My copy of The Art of Showing Up by Rachel Wilkerson Miller has no less than 30 Post-it notes inside it, each marking a page that somehow felt even more important than the last. The book, which came out in May, is about friendship in the age of flakiness, and has quickly become the reference point I return to anytime I’m searching for the best way to look after the people around me. But the book covers more than making and keeping friends. It guides you through supporting people through miscarriage, addiction, incarceration, coming out, and so much more. It also presents the idea that to properly look after your people, you first have to look after yourself… then explains exactly how to do just that.
The Art of Showing Up is filled with what I’ve personally come to know as “Rachel advice”—guidance that’s practical, thoughtful, and—above all else—inclusive. Rachel is my former editor and current good friend, and when I was trying to pick my favorite part of the book to run as an excerpt on Man Repeller (an impossible task) she suggested that we jump on the phone and talk instead. Below, we talk through some of her ideas about what showing up and self-care look like in 2020.
On Showing Up for the People You Love
Gyan: We’ve spent a lot of time talking—and writing—about friendship and self-care with each other in the last few years, but it feels like none of these things have been quite as important as they are right now.
Rachel: Yes, totally.
Gyan: How have you adjusted the way you show up for people in 2020 compared to how you did in the past?
Rachel: Well, one of the biggest things right now is that you can no longer show up for people in person. You can’t meet your coworkers for a drink when they get laid off or even just send a care package as easily as you might have last year. But I’m also feeling like I’ve had so many friends who are long-distance that I actually feel pretty equipped for this. I know you are as well [as an Australian living in the US]. We’ve already had to be fairly creative and do things from afar, and I think that’s actually why we’re adapting so well.
Gyan: All of our friends might as well be long-distance friends right now.
Rachel: I think showing up is also about being more mindful of the current moment, which means considering that people might have lost their jobs or be otherwise worried about money. Or people might be really overwhelmed and emotionally taxed because of the emotional load of living through a pandemic. I’ve spent the last few years so focused on friendship that this hasn’t actually felt like a huge adjustment.
Gyan: That’s actually what I was thinking when I was reading the section of your book about good group hangouts. All of the tips in that chapter—from being thoughtful about your invite lists to taking notes during conversations—are also things that are so easily adapted from IRL hangouts to online hangouts. Aside from those things, have you been doing anything else to make online hangouts feel more special?
Rachel: Having themes or activities planned make Zoom or FaceTime calls feel more special and more fun, in the same way that having a theme party can be fun in person. Even if you’re just having dinner with your friends, and it’s not the time for a theme, just saying, “This is the subject of this hangout” can keep things focused. Even saying, “Let’s get on a call later this week and gossip,” can make it more fun and exciting.
Gyan: My most memorable video calls during quarantine—which have actually all been with our group of friends—have had a set agenda. Or at the very least, have had someone say through the week, “Okay, let’s put a pin in this conversation and we’ll all talk about it properly on Saturday.” It’s so nice.
Rachel: Yes, totally. It helps!
Gyan: Another thing I wanted to talk about from the book is the idea of “friend levels.” Can we talk about that a little?
Rachel: So, this concept comes from the book Frientimacy by Shasta Nelson. She talks about the levels of vulnerability that exist within friendships, and the way that the amount of time you’ve known someone can influence how vulnerable you can be with them. So, if you’ve known somebody a really long time, there’s going to be more vulnerability in that friendship—we all know that instinctively, but it’s helpful to remember. And if you haven’t known somebody for as long it’s probably not as appropriate to be super vulnerable with them. It doesn’t mean you can’t be honest, but just that that level of vulnerability will look different.
So, if you’re at a Level Three and then you go straight to a Level Ten with your vulnerability, it’s probably going to feel like a mismatch to that person and maybe even to you later on.
Gyan: I’ve found the concept of those friendship levels really comforting this year. In the last three months, I’ve realized how many people I used to see really casually, almost for the sake of going to dinner and exploring NYC together. At the start of the pandemic I thought, Maybe those people aren’t actually my friends at all because we aren’t talking a ton. But I’m slowly realizing that they’re just on a different level.
Rachel: I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have acquaintances or friendships that are reliant on proximity. It doesn’t mean those friendships aren’t meaningful. I think, right now, people are taking a look at their friendships and thinking, “What is this person’s role in my life? What is my role in theirs?”
Instead of spreading yourself super thin and trying to set up a Google Hangout with everyone you know, it might make sense to focus on the two or three people you feel a really strong connection with and try to build those relationships up and make them deeper and stronger through this.
Gyan: Can we also talk about Ring Theory, which you also wrote about in your book. It feels particularly important right now.
Rachel: Definitely. So, Ring Theory first showed up in the Los Angeles Times and the idea is to imagine concentric circles. So, there’s a small circle and then a bigger one around it and a bigger one around that. The person who’s going through a rough time is at the center of the ring and then there’s people who are at each of those circles extending out.
So, if I’m going through a rough time, my partner is going to be the next person in the next ring because she’s closest to me. My mom would also be in that closest ring. And then, from there outwards are more distant friends or coworkers—just people who are not as close to the center of the thing that is happening.
One example for right now could be, if someone’s really stressed about everything that’s happening with police brutality they shouldn’t have to turn that inward to the people at the center of the ring. They should be able to dump it out to people who are more removed from it. In this case it would be to other white people or other allies. That’s what dump out, comfort in means.
Gyan: What would you say the best friends in your circle are doing right now in terms of showing up for you?
Rachel: My friend Sally, who you know, is a great ally. She’s talking to white people, she’s donating, she’s uplifting Black voices, and making sure she’s really focused on that at the political level. She’s also doing a lot for me personally. A couple of weeks ago, she took it upon herself to just look at a wishlist I’d made of everything I wanted on Animal Crossing and started tracking down everything for me. I think she’s on these side websites or Reddit. She hasn’t told me how she’s doing any of it exactly, which is part of the magic.
She didn’t say, “I’m doing this because of all the things that are happening right now.” She just saw a thing she could do for me that she knew would cheer me up in this really small way. Playing Animal Crossing is an escape for me, and her doing this essentially gave me an extra thing to do as a coping and self-care mechanism. It’s fun and it’s sweet and thoughtful, and just very unique. That’s not advice that everybody would want at this moment but she’s the kind of person who knows me well, trusts our friendship, and trusts her instincts to notice.
On Showing Up for Yourself
Gyan: In the chapter “Showing Up for Yourself When Shit Gets Hard” you talk about accepting that normal doesn’t really exist anymore as a way to deal with bad times. I know that you wrote this book before the pandemic, but that sentiment feels so relevant to right now.
Rachel: Acknowledging that things aren’t normal gives you the freedom to reimagine and reset your expectations. It gives you a chance to take a really realistic look at what’s happening, but also to envision a different future. It allows you to re-calibrate your sense of etiquette, your sense of duty to others, your sense of duty to yourself. I think it relieves a lot of pressure.
Gyan: I was talking to another friend (who recently lost someone close to her) yesterday who was saying that she didn’t have the energy to work out, or meditate, or do morning pages—all her usual methods of self-care. And I quoted something that you’ve written about before, and also in your book, that’s along the lines of: “Well, did you have a shower today? Did you eat breakfast? Is your house clean enough that it’s hygienic?” And she said, “Yeah, I’m doing all those things.” And I was like, “Well, maybe that’s just enough for now.”
Rachel: That’s it, yeah. It’s really hard to admit that you can’t do the things you used to do. And it’s weird because we’ll hold these ideas in our heads—and I’ve totally done this before—where you’re like, “I know things are bad right now, but I should still be able to do the exact same things as always. And only feel bad about this a tiny bit of the time.” But that’s not how it works.
It’s weird to have that realization of, like, “Oh, I see it’s not just painful in theory it’s painful in practice.” Of course you’re not going to be your normal self right now because things are not normal, or you’re not normal, or the world’s not normal. Recognizing that has always helped me feel better.
Gyan: I think that one of the issues with the way self-care and wellness have been marketed to us is that they often start with this assumption that you’re starting your journey at 100%—that anything you do in the name of self-care is improving upon that baseline, as a bonus. But who’s at 100% right now? Whether you’re Black, or you’re a person of color or queer or trans, or you’ve lost your job, or someone you love has passed away, or you or someone you know has been arrested—there are all of these things happening right now now that have taken everyone down so many additional pegs that the recent concepts of self-care don’t really apply.
Rachel: I felt that since the beginning of the pandemic when everybody was like, “What’s your hobby going to be and what are you going to learn?” I love self improvement—I love it, I love it all the time. But there’s no room for self-improvement right now, we’re in survival mode!
Gyan: Totally! How are you feeling about the fact that it’s kind of a timely moment for your book to come out?
Rachel: I feel sad that the book is so useful right now because I don’t want anyone to need this book, particularly the sections about showing up when shit gets hard. But, I feel glad that I can be useful right now. I tried to write it in a way that it would be broadly applicable in tons of different situations. It’s nice to know that when people are going through a hard time you have something to offer them.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is VICE’s Deputy Editor, Life and author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Photo of Rachel by Elena Mudd.