Content Warning: Discussion of Psychological Abuse, gaslighting, terms such as crazy

With November being Family Violence Prevention month, I want to talk about a form of emotional abuse that is perhaps more insidious than physical violence: gaslighting. As a specific form of emotional manipulation, gaslighting causes one to call in to question one’s own sanity. A partner purposefully (or sometimes non purposefully, through psychological defense mechanisms) attempts to exert control on the other by making them psychologically unstable.

This makes the gaslit partner have to rely on the other while they contemplate their sanity. Gaslighting makes you feel as though you are going crazy and, even deeper, like you’ve lost yourself. You begin to doubt everything that makes up who you are – your beliefs, your values, your worth, your reality. And when that happens, what are you left with? In some ways, you feel like an empty shell of your former self.

“He told me that I was the reason he was depressed and angry all of the time. He said that to me whenever I got angry about something he had done, or a poor choice he had made for the family. And it’s not like I acted bad when I was angry, I just wanted to talk it out.  It got to the point where I couldn’t let myself show my anger anymore, because somewhere along the line I started to believe that my anger was the problem, and not his behavior that led up to that. It’s actually funny to think that I believed my angry reaction was the problem, and not the fact that he stayed out all night with friends and got fired from work. But this whole thing had me going to different psychologists and counsellors for years, trying to get help for my “anger management” issue. Everything that went on in the relationship, we both started to blame on my anger. It took a long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t the problem”.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to recognize that you are gaslit, and how drained you have become. This can be extremely difficult, since one of the very side effects is believing you are the source of the problem. However, some clear signs you are being gaslit in a close relationship are:

  • constantly second-guessing yourself and your choices,
  • having trouble making decisions,
  • frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and
  • making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family or friends.

The next step is to ensure your safety in whatever way you can. If you are physically safe, the next steps in this process involves discovering yourself again, filling your “empty shell” once more. Here are small ways that can begin the process of rediscovering yourself:

Write down what you value. What do you value? Family? Spirituality? Respect? Write down your top ten and rank them from most valued to least. Then, think about ways you use these values in your life with others.

Write/type a paragraph on all the roles that you have. Ask yourself “who am I to others?” Perhaps you are a parent, aunt, cousin, friend, grandfather, teacher, etc. List them.

Carve out time to reflect on your own unique qualities. What makes you stand out from the others? Is it a quirky personality? A sarcastic sense of humor? Reflect on these positive qualities

Explore your character traits. The VIA character strengths can help you figure out your top character traits. This positive psychology tool provides you with a list of your top character strengths. Read the list and reflect on the traits. Do they accurately capture you?

Write a list of your qualities, beliefs, and values that guide how you treat others. Ask yourself based on your values, roles, qualities, and character strengths, which of these guides how you treat other human beings?  Then reflect on if you are being treated in the way that is important to you.

Validate yourself. Emotions are normal human experiences. The brain creates these emotions for good reasons – we can’t control our initial emotional reaction. (We can, however, start to control the way we behave when we feel emotions intensely). It is important to remind yourself that all of your emotions are okay to feel.

Check in mindfully on a daily basis.

Take time out of your day to do a brief mindful exercise.

S – Stop

T – Take a moment and take a breath

O – Observe what is happening in each of your 5 senses. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting? Observe what is happening internally. Non-judgmentally ask yourself “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What body sensations am I experiencing?” Just notice these things and move on.

P – Proceed

Take it from a survivor, it can take time to understand that you are not the problem. Like fuel to a flame, gaslighting can leave you feeling as though you’ve exploded into pieces of your former self. It’s time to collect those pieces and bring them back into wholeness once more.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Writing can take on many forms and do many things for people. It can be a fascinating or soothing hobby, a career, a passion, a job. But writing can have a more important role. Writing can be a coping strategy that can assist in stress relief, can increase feelings of positivity, can help manage anxiety, and can help to process trauma. Writing can be a form of therapy. Writing may do this in the following ways:

  1. It can help you honor yourself and your life story.

Vocalizing your story can be hard. Putting words to your pain can be excruciating. Putting your inner words and dialogue onto paper can be an effective alternative to speaking your story out loud. Moreover, it can provide emotional release and can validate your experience.

  1. It provides a way to share your story with others.

Some stories are traumatic. Some stories are hopeful. Some stories are either, or and both.  Sharing your story for others to read can provide normalization to others – that is, it can let others know that other people share similar pain. This, in turn, can provide positive benefits for the writer. Writing can provide a loud voice in order to share experiences.

  1. Writing can let unconscious material become conscious.

Writing out a traumatic event can help process trauma with the help of a professional therapist. Often we cope with stressful or traumatic things by compartmentalizing. It is as if our brain contains different compartments in which we can put different memories and emotions in an attempt to store them away for later.  Some memories and emotions can end up in our unconscious. Writing whatever flows out of your mind, called free association, is a way to tap into what may be stored within the unconscious mind.

  1. Writing has a calming effect on the brain.

Writing, particularly by hand, stimulates the same areas of the brain that meditation does. It engages the brain’s motor areas and memory pathways, and forces the mind to slow down while the hand catches up. This has the potential to allow more space for learning and memory integration.

Moreover, writing in cursive has further benefits. Handwriting is rhythmic and provides sensory soothing to the brain, which can decrease a negative emotional experience. It integrates sensation, movement control, cognition, and causes a calming slow-down effect.

  1. Writing can inspire hope.

Writing your future story can instill hope, create soothing imagery within your mind, and produce calm. It can also help you to set goals and perhaps start to plan a way to work towards the goals.

  1. It can help heal pain from relationships.

Writing apology and forgiveness letters can help right wrongs. Further, penning undelivered letters to those who have hurt us can assist with healing the hurt without ever having to make contact with that person.

There are many ways that you can write. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Get a notebook and start a journal.
  • Create a blog and type out your story.
  • Write letters to your future or past self.

Remember, you are the author of your life-book. Every day can be a blank page on which to record, explore, hope, uplift, remember, and design. Writing regularly can restore, rebuild, and heal.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

Let’s face it – we’ve all been in a dark place called The Writing Slump. Writer’s Block is a phenomenon that happens to every writer at some point. When words start to escape you and ideas get stale, you need a reliable emergency kit for working through blockages and staying productive.

I plummet into the writing abyss of Writer’s Block when my mind is bogged down with a million different things, when I accidentally lose all hope in the piece I’m drafting or when the caffeine from my latte starts to wear off. To be honest, there are a million triggers that can send me straight to the writing slump but as a professional writer with constant deadlines looming, not writing is not an option!

How can you write yourself out of linguistic stagnation when taking a day or even a couple of hours off might not be an option?

Take a few deep breaths. If you find yourself torturing your pen or smashing your keyboard, close your eyes, let annoyance and frustration dissipate, and take a few deep breaths. Accept the situation with a serene mind and focus on getting back on the writing track. There’s nothing worse than savouring the emotions you might be feeling in times of a writing paralysis; rather, choose to tackle the blockage with concrete .

Fight the temptation to quit, because you won’t always have the luxury of taking long breaks or waiting for inspiration to kick in. The reality of writing – especially if you get paid to do it – is that you don’t have all the time in the world to polish off every sentence. Learning to combat writer’s block is key to becoming a successful professional writer.

Seek inspiration in the work of others. Is there a writer you find exceptionally talented or eloquent? Or a magazine you like skimming? Turn your attention to the content and style of fellow writers for fresh ideas, new phrases, and a spark.

Get caught up in technicalities. When your creative juices ebb, shift your focus to formatting, laying out your pages, assembling appendices. Writing is a multi-step endeavour that involves editing, fact-checking, revisions, approvals, research, and much more. Just because your word count isn’t growing, you can still be moving forward with your writing project.

Freewrite for two minutes. Zoom out your computer screen or open a new page in your notebook and write. Jot down everything that comes to mind on your topic. Even if you’re repeating yourself or words don’t go well together, refrain from judgement until the time is up. This well-known writing exercise can help ideas and sentences coalesce into a unique creation.

Tell a friend what you want to write – but currently can’t. Alternating between different modes of expression can help reset your brain. If your friend really listens, maybe they’ll even offer feedback. If no friend is available in the moment of a writing crisis, give your imaginary audience an elevator pitch about your topic.

Go back to the basics. Why are your drafting this piece? What’s the message you’re attempting to convey? Oftentimes, we get bogged down in perfect grammar, elegant style, active verbs, and paragraph transitions that we forget what we’re trying to say. In desperate times of a writing slump, be ready to sacrifice your eloquence (and polish it off when you ).

No matter how dissatisfying or dark your writing abyss looks like, it’s just another setback you need to power through. There is, probably, no single magic recipe for breaking out of a writing slump – so make your own soup.


Screenshot_20181023-160649Olga Ivanova is an Edmonton-based communications professional and writer with a knack for storytelling.

One month ago today, on September 24, 2018, I was honoured with an Alumni Horizon Award from the University of Alberta. The prestigious award was a surprise as I was nominated by the Dean of Arts and is a once-in-a-lifetime award meant to provide recognition for outstanding community work and positive contributions to society.

While I am on a research and writing sabbatical in Morocco, I requested that my family, friends and colleagues still attend the ceremony as my mother would be accepting the award on my behalf – and they did. Some of my closest family members, friends and people I am blessed to work with spent the day just thinking about me and loving me. For someone with a history of mental illness and negative self-talk, it is unbelievable to me that folks would do that while I was 10,000km away – some even taking the day off work!  It was an incredible day of jubilant celebration and support from people of all walks of life who I am blessed to know. And that could be felt all the way in a little village north of Marrakech where I am currently staying.

I have been humbled by the award and want to reflect on it a bit. I genuinely feel that I share it with every amazing person I have been blessed to do community work with: from my committee with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council to the advisory crew with the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life, from the amazing fundraising team with the Young Indigenous Circle of Leadership Cree Women’s Camp to every interfaith leader and community organizer I have been blessed to meet. My colleagues in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, along with fellow researchers at the Tessellate Institute and the Institute for Religious and Socio-Political Studies all share this honour with me.

I know that these awards are not always what they seem and I was (and remain) hesitant about accepting it from an institution I have benefited from but am ultimately concerned about in terms of its exploitation of folks with excessive tuition rates and underpaid intellectual labour, and especially for its often tokenistic/abusive treatment of Indigenous and Black folks I know directly. I always hesitate when a large neoliberal institution values what I am doing because it might mean that I am fitting a convenient narrative about brokering social change in ways that are merely superficial and don’t get at the deep structural violence implicit in the system itself. I am terrified of the implications of that and of being complicit in the systems that benefit me above others for no other reason than the social positionings I was born into. I am mindful of my privilege as a white convert to Islam in being recognized and amplified when so many of my merited siblings and kin of colour are not.

Ultimately, this award has never been about me. It is about the work and about the people I am privileged to share dignified spaces with as a result of that work. I can’t think of many people I have met and worked with who haven’t influenced me or taught me wisdoms beyond even what they imagine they do. This is our award and I pray that it serves to remind other people about the types of work we can do when we come together. Above all, I wish that it will inspire other people to build more spaces of social change and justice – ones that are unapologetically critical in all the right ways. And for the person who feels like they want to suck back the very last dregs of despair before seeking oblivion, it is my desire that this kind of recognition makes its way to you and serves as a source of hope – as those I have served are a continuous source of hope for me.

Much love,

Nakita

Read Nakita’s award feature in New Trail Alumni Magazine or an article profiling her work from the Faculty of Arts.

Some of you might have heard of analytical writing in academia. If your major was anywhere near the humanities or social sciences, chances are that writing analytically was instilled in you through countless edits and thorough comments from your instructors. Maybe you even took a writing class. However, when the memories of your alma mater start to fade, so do the analytical skills you thought were instilled in you.

If there is one valuable writing tip I picked up in school, it’s that your mind has the unique capacity to interpret facts, merge ideas, and uncover patterns that can make your voice– channeled through writing – authentic. Whether you dabble in fiction writing, work in communications, or wordsmith for pleasure, an analytical text will help you and your reader get more meaning out of words, nurturing a better understanding of the reality around us.

Writing analytically involves peering at the world and asking questions. It’s about connecting the dots, capturing diversity, and challenging biases. The highly-coveted skill of making sense of information and facts will always rank above other communication skills. As we’re getting bombarded with terabytes of data, our brains need to interpret it before sending calls to action. An analytical piece takes you on a journey towards deeper understanding of a topic that goes beyond mere facts.

Analytical writing is a symphony. Let your writing be a platform where ideas collide and coalesce. Collect data, voices, and opinions to fill in the gaps and capture a full picture. Don’t slip into judgement as your learn about new traditions, people, and cultures.

Analytical writing is revealing. Look for the intricate, minute details, compare facts, dates, and numbers to uncover implicit connections. Oftentimes, single numbers and dates don’t say much to the reader. But they might speak volumes when compared or contrasted with a larger corpus of data.

An analytical text asks questions. Why is the topic you’re developing important? How does it fit into the bigger picture? How does it impact our lives? Why should the reader care?

Analytical writing is critical. Challenge your thought to shy away from biases and assumptions. Keep your heart, mind, and writing open.

Analytical writing is a muscle that you can flex and stretch. Follow these tips before your tackle a new writing project:

  • Think of the sources you’re interviewing or researching – do they offer diversity? Are they reliable? How far from your set of beliefs are they placed?
  • Wrap your factual information in a context. Bare facts alone might not always make the most sense to the reader. Gather context, compare and contrast your numbers and dates to offer possible interpretations.
  • Tame your judgement as much as you can for as long as you can. Walk the reader through your thought process before making any conclusions. Remaining completely subjective might not be realistic; equally covering diverse opinions and approaches before stating your opinion is.

Your unique way of making sense of facts, information, ideas – topped off with a firm grasp of the English language – makes your writing stand out. And this will never go out of style because a riveting story and quality writing will always be in demand, no matter what audience you’re serving.


Screenshot_20181023-160649Olga Ivanova is an Edmonton-based communications professional and writer with a knack for storytelling.

It has been awhile since I wrote and something important has been weighing on my mind as a result of some of the things I am seeing in the realms of activism, anti-racism work and community organizing:  growing concerns about the effect of classism on our ability to advocate properly and bring about necessary changes.

It took me a long time to realize that a lot of the issues and inertia I have been witnessing/experiencing in community-organizing stem from the fact that many of the people I worked with in the past are upper-middle class or rich. And as a result of their class privilege and other factors, upper class advocates have also managed to avoid experiencing traumatic incidents in their lives one way or another. In fact, being surrounded by non-traumatized, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class men who are the dominant ethnic group in the communities I am serving has opened my eyes to just how stark the disconnect can be between them and the communities they claim to serve. And it has also opened my eyes to see just how out-of-reach power is for the folks who do not embody those social positionalities.

While I definitely and undeniably have my own privileges as a cisgender white woman that I absolutely acknowledge and try to leverage at every possible avenue, I have noticed that my perceptions differ greatly from a lot of folks in community who have the economic leg-up that myself and others lack.

THE PROBLEM

There is a big problem with organizations, houses of worship and other entities that do not hold regular elections for their boards. These groups tend to recruit within their own class and it creates a snowball effect where everyone on a board start to look the same because they have the same privileges. It not only stems from a lack of access to different people, but a general unwillingness to break outside of those bubbles in order to “remain effective.” You see, rich folks recruit other rich folks because they have the resources and the connections they need to do “great things” –  great being relative in the eyes of their immediate peers, rather than in relation to the people who really need great social change.

What follows from this is also a conscious rejection of the term activism/activist for the allegedly more civil moniker of advocate. I myself naively listened to this advice in the past and now reject it for its classist roots. Activists are folks who hold demonstrations, protests and rallies because they may not have access to the same meetings and consultations with power that advocates do. Their approach is not inherently “bad” – in fact, it is historically more effective because it doesn’t rely on politics of civility and respectability while pushing for what amounts to the status quo in the same way that many rich advocates do. As a Muslim, I’m going to have the adverb “radical” applied to me against my will anyway, so why not at least make some real change with it?

The myth that people of lower economic statuses do not have as much time to serve their communities also pervades and perpetuates these practices. In fact, folks with the lowest incomes are often much more acutely aware of social issues tied to structural violence such as systemic racism and neo-liberal economic policies because they actually live it: they know how hard it is to break those systems and how easy it is to be broken by them. They have more experience with issues of labour disputes and exploitation, homelessness, addiction and other related conditions – or they know people directly who do. Such folks can be organizing in their own way but it is less visible because it might be more radical (and therefore less widely accepted) than typical liberal approaches to combating social issues such as pat-on-the-back certified sensitivity training for people who think racism is an individual problem or charity work to combat homelessness (instead of, say, pushing to just give people houses).

The other problem is that class-based issues seem invisible to so-called middle class* and rich folks because how they physically move through the world is different. I can’t tell you how many times upper-class hijabis have told me that they have never experienced Islamophobia when they might be folks who drive their kids to school in their cars, head to their office and then pick up their click and collect groceries – all the while unaware of what people like me have to deal with taking public transit daily. And I have it easier than my sisters of colour or Indigenous folks in public spaces, so that’s saying a lot! To compound the issue, many of these upper class folks are unwilling to hear about the experiences of others or don’t create spaces to do so and as a result, people get exhausted from trying.

*The middle class is largely an artificial social category occupied by poor folks who have accrued major debt to maintain a lifestyle widely-recognized to be the middle way.

SOME POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

I don’t have the answers and this is just an off-the-cuff reflection more than anything. Nothing fancy here, but I do have some reflections based on my experience that I think could help bring some change to our communities in light of this rampant issue.

Active Listening: If you are a community advocacy group and you are not conducting surveys, attending town hall meetings of community groups, or holding listening sessions to hear the grievances of the people you claim to serve in an organized and intentional way, you’re only serving your own interests. Now, kind-hearted folks might come at me and tell me not to be suspicious of peoples’ intentions and my answer to that is: I’m not. Someone from a higher class can want to do the best for their communities, but if they don’t know what their communities actually need, aren’t taking the initiative to find out, and aren’t leveraging their vast amount of privilege to then transmit those needs to the state or other bodies of change and assistance, then it doesn’t really matter what your intention is if your impact is null. Create spaces (with food) for people to come forward and talk about their concerns. Consult key organizers of lower classes doing work within their own communities (and pay them!) Attend rallies, demonstrations and other events where people will be discussing community organizing work and open your ears there.

Giving up seats at the table: No, not just one seat. Plenty of seats. Maybe step back and let someone else take the lead in your organization for a while, rather than just serving as a token poor person for the sake of so-called diversity. Make yourself uncomfortable by giving up some of your comfort and helping support and uplift someone else’s vision of justice for a while, lending expertise and advice where it will help with being more effective, but without taking everything over all the time.

Fund, amplify and labour the work of lower class folks. If you have money and you aren’t doing this, that’s a problem. Period. Redistribute the wealth.

Check your intentions and leverage your privilege. If you are unwilling to listen, learn, leverage and amplify other-classed voices, it’s time to sit back and think about why you are doing what you are doing and just who is giving you permission to do it. It isn’t enough to work behind the scenes without credit if the work you are doing continues to not serve the most oppressed members of society. Activists can easily build their own personality cults, even in the shadows, and obtain tons of funding for work that never gets to the heart of social matters – it is something that must be actively resisted if we are to see our communities actively healing, made safe and ultimately thriving in the long run.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.