Tell Me More–A Relationship Red Flag?

I’m very curious to learn what others think about this topic. Despite my extensive formal education in psychology, I cannot recall learning about this behavior as a sign of a personality disorder or other psychopathy, although I believe it has to fit in somewhere. It is, at the minimum, a defensive posture and, if deployed with malice, an astute way of assessing someone’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. To what am I referring? Namely, asking personal questions without offering any emotional intimacy or depth in return.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon in two areas of my life. The first, the more benign but still infuriating of the two, happens when someone posts a question on social media but does not offer their own stance, opinion or response. I’m learning to stop myself from responding to first check whether the person “put themselves out there” and shared where they are coming from before responding. I think I’m beginning to formulate a flexible rule of “you go first” when someone asks for vulnerability. Obviously, in situations such as healthcare, I do not expect my medical doctor or therapist to tell me their problems before I share mine. There are some relationships that are meant to be one-sided. I keep having a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, though, that those posting certain types of questions on social media either have ulterior motives or are not brave enough to start from a place of showing up authentically. “Sure, I’ll share….., but you go first” feels right in some contexts.

The more ominous of the situations occurred in a face to face situation in which I found myself the past few years, in which someone I once counted a friend and now only consider in our professional capacity repeatedly asked me prying questions while sharing minimal vulnerabilities in exchange. He would sometimes be arrogant and unrelenting in his questioning, which led to a traumatic experience and a whole host of other fallouts for me. I realize now that a giant red flag should have been raised internally simply from him asking too many questions without opening up in a corresponding manner. I don’t want to over-simplify here–every question does not need a like exchange. A pattern, though, of asking highly-personal and emotionally-charged questions, coupled with very little openness by the questioner, is a concern that the person is gathering information not being a friend, and is not interested in and/or capable of developing emotional intimacy.

I’ve always been alert to potential scammers. If I answer the phone when I don’t recognize the phone number, I will not even give my name or acknowledge anything until the person tells me who they are. If there is a paranoid to gullible continuum, I am far on the paranoid side. Where I’ve been lax, however, is in treating emotional and personal queries as being asked out of kindness, since so much of my experience growing up was of being ignored. “They’re interested in me” tracks way too quickly into “maybe they care about me” when in fact there can be all sorts of motives as to why someone wants to know more about another person. In this case, there is a relatively clear-cut way to know whether to lower my guard–am I being entrusted with secrets or only asked to unearth my own. I felt violated in the former friendship I described above when I realized the person had succeeded (for a time) in hiding so much of what they really believed and who they really were from me. I am someone who typically only needs to experience something like that once to get it. At the same time, I don’t want to over-react in future situations and get lost in inventorying how many vulnerabilities have been traded. I think I’ve shared a good deal of my own perspective here, so I hope my readers will share theirs!

Even in My Dreams, She Haunts Me

I dreamt of my mother last night. The specifics of the dream, upon awakening, were immediately lost to me, but the impression of herself she’s carved on my psyche feels as though it is pulsating with remembrance of the scarring she caused. So many years have past since I’ve seen her in person that the line between who she was to me and what she represents to me has blurred.

I wrote yesterday that my capacity as a person isn’t related to the approval of cishet white men. I think I need to acknowledge part of what that means to me is that my parents’ views of me are irrelevant to my worth as a person, but also admit, in the same breath, that they still contour the shape of my inner world so much more than I wish they did. My reactivity to being dismissed and disrespected, the impulsiveness with which I direct my energy to defend myself, is a straight line from being constantly verbally abused and gaslit as a child and teenager.

My mother, real and internalized, was the queen of denial. She could cry and say she was never unhappy. She could have a conversation with me and, hours later, tell me she’d not seen me all day. She could witness my father sexually abusing me and pretend nothing happened. Reality was a malleable, unsequenced energy that she bent to her will. I didn’t have access to voice recorders or cell phone video growing up, but I have no doubt she would have found a way to deny the digital as well as the physical world.

She’s entered my mind as of late because of the pandemic. I fully expect, if she becomes ill, to hear from my siblings for the first time in years as to how desperate she is for my presence. This happened a few years ago when she got cancer, and, when I tried to form a limited amount of communication with her, she denied that she in any way initiated their contact with me. She thinks she owns me and can manipulate me to suit her needs after all this distance, time and hard truths.

I feel contempt more than any other emotion for her and it leaks through when I am disrespected by people who might, even in an oblique way, stand in for her in my mind. My dream had only the emotion of terror and the sensation of being trapped, that she found a way to make the story of my life collapse into itself and become only the abuse, the denial, the betrayal and the fear that underlies my relationship templates. A part of me wants to light up all the circuit boards the next time I’m rebuked for sharing a verifiable truth, to call out the privilege that is no doubt driving the “well, actually…” I’m receiving. I know this will lead to a response of useless and defensive posturing. The truth of my triggering will be apparent if I start emailing sources and data to prove my point.

My mission statement for this year includes “powerful vulnerability.” I wonder what the response would be if I responded with “you telling me I’m wrong about something I’ve extensively researched and for which I could easily locate 10+ scientific sources is reminiscent of how my parents responded to me when I spoke a truth they didn’t want to receive as a child. I’ve learned how futile it is to argue with someone who doesn’t give my voice the weight it deserves, so I’m not going to waste any more energy on this discussion.” There are people who show me through their responses that they value what I have to say and take it in without defensive skepticism. There is a new story of my life I can tell, but I have to stop stalling out in the shallows of my past in order to do so.

Not Backing Down

I’m back at work and the misgendering is already in full gear. I also received several lectures about how asking people to treat me the same way I treat them (by gendering me correctly) is way too much to ask. It’s invalidation after invalidation. When I’m invalidated, I’m sent the message that I don’t matter and that the other person’s comfort is more important than the recognition of my full existence. The harm is multiplied when someone then goes into why what I am asking for is such a burden and so difficult for them to manage.

In sitting with these experiences, I feel prodded to share the pain that they cause me with the people who cause them. The issue with doing this is any guilt they feel will likely lead to increased defensiveness and additional invalidation. I do think that it is worth speaking about the dysphoria misgendering causes to a wider audience, as those who are capable of empathy and compassion will be motivated to stand in solidarity with trans people and to correct others who harm us.

One of the biggest costs I am enduring is increased isolation because putting myself in environments in which I know someone will harm and no one will do anything about it is Retraumatization 101 for me. My complex PTSD/dissociation issues are creeping into my experiences as an open trans person in that I am triggered by feelings of betrayal and elements of abuse when people carry on as though I am the binary gender I was assigned at birth. These same people ignore my mental health issues on the whole as well, so the layers of invalidation are starting to stack quite high.

As I sit with this experience for a longer period of time, what I realize is that the powerful vulnerability I set as part of my mission statement for 2020 has to be targeted in its application. I do not need to open up to the people who are hurting me. I need to open up to the people who can do something about it, namely to my HR department and potential legal resources at my disposal.

I don’t have an option to run away when my employment is at stake, so I need to assemble my game plan. What disgusts me in this is the fact that trans people can be stereotyped as being litigious, when, along with other marginalized groups, I’m coming to see the reason we may be viewed that way is that our attempts at soliciting respect through interpersonal means are completely disregarded. A person can only take so much mistreatment before they have to stand up for themselves. I have little faith in the legal system, but I know any progress I might make will pave the path for anyone who comes after me.

In considering what I am dealing with in the context of the many forms of oppression and marginalization that exist in American society, the commonality that I find is a commitment to responding to the whims and proclivities of those who already have a disproportionate amount of power. In my situation, those who are cis-het are sheltered from the consequences of their exploitation of those of us who do not or can not conform to their worldview. This toxic stew is further concentrated in the power of its poison for those who face racism, xenophobia and the like.

I feel so disgusted in knowing that the people who mistreat me have vulnerable young people who trust them and look up to them, ripe for harm as their unchecked prejudices and biases play out. As this feeling of revulsion rises in me, I always come back to the same thought: I can never slip fully into us/them; I am vulnerable to the same prejudices and biases and must be vigilant in my own inner work in this area. I must do better and I must do what I can to force those whose bias harms me to do better. We can only change ourselves, but we can seek consequences for bad behavior. If you are trans and/or non-binary, where are you at on a scale from acquiescence to riot in terms of how you respond to misgendering? Where have you turned to for support? How have you taken care of yourself in these experiences?

More than Giving Voice (Today’s Daily Presence)

The area of the body on which my Daily Presence card focused today was my throat. I associate this area with my voice, but, as I spent time in mindful meditation with my throat, I realized that this body part serves multiple functions. It is also a pathway in receiving nutrition and air and in expelling waste products such as carbon dioxide. As such, it is a place of both power and vulnerability.

Given that our throat has both receptive and expressive capacities, I wondered what balance I have been achieving. My employment involves a lot of talking, which often leaves my voicebox strained. In addition, I have GERD which can cause acid to erode the lining of my throat. Because of these factors, I think my throat is in need of receiving soothing care more than it is in need to being used more forcefully to assert my strength as a person. I decided a way to honor this area of my body would be to make a cup of calming tea, so I settled on chamomile.

As I’ve been trying out my Daily Presence cards, focusing on one area of my body at a time, I am continually surprised at how much I’ve been overlooking in terms of what my body needs. I think my go-to is to realize I don’t feel great and to conclude that I need to rest or exert myself less, but when I spend time centered on my breathing, simple being in my body, I find a lot of nuance and complexity is going on if I only listen. What is your throat needing from you today? What messages is it communicating to you?