“You *are* that crazy, they weren’t born that way”

I recently watched another TEDx video presented by Deborah Siegel on the subject of gendering children. In the video she explained how, as a parent of mixed-sex twins, she was trying to raise them without the typical gender expectations prevalent in the US. I’m not going to say much about the video itself but, just to re-iterate, I do believe in children being allowed to be children rather than segregated into boys and girls – especially at pre-school age. I don’t often talk about my own children on the internet, but at present, my nine year-old son is a lot like me: passive, honest, logical, technical and clued in on the digital world. He is, without doubt, an introverted boy just as I was at that age. My four year-old daughter, on the other hand, is a bit of a blank canvas. Ask her the question, and she will tell you that she is a girl, but a stereotypical girl she is not. While she loves Disney, Frozen and Baby Annabel, she also loves watching Fireman Sam and Horrid Henry, just as her older brother used to, and has developed quite the taste for toilet humour. We may joke about her being “un-ladylike”, but we can’t deny that it makes us both laugh, and she absolutely loves making us laugh. We just let them be who they want to be.

What I’m going to do is throw a bucket of cold water on some of the comments that appear below the video. Comments from people who are, I believe, not parents themselves.

“‘Gender, the idea that someone or something is masculine or feminine is a social construct which is a fancy word for made up.’ Of course that is true if only you ignore our history entirely!”

At the start of the video, Deborah very clearly said that she was a scientist. She defintely did not say that she was a historian. History allows us to learn about where we came from in order to influence where we go in the future, and the same is true here. Gender norms may have had value in decades past, but that doesn’t automatically mean they should continue to do so. The effects of a more gender-blind society is very much unwritten, and can only be determined by future history – personally, I can’t see how segregating children has any effect other than to emphasise we are in a very binary “us vs. them” society,

“There is a reason we have picked up on what boys tend to like and what girls tend to like because most of the time boys do act one way and most of the time girls do act the other, also most of the time sex=gender, but sometimes, when it doesn’t we like to equate this as proof that gender is just something that we made up when in reality we have only exaggerated it, gender has always been a real phenomenon and we can say that it’s all made up but then where do transgender people fit into this world?”

Okay, for a start, learn how to structure sentences and use punctuation. Secondly, we cannot ignore the effects our media has on children. Switch on any children’s TV channel and you will see a rather clear gender-line in advertising: Boys play with Hot Wheels and Monster Trucks, girls play with dolls and anything creative. The only real gender-neutral advertising I see is with things like Play-doh and board games. The only way to determine whether gender is a real phenomenon is to study children who have been left completely to their own devices without parental or media bias. Good luck in finding them.

As for where Transgender people fit into this world, we’re not so much in a different ball-park, but in a different sport altogether. I’d be as curious as anybody to understand how sociocultral gender norms influence one’s decision to change their gender, but until such a study is completed, individual liberty prevails.

“I feel so sorry for those poor children with that crazy mother. She’s gonna make him wear a dress until he loves it.”

If you’d have watched until the end of the video, you’d have learned that her approach was to avoid strictly gendering her children in order for them to independently understand their own preferences, not to gender them the opposite way against their will.

“What happened to parental guidance? Where do the parents come in to explain what is socially acceptable , and what behavior will cause them pain and exclusion?”

Ah – the coveted “social acceptance”. It is not my parental responsibility to teach my children to conform, just to appease those whose opinions do not matter. It is my parental responsibility to love and support them whatever.  If such behaviour causes them to be “excluded”, then they’ll form stronger social circles amongst those who will accept them. Simple as. As a teenager, I was very much the excluded, quiet and studious “nerd” type rather than the more coveted physical, competitive and athletic type. We all have our individual skills and personalities, and in the great wide world, they are ALL desirable. After all, where would the likes of Microsoft, Facebook and Google be without the “socially-unacceptable” nerds?

“Articulate, intelligent, and entertaining speaker, for sure. But what did I learn from this? Nothing. By the way, long before feminism (and I am not one), I disliked pink. My daughter wore blue, green, yellow, red. My daughter, on her own, played with Legos and dolls. She constructed tents and played in the woods. Moral direction and involved parents are more important than going on with gender babble.”

I’d say that you don’t actually understand what “feminism” is given that it’s the diametric opposite of “sexism”. If you learned nothing new from that video, that’s a good sign that you are indeed a feminist in its truest context. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.


As Bob Dylan said over 50 years ago: “The Times They Are a-Changing”, and while there will be many who happily and quietly accept that change, there will always be the few who vocally resist. At the end of the day, I want my children to be themselves, not who they believe they should be – I’ve been there, and conforming to “the norm” is not the golden ticket it’s made out to be. It’s taken me a great deal of hard work to de-program myself from all of that, and my mental health and self-esteem is actually better for having done so.

If you’re a parent, just ease off the pedal and don’t seek to influence what your children do or enjoy. It actually takes less effort and you’ll find they’ll love you more for allowing them certain freedoms.

If you’re not a parent, either keep your opinions to yourself or, if you must post your opinions on YouTube, be prepared to have your opinions challenged by those who are speaking from experience.

12 Months Pre-Counselling: Before and After

In an earlier post, I expanded on three things I’d learned in the twelve months before I sought one-on-one counselling. Naturally, nobody goes to a counsellor for no reason, and what I learned has made some significant difference. This is what I was like just over two years ago:

The Really Useful Engine

I didn’t intend to throw in a Thomas the Tank Engine reference, but the analogy is quite apt. In the show, all the engines have various roles and duties they must carry out under the knowledge that Sir Topham “Fat Controller” Hatt prefers his engines to be “really useful” and not cause “confusion and delay”. Whenever they make a mistake – and they make them a lot – The Fat Controller gives them a full-on shaming, guilting them into to putting things right.

That was, more or less, me two years ago. I’d got it into my head that I should always put others first – doing otherwise would be considered selfish – and so I was always keen to put my own needs to the bottom of the pile. I felt I had to be the “really useful engine” by not only working through all my responsibilities and duties, but also taking on extra if required, or if I felt best-qualified, to do so. Underpinning all this was a pathological fear of failure, which I’ll come onto next. With responsibilities at both home and work, I ended up burning out and (no pun intended) coming off the rails.

I learned, through counselling, that there is a big difference between self care and selfishness. Selfishness is putting yourself first regardless, but Self Care is understanding when your needs are greater. It’s like white-hat selfishness – by doing a little bit for yourself, you’re actually making yourself more useful to others by keeping yourself within its normal limits. I make sure I get a little bit of “me time” each day, even if it’s just to listen to a record or play a computer game for a bit – just enough to recharge the mental batteries and keep me going. All work and no play…

Saving Face

As touched on earlier, I took on extra pressure to move onwards and upwards – this was more so in my old job where all the technical roles were at the Head Office on the south coast, and the only local opportunities were in people management. As an introvert, moving upwards takes a lot of effort given how visibility and the ability to network doesn’t come as naturally as it does to extroverts. You move one step upwards, but one small mistake sends you back down to the very bottom because of an irrational belief that disappointment equals disapproval, and that people are more likely to spread word of your failures than forgive you for them.

The issue really became noticeable to me early in 2015. I’d re-started making music just over a year previously, and had been networking with other musicians through social media. Towards the end of 2014, I put together my own NetLabel called Dischi senza parole (Italian for “Records without words”) and had several submissions lined up for release during January and February the following year. After the first two releases, I realised I’d bitten off far more than I could chew. Just a week after launch, I’d closed it all down – fearing that I’d left many people disappointed, and feeling quite embarrassed about this somewhat public failure, I had my first major meltdown and started withdrawing from social media, un-friending almost all of the other musicians I’d connected with in order to hide myself away from them.

Looking back at that incident today, it was a foolish and mindless over-reaction brought on by levels of stress and anxiety that I couldn’t cope with. Back then, I regarded asking for help as an admission of failure or incompetency; if I’d have set the label up today, knowing what I know now, I’d have definitely asked for help in the day-to-day running of the label.

The Conformist

It was often discussed in counselling sessions how we tell ourselves who we should, must or ought to be. We set ourselves unrealistic standards, often based on what other people expect of us. We try to build a brick wall around everything we believe is undesirable or unacceptable about us, and expend so much energy in maintaining that wall to keep them all hidden. That’s why I always believed I should always be somebody who’s selfless, who ought to be able to cope with everything on his own. I’ve since come up with a name for that: “Wagging Tongue Syndrome”. It’s a fear that if we don’t meet the expectations of the majority, “tongues will wag” and we become a target for shaming and shunning.

Thing is, it’s borne out of old-fashioned conservatism – we no longer live on the set of Call the Midwife where cliques are formed on neighbouring doorsteps and gossip is traded like currency. Attitudes and behaviours are not so aggressively policed today – the late 60’s saw a revolution against such conservative attitudes and this liberation is still present today. Eyes were opened, minds were expanded and we became conscious of all the drivel we accepted as standard that wasn’t reflective of reality. Case in point: it’s now legal for homosexual people to marry – fifty years ago, it was illegal for them to even exist.

When coupled with my acceptance of my introversion, I realised that there’s no reason to be so fearful of social exclusion because my social life is centred around quality over quantity. Outside of that core, I couldn’t give a rodent’s rectum about any negative opinions of me.

Conclusion

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), coupled with talking therapy, has been instrumental in exorcising those inner demons and training my brain to refocus its thoughts onto more productive or beneficial areas. I have to re-iterate that it takes a lot of practice and patience, but it certainly helped me to recognise and reward myself for the positive things I contribute.

Daring to be Different Part 2: Time-Manner-Place

I like reading articles on Reflect On This and Tiny Buddha – you don’t have to delve too deep into them in order to find something positive, inspirational or motivational. They were two sites I visited often during my post-counselling homework.

The sentiment of this article from Reflect on This I agree with completely – I’ve mentioned before how much respect I have for those willing to break the mould and use their creativity and lateral thinking to solve problems. Applying its teaching in the real world has its rewards, but from experience, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

I’ve brought up my fondness for wearing a utility-kilt a few times before, and I make it sound like it’s one of the most liberating thing I’ve ever done… because it is. It’s certainly the most visibly different thing that I do, but the transition from private to public was hardly instantaneous and I still feel a little self-conscious when I am out and about. I’d love to just give the world the middle finger and say “this is me – deal with it!” but, as I’m going so far against the grain, it was better for me to start off a bit defensive and move forward in baby steps.

I started just wearing it inside the house, then I ventured outside only as far as the bin, then as far as the car. My first real outing was wearing my kilt in front of my in-laws before we all headed off to the pub for a family meal. The next step was a trip to the supermarket with my family, then another with just my 4 year-old daughter (including a tiny solo excursion just to pay for a tank of petrol). Only then did I feel confident enough to tackle a town centre on a Saturday afternoon.

That was the first and, to date, only negative verbal reaction I’ve had – a couple of youths thought it was hilarious to yell “lady boy” and “batty man” as I walked past… but I just carried on walking. I’d been visible to hundreds, if not thousands, of people that afternoon and the worst I got was a couple of immature remarks; I’d be lying if I said it didn’t replay in my head over the next few days, but I remained unperturbed and came out of it even more determined (if a little self-conscious).

It’s proven to be a huge boost to my self-confidence, but I was always mindful of three things: time, manner and place.

Even though it’s technically not against the dress code, I still wouldn’t wear my kilt on casual Fridays. Company time is not the right time – they do help me pay my mortgage, after all.

I also make sure that whatever I wear with my kilt is pretty standard – I don’t go to too much effort to stand out. It’s a plain, black kilt (no tartan) so I tend to draw attention away from it with either a band t-shirt, or a more colourful, checked shirt.

And finally, there are places where I wouldn’t dare wear my kilt: one of those is my local newsagents. Not that the staff would even remotely care – my money’s as good as everybody else’s – but the distance between the post office and the local pub is too close for comfort. Let’s just say that the word “cosmopolitan” does not exactly describe the area where I live, and I don’t think singling myself out as somebody “different” is a particularly wise move when the local residents have been drinking. It’s also a meeting place for the local Outlaws… make of that what you will.

I know the tone of this post has been a little bit negative – just emphasising that fulfilling an ambition needs as much realism as fantasy – but the overall picture is very much positive. Being able to stand up and be myself, however different that may be from the norm, is proof of how much my self-confidence and anxiety has improved over the year. I still think it’s “strange” and “weird”, but such words sound more like compliments to me today.

12 months post-counselling: Lessons learned

It’s now been over twelve months since my last counselling session, dealing with the issues I had with anxiety and self-esteem. As with any professional therapy, it can be quite cathartic talking through one’s issues, but any real change involves a lot of homework – the therapist plants the seeds, but you have to take them away and nurture them.

This past year, I’ve been taking what I learned from those weeks of counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), fleshing them out, putting them into practice, tweaking, probing, experimenting and drawing conclusions. There are three main lessons I’ve learned from all of this:

It’s okay to be an introvert

Through my teens and twenties, I was of the belief that, to get anywhere in the world, you needed to quite loud, assertive and sociable. I wasn’t ever going to find someone or start a family if I didn’t actually go out and meet people, and my career would be stuck at the bottom if I wasn’t visibly networking.

Introversion isn’t just some illness that can be cured – it is a significant part of my personality. I simply don’t need as much social interaction as others, and I’m much happier in small-yet-close circles. I find it difficult having fun in loud or crowded spaces, and when I’m in such a place, I want to bail out after as little as thirty minutes. I derive the same amount of fun from listening to an LP or watching a good sci-fi film – boring as that may seem to a lot of people, it’s a case of each-to-their-own.

My introversion was never the problem – it was the persistent belief that I needed to be somebody more visible against my will.

Mind-reading and catastrophising don’t mix

Having been an introvert trying to live in an extrovert’s clothing, I was often obsessed with making sure other people saw me in a positive light – in the absence of any mind-reading abilities, I was frequently analysing their posture, body language and tone of voice for signs of approval or disapproval. If that wasn’t enough, my brain was always giving me the worst case scenario in the event of any ambiguity, feeding me all these negative words that I began to believe about myself. Dwelling on this only ever made me anxious or, at worst, paranoid. I believe it all stems from a fear of gossip, shame and embarrassment – when you’re trying so hard to improve your standing on the social ladder (for an introvert, that takes a LOT of work), the last thing you want is to be knocked down a rung or two.

It took me quite a while, and quite a bit of practice, to live in the present, stop over-thinking about something I have no control over and to stop living for other people who don’t matter. With this anxiety lifted, I no longer take myself quite so seriously, I can laugh about myself without becoming self-deprecating, and I feel a lot less tense. If I find myself trying to mind-read, I also try and tell myself that unvoiced opinions can be positive too.

There are no “normal” people

When we talk of normality, it’s usually in the context of something measurable and analytical; if we get sub-zero temperatures in the summer, we know that’s abnormal because we have historic data showing that summer temperatures have never been that cold. You can’t apply the same methodology to determine a “normal” person since you can’t quantify individual personalities.

Certain behaviours may be perceived as “normal”, but this only implies statistical likelihood within a given sample. I wore my utility-kilt when I went to Derby last Saturday – it was a lovely day so it kept me cool and comfortable, but it’s likely I was the only bloke in the whole city centre that did so – that doesn’t imply that I am abnormal, just that the odds of finding a kilt-wearing bloke in Derby are extremely low. I probably looked a bit of an oddball, but nobody said a thing – some may have found it weird, others may have found it inspiring. Who knows? All I know is that I couldn’t have done that 12 months ago.

Daring to Be Different

What other words enter your head when I mention the words “different” or “alternative”? How would you feel if somebody used the words “different” or “alternative” to describe you? Would you see it as a condemnation, implying you are somewhere you don’t belong, or would you see it as a compliment, implying you are creative or individual? In the past twelve months, I’ve steadily progressed from the former to the latter.

Twelve months ago, I was a lot more reserved than I am today. I was quite defensive when in the company of others, and kept parts of me hidden that I didn’t want anybody to know. I even invented things just to fit in – truth be told: I really don’t care about football. I was just so worked up about creating the right impression, believing that the real me was just a flawed and socially-unacceptable mass. There was actually nothing wrong with me, just part-and-parcel of being an introvert, and the more I came to accept my introversion, the less I had to pretend and the less it bothered me. The tiny handful of strong relationships I have are of exponentially more value than all the casual acquaintances.

Can you spot the person who's into Extreme Black Metal. Bet you can't!
Can you spot the person who’s into Extreme Black Metal. Bet you can’t!

When I’m at work, I kind-of just blend in. The company dress code means I don’t look noticeably different to anyone else, I get on with my work just like everyone else, and at lunchtime, I do what introverts usually do and grab some all-important me-time away from my desk. I am my true self the whole time I’m in the office, but the avenues for self-expression are rather limited – I am on company time, after all. Outside of work, when I’m no longer bound by company policy, the true self becomes noticeably visible; in other words: I look different. Ever seen a man wandering around the Midlands wearing a kilt? If you have, it was probably me. I could NEVER have done that twelve months ago.

The "Utility Kilt". Smart-Casual with a Celtic twist.
The “Utility Kilt”. Smart-Casual with a Celtic twist

Being among a tiny minority of kilt-wearers in the Midlands (I don’t assume I’m the only one) has taught me one thing: nobody really minds “different”. The people who know me best already accept me for who I am, and they’re the only people who matter. Pretty-much everybody else is too busy concentrating on their own little agenda so, if I’m not breaking any laws or causing any harm, nobody’s really minds. A few may giggle or make silly remarks, but that’s either jealousy or ignorance at work. I found expressing this more visibly-adventurous side of me got easier the more I kept at it – my self-consciousness continually decreased over time, and I became more comfortable in my surroundings.

If you’ve had any similar experiences, or if you feel you are struggling to be the real you, feel free to leave a comment below.