Five Stages of Heat

An image of 5 stylized flames on a red glitter background. The flames are next to one another in the middle of the frame, and are in a left to right gradient from black to light blue.
Header Image by Cordula Elanor and Kiona H. Niehaus.

Have you left a terrible job or broken up with an awful friend or lover in 2020? If so, congratulations! If not, we’re rooting for you in 2021. Endings can be tough, but some endings aren’t as tough as we initially imagine. While the five stages of grief can be a useful tool for understanding your emotions after loss, the five stages of heat is a useful companion BEFORE making a big change, because it can help you understand why you feel equal parts hot and bothered.
Stage 1: It’s not actually that hot in here
The thing about Stage 1 is that if you’re here, you already kind of know there’s a problem. You know it enough to need to rationalize it. It’s like sitting on a fake leather seat in public in the sweaty height of summer; you know that any exposed flesh will adhere to the material immediately, sweat pooling along your contours. You regret the decision to sit the moment you do it, but pretend you don’t, silently dreading the moment you’ll have to move again. If your loved ones are polite, they’ll pretend they don’t see the predicament you’re in (if they aren’t, congratulations on that thick skin you’ve been forced to develop).
Getting out of a connection that isn’t working for you anymore is a process, and most processes start small. It’s okay if your brain says, “Oh, I don’t like this,” and your heart says, “What are you talking about? Everything’s great. Being talked over just feels so familiar.” It’s unclear at this stage whether you’re lying to yourself or for the benefit of others, but it’s probably both. And why not? Heat is fun. It’s still early enough to convince yourself that the situation can change. The pressure is building, but that’s a problem for future you. Now’s the time to change into that bathing suit, pop in your earbuds, and bask in this temperate impending disaster.
Stage 2: Even if this is hot trash, it’s my hot trash!
So you’ve admitted there’s a problem, but you’re defensive. Other people just don’t understand, do they? This is your dream job! Your ideal person! You’ve been friends since you were SIX YEARS OLD, people! You can’t just throw in the towel, even if it’s soaked in sweat. The temperature is rising, you’re burnt out, and everyone except you is tired of hearing it.
Frankly, the cracks are starting to show and you’re frantic. The sunk cost fallacy and enough air conditioning-induced energy consumption to knock out a small city’s power grid aren’t enough to convince you this is working. Stage 2 is the emotional equivalent of walking around yelling at everyone around you to FIX IT: it’s blatantly rude, not helpful, and not actually what you need, but it also feels good to think about something other than this doomed situation. Plus it gives you someone safe-ish to be mad at, and in 2020, safety is at a premium.
Stage 3: If I can just open every single window, it will cool down right away
Oh, this is fun. Yes, you are perfectly aware that you’ve opened every single window you can possibly open at this point, but now you’re running around opening and closing them in sequence, trying to find that magical combination that will drown out this rolling heat wave. You’ve even decided that if you can’t find the magic combination, all the movement and airflow and sweating will cool you down at some point, so it’ll all be fine. Right? Right?
The true temperature of the situation is upon you, and you know something has to change in your bad relationship. If you can figure out how to change, you’ll be in control, which is what most of us want to various extents. The thing about a relationship, whether institutional or personal, is that it’s not just you in it. You can prepare and adapt as best you can, but you can’t turn down the heat on a situation that isn’t always about you. You can’t control the weather, or rather, to control the weather, you have to acknowledge the portion you can control, which usually means moving somewhere where the weather sucks less. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it’s not always accessible and it’s certainly not cheap.
Stage 4: It’s simply too hot, and I’m pissed/sad/exasperated [circle one] about it
You get it! You’re not happy about it, but you get it. The situation isn’t going to change. It’s not getting cooler and you’re not getting younger. You can’t spend any more of your life constructing elaborate rituals in order to avoid how little this works for you. You can’t convince yourself that your boss/friend/lover is a good person, or, even if they are, that them being a good person outweighs the dumpster fire the situation hath wrought. You’re not quite ready to leave yet, though. Maybe the moving company is taking longer than expected, maybe you’re a planner and you need time to get your shit together, or maybe change is hard, you’re used to the heat, and it’s all a little bit too much.
Stage 5: Ah, that’s better
You did it! It’s done. Haha! Doesn’t everything feel lighter? These stages aren’t necessarily linear! You may have flashes one or another over time, but with Stage 5 comes the ability to stand back, relish the cool air hitting your face, and go, “wow, what the fuck was that.” Asking that question is not inconsistent with also understanding your role and reasons for staying in an overheated situation for longer than the WHO recommends. In fact, peace lives somewhere between those two states, in an undisclosed location locals describe as, “you’ll know it when you find it.” The number of times you’ll go through this process depends on a variety of factors, from trauma to structural oppression to age to the amount of shit you’re personally willing to tolerate on a given day. Every day is a new day, every heat is a new heat, and we’re all, ultimately, a hot mess.
Words by Cordula Elanor
Header Image by Cordula Elanor and Kiona H. Niehaus

Cordula Elanor is a lesbian, designer, firey heart, and hot mess living and working in Berlin, Germany.