Alayna Fender has been a YouTube content creator since 2012. With over 240,000 subscribers, she’s clearly doing something right! She has added being a trained Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher to her offerings. When I watched several of her videos ahead of this interview, I was struck by the warm, funny, honest, vulnerable, kind and super smart human she appeared to be. Initially impressed, but of course reserving full judgment until I talked to her in person, I am happy to report that I met the exact same person on the phone that Alayna is online. Here is our conversation:
What is Alayna Fender up to these days?
Oh, whoa! [Laughing] I’m really focused right now on creating great content for my YouTube channel, Alayna Joy. I recently decided to not go back for my Masters program, which was kind of a big decision, a difficult decision in my life. But through that I’ve really been able to create space to dive into creating the content that I love making. I’m launching a new series on my channel in the New Year which I’m really excited about, so that is where my time is going right now.
I can relate to that as there was a time in my life when I made the same decision – it was tricky because it was one of those things I used to measure my worth, so to speak.
Yes! I totally reflect that experience. It was absolutely a marker of worth; I think I had it in my head that getting a Masters degree would in some way validate everything that I was doing, like, ooh, look at how accomplished I am; look at this qualification that I now have, like I now belong in this space (the mental health space)… And so that was the most difficult piece to let go of.
In a situation like this where you are making a difficult and major decision about your life, what do you rely on to guide you?
Wow. I mean, obviously mindfulness and compassion are huge practices in my life and the way that they relate to decision-making. Mindfulness specifically allows me to see the big picture and to be able to step back and observe. Mindfulness is about being able to observe your experience in the present moment. So, being able to take a step back and zoom out and widen my perspective to see whatever the situation is in its entirety and not get pulled into fear of the future, not get pulled into rumination on what ifs and worries, and to do my best to recognize the complexity of it all.
So, for example with the Masters, instead of getting pulled into thinking I’m failing, or I’m quitting, or that I might never amount to anything, all these kinds of negative self talk and fears, I was able to step back and see it in its entirety. Does making this decision now mean I can’t do the Masters later? No. Does it mean any of those other things? No. All it means is that I’m taking a different road right now. So mindfulness gives me that space between me and my emotions.
The compassion piece is doing my best to treat myself the way I would treat a dear friend in that same situation. If I had a close friend come to me and say, “Hey. I think I’ve changed my mind about going back for my Masters. I think instead I want to follow this passion that I have. What do you think about that?” Would I say to them, “Oh, whoa. What are you, a quitter?” Would I say those things to them? Absolutely not!! I would be thrilled for them, and want to build them up in that new decision.
Why do you think it’s so difficult to show ourselves the kindness we are so hungry for?
I think that shame has a lot to do with it. And at the root of shame is really the desire to be loved. We all want to be loved by others and we all want to be loved by ourselves. So I think we have this deep-seated fear that if we don’t hold ourselves to this exceptional standard, which, by the way, we don’t hold anybody else to, then we won’t be worthy of love. That nobody’s going to love us. I think that’s the root of it, in my opinion.
I think at some point we all internalized an external voice or experience that sparked the shame and began that inner dialogue that maybe we really are losers, or stupid, or whatever.
Yes! Yes, absolutely. And so when we have those experiences of external unkindness and we do internalize those things and then that becomes that internal critic, and we think that using that voice is going to be an effective motivator.
The research actually shows the opposite. They’ve looked at self-compassion as a motivator versus self-criticism and self-compassion is MUCH more effective.
How were you able to reconcile who you are within the Mennonite culture you were raised in? How did you make sense of who you are when the world around you is saying directly or indirectly that who you are is “wrong”?
Growing up in the community that I did, yeah, it was definitely confusing. I think because I am bi, I always thought that all other girls felt the way that I felt about girls. You know? Not only were we not taught anything about the LGBTQ community, the only messages that I really heard from the community or the church that I was going to was that ‘straight is great; gay is a sin’. So I thought, great! I’m not gay because I clearly like boys so I just assumed, and genuinely believed, that all the other girls felt the same way and we just didn’t talk about it and that it was just the way that friendships were close for girls. Like, romantic love and attraction are just how you feel about some of your close friends.
And then in high school, when I had my first experiences with women, I remember telling one of my closest friends. I was both excited and nervous because I remember thinking that I had found a loophole to this whole ‘saving yourself for marriage’ thing. [Laughing] Like I remember thinking, Great! This is easy! I don’t have to sleep with men. I can save that for marriage!
And I remember telling my friend and her just completely being mortified and disgusted by this experience that I had had. That was my first really clear memory and first clear message that something in me was not okay. I think I was 19 when I first heard the word ‘bisexual’ and so before that had never thought anything about it, and then after I graduated high school I learned the word and that you could be ‘bi’ and I was like, “Holy –” (and pardon my language) “shit.”
It changed everything and I had to look back over my whole high school experience and rewrite so many of the relationships that I had now that I understood where I was coming from, and now that I understood my own sexuality and identity.
I had grown up in this church and I was given very clear messages about therapies on homosexuality and how wrong it was, so I think I was afraid that my family would carry the same biases or opinions. I really didn’t know because we had never really talked about it as a family. But I was incredibly lucky. My family always has been incredibly supportive, and they were then, too. They really are wonderful people.
I was terrified to post that coming out video. Absolutely terrified. I had no idea what people would say or how they would respond. I really didn’t know. Since then, though, I have found my community. I have found my people. And it’s such a – the word ‘relief’ is really how I feel in being able to be my true self fully.
If I’m making connections and I’m making friends but I’m not being who I really am and they like me, it doesn’t count for anything anyway because I’m not being my true self. It’s a lose-lose to be anything other than who you really are.
I’m guessing the entire Internet world has not been kind to you. Can you walk me through what a restorative mental health practice might look like for you both in the abstract and the practical?
Good question. I think in the abstract it starts with making content that I really enjoy. If I believe in what I’m putting out there and if I enjoy and am proud of what I’ve made, then the opinions of other people, or the response from other people matters less because at the end of the day I’m content with the thing that I’ve made and that is what matters.
On a more concrete level, the best advice I can give to anyone receiving hate comments online – because that’s super common – and this can apply to other situations as well, if you can find a friend to go over them with, or read them with, it can really turn it around. You can get a hundred good comments and then you can get that one who says, “Where’s your top lip?” You know, those are going to stick in your head way more than the tons of people who say, “Hey, I love what you made.” We’re like Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity.
I did a video once and I don’t know what happened, if it got shared on a forum or whatever, but hundreds of cruel, cruel comments flooded in and they were so horrible I considered taking the video down. Like I couldn’t handle it. It was horrible. I had a friend over and I was telling her how I was thinking about taking the video down. And so we pulled up the comments section and started reading these comments together and somehow it went from this heavy, scary moment to us hysterically laughing!
They were so ridiculous! So ridiculous. So bringing a friend in to help you see it in a new way and again, the mindfulness piece that gets you to step back and to not take those things on to the best of your ability.
I don’t think there’s any shame in saying, “Hey, can you help me carry this right now? I’m struggling.”
What would you say to youth who want to get into content creation?
Wow, yeah. Well, first of all, for me this is the dream. Everything negative that I would have to say doesn’t change that this is an incredible gift. Like every day I cannot believe that this is my job. That being said, it’s a hustle. It’s not easy to make this your job in a sustainable way. Financially you have to get some really big numbers. You have to be ready for thousands of people judging, watching and having opinions on your life, on every decision that you make.
Also, you’re alone all the time. That’s something I don’t think people really think about when they imagine a career as an online content creator… You don’t have the same social opportunities like you do when you have a job in an office or space that you go to every day. There really aren’t any co-workers in YouTube! You also have to be someone who is really able to manage your time because you don’t have someone standing over your shoulder setting deadlines and giving you your schedule.
On the flip side of that, you also don’t have anyone standing over you telling you that your work day is done now. So, it doesn’t ever feel ‘done’ because there is always something that you could be doing. There’s a lot of pressure that way. There’s also a lot of financial instability. There are no benefits, no secure paycheque, no guarantee that you’re still going to be working in five years. So, there’s a lot to consider if you are thinking that this work may be your endgame goal.
And I do want to say that I struggle when I hear people saying that they want to start a YouTube channel in order for it to be their job. Unfortunately, I really think that that is setting yourself up for failure. Unless you have that one big hit, which is 50% luck, and you have that viral sensation moment, creating content online is going to take years of commitment to consistently creating content with nothing given back to you in return. When I started it was a different time. I made videos for five years, every single week, without making a penny. Because I loved it! So if you love making videos or you love photography, or if you love the medium of the thing you want to start, absolutely go for it… the passion has to come first. I don’t believe it can be financially driven.
Something I find so interesting about the digital space is that on the one hand it is criticized for being so depersonalized and disconnecting, and then on the other it builds communities in ways that are lasting when it is done authentically. Like, the bullshit meter is actually quite finely attuned in the digital space, would you agree?
Absolutely! That’s a really good point. People can see it when it’s inauthentic. There is this incredible community online. For anybody who is reading this piece and feels like they don’t fit in in their hometown or with the people around them, or feels like there’s something about them that’s different that other people won’t understand, I really encourage them to seek out an online community.
I had anxiety, I was trying to figure out my sexuality – all these things I felt like I couldn’t talk to other people about, that’s when I found YouTube and found so many other people who shared my same experience. And that was so powerful. To feel like I wasn’t alone. That’s the example where I would recommend YouTube every day. There is a community out there for you… Trust yourself, turn inward, and really listen to your own voice. Trust that it will all be okay in the end. The road might not be straight, but you’re going to get where you’re going. You don’t need external validation to affirm who you are. We really can offer that to ourselves. And trust me, there are other people out there who will validate you for who you are. You just have to find them.
Thank you, Alayna, for contributing to the online space in such a positively powerful way and for sharing your light with Unsinkable.