Jackalope

I became a rabbit:
soft and limber for the arrows—
a leaping, bending prey. My black pearl
eyes blind to my own blood

My breath matched the rhythm:
Nock. Release. Nock. Release.
pacing my heart
to your needs— it was easy.

But the trail of felled victims
tugged at me before sleep:
Here my buried voice, there my buried will.
I was complicit, complacent, completely
certain I could be palatable

No more. I’ve exhumed
and stitched back those shaken parts—
Antler, claw, tongue, and scale.
My will a jagged tusk, my voice a howl

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How to Negotiate Boundaries

Sometimes I would rather bend myself into a different species completely, like a rubbery balloon dog, than have to confront anyone. There’s a belief floating in the ether: the more we put up with, the better, nicer, and stronger we are.

But watching our boundaries crumble around us, while others put out metaphorical cigarette butts on everything we hold dear, is a path that can only lead to illness. In When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté proposes that when we repeatedly suppress our experiences and our emotions to placate or protect others, our bodies find ways to express what we’ve buried. This can manifest as physical illness such as fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and even cancer. It can also present as mental health issues such as anxiety and major depression.

Asserting our needs is an essential and healthy part of self-care, just like brushing our teeth, listening to good music, and eating peanut butter straight from the jar. (Okay, maybe that last one’s not for everyone.) The trouble is, establishing and maintaining boundaries requires a good deal of communication, and much of that can seem overwhelmingly difficult. The following are some strategies I’ve found helpful when I need to make my needs known.

1. Give Yourself the Space to Feel Emotions Prior to Speaking 
It is challenging to feel assertive when we’re smoothing away a snot-bubble with a damp sleeve. It is also difficult to keep a conversation on track when we feel like smashing every hideous decorative plate we might see. Therefore, having a gulf of time to breathe, reflect, and really feel the emotions brought about by our conversational partner’s transgressions is essential. Whether it’s acknowledging the hurt caused by a partner repeatedly talking over us, feeling the flush of anger when a relative passive-aggressively judges our appearance, or experiencing the hot shame in the aftermath of a friend admonishing our parenting style, sitting with the discomfort of our emotions now will prepare us for a more productive conversation later. We should always aim to validate our own experiences. By doing this, we will be calmer and more confident when the  talking time comes, and we will experience less confusion about our feelings.

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The space you choose doesn’t need to be your therapist’s couch, but it can be. 

2. Create a Specific Goal
While we can’t predict the outcome of the conversation (we can’t stop anyone from rage-joining the military to spite us), we can prioritize what we want to say. If there is an issue because our partner isn’t spending enough time with us as we’d like, it would be unproductive to bring up that time they said they’d vacuum and then didn’t. In general, we should aim to keep our conversations related to one issue at a time, and we should avoid speaking just to make a point. The other reason to keep our goals clear and narrow, is that it will give the other person less leeway to bring in their own unrelated grievances (“Yeah, but in high school you—”).

Having a specific goal in mind will also save us if our conversational partner happens to have dramatic tendencies. Sometimes, when people get defensive, they throw any kind of soap operatic plot twist to derail the conversation and manipulate us.

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“You can’t call me out! I’ve got knots in my legs! Also, I’m a literal chew toy! From space!

3. Frame Issues from Your Perspective
We can try to guess what our friend was thinking when they showed up at our house at three in the morning, half-cut and with a fever of one-hundred-and-four, but it is best if we simply presume not to know. Trying to label our conversational partner’s feelings for them is futile. Instead, we should frame things by explaining how their actions affect us. Granted, these kinds of statements are squarely in Dr. Phil’s neighbourhood, but he’s not wrong. We can only know ourselves, (and even then, the waters can get fairly murky). Therefore, it is more useful to say, “I feel hurt and embarrassed when you mock my laughter in front of your friends,” than “look, I know you want to seem funny by putting me down, but fuck you sincerely.” (Although that last one can feel damn good to fantasize about.)

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How I frame everything. 

4. Be Clear
That being said, it is important to avoid sugarcoating the issue. If we’re not used to confronting someone about their behaviour, we might be tempted to use diminutive words  to qualify our experiences and make ourselves seem smaller and unimportant. These include words such as “maybe”, “a little bit”, “kind of”, and “a tad”. For instance, saying, “Hey, uh, it sort of bothers me a little when you wipe some of your boogers on some of my furniture sometimes,” sends an ambiguous message, like maybe it’s okay if this person continues to wipe their smallest boogers under your table, as long as you aren’t looking. It’s normal to want to be seen as a nice person, but there will be people out there who will paint any assertion we have as a villainous and evil affront to their way of life. It is therefore better to take the plunge and say what we mean, even if we have to be Senator Palpatine in their mucus-glazed eyes.

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This plant is the only thing as prickly and villainous as I am.

5. Know When to Listen and When to Walk Away
In a healthy exchange, our conversational partner will likely have some valuable feedback. They might explain their reasoning, ask questions, and becoming active in understanding our boundaries. They might negotiate, and this too can be productive, as long as it is done respectfully and with our mutual wellbeing in mind. Conversations like these are challenging and require us to remain calm and open, but they are ultimately conducive to the goal we’ve established. As long as the person is not derailing our experiences by being deflective or defensive, or downright mean, it can be beneficial to us to listen to their side.

However, if our conversational partner makes excuses for their behaviour, speaks aggressively, tries to intimidate us with threats or by breaking stuff, or calls us names, it is time to pack up our little hopes and dreams and get precisely the hell out of their line of fire. Depending on the severity of their reaction, we may choose not to interact with this person again. Sometimes a boundary might mean not interacting with a toxic person at all. This is often easier said than done. For instance, if this person happens to be the joint parent of our children, or our boss, it may be difficult to ignore them. But wherever possible, we should aim to cut toxic people from our lives, because this will enable us to be better friends, partners, parents, and employees in the long run.

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This is precisely where some relationships belong.

6. Know When to Exchange Apologies
By now, we should have had time to reflect upon and understand the situation leading to our difficult conversation. It is important to be honest with ourselves: did we mess up? If so, giving an apology will show good will and demonstrate our willingness to work things out with our conversational partner. But if not? Unnecessary apologies can be every bit as damaging as withholding a warranted “sorry”. In the same way using words like “maybe”, and “just a bit”, can make our statements fall flat, unnecessary apologies will obscure our message. We shouldn’t apologize for someone else’s behaviour, nor should we apologize about having feelings or healthy boundaries. “I’m sorry you think I’m ugly, Grandma, but I wish you wouldn’t make rude comments about me”, is not helpful because it removes Grandma’s responsibility to cop to her shitty behaviour.

We should also note that some apologies are not worth accepting. If our conversational partner says, “I’m sorry, but here’s a string of excuses and also you’re not perfect either, you know”, then we can politely tell them to swallow that sorry because it has less meaning than a bile-filled bubble of a burp. (More politely than that, probably.)

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This isn’t so constructive.

7. Make a Plan
We’ve made it through our main talking points, listened to our conversational partner’s feedback, and exchanged sincere apologies if they were warranted. Now we can ask questions such as, “can we agree not to talk politics at work?” or, “will you keep comments about my parenting to yourself from now on?” This gets closure on the issue, and ensures we have a mutual understanding of our expectations going forward. These closing statements are the last big cringey thing we need to say before we can stop feeling like hack lawyers and get back to the business of maintaining our refurbished boundaries.

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I’ve got my planner ready, now all I need is your continued respect. 

8. Treat Yourself
That was a difficult experience, and if we’re still shaking from the adrenaline of asking for basic respect, we should definitely do something nice for ourselves. This can take the form of a night out with friends, a trip to the movies, or a solid chunk of brown sugar. The important thing is that we feel relaxed and comforted — we stuck up for ourselves and didn’t take anyone’s crap today.

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I often treat myself by looking deep into this silly creature’s eyes. 

When our guts twist and we feel the hot emotions of hurt, it is important that we become aware of our feelings. By acknowledging this, we can become our own best advocates and share our concerns with others in a clear and personal way. This ultimately ensures that we are building relationships with people who genuinely care about our wellbeing.

 

How To Deal with Bigoted Family Members

It’s strange, isn’t it? A relative can be the picture of kindness: they may volunteer for meaningful causes and donate money to charity, provide us with hugs and encouragement, and give us heartfelt birthday gifts, only to turn around and spew hatred against groups that aren’t “like them.” This may come in the form of jokes or mistaken beliefs, the use of language (such as mentioning what ethnicity a driver appears to be when it has no bearing to their story), or a more upfront, sweeping statement about a group of people. It can be difficult to reconcile the love we feel for our family while becoming increasingly aware of their un-lovable prejudices. The following is a list of ways to troubleshoot dealing with family members who have bigoted opinions. If number 1 doesn’t work, we may proceed to number 2, and so on. But one word of advice: know your own values. There is no single right way to go about doing this, and much of it will depends on what you find important in your life. Good luck!

1. Consider Yourself and Consider Them
The most crucial step when evaluating anyone’s behaviour is this old nugget: put yourself in their shoes. After all, not all bigoted opinions are created equal. One person may simply be unaware that they are using a slur when they speak with enthusiasm about their “G*psy lifestyle.” This is very different than say, the great-uncle who’s convinced there is such a thing as the “homosexual agenda” and consistently spits venom about it. It’s also important to realize that we may have our own bigoted beliefs; even though we may have the most open of minds, it’s hard not to internalize certain opinions. We are, after all, partly products of our society. To give you an example, in high school I was actually quite anti-feminist: I considered other girls and women to be my competition, I believed that I wasn’t like “other girls”, and I thought that traditionally “feminine” behaviours or hobbies were beneath me. Luckily, I eventually learned the error of my ways. The same can be possible for family members with bigoted opinions. Are they affected by internalized misogyny, racism, and homophobia? Are they unaware of their prejudices? Are they acting out of fear, because the world is quickly changing around them, and they just can’t seem to keep up? The answers will help you determine whether they are willing to change or not. Remember your own humble beginnings as well: no one is perfect.

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I’ll gladly put myself in these particular shoes…

2. Ask a lot of Questions
Suppose you aren’t sure how deep the bigotedness goes? A good way to test the waters is by asking a lot of questions. And this has an added bonus: asking questions will give the person the opportunity to examine their own beliefs (though whether or not they actually do this is up to them). For instance, suppose a relative makes a joke at the expense of an ethnic group. Not cute, right? Depending on how they are, they may either expect to elicit a laugh or get a rise. But what if you don’t play into their game? Instead, ask them: “I don’t get it — why is that funny?” They will either dole out an awkward explanation, a sheepish “never mind”, or, if they’re feeling bold, they may delve into a disturbing diatribe about why it is, in fact, funny. Either way, you now have a better idea about what you’re dealing with, without being complicit in their prejudice. Asking people to explain why they hold certain beliefs is another good option: “Why do you think that?” Playing the ingenue will let the person’s bigoted opinions stand out for what they really are: nonsensical and unfounded.

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Families can be tough…

3. Model Appropriate Behaviour
This step is always important, and hopefully it can become one’s default mode of being. Especially during family reunions, when there may be impressionable children or youth that may actually have a well-defined sense of right versus wrong, but, because of their deference to authority, may feel voiceless in expressing their opinions. It becomes important to be the person who speaks fairly. We can model appropriate behaviour by catching those mis-spoken stories and re-framing them: “Then the lady doctor did x”,  becomes “And what did the doctor do next?” We can also gently report facts: “Actually, that’s a common misconception, the majority of Indigenous people in Canada do pay taxes.” Note that indisputable facts are most effective here; there is often little point in offering a different opinion, as the person will be an expert in giving their own opinions. If, after giving the person a few facts to mull over and a period of time to do so, they still resort to parading their bigoted beliefs, realize that it is not merely ignorance that you are facing, now. This person does not want to modify their beliefs because it serves them somehow. Likely, their beliefs give them a false sense of superiority, security, morality, or intelligence. Furthermore, it may be the unfortunate case that if the person happens to be older, they may use this as “evidence” that you are simply naive and uneducated about the ways in which the world really works. Older people often do have wisdom, but this does not preclude them from mistaken beliefs and feelings of hatred towards others.

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This robot is the ideal model for positive behaviour, but his cuddly side does leave something to be desired. 

4. Set Boundaries
Suppose we have tried all of the preceding steps to no avail. We’re still assaulted with a barrage of homophobic monologues during our visits. The next step is to set boundaries, for ourselves and our sanity, for the aforementioned children exposed to these toxic viewpoints, and for, in this particular example, our LGBTQ friends who may not be present but who would be saddened or hurt by these remarks. We must not allow hatred to fester, and we can do this by telling our relatives statements such as: “I love coming over and visiting you, but these remarks are really starting to make me feel sad/hurt/frustrated/, and I would appreciate if we could talk about something else.” Or, “let’s not spoil this dinner by talking politics!” Or, “In our house, we’ve decided to love and accept everybody equally, and we would appreciate if you would respect this while you’re here.” Doing this takes courage: despite your best intentions and your most gentle demeanour, you may anger or offend your relative (sometimes people are offended because they feel ashamed), but if this is the case, recognize that their reaction is more about themselves than about you. Weigh it out and decide what’s more important to you.

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Please leave your racist monologues on the other side of this line. 

5. Give an Ultimatum
Generally, I am not a proponent of ultimatums, especially when we are not sincere or serious about them. Often they are used to heighten the drama of a situation without providing a real solution. But supposing we’ve tried all of the other steps here and our relative still decides to be disrespectful, it may be time to pull this out. You can put it in writing; sometimes it’s easier to say something difficult without being interrupted or being at the mercy of our possible lack of verbal proficiency. But there is no one right way to do this. It may look something like this: “I have asked you several times not to do X while we are visiting, because it makes me feel like Y. I feel like if this were to continue, we might have to shorten/call off/eliminate our visits.”

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Don’t use this as a template. 

6. Distance Yourself
Oh boy, still nothing? We may have to ask ourselves how much our relative really cares about our feelings at this point. Are they saying things to aggravate us because it’s somehow funny to them? Are they showing us any goodwill or respect for our feelings? Even after we’ve explained to them the damage this inflicts on our relationships? If it seems more important to them to have their racist spiels, sexist jokes, homophobic rants, and hateful diatribes, it may be worth asking ourselves a very difficult question: is this the kind of person we want in our lives? This may be painful, but perhaps it is necessary. For example, the lesbian woman who has the aunt that continuously denigrates what she call her “lifestyle choices”, may be making a healthy choice by distancing herself from a person who is consistently hurting her. Again, there is no rules about when and how to do this. What one person tolerates may be different for someone else. But sometimes it can be better to handpick our families and fill them with people who love and support us for who we are.

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Ah, peace at last. 

While we will almost always have disagreements and arguments with family members, some of them are more serious than others. We must know ourselves and our own values, and take the appropriate steps to act upon them. Wherever possible, we should seek to promote education and tolerance among those closest to us. We can do this by first considering where they come from, model appropriate behaviour, and correct their mistaken assumptions with facts. When all else fails, we must resort to what is healthiest for ourselves.