Holding on to yourself when Dealing with Ideological Puritans
September 14, 2015
Since someone asked if I planned to write anything about actually navigating spaces and communities where ideological puritans hold sway, I’m going to try my best and make one.
To a large extent, I’m not really sure what I can say beyond ‘don’t be a vulnerable person,’ which isn’t really helpful to anyone, since, by definition, you are a vulnerable person if you can become victimized by a puritan. You don’t have to worry about puritans if you aren’t vulnerable, in other words. This of course, does nothing to actually help vulnerable people.
Other than trying to point out some red flags, I struggle with trying to come up with some plan to navigate these spaces and avoid getting enmeshed with ideological puritans. To be really honest, this is still something I’m struggling with. And probably something I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life.
A sense of self
The thing that always hurts the most when I realize that I’ve been under the influence of a puritan is how I often feel like I lost some important sense of myself. And this is intentional, btw, since one of the goals of ideological puritans is that you depend and rely on them, rather than trusting yourself. So, yeah, they cause a lot of self-doubt and usually (via coercing you to cross your own boundaries) subsume your own needs and desires in service to them and their specific cause.
Honestly? The sense of self issue is, I think, the primary way that we become vulnerable to ideological puritans. In part because usually when we enter some community or other, we’ve found our way there because we are exploring, questioning, affirming some aspect of ourselves.
For example, when I entered the trans community, it was because I was seeking to understand my own gender feelings. I was looking for information, support, and, yes, validation. I’m very much not alone in this respect. When you’ve been pushed out for your entire life, it is an amazing feeling to find people like you.
While I’d love to say, ‘just hold on to your sense of self’, this is meaningless to people who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in.
Instead, what I want people to realize is that communities, at their very best and most healthy, should not have your membership dependent on you fundamentally changing who you are. Instead, these communities should affirm who you are as you change and grow and flourish within them. They shouldn’t diminish you or make you feel like you don’t know yourself.
And ideological puritans know this, which is why they rely on flatery as a tool. So how do you distinguish between flattery and affirmation?
A partial answer, I think, relates to comparisons. The flattery of puritans often tends to be about how you are good in relation to other people. How you get them, when many others don’t. How you understand a certain tenent that many people misunderstand. Ultimately, their flattery isn’t about you as an individual.
I think genuine affirmations are about you. But they are also realistic and proportional to you and your actual growth. Instead of effusive praise, they are honest assessments about you and ones that genuinely celebrate your successes. They also don’t really compare you in relation to anyone else because none of this should be a competition.
That old boundary thing again
The boundary issue is another tricky point because one of the reasons you’ll be vulnerable to Ideological Puritans is that you likely will not have a clear understanding of what your boundaries are. Or you might have a distorted understanding of how boundaries work. I know for me, this is one of the ways that I was left open to manipulation by puritans.
So how do you sort this out?
That you are dealing with an Ideological Puritan might not be immediately visible. It isn’t like they introduce themselves as such. And remember, they abuse of boundaries comes in a roundabout and subtle fashion, since they’ll rarely actually cross your boundaries. Rather, they’ll try to coerce you into crossing your own boundaries (which is much much better for inducing the guilt and shame that puritans thrive off of).
But how can puritans coerce you into crossing your own boundaries if you don’t even know what they are???
In trying to think my way through this issue, part of me realizes that many ideological puritans will take advantage of the social justice adage that learning about your privilege is meant to make you uncomfortable. So you start off in these communities primed to expect discomfort and probably already uncomfortable because everything is new and unknown to you.
Puritans distinguish themselves from, say friends who are challenging you to grow, by the way they never allow you to settle or reach a place of comfort. They also tend to work at their own pace and push you into meeting their timelines. In so doing, they keep you continuously off-balance and unable to get your bearings.
Remember how I said in the previous section that a community should affirm you and help you maintain a firm sense of self? This is incredibly difficult to do if you never get a moment to pause and reflect and properly understand everything that you are experiencing.
Since puritans don’t actually care whether or not you genuinely understand their ideology, only that you comply, rarely will they allow you the time and space to actually reflect and think. There won’t be many (if any) opportunities for you to take stock of everything you’ve learned and experienced and to understand what it means for you.
Basically, you never get time to actually adjust to changes. You get no space for yourself, to prioritize your own self care.
What I’m really trying to communicate in this section is that there is a very real difference between the growing pains that accompanies when your worldview is challenged with new perspectives and information and the discomfort that comes with crossing a boundary. Ideological puritans will try to convince you that these are the same things.
Be wary of anyone who refuses to allow you to take time or space to reach a point of comfort or understanding.
So the remedy here, is really to take the time and space you need. Puritans will usually try to deny you this. But take it anyway. Especially if you’re being asked to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. It may turn out that this discomfort is you growing and changing or it may turn out that this is a boundary that shouldn’t be crosses. What’s important is that you take the time andspace to figure out which it is.
Moral compasses and staying on course
When you’re trying to unlearn oppressive frames of mind, it can be really difficult to determine what the ‘right’ thing to do is in a given circumstance. As you take in new information and reach new levels of understanding, you’ll sometimes realize that stuff you once thought was ‘right’ wasn’t actually.
For me, because I can be gullible and slow to process things, I’ll often (at least initially) rely on other people’s sense of right and wrong to guide my actions. This is a mistake.
Ultimately? No one can really be your moral compass. Note what I’m not saying here: morality and ethics isn’t just about your personal, individual actions. It is how we guide our behaviour in dealing with other people. So yes, other people’s perceptions of the rightness or wrongness of your actions is important, particularly if you’ve harmed someone.
One of the big things with Ideological Puritans is that they want to be your moral compass. One of the ways they accomplish this is by fostering an environment where you feel that you cannot make even one mistake or wrong decision. And so you’ll look to them to guide what you do, so that you never make a mistake. And their patterns of praise and punishment will set you up to becoming dependent on this.
The thing is, is that no one – at the end of the day – should ever be telling you what to do.
Ultimately, deciding what the ‘right’ thing to do is your responsibility. And no one should be trying to shoulder that burden for you. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. And it feels like shit when you fuck up and have to make ammends.
But here’s the secret: there is no morally perfect person.
Ideological puritans are not perfect moral beings. Neither are you.
And that’s what this is, after all, you getting to be human. Imperfect and occassionally wrong, this is all part of being human. Whatever else you might be or which communities or parts of yourself you are trying to understand, this is something that should never be taken from you.
What this is about isn’t prior excusing of harm and wrong doing, but about maintain a sense of proportion. Remember that ideological puritans will punish you in ways that are disproportional to the rule you broke. Some mistakes are big, yes, but not every mistake is. And you’re allowed to make mistakes because you are human and imperfect.
I’m not sure how useful any of this is. Idk. I feel like I was just pointing out more redflags, rather than identifying concrete strategies to counter the influence of an Ideological Puritan.
But honestly? These are the hard won realizations I’ve gained in the aftermath of extricating myself from a puritan.
And, sure, many of these suggestions are pretty banal, as far as suggestions go.
- Hold on to your sense of self
- Respect and enforce your boundaries
- Remember your humanity
These are the main things I have to repair post-puritanism.
I hope this helps.