When happening upon polyamory, most people are referred to the same sort of material. The book “Opening Up” is often recommended, “The Ethical Slut” and “Sex at Dawn” are becoming some of the popular things to point people toward. Most people are told that there’s no one right way to be polyamorous and that there’s multiple ways of doing it.
They’re warned about hunting for mythical bisexual women who only come into a couple to satisfy fantasies with no real actual needs. People are also often directed towards the poly section of Xeromag, written by Franklin Veaux, now at a new website called More Than Two.
I understand why people direct others towards Franklin’s writings. They make a lot of logical sense. It was this and a lot of other writings that made me consider non-monogamy seriously. I chose to be non-monogamous because I wanted more romantic experiences in my life and more support when I decided to have a family. I considered swinging, but being demisexual makes that pretty impossible for me. Not to mention, the swinging community isn’t something I feel very comfortable in as a non-binary person.
Insecurity and non-monogamy
Yet, one of of the main contentions I have with Franklin’s writing and with a lot of advice given to polyamorous people is this concept of how to deal with insecurity and jealousy. It’s one of the first questions I get or anyone gets when we introduce the concept of polyamory to someone: “What do you do when you get jealous?”
I used to be very versed in the theoretical approaches of counteracting jealousy based a lot of what I read from Franklin’s Becoming Secure article. And I used to link that article to a lot of people struggling with insecurity. I had no idea until I actually had to put these theories into practice how fantastically they fail for people struggling with any form of mental illness.
As I’ve got more experience in non-monogamy and talked to people about their real life experiences of non-monogamy, these tips don’t work for many, many people. And I want to explore why it is that this advice fails so horribly, using “Becoming Secure” as an example.
Can you trust insecurity?
The first thing the article advises: “Don’t always assume you can trust your feelings”. That’s easily done by a lot of people. I have generalised anxiety and paranoia. My feelings tell me that my throat is closing when it’s not, that I’ve got a tumour, that I’m horribly ill and I need to see a doctor immediately.
Add that to the fact that my mother has borderline personality disorder. Being raised by a borderline can make one hypervigilant. It’s like being gaslighted your whole life. Not trusting yourself is par for the course.
Also, borderlines usually split individuals down the middle and refuse to see shades of grey. A lot of children of borderlines report feeling like they didn’t know if they’re god’s gift one day or the devil the next. In my case, I can recall many instances where publicly or in front of others my mother has said how proud she is of me and my accomplishments, but privately has told me that I’m vain or made me feel like catering to any need I had was an incredible burden, specifically emotional validation.
Even though I’m non-binary I feel that image of a hysterical, clingy, illogical, irrational, overly emotional person haunts me. Especially since as a non-binary trans person, my feelings are often derided and ignored. I’ve been told that my feelings about being discriminated against or misgendered are overblown. I’ve even been told, by a leader in the “poly community” who claim to be open minded feminists, that I should “get over” being anxious about being misgendered at events.
And I’ve been through emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse which has made me doubt my ability to remember things correctly and even say what I’ve been through out loud. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s distrust my own feelings.
The problem is that not assuming you can trust yourself is something so many people do and something that abusers love people to do. And it’s because of that assumption that, in my first experience of non-monogamy, I was cheated on. I was interested in dating a guy who demanded that I not speak to another person he was dating for a month or so until I came to visit him. That worried me, legitimately.
But, hey. I can’t trust that my feelings are accurate, right? So I doubted myself. I ignored a legitimate red flag, thought it was jealousy, tried to be okay with it and talk about it with him, only to find out later that the guy was cheating on me.
My anxiety also loves for me not to trust myself. It’s something that it preys upon. My anxiety knows my mind inside and out. It knows all of my worst fears and it preys upon them. It hopes that I doubt myself and my ability to logic my way out of my anxiety. Doubt it something that it preys upon.
It’s when I feel doubt about myself, doubt about my feelings, doubt about anything that my anxiety comes out in full force and submits to me all of the possible ways in which I can be wrong and everything can be horrible. Maybe doubting the way you feel works for people who can, in the end, trust their own mind to not betray them. But unfortunately, I can’t give myself that much trust. Not practically, not emotionally.
The root of insecurity
The next thing the article suggests you do is: “Look beneath the surface” to find the root of your fear. I do not know why this made sense to me when I read it, but it did. Of course I’m jealous because I’m worried about losing my partner! That seems so simple. And I can address that by convincing myself of my self worth. It sounds simple and easy. It’s almost too good to be true.
You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true?
If someone asked me why I would get panic attacks for a good couple of months every time I ate something new, why I desperately wanted to eat the same thing for every meal, why sometimes I get depressed and hate myself, I couldn’t answer.
The nature of having mental illness is that sometimes you feel like complete and utter shit — and there IS no logical reason why. Now, it is true that finding the root of fear can sometimes help. Tuvok says that fear is a result of not knowing, of being unsure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished to have the emotional control of a Vulcan, to be able to tame my fears and paranoias by focusing and using meditative techniques. But I’m not a Vulcan. I’m a human being with an anxiety disorder. And it’s taken me months of therapy to figure out why I have anxiety.
My anxiety was something that helped me survive when I was younger. When I was living in environments where I was constantly shot down, made fun of, ridiculed and abused, it made sense for me to focus on fears I could control. I started worrying about characters from television shows coming to kill me, started thinking about compulsions I could perform to prevent horrible illogical tragedies from happening because horrible things were happening to me that I knew I couldn’t stop.
My mind created an outlet for my need to control and fix my horrible situation. It gave me demons that I could fight and kill with compulsions and things to distract me from the demons that I had no hope of winning against. And now that I’m in a better place in my life. I don’t have a need for distraction. And now I’ve come as far as realising that the horrible voice that taunts and teases me constantly is really trying to help me — but that has not made it go away.
Fear and jealousy are complex and finding the root of it may not be all that simple or that easy and it can combine logical understandable objections with irrational worries. It will mix lies with the truth. When I was a child and I used to obsess over chewing my food carefully because I had been taught the Heimlich maneuver at school, it made sense for me to worry about chewing my food correctly, but it didn’t make sense for me to think I had to chew it a certain number of times in order to avoid ever choking.
The root of that fear was me being worried about choking, which makes a lot of logical sense. But trying to convince myself I’ll never choke or reassuring myself that I will always chew my food enough so that I won’t choke doesn’t exactly work if I can’t trust my feelings. I’m already doubting that my reactions are accurate. The fear of choking and the solution of chewing is a simple problem, but what happens when it becomes more complex dealing with emotions, relationships, and other people? How am I supposed to discern which feelings to doubt and which to trust?
Trusting your own feelings
Getting to the root of your fears assumes that you can trust that the root is actually the root, and not just something that your mind is telling you. In the previous example of my first experience with non-monogamy, I believed the root of my feelings about his new partner was jealousy and insecurity, took the typical advice and tried to convince myself of my own self worth.
But the root of my feelings was actually a pretty logical objection to his behaviour. It is pretty strange for a partner to demand that I not speak to another partner and I never would put up with something like that now. But at the time, I was taught to doubt my emotions and find the root of my fear, assuming I could trust myself in the first place.
The next step the article advises you to take is to “disassemble” your fear. If it’s insecurity, then clearly you need to convince yourself of your own self worth. What this doesn’t take into account is the large amount of voices that are going to disagree with you when you dare to speak to yourself about your own worth, especially if you have any mental illness.
If you can’t trust your own feelings and objections, how can you convince yourself that you’re worthy? I’ve spent most of my life trying to convince myself of my own self worth. And some days, I can’t do it. I feel worthless, hopeless, and horrible. And no amount of logic will convince my brain to stop making me feel like shit.
And overall, when I’m trying to convince myself of my own self worth, I have a large amount of cultural baggage going against me. It’s difficult to convince yourself that you’re beautiful if you’re contradicting the stereotypical white, thin, cis, able bodied image of beauty. Sometimes just having faith in yourself enough to get out bed in a day can be difficult.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve read journals, emails, and posts from who deal with trying to find confidence in themselves despite eating disorders, racism, fat hatred, you name it. I can’t speak for everyone and what they go through but I can definitely say that finding and believing in myself has been and will continue to be a lifelong journey. It’s a battle with myself, with society, with the world that my anxiety constantly wages and I’ve tried using simple logic on it before. And logic doesn’t always work, which leads me to the last piece of advice the article gives.
Anxiety and non-monogamy
The next step is to “Build better habits”. But again, if you can’t trust your emotions, your feelings, or anything, how do you know what habits are better? My compulsions were how I dealt with my anxiety for a long time. I took several steps to try and stop panic attacks and worry by avoiding things that triggered them, by using self talk to bring myself down, by carrying worry stones, by shaming myself for feeling anxious, by watching films that comforted me.
You name it, I probably tried it. I’ve had therapy and listened to advice how how to get rid of anxiety and while breaking down my anxiety and understanding it through the process of looking at my life has helped me an incredible amount, my anxiety is still there.
My anxiety is far too clever to allow me to get away with building habits that don’t include it. In fact, sometimes I don’t even realise anxiety is there until it’s too late. I find this true in my relationships.
Rather than being paranoid about my partner cheating on me or whatever stereotypical things you might think I worry about as a person with an anxiety disorder in a relationship, my greatest fear is actually that my partner(s) hate me, but they aren’t saying anything about it.
Of course, it might be broken down further into a fear of abandonment, but I think I could actually handle that. I’m more worried about being secretly hated than being hated to my own face and left. And this illustrates itself in my relationships by my anxiety cataloguing everything to find a reason why I should feel this way. And it mixes rational wants and needs with anxious and overblown fears.
In my own relationships, I can fixate on how much time I’ve spent with a partner, as if that’s an assurance that someone’s not secretly mad at me. I’m trying to find proof in my mind that partners really want to be with me and I need to create examples that I can use to dispute my panicked mind. And that’s combined with a need I legitimately have to spend time with partners.
I know the root of this fear. I know it’s illogical. I know it’s paranoia, but it rears it ugly head nonetheless. And it uses a lot of creative disguises to keep me from realising what it is until I’ve already felt horrible. In one instance, a partner and I were looking at dating the same person and that person turned out to be a huge jerk. I was far more upset and emotionally hurt by this than my partner was and my brain decided to use that against me. It told me, “He’s not that bothered by it. He doesn’t even care that this person hurt you. He doesn’t want to be with you. He hates you.”
But my partner has a different emotional reaction to the situation and that’s fine. I started worrying though why he wasn’t upset. I had a discussion with him, asked him why he wasn’t upset and told him how worried I was. I didn’t realise until I’d already been worried that it was my anxiety trying to convince me that he was mad at me or that he didn’t want to be with me.
Convincing myself of my own self worth is not entirely possible at some points, just like when my physical body decides to make me feel like my throat is closing, logic does not stop it from happening. It can stop me from spiralling into panic, passing out, or having an episode — but my body is still reacting how it’s reacting and I can’t just use logic to outsmart it. I can practice not being an anxious person all I want. Trust me when I say that my mind doesn’t care and it doesn’t listen.
Mental illness and non-monogamy
The key problem I have with this kind of advice, as logical as it is and it sounds, is that there’s an unwritten assumption that if you are insecure or you haven’t been able to do any of these things, that you’ve somehow failed. If practice makes perfect, then theoretically you should be so secure that nothing ever bothers you.
One of the most harmful beliefs I’ve ever had about my anxiety is the belief that I could conquer it if I just tried the right approach or technique. So every time I had another panic attack after months without an episode, I would guilt, blame, and shame myself. Because I should have been able to conquer it easily, right? Because I’ve had all of this practice fighting myself, I should be able to beat it without any issue. Realising that every time I had a panic attack, I wasn’t starting from square one was the first step in addressing my anxiety in a real and positive way.
The point in writing this is not to say that none of that advice is helpful. I do think it is useful for people with mental illnesses to do their best to try and break down the reasoning behind it, if there is one. But I also know that finding my reason took hours of therapy I only recently have been able to afford, only after years of battling with myself about whether I should get any therapy in the first place.
Logically, this approach may work for a lot of people, but it also doesn’t work for many, many others. And while people are told there’s no one right way to do non-monogamy, I feel like there’s an unwritten collective assumption that jealousy is the wrong way to do it and that feeling any amount of it is something that needs to be “dealt with” either on your own or with partners — and the assumption is that eventually it will go away.
But if you find that emotionally this doesn’t translate, if you’re lost between finding the root of your fears between rational objections and paranoia, if you’re wondering why it is you feel the way you do and you can’t understand it — you’re most certainly not alone.
In the past, when people have asked me what I do about jealousy, I’ve often linked to the article on security and talked about practical steps of convincing one’s self of your own self worth, steps that I should have known damn well known didn’t work for me in practice.
Now, when people say, “What do you do about jealousy?” I shrug my shoulders. What does anyone do about jealousy? Or hate? Or anger? Or frustration? The solution is up to you as an individual because what works for you may not work for me.
But, more importantly, don’t put yourself in a position where you expect to never feel fear or jealousy. You are not a failure for feeling. You’re not a failure for feeling lost. Remind yourself that fear will crop up, no matter how practiced or sure of yourself you are.
I don’t know if agree with Captain Janeway in that fear ultimately exists to be conquered but I do know that, in my experience, fear does eventually fade. Mastering it comes in accepting it as a force that can come and go in your life, not in expecting it to disappear.
This article was written in 2016 and while some of my perspectives may have changed since then, the general gist of the article remains the same.
If you liked this article…
I have written The Anxious Person’s Guide to Non-Monogamy designed as a starter book for someone who is new to non-monogamy and/or people struggling with anxiety in polyamory. You don’t have to be anxious for the book to help, especially as it comes with not just a bit of advice but activities for you to try on your own or with partners to help ground you.
The book is now available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers and most major bookstores.