say “If I can stop being triggered (or otherwise strengthen my thoughts), I will stop being hurt” and that gives me a way out that doesn’t rely on anyone else.
But in the interpersonal sphere, we can’t normally make the choice to stop being triggered (we can’t heal instantly) and so we rely on others to not only not hurt us, but to protect us. When we are vulnerable we give away that power.
Dominance and submission
When there is an interpersonal conflict, the dominant person’s feelings are at stake and the submissive person’s actions are at stake. The conversation between the mob boss and the underlings is about whether the underlings’ actions were in service of the boss’s feelings; no one expects the boss to do anything but sit there, and no one cares what the underling is feeling. Married people seem to get into this kind of debate – “you didn’t do the right thing to serve my feelings” and we forget that there’s my actions and your feelings too. To get back to my parenthetical remark about the kink scene, that’s exactly what they claim to do better: they make the dom/sub roles explicit and purposeful, while the rest of us pretend we’re being equal when we’re not.
I often feel I’m submissive, but at the same time I don’t like relationships with dominant people, so I also think of myself as thriving on equality. If I can’t have equality I go vacant. It is hard to take a different role. With my ex friend, he lost communication once while we were ordering food (he’s autistic too) and things were really lagging with the restaurant people until I finally came to terms with the fact that I had to decide for him what kind of salad to get, or else we weren’t going to get a salad. That’s terrifying for me to control people, even about a salad.
It’s also hard for me to find anger. My friend recounted my abuse of him as if some stranger had done that same thing to my child, thinking that might “bring it home” and make me feel the anger. But it felt like the same story since I have as much compassion for him as for my child. I get that he was terribly hurt, but I don’t link that to anger or the existence of an enemy.
Working for justice
I thought of our friendship as political, as if we were allies with each other in a larger struggle. I’ve never been part of a movement although I’ve spent decades wanting to be a person who heroically works for justice. In truth my life is utterly gray and has been filled with desperation. I have the disability without inspiring any of the pity, no one lowers the bar a little or accommodates. I’m neither pitiful enough nor radical enough. I’m not anything enough, not a cute kid or an amazing artist, so ignorable, so inherently noncompetitive.
I’ve always been in a valley between worlds of people who have coalesced into an oppressed-group identity on one side, and the elite of the dominant culture on the other side (my family). From the oppressed side, I don’t get to be included because I’m not perceived to be disadvantaged enough, but from the other side I don’t get many of the alleged privileges. I have some – for example, my father got me a summer job once just by talking to a business owner and appearing erudite and established and valid, in a way that likely would not have worked for a black family (for example); but I can’t do those things myself.
The quakers can get so self-aware about privilege that it spills into a learned helplessness, and people will overly defer to anyone who appears oppressed. I might have a lot to say about the economy, but if some brown woman named Estrella walks in the room, she’s automatically more qualified to speak, and I feel queasy because the quakers are still using we/they language and Estrella is never really seen as one of them, while Star is. I’m always jealous of those Estrellas – they have more oppression points. It’s the “weaker person is automatically right” syndrome.
I’m actually part of more than one oppressed group, but I don’t feel I have a lot of oppression points – ironically it is the act of buying in to ones own oppression that can make one feel unworthy of it. Remembering that the Christians colonized my Celtic ancestor’s land puts me in a better place to work for justice than if I think of my ancestors as those Christians who later colonized North America. Both stories are true but the first gives me more points and more energy. We get into our oppressed space to be powerful.
Despite being gray, marginal, submissive, and lacking in points, I can be threatening and destabilizing. Sometimes I can tell when I am doing something right because people start to get defensive, and they start counseling me to not do what I’m doing, or they start insulting me or using words like “prudent”. For example when I say I should be accepted as an equal or have an equal voice as others, and that angers them, then I know I’m out of line and I should keep going in that direction. If a vulnerable person gives protective power to a breeze like me, I might blow a door open somewhere.
Personal politics of oppression
I believe fighting from the base of solidarity against all oppression is the true way, but it’s easily twisted. I have more disability so I win. It makes it an incentive to be weak and say “look at all my oppression.” Anyone with a privilege is “blind” to everything. I think all the twisting is a side effect of trying to be genuine and overcome our oppressions, but we’re not always clear where the demons are. Then we’re back to the saying oppressors hurted us, they did something magical, and they have all the power.
When we make politics interpersonal, a fight between friends, I think it can really twist it more. We might try to classify some interpersonal hurt as an instance of a global oppression, then we’re building walls instead of alliances. When I say I thought of my friendship as political, I think maybe it went to the level of playing out a bigger battle between us. Because the politics of oppression is inherently about internal psychological growth, specifically overcoming false narratives, it’s more important that in these struggles we hit barriers and learn from friends, than it is that we win. Winning doesn’t necessarily free us from our existing narrative if that’s the narrative that oppresses us. Winning doesn’t keep friendships intact.
I think it is easy to stay black and white and do your justice work on line and not get into trouble. By that I mean you can avoid growth. I worry that the whole realm of “active listening” and all sorts of community building and conflict resolution techniques that I’ve been exposed to a lot has been lost in today’s on line justice scene. When we talk to people off line, hurt happens but there is not a clear line between the good and bad people. I had this thought in relation to my friend who probably found it easier to fight in more clearly delineated camps on line, and maybe didn’t have much experience working through an actual conflict experience in person.
In person you can’t be perfect; you have much less control over how you appear and the energy you send out. You may think you’re being genuine on line but it’s too easy to craft an image. You can fabricate your membership in disadvantaged groups and award yourself all kinds of oppression points.
There’s an idea I keep seeing lately: We didn’t win rights in the past by being nice, so if someone tells me to “be nice”, that’s in itself an oppressive act. If being nice means being marginalized, then yes – telling people to be nice can be a way of ignoring their message. But there’s a related aspect that is critical to working together which is listening and working through conflict. Ultimately when we win the “fight” for universal justice, it won’t be a fight against anyone; everyone will have won.
I don’t expect to hear from my friend again but I’m pretty sure he will bounce back and do great things.
A random link
Today’s thoughts remind me of this stream of consciousness story I wrote 21 years ago, also about being triggered an about being “not there”.