Feel some feelings

On softness

In the aftermath of last Wednesday’s horror show, Anne Helen Petersen sent an edition of her newsletter, titled “How to Work Through a Coup.” In it she laments the “black heart of productivity culture” that requires American workers never to stop working or focusing on production, under any circumstances. And at what cost? It’s a question AHP is preoccupied with:

“A hyper-productive person isn’t necessarily a focused person so much as a person who’s often hardened or excused themselves from the needs of their immediate and greater community. … We can keep optimizing ourselves to ideal robot status. Or we can reject the dead-hearted ideals at the core of capitalism. Part of the daily practice of doing that = building a permission structure — for yourself, for your colleagues, for the people you manage, for your kids and your partner and every person you encounter in your daily life — to feel some fucking feelings. You could call this a softness, or a posture of grace, but it is also a mode of resistance.” (My emphases.)

I think a lot about softness, naturally. My whole life, strangers have had much to say about my last name. I’m no stranger to the cringey, “Does your family run a toilet paper company?” or the highly inappropriate, especially coming from your high school debate teacher, “Softness? You should marry a guy named Hardness!” and the annoying “Is that your real name?” or, worse, “Are you a porn star?” Jokes aside, I’m proud of my name. Not because it’s unusual or cute or noteworthy, but because I believe in softness. Softness as a sensibility and softness as a quiet strength. (Like, how dare anyone think softness is tantamount to weakness?) Softness, per Petersen, as a mode of resistance.

Nowhere is the softness sensibility deemed more inappropriate, unwelcome, or inefficient—personally and generally—than in the workplace. Showing of human feelings is diminishingly rare and unappreciated in capitalist culture, and a glaring reason why is that softness is archetypically non-male in a patriarchal, dominant-masculine culture. A perfect example is the now age-old indictment of women who apologize too much. In a favorite op-ed of all time, author Ruth Whippman flips this “deficiency” on its head. She describes research suggesting that women apologize more than men because they have a “lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” But, she wonders, isn’t a too-high threshold for offensive behavior just…being an asshole? In other words, can we stop obsessing over the women who apologize too much and start focusing on those (mainly men) who apologize too little?

I love it, and yes! With that said, maybe it’s a false equivalent: over-apologizing is very different from apologizing. Most everyone on Earth could be a million times better at apologizing to other people; it’s deceptively difficult. Brené Brown has a phenomenal two-part podcast episode on how to apologize meaningfully and why it matters, and it’s not at all a gendered discussion. What’s counterproductive is to apologize unnecessarily, as women often do. In my experience, the habit stems directly from feelings of self-doubt, telling you to shrink from any statement or position that is too declarative: it’s an apology for the self. What makes it totally superfluous, often pathologic, is that there is no external offense or failure requiring contrition, only a projection of such in one’s own mind. It’s perfectly logical that many women do this. The wildly conflicting input we get about how to act to succeed—the all-too-familiar, totally impossible “double bind”—is a recipe to short-circuit, to exist in a perpetual state of self-doubt, to have feelings but convince yourself they’re all the wrong ones. To be apology-ready for all manner of sins.

Because what, really, is the function of the great apology condemnation? Empathy itself may not be the enemy, but inconvenient feelings such as, say, outrage, are. Whippman makes plain that the caricature of the shrinking woman quaking-in-her-boots, unable to advocate for herself to get a raise or a promotion, is merely a convenient “straw-woman” for corporations that would “rather blame their female employees for a lack of assertiveness than pay them fairly.” Research suggests it’s not even true that women don’t ask for raises; they just don’t get them. In other words, the “confidence gap” is just the wage gap rebranded as your own damn fault, for all those pesky feelings. (Feelings we wouldn’t be having if not for you, outrage redoubled, cycle of madness continues, etc. Minorities of all stripes go through similar cycles.)

This is the most heartless feature of American capitalism, the assignment of personal responsibility for structural problems. Which means that if anything, say, human might happen to you that would cause you to stray from said responsibility—a feeling, illness, a pregnancy, divorce, bereavement, etc—then the structure has permission to fault you, punish you, or do away with you. The very point is that corporate leaders and lawmakers feel absolutely zero fucking feelings. If they started to, their policies and mechanisms and bottom lines would, we hope, start to feel untenable, unconscionable. (It is no question, nor surprise, that this impossible brutality descends directly from plantation economics and politics, operative only through complete dehumanization.)

So if it’s all our faults anyway, and anything humanistic is downright unAmerican(!), then softness-forward feeling-having comes close to radical action. Action that remains an impossibility for poor Americans, but equally impossible-seeming for highly privileged white-collar workers. Bowing out of project X or meeting Y for no better reason than you or another person in your life needs your energy more than that does, even (gasp!) apologizing for this if you feel compelled to…oh my god what a fucking nightmare.

But even the oft-feeling and vulnerable among us often need help having productive feelings. (Hello, therapy.) A friend recently told me about a movement in children’s literature/behavioral studies on “Big Feelings” - which lets you know it’s okay to feel varying emotions deeply, and okay to feel a lot of things at once, and that when this happens it’s not a bad thing and it’s good to talk to a grownup. When your world of adjectives is limited like a small child’s, it makes sense to talk about “big” feelings. Unfortunately “big feelings” seems to have a little bit transcended the kid world and exists for adults too, where it feels less useful and more like a cousin of Trump’s “bigly.” Adults can and should do better about feeling-naming than “big.” Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that the guy who can absolutely never apologize nor showcase an ounce of humanity also has an incredibly narrow, infantile vocabulary. In the Trumpian sense, big-and-nothing-else feelings—un-nuanced, un-individuated, under-explored—can be, as we’re witnessing, dangerously weaponized.

So in this utterly tragic moment, feel as many fucking feelings as possible, AND with specificity. It is a little mode of resistance. As I read on the internet while looking for corny quotes about softness, “be strong enough to be gentle.” Most every day you can and will do it all, because you have to, but acknowledge it’s a big (feelings) ask (take it from a Softness).

For more on the political powers of softness:

  • The Black woman led “Rest as Resistance” movement, through organizations like The Nap Ministry, looks to rest as the foundation of the disruption of white supremacy and capitalism. These ideas draw on the work of Audre Lorde and bell hooks, who argued for self-care as a mode of survival and even political warfare. The idea of rest as reparations takes into account the compounded effects of the generational trauma of slavery—during which sleep itself was weaponized—and the ongoing labor, heightened stress, and inability to rest that is inherent to living while Black.

  • A small alternative publishing platform called GenderFail has a multi-edition book called Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance. Describing bookmaking as materially soft, Radical Softness, despite its “physical instability,” nonetheless “problematizes assumptions about the firmness and phallic power of whatever “truth” a text must convey.” It argues for the necessity of softness, in radical communities and especially minority ones, “against a more masculine conception of radical action typically performed by able-bodied, white, cisgendered males.”

Sara Softness is a curator and writer living in New York.