We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on reptiles, plants, fish and insects warning of toxicity.
We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.
I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.
Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.
Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.
The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.
Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.
Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.
Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.
Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of patterns resulting in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.
As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.
One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.
What I like best about Eddy is he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.
Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.
In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:
Preoccupation with blaming others
–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)
The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.
In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.
In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.
If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.
If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.
Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.
In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.
Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.
I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.
All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.
I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.
I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.
I would have been wrong.
I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.
Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.
The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.
This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.
If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.
When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?
I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.
For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.
It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.
I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.
It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.
The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.
We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.
No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.
True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.
I’m not a fan of labels. They say too much and too little at the same time, and they’re too easy to use imprecisely. Words and definitions matter to me. On the other hand, labels can be useful in that they symbolize a cluster of defining characteristics that have been well enough recognized and described to get labeled in the first place.
At the end of the day, I have a love/hate relationship with labels. I resist taking them on and I resist defining anyone else with them; however, in the course of exploring and reading about our human experience, certain labels have been enormously healing and helpful in my understanding of myself and patterns of behavior I’ve been involved in. I’m proud to carry some labels, even though I rarely talk about them, such as being highly sensitive, as defined by Elaine Aron, PhD. I’m deeply humiliated by other labels, and only reluctantly admit to them, but I know they belong to me whether I admit it or not.
PTSD is a label like that. PTSD is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. As a young woman, I associated PTSD mostly with Vietnam vets who came home from the war with deep psychic and often physical injuries. Over my lifetime, PTSD has gradually been more commonly recognized and talked about, and the label has expanded to cover all kinds of experiences outside of war. I encounter it regularly, several times each work shift as a medical transcriptionist. Some people are severely affected in their daily lives, and others function very well unless they get triggered.
I grew up actively ignoring my own pain and deeply involved with everyone else’s. I had the idea I was the cause of the pain in those around me and it was up to me to fix it. My own experience wasn’t significant. I also believed it was against the rules for me to have pain in the first place; pain or distress were shameful and weak and had to be concealed and denied at all costs.
This set of beliefs has made me, for most of my adult life, numb to my own distress. I often didn’t recognize pain at all, and automatically employed various coping strategies to deal with it. Sometimes it wasn’t until days or even weeks later I realized dimly I was distressed after a particular conversation or event, and then I felt shame about my distress. This is part of the dynamic that kept me with an abuser for years. I couldn’t really feel emotionally what was happening, even when I tasted blood. There was a disconnect.
At some point it dawned on me that I have PTSD.
Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash
I was academically injured and emotionally abused as a child in fourth grade math, which happened to be the year I was introduced to story problems. Before and after that time I successfully navigated beginning math, high school math, fractions, geometry, algebra and even a college semester of calculus and did just fine, all the while firmly convinced by the limiting belief that I couldn’t do math. I failed chemistry and physics in college, the first classes I’d ever failed in my life. Why? Story problems. I became suicidal and severely depressed and eventually dropped out of college, never to return.
I got a job, got married, and began an adult life. I dealt with a paycheck, a bank account, a checkbook, bills, budgeting, taxes, credit cards and all the rest with no problem. But I still believed I couldn’t do math, and for years I had recurring nightmares about getting on the wrong bus at school (they were identified by numbers) or forgetting my locker combination.
For me, living with PTSD is like living with hidden landmines. I go about my business feeling competent, efficient and organized, and then — WHAM!
I’ve been two years in Maine now, with a new address and phone. Six months ago, I was making an appointment to get my hair cut and was asked for my phone number (landline, not cell phone). There was a lady behind me, waiting. Another of my triggers. Terrible things happen when you make people wait. The stylist was in front of me, pencil poised, needing to get back to work and deal with other customers. What’s more basic than your phone number, for God’s sake? A 6-year-old can recite her phone number. These days, most 6-year-olds probably have their own phone numbers!
Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash
I was blank. Utterly and completely shut down. Stopped in my tracks. There was nothing in my head but static. I was freezing cold, nailed to the floor, and I don’t think I could have counted from one to ten in that moment. Somewhere deep inside I was screaming, hysterical, panic stricken, and sobbing with shame, but that was happening in another galaxy. My numbers thing had struck again.
Fortunately, I know myself, and unfortunately, this was neither the first nor the last time something like this happened. I went into my wallet and pulled out a piece of paper with my phone number, my address, my birth date, my children’s birth dates, my partner’s phone number and, in disguise, my SS number. I said something about having a new phone number, read it off and got out of there. I sat in the car, shaking, decided I didn’t have to throw up, and went home.
Sitting right here, I know my phone number as well as you know yours, but I’m not under pressure. I also have all the above information pinned onto the bulletin board in my office in the next room, because this can happen when I’m on the phone, too. Someone asks me for my birthday, and that’s it. The lights go out. Total and complete nothingness. I know the month of my birthday because that’s a word, and I love words, but no date, no year.
I’ll write a hundred checks with no problems. Then, one day in a busy store with a line behind me and a hassled cashier, I won’t know the date, not just the numbered date, but the day of the week, the month, the year. It’s just not there. I look at what I’m wearing for clues. I look at the carbon of the last check I wrote, trying to hide that I’m looking. I ask casually what the date is and get the numbered day of the month—but not the month. Somehow, I get through it, but then I’m likely to write the check for the wrong amount because I’m so upset. It doesn’t happen every time, or even most of the time, which is part of the problem. It’s only certain situations, and often I can’t tell what triggered it, so I can’t predict, either. All I can do is be ready and try to deal with my shame and humiliation when it does happen.
It’s on my mind this week because it happened again yesterday.
I work online as a medical transcriptionist and use various software programs for timesheets, recordkeeping and the actual transcription. I’ve been doing this for ten years. As in any job, there are irritating policies and procedures to follow, but I’m familiar with them and I’m extremely meticulous and detail-oriented (no, I did NOT say perfectionistic!), so it’s all in a day’s work.
Except yesterday I realized I somehow made a mistake in my time sheet, and my supervisor was understandably peeved and needed me to fix it. The mistake involved my time sheet, my pay check and my balance of yearly leave hours, all of which, naturally, are represented by numbers. It all conspired in a perfect storm of personal triggers, and I came undone.
Shaking, clammy hands. Hammering heart. Gasping for breath. Trembling legs. Hysterical sobbing. I looked frantically from Leave Request to Timesheet to Records and back again. None of it made sense. I couldn’t even properly recognize a single number. They might as well have been Chinese characters. Punch in, punch out, punch in, punch out — it was like an apocalyptic story problem.
I knew what was happening. I knew I was out of control. I knew I was helpless in the grip of it, and I also knew it would pass.
I got up and left the computer. With my partner, I was able to calm down enough to find language, and talk about it, which helped. Then I ate a big meal. Then I took some music into a quiet part of the house where I wouldn’t be disturbed and danced.
When I went back for my second shift, I looked again, and this time I saw. I knew what my mistake was. It all made sense. I see where I punched in, ran out of work, punched out again. It’s rational, it’s real, it’s verifiable. I’m not crazy. It’s all okay. I know what to do to fix it, but it’s 10:30 in the morning of the next day now and I still haven’t done so. I will. I know I can. But first I wanted to write this and go swimming. I feel a little like I got run over by a truck yesterday, and I still need some recovery time.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
This is an experience of PTSD behind the label. What I’m trying to do with this week’s post is remind myself and everyone else that labels are cold, dead things that convey intellectual ideas and information. They can be useful, but they’re limited. Behind every label we use, apply or accept, there’s human experience and feelings, and they’re real, visceral, passionate, complex and sometimes painful, even though they may be invisible to an outside eye.
I know PTSD is only a small part of who I am, a mere fraction, a little hairline crack. It’s there. I’ll own it, but I don’t have to allow it to limit me.
I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent patternof red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
I noticed a social pattern last week I’ve never seen clearly before.
I was involved in a situation at the pool facility where I work in which a distressed person (person #1) needed support. The situation did not arise in a private place, and there were onlookers. It continued for about 30 minutes, which is a long time when someone is visibly and audibly struggling with pain and grief.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The situation resolved, of course. We cannot fix the challenges and difficulties others face, but we can be with them while they feel their feelings and lend our strength, compassion, and energy until they can move forward. My team and I provided the needed support.
A few minutes later, a witness to the interaction (person #2) attempted to monopolize my attention and monologed about their pain, medical history, and personal difficulties.
I had completely different reactions to these two circumstances.
I have never known the first person to engage in attention-seeking behavior. On the contrary, in spite of significant disability person #1 is generally upbeat and determined, working very hard to gain strength and independence and supporting those around them who also face physical limitations and challenges. When things fell apart it was an anomaly, my empathy arose immediately, and I stepped in without hesitation or thought. I entered into their experience as fully as I could with nothing held back, completely focused on support.
In the second case, person #2 was no better or worse than usual, and is much more able than person #1 at baseline. While other witnesses had expressed compassion for person #1 (“that could be any one of us”), person #2 did not, but launched into a harrowing personal account that felt both competitive and demanding. I was wet (I’d gone into the pool in my clothes), cold, and emotionally worn out, as well as sad about the difficult experiences some people go through. I felt I was expected to supply more emotional energy, not as a temporary support on a bad day, but as a continuing source.
I silently declined, putting my empathy behind a boundary to rest and recover, and employed my usual level of compassionate listening. After a few minutes, I politely excused myself and moved away.
We’re all familiar with the adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. These interactions made me consider the failing wheels that do not squeak. Years ago, when I did fire and rescue work, I learned the loudest victim of an accident is probably not the most seriously injured. The person in hysterics clearly has an airway and a pulse. It’s the quiet victims one needs to assess first. This is true of drowning victims, as well. If a drowning victim is yelling for help, they’re in less immediate danger than the one sliding silently below the surface.
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I’m one of the quiet ones. Stoic, mistrustful, often blaming myself for my own distress, I conceal it as best I can for as long as I can. I’m much better about asking for what I need than I used to be, thanks to my extraordinary group of friends, but I can relate to the one who is in deep emotional trouble and needing the most support and never asking for it. Pain and grief build up in the silence of our own heads and hearts. Our wordless anguish swells until it finds some kind of an outlet, and that outlet can be messy and humiliating.
I vividly remember being a school kid in a classroom. I was frequently bored. Some teachers allowed me to read or gave me extra credit or advanced assignments when I’d finished the assigned work, but some did not. I watched the clock while students who struggled with reading read aloud. I gritted my teeth. I daydreamed. I did my homework. I refrained from raising my hand, even though I generally knew the correct answer. I ignored the whispers about being a “goody-two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.” I continually defended against my neighbors trying to copy my work. I watched in resignation as the “squeaky wheels” acted out, floundered academically, and otherwise consumed all the teachers’ energy and attention. If allowed, I read a book. If not allowed, I read ahead in my textbooks. Anything to make the time go by. Of course, if I read ahead I only invited more boredom in the weeks ahead. My teachers said I was a “good kid,” I was a “pleasure to have in the classroom.”
I was not and am not a squeaky wheel. I was invisible. I could have learned so much more. I wanted to learn so much more. But there was no leftover grease. The squeakers and squealers got it all. Every day.
I know people who are comfortably well-off financially (comparatively) and are always talking about money, trying to make more money, dreaming what they would do with lots of money, blatantly pinching pennies to save money, gloating over the money they have, using their money to manipulate others. I know other people who are quite financially distressed and never complain. All their energy goes into working to earn more and doing without to spend less, but they don’t talk about it. If I didn’t know, I’d never know.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
It’s an interesting social paradox that those among us who are most in need are sometimes the quietest about it, while attention seekers fight to remain center stage under the brightest spotlight. Yet the attention seekers frequently are the least able to utilize support and validation in such a way as to build self-reliance and independence. They crave the attention, but it doesn’t satisfy. They can’t use it effectively. It only feeds their hunger.
Others can transform with a little bit of care and attention. They use every kindness and expression of support to move forward and grow. They don’t want to be dependent on external attention.
We all need support sometimes. Any wheel can develop a squeak. Some people want support all the time and some wheels squeak continually no matter how much grease they get. As we make choices about investing our time and energy in our relationships, it’s important to know the difference.