Thursday, April 7, 2022

Analysis and critique of "you don't have to explain yourself" advice

Ever heard the advice "you don't have to explain yourself"? Was it useful? Did it seem odd?

I've had mixed feelings about it, and certain readings of the phrase strike me as outright misguided. I might not be reading it "as intended". If that's the case, why not phrase the advice more clearly. Below is what goes through my mind upon hearing the phrase, and why it agitates and feels oppressive in my mind as currently written.

Let's start with a reading of the phrase I do find personally agreeable. One sense of the advice above is the idea that you don't always owe others explanations for your actions or behaviors. That you, at least in theory, could or should have a right to say no. I would agree that there are some situations where this works. Situations where there's a tendency toward might be termed "over-owing". Having a cognitive tool for being on the lookout for such situations, and giving a sense of self-empowerment to change those patterns, seems generally useful.

That said...

My critique is this - aren't there at least some situations where we arguably either do outright need to explain self to others?

The phrasing as written, to me, evokes the common myth of modern culture which constantly wants you to believe you are completely and wholly self-sufficient. Which is untrue. Humans are interdependent. No-one is born self-sufficient and the vast majority of us live adult lives relying on human interaction to some extent. Because of this, we are subject to the social structure and power dynamics of that interaction. Those dynamics, at times, will almost certainly ask or demand that you "explain yourself" at times or risk ostracization. Ostracization can, for some, be an immense threat to livelihood. So, instead, we do sometimes feel that we do have to explain yourself. Rendering the idea of "you don't have to explain yourself" a falsehood.

Rephrased as "you sometimes don't have to explain yourself", it's a less problematic phrase. But that's not how it's commonly written.

The above is just one example of situations where you might be outright compelled, and feel choice-less, in needing/having to explain yourself. A second area to explore is the human desire for connection. Mental health teachings constantly warn about the negative effects that extended or prolonged isolation can often cause (note: what counts as problematic isolation versus wanted isolation will vary from person to person). Explaining yourself, when received with respect and not hostility, can be a powerful way to relieve feelings of isolation. So, in that sense, there can often be a strong desire, or even "need", to explain yourself.

Explaining yourself is a path toward acceptance and connection. 

Those desires are, especially for autistic individuals, in low supply. To not explain is to stand by and allow non-acceptance to exist. To be complacent in human interactions that are causing harm. When I hear "you don't have to explain yourself", given the scenario of being harmed, I hear "you don't have to speak up and speak out against being harmed".

The phrase, as written, to me is heard as yet another demand for complacency. It is so convenient for others to refuse to hear, listen, or validate me explaining myself. Telling me I don't have to do it is often untrue, in the sense that not doing so condemns me to further pain, suffering, and isolation.

I understand, very clearly, how that's not what others might image the intended reading or advice of the phrase. I wholly acknowledge that some situations don't require explaining yourself, and the advice works great for that. In the situations where it is required, it's oppressive and harmful advice that implies empowered and positive choice exists where it, in fact, does not.

And yes, I feel compelled to be explaining myself here because I refuse to walk away and let others tell me this advice isn't hurting anyone. It's hurting me, and phrasing it differently would do a lot for seeing and respecting the barriers I face on a daily basis.

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