Magic words that can free autistic folk from low self-esteem victimhood

essy knopf low self esteem
Reading time: 6 minutes

Disrespectful people, pushy people, abusive people—chances are all of us have at one point in our lives encountered such individuals.

Sometimes we skate by, unharmed. Other times, the encounter is unpleasant enough to leave us with a sour taste in our mouth, bruised feelings, and an acute sense of injustice.

Autistic individuals I believe are especially vulnerable when it comes to being bullied and manipulated.

It begins with the fact that many of us have low self-esteem, resulting from living in ableist societies in which neurodiverse folks are treated as inferior.

Autistics additionally have been found to have a more deliberative (and effortful) thinking style. This can impair our ability to rapidly and automatically intuit others’ intentions.1

Our willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt—to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us—puts us at even further risk.

Turns out it’s no accident that toxic individuals are drawn to us like metal filings to a magnet. Rather, it’s the result of our fundamental struggles with knowing when and how to say “no”.

Low self-esteem: a recipe for exploitation

Low self-esteem can render many autistic individuals unwilling—or unable—to set boundaries and to push back when the situation calls for it.

This largely has to do with the kinds of negative reactions we might expect, reactions we have often endured due to our “weird” autistic traits and behaviors.

Others’ reactions in turn lead us to adopt negative narratives about our own supposed unworthiness and unloveable nature as autistics.

This erodes our self-confidence and undercuts our ability to be self-reliant, while also signaling our vulnerability to potential bullies and manipulators.

Another component of this is our tendency to second guess our own feelings and thoughts when confronted with difficult situations.

Many of us are often told that we’re in the wrong. We act with good intentions, only for neurotypicals to tell us that our intentions don’t matter.

All of us have at one point either been told we are too honest, too blunt, too insensitive, too difficult to follow, or too weird. It’s dismissals and criticisms like this that leave us prone to self-doubt.

Thus when challenged, many of us may spiral into helplessness and fail to stand up for ourselves.

Why confronting difficult and toxic people is so hard

It takes courage to speak our feelings of pain, helplessness, and anger. Having low self-esteem, therefore, means we are forced to fight battles on not just one but two fronts.

Firstly, we must validate our perceptions of a situation. This requires an acknowledgment of our worthiness, which can conjure guilt, shame, discomfort, and anxiety.

Secondly, we are standing up and demanding respect. There is always a fear that we might not be heard—a fear that is often borne out in day-to-day life as a marginalized minority—thus reinforcing our negative core belief of unworthiness.

Then there is the concern that the person we are confronting may retaliate—a concern, however wellfounded, that enables abusive people to remain in positions of power.

Low self-esteem can make us a target

When we speak out, the person aggressing may listen and adjust their behavior.

Those who harbor ill intentions alternatively may also decide that we aren’t worth the effort after all, and move on.

But should we fail to speak out—or if our “no” is not forceful enough to effect a change—toxic individuals can linger on.

If you’re dealing with someone with a taste for manipulation, they won’t surrender control so easily. 

There’s always the possibility they may redouble their efforts, draining your emotional well and tainting the waters with negativity.

The seven ‘buttons’ used by manipulators

So, why you? What is it about your person that clues these people into your weaknesses?

In Who’s Pulling Your Strings?, Harriet B. Braiker describes seven behavioral “buttons” that manipulators routinely use to pressure and coerce their victims.

It is only by becoming aware of those buttons, Braiker argues, that we stand a chance of resisting manipulators’ control tactics.

1. The disease-to-please: People with this challenge have made their self-worth conditional upon their willingness to do what others want or expect of them. 

Resisting the disease-to-please is likely to trigger guilt, a fact manipulative folk use to their advantage.

2. Approval and acceptance addiction: Are you overly nice? Chances are your efforts are motivated by a fear of rejection and abandonment. 

Manipulators leverage this fear, withdrawing approval and acceptance to force you into complying with their demands.

3. Fear of negative emotions: Experiencing anger and sadness is fundamental to the human condition. 

Trying to avoid negative emotions is next to impossible. Moreover, expressing them can be key to maintaining healthy boundaries. 

Those with this button try to bury and avoid negative emotions thus leaving them wide open to attack by manipulators.

4. Lack of assertiveness: People-pleasers struggle to say “no”. As such, they may struggle to stand up for themselves when the situation calls for it.

5. The vanishing self: Manipulators have no qualms about twisting those with an unclear sense of identity and core values into fulfilling their own needs and desires. 

6. Low self-reliance: Distrusting one’s perceptions drives us to seek the input and advice of others, leaving us vulnerable to external influence.

7. External locus of control: Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves are ultimately responsible for shaping their lives.

This ultimately results in learned helplessness and an inability to assert one’s self in the face of manipulation.

Essy Knopf low self-esteem victimhood

From low self-esteem to high self-esteem

Manipulators as indicated capitalize on low self-esteem, which has the effect of only reinforcing their victims’ negative self-perceptions.

One could observe that the degree to which we can suffer low self-esteem is relational. Others can damage, but also repair it.

While a trusting, supportive relationship with a therapist or loved one is one way we can heal our sense of self-worth, the task of pushing back against manipulators ultimately falls to us.

Confrontation, however frightening, is sometimes necessary. This may be as simple as making explicit requests and seeking commitment. 

“I” statements are helpful here. For example, “I feel disrespected when you name-call. I’m asking that this behavior stop.”

Remember, you have a right to make reasonable requests and for them to be acknowledged. You are under no terms required to explain or defend yourself.

What you want in confronting a manipulator is some sort of change. That said, your demand needs to be framed as a win-win proposition. 

If, however, the other person won’t refuse to accept anything short of win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose, be prepared to pivot.

Try these magic phrases

Some aggressors respond to feeling threatened by double-downing or escalating. This may take the form of deflecting, projecting, shaming, verbal abuse, and overly dramatic reactions.

Know these individuals may try to confuse the issue, gaslight you by playing the victim, and/or evading any responsibility.

Many individuals feed off conflict, and anything you say or do that plays into this will count as a win in their books.

Be sure to name any attacks on your person the instant they happen. Send a clear message to the aggressor that you won’t stand for poor treatment. 

Hold fast to your conviction that no harm has been done by your speaking up. Your goal here is to protect yourself, not the manipulator’s feelings—which probably weren’t in jeopardy to begin with.

Do not be drawn into a point-for-point debate. Instead, assert yourself by saying: “That doesn’t work for me.” “That’s not fair.” 

Resist any attempts by the manipulator to wrangle for control by delaying your response: “I need to think about it.”

If they try to force an argument, disengage: “This conversation is not productive. I’m leaving now.” 

If you’re feeling thrown off balance by the manipulators’ tactics, it’s okay to break off the exchange by telling them: “Actually now is not a good time.” 

A straight “no” will even suffice, followed by your departure.

And it’s perfectly acceptable to shut down the lines of communication until the other person agrees to follow rules of common courtesy.

If you’d like to try out some of these lines but are worried you might fumble the delivery, practice them in advance until you feel 100% comfortable saying them on cue.

Reappraising low self-esteem

These kinds of situations and encounters can inflame existing feelings of low self-worth among autistic folk, especially when bullies respond with escalation and accusation. You can address this head-on by taking stock of your actions immediately afterward. 

Check in with yourself. How are you feeling about what just went down? 

Were you fair in your conduct? Did you really behave unjustly, as the manipulator would have you believe? 

Imagine for a moment it was your friend making the same request of you. Imagine they told you that your behavior had hurt them. 

Would you have listened to them? Would you have been open to change?

If your answer is “yes”, then it’s reasonable to assume that it was a fair request.

The bully may accuse you of being equally at fault, but what they probably are trying to do is avoid culpability by muddying the water. 

Refuse to take on any of their accusations and combat self-doubt. Conduct an inventory of your alleged character flaws and use humor to inflate them.

Have you, for example, failed to be perfect enough? Are you insufficiently conscientious? Are you an extremely poor people-pleaser? 

Now try to name some appropriate punishments for these crimes. If the ridiculousness of it all doesn’t stop you in your tracks, then take it as proof that it is you—above all—who deserves the break. 

If these encounters leave you feeling stressed, consider practicing some of these self-care techniques, specifically devised for autistic folks.

Build your self-esteem as an autistic with strengths awareness

self-esteem confidence strengths autism Essy Knopf
Reading time: 5 minutes

Many of the messages we get as autistics living in an ableist society remind us that we’re different. And this difference, more often than not, is treated as a negative—at the cost of our self-esteem.

When confronted with the unique traits and behavior of autistic folk, many neurotypicals (NTs) typically respond with discomfort, annoyance, hostility, and even vilification.

Sometimes they do it out of ignorance—a kneejerk reaction to something they don’t understand. They may also simply view autism as a “deficit” or “fault” that needs to be corrected.

Acknowledging areas for growth

There is a tendency within the autism community to react defensively to the “autism-as-deficit” paradigm by casting autism exclusively as a strength. 

Given many of us feel that our autism is an intrinsic part of our identity, it makes sense that we should feel compelled to defend it. 

Personally speaking, I would much sooner rather celebrate my strengths than look at myself through the lens of inferiority.

At the same time, I recognize that being autistic can come with some downsides. For example, I find my various sensory sensitivities to be a nuisance. And I wish I could form and sustain relationships with the ease enjoyed by many NTs.

Should I treat these downsides as a reflection of my worth? Definitely not.

That said, I do think there is value in recognizing our personal areas for growth. For me, this is developing stronger social skills.

Self-esteem starts with acknowledging strengths

Areas of growth aside, I think there is merit in focusing on strengths. Being autistic is can convey quite a few. For example:

  1. We enjoy peer relationships characterized by absolute loyalty and impeccable dependability
  2. We are free of sexist, “age-ist”, or culturalist biases; able to regard others at “face value”
  3. We are willing to share our mind, irrespective of social context or adherence to personal beliefs
  4. We have an ability to pursue personal theory or perspective despite conflicting evidence
  5. We seek an audience or friends capable of enthusiasm for unique interests and topics
  6. We take consideration of details and spend time discussing a topic that may not be of primary interest
  7. We listen without continual judgment or assumption
  8. We are interested primarily in significant contributions to conversation, preferring to avoid “ritualistic small talk”, or socially trivial statements and superficial conversation.
  9. We seek sincere, positive, genuine friends with an unassuming sense of humor

And as employees, we are also known to be: reliable, persistent, perfectionists, easily able to identify errors, technically able, and to have a sense of social justice and integrity.1

We are also willing to question protocols, can be highly accurate, attentive to detail, logical, conscientious, knowledgeable, original in problem-solving, honest, and likely to thrive on routine and clear expectations.

In a majority of situations, these qualities are quite beneficial. They also contradict the autism-as-deficit paradigm.

Are you ‘strengths blind’?

Strengths vary from individual to individual, and may manifest physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, or spiritually.2

We may not be aware of those strengths and how they may have helped us to cope with the challenges of day-to-day life. But they’re still there, regardless.

Failing to recognize our strengths is called being “strengths blind”. Four factors can prevent us from seeing them.

Firstly, a lack of awareness of said strengths, resulting from not practicing self-awareness or feeling disconnection from our identity.

Secondly, we may not see our strengths as meaningful. Thirdly, we may downplay them as ordinary, rather than extraordinary.

And fourthly, we may overuse our strengths to the point that they create problems.

One commonly overused autistic strength is passion. 

To elaborate: autistics can have something of a reputation for wanting to share knowledge about their areas of interest, even with the most casual of acquaintances.

If we’re not careful, we may end up talking at length and scarcely allowing the other person to get a word in edgewise.

In fact, we can become so caught up in the act of sharing that we fail to take notice of the subtle—and not-so-subtle clues—that the other person is getting annoyed, or feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

Yet in moderation, this character strength can be hugely advantageous. Passion for instance can enable us to become leading specialists in our chosen fields.

Putting our strengths into practice

So, how do we overcome strength blindness? By growing our strengths awareness.

You can begin in your own life by reaching out to your closest friends and family members and asking them, “What do you think my strengths are?” 

Their responses should give you a clear idea of what you excel most at. Alternatively, you can take this character strengths and virtues questionnaire.

Some common strengths or qualities are creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zeal, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, and fairness.

Other qualities are leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation, appreciation of beauty, and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.

The great thing about character strengths is that most are not in any way shaped by our being autistic.3 (Small caveat: many autistics may struggle with social intelligence and teamwork, and yet we also love to learn and are very curious.)

Once you’ve identified our strengths, select your topmost three. Now ask yourself, what activities do you do in service of those strengths?

Chances are when you do those activities, you’ll feel great about yourself. Why? Because they are impactful, and because they provide satisfaction. 

self-esteem autism Essy Knopf

Strengths-based habits improve self-esteem

When we do these activities and receive a positive result, it affirms our strengths and builds self-esteem.

If you’re struggling with self-esteem issues, make a conscious plan to do at least one of the three activities when you feel down or like you’re struggling.

If love is one of your strengths, perform a kind act for someone, such as buying a friend a gift. If appreciation of beauty is a strength, visit an art gallery or public garden. 

If creativity is a strength, pick up a pen or paintbrush and start creating.

Of course, doing the occasional activity can only take you so far. If we really want to grow our self-esteem, we should make these activities into habits.

Set aside a regular time in which to do each of the activities you identified. Incorporate them into your daily or weekly schedule, until they become habitual.

Wrap up

Why is making activities into habits important? Because habits create a powerful snowball effect.

The more we exercise our strengths, the more they feel like a part of our character. The more we orient our character around our strengths, the more capable we feel.

The more capable we feel, the greater our sense of self-worth. The greater our sense of self-worth, the more likely we are to embrace our strengths. And so the cycle goes.

What are some of your strengths, and how do you express them? 

And what’s one new habit you could commit to over the coming week? Share your responses in the comments.

Autistics mask to survive systemic ableism—at the cost of their self-worth

systemic ableism autism masking Essy Knopf
Reading time: 6 minutes

Autistic individuals learn early on that if they want to survive in a society shaped by systemic ableism, they have to mask their true autistic selves and hide many of the accompanying traits.

But over time, masking damages our self-worth. And it may also fuel internalized ableism.

So why then do we persist in doing it? Because while accommodations are sometimes made for people with disabilities, but they are by far the exception to the rule.

In the case of autism, accommodations can be even less likely, due to what clinicians call “disguised presentation”. That is, their autism isn’t always that obvious, or they are actively “camouflaged by the autistic.

Sure, neurotypicals (NTs) may view and treat autistics as if they are also NTs. But when they do, they set the bar for acceptance impossibly high.

When NTs expect autistic folk to think and behave as they do, the moment the autistic individual has a mask “lapse”—for example, by being overly direct, or failing to read social cues—the NT will misattribute that lapse to another cause. 

Because of systemic ableism, NTs assume that the masking/non-presenting autistic is simply behaving in a certain way because they are “selfish” or “rude”, and not because they are actually autistic.

They may even respond by criticizing, judging, punishing, and excluding the autistic individual.

Systemic ableism & microaggressions

The issue here is not merely that NTs are intolerant of neurodiversity and the differences it presents. It’s that NTs, in general, operate from baseline ableist expectations.

Most I believe are oblivious of the extent to which this ableism informs their thinking and leads to microaggressions.

Microaggressions refer to the “commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups” (see Microaggressions in Everyday Life).

Microaggressions can happen within the families of autistic folk. For instance, I remember my own parents calling me “antisocial” for being a bookish introvert.

They also play out at school, with kids slapping all kinds of hurtful names upon their neurodiverse peers.

Some teachers would tell me that I lacked “common sense”, and that my handwriting was “poor” and “sloppy”. Turns out, all of these traits were part and parcel of my being autistic. 

But even having a diagnosis doesn’t necessarily guarantee understanding and compassion. 

Shortly after receiving my own, I had a friend suddenly touch me from behind. When I reacted with shock and explained my reasons, this friend responded by cussing out my “Asperger syndrome”.

Rather than apologizing for having startled me, this friend did what so many NTs did and called out my autism as being the problem.

Miscommunications & Theory of Mind

These misunderstandings are compounded by issues related to a skill called “Theory of Mind”.

Theory of Mind (ToM) has been defined as: “the ability to recognize and understand thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions of other people in order to make sense of their behaviour and predict what they are going to do next”.

Autistic folks typically have impaired ToM. What I’ve noticed however is that our unusual thinking style and behavior can also general a kind of temporary ToM impairment among NTs. 

That is, NTs tend to ascribe NT motives to everyone, but doing this to autistic folk can lead to confession and misunderstanding.

To give an example: when I got into trouble as a child, I would usually be upfront upon the truth, believing that my confession would be taken at face value. 

But protesting my innocence or admitting to my naivety would rarely win me favors. In one case, an adult suggested I was “stupid” for expecting them to believe my story. 

What happened here was that this individual couldn’t fathom my intentions, and thus concluded my being honest had to be an act of deception.

Even with a diagnosis, NTs may continue to mistake an autistic’s intentions. 

For example, during one visit to my parents, my mother told me she was going to make some pasta sauce.

She explained that she was going to fetch a can of tomatoes, indicating what I took to be a bucket-sized can.

Knowing my mother had a tendency to bulk-buy, I thought she indeed meant to fetch a can of that size. Because of my impaired ToM, I interpreted her gesture literally. 

When I expressed my confusion over why she wanted to use such a big can, it didn’t occur to my parents that I was genuinely confused. 

Instead, they—in their own confusion—accused me of being a smart aleck.

We mask because authenticity is risky

This quality of failing to adjust expectations when dealing with an autistic individual can sometimes be the result of the disguised presentation I mentioned earlier.

In such cases, autistics present themselves as NT, and in some cases, this is deliberate (camouflaging), with the autistic trying to mask their disability for fear of being attacked or marginalized.

Like NTs, autistics want above all to be accepted for their authentic selves. But when autistic authenticity collides with ableist expectations as in the situations I’ve described above, disaster can result.

Due to our impaired ToM, it can be hard to understand NTs and to anticipate how they might react to our actions. So we become master imitators and concealers. 

We mask, knowing that by hiding our neurodiversity, we are shielding ourselves against a perplexing and often hostile world.

Sometimes these compensations can be positive and adaptive. Sometimes not. 

A positive example is overcoming noise sensitivity by wearing headphones whenever out in public. A negative example is avoiding talking about one’s interests, for fear of misreading social cues and rambling on.

But masking is self-defeating

Autistics will often tell themselves that they need to change in order to fit NT expectations. But this really is an expression of internalized ableism.

Furthermore, ignoring your needs and hiding your differences as an autistic is almost always self-defeating. 

For instance, years ago I had a friend who would invite me to the movies. Personally, I find sitting in a movie theater to be sensory torture, with people constantly rustling bags and crunching on popcorn.

But rather than explaining this to my friend, I went along with her invitations, usually at great discomfort to myself.

Feeling shame over my sensory problems, I refused to tell her about the issue. Eventually, I started making excuses for not being able to join my friend, who came to believe I was intentionally avoiding her.

Difficulties with executive function are common among autistic folk. Personally, in the past, I have struggled in particular with self-organizing, managing my time, and staying on track.

In one case, a manager unloaded on me over this, accusing me of being self-absorbed and irresponsible.

Rather than reacting defensively, I admitted my mistakes and asked this manager for advice on how I could improve certain executive function skills.

She replied by telling me that my request was “beyond the scope of her role”.

It was one thing to turn professional feedback into a personal attack, but to then deny me support was quite another.

This is, unfortunately, a common experience for autistics. Often we’re told that we have done wrong, without being told how to course correct.

Systemic ableism creates internalized ableism

Until my diagnosis with autism, I didn’t have a framework by which to defend my difference. Having long been challenged and attacked over my autistic traits, defenses have usually felt necessary.

Of course, even without having fully understood the whys and hows of my challenges, I could have still spoken up and tried to negotiate accommodations.

What stopped me, however, was the belief that I was somehow choosing to be difficult. Having internalized ableism, I had come to feel inferior and ashamed of my difference. 

My self-esteem consequently became conditional upon the approval of others. This led to me adopting a workaholic lifestyle, in a bid to prove my worth to myself, and to others.

Personal boundaries blurred, to the point that I feared I was always somehow responsible when something went wrong.

Such was my shame that even after my diagnosis, I shied from the company of other autistics.

I convinced myself that the people who frequented autism-related groups weren’t like me, that I was somehow more “high functioning”.

What I feared—but dared not acknowledge—was that to be in their company might make me “one of them”. 

Ableism creates so much stigma around disability, that despite everything I knew, I still believed my autism to be a kind of flaw or personal shortcoming.

Wrap up

Systemic ableism oppresses by demanding that autistics abandon their identities and silence their needs. The presence of systemic ableism in autistic lives, however, can be countered. 

We can start by leaning into authenticity, which Brené Brown defines as the “daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are”.

One immediate way we can embrace our authentic selves is by seeking out fellow autistics around whom masking is not necessary.

After all, the neurodiverse community exists to normalize individual experiences. It does not mandate masking, and it works to combat the stigma that can make having a disability such an isolating experience.

Autistic readers, how does ableism show up in your life? Do you recognize any of the forms of internalized ableism I’ve described here? Drop a comment below.

When self-care feels impossible as a social worker, try these five easy tricks

Essy Knopf social work secret self-care tips
Reading time: 4 minutes

Working in a demanding profession like social work, I’m often reminded that self-care is a commitment many of us struggle to make. 

Certainly, there may be factors that interfere with our ability to perform this vital activity. We may for example experience a time crunch at work and miss a lunch break in order to help a client in crisis.

When such a situation becomes routine, we should be worried. Many however refuse to take action, claiming they simply don’t have control over the circumstances.

Addressing self-care, however, is less about external circumstances than it is about certain problematic beliefs we hold to be true.

Common mental barriers to self-care

Chronic overwork usually happens because we permit it to.

For example, boundary issues may convince us we are obligated—if not morally bound—to take on more than our own share. 

This can stem from low self-esteem or distorted self-perception, which are in turn fed by negative self-talk. 

If given too much latitude, our internal critics will demand we constantly prove our self-worth, leading to workaholism, perfectionism, and other forms of grandiosity

This is not a sustainable way of life. We can’t ignore our feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion forever. But in the absence of self-compassion, we will likely dismiss self-care as “unnecessary”, “wasteful”, and “selfish”.

Another contributor to overwork is time anxiety, a phenomenon by which we come to believe there is simply never enough time in which to complete all of our assigned tasks.

Like other forms of anxiety, time anxiety follows a simple premise: 

if you do or fail to do X, Y catastrophe will happen 

If you’re struggling to overcome one or more of these obstacles, or if the suggestions in my previous guide to self-care as a social worker didn’t quite hit the spot, I would suggest the following approaches.

1. Snack on self-care

Incorporate brief, “snack-sized” activities into your daily routine. For example:

  • Watch a humorous segment from a late-night talk show host on YouTube while eating breakfast
  • Check your favorite news website during work breaks
  • Watch a fun TV show while cooking dinner
  • Listen to an enriching podcast while cleaning or exercising
  • Do school readings while enjoying a hot bath
  • Practice a grounding exercise during moments of peak stress. For example: box breathing, belly breathing, or body scans

While multitasking has been linked to higher levels of stress and fatigue, self-care snacking in this fashion is a start…and thus progress.

2. Try gratitude & affirmations

Studies have found that practicing gratitude can significantly boost our mental health

One common example is gratitude journaling. This involves writing down five things you’re grateful for each day. 

Alternatively, you can share this list with a designated “accountability partner” either daily or weekly, in-person, or over the phone.

Another fun way to practice gratitude is with a freewriting gratitude exercise. Set a timer for five minutes, suspend your critical thinking, and start writing down anything and everything you could be grateful for.

When the timer ends, set down your pen and review your work. Does what you write check out? Are you surprised by the number of things you were able to list?

Another proven way to nip stress in the bud is by practicing affirmations. Consider opening or closing your day with an affirmation that emphasizes a positive aspect of your life or celebrates your strengths or achievements. 

Here are some examples of affirmations you can use as part of a daily practice. 

Thankfully, practicing gratitude nor affirmations are not time-intensive activities and can be performed during natural lulls that occur throughout the day.

Essy Knopf self-care ticks social work

3. Lean into self-compassion

Self-compassion refers to the willingness and ability to comfort oneself in moments of distress. This is a vital skill we typically learn by internalizing the soothing offered to us as children by our primary caregivers. 

When our attachment to these caregivers is disrupted, however, through misattunement, invalidation, neglect, abuse, loss, and trauma, we may develop insecure attachment styles.

This impedes future relationships and deprives us of the chance to learn self-compassion, which can bolster personal resiliency.

Thankfully, self-compassion can always be developed through practice. To get started, check out some of the brief guided meditations, videos, and exercises available on Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff’s website. 

Again, these activities can be done almost anywhere and don’t require a lot of time.

4. Get your body moving

Exercise may maintain our general health—but it can also help protect us against anxiety and depression.

As someone who has suffered chronic anxiety, I have found daily exercise goes a long way to helping me manage this condition.

While I don’t always achieve the 30 minutes of moderate activity daily recommended by scientists, I do make sure to take 20-minute walks around the neighborhood at the very least.

Slower exercise should ideally be supplemented by higher-intensity workouts. For instance, I try to cycle for an hour one day, hike for a few hours on another, and do an hour of weights and jogging on a third.

If your mind tells you that taking time out to exercise will eat into your productivity, consider listening to a podcast or audiobook at the same time.

Should venturing outdoors or going to the gym demand too much from your schedule, try exercising from home with free-to-view YouTube aerobics classes.

5. Sleep hygienically

How is sleep a self-care activity? Usually, when we are consumed by work, we may not get our seven-hour minimum.

If our sleep is too short or the quality of it is poor, we may quickly find ourselves running on empty.

Practicing sleep hygiene is how we create the ideal conditions for sleeping. Some examples of good sleep hygiene are:

  • Going to bed and getting up at a regular time 
  • Ensuring our bedrooms are quiet, dark, relaxing, and comfortable
  • Using our bedroom exclusively for sleeping 
  • Removing electronic devices from our sleeping spaces
  • Employing blue light-free bulbs and the wellness feature on our Apple or Android devices (sometimes referred to as “night light”)
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before rest 

Wrap up

Whatever your career choice, overwork is a possibility that can always sneak up unexpectedly. 

Boundary issues, fierce internal critics, and time anxiety are just a few forms of mental resistance that can leave us especially vulnerable in this regard.

Danger arises when this resistance persuades us that the rightful place of self-care is on the chopping block. 

Over time, such beliefs can become hard to shake. But by making some of the adjustments proposed above, you can take small steps towards becoming a personal wellbeing champion.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Is there a place for the graysexual identity within the gay community?

Gray-a demisexual graysexual asexual Essy Knopf
Reading time: 4 minutes

Apparently being gay also means being hypersexual. At least, that’s what many of us have been led to believe.

But human sexuality expresses itself very differently from person to person.

Today, I want to talk about two forms of this—gray asexuality/graysexuality and demisexuality—and the struggle many of us experience fitting in.

Gay hypersexuality

At 18, when I was just starting to explore my gay identity, I found myself drawn to nightclubs. This seemed like the best venue in which to meet other gay men and hopefully make friends. 

Each club usually had a cover charge, but as a poor student, I often found myself balking. One time a bouncer laughed at my reaction.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll get laid.”

I remember feeling absolutely mortified. How could he have so mistaken my intentions?
Yet it was, as it turned out, a fairly normal assumption to make.

Inside these clubs, I frequently saw people sizing each other up across the dancefloor.

And when I tried to make small talk with strangers, I’d catch them looking over my shoulder at the latest person to walk through the door. Many people I met appeared to be solely looking for casual sex. 

Frankly, I was so bored by this idea, that I’d often end up sitting in a corner and browsing the free gay publications. 

The articles and advertisements I saw within seemed, again, to speak to this hypersexual facet of the gay identity—a facet that is often quite narrow in its definitions.

Being a graysexual in the gay ‘monoculture’

The gay community is, at least in theory, an inclusive one. In practice, however, it can lean towards being a monoculture.

The term “monoculture” refers to cultivating one kind of crop at a time. This is compared to polyculture, where one cultivates multiple crops at the same time.

The gay monoculture promotes the idea that all gay men should be hypersexual and openly discuss their sexual preferences with one another.

Sexuality for me on the other hand has always been personal and private. I’ve rarely felt any need to disclose my preferences with anyone, friends included, nor to actively pursue sex.

When I met other gay men online or in person, I’d explain that I wanted to be their friend and get to know them. For me, the familiarity and safety provided by a friendship were necessary before progressing the relationship.

Intellectual connection and interpersonal compatibility were also important, and I couldn’t be sure of either on short acquaintance.

But many people received my request to get to know them as a rejection. I was, in their view, friend-zoning them.

It seemed I had failed to grasp a common but unspoken belief: that when two gay men come into contact, sex must result.

What are graysexuality and demisexuality?

Given casual sex in the gay world is often treated as a kind of handshake, this expectation makes sense.

This is not to say that gay culture is monolithic. It arose after all as a response to the constraints of heterosexuality.

But this tendency to lean towards a single expression of sexuality can be marginalizing and oppressive to those who don’t and can’t follow it.

It’s only in the past few years, after coming to identify with the gray asexual and demisexual labels, that I’ve understood why gay hypersexuality never sat right with me.

What does it mean to be gray asexual, also known as graysexual, gray-a, and gray-ace? 

Graysexuals according to the Demisexual Resource Center

  • feel sexual attraction infrequently, of low intensity, to few people, or in specific circumstances
  • feel sexual attraction, but have no desire to act on it; have confusing or ambiguous feelings of sexual attraction
  • feel that sexual attraction is not a meaningful concept to them personally

Graysexuality clearly has many possible definitions and is experienced differently by each individual.

Demisexuality on the other hand involves “feeling sexual attraction only after forming an emotional bond”. Some consider demisexuality to be a subset of gray asexual.

In my case, I relate to both labels. I experience sexual attraction, but in limited circumstances, and at a low intensity.
These feelings are often ambiguous, aren’t that important to me, and I usually have little desire to act on them.

And if I do, full enjoyment is rarely possible unless I have first formed an emotional bond.

Quite a lot of fine print. And not exactly something one drops in a casual conversation.

When being graysexual conflicts with allosexuality

Allosexuality—that is, feeling sexual attraction—is often treated as the norm, so graysexuals and demisexuals like myself may thus find themselves pushed into the margins.

For example, we may often feel like our lack of sexual interest and/or drive is a problem and that something is wrong with us.

If we don’t indulge in hypersexuality, we may feel like we’re somehow failing the gay acid test.

Another fact to consider is that in gay culture, being sexually desirable is, unfortunately, often tied to self-worth. Having a lack of sexual interest in others may thus be interpreted as rejection.

Not wanting to engage in sexual activities may be perfectly comfortable for you. But failing to meet allosexuals’ expectations can create discomfort, if not frustration, for some.

Many a time, I’ve found myself in situations where another person clearly wanted a sexual outcome. When that outcome didn’t happen, some individuals would only pressure me further.

Sometimes I froze, and sometimes I gave in. When I did manage to find my voice and refuse, hurt and anger could result. 

Wrap up

It’s hard not to feel somehow wrong or at fault in these situations. You get to thinking that maybe it’s on you to be more upfront about your preferences.

But even when we are upfront, there’s always the possibility it might be explained away.

I’ve had more than a few people tell me that I “just hadn’t had the right sexual experience or partner” yet. Ironic, given that’s an argument that’s been used against gay people for having an interest in members of the same sex!

It isn’t fair that allosexuality is treated as a default and alternate sexual expressions as abnormal. We gray-aces and demisexuals feel blamed or shamed for failing to meet some kind of sexual mandate.

This is, after all, a fundamental part of who we are. And our diverse identities are just one variation of many that exist within the LGBTQI+ community

So enough about me, I want to know: do you identify as graysexual or demisexual? 

If so, what’s it been like for you? Let me know in the comments.

Surviving in the social work field boils down to this single habit

Essy Knopf social work habit self care
Reading time: 4 minutes

What is your number one priority as a social worker? If self-care is not the answer, we need to have a chat.

Most Master of Social Work (MSW) programs will emphasize the importance of self-care upfront. It doesn’t take long, however, for this call-to-arms to butt up against reality. 

We as social workers must navigate many competing and conflicting priorities daily. This begins as early as school.

With so much to do during our relatively brief degree, our days are often dominated by assignments and course readings. 

Setting aside an extra hour for “you” time can come to resemble an unnecessary luxury. You may find yourself asking, “How can I afford to stop and relax when I have so much work left to do?” 

It’s a question I promise will continue to challenge you over the course of your career. For this reason, self-care is a habit you would be best served by building right now.

Here are some ways you can get started.

1. Make a commitment to self-care

If you can exercise enough discipline to study for multiple hours every day, you can certainly commit a minimum of one hour to self-care.

In strict cost-benefit analysis terms, your brain may try to argue with you about the necessity of relaxing.

It may feel good to have dedicated downtime. But time away from your desk may also put you behind in your work and feed your anxiety.

This can become a vicious circle: time anxiety persuades there is never enough, and while this might certainly feel like it’s the case, it’s not true.

The issue is not whether you have enough time to take care of your personal wellbeing. Rather, it’s your willingness to re-prioritize it. 

Let’s suppose you do. If you have time anxiety, this may worsen. But rest assured that over time, its death-grip on your psyche will weaken.

2. Block out downtime

Personally, I’ve found there are usually three windows each day in which most people can block out self-care time: 

  1. First thing, straight after waking up
  2. Midway during the day, such as during a lunch break
  3. Before bed, when one typically unwinds

The morning window works best for me (that is, supposing I get to bed early).

This period seems to afford me enough time to do a self-care activity such as meditation before my brain jumps aboard the “work ‘til you drop” train.

Another option is to dedicate a single day of the week such as Sunday to “you” time.

3. Permit yourself a personal life

Work is a hungry beast, and if we continue to encourage it, it will inevitably consume our personal lives. 

We may suspend social outings and quality time activities with our loved ones. Or we may sacrifice a hobby that previously enriched our lives.

Diligence and dedication in professional settings are admirable traits. But when taken to excess, they can lead to workaholism.

Having healthy boundaries quite simply means saying “yes” to all that is conducive to our welfare, and “no” to things that aren’t. And workaholism is definitely something that qualifies as the latter.

Don’t neglect your personal relationships for the sake of your calling. Refuse to become a martyr for your chosen social work cause. 

Instead, strive for a work-life balance. Schedule at least one social meetup a week. Revive that cherished hobby. 

Rather than constantly drawing from your well, take time out to replenish it.

Essy Knopf self-care social worker

4. Don’t go at it alone

Further to the last point, healthy relationships are like armored vans that can carry us through a warzone of difficult times. 

These relationships are thus crucial to our mental health and serve as an invaluable buffer during difficult times.

But they are only as helpful as we allow them to be. In times of need, don’t hesitate to reach out to coworkers, supervisors, partners, friends, and family members.

5. Self-care through the support of a therapist

None of us come to the social work field a clean slate. Each of us has a history, and the work we do can cause parts of it to resurface, both good and bad.

A therapist can help us with processing our experiences, as well as professional challenges like countertransference.

The insights of another professional can go a long way to supporting us in becoming better practitioners. 

6. Start meditating

Mindfulness-based strategies are an effective way to support mental resilience and ward off overwhelm and anxiety.

The most commonly known strategy is meditation.

Guided meditations can be found in person or online. UCLA Health for example has many recordings on its website, and there are subscription-based meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace.

An example of a self-guided meditation I use daily is breath counting. This is very simple to practice.

First, get into a meditation posture. A common one is sitting upright, with your feet planted on the floor, your hands resting on your lap, and your eyes either open or closed.

Next, count one, inhale, two exhale, three inhale, four exhale… Go right up to 10, before resetting to one. 

Every time your mind wanders or you become distracted, bring your attention back to the sensation of your breath and resume counting.

The breath counting meditation has the most beneficial effect for me when performed one to two times a day for 20 minutes at a time. 

If you are new to this kind of meditation, I would recommend beginning with a three-minute meditation, slowly work your way up to a longer session.

Whatever method you choose, know that finding your meditation groove can, at least, initially, be a struggle—especially if you’ve had no prior experience with mindfulness. 

For that reason, I would recommend starting with guided meditations or exploring free resources such as these five mindfulness-oriented phone apps.

7. Explore yoga or prayer as self-care

Another mindfulness-based strategy is yoga. If you can’t make it to a studio, try a virtual class. Many are available free to watch on YouTube.

Another mindfulness practice worth mentioning mention is prayer, which has been found to offer similar benefits to other forms of mindfulness. 

For these reasons, if you are spiritual or practice a religion, it may be worth incorporating a prayer practice into your daily self-care regimen.

Wrap up

If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “There is no way I can humanly do all of this,” know that you by far are not the first social worker to feel this way.

Feeling overwhelmed as we so often do in these instances is an opportunity to pause and check in with ourselves.

Are you getting enough time to recharge your batteries each day? If not, maybe it is time you carved out a slot in your daily schedule for a self-care activity.

Sure, it may not always seem practical. But let me ask you this: how much more practical is the alternative…professional burnout?

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Loving, stubborn, irreverent. To the aunty gone, but fondly remembered.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Reading time: 7 minutes

If there was one word to describe my aunty, it was irreverent.

On the few occasions when Mehrey Sanam babysat for my parents, she would pull up at the lights, fix you with an intent look, and extend a hand across the transmission.

“Pull my finger,” went the command.

“No, aunty,” you would protest.

“Pull my finger,” she insisted.

Mehrey’s ability to fart on cue, and to belch with complete disregard for propriety, made her—at least to my child self—something of a wildcard. 

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey with her three boys, Soheil (left), and the twins Nabil and Cyrus (right).

It was an impression doubtless shared by others, and one Mehrey Sanam was happy to play up to. 

“Look at all these geriatrics,” she complaint during a family cruise trip, as if her 60-year-old self couldn’t have been more different to these silver-haired strangers enjoying their golden years.

“Mehrey T-sanam-i, they call me,” she cackled another time, referring to her fellow colleagues at the hospital where she worked. 

It was, Mehrey went on to explain, not a reference to her destructiveness, but her reputation as a human dynamo.

A long-time operating theater nurse, Mehrey moved with the vigor of a woman half her age, sporting a devil-may-care smirk and a kind of gallows humor infused with mischief.

My aunty’s personal charms didn’t stop there. Mehrey regularly treated her colleagues to traditional Iranian hospitality with an assortment of homecooked meals.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
At a Halloween celebration. Mehrey (left) was playing Wonder Woman. She was, in retrospect, a heroine in her own right.

While my aunty had a reputation for being generous to others, she was also never one to shy from the occasional self-indulgence either.

“$30,000?!” I cried, after learning the price of her new veneers.

“When I die they can take everything from me, but they won’t be able to take my teeth,” went Mehrey’s reply. She punctuated the joke with laughter, her lips curling back to expose the new pearly whites.

This kind of wry playfulness infused other aspects of aunty’s life. She named her first black-and-white cat Sylvester after the Looney Tunes character. When ever I asked where her pussycat was, she would break out in spontaneous song.

“What’s up pussycat? Whoa, whoa, whoa.” A line from a Tom Jones song, it turned out.

Sanam as it turned out was not Mehrey’s real last name, but a term of endearment used by one of her first boyfriends. A reference, my mother later told me, to one of Mehrey’s favorite Bollywood stars.

And while Mehrey herself had no interest being under the spotlight, she nevertheless had something of a movie star’s aura. 

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey (left), my dad Michael (center) and my mum Farideh (right) during a photo taken many years later.

Perhaps it was Mehrey’s vanity; the habitualness with which she would open her compact and touch up the mandatory coating of eyeliner, mascara, and bright red lipstick. 

It was an appearance my aunty refused to shed, even during trips to a local river. Her hair suspended above a visor cap, Mehrey would enter the shallows, careful breaststroke keeping her face suspended a few inches above the waterline. 

My siblings and I took delight in undermining our diminutive relative, splashing her with water or trying to dunk her when her back was turned.

Mehrey’s carefully made-up look did not change over the years. It cast her in my imagination as some bygone ‘50s star, fame forgotten, a personage whose name I could never remember. Lucille Ball, maybe. 

Once, when my teenage sister and I snickered over Mehrey’s decision to not wear a bra (“Baggy soobs!” we said in our not-so-secret reverse language), Mehrey’s mouth tightened into a line.

“I do NOT have saggy boobs,” she retorted. “The women at work tell me I have the body of a TWENTY-YEAR-OLD!” 

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey with her eldest son, Soheil.

Mehrey’s aura may have also had its roots in her unapologetic stubbornness. It was a quirk that evoked admiration, but also generated a cool distance that not even her wit or laughter could completely bridge.

Still, as a child, I knew Mehrey was a dependable gifter, certain always to bring my siblings and me each a Kinder Surprise upon her visit. It conferred upon Mehrey the status of an ally, a patron saint of toys, treats, and cash; an opponent of parental authority.

Who else after all brought the sampler box of chocolates, oozing strawberry and peppermint cream? Who refuted our parent’s stern disciplinarianism and allowed us to play video games all day long? 

Who did such unorthodox things as asking us to crack her spine by walking on her back? Who dared to break the anti-gambling rule of our religion by buying $2 scratch tickets?

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey helping Farideh prepare lunch at our home.

Mehrey was a rebel, existing as a raised middle finger to anyone who might try to tell her what to do. Goodnatured defiance sat poised behind her heavily lashed stare; a stare almost feline in its assessment.

Not even nature was immune. When stung by a horsefly, Mehrey would stun it with a deft slap, catch the bug, and rip off first one wing, then the other.

“That’ll teach it,” she said, with a hint of mean satisfaction.

Another time, Mehrey rolled down our car window and performed a racist imitation of an Asian driver who had cut my father off.

The course of Mehrey’s life served as further proof of this role. She had left everything she had loved and known to emigrate to Australia in pursuit of a better life. 

Mehrey had married and eventually separated from her husband, taking it upon herself to raise their three boys on her own, often working two jobs to keep the family afloat.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Our loveable, high-spirited, sometimes difficult, aunty.

My aunty’s decision to take the name Sanam was not so much a f*** you to her husband or the institution of marriage, but a capstone upon the walls she’d built around her life. Stone by stone, Mehrey had assembled the image of herself as an independent, self-made woman.

It was an image not born of bitterness, but resilience. And it was—in many respects—well-earned. 

Over the course of Mehrey’s life, she owned several businesses, including a fabric store and ice cream counter. When these businesses failed, she turned her hand instead to leasing a lychee plantation and recruiting her three sons to pick fruit.

Mehrey proved a woman of many secret talents. She oversaw the design of her new home and planted gardens teeming with spiny custard apples, swollen melons, and speckled papaya.

My aunty host lavish gatherings at her home for members of the local Baha’i community. During devotionals, Mehrey would chant prayers in a voice that was melodic, heavy with the suggestion of some tragic loss. 

My aunty sang like a bereft lover, yet the woman we knew surely had never loved any man with such intensity as this

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Aunty tending her garden.

Mehrey’s performances would inevitably draw praise and requests. And this seemed to embarrass her in the same inexplicable way my mother’s birth name “Tahirih” (meaning “the pure”) did.

Suffice to say, Mehrey’s secret talents served a function. It was a kind of overcompensation, sometimes for challenging life circumstances, other times for the things Mehrey lacked and could not offer. 

My aunty was for example never much one for physical affection, and yet she didn’t hesitate to force vitamin supplements upon all of her family members. This was, I knew at the time, her way of demonstrating that she cared.

Mehrey’s entrepreneurial nature eventually led her to invest in a new side hustle: backyard botox. My mother disdained this new interest, warning her sister that practicing without a license would land her in hot water.

Mehrey of course waved away these doubts the same way she had always done. What use did they serve anyhow? Doubt had never done much to ensure my aunty’s and her family’s survival.

And Mehrey was a practicing surgical nurse with decades of experience working with complex cases, from car accidents to open-heart surgery. What more training did she really need?

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey at work.

To me, Mehrey’s new hustle was about as outrageous as the person herself. It was a logical conclusion for someone who so prided herself in appearance and bucking trends.

Unlike the $2 scratch tickets Mehrey so adored, however, the botox business did not pay off. When one patient had an adverse reaction to an injection, Mehrey was reported to medical authorities.

My aunty soon found herself embroiled in a lawsuit, costing her both her nurse’s license and—at least in her own mind—her dignity.

The shame of these circumstances took the fight out of my aunty. This once unflappable powerhouse became instead a frail, broken woman, bowed beneath the weight of shame.

Mehrey stopped eating and began doctor shopping for opioid painkillers. Aware of her declining health, I reached out to my aunty, begging her to come and stay with me.

Offering to buy her an airline ticket, I reminded Mehrey of everything she had done for me, of how precious her life was to all of us 

“Thank you, Ehsan,” she said. “You made me feel much better. You’re my favorite nephew.”

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
My mother and Mehrey during their early days living together in Cairns, after immigrating from Iran.

The relief in Mehrey’s voice I knew was temporary. Her fierce determination—a determination that had carried her this far, through many a difficulty—was now leading her towards a terrible destination. 

Two weeks later, Mehrey was found comatose in her bed. Her brain functions were nil, the result of oxygen deprivation, linked to her growing reliance on opioids.

My family attended Mehrey’s hospital bedside, peering tearfully down at the shell of the woman we had once known.

The idea of touching her terrified me. I struggled to communicate my love to this bag of insensate flesh and bones that had betrayed Mehrey’s spirit by refusing to simply die, as I suspected she had wanted it to.

The decision was made to withdraw life support, and Mehrey passed not long after. A dread hush fell over our family, a hush that would last for many years to come. 

It was as if speaking my aunty’s name alone could conjure the unspeakable and unspoken; a story that had ended abruptly, without explanation, and with none of the ceremony deserving of a person and life as rich and triumphant as hers had been.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Teenage me and aunty at the local pool.

In the years since I would walk back down the halls of memory to the days of monsoonal rainstorms. I would remember how Mehrey’s older sons—our cousins—would push us on boogie boards across the flooded field behind her home. 

I’d think of aunty’s requests to turn off the fan on hot days, on the account of her being, in my father’s words, a “coldblooded lizard”. Of how she fought off the python that smothered her beloved cat just with a broom.

Of how my sister and I walked among the rafters of an incomplete roof of her home and left a crack in the ceiling, a crack that rankled Mehrey to no end, but for which she nevertheless forgave us.

I laugh when I recall Mehrey’s chagrin over the fact she’d allowed relatives in Iran to persuade her to get eyebrow tattoos, only for them to turn green within a matter of months. 

And I shake my head at a tale that would later emerge of how a putupon mother had tied the leg of her eldest son to a tree and left him there, as punishment for some childhood misdeed.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
My aunty was kind and loved to provide for others.

Mehrey’s life served as a fierce testament to the strength of her personality, as a kind of rationale for the way she had chosen to live. But with my aunty now gone, who was there left to speak for her? 

Who, I wonder, would keep a candle lit for this beacon of strength—a beacon once so vital, so seemingly unquenchable?

My aunty was a character of many conflicting qualities. A lover of black humor. Purehearted, occasionally prideful, and inflexible in a way that was, more often than not, strangely endearing. 

Mehrey was an individualist who insisted on keeping her own counsel…and keeping at arms-length. A fighter who insisted on always having the last word.

I take strange comfort in the fact that, in the end, my aunty did. For beneath her headstone lies buried a pair of perfectly intact veneers, set in an eternal grin.

11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school

Essy Knopf social work school
Reading time: 7 minutes

If there’s one experience that unites social work school students, it’s a feeling of chronic overwhelm.

The Master of Social Work (MSW) program is a generalist degree, meaning it covers a lot of ground, spanning clinical practice, research, and macro advocacy.

Jampacked curriculums are how social work schools prepare students for the reality they will most likely have to wear many hats throughout their careers. 

To fulfill our (well-earned) reputation as masters of resourcefulness, our teachers pile reading after reading upon us, leaving students buried under an ever-growing pile of work.

To make matters more difficult, within weeks of starting their degree, students are thrown into the field placement deep end. 

The rationale here is that the best way to learn is by doing. Without practice, there’s a good chance that much of the coursework—often covered at a breakneck pace—won’t stick.

Struggling to keep up, we let our self-care activities fall by the wayside. Anxiety, study burnout, and imposter syndrome often result.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are 11 tips I believe will go a long way to helping you not only survive, but flourish in social work school.

1. Prioritize with the 1-2-3-4 method

Your workload as a social work student is formidable. The only way you can ever hope to get (and stay) on top of it is by prioritizing.

To do this, organize all your tasks into the following categories:

  1. Do first 
  2. Schedule 
  3. Delegate 
  4. Don’t do

Next, complete each task in order of priority. When another task is added to your list, make sure to continue assigning it a number and an action (if applicable). 

More information on the 1-2-3-4 method can be found here.

2. Learn the value of strategic “nos”

If you’re a perfectionist, completionist, and/or a workaholic, you may struggle with assigning items to the final category, “Don’t do.” 

But refusing to say “no” in this profession can come at a considerable cost to your wellbeing.

In social work school alone, you may be bombarded with invitations to extracurricular events. But between attending class and field placement and writing essays, you’ll probably lack the mental bandwidth to fully participate.

My suggestion would be to say “yes” only a handful of events you are certain will advance your learning or professional goals. As for everything else, feel free to ignore it.

Remember, even if you can’t attend the desired event, you can always ask the organizer in advance for access to a recording or slides. 

If neither is available, ask if a peer may be willing to take notes on your behalf.

3. Calendarize

With so many responsibilities to juggle, the only way you can stay on top of it all is by making liberal use of your smartphone’s inbuilt calendar. 

When scheduling items in this calendar, only add those from categories 1 and 2. Consider using a free service like Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar to help you keep all calendar items synced across all your devices.

Next, make sure to set reminders. My suggestions are to use both instant notifications and email reminders to ensure you never miss an assignment deadline or another commitment. Find a system that works best for you.

When calendarizing assessment due dates, you may find it helpful to break the task into baby steps and set mini-deadlines for each. 

Before you can write a paper, for example, you’ll need to complete some often lengthy “pre-work” tasks. For example, conducting literature searches, reviewing readings, and completing an outline.

Allocating time and due dates to each of these activities can help keep you on task. It can also convey a sense of progress and positively affirm your efforts. 

This brings us to point four…

4. Reward yourself

All human endeavors are ultimately driven by the promise of reward. It makes sense therefore that when setting out to accomplish a task, we need to have first identified the payoff.

Rewards can be intrinsic: completing the task may be in itself an affirming experience. They can also be extrinsic, such as buying yourself a small gift upon completing a school semester. 

This may sound like self-bribery, but everyone can benefit from a much-needed boost to our motivation levels from time to time. 

Rewards don’t have to be anything huge. They can be something as simple as treating yourself to a coffee. 

Just finished a grueling paper on social work policy? Go out for a walk. Spent the morning poring over a stack of readings? Take the rest of the afternoon off to relax in the park. You’ve earned it.

5. Maintain boundaries

Boundary setting is crucial to remaining sane in the social work field. This applies as much to interpersonal relationships as it does to managing your time, especially where schoolwork or your field placement is concerned.

As you plan out each day, don’t forget to set limits on the amount of time you dedicate each day to work. Make sure to pencil in time for unwinding.

Set a window each day to reply to all non-urgent emails, calls, or text messages that relate to school and your placement. Once that window closes, don’t reopen it.

Treat “you” time as sacrosanct. The only thing you should be prioritizing during downtime is rest and rejuvenation. 

Maintaining boundaries in this fashion can help protect you against burnout, both as a student and as a fledgling social work professional.

6. Self-advocate

Our lecturers drill into us the importance of self-advocating. Social work school and your field placement present numerous opportunities in which you can hone this invaluable skill. 

If there’s something you need to know or want to learn, ask a teacher or field supervisor.

Given you are paying for access to their expertise (through either school fees or your own labor), you have a right to advocate for as many learning opportunities as you feel you need.

If you require an extension on an assessment due date, ask for it. Your lecturer will likely be more than willing to accommodate your request.

Should your requests go ignored, persist, but be sensitive to the reality that what you’ve asked for may not always be possible.

Exercise the fine art of picking your battles, and be prepared to switch gears should the situation call for it.

Essy Knopf social work school

7. Manage up 

Fieldwork supervisors are usually torn between many competing responsibilities. What can this mean for you? Inconsistent supervision.

Meetings may be rescheduled at the last minute, or supervision sessions may be interrupted and even canceled. For social work students, these situations can be frustrating and demoralizing.

In such instances, I recommend managing up. Keep reaching out, asking questions, and making requests. Send emails to your supervisor daily, outlining your priorities and any tasks or activities you plan to undertake. 

Solicit your supervisor’s input, but should you not get it, be prepared to take initiative.

Keep your appointed field liaison apprised of the situation. Be accountable by keeping a log of all your activities, interactions, and communications as proof you held up your end of the field placement bargain.

8. Live and breathe win-win

Like any situation in life, we should approach the social work profession as an opportunity to champion both our interests as well as that of others. 

Invite the input of all with whom you work. Collaborate to find solutions. Embrace differing viewpoints, and always disagree without being disagreeable. 

Never leave anyone feeling like they’re “one-down”. This is a sure way to breed resentment and burn bridges.

We have all at some point encountered difficult people. We have all seen firsthand how their behavior hinders their success. We can learn from this by striving to model our personal best. 

See it as your job to leave a positive impression with all whom you cross during your educational journey. 

You never know if you will rub shoulders with these folk again later on—or if you might find yourself in the position of asking for their help. 

9. Elevate your classmates

All social work students are united by a common struggle…to survive school!

Try to grow your social work community by performing acts of service for classmates. 

Lend a hand when needed. Celebrate others’ wins, praise their achievements, and give without expecting to receive.

Again, there may come a time when you have to call in a favor. Now’s the time to start collecting brownie points.

10. Raise your voice

Whether it’s conducting a one-on-one therapy session, facilitating a group, or advocating for social justice, confidence is key to our success as social workers.

If you think confidence is something we are all born with, think again. Confidence is a trait that can be cultivated through practice. You can get the ball rolling while still in social work school by speaking up.

Sharing our thoughts and experiences in front of our peers is an act of courage. It requires that we be emotionally vulnerable and open ourselves to the possibility of being ignored, judged, or criticized.

Given many of our classmates are little more than acquaintances, we may have little cause to trust that what we say will be heard and respected. 

Still, there’s no better forum in which to make mistakes than in school. Mistakes are, after all, how we best learn.

Consider the fact that you have a unique perspective that others may from hearing. Silencing yourself thus deprives others of the chance to grow and learn. 

Speak your passion, and chances are you’ll energize others to do the same.

11. Be a proactive learner

We are all ultimately responsible for our own professional development. So any time you identify a gap in your knowledge or skill set, think of ways you can close that gap.

If you don’t understand course content, approach your lecturer after class and request clarification.

If you need to brush up on your clinical skills, ask your field supervisor for more in-depth training. Reach out to faculty members to see if they have additional resources that they can share. 

Should your budget allow, purchase additional trainings from a reputable nonprofit organization like PESI and split the cost with your classmates.

Failing that, a quick Google search can yield an array of free manuals, demonstrations, and tutorials.

If you think you’d benefit from constructive feedback, don’t be afraid to request it from someone you trust and know has your best interests at heart. 

Finally, consider finding a mentor to help guide you on your journey. You can start by identifying someone you admire within your social work school. 

Cultivate a relationship with this staff member, then seek out their insights and support.

Wrap up

Social work school is a challenging experience, but engaging fully with that experience is sure to pay dividends.

The degree to which you exercise curiosity, organization, dedication, and resourcefulness now can help determine your ability to overcome many of the obstacles you’ll encounter later in the field.

Treat your MSW as a trial run; a chance to internalize and embody principles so often preached by this profession. You can do this by advocating for yourself as you also strive to empower others.

By setting good habits and establishing best practices now, you’ll both ease your way and lay the groundwork for a happy—and healthy—career.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

How magical thinking destroys gay men’s chances of living authentically

Essy Knopf magical thinking
Reading time: 6 minutes

Are you sitting down, dear reader? There’s something I need to tell you: almost everything we’ve been doing up to this point in the pursuit of happiness may very well have been undermining it.

Many aspects of the gay monoculture—the party lifestyle, substance abuse, hookups, out-of-control sexual habits, love addiction, our obsession with personal image, status, and achievement—are in some way tied up with magical thinking.

“If I get this, do this, be this, then I’ll be OK.” Wish-fulfillment keeps us walking the hedonic treadmill, riding an endless carousel of self-gratification.

Even supposing we achieve our goal, we may find the bar only continues to rise. So we clutch in vain for the brass ring of materialism, personal transformation, acceptance, recognition, and adoration.

Maybe all of this isn’t exactly news to you, and you have long since grown out of chasing elusive thrills. Or you may have simply upped the dosage and drowned out the hurt and disappointment.

The trauma of being gay

The first step on the way to surrendering the magical thinking that keeps us trapped in this cycle lies in identifying the causes.

As gay men, we can arrive at chronic suffering in a variety of ways. We may have also experienced misattunement with our caregivers, who may not have had the capacity to fully meet our emotional needs.

Or our caregivers may have invalidated us on the basis of our sexuality—an all-too-common experience for gay boys

We may have experienced some form of childhood adversity. Some of us are even survivors of trauma

Trauma includes abuse and neglect, but also any experience that places “an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system”, to quote International Trauma Center President Dr. Robert D. Macy. 

You may for example have been traumatized by individual acts of homophobia, or from the minority stress that results from its many systemic manifestations. Rejection, exclusion, marginalization, or physical harm for many can take a great toll. 

If we are already lacking social support, such as the unconditional love and acceptance of family members or friends, the damage is only magnified.

For men, this is a fact of our existence. We are socialized from an early age to believe that in order to qualify for gender membership, we must strive for an impossible masculine ideal of self-reliance.  

We do this by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, from the support of our mothers, and from our communities, a tragic development outlined in Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It.

We suffer even further from the absence of father figures and a lack of parental involvement. According to the Pew Research Center, one-in-four US fathers live apart from their children

Twenty-nine percent of those same fathers see their children at least once a month, while 21% visit several times a year, and 27% don’t visit at all. 

And according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, this absence carries a very real impact on children’s wellbeing.

Healthy, mutual relationships with primary caregivers are how we learn how to form nurturing attachments with others, maintain personal boundaries, regulate our emotions, and soothe ourselves in times of distress. 

In this sense, our first relationships are the most defining, setting the stage for how we adapt—or maladapt—to our future circumstances.

When we are deprived of these crucial supports, we can develop an insecure attachment style, and struggle to develop the resilience so necessary to weathering life’s many storms. 

A final but crucial source of trauma emerges from the relationships we engage in as adults. For those of us with difficult histories, we may turn to our partners for comfort and healing, only to find ourselves re-enacting toxic attachment patterns.

We may even lash out, inflicting the abandonment, abuse, or betrayal we ourselves have suffered. This only serves to compound our existing pain, driving us with increasing desperation towards escape and reprieve.

magical thinking the thoughtful gay

Becoming ‘masters of survival’

When we feel threatened, the system charged with ensuring our survival—the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—kicks into gear.

This “personal surveillance system”, Polyvagal Theory practitioner Deb Dana moves us many times daily between states of social engagement and connection (safety) to mobilization (scared), and immobilization (shut down).

These state changes are adaptive survival responses, driven by special powers of danger perception Polyvagal Theory author Stephen Porges calls “neuroception”. 

Trauma survivors or those with insecure attachment styles may find their neuroception runs in overdrive, leaving them wary and hypervigilant. As a result, they may spend long periods stuck on the lower “scared” and “shut down” rungs of the “autonomic ladder”. 

Our autonomic responses eventually become patterned not around the need for connection, but self-protection

An out-of-whack autonomic response thus makes a state of safety next to impossible. With the ANS no longer able to adequately self-regulate, we suffer ongoing stress, physical illness, relationship strain, and changes in our mental functions.

While the ANS is activated, we are unable to socially engage, causing us to miss out in turn on the benefits of co-regulation—what Dana calls the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states”.

This co-regulation occurs when we connect and attune to others in healthy, mutual relationships. It is a key requisite to shifting from a state of danger, back into a state of safety.

“Supported by co-regulating relationships, we become resilient,” Dana writes. 

“In relationships awash in experiences of misattunement, we become masters of survival.”

Given the collective trauma within the gay community, however, finding such co-regulation within may prove difficult. 

In its absence, we will pursue less savory means of regulation such as objectification, exploitation, invalidation, and exclusion, which have reached new lows on gay dating services and hookup apps.

essy knopf authenticity

Deception, magical thinking, and self-medication

We survive through adaptation. When things go wrong early in life, however, we stand a great chance of maladapting instead.

Experiencing homophobia and resulting shame leads many of us into a life of emotional inauthenticity. Denied the ability to explore our own identities and to embark upon relationships during our formative years, we don a cloak of secrecy and self-deception as a matter of survival.

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade,” writes The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs.

Outwardly, we may proclaim self-acceptance. Inwardly, however, we are still carrying around unworthiness and internalized homophobia.

Its poisonous whisperings may lead us to reject other gay men arbitrarily, just as we ourselves were once rejected. Prejudices within the gay dating scene—be it racial, age or weight-based—are just a few expressions of this.

The deep, unexpressed pain we carry as trauma survivors, if left addressed, may eventually bubble back to the surface in the form of deep-seated anger.

That anger may be directed either at ourselves in the form of self-harming behaviors, or at the individuals or systems that we believe have failed, betrayed, and harmed us.

Without the knowledge or means to move forward, we ignore our wounds, numb the pain, and chase distraction.

We may find it in fantasies of personal transformation or romantic fulfillment. For those of us weaned on Disney—a company that built an empire on the power of dream—it’s all too easy to indulge in the idea of Cinderella-style transformations.

One day, we tell ourselves, we’ll shed our sooty smocks and don the glass slipper. Some dashing Prince Charming will appear and bestow upon us the fortunes of unconditional love and acceptance.

Our pursuit of such an embodiment of perfection of course is doomed from the outset. And yet we continue to plunge headlong into romantic liaison after liaison, without pausing to consider the whys and hows.

Denied co-regulation, we may also turn to self-medication in the form of process (behavioral) addictions, such as compulsively working out for hours on end so we can achieve some idealized physique.

Or it may take the form of substance addictions, which are present among gay men at significantly higher rates than the general population.

When we indulge in magical thinking, we try in vain to paper over the void at our core, believing that someway, somehow, our injuries will be healed and all wrongs righted.

But so long as we spend our energy cultivating distraction rather than introspection, our damage will go ignored and our very human need for healthy attachment and co-regulation unrecognized. 

essy knopf magical thinking co-regulation

Letting go of the false solutions of magical thinking

Each of us understands on some level that magical thinking is an act of deception. We recognize that the forms of satiety we seek run counter to self-care. 

And yet it is all too easy to get caught in the rut of trying to appease, ignore, or blunt our autonomic responses.

Try though we might to escape our dysregulation, all we are ultimately doing is deferring peace of mind.

Polyvagal Theory teaches us that in order to course-correct from scared and shutdown back to safety requires healthy relationships.

It is only through co-regulation that we can ever hope to loosen the hold misattunement and trauma have on our bodies, minds, and spirits. 

If your autonomic state makes finding co-regulations difficult, or if you’ve been burned by past interactions, a relationship with a mental health professional can prove an effective substitute

Through the support of a therapeutic alliance, open wounds both past and present may eventually start to close. Through a therapist’s supporting presence, autonomic regulation may suddenly become possible. 

In recognizing and addressing your autonomic needs, you are taking the first step towards a life of authenticity. To quote Brené Brown:

cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.

By choosing authenticity, we surrender the false solutions of magical thinking. By choosing authenticity, we give up temporary rewards and commit ourselves to some much-needed repair. 

Enough with the toxic culture of COVID-19 shaming

Essy Knopf coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming
Reading time: 6 minutes

After 10 months of trying to evade COVID-19, the virus finally caught me. 

No—I had not been flagrantly breaking coronavirus restrictions. While others attended social gatherings, held parties, and failed to honor COVID-19 safety guidelines, I scrupulously stayed in my bedroom. 

When I did emerge, it was only to exercise, shop for food, and spend time with my partner. But wearing my face mask the minute I walked out the front door and keeping my distance was not, as it turns out, enough.

COVID-19 numbers in Los Angeles hit new highs in December 2020, and as an extra precaution, I took to avoiding my roommates and wearing a face mask whenever I stepped foot in communal areas.

My immediate social circle shrank from two to one. Seeing just my partner seemed like a fair compromise to make, even if it flew in the face of rules not to mix with members of other households.

Two weeks later, my partner came down with COVID-19. By the time we received the positive diagnosis, it was too late: I too had been infected.

Until this point, I had steadily nursed anger towards those whose reckless actions were fueling case spike after case spike—the same people, undoubtedly, I saw walking the streets without a mask.

But catching COVID-19, I found myself suddenly wondering if I was no different to those I had so harshly judged. 

Even as I succumbed to the tidal pull of illness, I was sliding down a spiral of another kind entirely: shame.

the thoughtful gay coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming
Down-and-out with flu-like symptoms.

How ‘COVID fatigue’ is fueling a COVID boom

During the subsequent days spent in bed recovering, with only self-doubt for a companion, I began conducting a moral inventory of the (deeply questionable!) actions that had led me to this point (spending time with my partner).

But could I really be to blame for seeing a loved one, even when that decision was taken against the advice of health authorities?

As a Los Angeles resident, I had been living under a dark cloud of COVID-19 isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty for the better part of a year. 

Infection transmission and financial security remained a constant concern and watching the cyclical surges in case numbers was enough to leave most people stricken with helplessness.

For these surges were the product as much of a select few choosing to gather on holidays, as they were lax enforcement of rules.

If the public and the authorities weren’t willing to take the necessary measures to stem the tide of infection, then what hope did we ever have of getting the pandemic under control?

In my imagination, I saw these individuals poking holes in a liferaft the rest of us were frantically trying to bail out. 

Certainly, in refusing to get tested, communicate their status, social distance, and take all the other necessary precautions, these people were acting as saboteurs.

But after so long spent in lockdown amid a national and global climate of chronic risk and uncertainty, was it really fair to fault people for wanting to spend their holidays with family? 

Seeking soothing in a time of disaster stress

“COVID fatigue” (not to be confused with the actual COVID symptom) refers to a feeling of exhaustion with “being cooped up…being careful…being scared”. According to a UC Davis Health psychologist, it’s just another name for long-term disaster stress. 

As a passionate advocate for, and student of, the mental health field, I know that engaging with one’s social supports is a healthy means of coping and maintaining psychological wellbeing in times of crisis.

Polyvagal Theory argues that human beings’ autonomic nervous systems—the same system responsible for our fight-or-flight responses—are geared towards acting in service of their own survival through “co-regulation”.

Psychologist Deb Dana describes co-regulation as the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states” through social relationships.

It makes sense therefore that people burdened by disaster stress and long periods of isolation might want to seek the company of loved ones.

Video calls thus far have been the closest approximation for in-person companionship. Poor a substitute they may be, they are also a necessary evil when it comes to safeguarding loved ones against COVID-19 transmission. 

Even so, why are people still taking risks?

essy knopf gay toxic covid-19 shaming coronavirus

How ‘optimism’ grants immunity to COVID-19 shaming

For the better part of a year, Los Angeles residents have been in a holding pattern, care of the ever-shifting restrictions and lockdown conditions. 

Staying home and alone for such a long period is enough to exhaust anyone’s limited store of willpower. Given the high reward involved—reclaiming a former freedom—it’s no wonder some people might choose to stop adhering to COVID restrictions.

These people may be further motivated by optimism bias—that is, the belief that we individually are less likely than others to experience an adverse life event, like say, catching coronavirus.

There are also conflicting feelings around being told not to fulfill a personal right which, under any other circumstance, would be socially sanctioned. That is, spending time with family and friends.

As health authorities advised families against gathering on key holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, some may have chosen to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance by seeking to justify or explain away their actions. 

The stress of dealing with two conflicting pieces of information doubtless led many to suspend critical thinking about the potential repercussion of their actions.

The rise of COVID-19 shaming

In May last year, a viral video emerged of shoppers at a Staten Island grocery store hurling abuse at a woman who refused to wear a face mask.

New York City was deep in the throes of the COVID pandemic, so residents were understandably angered by the selfish and potentially dangerous actions of this individual.

Shoppers at the time appeared to be trying to socially shame the woman into donning a face mask, but however justified they may have felt, their actions carried the whiff of mob behavior

Social shaming can be a powerful means of enforcing shared rules, especially those relating to the pandemic. In the words of shame researcher Dr. Daniel Sznycer, “The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”

The idea being that shaming—a response to other’s disregard for COVID-19 safety precautions—should compel offenders to abandon their antisocial ways in service of the collective good.

Yet so often social shaming turns into outright abuse. As the popularization of terms such as “covidiot” indicates, the discourse tends less towards leveraging guilt (“You did something bad”) to inflicting toxic shame (“You are bad”).

Author Brené Brown counsels against weaponizing shame, noting that “shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can change and do better”.

When COVID-19 shaming turns toxic, it creates defensiveness, disconnection, and sends the accused into fight-or-flight.

Looking at COVID-19 shaming through the lens of gay trauma

The gay community has also seen its share of toxic shaming in the wake of coronavirus.

The popular Instagram account, Gaysovercovid, for example, has worked to name-and-shame those responsible for flouting coronavirus regulations.

COVID-19 shaming accounts like this work to reinforce social norms, using the fear of being “outed” on social media to dissuade would-be attendees of international circuit parties.

What they fail to acknowledge though is the purpose such behaviors may be serving for those who engage in them. Namely, nervous system regulation.

Gay men have a unique legacy of trauma, and therefore a greater need for regulation. Some chose to meet this need through the party lifestyle—a lifestyle the current global situation has rendered difficult, if not impossible.

Those who self-medicate with substances, compulsive sex, and other forms of self-gratification, are being abruptly forced off their hedonic treadmill, and this can be enough to trigger a state of collapse.

Survival in this sense is tied to the endless pursuit of distraction. For without distraction, there is introspection, and realization of buried trauma and identity shame

When confronted by the condemnation of others from within our own community, we’ll feel only more compelled to seek distraction; to maintain our place atop the treadmill.

COVID-19 shaming in such instances is limited as a mechanism for change, and may in fact have the opposite effect.

the thoughtful gay coronavirus toxic covid-19 shaming

Seeking peace through compassion 

If this situation tells us anything, it’s that our anger over this kind of behavior is an attempt to regain some sense of control and fairness in a world that currently seems void of both.

Authorities have shown themselves to be incapable of adequately responding to the coronavirus pandemic and curbing its widespread impact.

The result has been an entrenched sense of uncertainty, helplessness, and pessimism. 

When we perceive our personal safety and financial security to be potentially threatened by others’ shortsightedness, we naturally turn to anger.

But that anger promises no peace of mind. Instead, we would be better served by engaging in self-reflection

If you find yourself hooked by the desire to shame, ask yourself: how are the actions of others triggering me? What emotions are they evoking, and why? What steps can I take to start feeling better?

Instead of giving in to COVID-19 shaming, consider building a self-compassion practice. Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff has provided the following exercises and guided meditations

Once self-compassion has been achieved, compassion towards others becomes truly possible.  The Buddhist meditation practice of tonglen (“taking and sending”) may prove a valuable aid here.

You can also consider following some of the steps I outlined in my previous article, “How to keep mentally well during the coronavirus pandemic“.

Our goal in striving for such mindfulness is not to accept others’ reckless actions, but rather to break the stranglehold of negative feelings.

What this global catastrophe calls for is not assigning blame, but a recognition of the universality of our suffering

It is only through such recognition that we can strive together towards a new social consciousness grounded not in self-interest, but concern for the collective.