How I Became Fluttershy

Among fellow fans of My Little Pony, I often describe myself as “real-life Fluttershy”. On the surface, it fits, sort of; I tend to be shy and quiet about meeting new people, I enjoy the solitude of nature, and while I’m certainly not the embodiment of kindness, I do tend to be rather gentle and kind, often described by others as “sweet”. But I didn’t start comparing myself to Fluttershy until fairly recently, and it comes from a place much deeper than simple personality traits. With what was revealed in the episode Hurricane Fluttershy about her past, I have a lot in common with the gentle pegasus, and I saw a lot of myself in her in that episode.

In the episode, the pegasi of Ponyville need to band together to create a tornado, which will send water to the cloud factory, to produce spring rainclouds for all of Equestria (thou shalt not question the physics of My Little Pony). Everypony is on board, and begins training to increase their wing strength, except Fluttershy. She’s a very weak flyer, or at least appears to be, but she gives a test-flight anyway. When the wingpower meter barely registers, to the giggles of the ponies around her, she runs off crying, away from her closest friends. It’s revealed that she was brutally teased as a young filly, so much so that even in young adulthood, she’s still traumatized by it, and can’t fly in front of other ponies without hearing the ghostly taunts of her childhood bullies.

This is the point where, the first time I watched this episode, I couldn’t continue. I was crying so hard I had to stop the video, cuddle a plushie, and collect myself. And this was while I was cuddled under my favorite blanket on a comfy couch, already clutching one of my favorite plushies. Even now, having seen it several times, and despite knowing the ending is as heartwarming as the conflict is heart-wrenching, it’s a difficult episode for me to get through.

I’ve talked about my past with friends, when it was relevant to the discussion, and written about it in old Live Journal posts, but I’ve never really put much of it out publicly. Part of it is because some of what I endured growing up is still difficult to talk about, but I feel I’m now in a better position to address it than I used to be. And, while a lot of my emotional issues stem from childhood experiences, including things I’m actively trying to fix, I don’t suffer PTSD (that I’m aware of), and I don’t really want people to feel pity or sympathy for things I’ve come a long way in recovering from. But I can’t erase things from history, and talking about it helps me move on.

I won’t say I had a hard childhood, necessarily, but I had a very emotionally troubled one. From my earliest memories, until my senior year of high school, positive points and positive people were very few and far between, with abuse and emotional assaults coming from all directions. At home, my dad was physically and psychologically abusive from my earliest memories, both to me and to my mom. He frequently hit me for flimsy reasons, contradictory reasons, or things completely unrelated to me. When he wasn’t violent, he did a lot to make me feel worthless; if I did something wrong, he bullied me for being stupid. If I did something right, he never gave praise, only told me that I didn’t do it right enough. If I showed creativity, he mercilessly criticized and put down my work. If I played, he criticized my imaginary worlds and play style (to this day, my imagination is very vivid, but heavily constrained within the bounds of the real world, and I can’t get into fantasy stories/games/movies as a result). If I watched TV, he bullied me for rotting my brain. He frequently bullied me for not knowing how to ride my bike without training wheels, but when he tried to teach me how (my mom didn’t know how, and couldn’t help at all), all he did was tell me what I was doing wrong, with zero encouragement or actual help, so I didn’t figure out how to ride a bike until I was 9. He bullied me if I brought home grades that were less than perfect; the day I brought home my first C, he nearly gave me a concussion for it. I was eight years old.

He moved out when I was 11, shortly before he violently assaulted my mom in a busy public parking lot and was arrested for it, but his influence remained until I was 16. But that alone wouldn’t have been as much of an issue, if everyone else in my life hadn’t reinforced everything my dad said and did to me.

I had no real friends in elementary school. And I mean that quite literally. I had one true friend in sixth grade, for several years, and had a couple of true friends in high school, and their place in my life helped keep me from doing anything drastic. But everyone else confirmed the worldview I had at the time; no one is actually nice to anyone. Some were outwardly hostile; in middle school, some were physically violent. I was physically attacked numerous times, with no disciplinary action brought against my attackers. I still have jaw problems from one of them. I was stabbed with a pencil in the back, deep enough to embed lead in my skin for awhile. I was assaulted by a group I couldn’t identify, because two of my attackers were immigrants who all shared the same name, and because I said it wasn’t the one who was brought to the office (they picked the wrong one), the administration dismissed the attack as something I made up, despite the bruises. But beyond that, a significant percentage of kids I went to school with openly mocked me. They didn’t need a reason, there was always something. I occasionally cried when I was hurt, my southern accent was slightly thicker than their southern accents, I wasn’t athletic (thanks undiagnosed asthma), I preferred to be quiet and read than play active games. When I wanted to play, no one wanted me. Whether I did well or did poorly in my schoolwork, I was ridiculed for it. To this day, there are certain nicknames and words that make me cringe, regardless of modern context, because they were hurled at me en masse by classmates as insults.

But what makes school bullying stick? When there’s no one to tell you that the bullies are wrong. I talked to teachers and school staff, they shrugged it off as normal. I talked to my parents; dad blamed me for everything that happened to me at the hands of my classmates, usually punished me for “starting trouble”, and typically agreed with what my bullies said. Mom was so overpowered by dad that until dad left, she didn’t have a lot of direct say in my upbringing. And it took many years after that for me to really trust her, in ways I had been conditioned not to trust a parent or a friend. I didn’t really have other adults in my life, but when I did, they generally were either completely unable to help with my problems, or as bad as the bullies. And the kids who weren’t bullies were worse than the bullies. Some simply distanced themselves from me, since I was the class punching bag, and they didn’t want to be next to me for that. Many quietly agreed with the bullies, not outwardly hostile, but I could see it in their eyes, their nodding agreement, their giggling complicity. Many were manipulative, flagrantly taking advantage of my blind desire for a reprieve from abuse for their own gain or amusement. I was invited to non-existant parties. I was invited to be part of a group, only for a more vocal member to drive me away, to the giggles of the rest. Some drew it out over longer periods of time, setting me up for bigger falls and more pain. Even the few I considered true friends occasionally betrayed my trust, albeit on a much smaller scale.

I could go on, there’s a lot more to tell, but those are the relevant parts. For the first 16 years of my life, virtually everyone I encountered made me feel worthless, and everything I did was worthless by extension. More importantly, though, almost everyone who touched my life taught me that there’s no such thing as a person who can be trusted. Countless times, I thought someone was my friend, then discovered they hated me. Countless times, I thought I could trust someone with a secret, only to discover that secret spread like wildfire. Countless times, I thought I could trust someone’s feedback on my creative work, only to discover that they actually hated what I showed them. And so on.

Unfortunately, because of this experience, I was conditioned to assume this was how normal humans interacted, and by my senior year of high school, I interacted this way as well. There were hardly any students lower on the social ladder than me, but when someone was, I was vicious. Some of the things I said still haunt me. I was often horrified at some of the jokes I made, things I said to others, or things I did, and it often felt wrong, but I was under the impression that it was normal. In the years since, I’ve quickly swung the other direction; negative humor and conversation of any sort is uncomfortable, and “trolling” humor often deeply sickens me. There’s someone I consider a close friend, who I deeply care for, but I simply can’t be around him much because he practically only communicates in self-degradation, and his only sense of humor is to get others to put him down; despite the flagrant insincerity of things said, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable, and I feel pressured to participate, bringing up a lot of painful memories.

But the biggest factor in my recovery to date has been the friends I’ve made, who I’ve learned to trust. I still have difficulty opening up to people, though past experience has made me extraordinarily good at reading people and detecting deception. I still occasionally have paranoid feelings that everyone I love and trust secretly hates me, despite evidence to the contrary; these are becoming less common, but they still happen, usually triggered by innocent things that presumably wouldn’t bother most other people. And it’s these friends who’ve helped me overcome the biggest lingering roadblock from childhood, my pathological lack of confidence, both in myself and in my creative work.

In Hurricane Fluttershy, after she runs off crying from her embarassing flight performance, Fluttershy is comforted by her woodland creature friends. They tell her the same encouraging words that she’s given them, and convince her to give it a try. But they don’t stop at just talk, they work with her, directly tackling her anxiety, and helping her overcome it. They’re right next to her through the whole process, helping her through it, giving her what she needs to believe in herself. Such was my experience in recent years. When I decided to pursue a web development career, I had little real direction, no real training, and no past experience to draw from, so if I was going to do it, I had to show my skills in a very real way, and do so strongly enough to get a prospective employer to look past the usual requirement for a university degree. I had to do all of that at a time when, no matter what I did or how I tried, I felt incompetent and talentless, with shoddy work that no one would ever look at. I nearly gave up, more than once (and not just on my career). But my true friends wouldn’t let me. Several took it upon themselves to be my personal cheerleaders, going way above and beyond what I would ever expect or hope for, in the name of giving me the encouragement I needed to overcome some extremely deep-seated confidence issues.

Like Fluttershy, I worked at it in small steps. I took small work here and there, slowly building a portfolio. I gradually improved my sales pitch for job interviews. I eventually started to say “yes, I really am pretty good at this”, instead of constantly tearing down and discounting my skills. And then, in a final burst, I broke through it all. I don’t need to re-tell the story of my career, but it genuinely was life-changing, and it finally brought me the validation I needed in order to get past the residual “Fluttershy can hardly fly!” chants in the back of my head.

I’ve seen enough negativity and put-downs to last several lifetimes, I have zero desire to bring anything except kindness and love into my life, the lives of those I love, and the world as a whole. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to trust new people as readily as others do, and I’m not sure I can be less high-maintenance as a friend, though I’m working on both of those things. But at least I’ve proven, to myself as much as anyone else, that I can really fly.

"Real Artists", and Professionals

I’ve ranted about this elsewhere, but I’m a firm believer that every artist, of every medium, must develop their own style and techniques, in their own time. It’s perfectly fine to have influences, but if your reason for a creative or technique choice ever includes “because so-and-so does it”, you’re Doing It Wrong. This is generally accepted as common sense in most artistic media, but in photography, there’s an entire industry built around copying the successful pro of your choice. To put it bluntly: Screw that.

Part of the problem is that most people who pick up an SLR see themselves as potential pros. I did too, for a very brief period of time, and the thought still occasionally crosses my mind. Thus, if your photography is a business tool to you, it would make sense to follow the business model of someone doing it successfully, right? That’s what every other start-up business does. Unfortunately, that logic is deeply flawed, because it forgets that photography is an art, and creative processes cannot be copied. You can certainly try, and there are some pros who’ve put out some excellent books and tutorials that are genuinely helpful. But doing so won’t make you a better artist; in fact, it will actively prevent you from finding your style and developing your skills.

Compare it to visual artists: If you buy a series of books on drawing comic books, and buy all the right materials, and spend all your effort trying to make a comic book because that’s what professional artists do, you may come up with something that looks like a comic book. You may even be excellent at it. But what if you’re not? What if you suck at comic books? If you take this approach, it would be pretty easy (and justified) to say “Well, I’m just not an artist” and never touch it again. But maybe you’re a brilliant artist, who’s just not very good at comic books. Maybe you’re a natural at landscape painting, but spent too much time convincing yourself “professional artists are comic book artists, therefore I must become a comic book artist” to try doing something else.

That scenario is laughable to anyone who is, or knows, visual artists, because there’s no one way to draw. Everyone knows, and accepts, that pretty much every style is valid. But, hundreds of years ago, this wasn’t the case; the only accepted style of painting was photorealism, and if you sucked at that, you were generally considered a failure as an artist. Photography has a similar (but thankfully not as stifling) culture today. Diversity of style is becoming less niche, but there’s still an extremely strong perception that to be able to call yourself a photographer, you must be excellent at professional-style portraits. And, the internet is stuffed full of galleries owned by people who are desperately trying to be great at portraiture, but they just don’t have a knack for it. Usually, these galleries contain one or two token shots of some other type (macro, landscape, street, architecture), which are often spectacular, the best shots in the whole gallery. But they neglect them, instead trying to force portraiture skills that may never come, or abandoning their craft entirely.

Similarly, I’ve heard photographers talk about what “real artists” do. As in, “a real artist waits for the light to be perfect”, “a real artist only gets keepers”, “a real artist only shows the top 1% of their work”, and so forth. Pretty much any statement of what a “real artist” does is pretentious garbage, and few things irk me faster. Especially when used while out shooting. “A real artist doesn’t stretch for the shot, so I can’t get that shot without a 500mm lens”. No, a real artist tries. A real artist does whatever they feel is right, because a real artist doesn’t do things based on what they think an artist should do. If you, personally, feel you shouldn’t try for a shot, or should/shouldn’t do something, based on logic or personal experience, that’s fine. But the claim that anyone calling themselves an artist or photographer must also follow that advice is, as I said before, pretentious garbage. A real artist doesn’t listen to any statement containing “real artist”, except for these: A real artist, first and foremost, creates, or tries to create. And, a real artist finds their own way, and their own style, without patterning themselves off someone else.

So, by all means, learn from those whose work you admire, but do so with the knowledge that, when it comes down to it, you are your own artist. You must be the one to experiment, try new things, see what works and what doesn’t, and explore what makes you pick up a camera in the first place. And never, ever take someone else’s advice as The One True Way of photography, there’s no such thing. Aside from “point the lens at the thing you want to take a picture of”, the only “right” way to be a photographer is what you decide works for you and makes sense, on your own, based on your own interests and passions. Lastly, if you hear someone use the phrase “real artist” attached to any advice other than encouraging creativity and exploration above all else, ignore whatever they just said. The only people who claim anything other than that is the mark of a “real artist” have no claim to that title themselves.

The Problem With Trigger Warnings

“Triggering”. Like “privilege”, it’s a word that has a legitimate place in social discussions, but has been so ridiculously overused on the internet (I’m looking at you, Tumblr) that it’s difficult to bring into a serious conversation. Attempting to do so tends to conjure mental images of whiny teenagers writing nonsensical tweets about being “triggered” by the very sight of a single word. There are even browser userscripts for Tumblr catering to this, allowing someone to filter all posts containing specific words, intended to be used as a “trigger filter”. Unfortunately, with so many people claiming to be triggered by simple word usage in an internet post, it’s become difficult to have serious discussion of serious issues on websites like Tumblr, or even to use certain keywords casually. And that’s a pretty big problem.

Triggering is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, and refers to a circumstance where someone experiences a relapse of traumatic memories due to outside stimuli. A classic, if extreme, example is a Vietnam War veteran, who’s otherwise a functional, normal adult, hearing a car backfire on a city street, and suddenly becoming terrified for his life, as if he were back in the war. In this example, the veteran is triggered by sounds that resemble gunfire, and upon hearing such sounds, he completely breaks down and is temporarily unable to keep his PTSD under control. It’s a well-documented phenomenon, and a classic symptom of PTSD in remission. But while therapeutical approaches to PTSD focus on overcoming these triggering episodes, and learning thought processes to maintain one’s control when a trigger is presented, the Tumblr approach is to simply avoid one’s triggers entirely, an approach that can actually make those issues worse.

I’m not going to question the legitimacy of anyone’s issues, because a minor annoyance to one person can be a major issue for another. But, I have a very hard time believing that someone can truly be triggered by academic discussions or simple word use. Graphic depictions of a situation, regardless of fact or fiction, can definitely do it. Videos and imagery can as well. But I’ve seen “trigger warning” notices on news posts/commentary, activism-related posts against the alleged trigger, and even posts that simply mention a specific word in passing, as part of a very different narrative. More concerning, though, is when even a benign post contains something that someone considers “triggering”, the author will hear cries to put a warning up, and people will get extremely defensive about their “triggers”, seemingly operating on the assumption that everyone should automatically know that this person has a severe reaction to certain words. This is what I take issue with.

Now, as I’ve revealed in recent posts, I have some trauma in my past, and lingering issues resulting from it. I’ve been triggered, in the clinical way; I can easily count on one hand the number of times it’s happened, but when it did, it took some pretty serious stimuli to cause it, and each episode took hours upon hours to fully recover from. Even if it happened more easily, though, it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to know how my brain reacts to certain material. For example, stories that depict relentless, brutal school bullying are almost impossible for me to read, and I’ve occasionally stumbled into such a story without realizing it had that sort of content. I drop it immediately, seek something more pleasant to read/watch, and usually seek out a hug from a friend; crisis avoided. I can’t lash out at the author for it, they don’t know me or my history, and they have zero responsibility to accomodate my issues. Now, if friends are involved, they can be helpful at steering someone away from triggering material, but it’s not their responsibility to do so. Using the above example, if a friend who knows relevant parts of my past recommends material to me that I end up having to drop, I might be a bit annoyed, but I’m certainly not going to get mad at them, they certainly didn’t do it on purpose. Something that kickstarts an adverse mental reaction for me doesn’t affect others the same way.

It’s also my responsibility to distinguish between an actual triggering episode, and other strong emotional reactions. Stories of lost love or loneliness are painful to me, horror movies utterly terrify me, depictions of rape and gore disgust and sicken me, and detailed accounts of discrimination and violence are upsetting. But none of these things are the same as triggering, because triggering specifically only refers to being overcome with traumatic memories, and reliving those memories. It’s also significantly more intense than any normal emotional reaction. So, if you feel “triggered” by something, with no traumatic memories associated with that thing? That’s not triggering, that’s empathy. Similarly, PTSD trigger episodes don’t have to reach clinical levels to be “real”, but if you’re happily making jokes on Twitter less than 20 minutes after saying “I’m triggered and shaking, I need to get away from Twitter for a bit”, I question whether you actually understand what this sort of thing is like.

Lastly, since psych disorders should only be given a diagnosis when they significantly interfere with a person’s ability to function normally in society, you should seek serious clinical assistance if you have PTSD symptoms triggered by simple one-sentence mentions of concepts like domestic violence. Because if casually reading a social media site is triggering, that pretty clearly qualifies as something that prevents you from functioning normally in society. The solution is to get help for this trauma from someone who can help you face it and overcome it, and to work through it so that triggers decrease and become less overwhelming. The solution is not demanding that everyone else should take responsibility for knowing your triggers. As I mentioned before, that approach makes them worse, because in addition to being succeptible to PTSD episodes, you give those triggers additional power by being afraid of them, and eventually, you can amplify them to the point where the simple mention of a word actually will be somewhat triggering.

So if you’ve ever asked anyone to add a trigger warning to something, or gotten upset at someone for posting something triggering, I recommend not doing it anymore. It’s your responsibility to know how your brain works, not anyone else’s, and part of actually resolving this sort of thing is learning how to defend yourself from your own psychology.

If you use the word “trigger” in this context, make absolutely certain that you mean it with the weight it’s given in clinical psychology. If what you describe as being “triggered” lasts less than an hour, or leaves you coherant enough to write full paragraphs, you may be mistaken in your terminology.

And if you are so easily triggered that you need trigger warnings on Tumblr posts, please talk to a doctor, or at least take some sort of steps toward resolving issues. There’s plenty of resources for working through this sort of thing, and they can be exceptionally helpful. It can be difficult to talk openly about those things, or even impossible, but if you can at least work on them with yourself, you’ll become a much stronger person than you ever thought possible. I promise.