Don’t Call Me Sister: The Double Trouble Of Assumed Familiarity And Believing Only Women Can Be Witches

Don’t Call Me Sister: The Double Trouble Of Assumed Familiarity And Believing Only Women Can Be Witches August 25, 2019

We are in the midst of an unprecedented transformation in witchcraft, where we have the freedom to claim the title for ourselves and openly discuss our practices. While all of us involved in this personal and societal revolution may have a common bond in calling ourselves witches openly, there are lingering dangers in making assumptions about those with us on this wild broom ride. In particular, assuming familiarity, such as by calling complete strangers things like “brother” and “lady,” and the still-with-us belief that only women can be witches, causes damage to those whom with we wish to have kinship and to ourselves.


Canstock photo. 

The Blessing And Bane of Assumptions

Assumptions play an important role in decision making. If we lacked organizational rules for interpreting ourselves and others, we simply could not function. These thought forms, known by names like heuristics and working models, can have a great deal of power. As a witch, I interpret their energetic properties as a unique spirit that is a force to be reckoned with like any other. Like all energy, assumptions carry emotional and behavioral connectors with them. Also like all spirits, they are neither good nor bad. It’s what we do with them that matters. I have kept The Four Agreements on my fridge door for years as a reminder that assumptions need to be examined. Don Ruiz wasn’t so much telling us to undo evolution, but to take a moment to consider our thought forms before inflicting them on ourselves or anyone else. The much overlooked fifth agreement is to be skeptical, as we should be about our assumptions.

The Harm Of Making Assumptions About Groups

Assumptions can make us dislike and avoid certain groups. We have evolved our decision making skills to help us identify friends and foes. This makes perfect sense when our survival depended on snap choices about whom we could trust. We still do this constantly, even those of us who are earnestly working to get over our biases. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with thought forms and assumptions, except when they harm others. Of course, this is the essence of racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, etc. Fundamentally, all these types of discrimination are the expressions of biases against groups whom we believe aren’t like us. Add in the patriarchy and these become institutionalized methods of oppression. I’ve written about the problem of whitewashing in modern witchcraft elsewhere.

Why Kinship Matters

Being able to identify with those like us has social and spiritual value. Our relationships largely influence our state of being. As witches, pagans and other types of wildfolk, we typically reject what we perceive to be the values of mainstream society. Outsiders and outlaws by birth, we may isolate ourselves from just about everyone else. Isolation can be a form of addiction, protecting us from both the beauty and pain of interpersonal relationships. It’s my personal drug of choice when the world gets too much. I know many others who feel the same way. I’ve heard from many practitioners who choose to be solitary because engaging in groups was just far more trouble than it was worth. However, there is real benefit in belonging to a group that is safe, supportive and enjoyable. As an owner of a few decent sized groups on Facebook, I have seen the power that affiliation can bring to a previously lonely witch. However, we don’t need to trample over other’s boundaries in order to benefit from such connections. I cherish the witches that I share a healthy attachment with, they are my soul-family.

There’s nothing better than being with our witch-kin. Image from Macbeth, 1948 movie.

Kinship And Trust

Social scientists describe three categories of kinship: by blood, marriage, and by sharing things in common that lead to a real bond. Attachment, in general, is the hallmark of kinship. Many of us in the pagan, witch and similar realms, have separated from our biological family because the attachments we had were dysfunctional. Insecure attachment is characterized by avoidance and/or preoccupation. We tend to generalize the working models we develop early in life to all other relationships. An ingrained, usually unconscious assumption that we can’t trust others that leads to constantly feeling fearful and acting against our own best interests. Shame is often the primary emotion we feel regarding our true self. The shadow self becomes the guiding force in our lives, trying to protect us from further harm. Recovering from Shadow Syndrome requires learning to appropriately trust others, develop boundaries and to evaluate our assumptions. Conversely, if we learn to trust others, we generally have self-confidence and believe in the goodness of the world. We also have healthy boundaries. Kinship matters.

Group Affiliation And Being Triggered By Assumed Kinship

Group affiliation is so important to some of us in the witch and pagan worlds. I’m not against using terms of affection when there is a true bond, but this has to be an agreement between equals rather than something forced onto us, at least for me. I’m not your sister just because you think so. I’ve had it with anyone imposing labels on me.

The habit of using kinship titles in pagan and witch circles can be a hangover from Christian practices. I hadn’t even considered this until a friend was badly triggered about their traumatic past in the church when a stranger used a fraternal term to greet them. Kinship distinction matters: if we were traumatized by one group, we are not going to welcome similar practices in the group where we had hoped to find others who are truly like us. In addition, using familial descriptors, like “sister,” can be associated with our traumatic past.

funny not witch sisters once upon a time
Assumed familiarity caused all kinds of problems in Once Upon A Time.

Eagerness And Inappropriate Boundaries

For many of us walking the crooked path of the witch, we not only leave behind familial relationships but often other types as well, from romantic partners to friends from faith-based organizations. If we have a general assumption that others can’t be trusted, this can be expressed as poor boundaries. We don’t trust anyone/we want to trust everyone. Add into this the realization that there are others out there similar to us, we can become too eager to assume that the people we are meeting are not only like us, but are our friends. Given that many of us connect with those we perceive as similar over social media, there is the increased influence of our pre-existing thought forms since we don’t have the benefit of direct encounter.

Without this proximal interaction, we tend to fall back on what we assume to be true about others since we lack the information to decide otherwise. We are more at risk for this if we have trouble with our boundaries – we are simply filling in the gaps in our knowledge using what we already know. If what we know is problematic, then we can end up projecting these assumptions onto others, whether online or in person. Being appropriately vulnerable while protecting ourselves requires taking time to examine our assumptions about others as well as our thought forms about ourselves.

I Am Not Your Sister: The Problem With Assumed Familiarity

In our rush to attach to others who we feel are like us, we can assume that they are our kin. This can be detrimental to our own well-being, leading us into relationships that are toxic and even being manipulated by psychopaths. Assuming that others are like us causes trouble for them, as well. This phenomenon of assumed familiarity comes up occasionally in the Keeping Her Keys Facebook groups. Someone new to one of the groups will use language that implies kinship, especially the very problematic use of “sister.” Unless they are actually only talking to people who are their sister – through blood or true attachment such as in a coven – it’s incredibly inappropriate to assume that anyone is your sibling.

I realize that enthusiasm for finding what is perceived as like-minded individuals can be the motivation behind using a familial term where no such attachment exists, but it is almost always indicative of inappropriate boundaries. Of course, if the group encouraged such terms that would be entirely different. I’m not talking about groups to which I don’t belong, just the ones that I participate in where we have clear policies about the use of assumed familiarity epithets and also gendered language.

Assuming That Only Women Are Witches

I’m old enough to remember when Sully Erna was referred to as a warlock in an interview in Guitar World magazine. I found it odd at the time, given that he was most certainly known as a witch. But, the expansion of the word “witch” to include those who don’t identify as female has occurred since I first started to connect with the pagan and witch worlds. Witches have throughout history been reviled and feared women. As part of our reclaiming revolution, others who aren’t women are now proudly claiming the title. However, the word has a history, and calling yourself one without a basic understanding of what it means is ignorant. You can read more about the reclaiming of the word here. What is even more ignorant is refusing to acknowledge that anyone who wants to be a witch can be one, regardless of gender, orientation or other characteristic.

Reasons Why Assumed Familiarity And Gender Essentialism Go Together

Gender essentialism is the belief that certain things, such as being a witch, are invariably associated with a gender. In paganism and witchcraft, this is often involved with the belief that we are reclaiming ancient traditions where gender roles were more pure. Looking to a glorious past that never existed is not healthy reclaiming, it’s delusional, as is holding the assumptions that we are all kin and that only women can be witches. I’ve observed that many of those who assume familiarity often also feel that only women can be witches, and hold other traditional gender biases. This isn’t a perfect correlation, there are those who are genuine in their desire to express their affection for others even when they don’t know them. That’s entirely forgivable.

This group is small in comparison to those who get mightily offended when I, or one of my moderators, explain that assumed familiarity isn’t allowed and neither is gendered language (unless speaking only to one gender). Frequently, their reactions – and that of like-minded others – goes sideways into rants, including that only women are witches. My theory is that these people have hinged their fragile identity to that mythic impossible past. Another association I’ve noticed is that some of these ones assuming familiarity are firmly in the “light and love” realm. This reinforces my theory about their attachment to an impossible utopian ideal that is based in their own avoidance of difficult inner work, or taking responsibility for their actions, and valuing diversity. They’re clinging to a fixed mindset. And they’re missing the beautiful revolution.

Healthy Approaches To Interacting With Others Online And IRL

As within, so without. The more we focus on our own journey, the less preoccupied we will be with seeking validation from others. Learning our own boundaries and approaching our interpersonal interactions with gratitude, vulnerability and healthy self-protection, naturally leads us to healthy groups and better choices. It also forms a shield around us where we are less likely to be hurt by those who assume familiarity and express their own fragility in other ways. Compassion for them usually helps ourselves far more than it does them, since often they can’t be reached through the wall of their own assumptions. For those that can, it’s worth the effort to gently remind them that assumed familiarity and narrow views of who can be a witch aren’t helpful for them or anyone else.

As for using terms that imply kinship or convey inappropriate levels of affection through terms of endearment, using words that express affiliation without making assumptions about those to whom we are speaking is a vital part of the revolution.

That’s all, witches.

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About Cyndi
Cyndi Brannen, PhD, is a teacher and writer focusing on personal development, spirituality and true magic. She is an energetic healer, psychic, herbalist, spiritual coach and mentor. Founder of the Keeping Her Keys Mystery School, she teaches and writes about the true magic of healing and personal power. The bestselling Keeping Her Keys: An Introduction to Hekate’s Modern Witchcraft explores Hekate from her ancient origins to our modern understanding through magic and personal development. True Magic: Unleashing Your Inner Witch, based on the sacred seven principles, will be available this October. You can read more about the author here.

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  • Natasha Minson

    I know I’m going to sound old fashioned, but I think the current issue with using inappropriate terms of familiarity such as ‘sister’ stems from a much bigger familiarity issue. Everyone insists on using first names from the get go rather than the more appropriate formal names. My lecturer’s in the 90’s made me very uncomfortable insisting I do this. Calling them Sir , as I was raised to, got me laughed at. If you want to leave a telemarketer speechless, insist your first name is Mrs. & they’re not allowed to use your birth name.

  • Marina Phillips

    Well! This was unexpected! I came across Keeping Her Keys in my travels today just as I am seeking my next direction of study. Have been a solitary most of my life, recent focus has been on angels, alchemy and practical magic that can be applied often in daily life. These descriptions of Hekate have quickened something within me – she’s smiles at me knowingly – there’s no mistaking that feeling of coming home to something meant for me. And I happen to live at a three-way crossroads – you can’t make this stuff up! Looking forward to reading more of the blog and exploring more of Keeping Her Keys. Many thanks in advance, Ms. Brannen, for sharing your unique perspective and experience with the world. 🙂

  • I don’t think you sound old fashioned at all, familiarity through the use of first names can definitely be presumptuous. I had originally thought about adding a section on the presumed familiarity using our given names, but it didn’t fit with the intent of the article. It all comes down to taking a moment to ask how a person wishes to be addressed or using a generic term that assumes little.

  • You are most welcome, Marina.

  • Hank Jacson

    Hi all, thx Cyndi for a relevant proposition. My personal space is certainly overtaken less, as you stated we remove ourselves from “uncomfortable” venues, now I’m “retired” and no long subjected to the caring masses of employment associates with birthday wishes and ‘how was your weekend’? Communities are not work places. Whatever, mystory pertaining to over familiarity was way back to the catholic Vatican II. The priest began speaking English, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Body of Christ, passed straight to our hands and the kiss of love was exchanged with total strangers at Mass!!! Talk about over familiarity, oh-vey, the swine! No wonder I returned to that old time religion? Blessed Be All.