There Is an Art to Showing up—and Rachel Wilkerson Miller Has Mastered It

Rachel Wilkerson Miller, author of The Art of Showing Up (Photo credit: Elena Mudd) 

We’re in the age of the editor-written millennial self-help book: In 2018, Lane Moore, a former Cosmopolitan advice columnist, published How to Be Alone: If You Want To and Even If You Don’t, a guide book that uses Moore’s own experiences with aloneness to offer readers advice on how to navigate the world without a familial support system. In November 2019, Anna Borges, a senior editor at SELF, published The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care, a guide that teaches readers a variety of ways to engage in self-care depending on their specific needs. And now, Rachel Wilkerson Miller, deputy editor at VICE Life, has released The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, which promises to help us with our relationships with self and with others.

Wilkerson Miller’s discussion of friendship goes beyond answering texts on time, building healthy adult friendships, and other easily palatable topics. Instead, she gets frank with her audience about the moments that impact our friendships most. In “Showing Up For Yourself When Shit Gets Hard,” Wilkerson Miller offers advice on how to shower when you can’t bring yourself to really shower; in “The Care and Keeping of Friends,” she explores how to talk about money with friends who either have more or less than you; and in “So, Somebody Fucked Up,” she explores methods for dealing with bad behaviors, like friends who make inappropriate comments. Friendship and self-care aren’t easy, but Wilkerson Miller believes they’re spaces we can navigate. “Making space is ultimately about protecting yourself—your time, and your heart—and not hurting your own feelings is a way to remind yourself that you have some agency,” she writes.

Wilkerson Miller talked to Bitch about the way that self-care can be manipulated, the healthiest friendships on television, and the importance of asking friends about their pronouns, even if you’ve known them for a while.

The crux of your book is that we’re in a time of flakiness. In short, how do you define flakiness?

We’re dealing with a super “on” culture where we take things for granted. It becomes easier to feel like you’re seeing and talking to people all the time, but intentional one-on-ones and group hang outs don’t seem as necessary or important to people. Many of us assume that these people will always be there, or [we think] “I can still always text with them,” or “I can get the response I want when I want it without doing the work I would have done 10 or 20 years ago.” It’s this weird tension between feeling hyperconnected, while also feeling disconnected from [real relationships].

For me, one of the most interesting sections of your book was the chapter on “How to Vent Responsibly.” I’ve seen little discourse on the internet that’s more harsh than the conversations about venting and creating boundaries with emotionally fraught friends. For example, there were those templates that went around the internet like, “Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something for a few minutes?”

I was really taken aback by the outrage to that script, which was, admittedly, not the most elegant, but you get the idea and can shape it to work for you. I got the sense that people were angry about the very idea that somebody might say, “Hey, can’t talk right now.” It just illustrated this idea that people really do expect their friends to be on all the time and to be always willing and able to receive anything that they might want to put out there. This showed their [true] feelings about not just saying no, but hearing no. It’s a really big problem that people actually are pretty good at communicating their boundaries and communicating the “no,” but people don’t want to hear it.

We can’t just say, “Women or people need to be allowed to say no. They should say no more.” That can’t happen if we still have such a terrible response to people who tell us no. It’s really important to just think it through: If your friend is communicating in some way that they’re not feeling it, you should check in with them and make sure everything is okay before you [continue with] the conversation. That, to me, is such an obvious thing to do with friends, and I was really surprised that people were so angry about it.

The idea of learning about yourself and engaging with that information seems especially radical for people with marginalized identities.

If you’ve been trained to put others’ needs first, or to be comfortable with being second, ignored, or overlooked, then it can be a really big wake-up call to sit down and [wonder] “What do I actually want?” If you’re used to saying yes to everyone, it’s so easy to let other people’s needs define your life because they’re [deciding] how you spend your time and energy. It goes deeper than not knowing what you do or don’t like; it’s asking, “What would I do if I had a whole day to myself and didn’t have to get anyone else’s opinion or permission?” It’s really transformative to just have time and space [when] no one else’s opinions weigh on you.

Several of the exercises in “Getting to Know Yourself” made me think about some of the most culturally impactful women onscreen and in books. These exercises made me wonder what these women would be like if they’d set aside some time to learn and think about themselves, rather than being built based on how other people saw them, needed them, and wanted them. What would it have looked like if Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) had to sit down and fill out a book about what they did and didn’t want? What conflicts would have been prevented?

A lot of us see and define ourselves by our relationships with other people and [we struggle to see ourselves] as fully formed people. And even a show like Fleabag, which was great and so funny and I loved it, is, in a lot of ways, about her relationships with other people. It’s not just men. It’s also about her family—her sister and her mother. To some degree that’s fine. Our relationships are super important. But you’re right that there’s often that missing piece.

I have definitely defined myself [according to] tropes in TV shows and movies. I remember that Joey (Katie Holmes) on Dawson’s Creek found herself but never really explained what that meant. [For Joey], it meant going to Paris or having an adventure; that isn’t necessarily the wrong way to do it, but it’s not as simple as just going to Paris. There’s more work that has to be done.

People are talking a lot more about the weaponization of once soft concepts. For example, self-care and mental health are sometimes used to excuse bad behavior. I see a lot about empaths using empathy as an excuse to center themselves in issues and causes (and the lives of others)—“You can’t call me out because I feel more than you and therefore it hurts me” language.

There are always going to be bad actors. It’s something I thought about while writing this: The language of empowerment gets used by people who are actually pretty empowered already and who [might not] need this as much as other people do. For example, take the idea of [people] speaking up for themselves to harass low-wage workers who are just trying to do their job. Most people are going to do that no matter what you say. There will definitely be people who say, “I’m an Aries, so this is how I am.” I don’t know how to get through to those people because they’re operating in bad faith and that is preposterous to me. My hope is that in having to pause and sit with themselves, [people] will feel okay enough to get to the root of their more selfish behavior.

There are more people who need this and who will use it [in good faith], the way it’s intended; for me, it’s kind of worth taking that risk. And the rest of us can do the work of [telling] people who are using those terms incorrectly, “being nasty to your closest friends is not self-care,” and just call that out individually in the moment.

The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People by Rachel Wilkerson Miller (Photo credit: The Experiment)

In “The Care and Keeping of Friends” chapter you write, “I would like to see more women’s magazines devote as much space to the topic of friendship as they do romantic relationships.”

We’re definitely getting there. I mean, I wrote a lot of what was in that chapter several years ago [when] it felt like nobody was talking about this. Now I’ve noticed that whenever I read an article about adult friendships, it always starts with, “Nobody’s talking about adult friendships.” I don’t think that’s actually true. A lot more people are talking about it. Pop culture is following and giving us really good examples that spark these conversations. I do think we still haven’t totally [given] these relationships as much brain space and continued maintenance as we do romantic relationships. It’s not just about making friends and ending friendships; it’s about continually checking in with your friendships and seeing how they [are or aren’t working]. How do we make sure that they are growing and evolving? That’s still some ground we have to cover.

Onscreen friendships teach us so much about the friendships we want to build. There’s Monica (Courteney Cox) and Rachel from Friends, the cast of Girlfriends, and the cast of Sex and the City. There are also the friendships on teen-oriented dramas like Marissa (Mischa Barton) and Summer (Rachel Bilson) from The O.C. and One Tree Hill’s Peyton (Hilarie Burton) and Brooke (Sophia Bush). How do you think these ’90s and early 2000s television shows impacted our understanding of friendship and boundaries?

One of the things I think about a lot with regard to pop culture is how best friendship is portrayed as the be all and end all. That [makes] a lot of people feel like their adult friendships are really inadequate: They should have a best friend who they’ve known since they were 5, who knows everything about them, who they can trust with everything, and who knows all their exes. I just don’t think [friendships like that are] common. I also think that people use the term “best friend” differently. When you hear everybody else refer to their best friend, you don’t know how they’re defining it. It can make you think, “I don’t have that. [There must be] something wrong with me.”

There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on people to have a best friend or even have a group of best friends, but those friendships on TV weren’t necessarily functional. And if we got lucky, there was an episode where they had a fight. So often it was because one of them was in a relationship and flaking, and yeah, that happens. That’s [an understandable] reason to get upset with a friend, but that’s not the only reason that friends get upset with each other and actually express it. It’s so valuable to see a richer experience of friendship on TV or in movies, especially when the core tension is about more than just “now you have a boyfriend,” which is so reductive.

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I think a lot about the racialized aspects of these friendships too. For example, Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) is rarely there for Lane Kim (Keiko Agena) on Gilmore Girls, but all hell breaks loose when Lane isn’t there for Rory or Lane dares to do something Rory doesn’t think is in line with Lane’s interests.

This made me think of the first season of ShrillI was really disappointed by the friendships on that show, which [seemed to] fall into the exact same Black-best-friend trope. It’s different now because Fran’s (Lolly Adefope) queer, but she has no discernible personality of her own. We never see things through her eyes. The show is written by really smart and thoughtful people, but it’s still “Here’s a white woman. She’s quirky. And here all the people of color who are around her.” We don’t know anything about them. That’s really disappointing.

Do you see any shift from the early 2000s to now with regard to friendships? I’m thinking Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) on HBO’s Insecure; Beth (Christina Hendricks), Ruby (Retta), and Annie (Mae Whitman) on NBC’s Good Girls; and even Callie (Maia Mitchell) and Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) on Freeform’s Good Trouble.

I’m a fairly recent fan of Steven Universe and have spent a lot of time on the Fandom Wiki reading the backstories about all the different characters and relationships. I love that the characters are really close and save one another’s lives on a regular basis but also get pissed at each other sometimes! Because that’s how life works. You’ve also got sweet songs like “No Matter What,” which is about showing up for a friend. Vulnerability, bravery, and growth are dominant themes throughout the series, and it’s all so wholesome and gentle and good.

You also write about addiction, domestic violence, and moments when we struggle to care for our friends. Why was it important for you to specifically write about this?

I’m often thinking about the worst-case scenario, so when I’m thinking about all of the things that could befall a friendship or cause tension in a friendship, that’s something that comes to mind. There’s this whole section of the book that’s about all the bad things that might go wrong. It was really important to me to have that grounded in reality. Friendship is about more than just “I’m mad at you because you didn’t ask me to be your maid of honor.” Those are not the issues that many people face day to day. They’re dealing with really serious, really scary [situations] that often aren’t being talked about.

We’re just getting into “here’s how to break up with a friend.” We haven’t totally covered things like “here’s what to do if you think your friend has a serious problem and needs major help.” How to have an intervention with a friend is not really something that’s being discussed. It was really important to me to just plant that seed in people’s minds: When we’re talking about hard times, these are all the hard times that we’re talking about.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on people to have a best friend or even have a group of best friends, but those friendships on TV weren’t necessarily functional.”

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I loved the section “On Names and Pronouns.”

In terms of names and pronouns, this book is [essentially] a modern etiquette book. [This topic] feels like one of the most important additions to etiquette in the past five or 10 years. What situations do we all want to be prepared for? What do we wish we knew? How can I make this a tool kit for every single possible thing that could go wrong?

As I was working on this book, I was aware that a lot of people who read this will be white, straight people who don’t have a queer friend, Black friend, or a brown friend. I was also [wondering about] what specifically I can offer to people who are reading this book that they might not get from anyone else in their everyday life. It was important to make sure that I was speaking from my personal experiences; I wanted to—knowing that I may be the first friend that they have who’s Black and queer—make sure that I use that opportunity to talk to them about some of the things that they might not be hearing from their other friends.

The Art of Showing Up has special relevance right now because people are really struggling with figuring out how to support one another, how to maintain our friendships, and how to take care of ourselves.

It’s not just lip service that you have to take care of yourself before you take care of other people; you literally have to. You can’t just skip that part, but people do skip that part. I even do it sometimes. It’s so important to really [drive] home what it means to take care of yourself and to change the lens you’re going through life with [so that you] stop thinking of other people first and foremost. I don’t want to make people think that [I’m not empathetic] because I write service journalism; serving other people is the whole point. But you can’t do that if you’re disregarding yourself. It’s going to come from a bad place; you’re going to be forgotten, and you’re going to be resentful. You have to take care of yourself first, and that doesn’t make you selfish.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.