Taking ourselves seriously

Another plural blog post written a short while before Covid-19 hit, but relevant more than ever now. This time my serious selves, Max and Jonathan, talk about why it’s important to take ourselves seriously and assume we’re being sensible. Check out this zine and this blog post if you want to know more about plural selves. Hopefully the content of the conversation is interesting regardless.

Max: You and me this time then kid.

Jonathan: How does it feel Max?

Max: Vulnerable as fuck. I’m managing it by reminding myself we don’t have to publish this. But it also feels important. I guess it’s what I’m struggling with at the moment, and it feels like something that you have a handle on. It’s a chance for me to come to you for support which is a different dynamic for us. Also it works on a meta level. Writing about taking ourselves seriously is a way of taking ourselves seriously.

What does taking ourselves seriously mean?

Jonathan: Should I start with what we mean by that: taking ourselves seriously?

Max: Go ahead. It seems like your phrase.

Jonathan: I notice that it feels easier to start with what it isn’t, maybe because it’s so discouraged in our culture so we’re more familiar with not taking ourselves seriously. But I’d rather come up with a positive definition of what it is.

I’m thinking first of bell hooks’s definition of love in All About Love. It’s about valuing ourselves and others equally: knowing that we’re no more important than anybody else, but no less important either. That’s maybe a bit abstract. On an everyday level it’s about tuning into ourselves, feeling our feelings, welcoming them, listening to them. 

That’s when the idea of taking ourselves seriously comes to me the most: when we’re having a difficult feeling that doesn’t immediately make sense. What we need to do when that happens is to assume that it does make sense, that it is sensible, that we are sensible. That’s true even – perhaps especially – when we don’t understand what’s going on. That’s perhaps the hardest – and most important – time to take ourselves seriously.

Max: Can you give some examples: of taking ourselves seriously and assuming it’s sensible?

I suppose what we’ve been trying to do lately. It’s taking ourselves seriously to put The Work before the work. We make sure we start each day by tuning into where we’re at, and giving some time journaling about whatever is on our mind. If there’s anything big we try to give that some time and care before going on to anything else. Or we note it to come back to as soon as we can if that isn’t possible.

Assuming it’s sensible is when we’ve tuned into feelings that keep coming up, like fearful feelings around certain kinds of exchanges with other people. In the past we would’ve got annoyed with those seemingly inexplicable feelings and berated ourselves for having them. Or we would’ve rushed to act on them immediately. Instead we now try to keep noticing them, and noting down the kinds of experiences that trigger them. Gradually – over time – we understand them better and become more able to talk openly about what’s going on for us, and ask for what we need from the people concerned.

Another example would be noticing we’re blocked around doing a certain task or piece of writing. In the past we would’ve tried to push on and do it, or come up with a quick explanation for what was going on: usually one that involved being hard on ourselves. If we assume it’s sensible we can keep being curious about why we might not be going there at the moment, without letting it overwhelm everything, or giving up on it entirely. Often, over time, we realise several reasons why this block might be there. We learn a lot from the process of sitting with it, and often – once we’ve learnt all we needed to – it comes easily and goes better than it would’ve done if we’d tried to push through.

Max: *exhales*

Jonathan: That’s challenging for you huh Max-y? You’ve always been the part of us that does: that figures things out and gets on with it. 

Max: Yup. I hate not understanding things, and I hate not being able to get on with what I think I should be doing. It’s so hard for me to take myself seriously in the way you’re describing.

Jonathan: Why do you find it so hard do you think?

Why it’s hard to take ourselves seriously

Max: So many reasons. First, it runs counter to the way I’ve always done things: pushing through; getting on with things; avoiding, repressing or battling any difficult feelings that stand in our way. Taking ourselves seriously involves changing the habit of a lifetime: a habit that I developed because it was the only way to survive. So it’s a lot to give up on. More than that, it’s incredibly hard to acknowledge that that habit actually did us – and others – damage. There’s a hell of a lot of grief to feel if I acknowledge that there’s this other way of being which is better for everyone. 

Second, it’s a leap of faith into massive uncertainty because I’m not sure what this other life – the taking ourselves seriously life – even looks like.

Third, the world is on fire right now. There’s a massive sense of urgency to be part of doing something about it. Turning inwards and taking ourselves seriously and learning what that looks like feels like a huge privilege: a luxury that we can’t afford, that simply isn’t okay.

Jonathan: We can take those one at a time. They’re all big ones. And ones a lot of people struggle with I think. Does that feel okay for you?

Max: I’d really like to hear your thoughts baby boy. I’m definitely struggling with this.

Jonathan: I’d like to help. And it’s also okay to struggle with it Max. That in itself is something to take seriously, not to try to push through.

Max: Go slow. It’s all anyone seems to be telling me at the moment. But the world is on fire.

But the world is on fire

Jonathan: It is. And I think that’s all the more reason to take yourself seriously. There are many reasons for that. First, we need to feel the feelings about everything being so hard. That’s why people are developing grief circles to feel the impact of climate crisis, support groups for survivors following #metoo, transformative justice processes to find ways to hear each other’s experiences when relations break down. Our wider culture is terrible at this stuff: the systems within it retain the status quo, treat people non-consensually, and harm the most marginalised. So we have to find ways of doing it differently: of taking ourselves, and others, and our feelings seriously.

Max: And if we don’t feel the feelings?

Jonathan: We break down, or burn out, or close off. Shutting off our feelings is no way to handle it. You know that Max-y.

Max: The alternative seems to be to feel SO fragile though: a fragility that makes it hard to do anything. I’ve never felt this level of fragility before. It’s so scary.

Jonathan: I think learning what that fragility feels like is part of the process. For a start it is a sane reaction to an insane world. Anyone who feels safe and secure right now maybe has a bit of a problem! Fragility connects us with what’s really going on, and with what everyone is feeling: whether they’re allowing it or whether they’re covering it over and pretending it’s all okay. It means we can have a lot more empathy and compassion for others, and see any defensive reactions they have for what they are, rather than getting pulled into escalating those dynamics with them.

Also when we can tune into our fragility we can make way better choices about what we have capacity for and what we don’t. When we have the ability to discern in that way, we can know when we’re up for moving out of our comfort zone into our stretch zone – giving a little more of ourselves – and when we need to go back into the comfort zone to recover for a while. We can notice if we’ve tipped into overwhelm – beyond the stretch zone – and pull back and recover. Tuning into ourselves in this way we’re far less likely to overstretch or burn out. We can also maybe increase the capacity of the comfort zone and stretch zone over time – because we’re not overstretching. Then more things might be possible within those zones.

Max: I would love a bigger comfort and stretch zone. They feel pretty tiny right now.

Jonathan: I think they remain smaller if we try to push or force them to expand, and get bigger if we take it gently and slowly and invite that expansion.

Max: So you’re saying taking ourselves seriously actually makes us better for others and the wider world?

Jonathan: I think so. Practically, it helps us to see what kinds of relationships and support help us to be more open and available, and to pursue those and be boundaried around ones that don’t. It helps us tune into what kinds of work feel most skillful and fulfilling to us, and therefore best for us to offer to others. It also helps us to navigate difficult things that come up more carefully and skillfully.

Max: That feels like another paradox to me. Taking myself seriously feels like the last thing I want to do when I fuck up. I want to give of myself to the person or situation concerned until I’ve atoned sufficiently.

Jonathan: But does that help them? Or anybody else?

Max: Not really. I guess it denies me the opportunity to see what I’ve done clearly and take appropriate responsibility. Collapsing into shame is just as bad as defending myself by insisting I’m blameless. Either way I don’t really see the other person and the impact on them, because I’m all caught up in myself. And I also neglect to take account of all the other stuff going on: the dynamics playing out between us, the wider systems operating through us, that kind of thing, which is always a big part of the picture. Also that overwhelming sense of shame makes me want to give up on everything: so I’m less available to other people, less likely to do anything of benefit to the wider world.

Jonathan: It’s hard to see all that. You’re doing really well.

Max: It feels hard.

Jonathan: Maybe breathe a bit Max.

Max: Okay. I’m breathing. Can you tell me about that Adrienne Maree Brown piece Jonathan. I know that struck you when we listened to her being interviewed.

Taking ourselves seriously and fighting injustice

Jonathan: She said that every time she finds herself getting angry about an injustice out there in the world, she begins by turning inwards and reflecting on how it operates within – and through – herself. She doesn’t engage outwards until she’s done that inner work.

Max: Wow.

Jonathan: I guess I see all the people we’re most inspired by saying something along those lines. Laverne Cox talks of having to face our inner oppressor rather than trying to fight oppression ‘out there’ as if it’s not also ‘in here’. When we reflect on Audre Lorde’s idea of self-care as a political act we see that self-care enables us to be honest and kind around the parts of ourselves who are survivors and the parts of ourselves who are perpetrators. 

Audre Lorde also said ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. If we don’t take ourselves seriously then we can easily find ourselves using the tools of oppression to fight oppression: like shaming people, trying to ‘save’ people because it makes us look good, rushing into situations we don’t understand rather than slowing down and listening to the people directly impacted, or seeing ourselves as somehow superior.

Max: I get that. I think that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do this year – or however many years it takes. I know, I know, it might be much longer. If we keep relating to ourselves, to other people, and to our work, in the ways we’ve learnt in this non-consensual, unjust culture we’ll inevitably keep perpetuating that culture.

Jonathan: And we’re not going to decolonise our mind, cultivate entirely consensual practices, escape the binaries, and dismantle our inner capitalism overnight Max-y. We can’t step outside of culture. This stuff is deeply entrenched in all of us. And the very attempt at total transformation of self into something ‘better’ is, in itself, a colonialist and capitalist way of treating a person

Max: So what can we do?

Jonathan: Keep taking ourselves seriously in this process, remember why we’re doing it, cultivate systems and structures of support around it, share what we’re learning through it with anyone who finds it helpful, acknowledge when we make mistakes and address them, and uplift the other people who we’re learning from as much as possible. 

Max: Sounds like a pretty clear routemap.

Jonathan: Not easy though. I liked what we heard Pema Chödrön say about compassion recently, on one of her audios. She said that there’s a type of compassion which is about being kind towards ourselves and receiving support from others. There’s a type of compassion which is about being alongside others as equals: providing mutual support and learning from each other. And there’s a type of compassion which is about offering kindness to others who are struggling more than we are at the moment. It’s not about one of those being better than the others. We all need all of them. The wisdom is in knowing which we need – or have available – when.

Max: At the moment we’re needing more of the first type than ever. Perhaps because we’ve given ourselves so little of that before. But most days we do also do the other two types. Talking with friends and co-creating with Justin or Alex feels like the second one. And when we can create a safe-enough container we do still offer compassion outwards: like in sessions with mentees, or giving a talk or training, or meeting explicitly to support a friend. Even at the moment we still have that capacity at times.

Jonathan: Do you want to return to those other reasons that you find it so hard to take yourself seriously? We’ve done ‘the world is on fire’, but what about it being a leap into uncertainty? Or it changing the habit of a lifetime?

Changing the (non-consensual) habit of a lifetime

Max: Well I guess I’m on board with the need to change the habit of a lifetime. It relates to consent doesn’t it? The habit of a lifetime was treating myself non-consensually: overriding myself because I thought I needed to do that in order to be loved, or approved of, or validated that I was okay. The more I do that, the more I’m practising non-consent as a way of being.

Jonathan: Right. I think a huge part of this is that in taking ourselves seriously we’re giving ourselves a big message – every day – that we are okay. Not because somebody else says we are, or because we’re doing helpful things, or because we can point to any evidence of being a ‘successful self’. When we take ourselves seriously we can be sure we’re relating to others – and doing our work – from that knowledge of our okayness. So we’re less likely to override our own self-consent, or the consent of others, in our attempts to get validation.

Max: Oh this stuff is humbling as fuck isn’t it?

Jonathan: It’s what you said about why it’s hard Max-y. For everyone. Because it involves seeing all the hurt we’ve caused to ourselves – and others – through that old habit.

Max: It kind of reminds me of a common trans experience. For a lot of trans people when we finally acknowledge our transness and contemplate coming out, or transitioning, in whatever ways feel right for us…

Jonathan: Yes?

Max: We hit up against this huge grief. Because we recognise that we could’ve done it a long time ago. We could’ve had this whole life feeling way more congruent and comfortable in our gender. For some people that grief is too much to bear. They don’t do anything about it because doing so would involve having to feel all that grief.

Jonathan: Mmhm.

Max: That’s how I feel sometimes about changing my ways of working, or relating to others, or relating to myself. Like if I really allow it fully then I have to acknowledge the pain I’ve caused myself and others doing it this other way all this time. I can see why people remain in hiding, in normativity of various kinds, not confronting this stuff. I can see that it is a huge ask when we invite people in our lives to do this work in order to be safe-enough for us.

Jonathan: Another reason why this is so important I guess. It means we’re more connected with everyone else who is confronting this stuff and finding it incredibly – even impossibly – hard. It also means that we’re less likely to use shaming tactics against people who aren’t confronting their stuff, because we’re aware of how hard it is, and how being shamed around it makes it even more hard to do.

Max: I hope I can remember that.

Jonathan: I think it’s a big part of the work we do Max. Trying to find non-shaming ways to explain injustice, non-consent and their impact to people – whether that’s at the micro level of interpersonal relationships or the macro level of what’s going on in the world – helping people see how we’re all implicated in it and suffering from it. And being part of the wider movement to work together to address it: across our differences and our shared experiences.

Max: For one of our inner children you seem to have some damn big words and concepts at your disposal Jonathan.

Jonathan: I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot. And inner children can grow and develop once you’re more in touch with them it seems. Our understanding is that you – Max – were the part of ourselves we developed in order to survive the tough stuff of our childhood: when it wasn’t safe to feel or express our feelings, and when we were being bullied and taught we were unacceptable on a daily basis. I was the little people-pleasing kid you were trying to protect by becoming what we needed to be in order to survive, to fit in, to find love.

Max: We realised recently even my name reflects that: Max = mask: The masks I wore in order to survive.

Jonathan: I guess I hope we might shift those inner dynamics now Max. Max also sounds like ‘maxed out’. Maybe the parts of us you were protecting can come forward to care for you, and you can step back a bit: to rest, to grieve, to heal. 

Max: I am not great at stepping back.

Jonathan: Believe me we know that! 

Max: Ha!

Time to take ourselves seriously

Jonathan: It takes time too Max, to enable new habits to bed in as deeply as the old ones were. It takes dropping any grip on what the future might be because how can we know? It takes making a daily practice of noticing you’ve clenched and tightened up again and gone into old habits, and gently loosening the grip, feeling into the alternatives available, doing something different each time.

Max: It’s crazy how hard that is. I sometimes literally believe that if I allow myself that then I will die. I’m convinced I have this or that illness in those moments. Like somehow I would deserve to die if I really allowed taking myself seriously: freeing myself of all these ideas I have about how I should be.

Jonathan: Our therapist said maybe it’s the death of the ego that we feel/fear at those times. Although we are going to die someday of course, and that’s another good reason to do this work. When we can turn and face the inevitability of death it becomes more possible to be open about this stuff, instead of trying to craft ourselves into someone who people will approve of, or stay busy to distract ourselves, or tell people what they want to hear. 

Max: Stephen Batchelor says to meditate on the phrase: ‘since death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what shall I do?’ Today apparently the answer was to have an illuminating and challenging conversation between two of our plural selves in a cafe.

Jonathan: Over hot chocolate with whipped cream and cheese toasties. Feeding the inner child Max-y?

Max: Well I do like to take him seriously.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was written by Jonathan and Max.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Siobhán

    11 May

    This post came at the right time. Can’t tell you how welcome it’s was to read today so thank you. Was it serendipity I wonder? Don’t know but love using that word whenever I can 😊

    “tuning into ourselves, feeling our feelings, welcoming them, listening to them” still feels problematic for me though. Why is it still so perplexing when things don’t make sense “ to assume that it does make sense, that it is sensible, that we are sensible” Yes that does make sense but it still feels counterintuitive. I intend to keep plugging away though

    • So glad it was serendipitous for you 🙂

      Totally agree with you on how counterintuitive it feels. I’m plugging away here too. More to come on my blog in the next few weeks on the nuts and bolts of how I’m working on it – slowly!

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