As I am about to embark on a long academic project which I know will have strong emotional and painful implication for me as a researcher, I am looking at ways to cope with the violent and triggering nature of the material I am about to research. In the dark hours of my life I have coped by listing survival guide techniques who literally kept me going when I was hitting the bottom. I was thinking of writing one now and I came across Meagan Tyler’s great article on the subject which is really helpful.
It is still very early stages in my own research project, I am planning to research the topic of female eroticising of subordination and phenomenon such as rape fantasies. As I have researched, written and ran workshop on that particular topic for several years now I know from experience how distressful I can be. Some feminist researchers have noticed how their research topic has emotionally affected them (Dworkin), some have drawn feminist methodology and theory from it (Stanley and Wise), some have recorded reflective journals of their experience (Marshal), some have attempted to work out survival guides (Tyler). I am grateful for all the sisters whose methodology has attempted to address, highlight, not hide this issue in anyway as it is still not the norm to do so. I am noting here a list of techniques I have learnt or improvised in the past and found useful to help me cope with the violent nature of the material I have researched. I compile them here for my own benefit as a guide to follow or go back to when distressed, but I though they could also be useful to other women in a similar situation.
Acknowledge the triggers.
Topics relating to male violence against women ARE triggering for all women. There is simply no way to avoid it. A feminist whose consciousness has started the process is removing the dissociation. No longer protected from the impact of woman hating violent content, we are also becoming less desensitised to it. Being able to see patriarchy more clearly including in our own lives means that a lot of feminist are extremely sensitive and reactive to any form of violence portrayed in media, literature, ideology, art etc… this content is potential re-traumatising for the women who has been victim of male violence (most women).
Recognising and acknowledging this is crucial. Recognising and acknowledging this is happening to us when it happens is the first step into fighting it.
So as you look at violent material of any sorts, look out for any signs of mood swings, anger, irritability, depressive episode, dissociation etc… in the following hours after exposure, they could be a sign of you reacting to the subject.
Make a note of it: write down what has been triggering you, your reaction to it. The more detail you write the more insight you are likely to get from the experience. Record it each time this happens and you recognise it, this can be part of your self reflective dairies, can be annexed to your methodology proposal or even in your final work. Acknowledging that the topic of feminist research is emotionally difficult to deal with and explaining why, is a feminist act in itself which should not be overlooked and should definitely not remain hidden. It does not mean you as a researcher is in anyway deficient because you did not succeed in remaining emotionally detached from your topic. When the topic is the study of male violence against women and one is a woman there is no way of remaining emotionally detached. The topic can never be a remote object of your research because for a lot of us (most of us?) the topic will be directly linked to our personal experience of male violence and oppression. How can we remain neutral in that context? For that reason alone it is important to acknowledge it – at least to ourselves. For political reasons, the emotional involvement is not only normal and expected but should be recorded, analysed, written about and capitalised upon (Stanley and wise – Dworkin), should be used as a tool to push the analyses forward and our understanding deeper. This is one of the reasons why reflexivity is so important is feminist research.
Feminists have long challenged the patriarchal concept of “objectivity”, merely the sum of white male academic subjectivities at the exception of any oppressed groups who most of the time don’t have access to academia. Objectivity is a tool used to dismiss oppressed group’s voices because by definition “other” they are bound to be “subjective” therefore unacceptable because not up to academic standard. But as feminist why would we want to respect patriarchal academic standards who limit our consciousness and the scope of our political impact! (Stanley and Wise)
It is an idea to mention the difficulties you face to your supervisor. She may be able to offer support, insights (she may have faced this herself), or could direct you towards potential support. She may be a listening ear, after all providing supervision is not only about theory. A good supervisor would be conscious and helpful, aware of what you are trying to do and the potential difficulties. However be aware of her limits and respect her boundaries too.
It is a good idea to surround yourself with trusted women who share your views, political analyses and know about your project. If you have such a network ask them if it would be ok to have regular debriefing with you, not only about your finding but about your reaction to it.
If you are in a relationship with a man it is unlikely that he will fully understand how this affects you so I wouldn’t bother going there for support.
If you are a lesbian in a relationship, be aware of making your girlfriend your sole emotional support however tempting and practical that may be. Exposing her to the material will be difficult for her as well and she may be very affected by how the research is affecting you. You do not want this to become the only thing you two talk about and it may put a strain in your relationship, so do look for support elsewhere as well!
What ever your support network is ideally aim to meet offline as much as possible (I know I know not everyone has thousands of feminist friends in their village) , phone and Skype are also ok !
Be aware: your supportive friend (s) also have limits, difficulties with the material, their own problems to deal with…. Be aware and respectful to their own boundaries.
Be prepared for the long run
That is what any supervisor will tell you. But how does it work and what does it mean for feminist research? How, when looking at patriarchy in the eye and discover its darkest secrets, do we remain sane? How do we stay positive?
Keep healthy – look after yourself properly:
Take your time.
Be prepared to understand that your research may take longer due to the difficult nature of it. If you need to take time off it, then do it. As things we read may awaken personal memories from our own experience of oppression it may mean you wont be able to carry on your research before you have overcome this particular difficulty. Give yourself the time you need. And let your supervisor know.
Do plenty of what you like (other things)
Don’t let your research take over your life completely and most importantly do plenty of what you like, be it art, sport gardening, crochet, meditation. Identify what makes you happy and do it.
Eat well: I know it’s the basics stuff but very important. When I am depressed I gravitate towards the cupboard looking for sugar even if I know it is going to make me more depressed afterwards. Eat good nourishing food, don’t deplete yourself on a student diet of crisps and sugar treats.
Stay away from social media: (yes I know). Well what can I say, it’s a drug, its full of negative vibes, people treat each other like crap online (yes even feminists) and it’s a popularity contest, rarely lead to real human interactions, full of traumatic news we read and share. Ask yourself if keeping up with patriarchy’s latest atrocities re-traumatising ourselves while pretending we do activism is the way you want to spend your time. If not, turn it of and…
Get out: Close your laptop and go for a walk. The wall of the library are nice and quiet (hopefully) but when on the move, the brain processes information differently, when we move, our thoughts move too. So not only we generate ideas differently but the contact with nature is good for the brain and the body (oxygen anyone!?)
Have some physical exercise: I know, again really obvious but hey it works! Physical activity produces endorphin. It feels good, oxygenate your brain. In case of depression, trauma, anxiety, dissociation a physical activity is a really helpful practise to reconnect with oneself. Do it regularly (at least once a week)
Art: If you can, try to split your week to include a good dose of creative practise. Even if you are not an artist. So paint, sculpt, colouring book, knit, crochet, doodle it does not matter what you choose. Art makes the other side of your brain function and offers much needed release. Also creating is important maybe especially when we are researching the way men destroy (us, the planet)
Meditate: Before any writing session I sit down, put the timer of my phone on 15 minutes and try to meditate. The trick with meditation is to do it and do it lightly, don’t worry if thoughts come to your brain, its normal. just notice them and just let them go. I do my 10 or 15 minutes and then I work with a much clearer mind. Whether I feel that my mediation has been successful (have I really emptied my mind and focused on my breathing?) or not, it doesn’t matter because the act of trying is just as efficient if you “succeed” or not. It helps focus on what is important and let go of what is not important, as well as remove negative stuff, so a very useful tool.
Positive affirmations: more on this in The artist way, where I came across this and many other wonderful helpful techniques. Julia Cameron is a genius. I am paraphrasing her work here just adding a feminist twist to it for good measure. When things are getting hard and I wake up in the middle of the night with panic attack wondering why I do this and what is the purpose of my life all together as it is all useless and rotten including me, it is a good time to remember to write positive affirmations. If you tend to fall into deep long holes of self-doubt and darkness (depression, anxiety, perfectionism paralyses, procrastination, trauma…) it is a good practice to do it every day. This is how I do them. First step is to notice the negative self-talk, not always easy because it is so overwhelming but with time and practice you will hear the voice for what it is: patriarchal voice of destruction. Your destruction. One you have noticed that the voice is here, notice what it says. Take a pen and paper and write. I start by “the patriarchal arsehole in my head says” and then I write it all down, all the crap and paranoia and self-hatred, all of it in detail. “I am a useless piece of shit who is ugly and fat. No one likes me, actually I think most people hate me and are against me, of course they are, as I am a useless piece of shit who is ugly and fat …” Sounds stupid, write it down! “who am I kidding I am a writer (and activist/artist/academic/professional…)? I have no skills I am crap, I can’t write to save my life, hey I can’t even spell properly ! if I could write I would have published a book already, what a waste of space. It’s all useless I should quit. And what’s the purpose of living anyway…etc etc” sounds dramatic. Write it down!
Once this is on paper, look at it but remember. It is not you speaking. Once you realise this is the voice of patriarchy, (and you can go back and explore years of years of endless criticism and well meaning or bad meaning people holding you down, tearing your dreams, saying we are not good enough etc… I believe a lot of women have internalised a lot of that to some extend) then it is easier to let it go.
Pick up one item of self-hatred after the next and work on it: counter it powerfully:
“I am a useless piece of shit” becomes, I (insert your name here) am wonderful woman.” Now write it down 20 times.
“I am fat and ugly” becomes “I (insert your name here) am beautiful”. Now write it down 20 times.
“I am a crap writer” becomes “I (insert your name here) am a powerful writer”. Now write it down 20 times.
You get the idea! I know it sounds silly and I was very reluctant to do this initially but it actually works. When exposed to violent misogynistic content I think that this internalised self-hatred is reactivated so indulge in positive affirmations!
Express anger. The finest (non-feminist ) methodology will tell you the researcher needs to remain emotionally detached from the research topic. Well let me tell you this, it’s a lot of crap. As feminist we do what because we hope to expose it, change it, stop it. We do what we do because as women we have been affected by oppression, sexism, misogyny. We ARE emotionally linked to it. Irremediably. Of course researching any topic from a feminist perspective will emotionally affect us. It is obvious. But somehow as we are reading awful stuff , one horror story after the next, exposing ourselves to violent woman-hating patriarchal ideology in our research, we are still expecting ourselves to carry on , business as usual, like nothing happen. The choice here is between denying our feelings or expressing them. I recently have been quite shaken by several stuff I read and discussion I have had and I felt very unwell, dissociated, with some somatic manifestations such as dizziness, slowness. I came across some reading about the impact of denying our feelings vs. allowing us to express them heads on. So I raged in my car on my way home, I shouted, I screamed, cried, let everything out in words more or less intelligible. When I finished, my mind was clear again, symptoms of dissociation had vanished. I realised the amount of repressed rage I hold is making me depressed and unable to function properly.
Remember why you do what you do (smash the P!)
Remember that your work is important, useful and will make an impact. Remember that women will read it even if in relatively small scale. It is helping me to know women who have responded positively to previous stuff I wrote or said, it keeps me going that it is not all in vain, that we can make some change around us, even little and hopefully bigger. Remember that by exposing what you find you are contributing to undermining the patriarchy and men power. It is important.
Keep an eye on your vision (and read Janice Raymond)
Yes! your vision of a post-patriarchal future we are all aiming for! Or a vision of a pre-patriarchal past! What is it like in your head? How do you imagine it? How are women’s lives in this world? What do they do? What does liberation look like? How does it feel like?
It is nice to have a quote that is inspiring you in that direction. I have those fantastic visionary words by Monique Wittig on my wall at home.
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
If you are a visual woman you can do vision boards, sticking inspiring images representing your vision on your wall, keep your board alive too by adding new images, draw them if you cant find what you are looking for. Imagine! Dream!
Voila! It’s a long list, some of it may be obvious to you but I hope some may be useful. I am keeping this in mind for when things get more challenging. Don’t hesitate to le me know if you have any techniques you use and would like to share ! The more the better !