Category Archives: Community

Dealing with shame

Shame is a really socially informed emotion. Clearly we have it to encourage us to align with our community groups, which for most of history we’ve depended on for survival. Also clearly there are a lot of modern humans who feel no shame for the harm and pain they cause. Alongside this there is the question of who we make ashamed, and what it costs to be part of a group.

If the shame is deserved because harm has been caused, then the answer is to do something restorative. We all make mistakes, that’s just human. We will all mess up and hurt other people, and feeling shame in face of that is a strong prompt to get in there and fix things. If we’re able to respond to our mistakes with restorative action it should be easy enough to draw a line under things and move on, learning from the shame but not feeling burdened by it.

If the shame is underserved because no harm has been done, then it can be hard to live with. I’m thinking about the many ways in which we make people feel ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, their perfectly harmless lifestyle choices and so forth. Making people feel bad about innocent things will diminish them. It serves a social function, too. This kind of shame is all about who has the right and the power to express themselves and who is powerless and made to fit in.

It is hard to overcome shame on your own. This is fundamentally a social issue so the solutions need to be social as well. Unshaming someone can be a collective project. It’s why we need Pride events, to help counter a long history of encouraging queer people to be ashamed of ourselves. It’s why so many minority groups take up similar approaches – asserting the right to exist and to be as you are without having to feel badly about it is a work in progress for a lot of us.

Any time we affirm each other, we are potentially helping someone feel less ashamed of themselves. It’s really powerful to have spaces where we can treat each other as valid and good, rejecting the kinds of social judgements that wound so many people. Just being nice to each other about appearance gets a lot done – there’s so much body shaming out there, so much cruelty around the accident of how anyone looks, and all too often what we’re being judged against are photoshopped images and bodies that have been surgically modified. 

I don’t really know what’s going on with people who go in for shaming others. No doubt for some it is entertaining to cause pain, but I can only see that as itself coming from places of pain, shame and inadequacy. I think you’ve got to be in a pretty awful place to want to hurt someone, or make them feel ashamed of themselves over entirely harmless things. I wonder to what degree the urge to make others feel shame comes from having a great deal of internalised shame themselves. I think sometimes it comes from a desire to control others and make them smaller, which is something that comes from fear and insecurity. People often hate in others the things they can’t deal with in themselves, as with the cliche of the homophobic politician who turns out to be into gay porn and rent boys.

When you have a community you can trust, then there’s scope for affirmations to counter anything you’ve had treated as shameful. If you’re not hurting anyone else, then what you do is your own business and no one should feel entitled to tear you down over it.

Paying attention to each other

One of the things parenting taught me, is how important it is to think about what you reward. Children crave attention. If a child only gets attention when they have massive tantrums, then they have every reason to keep having massive tantrums. If you reward the behaviour you want to see, then you get a child who spends a fair amount of time doing the things you would prefer they do.

It’s much the same with adults. People who grew up being rewarded for acting out are likely to keep doing that. People who could only get attention by being destructive or harmful are likely to maintain those patterns.

We all impact on each other, we all have the power to encourage each other in any and all imaginable directions. 

It is fairly easy to try and become important and influential by being critical and putting people down. It’s easy to discourage people and rubbish their dreams and desires – you don’t need to know what you’re talking about even, to have a go at that. Obviously this is harmful for whoever is treated this way. The trouble for the person doing this, is that taking people down gives them very little. Hurting people won’t make them love or admire you, or respect your opinion. Usually what happens is people flee from that as soon as they can.

It’s very different when we choose to give our attention in more constructive ways. Positive feedback often calls for more thought, attention and understanding. You have to really engage to be able to tell someone why their art, or song, or story was good. To give meaningful positive feedback you have to invest in yourself, in your own knowledge and ability to appreciate things. That’s good all round, everyone wins. 

Making a deliberate choice to engage with the things you want to see, impacts on the people you deal with. Sometimes, the choice to be very bland and dull can do a great deal to reduce drama. By not rewarding a drama llama with attention, you give them less incentive to do that. For maximum effect, taking the time to reward them with attention for things that are good and helpful can give them a reason to change tack.

This may all sound a bit manipulative. However, it’s worth thinking about the ways in which we learn, how we are conditioned by experience. Some kinds of manipulation – as with gaslighting – are undertaken to crush people and take away their power. It is just as possible to apply similar tactics to making things better. I’ve known a few grand masters of this art, and it’s amazing what you can get done this way. People grow and flourish when they get attention for the good things they do. People heal, and become sure of themselves, they stretch and take risks.

We’re intensely social beings. We’re all to some degree affected by our social standing and our sense of how others see us. Most of us want attention and positive feedback. Really interesting things can happen when you step up to provide this deliberately. I can heartily recommend seeing the best in people and telling them about it in a way that encourages them to do more. Simply not responding much to unhealthy bids for attention can also get a lot done. Put the two together, and you can sometimes change the direction a person is going in. Most of us need incentives and reasons to try. Most of us do not grow and learn in face of knock downs, so I think it’s also important not to reward the people who deal in knock downs as a way of seeking attention.

Creating is vital

Creativity is something we all need. It’s not just about making art, and it certainly isn’t all about making art for money. Nurturing a garden is a creative thing. Parenting, being part of a community, even just socialising can call upon us to be creative. Anything we do in the course of the day can be approached creatively and enriched by that.

For most of human history, we’ve engaged with each other around the things we’ve made, individually or together. Making and sharing food is a really powerful thing. Making clothing, shelters and essential things is really bonding, and sharing in this way puts people into powerful and cooperative relationships with each other. 

For most of human history, music, stories, art and dance were things we did together. This is one of the major reasons I’m worried about how AI ‘art’ is going to impact on us all. I worry about the loss of paid work for creative professionals, and I think we’re all going to be considerably poorer if we don’t have access to new ideas from creative people. However, I think the cost around our understanding of what art is, is already much higher.

Art where you push a few buttons and a computer makes you a picture or writes you a story doesn’t allow you to meaningfully share yourself with other people. How interested would you be in the fiftieth poem your friend has got a computer to write for them? How exciting is it if your sister has made her 700th piece of AI art? Why would you even care? The first few might have the merit of novelty, but that’s all they really have. It’s not the same as going to an event and listening to a poem your friend has written. It’s not the same as watching your sister grow as an artist, image by image as she learns her craft.

Creativity should be something we do for ourselves, and to share with other people. I want everyone to have opportunities to do that. I feel strongly that we should be using the technology to free up time so that people can spend their lives doing whatever they find interesting and rewarding. What is going to happen to us, as humans if instead we use the computers to give ourselves less scope to create in meaningful ways? What if we undermine this whole aspect of what it means to be human so that a small number of people can make a profit out of it?

Shared art gives us access to beauty and joy. It is however more than that. Creativity is how we express to each other what it means to be human and how we make sense of our human experiences. When we can dance and paint, tell stories and share songs we’re sharing references for how to live and what life is for. Culture is built of our shared ideas about what matters, what’s good, meaningful and desirable. What happens to us as people if we stop doing that and have machines do it for us? There are already too many pressures on too many people making it harder to connect and share in this way.

I think there’s a lot at stake here for us as a species. I think our compassion, co-operation and relationships are greatly enhanced by sharing creatively with each other, and that if, culturally, we start thinking that art and stories are things we make by feeding a few keywords to a machine, we’re going to lose far, far more than we could ever gain.

At the limits of love

My troll has brought me some interesting challenges this week. She’s my troll now in a way that seems personal and involved. She’s been showing up here for months, so whatever this is for her, it’s clearly a significant act of dedication. Sometimes she uses a male name – perhaps like me she’s genderfluid in some way, or experimenting with her identity, but I know it’s always her, I recognise her easily enough.

Her response to my complicated heart post suggested pain and need, a desire to be cared about and to be important. She’d like me to be kinder to her, more welcoming. Never mind that her previous visit had been to call my online event a flop – but I suspect that too is something that comes from a place of pain. I know she’s desperate for attention – there’s no other reason to keep coming back here to get cross with me.

What do I do with this? I consider compassion to be an important part of my path, and generally my impulse is to try and help people. It’s hard to respond with warmth and care to someone who only ever shows up angry and wanting to pick holes. I’d genuinely love to be able to do better, but I need something I can work with.

I wish she’d tell me what she’s so unhappy about. I wish we could have a constructive conversation about that. Maybe then I could do or say something useful. I wish she’d write me a guest blog, – she could just email it to me at brynnethnimue at gmail dot com. She could send me her creative outpourings and I could put that out into the world in a supportive way and she could have the attention she needs in a better, happier sort of way. 

The connections we make with each other when we share the best of ourselves are just so much more fertile and rewarding. 

I can’t afford to care too much about someone who only shows up to try and knock me down. I’ve spent too much of my life being treated that way, and no one is going to send me back there. No one can have happy or meaningful relationships on those terms, and my heart goes out to my troll, because she seems so desperately unhappy and it’s pretty obvious that if she treats other people in her life the way she’s acting here, then there aren’t going to be close or deep relationships available to her.

Maybe she sees kindness as weakness. Maybe someone or something undermined her confidence so badly that she doesn’t know how to form meaningful connections. I can only speculate. I don’t want to leave anyone needlessly hurting and alone. 

I have limitations though. I can’t help a person if they won’t step up to change their own life. It is too much to ask that I respond to unkindness with love. People go to religions for that, for the idea of the divine parent who will love you unconditionally no matter what you do. I’m not a deity, I’m not capable of boundless and divine love. I’m human, and I have limits.

Come to me seeking help, care, support, friendship, connection… I’ll do what I can for you. Challenge me by all means, question my thinking, offer alternatives – but don’t just show up to try and smack me down, that’s not a basis for friendship, and for the person who craves attention, affection and warmth it’s a really self-harming thing to do.

Maybe dare to show up with your real name, as your real self, offering something of your own making, and you will find that there’s room for you.

Building a Community

There is more to a community than a bunch of people doing a thing. Workplaces are not usually also communities. These days, where you happen to live might well not give you any sense of community either. I think the key thing that gives us a feeling of community is the experience of being involved in each other’s lives. It doesn’t mean we have to live under scrutiny or in intense proximity or do all of our things with just the one group of people. However, when we do an array of things with the same people, and when there’s a feeling of connectedness, that can be really powerful.

I think I’m starting to see that happen around The Folk of Gloucester. There are people who are involved for love of history and the building. The desire to do something good for Gloucester as a place, and for the people of Gloucester, the desire to volunteer and to help in some way is a factor for many. There are a lot of folk drawn in by the steampunk events and the space to do steampunk stuff. There are other people drawn in by the folk side and the opportunity to do folk stuff. A number of us are looking at how to grow and expand all of that. There are a number of people connecting with each other in multiple ways.

More venues are becoming involved – in Gloucester and further afield, and the whole thing overlaps with Stroud steampunk shenanigans and also has connections into the wider steampunk community. There are a lot of Gloucester-connected folk involved with my online event at the weekend and there are all kinds of creative collaborations springing up because of our shared connections with the venue.

One of the reasons I think this is going to turn into something remarkable, is that so many people are moving towards this space with the clear intention of making something. Building connections, relating to each other in a range of ways, supporting each other in making good stuff happen… Something truly special is going on and I look forward to seeing what strange eggs it will hatch in the months (and maybe years) to come.

Celebrating childishness

“Supreme childishness in the name of “creativity”. The mind boggles.” I had this come in as a comment over on the Hopeless, Maine blog recently, and I’ve been reflecting both on the sorrowful nature of the remark, and what to do in face of it. Obviously I agreed, because silliness, playfulness and joy are very much what that site is for and I didn’t feel inclined to respond as though I was being criticised.

It grieves me that childishness is so often used as a criticism. To see the world through a child’s eyes is a wonderful thing. To want to play and explore, to feel curious and excited – these are qualities that enrich our lives. Often as adults, under pressure to be serious about everything all the time, we lose our sense of wonder. 

Then there’s the awful misunderstanding of what creativity means. What is creativity without play, without a spark of childish delight? Perhaps we should be thinking of the creativity of designing a more efficient production line or a better excuse to cover for political corruption? There are many ways of being creative, but where there is no childish innocence, no joy in the world, no desire to delight, what are we left with? Creative accounting, propaganda machines, marketing strategies… 

I’d like to be more childlike. Children can be incredibly trusting, and willing to think the best of others. Especially if they’re allowed to express themselves and feel secure and comfortable. Children are incredibly imaginative, and will be fearless about exploring ideas and expressing themselves right up until adults and older children start knocking that out of them. Childish creativity comes from places of joy and wonder, from heartfelt and unfiltered responses to the world. We can teach children and help them be wiser without having to turn them into joyless adults.

For those of us who have been pressured into sacrificing our silliness, joy and wonder… it’s not a one way ticket. Delight in the world is something we can create together, and we can support each other in doing that. Encourage people in their joy, even if what they do makes no sense to you – so long as it doesn’t harm anyone, why not? Don’t tear people down, don’t mock them for their delight – this stuff is all pretty obvious.

The more challenging question is what to do with people like the poor soul who left the comment. How do we give each other permission to put down the grim burden of having to act like a grown up all the time? How do we free each other from the idea that we have to give up on the things we used to love in order to be proper adults? One of the many good things about being silly, is that I can be silly enough to care about people who are intent on hurting themselves, rather than doing the sensible, self-protective thing of just shrugging and leaving them to it.

Washing your dirty laundry in public

With thanks to Tim for the prompt.

I remember hearing this phrase about not washing your dirty linen in public as a child from numerous different sources – as no doubt many other people did. It usually came with a sense that this would be a shameful thing to do, and that it is better not to mention whatever is awful, or sordid or painful. Historically this went hand in hand with a culture of blaming and shaming victims – something we haven’t overcome, but seem to have improved on a bit. It’s always been an issue for victims of sexual assault, where admitting what has been done to you might lead you to being shunned, rather than anything much being done about the attacker.

The idea of loyalty to the family makes it hard to speak out about intergenerational abuse. If you can’t speak, you can’t resist or get help. Silence invariably serves abusers and isolates victims. Cults operate in much the same way, promoting loyalty to the group above all else. When people feel disloyal about speaking up, or expect to be treated as though they are behaving badly if they talk about what’s been done to them, then speaking is hard, and the abuse continues.

When people feel safe to talk openly about whatever’s happening for them, then everyone is safer. It might mean now and then having to witness things that are just a bit gross, but I think that’s an acceptable price to pay. I have seen couples who were intent on doing their relationship drama where everyone could see it, for example, and that was unpleasant to deal with but it’s also easy enough not to engage with that.

Dirty linen for me evokes body fluids, all of which are entirely natural, or other kinds of dirt that are the consequences of living and working. In a historical context, linens suggest underwear and bedding, although there’s also table cloths. Washing your dirty linen in public might therefore give people ideas about what goes on in your pants, or in your bed. So, it’s an interesting metaphor because at heart it suggests we should be embarrassed about a whole array of natural, bodily things that can sometimes get messy, around sex, birth, menstruation and illness. As a Druid, I feel strongly that inevitable and natural things should not be a source of shame. We should be able to wash our dirty linen wherever we need to, for our comfort and wellbeing, not hiding out of anxiety regarding other people’s opinions.

It’s also an example where it pays to think about what we judge and why. The criticism around washing your dirty laundry in public may be a case of making comfortable people uncomfortable. It used to be much more normal for people to ignore signs of domestic abuse in those living around them. It’s only fairly recently that the police started taking domestic violence seriously at all. 

When people can talk openly about their experiences, we all get a chance to compare our notions of what might be normal or acceptable. It can be very hard for victims of domestic abuse to have a helpful perspective on what’s happening. If you have very little relationship experience, you might not know whether something is ok. If your sex education mostly consisted of porn, then you might have some really unrealistic expectations. Our young people are growing up with considerable access to porn and no real context to think about that in an informed way. Reports on abuse and violence amongst younger people suggest that what a lot of teens are learning from isn’t helping them at all. Only by talking openly and honestly about our experiences can we change this.

If someone has hurt you, threatened you, made you feel vulnerable or coerced you into doing things you did not want to do, then it’s important to be able to talk about it. Weirdness gets passed down through families in all kinds of ways, too, and if we want to change ancestral patterns and break with the past, it helps to be able to talk about it. Protecting the interests of the person who made you unhappy often isn’t the best choice.

Confidence and Community

Nervous people are less likely to try things. People with low self esteem don’t take risks so easily and may not put themselves forward. Sometimes, what it takes to lift a person so that they’ll take a chance and have a go, is heartbreakingly little. 

I’ve seen this across all the spaces I’ve worked in. Giving people the smallest boosts to their confidence can have huge consequences. Just letting people hear that they’ree good enough, welcome, acceptable, that their contribution is valid can be enough to change what they’re able to do. For anyone leading a space, handing out praise is a powerful choice that invariably brings greater engagement and effort from people.

This is something we can all do. Taking a moment just to acknowledge what someone else did will help boost their confidence. ‘Thank you’ gets a lot done all by itself. Telling people what you liked about what they did will boost their self esteem. The more we build that for each other, the more can happen in a space – be that a moot, a learning circle, a closed ritual group or anything else of that ilk. It applies just as well outside Pagan spaces, too.

Giving positive feedback also has a really interesting impact on the person doing it. It’s a powerful thing, giving praise and encouragement to someone else. If you want to lift your own confidence, then offering encouragement to someone else is a really good way to do that. Of course it also tends to lead to positive interactions. People liking each other’s stuff is a good basis for friendship. If you’re a shy and socially nervous sort of creature and assume that the people who do stuff you love won’t care about your opinion… I can promise you that anyone who appears to be a functional human being responds with delight to being told someone liked their stuff. There are exceptions but they tend to be self-announcing and a bit of observation will flag them up.

When we support and encourage people, more happens. A ritual where very few people feel able to speak or take an active role is a much poorer thing than a ritual where everyone is engaged and feels able to give of themselves. It’s the same in social spaces and creative spaces. The more able people feel, the more good stuff happens. The things that we can do to be part of that are fairly small and startlingly effective. Finding the courage to approach someone and say that you liked what they did is so powerful.

On the creative side, the vast majority of people – even the ones you’ve heard of – are struggling to make things work financially. Second jobs and/or poverty are normal. Most creative folk aren’t in it for the wealth! Which means that positive feedback is precious, and can be the difference between someone keeping going and not keeping going. So if you ever have an opportunity to tell someone whose work you love that it means something to you, get in there. You could be the difference between them keeping going and giving up.

And just to reassure you, this isn’t a thinly veiled request for positive feedback. Those ‘likes’ people leave here on the blog posts day to day are always helpful for keeping me cheered and motivated. I’m currently in good spirits about my creative life, there are lots of good things going on. 

Compromise and negotiation

A while ago, a friend of mine suggested that all relationships depend on compromise. I argued, because I think negotiation is the key and that compromise can be problematic. These days we go into things and negotiate, and no one talks about compromising, which is how I like all of my relationships to go.

Sometimes compromise is the only option, but I prefer to get there by negotiating first. Often, when the default is compromise, what it means in practice is that one person gets to do the compromising while another gets their own way most of the time. 

Negotiating, for me, starts from the idea of doing the best job possible of meeting everyone’s needs and desires. This isn’t always possible. I feel strongly about not compromising on anyone’s needs for the sake of what someone else simply wants. I know how grim things can become when needs aren’t properly recognised, and I know that when people feel able to discuss needs, that’s a clear sign of a safer sort of space.

Compromising is fine when you vary who has to actually compromise. A negotiation that leads to doing it one way this time and the other way next time is a good way of collaborating to make sure people get what they want and need. No one should feel compromised in themselves when compromising over something, that’s a definite red flag.

When people are negotiating with each other there’s usually time to explore how things work and why. Compromise can be what happens when there isn’t time to properly look at the issues. Not having space to talk things through can in turn enable situations where one person continually compromises for the benefit of the other. If there’s no room to discuss things and one party isn’t interested in even knowing what the other person feels or wants, it can be really disempowering for the person who compromises. Being persuaded that your needs don’t matter, or aren’t worthy of attention, is not a good place to be.

Negotiating is itself an act of care. Hearing people out and understanding how their needs and preferences differ from yours helps build kind and mutually supportive relationships. Asking someone to compromise is very different from assuming they will, or making it difficult for them to do otherwise. 

If you’re constantly compromised, and there isn’t room for what you need, it’s a strong indicator that this isn’t a good relationship. The person who refuses to negotiate wants things only on their own terms.

When there are conflicts of interest, if there’s also a real relationship then the only question to ask is how we find the best way through things for everyone.

Trolls and witch wars

Try to do anything and the odds are someone will think it’s a terrible idea. Just taking up space can attract peculiar reactions. Sometimes that can lead to really unpleasant behaviour. I’ve been around my share of trolls, witch-wars and other such silliness so I have insights I can share that might be useful to others.

In relationships and community spaces where we all lift and encourage each other, wonderful things happen. We’re all able to do more and be more. I’ve run all kinds of spaces over the years and there is nothing more lovely than watching how people flourish when they’re given space to do that. Believing in each other, trusting each other and thinking the best of each other invites so much that is good and joyful.

We’re not all going to get along, but the healthy response to this is to move away from people who we find problematic. If a group doesn’t work for you, starting a new group that better meets your needs is often an excellent choice. Diversifying and creating more possibilities is a winning outcome. I’ve been part of moots that formed because some people didn’t get along. While Pagans can be terrible for getting into witch wars, the process of shrugging, moving on and starting your own thing can be so productive, and I think as a community we’re getting a lot better at doing just that. Diversity is good and disagreement should just open the way to more groups doing things in different ways.

Of course if you can persuade someone that they are useless and worthless, it can shut them down. Most of the time this is not a good strategy – it’s most likely to work on people who are gentle, and unlikely to work on someone acting on dodgy motives. If someone is breaking the law, we have to deal with it on those terms and if they aren’t, we should leave them to get on with it, no matter how silly we think they are. Would-be leaders who lack for skills and ideas tend to disappear quickly enough anyway. Loud people who misrepresent the community – which has been an issue for Pagans too – will often just feed on drama, so trying to stop them can serve to amplify and encourage them. Often it’s better in such situations to just offer an alternative.

The appearance of success in some can bring out jealousy and resentment in others. Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet will run into this sooner or later, even if all you’re trying to do is run a local moot. I’ve seen so many friends go through this. It is frustrating to deal with and it can suck up a lot of time and energy if you aren’t careful. While it’s good to be open to advice and willing to hear less than positive feedback, at the same time I don’t think there’s much point paying much attention to people who only ever try to knock you down.

Some people are amazingly good at seeing the problems and pitfalls, and those are great people to have on your team. Toxic people may try to tell you that they are giving this kind of assistance, but they aren’t. If the feedback you get allows you to do more and be more effective, then it’s the good sort of hole-pickng and these people are excellent friends to have. If all the feedback does is makes you feel small, useless or unhappy, then there was probably no intention to help in the first place.

Sometimes good support looks like a person telling you where something isn’t working – as with a good book editor, or a helpful test reader. Sometimes support is having it flagged up to you that you’ve missed something important or made a mistake – it’s good when we hold each other accountable in these ways. If the feedback doesn’t enable you to do better then it really isn’t worth much. 

It can be tempting to try and persuade or appease the people who do nothing but criticise, but in my experience it’s a waste of time. They would be far better off doing their own thing, on their own terms.