Emotional Sensitivity and Neurotypicalism

Content/trigger warning: death mention, neurotypicalist slur

Oh, hey! I found this entry in my folder of blog entries and it turns out I wrote it a long time ago and never posted it. So have a real entry!

Today (er, on the day I wrote it, which was January 23), someone took time out of their busy schedule to tell me I was wrong for my feelings about Carrie Fisher’s death. Why would someone do that?

Well, I could speculate until the cows come home, but I have always been befuddled by disrespect and meanness. I don’t understand the motivation and may be neurologically incapable of doing so, because it’s not a motivation I have. (Low intellectual empathy. It makes life interesting.) So instead, I want to talk about sensitivity.

Actually, I want to talk about two kinds of sensitivity: sensitivity as in respect and sensitivity as in being emotionally sensitive and vulnerable. It also would be accurate that I want to talk about being sensitive to sensitivity in the sense of being respectful of vulnerability. Some people are sensitive. In modern society, especially in the US (which is where I live and therefore the place I am most qualified to discuss), sensitivity gets a bad rap. It is actively discouraged. People are told to stop being dramatic, stop crying, stop being sensitive, etc. The usual rationale behind this is that the world is cruel, so sensitivity is maladaptive and should be trained out of people. I find there to be two problems with that: one, many sensitive people can literally not be trained out of being who they are, and two, it is possible to create a world that is more accessible to sensitive people.

Many neurodivergent people are highly emotionally sensitive. (Others are highly emotionally insensitive; I might discuss that later.) It is because of this that the “your feelings are wrong and you should feel bad” attitude toward sensitivity crosses into neurotypicalism. Yes, being crappy in response to someone being more upset than you think they should be is rooted in neurotypicalism. You’re gods damned right I said it.

I want to point out that an exception to the discussion in this entry is the fact that being told one is acting like a bigot tends to hurt feelings. In this case, those hurt feelings are the problem of the person acting like a bigot, because they were perpetuating wide-scale harm and their hurt feelings are less important than the harm they were doing. Also, sometimes bigots will hide behind their hurt feelings by attempting to say “you hurt my feelings, so YOU’RE wrong”. Well, being told you’re acting like a bigot hurts. I’m white and cis, so PoC and trans people have told me I was acting like a bigot because, well, I was. I’ve internalized white supremacy and cissexism, and unlearning them is a process. Yeah, it hurt. But I was in the wrong and it was my responsibility as a moral human being to get over my feeling hurt and unlearn whatever toxic crap I was doing. And ohhh boy do I get neurotypicals pulling the “you hurt my feelings by calling me neurotypicalist, so YOU’RE wrong and I don’t have to change my behavior”. (This is why I have a “neurotypical tears” mug.) So to summarize this paragraph, I am talking about being attentive to the emotional needs of sensitive neurodivergent people in this entry, not those times when it may be necessary to hurt someone’s feelings in order to affect positive change.

Anyway, let me give an example. Well, an intersectional example. “Hysteria” used to be a mental illness. Women were actually diagnosed as “hysterical” for, well, having strong feelings. Specifically, these feelings included anxiety, irritability, and nervousness. Oh, and sexually forward behavior. The term “hysteria” was used because those dishing out the diagnosis literally believed that having a uterus caused the “mental illness”, and hysterectomies were sometimes carried out as treatment. (The idea of hysteria or a similar condition as a disease caused by the uterus was found in several cultures, but I’m mostly referring to what was happening to women in England and the States during the industrial era.) In any case, to this day, women are referred to as “hysterical” when we are upset in order to delegitimize our feelings. This is an example of misogynableism: the intersection between misogyny and ableism. The use of the insult “hysteria” is meant to undercut a woman’s experiences by insinuating that she is mentally ill, therefore her experiences and feelings about them can be ignored.

The idea that mental illness (or at least supposed irrationality related to such) and emotional sensitivity are inexorably related is pervasive. Mentally ill feelings are seen as Wrong, so they can be dismissed; on the flip side, “overly” sensitive emotional responses are seen as mentally ill so they can be categorized as Wrong. “You’re too sensitive” is not only an asshole thing to say in response to someone’s hurt feelings, but it also carries the hidden barb of “you’re crazy”. This is especially true when a woman’s feelings are being delegitimized; misogynableism is likely at play.

In short, everyone’s feelings are legitimate to them and should be respected, even if some might find them too extreme. Yes, that especially includes the feelings of mentally ill people, even if our disorders are causing those feelings; for example, my CPTSD-born belief that I deserve to suffer or die when I’m admonished for a social gaffe is irrational, but it’s certainly real. I can process that feeling much better when the fact that I’m feeling it is respected. High emotional sensitivity, like any other neurodivergent trait, needs to be accommodated, and that accommodation should lead to the curb-cutter effect and make life easier for neurotypical people who are highly sensitive. The world would be a better place for everyone if assholes would stop being assholes. Well, it might not be better for the assholes, but I don’t really care about them.

I might write more about sensitivity and radical softness later, but that might be all I have on the topic.

Carrie Fisher quote of the day: “There is no point at which you can say, ‘Well, I’m successful now. I might as well take a nap.'” I’m only picking this quote because I’m so out of spoons I want a depression nap, but I have to job-hunt instead.

“You’re so strong!” Um…okay…

Content/TW: sex mention, death mention, discussion of inspiration porn, cursing

On the surface, it seems a bit weird to be discussing this topic on an anti-stigma blog, because it’s about NTs actually having what they think is a positive outlook on mental illness. But at the root of stigma is NTs seeing mentally ill people as Other, not like them, not entirely human, etc. And inspiration porn? Yeah, that’s seeing mentally ill people as Other.

You may be asking: Mara, what the hell is inspiration porn? My girlfriend says (half-jokingly) that that phrase inspires her to have sex with me. (I did mention I’m a lesbian, right? I think so. If I didn’t, yeah, I’m gay. I was also, like. Next-level gay for Carrie.) Anyway, what is inspiration porn? Inspiration porn, as coined by disabled activist Stella Young (RIP), is the phrase for what happens when people who are privileged by their ability level feel “inspired” by something a disabled person does because they’re doing a thing while being disabled, oh my fucking god, would you look at that!?. That isn’t the only kind of inspiration porn, though; sometimes it takes the form of a disabled person being treated decently and the abled person being decent is canonized. An example that absolutely made my Autistic blood boil occurred recently when this basketball player sat with an Autistic boy at lunch because the boy was sitting alone. (When I sit alone, I usually want it that way. Leave me be, allistics. And maybe ask the person sitting alone if they want company?) Allistic people fell all over each other awww-ing over this crap. They saw what they perceived as a famous person treating an Autistic boy more nicely than the boy’s peers did, i.e., like a human being. I, personally, think that we Auties should be treated as humans all the time.

So what’s wrong with inspiration porn? The fact that disabled people do not exist to ~inspire abled people. When abled people coo over disabled people existing while disabled, it’s Othering as hell. (If I wasn’t clear in the first paragraph about what it means to “Other” someone, it means to treat them as Not Like You in a big kind of way, often in a way that paints the Other as subhuman.) We’re just trying to live our lives. And now I’m going to bring this back to the idea of strength, because a common form of inspiration porn is mentally healthy people calling mentally ill people “strong” just for existing. And we’re sick of it.

Remember when I said that NT definitions of “strength” when it comes to mental illness are “garbage”? I stand by that. Unfortunately, I forgot to talk about the garbage definition that is “you’re so strong for dealing with mental illness every second of your life!!!1!!111!!!one!!”. UGH. I’m strong because I have done martial arts for much of my life and like weightlifting, Dave*, not because I’m mentally ill. It’s hard for me to articulate why this attitude pisses me off so much. Because as I mentioned in my last entry, some MI people do derive strength from how much our brains have put us through, and the fact that we survived it. But then again, some of us don’t survive it. Others are so damn tired of being “strong” and long to exist without struggling constantly. Many hate being reminded that we’re “strong” because we know we have no other choice, but NTs seem to think we do. I guess the “you’re so strong” attitude makes my skin crawl because the NTs who ascribe to it are sort of…acting like mentally ill people are here for them to judge and consume. And that’s creepy to me. It involves a mental chasm or fence that NTs are placing between them and us, sort of like we’re animals in a zoo. When an NT tells me that I’m “so strong” because my neurotransmitters like to misbehave, I feel like I’m a tiger in a cage being gawked at. And I want to unsheathe my giant claws.

The “you’re so strong” narrative is also really patronizing. Remember that mental chasm I mentioned that NTs are placing between themselves and mentally ill people when they ascribe to that narrative? That chasm often makes me feel as if I’m on one side, feeling small and childlike (and pissed), while the NT reaches over to pat me on the head. It’s infantilizing. It places NTs in a position to be the one judging because they’re NT. Not being mentally ill gives them the authority to judge. Even though the trait these NTs are ascribing to us is supposedly good, the reason they are making that judgment is rooted in Othering us. I might go so far as to say the “you’re so strong” narrative is dehumanizing, turning mentally ill people into a feel-good movie for their consumption. Ew.

While some NTs genuinely (and foolishly) think they’re helping when they call a MI person “strong”, I have also noticed that there’s also a self-congratulatory element that I have noticed inherent in NTs invoking the “you’re so strong” narrative. When they croon “you’re so strong for dealing with your mental illness”, they picture themselves canonized for being what they think is nice and supportive; they see themselves as the basketball player who decided to join an Autistic boy for lunch. They think of how the basketball player was praised, not of how he didn’t ask the boy if he even wanted company. And they pat themselves on the back for what is really an act of Othering. They haven’t thought about the implications of the word “strong” when applied to mental illness (as I blathered about in my last entry), because in order to think about how another person might react to something, you have to first see them as a person. It’s inconvenient for an NT to consider someone a person when their goal is to use that Poor Widdow Mentally Ill Soul to make themselves feel good.

So, yeah, the “you’re so strong for dealing with your mental illness” crap is inspiration porn, it’s saneist, and it’s gross. On the surface, it might seem positive, but the idea of “strength” when it comes to mental illness is incredibly complicated. Not to mention that the fact that NTs feel like they get to make that call about us being “strong” is coming from a messed-up place of willful ignorance, smugness, privilege, and just…ugh. It’s messed up, okay? If you’re NT and call a mentally ill person “strong”, you had better be agreeing with them when they call themselves such, doing so with their permission because they’ve told you it helps, or referring to how much they bench. Want to actually help mentally ill people? That’s another entry for another day, and it’s one that I really hope many NTs will read.

Carrie quote of the day: “One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls.” Well said, Carrie.


* “Dave” is an all-purpose name for some saneist dipwad and is not a reference to a real person.

“Be strong!” Um…okay…

TW: suicidal ideation, death

I have a lot of feelings about the idea of “strength” when it comes to mental illness. In the wake of Carrie Fisher’s death, I have seen Internet posts exhorting people to be “strong” because it’s what Carrie would want. Unfortunately, that hurts all three of my feelings. Said feelings are awfully muddled and I hope that making this post can help me sort them out. (That’s something else you might see quite a bit on this blog: muddled feelings and opinions. I tend to be very strong in my convictions, but sometimes I’m just not sure about stuff, and I think it’s important to normalize the process of going from not sure to sure. Nobody was born sure.)

Regarding the idea of being “strong” while mentally ill, what does that actually mean? Well, from the lips (or keyboards) of NTs, being “strong” seems to mean “not showing symptoms because I’m uncomfortable seeing them”. From these same people, “strong” can also mean “deciding to not experience symptoms”, as if that were even possible. Claiming that such a thing is possible is invalidating and insulting to MI people. If a person could simply decide to make their symptoms go away, then what they’re experiencing wouldn’t be an illness, would it? (Note: I’m not talking about the use of techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy to confront symptoms and work through them so they aren’t so debilitating. CBT is my jam.)

These aforementioned definitions of “strength”—the ones touted by NTs that are unfair to MI people—are garbage. Many MI people feel emotions much more acutely (or, depending on the illness/es, less acutely) than NTs. This means that many of us grieve differently. Seeing us be visibly different makes NTs uncomfortable, and that is why they trot out the idea of “being strong” in the face of tragedy. It’s saneist and it needs to stop.

So if saneist NTs are using unfair definitions of “strong” to refer to behavior and attitude when dealing with mental illness symptoms and grief, what does “strong” mean to the MI community? Well, no community is a monolith, so when I say something along the lines of, say, “The Autistic community prefers identity-first language” (which is true, by the way), I am referring to a majority and I am aware that not every person in the community I’m discussing feels the same way. But I’m not sure I can even say what the majority of the MI community feels about the meaning of the word “strength” in the context of being mentally ill.

As far as I can tell, a common definition of “strength” in the MI community is being able to do things despite one’s mental illness. These aforementioned things can seem small to NTs, like brushing one’s teeth or attending class. They can be bigger, like not committing suicide despite the signals in your brain whispering: “do it. Do it.” “Strength” can also mean being able to face the NT world and say “look, I can’t do this thing right now due to my mental illness. I have to take care of myself instead.”

I personally am cagey about the using the word “strength” or “strong” publicly when it comes to mental illness. Staying alive when it would understandable to die from one’s mental illness is often considered “strong”. But to me, it feels disrespectful to call those who died of their mental illnesses “weak”. I similarly think that many MI people do sometimes feel weak due to their mental illness, and there is no shame in that. Some find comfort in radical vulnerability (a topic I might cover later) or even, paradoxical as it may sound, find strength in weakness.

In my own head, I have often defined “strength” as staying alive in the face of suicidality and when I don’t feel like I even am alive. I have CPTSD and like to refer to trauma as “the kind of murder where nobody dies”, a phrase I stole from an Emilie Autumn lyric. I will never know the person I would have been had I not been traumatized. When I think of how CPTSD has left me an empty shell that mimics her surroundings instead of a real person, I feel like there is no point in living anymore; I’m not even alive in the first place, right? But I tell myself that I should be stronger than those thoughts of not living anymore, and I put down the cup of bleach and continue to breathe. This conquering of suicidal ideation is the definition of “strength” that helps me the most. It is not a definition that I believe is universal.

I think the best definition of “strength” in the context of mental illness that I can present here, in the conclusion of this post, is being like Carrie Fisher: unashamed of being who you are in all of your mentally ill awesomeness. If you can’t be “strong” in other ways—if you can’t get out of bed today, if you can’t take that shower, if you can’t go to work, if you cry over Carrie’s death—that’s okay. There is no shame in that. And there is no shame in struggling with internalized saneism. Most if not all of us have a degree of it, and it can be quite the stumbling block when it comes to advocating for oneself and the MI community. Carrie was unique and special in how she conducted her advocacy. I aspire to be like her, but hell, it may take me a while.

The Carrie Fisher quote I have chosen to accompany this post feels apropos for the topic: “I’m mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on.”