Friday, September 28, 2012

The Worst Thing In The World.

Because Nothing is Scarier.
I used to believe there was such a thing as The Worst Thing In The World.  It's a pretty nebulous thing, more a feeling than a thought, but God does it push you to irrational desperation to avoid it.

TWTITW is a yawning chasm of failure, constantly open beneath you, and there is no describing the horror at the bottom.  You just go around with the knowledge that if you make a mistake big enough, you can fall in.  If a relationship fails, if you get fired, if you get rejected... you'll fall into TWTITW, so you put everything you've goddamn got into that relationship.  You'll try anything to keep the relationship. Because it's literally unthinkable what will happen if it ends.

That unthinkability is how it traps you.  Because it's like Stephen King says in Danse Macabre--knowing that there's something horrible behind a door is terrifying.  Once you open the door, it's ruined.  Even if it's a really terrible thing behind that door, even if it's a six-foot cockroach, any horror you feel is going to be mixed with relief.  "Oh, thank God, it's just a six-foot cockroach. It could've been a sixty-foot cockroach."


I remember when my first "I love you" relationship ended.  I couldn't abide the thought.  I screamed.  I cried.  I tried to seduce him.  (While still crying. Sexxxay.)  I threatened to harm myself if he didn't come back.  I called him until he stopped taking my calls.   The ridiculous thing is, I didn't even like him that much.  It wasn't about getting the joy of the relationship back.  It was about avoiding TWTITW.

At some point I bawled myself to sleep, and the next morning I woke up and had to pee.  Because even in the wake of The Worst Thing In The World, you still have to pee.   I peed and went to work. It was the day after the end of eeeeeverything, but the bus still picked me up at 7:08 and I still got a half-hour and a chicken sandwich for lunch.  I was in pain, I was in bad pain, but I had thought it would be infinite pain, and it was finite.  It was only a six-foot cockroach.

I can't say "and then I never believed in TWTITW again," but it was the start of a journey.  Failing a class helped too, as did getting fired from a job, as did very messily breaking up with a very close friend.  Not because these things weren't bad.  All of them sucked, all of them cost me opportunities I would never get back, all of them caused real and irreparable harm, yet the morning after... I still had to pee.

Eventually I started to understand.  The next time a relationship ended, I cried and yelled plenty, but I didn't do anything inappropriate or harmful.  I didn't want to let it go, but I wasn't filled with blind animal terror of letting it go.  Breaking up was a bad thing--just not The Worst Thing.


I think belief in The Worst Thing In The World is at the heart of a lot of abusive and dysfunctional relationships.  I believe that many abusers believe that breaking up, being rejected, feeling emasculated, or losing their power in a relationship are TWTITW, and that's why they're willing to go to desperate lengths and hurt people to avoid it.

What I did to my ex-boyfriend--threatening myself and refusing to leave him alone--was abuse.  Fortunately it didn't go on very long, but it was abusive.  And I didn't do it because it felt good to scare and upset him.  I did it because I was so deeply afraid of losing him.  You get ugly when you're really afraid--anyone with a phobia can empathize with this.  If you're phobic of snakes and suddenly you fall in a snake pit, it doesn't matter what kind of nice gentle person you normally are. You'll do whatever it takes to get away--you'll step on people, you'll scream at them, you'll shove them out of your way even if it hurts them.  What I felt when I screamed "talk to me or I'll hurt myself" at my ex wasn't a power trip or an evil cackling glee. What I felt was snake-fleeing desperation.

I don't think this accounts for all forms of abuse, but I think it's a pretty common motivation.  I think cultural narratives of Perfect Love and Forever Love play into it big-time, too.  We don't teach kids "someday your Prince Charming will come, and hopefully you'll have good times together even if it doesn't work out in the end."  We teach them that people are expected to hook up permanently and seamlessly, and if they don't... we don't really address that possibility.  It's left hanging, unspoken but definitely undesirable, perfect conditions for setting something up as TWTITW.  The idea that maybe a relationship problem can't be fixed or maybe you will be single when you don't want to be, that these are painful but not infinitely painful, doesn't come up much in any media or education aimed at people under thirty.

I suspect a class on "rejection happens to the best of us, and it's painful and awkward for everyone involved, so here's how to take care of yourself during and after a rejection" would prevent more abuse than just repeating the messages of "no means no" and "hitting is bad."


Realizing that emotional pain is a cockroach, but only a six-foot cockroach, has given me comfort and self-control.  I can't say that being rejected or broken up with wouldn't hurt.  But I can say it would only hurt some.  I can face "some" if I have to.



[Obligatory awkwardly self-effacing comment about not writing an on-topic or timely post.  I'm gonna try super hard to get back on schedule and write a kink post Tuesday.]

70 comments:

  1. This is a really good post. It really doesn't matter if it's on Tuesday or Friday. I wish you wouldn't worry about that. Post when you can!

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  2. Brilliant as always. I wish I could have read this a year ago, or found your writing much sooner because it's eye-opening. Don't worry about the schedule, you'll be awesome no matter what you do!
    A.

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  3. Gosh, this reminds me of the year I spent in bed. I was so depressed, I would barely eat, barely drink, rarely shower, and never leave the bed except for those things and to use the bathroom.

    And when I finally got out of bed, I have to say -- that fear of The Worst thing was gone. This is not a method I recommend! But... I lost everything. Friends stopped speaking to me. Family would occasionally yell at me, but never bothered for more than about 5 minutes a week. School ground to a halt. Clubs forgot I was once a part of them. And then I got up and it was hard, grueling work to get everything back and of course it was not the same, but slowly everything came back. My ability to think, my will to live, new friends, new hobbies, more boring old school.

    And whenever I'm overwhelmed and just want to drop everything or when I'm so scared of loss I can't see straight, I remember laying in the bed, staring at the ceiling, occasionally sleeping but mostly just staring, 24 hours, for a year, with nothing (socially speaking) to my name, not even a thought in my head.

    Life has a way of going on. Definitely.
    -Amanda

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    1. Also, Cliff, I've viewed this post in two different browsers (Opera and firefox) and they're both struggling to load the image until they do and it's covering the first paragraph.

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    2. Oopsie, I changed the image, hope that'll fix it.

      Thanks for letting me know!

      Delete
  4. I love your writing no matter what topic you cover or how spotty the posting schedule :-)

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  5. Can I just say that I hate that picture? because it's true, Nothing is scarier. When we let the imagination run wild, we scare ourselves more effectively than anything any filmmaker/writer/whatever could come up with. It's a concept I find deeply fascinating, that and the idea of the uncanny valley, the things that are almost, but not quite, human that are quite simply Wrong.

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    1. I'm with you on the latter; I'm fascinated by the horror concept of the ordinary gone wrong. ''Coraline'' did it very wel. And ''Dracula''.

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  6. Holy shit. You are now an International Relations and Security blogger.
    More on that when I get my ideas to be coherent, but this might be approaching a pretty awesome Grand Unified Theory of People Being Shitty.

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  7. Reading this I not only see myself in my worst moments, but realise I have heard it ALL from someone I wish I could disentangle from without triggering the abuse (that isn't even seen as abuse....would that make it ATIESAA?)

    Also, I just read an article about the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion....one being "yay, you rock at everything!" which leads inevitably to crushing horrible dejection and self-rejection when, like everyone, you don't...the other being the ability to be kind and accepting of yourself and accept that making mistakes is where the learning is happening, to sum it up. This reminds me of some of the same things. Self-esteem ruled people are going to see TWTITW as something likely to destroy them at a basic, inescapable, inevitable level, where someone with good self-compassion will be able, as you could later, Cliff, to say "THAT was a shitty thing, and I have feelings that aren't fun, but I am still me, still ok, and I have learned a few things that I can use in the future, and I'm going to accept that this bad thing is part of the events of my life"

    Also? EXACTLY, regarding the myth of the Love Forever bullshit our culture entraps us with. We stay with abusers because leaving makes US bad, disloyal, lacking in faith that things will turn out well. We abuse because we have to keep that person with us forever or bad things will happen.

    It all sucks.

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    1. What? No, that's not self-esteem. If "esteem" depended on "can never do wrong, ever," then nobody would be able to admire anyone.

      In my experience, people with self-esteem are a lot better than people who hate themselves at being able to pick up the pieces and adapt.

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  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I know I've been the victim of my own notions of TWTITW over time. Fear of TWTITW is powerful and often hard to understand or explain. You've put it to words very eloquently.

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  9. My Particular Abusive Situation (TM), was also full of other motivations, mental tics, and otherwise Unhappy In It's Own Way, but it did suffer from a particularly dark version of this - I was frequently told that I could leave, but his life would be over, or threatened that if I left he would kill himself, or kill other people and THEN kill himself, etc.

    And I didn't believe being alone was the worst thing in the world, but I believed I'd be responsible. So... Yeah. This is definitely a factor in a lot of abuse. Not in all of it or THE factor, but you've definitely hit something important here.



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  10. This is a very interesting post. One of the most vivid TWTITW experiences I have had in my life was being in downtown NYC on 9/11. And once the towers came down, I and kajillions of other people were walking away from downtown in various directions in a state of shock and feeling like TWTITW had just happened. And I remember very clearly, I went into a bank ATM lobby to get some cash, and was afraid that the whole world had ended and there was no longer any such thing as money. So the machine gave my money, and there was a woman in there who also got some money. And we both finished at roughly the same time, and I reached the door just before her, and so I walked through the door and then held open the door for her. And as she walked through, we made eye contact, and it was very vividly apparent that we were both thinking, "Hey. It may seem like the world just ended, but we just had a human interaction based on the concept of courtesy. So maybe the world hasn't ended."

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    1. That's... fairly beautiful. Thank you for sharing this story.

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    2. That really is a lovely anecdote. A little politeness and consideration can go such a remarkably long way.

      Delete
  11. Wow - thank you for this post.

    I totally have this, and I've been looking for a good way to put into into words/concepts for forever. This is it - TWTITW. When it is vitally important that something not happen not because of any of the real problems it causes, but because It Would Just Be Unthinkably Horrible.

    And, it's not just relationships - this is what keeps me from setting goals in anything, for instance. In my Head, trying to do something, putting all that effort in, and then failing, is TWTITW, and since it's so easily avoided by never actually formally saying 'I want to do this' for anything you aren't safely sure you'll succeed at - well.

    And I have it in a *lot* of other things too.

    So, definitely thanks.

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  12. For me, this is a very timely post (no matter how often you post, it often seems to come at just the right time, for a lot of people.)

    I have a friend who's in an abusive relationship and I think this is part of her motivation for staying...but I'm deeply concerned she's too concerned with this, rather than with the very real possiblity he's going to kill her. I wish (but know it won't happen) that she could read something like this and realize TWTITW isn't being rejected, or living alone. (Note - I don't think my friend is in serious danger right now, but I know it could happen. And I don't have anything provable to report to the police, and knowing how the police in that area operate, it's highly unlikely even if I did have something provable of abuse to report, they wouldn't do anything about it.)

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  13. This seems like exactly the sort of thing that should be taught in high school. I suspect students taking a class called "Surviving divorce (and other breakups)" would likely have happier marriages and fewer divorces.

    Pain and grief and the fear of the unknown are all part of life, but despair need not be.

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  14. This post is bullshit.

    I don't give a fuck how sad someone feels, how fucked-up they are, how they are a survivor of abuse or they've got brain problems or what the hell ever - abuse is abuse and it's bad and the people who do it should feel bad. THE FUCKING END.

    You know what else? I am FUCKING SICK of people using the language of mental illness as justification for being abusive. I don't fucking care how crazy you are or how scared you are, it justifies NOTHING. YOU ARE MOTHERFUCKING GODDAMNED RESPONSIBLE FOR THE HARM YOU DO TO OTHERS regardless of the harm that may have happened to your or the problems you may have.

    And if you attack people out of your own pain and fear and problems, you're still ATTACKING PEOPLE. Those reasons are your fucking problem, not theirs, and making it their problem (and by putting it in this post, trying to make it _my_ problem) is VILE AS HELL and LACKING IN EMPATHY and lacking in respect and lacking in basic fucking human decency and willingness to own one's mistakes.

    You know what? I've behaved badly in ways that were impacted by mental health. I have yet to claim mental health justified any of that, yet to claim phobias (or other mental illnesses I don't fucking have wow your appropriation is gross as hell) as justification for hurting people, and yet to play into ableist apologist narratives about how a) abusers with brain problems can't help themselves and b) people with brain problems are time-bombs of abuse. FUCK YOU THIS SHIT IS WHY PEOPLE LIKE ME GET TOLD WE'RE INFERIOR SORTS OF PEOPLE. FUCK YOU THIS SHIT IS WHY PEOPLE LIKE MY PARENTS GET AWAY WITH AND GOT AWAY WITH SO MUCH FUCKING SHIT - because the "scary crazy person" and the "ravening beast-man" who "can't help themselves" act as similarly responsibility-erasing justification for bad shit.

    This post, imo, is apologist pro-abuse pro-ableism shit. I'm disgusted and disappointed. I did not expect you to write this shit.

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    1. Wait, you just acknowledged that you behaved badly in ways impacted by mental health. So have I. We might have even done some of the same things. What Cliff admitted to up there? About freaking out, threatening self-harm, getting clingy? I'm sure most of us have done that. I hate abuse. Of course. But viewing humans as monsters does nothing to fix that problem. By understanding them, we're not making it okay. We're helping keep a watch on ourselves, and maybe wake up some people who have been straying into that behaviour.

      Like, okay, I was probably emotionally abusive or at least manipulative when I posted suicide threats online. I really was suicidal, but there's no reason I should have freaked out a bunch of people who could do nothing about it. I realize the harm, and I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to hurt people. I'm not sure many of the abusers are. They probably think they're doing a good thing. No one is saying that abusers deserve cuddles for their mental suffering. I suffer, try very very hard not to hurt anyone, and I still don't deserve cuddles. People should be held accountable for their actions. If not for the protections for abusers, this would often mean out of a job, a social outcast, separated from their families, and in prison. But what if they wanted to get better? Posts like this could show them the way (along with a therapist and blah blah...)

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    2. Understanding is not excusing. If offering any psychological explanation for abuse besides "THEY'RE BAD" is apologism, that cuts off a HUGE avenue for possibly preventing or ending abuse.

      "Hurting people because of a reason" IS still hurting people! It is not one smidge less harmful or more okay because there was a reason! And it is also not the victim's job to worry about the reason! But that does not mean nobody can talk about reasons.

      Also I don't even know where you're getting ableism from? I'm not trying to make "TWTITW" into, like, a diagnosis. (Was it the comparison with phobias? I was just thinking about my own response to my own phobias and how that feels similar to the anything-goes desperation of facing TWTITW. I wasn't trying to say people with phobias are all abusers or that TWTITW is literally a phobia.)

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    3. Comparing something to a phobia is not ableism, you twit.

      Go back to Tumblr.

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    4. "abuse is abuse and it's bad and the people who do it should feel bad"

      No. I can't agree. Abuse is abuse, and it's bad, and the people who do it should FUCKING STOP. I don't care how they feel.

      This is what is being really hard for me right now, the idea that punishment is meant to make you feel bad, and if you feel bad, then you're doing your duty and you get to keep fucking up. That is what I got out of childhood. Spank them till they cry, and if they aren't crying, keep spanking. Those bad mean abusers, they better goddamn feel bad, am I right?

      Or, you could say, whatever mindset works for you, just as long as you don't abuse people. I like that better.

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    5. I would write "I do not mean to snark", but that would be a lie. I do mean to snark. To wit:

      Disregarding an entity's entire personality based on "I do not care" and boiling it down to "They should feed bad! NOW!" is an abusive trend, since their human moment-to-moment activites, their lives, their thoughts and feelings have no impact on your decision that they should suffer and feel bad. Abuse is abuse and people who do it should stop. How they feel is immaterial.

      Intent isn't magical, indeed. Yelling accusations based on your own problems and attempting to control and coerce others by using your own standards as a benchmark is an abusive and controlling trend. Not liking and being tired of the appropriation of "mental illness" and "neurotypical and non typical patterns" does not excuse insults, demeaning remarks and emotionally controlling behavior. Your hurt and apparent previous encounters with Bad People Doing Bad Things explains your current emotional volatility, but it does not excuse it.

      Might I propose the following? This is rhetorical. I will propose it.

      You are going through and have gone through a bad period, and reading what your understand to be appropriation of "Mental illness" hurts you. Your pride in not "justifying" your own actions for "mental health reasons" is, however, a dead end. People's moment-to-moment mental health impacts their actions. You are not inferior, and this is not what is being claimed. What is being claimed is that Bad Things Happen. Yelling "Fuck you" in all caps at a simply stated post and being unwilling to engage in some mild mannered verbal intercourse is a sign of an abusive trend - you are trying to emotionally dominate other people based on your own interpretation of what is written, get angry, and then attempt to shut them up, make them feel guilty and make them FEEL BAD.
      Perhaps try not to be so controlling, snarky, passive aggressive, directly dominating and mean spirited.

      There are no raving man-beasts and no she-werewolves in the world. There are People. And People to be all spectrums of messed up. Understanding this, and explaining actions in reasonable causation arcs is not at the same time excusing these actions.

      You are not inferior.
      However, you have a clear pride-rage problem, and for your own mental health, you should seek some counselling in any available form. You should justify this action with exactly your own mental health.
      I will not excuse your angry words, but I will understand them and see where you come from. Don't feel bad

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    6. There's nothing ''pro-abuse'' about this post. Understanding people's possible motives is NOT the same as being on their side. It goes into the topic of abuse, and in the very next paragraph suggests one method of preventing it. Read the post again.

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    7. I can't help but think that you've misread the post. I don't see anything in it that states that acting in a hysteria was an alright reaction. She explained the feelings she went through and expressed shame in what had happened. She recognizes her actions as abusive and manipulative.

      The whole point of it was to clarify the mechanics of this reaction (because acting like the world will collapse is sadly commonplace) to prevent people from doing it. I've also reacted very horridly to being dumped and losing jobs and losing family. It took me time to not give into complete terror over situations like that. Perhaps if I had been able to read this post when I was a teenager, I would have reacted better.

      At the time, all I had ever heard was "You feel bad now, but you'll feel better later." It wasn't enough. That didn't resonate with how I felt. This post might have. This post might have saved me from being awful to other people.

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    8. Anonymous, I'm sorry that all the bad things you allude to in your post happened.

      My first thought reading Cliff's post is "oh, this is humane and a sensible way of thinking about what motivates abusers to do the bad things they do." My second thought is "how long until the post that attacks Cliff for not just calling abusers assholes and leaving it at that?"

      My third thought:

      Cliff's point, I think, is that we can do a lot better to educate people and stop abuse than saying "YOU ARE MOTHERFUCKING GODDAMNED RESPONSIBLE FOR THE HARM YOU DO TO OTHERS regardless of the harm that may have happened to your or the problems you may have." - i.e. abuse is bad and if you do it we are bad.

      We drum that into people's heads all the time, and lo and behold, people still abuse others. Lots of reasons for that. But I guarantee you nobody goes "Oh, I am a bad person and a jerk, so I will abuse others." Cliff's point, I believe, is that people's personal narratives are going to be some variation on "I am a good person but I am scared and need to make something doesn't happen, and that goal is really important, so how could the things I do be bad?" Given that, trying to educate people to reduce abusive behavior has to take into account the fact that at no point in someone's personal narrative does that person say "Oh, well, I guess i'm an evil, bad person. I guess I better be evil and abuse my partner!"

      I also don't see what's wrong with having empathy for abusers in a general sense while acknowledging what they do is very bad. I think of people on this site as generally left of center and people, who in general, if trying to explain the cause of crime, would give a critical studies-ish answer ripe with intersectionalities, something like

      "Crime is caused by an interplay of personal and structural factors. Class, education, experience with racism, untreated mental illness, childhood abuse, childhood neglect, malnutrition, and numerous other factors all have some predictive power as to who will commit crimes, as well as the role an individual's particular choices play."

      I don't think someone would be well-received if they took the position in response that "CRIME IS BAD AND PEOPLE WHO DO CRIME SHOULD FEEL BAD" as the best way to stop future crimes. Why throw this nuance out the window because we are focusing on abuse? Do we arrest criminals and otherwise take efforts to stop individuals from committing crimes? Yes. Can we judge them morally? Yes. Does that mean we have to brand them all with a scarlet letter, hold them beyond redemption, and limit our crime-prevention options to moralistic scolding and punishment while excluding education and prevention? I hope not, because it's not a very good strategy.

      I don't know how it is ableist to acknowledge that there is a statistical relationship between abuse and issues recognized in DSM-IV (for the next 7 months anyway). See, e.g. http://www.seekingsafety.org/7-11-03%20arts/6-04%20dom%20viol%20FIN%20PUBD%20SCND%20VERS.pdf. I think what you are concerned about is a view that abusers are mentally ill by definition, because that in some way operates to absolve people who commit abuse from all agency.

      I am not sure how that is "ableist," other than in a sense that it is unhelpful to brand any aberrant social behavior as mental illness and is predicated on a worldview that mentally ill people don't have any agency at all. I do see why you call it "apologist" and I can see why you would find that troubling. However, I don't think anyone in this conversation is saying that abusers are by definition mentally ill.

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  15. You're writing about something important to you, and it's your blog. So it's on topic.
    Love your writing, Cliff. Don't worry so much about setting up a rigid box to fit your posts into.

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  16. I don't know how you do it, but you always post something that is completely and perfectly relevant to whatever I'm going through at the time. Right now I'm staring right into TWTITW (work related, so there's a lot of self-deprecation and anxiety involved), and I know for a fact that once it's over I'll be living my life normally again - and even with a few fun things to look forward to. But it doesn't stop me from crying my face off all day beforehand, or trying to find any and all methods of escape. Thanks Cliff, you seem to have the most magical of powers.

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  17. This is such a great post. I spent a year (yeah, doesn't sound like much in hindsight, but felt like a long time) in a shitty and emotionally abusive relationship when I was nineteen-twenty because I thought he was the love of my life and TWTITW. Okay, I got my shit together and broke up eventually, but... in the beginning of this year, I faced unemployment. And it was such a TWTITW for me that I became psychosomatically (yes, everything else was ruled out)ill and couldn't keep food down. I started throwing up everything I ate, and lost fifteen pounds in two weeks (and I was thin to start with).
    It wasn't like realising unemployment isn't a TWTITW magically cured me, but I started to get better when that finally sank in.

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  18. I'm almost convinced that you can read my mind. I've bumped into an ex boyfriend from when I was fourteen a few times recently and it is weird as hell because I was terrible when we broke up. I cried and called him constantly and lied about some awful things. I thought I loved him and that meant that not being with him was the worst thing in the world. I haven't been able to figure out why I behaved the way that I did; this does not excuse my actions at all but it gives me words to apologise to him with.
    So thank you.

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  19. Good post. I agree that TWTITW is likely a part of abusive/dysfunctional relationships but I'm not sure it's the heart. Especially of abusive relationships.

    Abusers have many more and larger problems than fear of the unknown. I think the big problem when you try to leave an abuser is it is taken more as a huge insult, than them being afraid of the unknown. The attitude, YOU don't do that shit to me, is more likely the heart of the abuser.

    Defining reacting badly to a break up as abuse misses the mark. Everyone now and then reacts poorly to a given situation and you've correctly identified the fear of the unknown, or maybe being alone as one of the sources. But abuse is a pattern of behaviors over an extended period of time and your reaction and that of many others just doesn't fit and people don't need to be thinking they are being abusive because of it.

    They are simply being human.

    Most people learn through experience, as you did, that these little tragedies in life happen and we survive. Then, when they happen again, we get through them with more grace than the previous time.

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    1. But people can commit abusive actions without being "an abuser" full stop. It depends which way they go after the first time it happens -- sometimes it's each time with less grace, and people get worse and worse rather than better. I think Cliff's insight was wise here.

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    2. Abusers are also simply being human. What other species would they be?

      They aren't bad because they're "just evil." They're bad because their chosen solutions to their perceived problems involve hurting other people. That's not an okay or excusable thing, but it is comprehensibly within the scope of human behavior.

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    3. The attitude, YOU don't do that shit to me, is more likely the heart of the abuser.
      I don't really disagree, and I also don't think that all abuse is one type. I think there are definitely people who abuse others who aren't motivated by fear.

      But I think there's an overlap between "you don't dare insult me" and "because I secretly think I'd be ruined and lose power over my life if I allowed myself to be insulted." Arrogance and vulnerability are pretty close buddies here.

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    4. "Abusers are also simply being human. What other species would they be?"

      You have never heard this phrase as a kind way to describe our frailties? Being abusive is not a frailty, BTW.

      The point is, being abusive is a set and pattern of behaviors and being frightened about the end of a relationship is not abusive in the context described in the original post.

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    5. Well, what if I'd hit my boyfriend when he told me he was thinking of leaving? That happens plenty. Wouldn't that be abusive? What if I'd hit him and scared him so badly that he didn't leave me after all, so I kept hitting him so he kept staying with me? These are not far from what happened; it's a continuum between my actions and this, not a line.

      I feel like what you're saying is that my motives were sympathetic and comprehensible and an abuser's aren't. And I feel like the reason you're saying that (along with a couple other commenters) is that you believe if someone has sympathetic and comprehensible motives that you would have to treat them gently and not take a hard stance against their actions, and abusers don't deserve to be treated gently.

      I agree that abusers don't deserve to be treated gently. But we can understand them on a level other than "they're from the Abuser Planet and have nothing in common with any emotion a good person like me has ever felt" and still draw a hard line. An action can be understandable, can be "there but for the grace of God and a moment of self-restraint go I," and still be unforgivable.

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    6. "...it is taken more as a huge insult ..."

      Is that really a counterargument? Because for many people loosing the respect of their peer group is their personal TWTITW...

      Unwanted contact is a continuum in both intensity and duration, so I'll grant you the assumption that Cliff's actions were closer to the "one call I shouldn't have made" end than the "full stalker mode" end, but threatening self harm is clearly beyond "reacting poorly."

      Seriously, saying that emotional blackmail of that caliber is "simply being human" is just astounding to me.

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  20. This is totally off-topic, but I love that moment when I find out someone whose writing and opinions I respect and admire is also a Troper.

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  21. This strikes me as very wise. Knew I read you for a reason. <3

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  22. Totally agree with this post. Used to be that being single was TWTITW to me, so I'd hang on desperately to relationships that weren't making me happy (and once one relationship ended I'd throw myself into something new way too fast).

    I've done a lot of work on myself, and now when a breakup happens I remind myself that life does go on - that no matter how much it hurts right now, in a few weeks/months/years I won't feel anything about it anymore, so everything will kind of solve itself if I just keep forging ahead.

    (Also, I've discovered there are a lot of things I like about being single, and I'm better at realizing when a relationship isn't making me happy, all of which helps a lot. But that's not directly relevant to this discussion.)

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  23. This whole post expresses a kind of insecurity I've been going through for a long time, and am beginning to come out of now. was probably something I needed to hear - well, read - right now. Thank you x

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  24. Everybody should read this.
    Just . . . everybody.

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  25. Great post, and all too close to home for me (and others, in view of the comments). I used to live in fear and anxiety of TWTITW along with fear of being In Trouble (as an overly responsible perfectionist oldest child who was always told I had to Be An Example and Never Screw Up). Then life went on and despite my worrying about it, what I thought was TWTITW happened, and then it happened again a few more times...and then a couple of really REALLY worst things in the world happened and as you said, the world did not end, I still had to get up and do what needed to be done, and I got through it. And then I looked back at those other "what I thought was TWTITW" from way back and laughed at myself. I think this is called "gaining perspective". :)

    In those times of TWTITW, I learned how to cope, how to access my resilience, how to manage my anxiety better, and hardest of all, I learned to reach out to friends/my support network and let them help me...and I learned from them. I also remember gaining a whole new respect for old people, like my great aunts, who had obviously been through a shit ton of TWTITH events in their long lifetimes and had not only lived to tell about it, but had retained a sense of optimism and peace in themselves that made them seem like the strongest and wisest people I knew....and I started listening more and taking myself less seriously.

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    1. The ''looking back'' thing realy is a lovely feeling. Reminds me of my first college days when I had ridiculous out-of-proportion social anxiety, as in ''I can't possibly ask X out for coffee! They'll laugh at me! BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN!'' which gradually turned into ''Litte nervous about asking X to spend a fortnight's holiday with me in Berlin, but screw it, I'll ask anyway'' :)

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  26. I have a comment that is slightly unrelated, but your post very much reminded me of an article about helicopter parents and why children are growing up to be less capable of managing on their own these days.

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1940697,00.html

    It strikes me that TWTITW is very much related to children never learning to fail on their own, thus the connection.

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    1. I had sort of an odd relationship with that. Dad was oddly sheltering, and Mom was the sort who always reminds you of what needs doing more times than you really need to be reminded.

      Put them together, and I had the hardest time after high school. UFYH is a lifesaver for people like me, because if I'm not actively reminded to do things, they often don't get done.

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  27. Great post. TWTITW for me was being cheated on, and then it happened and although I was extremely not ok for a good part of a year that fear disappeared completely in my next relationship. Not to say that I wouldn't be upset if he had cheated but I didn't spend any time worrying about it because all the worrying in my first relationship hadn't prevented anything. Plus if someone is going to cheat i'd really prefer it to happen as soon as possible so that I waste as little time as possible with them.

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  28. I've never heard this particular thought process explained in such a clear, concise, and accessible fashion, and it helps me because this thought process is completely alien to me. I can't recall ever having had TWTITW moment of thought. I can't imagine a situation in which I could feel something like that (yes, I've been lucky in my life, but I've also had some fairly awful experiences as well). I think it helps that I've been raised to strongly believe that, short of death, there are ALWAYS other options and alternatives.

    Maybe it also helps that this seems to often be symptomatic of relationships, and I tend find relationships difficult if not outright unpleasant. For me, being alone is almost always the best circumstance, not the worst.

    This was a real "light bulb" moment for me, as I've met a few people who, looking back, must have been in the throes of a TWTITW thought process. Now I have a smidgen of insight into what was behind their behavior, and maybe it will help if I encounter it again.

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    1. Seems like the TWTITW examples in this thread are mostly relationship-related, yes, but don't forget that my TWTITW was getting unemployed.

      I think TWTITW is usually related to what you base your sense of value on. Do you think you're only worth something if somebody loves you? Then break-up is gonna be your TWTITW. Do you think you're only worth something if you have a career? Then unemployment will be your TWTITW. Do you think you're only worth something because you're strong and athletic? Then becoming seriously ill will be your TWTITW. And so on.

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    2. Thank you, that also helps my understanding.

      My self-worth isn't predicated on anything that can be taken away from me or lost (I thank my wonderful mother for that). The worst thing I can imagine is being deaf, blind and completely paralyzed, so that I'd be unable to experience anything. I can't think of anything else that would be truly insurmountable.

      I'm sorry you had to experience finding your TWTITW, and I hope you've found employment since!

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    3. Yes I have. Thanks. :-) But I also found out that being unemployed isn't TWTITW after all, so the next time I'm between jobs I don't think I'm gonna freak out like that.

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  29. If that's how it works, I am completely doomed...

    I fortunately did not end up in a relationship at my first attempt or I would have The Best Thing In The World until I TWTITWed. And even then, just being turned down was TWTITWish.

    Now, I have managed to merely desperate.

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  30. OMFG Cliff, this is so true and brilliant!

    It's really weird what can seem like TWTITW. A few years ago I did a bunch of stupid harmful things for a long time because I was afraid if the truth got out I would lose my job, lose my husband, and have to move back in with my parents, and this would prove I was a worthless human being.

    I did lose my job, as an indirect result. And the stress in my life went way down and I got a better job. Then I lost that one because the economy sucks. And my husband and I are separated and I live with my parents. I am not thrilled with the current state of my world, and I struggle with depression and anxiety just like I did back then.

    But a six foot cockroach is something you can deal with, plan around...conceivably even befriend/negotiate with. Going out the window so you don't have to confront TWTITW in the doorway warps your life.

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  31. Fear of TWTITW also made me stay in an abusive relationship. It works both ways. But then I left, and really it wasn't that bad.

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  32. My therapist regularly tells me 'no one in the world has ever not stopped crying' because one of my huge fears is that someday, I'll start crying (aka fail to cope) and never stop, and it's really helpful to think of it in terms of TWTITW. Thanks.

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    1. What we say in the ER is, "Bleeding always stops."

      ...Sort of grim, yes, but talk about keeping perspective...

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  33. Thanks, My boyfriend just break up with me (actually he change his status relationship on FB and put the name of other girl on it) on Sunday. Reading your blog help me to understand a lot of things and I know is a hard pat after someone you really care about break up with you, but you are right, lifes goes on.

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  34. It was years before I realized my wife's abusive behaviors were proceeded by fear. She just looked angry, not afraid. But once I realized, it became obvious from then on. I don't know how I missed it. She will say or do anything to relieve her fear. It's driven me to being constantly afraid too, I can't seem to shake it.

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  35. I've been reading your blog for a while now, but this is the first time I've commented.

    Because I woke up this morning, logged on to read, and this post hit me with a WHAM!

    I'm dealing with TWTITW at the moment. Except I'm the one who is going to leave him.

    We've been married 15 years, and have two kids. It's not easy to come to the realisation that our relationship is dead in the water, but that's where I've got to, after a long process of deliberation and a LOT of procrastination and avoidance of opening the Cupboard Door[TM].

    I don't know how I'm going to cope. I haven't been financially independent for a long while, and the thought of separating and hurting the kids tears me apart. Which is why I haven't accepted the fact that it's over until now.

    But, ironically, now that I've decided *to* leave, and I'm facing TWTITW, it's easier. I feel better. It won't happen fast - I've formulated a two year plan which will make the transition easier and get me back on my financial feet again.

    I suppose above all I'm afraid of being The Bad Guy. But then, in relationships that fall apart, isn't the woman always the Bad Guy?

    Thanks for a great post. It was what I needed to read, right now.

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  36. Fantastic post, Holly. Will be linking to it FOREVER.

    Also:

    "I suspect a class on "rejection happens to the best of us, and it's painful and awkward for everyone involved, so here's how to take care of yourself during and after a rejection" would prevent more abuse than just repeating the messages of "no means no" and "hitting is bad.""

    This is the kind of class I'm trying to run. :) ^5

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    1. I... almost want to try to get someone to run a class like that for http://esp.mit.edu/learn/Splash/index.html

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  37. To pile on: this is an absolutely perfect crystallization of something I have been at the mercy of since I was sexually abused by my grandpa at age 12, almost thirty years ago now. I have never heard it put better or simpler. It is helping me access core ideas in my head that I need to challenge in order to be happy in all manner of situations but most urgently at the moment in relationships. It is also provoking me to apply the paradigm to my abuser, who was abused himself, and think about how this played out in his life, and which of those behaviors and thought processes are replicated in my own life, and how to not do that ANY MORE. Not just to not be an abuser (and I admit that at low points - and maybe middle points as well - I have acted up in the abusive way you describe), but to not THINK like an abuser, and that that means not to think like a victim - not to rely on some external and uncontrollabe Safe Place to protect you from the inherently evil world.

    And may I add that this thought process would not even be possible if my framework demanded that I put my abuser in some other/monster box. He was a shit, but he got the way he got by some variant on the process that I got the way I got, and looking hard and direct at that truth feels like the only pathway to happiness. And happiness is what matters.

    Anyway. Instant fan. I will be back. Thank you so, so much.

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  38. Didn't read all the comments, but wanted to say that some schools are now teaching teenagers how to break up gracefully. Heard it on NPR.

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  39. "The worst thing in the world" (in your first example) is the best description I've *ever* read of separation anxiety. I printed it out and shared it with my therapist. Today, I read it again and copied and pasted it into my diary.

    Thanks, Cliff. This is brilliant. If I have anything eloquent to add at a later time, I'll post another comment.

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  40. This was one of the most amazing blog entries I have ever read and it found me at an incredibly appropriate time - a relationship I had ended almost exactly as you described . Wow - you put this into amazing perspective for me and I had to thank you .

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  41. This post has touched me at so many levels. Like many, I have always lived under the fear of TWTITW, or, to put it more clearly, under so many TWTITW (being unemployed, being single, being unsuccessful). Of, course, all of those things have happened to me, one after another, or even many at the same time. And, as you say, guess what? You go through all of them. They suck, but you can live through it. It's a six-foot cockroach, and it's ugly, but they are a common species in this world, and we all learn to cope with them.

    I have just shown the post to my boyfriend, who is struggling with depression and anxiety, and I think your writing just struck a chord in him. He's terrified of failing at his career, because it has never happened to him. I used to coddle him, to tell him that everything would be ok, etc. After telling him about TWTITW, this is the first time I have seen him actually calm down and feel better.

    It is important to know that we all fail some time, and that failing is OK. Your post has just reached through an ocean and made a life a little bit better.

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