Online culture, narcissism and the death of human connection

personal-1087838_1920

What are we doing to one another? At a time when we have the capacity to connect more than ever before in human history, we’ve come undone. We pull away, we ignore, we miscommunicate, violate basic, shared social codes and manners that were the norm only ten years ago. We blame the technology (which we created), we blame age (it’s old fashioned to treat others with respect, and totally “normal” to treat others with disdain), we blame anything but ourselves, our own choices, behaviours or cowardice. We fail others online by failing to see their humanity, by failing to employ empathy, by treating others as flippantly as if they were products on a shelf to be chosen from, picked up or rejected, consumed, returned, exchanged, liked, disliked and thrown away when we tire of them. We idealise, devalue and discard both strangers and friends alike*. We hide behind screens, pseudonyms, and advertisements of our selves. We play up our good bits, hide the bad, and some of us outright lie and manufacture false selves. We are commodities, we are products. We are the pawns and by-products of late-stage capitalism. We perpetuate and feed the finely calibrated machine of consumerism that we created by selling our selves as products to one another. We publicise and perform our selves in ways that were previously only available to the famous, to celebrities, to performers. Andy Warhol’s prophetic 15 minutes of fame has morphed and mutated into fame all the time for all of us. Fame 24/7. We filter and pose our exteriors into acceptable versions of us, dictated by still-more-famous-than-us plastic people who have literally sculpted themselves into non-human, semi-artificial life forms, people who define the new “beautiful”, who define the new behaviours. People who seem to do nothing other than perform false versions of themselves to high acclaim. These are the people we emulate in this visually-focussed, superficial, virtual, performative, narcissistic world we have created.

We are all performers now, all the time. We willingly gloss over privacy agreements and give consent to god-knows-what’s-in-the-fine-print, not being fully aware of what’s being done with our information, our representations of self, our most private messages and photographs that we exchange without a moment’s care with strangers, all because we are so desperate to connect, to belong, to love, to share, to feel included. We are attention hungry and many of us are not prepared to do the self-work required to improve our selves and our self worth. Self worth is more dependent on ‘other worth’ than it has ever been before. We are addicted to it. The chemical rewards from the dopamine and oxytocin hit we get every time someone “likes” what we do, while intermittent, is enough to keep us coming back like junkies. Intermittent reward is a principle casinos operate on to get gamblers addicted, as do psychopaths and manipulative abusers. The principle goes like this (and it’s been studied): give someone a reward, randomly, but not always and definitely not consistently, and they will return to you, or your pokie machine, for more of that reward, no matter how infrequently you give it, and no matter how much it costs them, and no matter how much you violate them in between the moments of reward.

What are we giving up in the desire to connect, and why are we so blind to the fact that we are in fact, more disconnected than ever? Do we think that 24/7 connectivity in the palms of our hands via multiple social media or dating platforms makes us connected?  Messages stunted by limited character counts ping out on Twitter, bounce around the virtual walls and echo before dying, largely unheard and not responded to. Not only can we not say as much as we want to, the tiny messages we are permitted to send get largely ignored in the ever-flowing stream of self-expression and content-rehashing that whizzes on by. It’s overwhelming. I believe (and hope) we’d all rather cuddle up on a couch with a loved one, breathe in sync with one another, heart rates aligning, sharing words and experiences. I also believe that’s all we are seeking from these technologies and platforms, which promise so much, but deliver mostly heartbreak and superficial human connection of a magnitude I never witnessed in the pre-internet era. If I have this distance and perspective by virtue of my age, then what on earth is happening to “digital natives”? Have their brains developed in atrophied and stunted ways? Do they even know or appreciate the depths that friendship or intimacy can plumb if conducted offline without technological intervention? Or only as an adjunct to the shallow online default we’ve all become accustomed to?

All of these outbound one-way, superficial messages, all of the filtering and commodification of the self that is encouraged by social media, has led to an unnatural growth in narcissism, which is endemic to and epidemic among, such modes of communication. Narcissism has become normalised through social media and online dating interactions and threatens to become a global disorder that ruptures the fabric of society as we know it. The tech tools we’ve created encourage it and social media fuels and exacerbates it. Narcissism, in its most extreme form = the death of relationships. You cannot have a relationship with a narcissist, or not a healthy one anyway: a healthy relationship is one that goes both ways, in which both people’s needs are met. Narcissism is a solitary mindset that involves self-promoting to others or manipulating others for the sole purpose of receiving attention and admiration. It is a one-way transaction. Without attention the narcissist feels empty, hollow, meaningless, like they don’t exist. Just as we all feel when our posts don’t get “liked” enough online. There is a real danger in this way of thinking. With a narcissist, there is no genuine exchange; the narcissist’s disingenuous attitudes and extreme fakery render any authentic exchange or connection totally void. The equation goes like this: I pose, you applaud. There is no depth to the exchange beyond flattery and self-congratulation. It is a toxic and addictive cycle for those devoid of self worth or internal fulfilment. Read More

I am self-partnered (and these are the reasons why)

plum-4541403_1920

Though it’s no doubt old news by now — given the speed at which information travels on the internet — a few days ago actor, activist and all-round awesome person Emma Watson declared in an interview with British Vogue that she considers herself to be “self-partnered” rather than “single”. I first heard about this in a video that Russell Brand put online today, discussing the merits of Watson’s decision to use this label. Apparently this statement has led to the usual barrage of mockery and cynicism by those less-inclined to seek new and alternative ways of being, thinking and relating. If you’re interested these responses, I’m sure a quick Google search will yield links to examples of this, but I’m not invested in delving into that side of things any further. By writing this essay, I do not claim to espouse balanced reportage. I am excited by and fully in favour of the term “self-partnered” and this article will explain the reasons why it resonates with me, as well as discuss the potential it holds to be a new and empowering way to identify, particularly from my own viewpoint as a feminist woman and as a survivor of psychological and sexual abuse.

Below is the relevant extract from Vogue UK:

She turns 30 in April, and describes 2019 as having been “tough”, because she “had all these ideas” about what her life was supposed to look like at this age. “I was like, ‘Why does everyone make such a big fuss about turning 30? This is not a big deal…’” she shares. “Cut to 29, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so stressed and anxious. And I realise it’s because there is suddenly this bloody influx of subliminal messaging around. If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out… There’s just this incredible amount of anxiety.”

If it’s staggering to think that Watson worries about this stuff, it’s comforting, too. “I never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel,” she continues. “I was like, ‘This is totally spiel.’ It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.”

In a longer version of the interview, Watson also said:

“I see “self-partnership” as just taking some time out from the merry-go-round of relationships and “looking for the one”, and instead getting to know yourself a bit better.”

At this stage in my life, recently out of a relationship and delving into an intensive reinvestigation of self and purpose, I found this idea of self-partnership incredibly appealing. I immediately took to Facebook and proclaimed the following (to all 44 of my friends):

Thank you Emma Watson. This is the perfect way to describe where I’m at in my life right now. Self-partnered. I like it very much. We always need to be a partner to ourselves and get our self-worth from within. I suggest that we should all be healthily self-partnered always, and first and foremost. Having relationships with others should always come second to this primary relationship with self. If we don’t understand, respect and find our selves worthy, we cannot have healthy relationships with others. I also resent the idea that I have to be married to be worthy as a woman. It’s a notion that has weighed me down for decades and I’m finally throwing off the shackles. Self-partnership as a woman is a feminist notion as it subverts the dominant belief that women only exist (or are their best selves) in relation to others: as wives, mothers, lovers and carers.

In the comments section of Russell Brand’s video on Facebook about Watson’s declaration (he asked followers what they think), I wrote the following:

I think it’s brilliant. I’m recently out of a relationship and in a position where I’m really exploring myself and who I am. The relationship was abusive so I have to do a lot of self work to ensure I’m healed and also to forge a new future. Self-partnered perfectly describes where I’m at right now. I think we should all be self-partnered first and foremost, and partnered with another second. We should always have a healthy relationship with our own self and need to find self esteem and worth within.

Those were my initial thoughts, and since this morning they have developed. I believe that all humans, in order to be emotionally healthy, both within themselves and in relationship with others (friends, family, lovers, other-partners), must first and foremost be focused on cultivating a solid and healthy relationship with themselves. This means that one should feel ok to be alone, should derive a sense of worth from within, and be able to self-soothe, self-parent, and, by extension, I will argue, appropriately self-partner. We are already familiar as a culture with the concepts of self-worth, self-soothing and, to a lesser extent self-parenting. Self-parenting, for those who might not know much about it, is a concept explored in certain fields of psychotherapy (such as Internal Family Systems). It is particularly relevant to situations where people have had abusive or toxic childhoods. With self-parenting, in order to regain a sense of balance and healing to one’s wounded inner child, one takes on the role of a loving and kind parent (in an imaginary sense) and soothes the child self when it is triggered emotionally, rather than expecting others to do the soothing for you. It acknowledges and accepts the inability of one’s parents to have adequately provided the emotional nurturing one needed as a child, while also acknowledging that we carry within us the resources to be emotionally self-sufficient and to heal ourselves. It is potentially a very powerful process. Once familiar with this concept, the person can then consciously bring that inner-parent (who is inherently loving, caring and wise) to mind at times of need and crisis, in order to be able to provide solace, comfort and healing to the inner child self. Seen in the light of these other concepts then, self-partnering seems to me a natural extension of these more-widely accepted notions. It is one more way to rely upon and provide support to the self in a healthy, conscious and independent way. The next time you want to, say, go to the movies or eat out somewhere nice, but deny yourself the chance because you don’t have a partner (or even a friend) to go with, try going alone. The freedom and decadence of treating yourself to an activity you enjoy by yourself is a wonderful and self-affirming thing indeed. Read More

Why My Teeth Clench and My Shoulders Seize Up: Sexual Abuse and Coming to Terms with Trauma in the #MeToo Era.

My original MeToo story.

Feminist Confessional

MWmetoo.jpg

When I think about writing this piece, I notice that my teeth are clenched and my shoulders are raised. I also feel that familiar, pleasant, slightly floaty feeling as if I’m not really here. I stare out the window vaguely without focus. It’s called dissociation, and I’ve only recently learned to label it as such. It’s pleasant, because it allows me to leave a painful situation, mentally, to check out, even if my body isn’t coping.

I’ve been encouraged for a few years by well-meaning medical folk to deal with the underlying trauma that is a contributing factor in my chronic illness; and I’ve tried hard to identify and move through it. I have had debilitating symptoms for over a decade now, most of which seem untreatable. I won’t delve into the full story of my health problems right now: suffice to say these symptoms and my pain levels are…

View original post 2,025 more words

What if Women Were Free?

A couple of months ago I had a distinctly new, foreign though pop into my head. What would the world be like if women were free to live their lives exactly as they wished? And I mean exactly as they wished. Not within the current frameworks and the limitations that these frameworks place upon us as women. And not by accepting the pseudo freedom sold to us. It is a lie. What I mean is starting over from scratch. Imagining a new world for women. Without any historical precedents in place, without societal, cultural or political pressures. Without gender conditioning. Without misogyny.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine a world in which women define themselves? Read More

Brave?

fists
Courage – what is it exactly? Since I started telling my story on this blog I have had many women (both friends and acquaintances) tell me how brave I am to be writing about my life and thanking me for doing so. And when I say my life, I don’t of course mean the entirety of my life. Thankfully, there have been many sunny and pleasant moments in my life too. What I mean is the sexual abuse and assault that I have had to deal with during the course of my life. This is (mostly) what this blog has been about: trying to write about and make sense of what has happened to me, from the hindsight of middle age and with the new-found wisdom, support and vocabulary of the MeToo movement.

These past eight months, since the news about Harvey Weinstein broke, have seen me examine, re-examine, and cross-examine my own life, honestly, and with new-found knowledge pertaining to what sexual violence actually is. I’ve been a card-carrying feminist since my early 20s, and this recent process has involved a complete overhaul of my own feminism, as well as a complete revision of my sexual history. I never realised, even as a feminist, just how much of my abusive past I had simply pushed down, how many men I’d made excuses for, or worse, still had unrequited feelings for. Abusers, coercers, womanisers and rapists alike. I sadly realised that almost every relationship I had been in with a man had involved some form of sexual abuse, coercion, exploitation, gross power imbalance, or sexual violence. Not to mention the accompanying emotional abuse, which always, always goes hand in hand. Then there are the female friends I realise I had let down: women who had tried to tell me their rape stories and I either didn’t believe them fully, or I didn’t understand why they had stayed. For these women I have written a poem called I’m Sorry. I am truly sorry that I was complicit in a culture that allowed the systematic sexual assault of women, but thankfully I now know better.

About my poetry: when I started this blog I had intended it to be a platform for opinion pieces and essays like this one. But I quickly found that poetry was the easiest, and most appropriate way for me to express all of my MeToo stories and feelings. In a poem you can capture raw emotion with a few words or lines; you can obscure and disguise identities, and you can release feelings without having to construct coherent sentences, as I am now. Writing coherent prose is helpful too, but when I write this way I am always one step removed from my feelings. I’m using the more rational, critical and analytical parts of my brain, which is satisfying, and calming too, but rarely offers the catharsis that writing a poem does.

The problem with poetry is, as I said above, it obscures and disguises. It can be cryptic and unclear to the reader. I have used it so much because it has been the only way I have been able write about some of what happened to me, especially the worst of what happened. This is why, when women friends tell me I’m brave for speaking out about my experiences, I shrink a little inside. Am I really brave? Or am I hiding behind the obscure words of my poetry? The reality is, I’ve only written clearly (in prose) about the more peripheral experiences of sexual misconduct I’ve experienced, with the exception of one piece: Not Quite Here Yet: Living in the Aftermath of Child Molestation. I’ve spent much time discussing some of the less damaging things that happened to me, for example, in my piece Why My Teeth Clench and My Shoulders Seize Up, to demonstrate that we are still living very much in a culture that hates and hurts women. These “lesser” things are not trivial, but they are far from the worst things that have happened to me. I’ve not written very directly at all about the relationships that I endured that were, actually, the most abusive. The keywords here being abusive and relationship. It is within an abusive relationship that systematic, lasting damage can be done to a person’s mind, body and self-esteem. Abusive relationships break people down, more often than not, women.

With all this in mind, and after a long preamble, today is the day I wish to be truly brave and tell you – in plain prose – about some of the more damaging relationships I’ve been in. As Australia has some of the toughest defamation laws on the planet, I won’t be naming and shaming. It is far too dangerous for me to do so in any case.

TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of child molestation, sexual coercion, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, assault and rape. Please take appropriate self-care before, during and after reading this if you are likely to be triggered, or simply do not read any further.

Read More

Shit Men Say To Me on Facebook: Gender Roles & Communication in the #metoo Era

fbmsg
I quit Facebook about a year ago. I’ve never looked back: the interactions I had with most of my 300+ friends was becoming shallow and superficial. Most of the time, when I did post something that I wanted others to engage with, my words would go out into the void, echo and bounce around the walls around a bit, before fading out and sitting there lonely and unheard. It got a bit tedious talking to myself when I was seeking meaningful connection. Ah, the lure of social media to the isolated introvert! Facebook sucked me in and wasted many an hour — nay, years — of my life.

I also didn’t like that people I barely knew (or hadn’t met) had access to my photos, relationship information, and my documented history. As an early adopter of Facebook in Australia, there was a lot of history on my profile. I was reluctant to delete it, or go through the laborious task of setting up privacy filters on every single thing I did (or every album) just to prevent people I barely knew from seeing and reading about my life. Facebook makes it very difficult to set these restrictions up easily.

On Facebook I made friends with people for a variety of reasons, as we all do. Some of these connections were real friendships or family relationships, while other connections came through shared interests or were for networking purposes. I never really got into accepting requests from complete strangers – there was always a tenuous connection to the people I allowed in, nevertheless, at the end of my time on Facebook a lot of these connections felt bizarre to me. Too many (unknown) people had access to too much of my life, which made me feel deeply uneasy. As someone who had existed for a long time in the pre-digital, pre-internet era, I found exposing myself to all and sundry disturbing and not at all reflective of real-life socialising.

One of the things I liked least about Facebook was that these more distant kinds of Facebook “friends” (the online acquaintances) were able to message me whatever they liked. This was a real problem when it came to men at times: in particular men who seemed to have developed a bit of a crush on me, as happened occasionally. Combine that romantic interest with a bit of mansplaining, unsolicited advice, and alcohol, and we have a “winning” combination. I’ve come back to the archive of my Facebook messages in recent months to have a look at some of the messages I received during those ten years on Facebook, and I’m re-examining what they mean in the #metoo era. It’s even more alarming to me now (than it was then) to notice how entitled some men feel to barge on in to one’s personal space with little emotional regulation, offering themselves and their sexist “advice” in equal measure. Read More

Why My Teeth Clench and My Shoulders Seize Up: Sexual Abuse and Coming to Terms with Trauma in the #MeToo Era.

MWmetoo.jpg

When I think about writing this piece, I notice that my teeth are clenched and my shoulders are raised. I also feel that familiar, pleasant, slightly floaty feeling as if I’m not really here. I stare out the window vaguely without focus. It’s called dissociation, and I’ve only recently learned to label it as such. It’s pleasant, because it allows me to leave a painful situation, mentally, to check out, even if my body isn’t coping.

I’ve been encouraged for a few years by well-meaning medical folk to deal with the underlying trauma that is a contributing factor in my chronic illness; and I’ve tried hard to identify and move through it. I have had debilitating symptoms for over a decade now, most of which seem untreatable. I won’t delve into the full story of my health problems right now: suffice to say these symptoms and my pain levels are bad enough to stop me from leading a normal life.

My osteopath is currently working on trying to get my shoulders to relax and resume their normal position, back and down. Instead, they sit upwards and forwards, and are chronically knotted; so tightly that my nerves are affected and my arms go numb when I sleep every night. When I first returned to him last year, he said to me “What’s going on? It’s like you’re bracing for someone who’s coming at you.” We’ve talked about the Fight or Flight response, and also the Freeze response, in which your body freezes, but your mind takes a holiday in order to protect itself. In other words, dissociation. It seems I’m freezing up in anticipation of a threat, most likely a threat long gone.

It’s slow progress trying to deal with the trauma, and the illness I have. I’m not really getting anywhere fast, however, I think I have finally realised that the bulk of my underlying trauma has been caused by decades of sexual abuse, in one form or another. It was difficult for me to arrive at this conclusion. I had a troubled upbringing complete with emotional abuse and unhealthy primary relationships, three near-drowning experiences, and my father died after a horrible, protracted illness during my 30s, which I had to deal with and grieve with almost no support. It was easy for me to focus on these things as the cause of my trauma, and indeed, I’m certain they all contribute and are significant. But, the trauma wasn’t shifting, even after almost 15 years of therapy. Daily meditations were not calming my system, nor were significant dietary changes or regular exercise.

However, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last year, it forced me to re-evaluate my life extensively, particularly in terms of my relationships with men and boys, and I came up with some startling conclusions: almost all of my relationships with men and boys have involved some form of sexual abuse, assault, misconduct, or (at a minimum) coercion. In varying degrees, of course, but there has, much more often than not, been something inherently disrespectful and harmful in these relationships. Or, these relationships were inappropriate in other ways: for example, abuses of power and authority by those of advanced age and status that left me feeling used and that wasted precious years of my youth. Add to this inappropriate behaviour on casual dates, decades of street harassment, sexualised images of women on screen and in print, inappropriately sexualised behaviour by teachers, and from men in society in general and being molested as a child by a male babysitter, and you have a pretty overwhelming picture. In short: I think I found my trauma, the behemoth, the ogre-lurking-in-the-shadows, the overwhelming pile of steaming feculence that has derailed my life and my health. Read More

Married At First Sight’s Dean and Tracey: When Traditional Gender Expectations Mean “I Love You”.

As women we are sold so many lies about our gender, about what constitutes a good life for us, about what we should aim for and want for ourselves. About what we can and can’t do, and what we’re capable and incapable of. How we should look, act and feel. One of the grandest lies we are sold pertains to marriage, and that it should assume a crowning centrality in our lives. Marriage is the glittering pinnacle towards which all women should climb, and along with motherhood, should be the Holy Grail of our existence. Being marriageable is a measure of a woman’s worth. I know that I personally have, and continue to fall into the pitfall of feeling unworthy and unloveable because I am unmarried. There is a deep yearning (seemingly in my psyche) to have my loveability validated by a man declaring his undying, unconditional love for me, that, even as a card-carrying feminist, I cannot shake. Being marriageable is a measure of a woman’s worth. I repeat that statement because until quite recently in the West, what a woman could bring to a marriage financially (her dowry) was of the utmost importance. Also, her youth, her health, her ability to be impregnated were assets traded, sold even, from one family to another. Thankfully these days, in the West most people adopt a model of marriage as a love match, but residues and remnants of a woman’s literal worth and its trading are still apparent in the majority of wedding ceremonies, even those claiming to be non-traditional. The giving of an engagement ring is a deposit on your bride to be; the bigger the deposit, the more she is worth to you. The giving away of the bride, from one man (the bride’s father, usually) to another (the groom), as if she is a possession, merely chattels. The highly decorative way the woman is dressed, as if she is a wrapped present, often complete with bows, sparkles, vast swathes of cloth for the man to untie and unwrap at the end of the day. It surprises and saddens me how many of these ceremonial traditions are upheld (along with many others), as if a marriage ceremony couldn’t be reconfigured to truly respect women, to reflect the progress that has been made in recent decades; as if, somehow, a wedding is not a wedding without these elements. As a feminist, unmarried woman, I’ve thought about this a lot, as a way to assuage my own somewhat embarrassing yearning to be married, and maybe more to justify to myself why, in fact I wouldn’t want it. But a marriage is not the same thing as a wedding, and with a partner of 13 years, I’ve surely experienced – by now – something quite similar to what a marriage is; and yet there’s a niggling part of me that still desires that our relationship have public recognition, complete with declarations of love, a ceremony, a wedding, even if most of the traditions and trappings would be abandoned in what would be a truly feminist celebration. Weird isn’t it? Yes, but no. Read More

Not Quite Here Yet: Living in the Aftermath of Child Molestation

MeMatt2

When I think about it I feel like I am made up of a billowy, wavy outline, that I am a container or a vessel with delineated edges but hollow inside. When I think about it I feel the electric heat of pain in this space, a shimmering, wobbly centre of self that fragments and becomes disoriented, incoherent. Pieces of a put-together-puzzle come apart and float about. I am not in my body. It hurts to breathe, I feel a pressure outside of my ribs behind me, as if there is a monkey on my back. I am frozen. I breathe shallowly and quickly and wish to flee. I rock gently.

This is how the story goes:

When I was 4 years old I was molested by a male babysitter. He was 16 or 17. I say “I was molested” but the truth is that both my brother and I were. My brother Michael*, who was 7 at the time, remembers what happened that day, but I do not. Or, rather, I have memories of that day, memories of the babysitter, clear ones even, but I don’t remember being molested.

I found out that I had been molested when I was 19.

A few days before finding out, I was talking to my brother’s (now ex) wife Jane* about the sexual and physical abuse in her family and in her own childhood. I wondered out loud whether I had also been sexually abused. It was an odd thing to say – I had no memories or reason to think this, it was more of a feeling, a gut response. Nevertheless, I said it. The question floated on the air.

Read More