Tag Archives: safety

Not all dogs

Not all dogs outside are free to just run at a cat. Not all dogs would, on getting to a cat, savage it. But some do. I’ve heard awful stories of cats killed outright by dogs, and cats left with lifelong injuries after dog attacks. I’ve been there for times when loose dogs ran at my cat. It isn’t friendly, it’s frightening.

We’re used to dogs dominating in public spaces. So many people treat dogs chasing cats as normal, natural behaviour that they clearly feel they should make no effort to deal with it. Not so long ago I watched a loose dog in a park hurtle off after a cat and chase it out onto a road. Luckily no one was hurt.

Not all dogs bite people. Most don’t. But the dog that runs at you may be big enough to knock you down if you are small, or your balance isn’t good. You don’t know, as it runs at you, whether it will bite you, or your cat, or if it might gouge your flesh when it jumps up. A large dog scrabbling at your body can tear clothing and draw blood.

Loose dogs in public spaces are normal. Dogs that seem aggressive to people who do not know the dog, are among us. Dogs whose behaviour is problematic for people, and cats who also want to use the space. But the aggressive dog paired with the indifferent owner can and will dominate the space and as a worried person, or a cat, you can run away or try to protect yourself, but what you can’t do is demand that the space be made safer for you.

The gender parallels are pronounced. To be in a public space with a female body is a lot like being a cat. To be gender non-conforming, to stand out in some way, to be unusual, is to be a cat. Not all dogs will go after you, but you can’t always tell by looking. 

I think the majority of people reading this blog would find it easy to understand why dogs need to be kept under careful control. I don’t think anyone would imagine that being a cat somehow makes it ok to be chased, frightened, bitten or maybe killed. But we still talk about female safety in terms of clothing choices, and not going out at night. Having a female body is not so very different from having a cat body – neither body is a justification for violence. Neither body is asking for it, ever.


Peeling off a label

I don’t really identify with gender. However, the practical reality is that I have a female-appearing body and because of that I am subject to the sexism and hazards women face. I have identified with feminism, but I’m increasingly unsure about what the word now means, or whether I want to be part of it.

I definitely do not want to be part of the white feminism that talks over the global majority or treats them as victims to be saved. I don’t want to be part of the way white feminism can be complicit in racism, and in perpetuating racial stereotypes. 

I do not want to be part of the cis-feminism that is so quick to shout ‘erasure’ if there’s a person with a cervix in the room or a parent who gave birth. I’m sick of the actual erasure of non-binary folk and trans folk and how that impacts on their safety. Our safety. I’m sick of the idea that acknowledging trans and non-binary folk somehow undermines or harms the idea of womanhood or female identity. 

I do not want to be part of the biological essentialism that causes so much pain to women who don’t have all of the ‘woman parts’ – the women who were born with different bodies, the women who have lost body parts or functions to illness, accident and operations and who should not have their identity threatened by this. Not everyone who thinks of themselves as female bleeds, for many different reasons. I don’t want to be part of a feminism that throws women under a bus for not conforming enough to gender stereotypes.

I do want women to be safer. I want an end to gender based violence and to all other forms of gender inequality. I want equality of respect and dignity, I want equal chances of healthcare needs being met, I want an end to the pay gap. I want everyone to be safer, and to do that we have to deconstruct patriarchal and colonial structures and mindsets. I want to work with anyone who is pushing for that. I want an end to racism, and classism and ableism. They’re all interconnected.


Self care and feeling good

I don’t do performative femininity. I have a very female-appearing body but for most of my adult life, I haven’t wanted to present that for the male gaze, or do any of the things that feel like performance. As a consequence, I’m not going to be uplifted by a make-over. I don’t want a new hairstyle, I am not cheered by new shoes (unless those shoes are practical). The kinds of things that are often pedalled as self care and feelgood options aren’t going to work for me. I also worry about the way adverts pitch performative femininity as self-care so much of the time.

We’re in the season when the diet industry doubles down on the message that to be happy you have to be thin, and that being thin will solve all of your problems. The fashion industry, which is greatly harmful to the planet, tells us that happiness, confidence and a better life are available if we buy new clothes. The car industry shows us how a new car will make us feel better. Psychologists however are pretty clear that once your basic needs are met, material wealth doesn’t do much to improve your happiness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what actual self care might mean. Being warm enough is important – I’m fortunate in that I can afford at the moment to heat my home to a reasonable temperature in winter. I grew up in cold houses with ice on the windows, I’ve lived in badly insulated, badly heated places, I’ve had plenty of years when money was tight. If I’m not warm, my body gets stiff and sore more easily.  I’m a big fan of snugly blankets and hot water bottles too – these feel like self-care. There are days when it takes some effort to remember that I am allowed to be comfortable.

Self care is one of the things you aren’t allowed to do properly when you live with an abusive person.  One way or another, you won’t be allowed to be comfortable. Being warm enough may cost too much and not be worth it if you’re dealing with someone who is financially controlling. Your bodily wellbeing may be constantly framed as something that doesn’t matter. Feeling ok can become being selfish and unreasonable when you are being gaslit. Learning how to feel like I matter has not been easy, but self care is nigh on impossible without that basic assumption in place.

One of the mental shifts I needed was to start seeing my feeling good as something that mattered. I’ve had a lot of years in my life under pressure to treat myself as the least important thing, and even in kinder circumstances, those habits are hard to break. It is no longer the case that self care might actually put me at risk. I can say no to things, I can ask for nice things – if I can work out what those are. I can ask for care, support, help and time off without risking wrath or ridicule. It’s taken a while to get here and I suspect I still have a lot to learn.

I see a lot of other folk online who clearly find it hard to look after themselves. Not because they’re daft, or incompetent, or masochistic, but because they too do not know when it is ok to treat that like it matters. This is hard stuff to figure out on your own, and easier to do collectively. How do we meet our own needs? What even are those needs? Because they probably aren’t the ones we’re being encouraged to imagine by the adverts we encounter every day.  What can we do to feel safer, be well, be comfortable, be happy? That may call for some uncomfortable poking around in the reasons that we don’t feel entitled to those basic things in the first place.

Self care can be really hard. Feeling good can seem transgressive, even dangerous. Sometimes it is – which is a sure sign that you need to get the hell out as soon as you can. Everyone should have the time and resources for a life with gentleness, peace, rest and restorative things in it.


Learning to cry

I was bullied a fair bit as a child. I learned that mostly what bullies want is to make you cry, and that when you cry, the childhood ones soon lose interest. I learned to cry quickly, that to get it over and done with was safest. I did not cry for myself then, I was crying to placate other people with my pain and humiliation.

Somewhere in my early teens I changed tack. I wasn’t going to be humiliated any more. I wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of making me cry. And so, in a determined way I became someone who mostly did not cry in front of other people. I became emotionally unavailable. There were still people intent on reducing me to tears, but I didn’t co-operate with them anymore. It didn’t solve everything, but I liked me better as someone stony and refusing to show distress.

In my twenties, the man I was married to told me that all of my emotional expressions were suspect and seemed manipulative. What tears there were he treated as emotional blackmail. I tried harder with the not crying around anyone. At this point, in my forties, I’m really good at not crying. I’m so good at it that I don’t reliably let out emotions that I need to express and I’m working to change this.

It does help to go off on my own. Making solitary physical space to cry in makes it easier to let go. Having people around me who will let me go off and deal with my feelings in this way is also really helpful.  I notice that comforting me shuts me down, so I’ve started asking the people I am closest to not to do that, and to give me the space to cry. If I need to cry I don’t really want to be soothed, which feels like pressure to stop crying.

I’m going to be working on this. Giving myself permission to cry. Giving myself space to cry. Treating my tears as acceptable and necessary, and not something to be ashamed of. Yes, emotional expressions from me may not always be comfortable for everyone else, but I’m learning to be ok with that. At the moment, I am safe, and the people around me are not going to become dangerous to me if I make them feel slightly uncomfortable. I’m also not dealing with anyone for whom making me cry is entertaining and there is no one in my life using my tears to disempower me. I can afford to cry.

Unexpressed grief is a heavy thing to carry. Letting that out of my body might be messy, but it will be better moving forward.


Emotional Processing

I’ve noticed in recent months that there are some emotions I don’t process quickly. This has been true for some time – years certainly. Before that, I think I just didn’t get round to feeling them at all. I don’t tend to become cross or upset in the situation causing it. I can have a rapid response with a panic trigger, but often in the short term with those I just freeze.

It can take me a few days to work out that I feel cross, hurt, upset, unfairly treated, let down and things of that ilk. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the realisation – I suspect the unconscious parts of my mind are better at processing this. During the figuring out process, I have tended to spend time asking if my response is fair and reasonable. Am I over-reacting? Should I be more understanding of the situation? Is it ok, and is it safe, to express distress?

I’m now questioning that fundamental issue of whether my responses are justifiable. I recognise it comes from times when I would have to justify my emotional responses – usually to someone who was not going to be persuaded of the validity of my feelings.

It’s a significant thing for me to have got to the point of saying I do not have to justify how I feel. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone and I do not need anyone’s permission for my emotional responses. I may need space and distance to feel safe with my own emotions, I’ll give that whatever room it needs. I don’t have to make sense to anyone else. I don’t have to be reasonable. If I feel something as a consequence of my history, it is valid, even if it makes little sense in the context.

With hindsight I can see that not being allowed my own emotional responses cost me a great deal in terms of sense of self. It cost me self-esteem, confidence and feelings of personhood. These experiences taught me to mistrust myself, and to surrender authority to others. To be the kind of person whose emotional responses are preposterous, unfounded, and who needs putting straight about it is to be treated as immature and childish. It is to be invalidated. I would not, I realise, even treat the emotions of a very small child having a tantrum with the same disregard and belittling that’s been shown me in the past.

To feel on your own terms is to be properly a person. To be able to express something of those feelings is a measure of being safe. To have those feelings taken seriously is a measure of being loved, respected and valued.


Risk taking and safe spaces

All too often ‘safe’ is treated like some kind of pathetic, counterproductive retreat for the innately useless. Talent show TV programs bully and ridicule the ‘talent’ as entertainment, while people who ask for safe spaces can expect to be mocked.

What happens when you give a person a safe space? Based on experience of holding safe spaces for people, and the experience of being in places where I feel safe, the results are not what might be expected. Safety has never, in my experience, resulted in people being comfortably crap. What happens instead is that people who feel safe are empowered to take risks.

A safe space means a space where you will be treated with kindness and respect. It doesn’t mean being rewarded for messing up, but it does mean having messing up as a recognised part of being human, and striving. It’s very difficult to do anything new or groundbreaking without making mistakes. Knowing that if you try to reach high and fail, no one will kick you if you miss and fall, makes it easier to reach. People who keep reaching, achieve all kinds of things. People who are afraid to make mistakes will play it safe and will have far less scope to develop.

Recent years took a toll on my confidence. I’d largely stopped performing, I’d not MCed in ages. Getting out in public to perform and participate was not easy. If I’d been met with hostility, ridicule, or anything of that ilk, I would have stopped very quickly. Instead, I found warmth, friendship, permission and opportunity. I felt braver as a consequence. Last week I ventured to sing one of my own songs, and I’ve pushed repeatedly to do things that were outside the comfort zone. It’s been possible to face down my anxiety because I’ve been in the company of people I know are on my side.

Alongside that, I’ve watched others take risks and flourish, finding skills they hadn’t known they possessed. Safe space makes that possible.

As a culture, we’re addicted to competition, and to the humiliation of others. We’re collectively quick to pull down and stomp on those who, in reaching for something better, stumble a bit. It’s not a good way to get things done. A few laughs at each other’s expense, and that’s all the benefit to be had. When we support each other, the possible outcomes are far more exciting.