One of my first posts on this blog was about saying no . As I learned emotional intelligence and began applying it to my life, I started to understand how imprisoned I’d been by my inability to say no.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me report saying no in the context of long-term relationships in which I’ve never said it before has resulted in unforeseen heartache and grief. I rejoice in reclaiming my power and authenticity, but some of my nearest and dearest are not celebrating my growth and healing, and connections I thought were unbreakable have, in fact, broken.
These days, I immediately exit any relationship in which my no is consistently ignored. At this point in my life I’m not interested in connection, intimate, workplace or social, in which no is not an acceptable answer.
In my experience, people who refuse to accept the answer no fall into two camps. The first camp is the controllers. Their goal is power. They view anyone with the ability to say no as an insult and a threat, and immediately react in the form of intimidation, emotional meltdowns, rage, manipulation and constant pressure to change the no to a yes.
The second camp is those who can’t say no themselves and are infuriated by those who can. Their goal is to undermine the power of others so they feel better about their own disempowered state. They’ve stored up years of resentment around all the times they said yes when they wanted to say no, resentment which they vomit up at once if someone says no to them. They throw around words like “duty,” “responsibility,” “loyalty” and “obligation.” No is a personal rejection, an abandonment and a cruel betrayal. They frequently have all kinds of expectations of others. They use the weapon of shame.
These camps can and do overlap, but there’s no mistaking the resistance to no.
I confess it still stuns me that long-term primary relationships have fallen down and died right in front of me because I said no. I’ve even checked out my perception, disbelieving my own experience and the words I was hearing.
“So, from your point of view, me saying no is unforgiveable?”
“Yes, it’s unforgiveable.”
So far, I am still unforgiven, because I stood by my no.
I ask myself if it’s possible I’ve never said no in the context of these relationships before. It seems unlikely. Perhaps I’ve just never said it about anything that mattered to the other party? I resolved to mindfully practice saying no, and also to observe carefully the effects of such a response.
I immediately discovered the effects of saying no on me included panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD and extreme stress. All my life interactions with others have consisted of “reading” them in order to please. Any question they might ask was answered in whatever way I thought they most wanted to hear.
Effectively, every question was a test. If I passed the test, my reward was knowing I had pleased and was temporarily safe and tolerated. If I failed, which usually meant I had forgotten myself and answered honestly, the consequence was displeasure, abuse, guilt and shame and/or (worst of all) some kind of a scene.
Learning to say yes or no based on my own desires meant finding and reclaiming myself, my needs, my authenticity and my power, and trying to ignore what I knew others wanted from me. Saying yes or no became a test of my own courage and honesty, as well as a test of faith and trust in those close to me.
I could hear no from them. Could they hear it from me?
This has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.
I’ve been reading an important book: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Every woman in the world would benefit from reading this lifesaving and validating book. Here, too, is a discussion of the universally important red flag of refusing to accept no.
We are shaped by our culture, and in this culture women are taught to be cooperative and accommodating. Men are taught to be persistent. These behaviors are deeply embedded and reinforced in our media, entertainment and arts.
Women are not taught to say a simple, assertive, direct no and stick to it. We weaken our no with explanation, justification, mistrust of our own instincts and the desire to not make a scene, be unkind or hurt or embarrass anyone.
The instant a woman allows her no to be negotiated, she has handed her power over and sent a clear message that she’s prepared to be a victim. Strangers, family members, friends and colleagues who decline to hear no are either seeking control or refusing to give it up.
Sadly, the willingness to say no will not protect us. We may still be murdered, raped and otherwise abused, but the ability to recognize a danger signal like not accepting no for an answer is an important survival skill that can help us avoid violence before the worst happens.
Ultimately, no is about boundaries. No matter how cherished a relationship may be, it’s not healthy if we’re not free to honestly say yes or no. Those who consistently violate our boundaries or punish us for having them in the first place are those who have benefitted the most from us having none in the past.
I value my power to say yes or no far more than any object, possession, sum of money or relationship. The complete sentences of yes or no allow me to maintain my integrity and authenticity, support appropriate boundaries and contribute everything I am.
I’ve been resting in this pause between solstice and the new year. Although I made a conscious choice to set aside everything I could, it was uncomfortable to let this blog lie fallow. On the other hand, I have not been inspired to do much more than manage day-to-day life.
I’m grateful to have moved into new holiday routines after decades of feeling imprisoned by obligation and duty to my fractured family and making Christmas meaningful and fun for my children. Gone are the days of huge, exhausting meals, tight schedules, trying desperately to please everyone at my own expense, spending much of the holidays in the car traveling between homes, and tired, overstimulated children. Not to mention tired, overstimulated me.
Now I focus on Yule, on the deep, introspective peace of winter and long nights, withdrawing into my cozy home. I engage in the rituals I love: candles, simple decorating, making a double batch of Spritz cookies with my cookie press to share, and welcoming the return of the light.
Photo by David Monje on Unsplash
This year we had a tropical storm the week before Christmas with high winds and torrential rains that flooded our town and, indeed, the whole state. We were without power for 48 hours. The lack of electric light (or electric anything else) fit in well with Yule, though we got very cold. We were also trapped; every bridge in the area was closed and the Kennebec River, which winds through our town, rose 30 feet, which is 15 feet above flood stage. Between flooding and downed trees, we were unable to leave our immediate neighborhood. Most businesses closed. The ones that stayed open (with generators) quickly ran out of everything. Our neighbors loaned us a butane camp stove so I could heat water for hot drinks.
As soon as the power was restored I ordered a propane camp stove.
Life rolls along, whether I’m posting or not.
This morning, as I lay in bed waking, I heard snow plows in our neighborhood. We’ve had more rain here, and clearly sometime during the night it had changed to snow. As I moved around the kitchen, watching the sky lighten and the snow fall, cooking breakfast, sipping my first cup of tea, enjoying glowing candles, my thoughts drifted.
Impossible to avoid end-of-year lists and reviews and new year resolutions, hopes and fears this time of year. I generally am uninterested. I’m content to let the old year diminish and recede, particularly this one, which was especially difficult personally. I don’t enjoy new year resolutions, mine or anyone else’s. None of us know what the new year will bring and many of us look ahead with some trepidation and anxiety; I don’t need to exacerbate mine by making or consuming predictions. What will come will come and we’ll have to cope with it.
I will be 60 this month. Impossible. Incredible. For the first time in my life, I’m daunted by a birthday. Generally, I hardly notice them. I’m annoyed by my discomfort this year. I’m determined not to focus on it, but I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye.
I asked myself a question as I moved around the kitchen this morning. If I could have anything for my birthday, if I could make one intention for the year ahead, what would it be?
It’s easier to think about what we don’t want, isn’t it? I reviewed my current challenges and anxieties, watching the pewter sky and the snow becoming less rain and more flakes as the temperature dropped. I flipped the bacon, gave the cats another half a can of food so they would get out from under my feet. The pipes in the radiators creaked and popped as the furnace turned on.
The word ‘simplicity’ came into my mind. I turned it over. I thought about what brings me joy. I thought about candles, reading a good book, the warmth and weight of a cat in my lap. I thought about a cup of hot tea. I thought about music, the rhythm of swimming, being with people I love and trust. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my weighted blanket, just breathing. Peace. Stillness. Light and shadow. Long nights. My warm bed. Hot showers. Solitude. Privacy. I thought about my current laptop background. A perfect illustration of simplicity:
I thought about what I don’t want. The endless complications of being nice, pleasing others, fawning to stave off violence and pain. Clutter. Bright lights, noise, demands. Busyness. Obligation. Duty. Feeling hounded, imprisoned, criticized, judged by myself and others. Too much talk. Racing the clock.
I thought about boundaries. Inconsistent boundaries, badly maintained, easily breached; and strong, smooth, tough boundaries, well-maintained and consistent. Unapologetic.
I thought about the simplicity of ‘No’ and the complications of ‘No’ followed by five minutes of cringing apology and justification, or the inability to say ‘No’ at all.
‘Simplicity’, I decided, named my longing.
When I consider the first 60 years of my life I mostly see the unending labor and anguish of caring for others, the years of trying and trying, as only a woman who loves can understand, to love them all. To please them. To make them happy and healthy. It was complicated. Noisy. Chaotic. Bloody. Painful. Extremely expensive in terms of my own health and happiness.
That’s what I thought I was for, to live that way. I was taught that was what I was for.
In the last few months I came across a little mantra which has become something like a prayer permanently nestled in my consciousness:
I am enough. I choose my life. I trust myself.
Sixty is a nice, round number. How would it be if I chose to begin again, now, with just myself; my own self-care, which is simple and easy? What if I chose to embrace the discomfort and power of maintaining strong, consistent boundaries and let people react to them however they need to, making their feelings none of my business? What if I stopped apologizing for what I need because it’s not what they need or understand or want?
What if I made up my mind to choose the simplest thing, the most direct, honest answer, the clearest communication in any given situation? What if I stood up for myself the way I stand up so readily for others?
Maybe 60 years of responsibility for everyone around me is enough and I could choose to spend the next 60 years (!) being responsible only for myself.
What a relief!
I don’t tell myself living more simply will be easy. It won’t. Boundaries, (I’m never allowed to forget) are invariably heavily challenged and battered by those who have the most to gain by us having none. Maintaining boundaries means conflict, a thing I dread and have always avoided as much as possible. It means emotional manipulation, the most painful (and successful) weapon those close to me can wield against me. It means Failing To Please. It means controlling my natural empathy, focusing it inward rather than outward, being more present with my own internal state rather than that of others.
Simplicity. What a lovely intention.
Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash
Here’s a deep winter wish for you all:
May You Grow Still Enough
May you grow still enough to hear the small noises earth makes in preparing for the long sleep of winter, so that you yourself may grow calm and grounded deep within.
May you grow still enough to hear the trickling of water seeping into the ground, so that your soul may be softened and healed, and guided in its flow.
May you grow still enough to hear the splintering of starlight in the winter sky and the roar at earth’s fiery core.
May you grow still enough to hear the stir of a single snowflake in the air, so that your inner silence may turn into hushed expectation.
I’m pausing. It wasn’t, I hasten to say, my idea! However, after an interesting and stressful concatenation of events I’ve decided to embrace the opportunity to pause.
It all started with a wonderful post from one of my favorite Substackers, Lani Diane Rich. It’s titled “Emotional Ex-Lax.” Honestly, how could anyone not go look at that post?
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
The post suggests an exercise in blind journaling. I journal daily, first thing in the morning, with my first cup of tea. I don’t go on line first. I don’t work in the house, or start breakfast, or make my bed, or clean the cat boxes. I feed the cats (because if I don’t I won’t be allowed to sit peacefully and journal). I pee. I turn on one low light. I heat water and make tea. Sometimes I put on very low music. Sometimes I light a candle or two. At 5:00 in the morning there’s nothing going on. Darkness presses against the windows. Nobody needs anything from me. I’m free, and something of sleep’s twilight lingers. I sit with my laptop, open a new document, and start typing. Every month I delete the last month’s journal entries. I never look back at them. They’re for no one else’s eyes. It’s an entirely private space.
If, for some reason, I miss this time with myself, I notice it immediately. I’m not as centered. I feel more anxious. I feel more stressed. If I can’t get to a word processor, I journal with pen and paper, and then destroy it.
I never thought of blind journaling, though.
I recognized resistance. As I peeled the resistance away, I discovered the roots of it: perfectionism. That made me mad. I’ve worked so hard to uproot that toxic growth, but I never seem to get it all eradicated. It’s like bindweed, that bane of gardeners. Out in Colorado, where I used to live and garden, bindweed choked the dry landscape. Its roots can grow 6 feet deep. Any attempt to dig it up or kill it above ground merely encourages it. It grows fast. Herbicides don’t work. Its folk name is ‘Devil’s guts.’ A perfect description.
I think about perfectionism as bindweed.
Even as I journal, I edit. I correct spelling. I make sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes I even cut and paste. For a journal no one else will ever see and I won’t read again. For a journal document I’m going to delete in four weeks. If I blind journal I can’t edit as I write.
It won’t, God help me, be perfect. It won’t even kind of be perfect. I’m a good typist, but I make mistakes. Sometimes the cursor jumps around. Sometimes my sentence structure is poor.
So, naturally I made up my mind to try blind journaling, to challenge my perfectionism if for no other reason.
I chose a day off and journaled the usual way for a bit, then set a timer for 20 minutes, shut my eyes and blind journaled. I thought I was already emptied out, but wow. I was in full flood when the timer went off, and it felt like I’d only been doing it for five minutes. I loved it. I knew I was making mistakes (which I refused, by the way, to go back and fix!), but they didn’t interrupt my process. I just kept going, never looking back, never losing the thread of what I was saying. No visual distraction whatsoever.
I didn’t want to stop.
Well!, I thought. This will be a fun thing to blog about.
Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020
I picked up my 16-ounce cup of tea, pomegranate green this season. Our little calico cat, Izzy, who had been snuggled in her favorite position in my armpit, woke up and decided she wanted to be in my lap where the laptop was. I pushed her away. She came back. I pushed her away. She started chewing on the upper corner of the screen, an obnoxious habit she has. I pushed her away with more irritation this time. The tea I was holding slopped onto the keyboard. I cursed, wiped it away, tipped the computer and let it drip out. I got a couple of Q-tips and dried around the three or four keys that got splashed. I sat down again to go back to my peaceful morning journaling.
The computer died.
I plugged it in in case the battery was run down, but I knew it wasn’t. I let it be for an hour, then tried to turn it on.
When the computer store opened, I got in the car and took it over. Mark, my computer guy, shook his head. I left it in his capable hands.
Now my quiet day off, in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything but noodle around at home, had turned upside down. My serenity fled. My excitement about starting a rough draft of a post on blind journaling withered. I couldn’t pay bills and deal with money, always a major stressor. Speaking of money, replacing my laptop would cost over $1,000. And what would repairs cost? And how much money do I have in savings? In checking? I couldn’t check! Panic until I remembered my cell phone is connected to the Internet. I couldn’t write, at least not with a word processor.
But none of that was the worst thing. The worst thing, and I’m completely mortified by this fact and would prefer to hide it from both myself and the world, was Icouldn’t play solitaire!
Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash
This realization was so unwelcome I longed, craved, itched to play a few games of solitaire and “think about it.” Except that’s a lie. I wanted to play solitaire so I could numb out.
I roamed around the house, restless, wanting to crawl out of my own skin. The day I had looked forward to suddenly seemed dull and endless. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t know what to do with my anxiety. I started waiting for the phone to ring with news of my machine.
I did eventually get a grip but I recognized the symptoms of withdrawal from an addiction, and I didn’t like it. I kept myself busy with several tasks I’d been putting off. I cut greens I’d gathered with a friend a few days before and decorated for Yule. I pulled out a notebook and continued journaling, off and on, long hand. It gave me a sore hand, but it helped. I told myself I could rough out a blog post long hand, too. But it was probably not worth it. I’d have my laptop back by the end of the day. Probably. Maybe. Wouldn’t I?
I set aside the budget and a couple of bills I’d just received and weren’t due for a week or more. I tried not to think about money, or scarcity, or money.
Not thinking about money – la, la, la-la – fingers in my ears and eyes squinched shut.
I tried not to think about my email piling up. I read some of it on my phone, but the screen was so small it wasn’t much fun.
I thought and journaled about how busy I always feel, how often I hear myself say I’m tired, how overwhelmed I feel. I’ve been telling myself feeling overwhelmed is natural. I work; I run a blog and a Substack page, publishing on both every weekend; I’m writing another book; and now I’m co-manager of a long-distance situation in which a loved one is recovering from a broken hip and sinking into dementia. I anticipate making the long trip from Maine to Colorado and back again at some point during the holiday season, running the gauntlet of weather, travel complications, crowds, and various respiratory viruses. Oh, and spending money I don’t have. Especially if I have to replace my laptop.
Of course I’m overwhelmed.
Yes, said a snarky little voice in my head, “and how much time and energy does it cost you to play solitaire in all the pauses, cracks, and crevices of your life? What about visual stimulation? What about your problem with speeding? What about your anxiety? You’re not helping your anxiety, you’re feeding it!
The day passed and the computer guy didn’t call. The next day was a work day. Normally I would have been working on posts for the weekend ahead. I was beginning to feel behind. If I didn’t get the laptop back I wasn’t going to be able to post. Less than perfect. Inconsistent. Letting my readers down. Everyone would probably unsubscribe. Even if I got the laptop back, the weekend was going to be tight. Starting from scratch on Saturday morning for Harvesting Stones and on Sunday morning for Substack takes a lot of hours out of my weekend, when I also run errands, clean, do laundry, cook for the week ahead, and take care of business I haven’t had a chance to do during the week.
And I was already tired. Already wanting those two days off, not to fill up, but to relax in. Could the solitaire really be feeding my anxiety rather than calming it, I wondered?
Yes, your solitaire habit is feeding your anxiety. You know it.
At the end of the day, I called my computer guy. He informed me my machine was disassembled and he’d been running a fan on it night and day. He didn’t know if it was a goner or not; he wasn’t going to put it back together and plug it in until he was sure every molecule of water was gone. He told me, rather pointedly, he’d call me.
OK, I thought. I won’t post this weekend. Nobody will care but me. I’m allowed to take a weekend off. I read all kinds of people who take frequent breaks and pauses. I don’t think any the less of them for it; in fact, I admire their self-care and confidence.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
Friday happens to be my nine-hour day at work, so I wouldn’t have used the laptop much that day in any case. I gritted my teeth, used a computer at work to catch up a little, and tried not to worry too much. I never play solitaire at work, so it was my third day without it.
Meanwhile, I made and received long distance calls from the facility where my loved one is recovering physically and wandering mentally. I finished the book I was reading and started another. I journaled a lot in my notebook. I played with the cats, giving them my full attention, which felt nice. I noticed what I was eating and enjoyed the taste of my meals, unusual for me. I savored my tea more. I wrapped a few Yule gifts and got them in the mail. I did some cleaning. I exercised. I put on an old movie and did upper and lower body resistance training in front of it rather than playing solitaire.
I slept well. I felt less exhausted. The inside of my head was quieter. I even took a nap, a thing I don’t normally do, as playing solitaire is “resting.” (Uh-huh. Whatever you say.) My anxiety ratcheted way down. I had a couple of crying jags, but they passed and I felt relieved rather than more upset when they were over.
I had more time.
I have more time because I’m not writing without my laptop, I thought.
“No. You have more time because you’re not playing solitaire in all the cracks and crevices,” said the snarky voice.
On Friday, while I was at work, my laptop was resurrected and my partner brought it home. What saved its life, I am told, was there was no sugar in the tea. Who knew?
By Friday evening, when I returned home from work, I’d made some decisions:
No more solitaire.
No more liquid in close proximity to the laptop.
Take the weekend off. Really take it off. No pressure to post and publish. No solitaire. Embrace the pause. Make it last. Feel about things. Think about things. Be present.
All weekend I had the half delighted, half guilty feeling I was playing hooky. I ran several errands. I journaled on the word processor. I dealt with receipts, bills, accounts, the budget. I did some cleaning and laundry. I read. I listened to music. I watched a couple of movies and exercised. I played with the cats. I texted with a friend. I talked to my loved one and their nurse in Colorado. I made a new recipe for a pork shoulder in the crock pot which made the house smell like citrus, garlic, and herbs. I read several inspiring pieces from the Substackers and minimalists I follow. I started making notes for this post, which flowed into writing a rough draft.
It was a good weekend. It didn’t feel too short or too rushed. I didn’t feel pressure or anxiety. I slept well.
I’ve realized it’s time to make some changes. It’s a good time of year to reevaluate and do that, right? I didn’t set out to do it, but once it was forced upon me I realized I’ve been running a little faster every day for a long time, feeling a little more tense and anxious, and needing a little more numbing to manage it all. I’m grateful I was forced to stop. I’m going to start moving again, but in a different way, with slightly new priorities and without the damn solitaire!
(“You’ve finished the post!” says the snarky voice. “You’re way ahead this week. Wouldn’t you like to relax, play a game of solitaire, and celebrate?”
Oh, shut up!)
What’s your favorite numbing activity?
On a scale of 1 (hardly any) to 10 (all), how much of your power does it have? Are you uncomfortable about the level of power your habit has over you?
Does your habit increase your anxiety?
Does your habit decrease your focus?
Have you ever formally kept track of the time you spend doing your favorite numbing activity?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m sitting at my desk this morning, the sun shining on the wet grass scattered with wrinkled leaves outside my window. I’ve just been running errands. My desk, unusually, is piled high with scraps of paper, notebooks, my calendar, receipts, to-do lists, and a new binder and paper I just bought to help me organize. My big grey tabby, Oz, is busily knocking everything off the desk and chewing on a new plastic package of AAA batteries because I won’t let him lie on the keyboard.
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
I was sick most of October. I’m finally on antibiotics; I can breathe, and consequently think, more clearly. A week ago an aged family member living halfway across the country with whom I have a lifelong troubled history became openly unable to manage their life and then fell and broke their hip in quick succession.
Sometimes life requires us to muster every bit of learning, wisdom, strength, courage, insight and experience we have in a catastrophic practical test, like a nightmarish pop quiz. This is one of those times. It helps to look at it that way, because I know I have (somewhere) everything I need to manage this situation with all my considerable compassion and clear-sightedness.
This last week I let go of everything. My living space needs to be cleaned. I desperately want to change my sheets after so many nights crying, coughing, and trying to breathe adequately enough to snatch some sleep. I’m longing to escape my phone and laptop, sit in the sun, read, relax, do some gentle gardening (still like late summer here in Maine). I haven’t even started on this post yet, a thing I usually do during the week.
I made it to work. I made it to the doctor for antibiotics. I stayed hydrated. Aside from reactive crisis intervention and coming to terms with what’s happening long-distance, that’s about all I can say for myself. But now, at last, I’m beginning to stir feebly into some kind of normal experience again.
It’s a relief.
I opened this document and started typing without any plan whatsoever. I don’t have to post today on this blog. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I suppose I’ve grown used to the opportunity to organize my life into words every week.
For nearly a decade I’ve worked intensively on boundaries. Ten years ago I knew nothing about personal boundaries. My life was accordingly dysfunctional. It was hardly my life at all, in fact. It was everyone else’s life. I’ve written extensively about boundaries on the blog, and the concept of the difference between your experience and mine is woven heavily into my fiction. I’ve practiced building and maintaining healthy boundaries in the last years, though I’m still far from perfect in working with them.
But I’m getting better all the time.
When we are prevented from building appropriate psychological boundaries as children, we never create an internal world in which we can rest, center, and ground. We become an image in someone else’s mirror, a paper doll, a nonperson.
Nonpeople have no needs, no credibility, and no permission to express themselves as individuals. It’s worse than no permission, though. Nonpeople are severely punished for any independent feeling, need, or expression. Nonpeople have no private life. They’re not allowed to say no.
This kind of relationship, sadly, is often invisible to onlookers. From the outside, such connections look bonded and mutually adoring. The public view never sees the anguish involved in a relationship without boundaries.
Anguish on both sides. Those who seek to prevent others from having boundaries are deeply damaged, insecure people whose own boundaries were likely brutally violated and torn down. They are terrified of being alone, and a boundary makes them feel utterly outcast and rejected.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
But for me, boundaries are sanity. They’re safety. They allow the power to choose and respect to flow both ways. They say, “My self is worthy. Your self is worthy. We can choose to love one another as well as ourselves.”
Reshaping a primary relationship with no boundaries into one with healthy ones is excruciating. It may not be possible. I haven’t decided it is impossible, but I wonder. One of the hardest things about it is how it looks to outsiders, who don’t understand why all the harsh edges and corners are suddenly showing in such a perfect, loving relationship, the kind we all want, the kind we should feel lucky to have.
Another feeling I’m present with just now is the nauseating swing between relief and guilt. All secrets, painful family secrets included, have an uncomfortable way of being revealed. Even if everyone involved conspires to keep the secret, eventually, often in a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of way, someone or something like a terrible series of events exposes it.
I’ve posted about such ideas as loyalty, responsibility, duty, gaslighting and projection. The bars of prisons built by family systems are forged out of concepts and strategies like these. But when a secret escapes the bars melt away and we’re suddenly free. We’re not alone in solitary anymore.
Some stranger says to us, “Oh, yes. I’m familiar with that dynamic. I’ve observed that behavior. I understand,” and we realize we are not crazy. We are not mean and ugly. We are not hateful.
We are not alone.
The relief of validation is indescribable. So is the guilt accompanying the relief. When we guard secrets, literally with our lives, for the sake of protecting the dignity of a loved one and the secrets are revealed through no fault of our own, we also feel exposed. The mere fact that we were the designated secret keeper means we failed.
Our love and the cost of bearing the secret’s burden for so long doesn’t matter. The least we can do, the least we can do, is remove all the boundaries we’ve erected so carefully and painstakingly and once again give up our lives, our freedom, our selves. Our loved one’s anguish should become our anguish, their pain our pain, their limitations our limitations. If necessary, their death should be our death. Because we betrayed, we let them down, we failed.
The secret got out.
I can’t see very far ahead. It’s not useful to gaze at the road behind. I’ve already walked it and everything is different now, the people involved and the situation. Right now I know where I am. I can see the next steps. This is a new path, one I’ve never taken before. It’s a new script, a new experience. I’m working on releasing my assumptions. I don’t know what will happen next. I can predict, but predictions make me tired. What I have is right now, today. I know what I will do today, both in my personal life and to manage my loved one’s situation.
This time I will find a way to inhabit my boundaries and support my loved one without sacrificing one for the other. I will make phone calls, send emails, get myself organized to do whatever I can long distance and prepare to travel in case of need. I will grieve.
I will also write, get outside, do some laundry, maybe take a nap, and work on recovering my health, because mine is the only life I can live.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
“Unity does not mean sameness. It means oneness of purpose.”
Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash
I’ve been thinking about this quote for a couple of weeks now. It’s especially relevant for these times, when social and political tensions are so high around division and unity.
We’ve understood the strength inherent in unity for a long time, but what exactly is unity? Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as “the state of being united or joined as a whole.” Note ‘sameness’ is not part of the definition.
Division and disconnection, however, are excellent ways to disempower individuals or groups of people. Authoritarians know this and take advantage of successful strategies and tools to achieve social chaos, violence, and play on our innate paranoia and tendency to distrust and blame others. Controlling media and communication as well as the flow of information (facts), stamping out free speech and critical thinking, invalidating science and data, weakening education, and allowing ideologues, fanatics, and seriously disordered people to gain and maintain positions of power are direct frontal attacks on unity.
We can see how highly effective such strategies are. Slowly, we’ve drifted into the belief that unity is sameness. Black and white can’t work together. Men and women are enemies. Republicans and Democrats, left and right, vaxers and anti-vaxers, must all maintain oppositional positions.
But unity does not mean sameness.
Neither can unity be forced. Some time ago I wrote about Gaven de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. As far as I’m concerned, this should be required reading for every woman in the world. One of the concepts de Becker has coined is that of “forced teaming.”
Forced teaming is an intentional, directed manipulation projecting shared purpose or experience where none exists. It’s an effort to force premature trust and false intimacy. The example de Becker uses involves a strange man approaching a woman juggling bags of groceries and offering to help. Ignoring the response of “No, thank you,” the man speaks in an insistent, friendly, pleasant way of “we.” “We neighbors need to help one another out.” The woman, polite and not wanting to be unpleasant to this nice man, acquiesces. She unlocks her door and lets the man in with a couple of bags of her groceries.
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash
Forced teaming is extremely hard to deal with because it’s subtle, and rejecting it feels rude.
I tripped over that word and fell flat on my face. My inability and complete unwillingness to ever be rude has handcuffed me my whole life. It’s opened me up to abuse and trauma, silenced me, and fueled my self-hatred and self-harm.
All because I didn’t want to be rude.
I never consider whether someone is being rude to me. All I have room for is the desire to avoid behaving in such a way at all costs.
Ladies, when a strange man approaches us in a vulnerable situation, it’s rude. And dangerous. He may mean well. He may not. We can’t tell and we’re fools if we trust a strange man when we’re in an unsafe situation. I don’t care how well he’s disguised as Prince Charming or how solicitous and warm and friendly he is. Forced teaming does not occur in a situation of coincidence. It’s deliberate and directed at manipulating us. Are we unable to push past the taboo of rudeness and say, “I didn’t ask for your help and I don’t want it”? Would we rather put ourselves at real risk for violence? Is the social mandate against rudeness, especially for women, that strong?
It’s not, when I lay it out like this, on the screen, in words. Of course I can see how foolish it is to put manners ahead of my own health and safety. But in the moment, I’d be a woman who didn’t notice my “No, thank you,” was ignored. I wouldn’t want to make a fuss or a scene. I wouldn’t want to hurt the nice guy’s feelings. I wouldn’t want to be a bitch.
I wouldn’t want to be rude.
Oxford Online Dictionary defines rude as “offensively impolite or ill-mannered; startlingly abrupt.”
Notice the subjectivity of that definition. Many people currently appear to believe disagreement is rude. Biological fact is rude. The truth is rude. Boundaries are rude. Questions are rude. Discussion and debate are rude. Speaking up in self-defense is rude. Saying no is rude.
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash
Rudeness is tricky. We all have a private list of rude behaviors that make us cringe. It’s important to note the list varies from person to person. I’ve known people who were brought up to consider sneezing out loud rude. They go through all kinds of contortions to avoid it, emitting a variety of hilarious sounds. It always makes me smile when I run into this. I wasn’t raised with a prohibition against sneezing, so to my way of thinking it’s not rude if the sneeze is covered or contained and a murmured “excuse me” follows it.
Rudeness is so often in the eye of the beholder.
Of course, those who try to control us with forced teaming and other manipulative techniques will be loud about how rude we are when we refuse to accept those tactics. We’re likely to be publicly shamed and called hateful names.
But we’re less likely to get dragged into a car, raped, or murdered.
It boils down to the old problem of saying no. If we decide saying no is rude, the only polite way to live is to have no power and no boundaries. Who would benefit from a such a compliant and disempowered population?
I like the idea of oneness of purpose. It’s a container for strength, cooperation, and integrity. However, this, too, is a minefield because, to put it rudely, people lie about their purpose and agenda. Forced teaming comes into play. A small group with intentions to grab power approaches a larger, well-established and organized group working for empowerment and support of a marginalized population and says we’re with you! We want the same thing! Look how alike we are! You have to include us!
Individuals and groups who have been marginalized are particularly loath to repel this kind of invasion because they believe in kindness, tolerance, and an equal playing field, and they know from their own experience how painful and unjust systemic discrimination and bigotry are. They are successfully infiltrated, manipulated, and weakened from the inside by the smaller group, who never had any intention of working and playing well with others and only wanted to co-opt the established group’s presence, position, and power for their own ends.
To achieve oneness of purpose, we would have to agree on priorities, have equal access to information (facts) and resources, create strategies and systems to improve our situation, tell the truth, and consent to work with people different from us in a variety of ways.
It sounds lovely. It also sounds like fantasy in our current social context.
Never in my lifetime has unity felt so out of reach.
Never in my lifetime has unity appeared so necessary.