Taking the plunge
Take a deep breath. Look down the sodden, slowly fragmenting log that you have been clinging to for your whole life in a dark ocean of stormy waters. A floating log that has perhaps kept you afloat and been your only friend. On the edge of your vision you see what might be a coastline and with a pit in your stomach you realize that you will die clinging on this log if you stay there. You have to swim for it, into the unknown no less. To do so means risking unpredictable and unknown perils, but to not, is a slow and certain death.
I have just been through one of those transitions. Raw as fuck — everything inside and out burned down - it is surely hopeless — flailing to survive , can’t possibly let go— how can there be life after this — life transitions. I had to let go of perspectives, hopes and stories that had kept me alive for a long time. I learned that the strategies that kept me alive so far, were not strategies that could allow me to thrive, to actually overcome.
I wish we had better frameworks, ways of navigating these metamorphosis experiences where we have to dismantle ourselves into a chrysalis of goo and structurelessness and somehow assemble into something else. I have been through these before and I did it alone — it was brutal. This time I was not alone, I had support.
I have been navigating something hard with people I love. People that I signed up for hard times with. Despite all having deeply shared values, wanting good outcomes for all, perhaps even the same outcomes, the conflict, pain, loss, betrayal and confusion was intense.
These are some of the lessons that I learnt along the way, about how to be in consensual conflict with those whom you are not in battle with.
Learning as we go
Laws are something put in place to deal with conflict, and until there is conflict there is little need for laws or rules, nor the enforcing of them. Anarchy does not mean no laws, it means, no need for laws. And certainly not laws made by some other to be enforced non-consensually and uncritically. And so, in communities & relationships centered around mutual emancipation and collectively stewarded autonomy — where we recognize that until we are all free, we are none of us free, and we get free together — I seek modes of being in consensual and generative conflict, principles of being in battle where the only way that anyone wins, is if we all win. Herein lies some techniques for consensual conflict, distress tolerance, moving from trauma to post traumatic growth, and grounding the personal in the political that I have discovered on my road of pain.
[ the time <-> experience continuum ]
“the times are urgent; let us slow down”
Use this continuum to your advantage. When we are in abundance, and when we all genuinely want the best, most joyful outcomes for us all, there is no spatial nor temporal territory to grab. Time can change everything. Tomorrow is another world awaiting you. There is no rush, consider slowing down comrades. Take a day, take a week. The [you] of tomorrow will see and feel differently to the you of today.
At the same time, notice when time is not serving you anymore. Slowing down is sometimes beneficial but at some point there are diminishing returns, worse, perhaps, slowing down has transitioned into avoidance. You might notice at some point what you need is not time but data, experience, learnings. These challenges need both brakes and accelerator pedals, to be used together in conjunction, with nuance. Don’t assume slow is always best all the time, and don’t assume that taking a step forward is more risky than taking no steps at all. Where we are now, in space and time, is always almost immediately over, but if we are afraid, it will be where we will eternally remain.
[ staying with the trouble ]
“In every moment, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not, we are advancing values and influencing systems that will continue long past our lifetimes. These values and systems shape communities and lives that we will never see. The ways we live create and reinforce the foundation of life for future generations. We are responsible for how we write our values, what storylines we further and set forth — the world we choose to cultivate for the lives that follow ours. So how are we to live?” — from here
Forging new kinship sometimes means being open to letting go of inherited ways. Remember that you did not consent to many of the sensations and beliefs that you are holding. letting go and moving past, paradoxically might require sitting with the trouble. Also remember that these are just sensations.
If you have built this community, these relationships with intention, that means that you have all participated in getting to this point in some way. That doesn’t mean it’s your fault, nor that you need to consent to what is happening. But recognize that there is a productive form of trouble that we are not used to and that we don’t have well oiled tools for dealing with.
“Staying with the trouble” refers to not giving up when the subject matter or situation feels bad, challenges your personal situation, or makes you angry. It means holding space for, and sitting with ambiguity when cherished values, notions and beliefs are under attack. Living out your values is easy when the sun is shining. It is in these stormy moments where we are really asked to step up to the challenge. Uncertainty, fear, disappointment, entitlement may all raise your hackles and put you into a battle stance.
In a world where we want us all to win, we must recognize that not all trouble is destructive, and that conflict is not abuse. If we are brave and lucky, we might make a breakthrough, or discover something new. Through experience and exploration, we might find a place and a social fabric that we couldn’t just think our ways into.
The means matters, how we move through this conflict is essential, more perhaps than the outcome. Recognizing that we have been raised in a world where the personal goal often justifies the way that we set about achieving that goal — we may or may not come out worse for it. There are no guarantees. But you will know that the ends didn’t justify the means for you. And you can emerge with your integrity intact even if you don’t personally gain from the outcome.
I am in ACT therapy, and the advice there is that when all is lost and we have no way to navigate because the internal experience is so dire, to use your values to guide you. Not your feelings, nor thoughts. In moments of extreme intensity, I find the prompt — what cycles are you trying to break? what legacy and imprint on this world do you wish to leave? What kind of ancestor to do you hope to be.
[ don’t mistake what you are able to do, with you wish you could do ]
“The stories we tell about our suffering define what we can imagine doing about it”
It might be true also then, that unless we are careful, what we think is acceptable to strive for, is limited or altered by what we feel able to achieve. Instead, separate what you think is ideal, from what you are able to do. It is ok that you can’t always act in accordance with your utopian dreams. But don’t let that shrink your ideals.
Do [future in-struggle you] a favor and make sure that you have written a code of conduct ahead of time. In a cold state. Who do you want to be when the going gets tough? Doing this let’s you, and others, see clearly what you intended for yourself and those around you.
This is not to set yourself up for failure, but when we are flooded with chemicals (good or bad), we can lose track of the map. When our boundaries are eroded, we too easily lose sight of who we are trying to be.
We all have limits and limitations. we are not always well resourced to live our values perfectly. Keep a record of moments where you felt unable to act according to your values, so that you can protect your values from shrinking (thank you RC for this tip). This might also reveal structural factors that were a hindrance from you acting in integrity. Perhaps you will discover that there is damage in your relationships that needs to be healed before you can act as you would like to. Perhaps you are under-resourced and need more physical space, financial stability, mobility in the world, etc. In this way we can start to build the infrastructure in our lives that can transform and amplify what we are able to do.
[ if it is not working, focus on creating the conditions that might enable you ]
“When something can’t be fixed, the the question becomes what can we build instead”
If you find that things are not working, you don’t need to continue banging your head against the wall or give up entirely. There are other options. You can stop and see what is missing from the ingredients. Perhaps you have all the right ingredients but it’s not the right time. What seeds can be sown today that can lead to flourishing joy in times to come? If you know what is missing or what needs to be changed to create the conditions for thriving.
Perhaps you need more financial stability to enter into a dark tunnel. Perhaps you need to feel deeper emotionally safe in a relationship before facing this challenge. Perhaps you need time to consider your needs. Perhaps you need to cultivate deeper honesty in your relationships. Perhaps you need to spend less time doing X with Y person.
These are things that can be cultivated, and nurtured, for positive futures where what feels impossible today, might seem easy and organic tomorrow.
[ staying in touch with the positives ]
When it all feels grim and you are hopelessly entangled in webs of difficulty, remember to list the positives. We tend to assess the situation by the overall average. But it can help to highlight and remember the positive threads that are sparkling in the darkness. They are almost always there, if you remember to look. This is not to negate the hard things, or enforce toxic positivity, but to bolster you in your journey through.
Use tools to cultivate radical joy for others. Take explicit set aside time each day to practice love for those that have harmed you, you can love and have gratitude for those in parallel to grieving and processing the pain of harms done.
For myself two reminders keep me deeply grounded; No matter how difficult, painful, traumatic the experience you are going through ~
- Someone somewhere is having the best day of their life. Perhaps a loved one pulled through from terminal illness. Perhaps they were found innocent for a crime they didn’t commit and released from jail this day, somewhere far from you.
- At least this isn’t happening to someone else. Someone who is perhaps less well resourced or cared for.
Beware of dehumanising those who have harmed or hurt you — it is a quick fix to keep ourselves in a place of moral superiority.
Reject binarised thinking which often obfuscates the fact that we can experience grief and joy in parallel. That they do not cancel each other out, nor justify each others’ existence. Being wounded does not impede your ability to feel joy.
[ tend to your boundaries as an evolving process, not an end state ]
“Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously”
If we are not careful, boundaries can become exclosures. They say that boundaries are the distances where we can love each other simultaneously. Love each other, not just survive, or manage or cope. Notice if your boundary is actually a tool for survival, and see what can be done there to change this so that it is wide enough for love to flourish.
Abolition means that we don’t act like cops to each other. This means no one gets to be written off. No one is irredeemable. Ask yourself — what do I need to be able to love — not just survive — this person and strive to enact that.
Beware when your boundaries come with condemnation. “Condemnation doesn’t serve us. It closes us off from the possibility of transformation. Boundaries protect me, but they are not a statement about the worth or essential character of the other person. They are just a statement about what kind of behaviour I accept, and what kind of behaviour I don’t.” (- I can’t find the author of this quote now :/)
[ find meaning in your pain ]
“the wound is the place where the light gets in”
When I read the above quote, I viscerally recoil. There is something about it that I reject when I think back to the words that were fed to me, to justify the sexual, emotional and physical violence on my life. I don’t believe for a second that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It mostly just leaves you with badly healed broken bones and scar tissue. I am so alienated by being considered strong, as a survivor. Yes I am incredibly strong, yes I survived, but hell I wish that it had been a less difficult road. I wish I were less fatigued and battle scared. I wish I could plug back into the group delusions that many humans have about safety and predictability, even just for an emotional vacation.
And yet there is wisdom in the quote also — all too often we reject pain as a noxious stimulus, something to be avoided at all costs, something that is superfluous negativity and suffering. We point our pain at local circumstances and local people as targets.
But there is sometimes more to pain than this. It might be telling us something more than that the thing happening hurts.
Situate yourself in space and time. We are sitting on a molten edge rock, flying through space in a vastly empty universe. In the great darkness, there is the tiniest glimmer of colour on the very edge of the page. That tiny fleck of unlikely colour, is life. Life is just a microscopic piece of orange glitter in the emptiness of the universe the size of forever. It is just a flash in the wave that we know as time, barely perceptible in the impossibly long epoch of existence.
And yet here we are. Just a blip in space and time. And this moment we are in, this moment of pain is not even conceivable to the universe. It is not even a hair falling on it’s skin, not even the faintest of sensations.
And yet here we are. Unlikely as it may be. A sack of chemicals and fat that gives us sensations from the outside world. In this moment nothing matters at all. It just is.
In this moment, we can see all the trillions of lives lost in history, and all the trillions that are to come. Focus on the unborn futures that do not yet exist and the countless formations that will never exist.
From this posthuman place, situate your pain. Find meaning in the pain. What is it telling you about the world you have inherited? What is to be learned, what can be transformed? Related your personal pain to the political. Where does it motivate you?
Not only might this help you redirect your rage from self, and others, to more appropriate places, space and times, but evidence suggests this is part of what allows post traumatic growth.
Almost always in this framework, there is joy in the pain, learning and new opportunities that can be forged as we step forward.
Tools for distress management
CBT, DBT & ACT
DBT Distress Tolerance Skills are for Crisis Survival. These are tools & skills to be utilized when: Someone is experiencing intense pain (physical and emotional) that won’t go away soon. An individual wants to act based on emotions that will only make things more difficult.
A Liberated Mind: The essential guide to ACT
A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters