Three red flags in a stiff breeze

I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community

This is a guest post by Julie. Julie is a software engineer who likes to focus on the front-end and cares passionately about diversity. She co-organizes and teaches classes for the Pittsburgh chapter of Girl Develop It, an organization that helps teach women how to code. Julie is also known for her smashing Feminist Hulk impressions and her Roomba-powered cat army. If you listen carefully, you may be able to hear her screaming the catchphrase, “my technology will be intersectional or it will be BULLSHIT!” (inspired by the awesome @redlightvoices)

This post originally appeared on Julie’s Tumblr.

I have been feeling some burnout this year as a programmer. It’s not coming from my job, which I enjoy and is a great balance of challenging and supportive. No, it’s the rest of it. The community. The part that in theory is optional, but in reality helps build the relationships and knowledge that can be critical to one’s development and career.

It’s not just me. I see this in other programmers, both in person and online. There’s a whole group of us just barely making it. Regularly running on fumes, refueling just enough to stave off the burnout for another week. Every now and again, I see one leave the community (and sometimes programming altogether) because they ran out of energy.

This week, I think I finally figured out what it is. I noticed the symptoms – what some might refer to as “red flags.” I think we’re in an emotionally abusive relationship.

How did we get here? Why is it this bad? Why are we staying?

There’s always been the microaggressions. I didn’t always notice them, but eventually they accumulated enough that I was buried. I couldn’t ignore them any more. Recently, a new symptom finally hit the point where I couldn’t pretend it isn’t there. Gaslighting (or at least something very akin to it).

Gaslighting is a symptom of emotional abuse, so it was a disturbing discovery. Out of curiosity, I looked up other symptoms of emotional abuse. An upsettingly long list of them were all too easy to identify with. Fuck.

Am I imagining things? Am I being hyperbolic? Have I finally lost it?

Blaming yourself and thinking you’re crazy is one of the symptoms of emotional abuse. The whole point of gaslighting is to convince the victim and those around them that the victim is irrational and making things up. Scary part is that it makes it hard to speak out and tell others what’s going on. You probably won’t believe me.

Do they belittle your accomplishments, your aspirations, your plans or even who you are? Do they have unrealistic expectations?

We’re often accused of whining on the internet, of not doing enough. How dare we ask for diversity unless we’re willing to fix it? Our attemps to do so are never enough.

Many work for free trying to help, missing out on the income they so desperately need to live and thrive, but it’s not enough. Many try to help with the pipeline problem by teaching, but it’s not enough. Others provide support and mentorship, but it’s not enough. Others help with outreach, but it’s not enough. We speak at conferences, but not enough of them, even though the travel and expenses can be quite costly.

On top of this, we have to be great programmers – average just won’t do. We’re expected to do ALL THE THINGS, but even when we try, we are belittled. We can seemingly never do enough to get an equal seat at the table.

A guy suggests doing something many have been doing for years and receives support and accolates.

Do they constantly correct or chastise you because your behavior is “inappropriate?”

If we had a dollar for every time someone told us our behavior was inappropriate, we wouldn’t have to worry about all this. We’d be so rich we’d never have to work again. We could buy our own private island and sail away. Sadly, nobody pays us for this. They just ignore our comments and chastise us for saying things in a way that many others get away with.

“If only you were nicer.” “This isn’t how you talk to your ‘allies’.” “Stop being a bitch.”

Do they continually have “boundary violations” and disrespect your valid requests? Do they try to turn everyone against you?

Just recently, friends and I had someone in a position of power ignore our boundaries. Despite requests to the contrary, this person insisted on attempting to talk about something I had explicitly made off limits. Going so far as telling mutual acquaintances about the situation in an attempt to get their assistance in forcing the discussion. Going so far as telling others the story in an attempt to paint us in a negative light.

It didn’t stop when we asked for it to. My understanding is it only eventually stopped because a male friend asked. Our boundaries don’t count until someone else asserts them for us.

Do you feel helpless, like you’re trapped in the relationship? Do they limit your access to work, money or material resources?

As I said before, the community is theoretically optional. However, the reality is that it can be critical for networking, learning, finding resources, and attaining jobs. Many feel obligated to stay for our careers – terrified of speaking up for fear of retribution. Most feel they don’t have the skills to leave and find a job in a different field. They’re trapped in this emotionally abusive relationship. Leaving would mean giving up their livelihood.

Do they have trouble apologizing? When you complain do they say that “it was just a joke” and that you are too sensitive? Do they treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see? Do you feel emotionally numb or helpless?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m not going to elaborate on all these for the sake of brevity and my tired brain.

Are they physically abusive?

Sometimes, yes. The community often protects physical abusers and sexual assaulters in our communities. The information is often hard to find because part of the emotional abuse is feeling unsafe discussing it.

Why am I so tired all the time? How much longer can I do this? What’s the price I’ll have to pay?

I am making the hard decision to remove myself from as much of the situation as I can. I plan to focus my time and efforts largely on my awesome job and my work on Girl Develop It. I’d love to speak a few times next year, but I will be limiting myself to conferences that are committed to encouraging diversity and include policies that create a safe space. I’ll be avoiding ones that continually include toxic people and behaviors.

I’m not advocating this as the right decision for everyone in this situation. It’s just what I feel is needed right now for me. My only recommendations are to find the support you need and make sure to prioritize self care.

I’m sad I have to pull back, to do less, but my health and sanity is more important than networking and my cred with the community. This is the price, and it is too high.

Comments are moderated on this post. If this angers you, you’re part of the problem. If you’re sad about what you read and have the energy, please try to shape the community into a space that looks different. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Note: As I’ve indicated on twitter, this is not a criticism of the conference I was at this weekend – the timing is unfortunate. The organizers hosted a lovely conference, and I was honored to speak at it. They did an awesome job at having a great diverse lineup (my fave is still the 11 year old young woman who loves ruby and dancing) and a code of conduct.

One thought on “I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship… with the tech community

  1. S.P.Zeidler

    Not all communities are the same. This of course only helps if you can freely pick, which is not the case when it’s job related.

    If you do any -one- thing to contribute, it -is- helping and it -does- mean you should have a vote.

    Respect should be a given, and need serious work to lose.

    Alas, even the best community can’t really prevent people with undesirable attitudes to walk in if the community is an open setup; it can only declare the attitude not in accordance with the values of the community.

    And yes, *chip* *chip* *chip* chipping away at the sense of belonging with a community happens, and to be able to say “you belong less than I do, I will ignore you” .. you don’t get that if you are new-ish, how would you know?

    (Please note that I’m not a native speaker and if the above contains Unfortunate Implications they weren’t intentional).

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