This is part three of a series of posts dedicated to breaking down components of resilience. The series is an elaboration on a post I made in 2015, continued now as part of the June 2016 Carnival of Aces on Resiliency. In part one of this series, I covered tenacity. In part two, I covered affect management and positive frameworks.
In this post, I will talk about support networks and discernment. Please note that this post will discuss abuse, gaslighting, intersectional concerns such as racism, accessibility, and exclusion. These will be on an overview level, but some of the links may include upsetting details, so click through with caution.
Support networks are a crucial part of resilience, and may even perhaps be the most important factor. It’s not hard to find evidence of the health impacts of isolation or the protective effects of having supportive community. Those with strong support networks are less likely to develop PTSD and among those who still do, good support is likely to significantly reduce symptom severity.
I have personal experience with this. I had already developed PTSD in 2008 (although I wasn’t officially diagnosed until later), and at that time, there was virtually no support for asexual survivors. Because my blog is public and there is always a chance that one of my abusers might find it, I didn’t feel safe enough to discuss it back then. So I pretty much had no one to turn to. The asexual community still provided some support, but there has always been an element of antagonism towards survivors.
When Queenie started Resources for Ace Survivors, I initially missed it because by then, my blog had gained a lot more exposure, and with that came a lot of harassment by commenters who are hostile to discussions of consent. It was too much, so I withdrew from the community for a few years. During those years I was very isolated, and my symptoms were very bad. I only really had my partner for support, and sometimes a few other friends. By contrast, since I returned to the ace community and especially since I got involved with RFAS, my symptoms have gotten considerably better. It really makes a world of difference.
But it’s important to keep in mind that access to a supportive environment can be mostly a matter of luck. If your parents abused you, you’re at a disadvantage from the start. Abusive people will try to isolate you, tearing down your existing relationships and preventing you from forming new ones. You’ll be less likely to learn skills for forming healthy relationships if you don’t have any adults in your life who model them. And on top of that, you’re more likely to be targeted for further abuse if your support system is already weakened.
There are other factors to keep in mind as well. If you happen to have the “wrong” skin color in a racist world, you’ll be less likely to receive empathy and support, and more likely to receive judgment and hostility instead. You’ll be much more likely to be targeted for violence. Likewise with gender, religion, class, size, country of origin, being non-heteronormative, and all manner of other prejudices. Disability compounds this even further, since besides facing prejudice, disabled people also have to live in a world that is not built with them in mind, rendering much of it inaccessible.
For example, Facebook. It’s almost ubiquitous these days, but there are a lot of people for whom it is inaccessible. People using names that the company doesn’t think are “authentic” enough* (like ethnic minorities, trans people, political activists, and abuse survivors) may find their accounts unceremoniously deleted. Account restoration requires people to disclose sensitive personal information, and then face judgment about whether their reasons are “good enough” to allow a policy exception.** Abusers often use FB to facilitate abuse, and it is ridiculously easy to get FB to block someone’s account by sending false reports of harassment [TW: TERFs/transphobic harassment at link]. Targeting someone on FB is a win-win for abusers, because by doing so they can cut their victims off from accessing support.
And yet, how many people just reflexively use Facebook without even thinking about these things? How many communities are set up there, without considering alternatives? I can tell you that I’ve had no choice but to use it many times, myself.
This is why an intersectional approach to community-building is so important. It is not a coincidence that RFAS sees a lot of people who are marginalized on multiple axes. Vulnerability and risk are layered and multi-faceted. We need to actively attempt to remove the barriers keeping people from accessing support—many of which will be invisible to those of us with the privilege not to see them.
Sometimes, barriers are created by cultural sayings and beliefs. Sometimes people say things like, “You must love yourself before you can love others.” I used to hear this a lot more often than I do these days, thankfully, but I still think it’s important to address. First of all, it’s straight-up wrong. Besides that, statements like this are harmful, because they make self-esteem a prerequisite for support. The people who most badly need support probably don’t have good self-esteem, because abusers relentlessly attack it. Telling someone that if they don’t love themselves, they can’t love others, is telling them that their love is false, and implying that they’re unworthy of love and support. That’s really messed up.
Being supported, encouraged, and loved by others is a big part of how people learn to love themselves. All theses aspects of resilience that I’m talking about? They’re skills that you develop with the help of other people as you grow up, and throughout life. Supportive people can give you confidence, reassure you, teach you new ways of looking at things, and help you figure things out. A better support network can boost every other aspect of resilience.
In order to have a healthy support network, you need to be able to recognize what healthy relationships*** look like. If you can’t recognize when a relationship is becoming unhealthy, you can’t take steps to keep yourself safe.
Discernment is the skill of perceiving, understanding, and exercising good judgment. A person with “discerning tastes” is someone who has strong preferences about aesthetic quality, like a gourmand. The psychological use of the term is much broader—it is more related to perception and decision-making in general.
It’s about seeing differences between things, sometimes very subtle differences.
I would say that it’s also about learning to have confidence in your own perceptions. While some people may make finer distinctions than others, all of us do have discernment. If we didn’t, we couldn’t make decisions at all. We can’t get through life without making any decisions—we make hundreds every day. In fact, you’re making a decision right now—will you keep reading? (I hope the answer is yes.)
The thing is, we don’t always believe our own perceptions. Particularly when it comes to figuring out relationships. And when someone else comes along who tells you that your perceptions aren’t accurate, what do you do? People see and hear and interpret things differently, so it’s possible, after all, that you might have been mistaken. How do you know?
I get frustrated when people say that they’d never put up with an abusive relationship, that they’d immediately leave at the first sign. I don’t think they realize how subtle those first signs actually are. Because one of the first things abusive people typically do is try to damage your ability to discern the situation. They’ll try to confuse you as much as possible, and make it so that you no longer trust your own judgment. It’s called gaslighting.
When somebody tells you that asexuality is not real, when they tell you that you can’t be who you are, they’re trying to erase your identity and install their own version of reality inside your head instead. That’s gaslighting. I don’t believe there are any aces out there who haven’t experienced it, one way or another. It saturates our culture.
A good support network will make you resistant to gaslighting—which is why abusers usually target people with less support, and try to isolate them further. If you have enough support to have resisted the attempt, you may not realize how destructive gaslighting can be. But when you feel that you are all alone in your interpretation of reality, when you think nobody will believe you, you lose confidence in your perceptions. And that can last for a very long time.
How do you gain it back?
For me, it’s been eight years since I cut off contact, and it’s only really been in the last year that I started feeling genuinely more confident in my perceptions again. A lot of that comes from having a better support network, but it’s also been a gradual process of constantly analyzing and learning more about manipulation tactics, as well as what healthy, nurturing care looks like. Learning how to recognize codependency, passive aggressive manipulation, and entitlement and practicing setting boundaries has helped a lot.
I’ve also seen some situations that I had a bad feeling about well before others did, turn out in ways that I correctly predicted (although I wish I hadn’t). Those kinds of experiences really helped to show me that I do have good instincts.
I still have a ways to go, but I’m getting there. I am never 100% certain that the red flags I’m seeing aren’t a product of hypervigilance and my personal triggers. I am not certain that I can ever be 100% trusting again. But I don’t need complete certainty—my goal is more like 90%, or at least more than 70%. I’ve learned to accept at least some level of uncertainty, because it’s always good to leave room for the possibility of being wrong—it’s just not good to be so confused and so worried about being wrong all the time that it severely impacts your life.
If you’ve suffered gaslighting and you feel that way, I can’t tell you how to gain your confidence in your own discernment back—I can only tell you what’s worked for me. And I can tell you that it is possible, and you will get through it. Maybe you can’t see a future for yourself yet where you’re not constantly fighting this. That’s a symptom. It’s called having a “foreshortened sense of the future.” But it’s only a symptom, not reality. You’ll get there one day. I believe in you.
[*] Many links in this section are old because in December 2015, FB promised to make changes. However, as Wikipedia helpfully informs, “As of May 2016, nothing has been offered or modified by Facebook.” This is still true.
[**] Need I even mention how triggering and awful it is to be put in that position? Need I mention that this is one of the big reasons that victims of sexual/domestic violence don’t report?
[***] I am not using “relationship” to mean specifically romantic relationships. I mean all kinds of relationships.
This post has been cross-posted to Resources for Ace Survivors.