Trigger warnings: negativity, negative emotions, suicide, self-injury, controversial opinions
What’s acceptable in this world? What isn’t? What’s healthy, what’s unhealthy?
Something I’ve learned over the years, both from being and interacting with members of marginalized and often vulnerable groups: every action serves a purpose and meets a need.
Does that mean that every action is equally valid and effective? No, absolutely not. Some actions cause harm to others, which is not ok (though we could debate all day long what “harming others” even means, and if it’s ever ok to harm someone in the short term while helping them or someone else in the long term. I have my opinions, but I’m not going to get into that debate today). Some actions may harm oneself in the short-term while helping oneself in the long-term, or vice versa, or even do both simultaneously. Some actions are more or less effective than others in reaching the desired outcome.
But all actions serve a purpose and meet a need. Regardless of appropriateness or healthfulness (though who decides these things?), if an action is abruptly stopped without being replaced, the need will go unmet.
Consider a young child. Children are some of the most vulnerable people. They have hardly any power over their own lives. As such, their caregivers must meet their needs that they don’t yet have the skill or power to meet on their own. The problem is, the adults in their lives don’t always know what these needs are.
So the child screams, and runs out the door. Or hits, or bites, or knocks over another kid’s toy, or doesn’t finish their vegetables. An adult may say “stop”, “listen to me”, “don’t do that”, “hands are not for hitting”. (“Why?” asks the child. “Because I said so,” says the adult.)
Good luck getting a 4-year-old to listen to that reason. But what if they do? Let’s say we have a 4-year-old with exceptional self-control (though of course…who still has only been alive for 4 years. That’s only 4 years of learning all the myriad, complicated, messy rules and skills one needs to be a successful human being in their culture.) They listen, and stop, without discussion or explanation…and whatever need their actions were screaming out for help with continues to go unmet. So later, they try something else. Something which may be even more frustrating, both to themselves and those around them.
A screamer could be asking for attention in the only way they know how in this moment. They could be hungry, or tired, or frustrated, or angry, or overwhelmed. They might not even know themselves which of these feelings is happening, or what to do about it, and they might not have the words to say “That music is too loud and I have a headache. Can you turn it down?” They might have once had these words, but in the intensity of feelings, the words disappear. We’ve all had moments like this, moments when we’re so depleted that skills we once had are suddenly out of reach. But imagine if you only just learned that skill, and haven’t had the time to perfect and cement it? New skills slip away much more easily.
The adult says stop, so the child does. This child, like most children, is eager to please the grown-ups, the superheroes who are in charge of the world. So the need goes unmet. Their head hurts. This makes them grumpy, so they continue to “act out”. They snap at other children in the daycare center. They walk over to the radio and turn it off, without saying why or asking for permission. Words are still elusive, even moreso now than they were before. “Disobedience”. “Time Out”.
Actions not only meet needs, they are also a language. What does the scream say? Usually, “help!” Or “I’m scared!” or “This is so exciting!” or simply “!!!!!”. To stop the action, without a replacement action or solution, is to take away a voice (whether it’s our own or someone else’s). Voices are necessary for survival. It’s important to listen to actions, as we would any other language. What does it mean? Watch and listen. Consider the circumstance, situation, what you know of this person and their needs. Read the body, the face, the hands. These are also language, and give important information. Sometimes, the only way to know for sure is to ask “Do you need help? What help do you need? Is it X?”, but be aware that the answer may not come entirely in words. Words are but one of many ways of communicating.
Grown-ups are not all that different from kids. We’re all people, just some are taller and some have more experience in living. Different people take longer than others to learn different things. That’s ok, though it can affect how we act and live. Adults’ needs are usually more complex and varied than those of children. Adults are usually responsible for meeting their own needs (even if they get help along the way), and for understanding and facing the consequences of their own actions. But adults still have needs, and these needs must be met. Adults still sometimes struggle to know what their needs are, and what to do about them. Adults still sometimes act on impulses. Adults still do only what they know how to do, what they have the ability to do, and the power and freedom to do. Adults still face limitations and restrictions on their knowledge, ability, power, and freedom…some people more than others.
Some actions are more acceptable than others, but who decides that? Adults in power do. Powerful people are human just like they rest of us. They struggle to know what to do and how to do it, they sometimes act on impulses, they see the world through a cloud of their own experiences and biases, they meet their own needs however they can, they make mistakes (and sometimes learn from them, and sometimes don’t). They aren’t always right.
Some actions are more effective than others, and how is this determined? This depends greatly on the situation and the people involved. When it comes to your own life and self, the only one who can truly know is you….
One person finds eating whole wheat makes them feel happy and healthy, another has Celiac disease and can’t eat any wheat without getting sick.
One person uses the Internet to learn new things and stay connected to friends, another person must avoid the Internet because they become addicted to it and lose control.
One person expresses dark emotions in art, another finds catharsis only through a razor and skin.
Not all actions are equally effective all the time, for all people. People and situations also change. Something that was once a solution to a problem, perhaps the only solution available, may now be a hindrance for which there are better alternatives. Recognizing this is how people grow. But when it comes to one’s own life and self, the only person who can know an action’s effectiveness is the person doing it.
This is why I loathe the term “unhealthy”, in reference to pretty much anything. I’m just not sure it even has an objective definition. To call another’s life unhealthy is to take away their voice and coping skills, the only coping skills they may have right now (however poor you may think these coping skills are, they are still allowing that person to survive).
Like with children, the actions of adults also communicate something. If someone wants to change and you want to help them do it, listen. Listen to their words, their faces, their hands, their bodies, their tones. Listen to their actions. What need is the action meeting? Are there other ways of meeting this same need, that perhaps cause less harm to them or to you? Do they have the knowledge, skills, power, and freedom for this other solution? If they don’t yet, can you help them gain these things? Can you help them meet their need? If you can’t, or they don’t want you to (which is ok), can you just be there with and for them where they are right now?
If I had to name one purpose for my activism, it would be to remind myself and others that we’re ok…just as we are at this very moment.
It’s ok if you’re struggling.
It’s ok if not everything you do is awesome all the time (even things you’re really good at and take pride in).
It’s ok if you’re sad, or angry, or scared, or all of the above. It’s ok to show and talk about your emotions, whatever they may be.
It’s ok to do whatever it is you need to do to cope.
It’s ok if you don’t even know what you’re feeling and what you need to do to cope.
It’s ok if you’re not always a good friend. (Nobody is all the time).
It’s ok if you’re still learning how to be an adult.
It’s ok if you don’t always like yourself. (Nobody does all the time).
It’s ok if you don’t fit in.
It’s ok to ask for help, in whatever way you can.
It’s ok if you’re not always strong.
It’s ok if you feel like you’re that screaming 4-year-old child.
It’s ok to scream.
And it’s ok to grow and change. It’s ok to learn new and better ways of coping, of reaching your goals, of living, of being. But only if and when you want to, and are ready.
Until then, you’re ok… just as you are
Things that inspired and influenced this post (thank you so much, authors and creators!) Same trigger warnings apply.