Fear & Interpersonal Fluidity
Interpersonal fluidity refers to all the ways—intentional and unintentional—an individual is able to move in and out of social spaces and seeks to interact with others. This concept is not grounded in a clear psychological theory that I’ve been explicitly taught (or read about) but it’s also not intended to compete with classic dispositional trait theories like The Big Five, though it is somewhat similar to Goffman’s Impression Management theory. This is about the malleable parts of one’s personality that are perceived as being within one’s control to mutate and are often moulded in response to social pressures to be one way or another.
Our North American cultures are actually obsessed with performing interpersonal fluidity. We encourage introverted people to “try” to be more outgoing, force children and college applicants to be as well-rounded as possible, and we treat our backpackers abroad with the ultimate reverence for being brave, adventurous, and multi-faceted enough to “explore” countries outside their own. Are any of these forms of fluidity inherently problematic? No. I would argue, however, that compulsory fluidity is not choice-driven and is therefore a veil for rigidity rooted in fears of ‘not being enough’ or ‘falling in with the wrong crowd.’ Forcing ourselves to show up in the world according to pre-determined ideals often gets celebrated and entrenches the fear of deviation—ask any gay man who has spent his life over-compensating in an attempt to be The Best Little Boy in the World. In this context, “contamination” is about giving in to a unique desire, interest, or identification with a specific social group that might take away from one’s ability to be seen as eclectic and mutable.
Being well-rounded or veils with benefits
When I was in elementary school, I systematically joined every possible extracurricular group: Art Club, French club, Senior Choir, Sign Language Club, Cross Country, Dance Club, Ski Club, and possibly others that I can’t even recall. While it’s very true that I would have rather spent my lunch break indoors instead of being faced with the anxiety of basketball courts and football fields, I ambitiously joined clubs beyond my actual interests to hoard “winnits”—yearly awarded sticker badges for civic engagement—that would hopefully lead to the ultimate award of the Dixon Grove Shield at my 8th grade graduation ceremony (which I did receive).
The pressure of well-roundedness propelled me to work hard and spread my wings; but it started to have diminishing returns
Retrospectively, I think the cultural message I was receiving was: “be well rounded because it will get you further in life; you can’t shine if you get ‘stuck’ with one group of people or one interest. Oh, and universities love this type of candidate so you’re setting yourself up to be on the winning trajectory of life.” To be clear, the students who focused on only one or two clubs or those that decidedly wanted to play the same games in the schoolyard day after day, were no worse off than me; but my way of being was destined to be more intrinsically rewarding and publicly celebrated than others’.
The pressure of well-roundedness propelled me to work hard and spread my wings; but it started to have diminishing returns—particularly when 11th grade course selections began—because I finally had the option to drop science courses and the people around me incited all kinds of anxiety about the doors that would be closed if those courses were dropped. This was fear about moving away from well-roundedness to becoming slightly more angular. I quickly compensated for what could be perceived as being less well-rounded by doing extensive volunteer work in the Ismaili Muslim community—where the opportunities were aplenty—and by taking leadership roles in Junior Achievement student business ventures.
I needed this veil of being over-committed, you see, because the senior years of high school came with gazes that conveyed skepticism of my masculinity and pressures to find my temporary landing spot in an adolescent world of performative heterosexuality. Navigating my failure as a man for not genuinely being interested in girls or sports and closing the doors to the sciences weighed on me. Now I realize that there were a ton of straight guys who were popular in high school, people with a BSc of some variety, and many who continue to love sports but are not better off intellectually, emotionally or vocationally than I who embraced nonconventional relationship models, completed a BA in Psychology and had only one interest in my 20s: tequila-orange paired with weekly club nights. Needless to say, being angular started to fit better.
I was quite lucky that the internalized mechanism toward over-compensation led to academic and vocational success in my life. Those are the benefits of the veil. However, I also found a way to name, explore, and celebrate my sexual identity along the way. The pressure to remain well-rounded in a mainstream way could have very well led me to the struggle I witness with some of my older “closeted” gay male clients: existential isolation and search for an authentic self after a lifetime of pleasing others.
Embracing who you are, particularly around queer sexuality, will not contaminate or cancel-out other aspects of who you are.
In other words, buying into the fear of being angular in your interests, fear of identifying with subcultures, fear of rejection from someone who seems to have a better hand of cards, is a fear of actual choice-driven interpersonal fluidity (in favour of ideals that seem compulsory). The truth is, you won’t lose yourself by being different; you’ll always know how to interact in a mainstream setting because the world will never stop demanding that of you. Embracing who you are, particularly around queer sexuality, will not contaminate or cancel-out other aspects of who you are. Your marginalized identity and less popular interests are not leaky wounds that need to be patched up and hidden.
Fear and large-scale containment
Homophobia, transphobia, and racism all serve a function: to preserve the power of dominant groups and to prevent the mixing—or “contamination”—of lesser people into positions of power or into social arenas where they might spoil the purity of self-proclaimed superior peoples. This is evident from resistance to banning conversion therapy in the USA and Canada, preventing trans kids from playing sports, and of course, President Trump’s evolving justifications for building a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
We fear fluid and fluidity. What we’ve learned about containment and contamination extends to the ways we interpersonally engage with one another and understand ourselves and our sense of safety. Our fear shines through in advice to children to sit in the front of a classroom, parental nudging to find the right group of friends, insistence that students are well-rounded, pressuring queer children to stay silent about who they are to extended family, encouragement to date within one’s own racial-religious group, and ultimately, to close borders to keep “dangerous” people out.
We’ve all come into contact with the fear messages connected to interpersonal fluidity. I do wonder if we see the larger consequences of containment. In particular, who gets to control what is contained and what is expelled.
Confronting fears of fluid & fluidity
Finally, here’s the call to action: let’s challenge our fears and consider what might emerge as a result. I’ve begun a short list of my initial thoughts though this is not exhaustive. As we’re in the middle of a global pandemic fighting the spread of COVID-19, some fears of fluids are legitimate, but this is also fueling the rise in anti-Asian racism—a fear of interpersonal fluidity and racial mixing. Beyond these circumstances, what becomes possible if we challenge a fear of bodily fluids?
- You may find that you are able to stay present in sexual experiences. Once you’ve negotiated sexual health risks, there will be an acceptable amount of fluid you come into contact with. If you challenge your disgust or fear response, you might be able to feel closer to your partner(s) for a longer period of time and be more attuned to the bodies at play.
- We can challenge our education from cinematized mainstream pornography and actually accept ourr natural realities that we have leaky bodies. Yes, sometimes it’s expected fluid and at other times it’s unexpected fluid. This acceptance can lead to self-compassion, reduced self-consciousness, and more playful scenes with our partners.
- We can incorporate the science of HIV transmission, including the key message that Undetectable=Untransmittable (see U=U statement), and reduce both anxiety and stigma that negatively impacts the mental health of people living with HIV. If you’re someone that eroticizes risk, be sure to communicate this to your partners so it’s consensual.
- As for other STIs, you may get them. You may also feel dirty and ashamed of it. Sit with this for a minute and do some self-talk: “I made fun choices, I knew an infection could be possible, now it’s happened and I simply need to get tested, treated, and let my partners know.” Resist the temptation to shame yourself and avoid talk of “never having sex again”. That lie won’t help you unlearn anything.
- It’s hard for people to share their sexual fantasies—with anyone. When someone shares a fantasy and in particular when it includes fluids, don’t yuck someone’s yum. Instead, consider if your disgust response is veiling your desire and if needed, find ways to politely decline.
What becomes possible if we challenge our fear of gender fluidity?
- We could go beyond the rigid gender binary, and expect exploration and expansiveness of gender as a normal and important part of human development. We wouldn’t see gender creativity as something to be treated or merely supported; rather it could be a requisite for creativity, achievement, and meaningful relationships.
- Normalizing gender fluidity might impact how we approach relationships and what families look like. Or, there will be more nontraditional families that become visible. And yes, groups like Focus on the Family are terribly afraid of that. But this is what progress and unlearning is. So many of us, both cisgender and transgender, know the anguish of being forced into gender boxes.
- Author of The Velvet Rage, Alan Downs, talks openly about the concept of shame-based trauma. He identifies some of the key symptoms as: chronic dissatisfaction, lack of meaningful purpose or direction, hyper-sensitivity to invalidation, and difficulty with fulfilling relationships. I would argue that containing our fears of fluidity rather than gender expression itself would significantly reduce the level of shame-based trauma in society at large, but particularly in LGBTQ communities.
- So many people I work with in therapy talk about feeling like they’ve failed gender in some way. With gender fluidity as an expected norm, we can eliminate this sense of failure. And, if you can’t fail gender, you don’t have to (de)compensate for not being enough in ways that create toxic relationships and increased sexual risk.
Each of us can enjoy (instead of dread) weaving in and out of various social contexts.
What becomes possible if we challenge fears of interpersonal fluidity?
- I suspect parents would feel less pressure to sculpt their children in particular ways and instead offer praise for uniqueness and cultivate angular growth.
- As a therapist, I can say with confidence that many of my clients have felt in some way that they’ve disappointed their parents or families. Often this is an intergenerational experience of unsuccessful attempts at being well-rounded, widely admired and liked, being what their parents wanted for themselves but couldn’t achieve. This toxic seed was planted before the client sitting before me even entered the world. Easing our grip on compulsory fluidity can make room for choice-driven fluidity.
- Each of us can enjoy (instead of dread) weaving in and out of various social contexts. While each context—a professional workplace, the local pub, an intimate interaction, family dinners—can come with shifting social norms, they don’t have to feel destabilizing if we can allow for more “wiggle room”. Further, we can challenge dismissively labelling people as awkward or introverted and instead presume that social life is for everyone to participate in and we all co-create the conditions of an environment to allow people to participate more fully.
- A number of people I work with identify as having complex trauma and borderline personality disorder. One of the ways they’re affected by this is a struggle with their sense of identity. They are well into adulthood and exploring who they are and where they belong—feeling lost relative to their peers. This is a difficult place to be but not surprising for people who have endured a lifetime of abuse; adjusting who they are and how they behave has been a creative adjustment for their own safety. In the present day, they may be read as disingenuous or inconsistent between social settings—open the doors of interpersonal fluidity and give people the space to unlearn compulsory and rigid ways to be.
- We absolutely must interrogate our social circles and relationships to identify and intentionally shift our exclusionary practices. We’ve learned this under false pretense: there’s no actual threat to inviting someone different than ourselves into our lives. Racial mixing and queering the family unit will not dilute your culture or values, it will support larger human synchronicity. There is a significant amount of personal work that comes with navigating and maintaining interracial, intercultural and inter-religious relationships. If we can challenge the unfounded fear of “contamination” which inherently deems you (and your people) as superior than others, we can connect the interpersonal realm to structural systems of superiority and white supremacy—and then dismantle them.
- It’s okay to have negative or defensive reactions to fluid and fluidity: fear, rigidity, containment, avoidance, urgency, secrecy, and more.
- Our fears of fluid(ity) originate from wide application of medical and public health lenses, along with representations in pop culture, and internalized oppression.
- Medical approaches to containing fluids and preventing certain types of “contamination” are often not helpful in our social and sexual worlds. Sometimes we think they’re helpful but these are often veils with benefits.
You can open up possibilities in relationship with yourself and others if fluids and fluidity aren’t seen as inherently bad or negative. Attempt to allow them to be on a neutral-to-celebrated continuum.
Kevin Nixon, Mason McColl, & SDS Co-Founders (Marla Stewart, Tia Marie)