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The Public Eye and other Controllers

I recently came across a haunting question in my newsfeed:

Without a public eye, who are we?

Wow.

This single question encompasses much of my uneasiness around social media and identity politics.

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.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

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.

Just me.

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.

With or without a public eye, we are ourselves.

My daily crime.

Enabling Is Not Love

I’ve struggled all my life with confusion about the difference between enabling and love. Most of us think of enabling in the context of addiction, and we’re familiar with the idea that helping an addict avoid the consequences of their addiction is not, in the long run, useful.

It’s a pretty clear idea in theory. In practice, however, it’s a whole different story.

Enabling, denying, or allowing destructive patterns of behavior to continue extends far beyond the issue of addiction. Compassionate, loving people who sincerely want to help and support others wind up enabling all kinds of toxic behavior with the best intentions in the world, or completely unconsciously.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

That’s the problem. Enabling can look and feel so much like love. Choosing not to enable can look and feel so much like rejection, selfishness, or even hate.

I’ve spent years of my life enabling toxic behavior in the name of love, duty, and loyalty. I’ve truly believed that with enough modeling and patience I could heal the destructive behavior of others. For most of my life I’ve lived with the happy but delusional belief that my unconditional love is enough to keep my loved ones happy and healthy.

I only wish I had that much power.

Choosing not to enable or deny is heartbreaking. It’s a choice I’ve had to make, and I feel daily anguish over it, even as I know in my heart I’m doing the right thing for myself and those I love.

Those of us who are intimately familiar with patterns of addiction and toxic behavior know the unrelenting pressure from well-meaning but clueless onlookers to excuse and/or rescue loved ones from the consequences of their choices.

People who expect or demand to be enabled do everything they can to keep the dynamic alive. Remember that those who punish us for our boundaries are the ones who gain the most from their absence. One of the important patterns that helps identify relationships in which enabling is taking place is when we make any kind of excuse for a pattern of destructive behavior. So-and-so is not loved. Nobody has ever understood them (but us). They’ve had various kinds of trauma. The world is against them. Nothing ever works out for them. They’re disenfranchised and alienated. They’re suffering and nobody cares. They have no one to turn to. They can’t afford to get help.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Solving or covering up someone else’s problems is very different from empowering them. We empower when we teach skills, share resources or give someone tools that support them in solving their own challenges. The difficulty is that someone stuck in a chronic pattern of destructive behavior doesn’t always want this kind of power. Resources, tools and skills are of no use if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our troubles, and it’s so much easier and more comfortable to deny or blame someone or something else for our destructive patterns and their consequences.

Unfortunately, the emotional dynamics of enabling are hard to fully understand until and unless we’ve experienced them for ourselves. I want to protect loved ones from going through the pain and damage that occurs to relationships when toxic behavior is present. I never want them to feel as torn apart as I have. I want them to use the resources and tools I can offer and learn from my mistakes.

Again, I only wish I had that much power.

As a lifelong caregiver, I’ve abdicated rescuing myself in favor of rescuing others. This is the shadow side of caregiving. Enabling others, entering into an unspoken agreement to work harder on their problems and lives than they do, is a dead end that keeps us nicely distracted from coming to terms with our own challenges. Even worse are relationships based on an unwritten agreement to mutually enable one another’s dysfunction.

Another part of why we choose to enable can be to help soothe our own anxiety. We don’t want to be in conflict with those we love. We don’t want to lose relationships that are dear to us. We don’t want to deal with a lot of trauma and drama. It’s easier and quicker just to write another check to help out one more time because our family member or friend can’t stay employed due to their substance abuse. It’s easier to manage their lives ourselves than watch them muddle along without clean socks and food in the fridge or listen to their constant complaining.

You’re an enabler if you’re asking why they keep doing it. Ask instead why you keep allowing it. As long as you allow it, they’ll probably do it. They’ve got no motivation to do anything else.

Enabling is painful, stressful, and will burn us out. It might take a long time, but eventually it will eat us up and drain us dry. It may feel like love, or duty, or loyalty, but it isn’t. It’s destructive for everyone involved.

For me, one of the most insidious aspects of enabling is keeping secrets. I’m not talking about protecting personal privacy or keeping confidences. I mean pretending not to notice that Brent is high again on the job, or looking the other way when a loved one drives home drunk from the bar. The biggest reasons I’ve kept secrets are shame (I must be a terrible person if someone I’m closely connected to is in such trouble), loyalty, and my effort to protect others.

You’d think I’d learn.

Keeping secrets implies tolerance, and it allows destructive patterns to continue and worsen. Every single time we pretend not to see, cover up or make excuses, we’re making the inevitable crash worse for everyone involved. Another reason I’ve kept secrets is for fear of no one believing me, or being told I’m overreacting (which masks their own denial). It’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and say nothing. Then everyone is more comfortable. Everyone except me. All that unsaid feeling and horror becomes a stone I carry in my heart, mute, but agonizing.

Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash

As counterintuitive and inadequate as it seems, the best thing we can do for loved ones struggling with toxic patterns of behavior, including addiction, is care for ourselves and stay firmly rooted in our own lives. If our offers of skills, tools and/or resources are rejected, we have no further power in the lives of others. We can only meet our own needs and solve our own problems, even if it means we must walk away from relationships in order to save ourselves.

Not everyone will understand or support us in refusing to enable, particularly the person we’ve been enabling. However, making the choice to live another day in our own lives means we can continue to be available to appropriately love and support someone when they’re ready for it, and at the very least provides a model of empowerment and self-responsibility.

Enabling is not love. It may seem like the easiest choice, but love requires much more than easy choices.

Not enabling, but empowering myself and others. My daily crime.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

Losing It

On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.

I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.

During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson, contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague, lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.

It was a good day.

We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes, clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.

I couldn’t find my key.

Where was my key?

I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It wasn’t on the floor.

Where was my key?

I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.

My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine. No key.

It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.

There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him to come and get me.

What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling, boring story? We’ve all lost keys.

The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly that it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.

Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash

For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted that I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.

My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was that I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.

My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind), and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.

My own experience of myself was quite different, but it didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.

In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full custody if that was best for them.

I didn’t think that was best for them.

But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered. I knew that.

So, I thought I would get an objective, professional evaluation.

We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying that I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?

When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.

I was blinded by the realization that he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!

“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.

“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.

We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.

From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it, see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.

Yet the key was gone.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality that others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?

All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.

Because I lost my car key.

While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm is looming on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.

All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?

Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational, sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?

Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.

Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car. My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses. The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the pool.

No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again. Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags without much hope.

A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held out the key on its fob in her palm.

For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.

So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?

We realized that my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.

The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.

Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience are real. I’m rational (most of the time—but I recognize my own irrationality when it’s happening!). I know the difference between reality and fantasy.

I’m okay. Again. Still.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me over—hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.

My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities that I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.

In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.

Lost and found. My daily crime.

Speeding

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t manage my empathy very satisfactorily. Several years ago, I found a couple of books by Rose Rosetree (here’s my first wince, because my own last name is Rose; too many roses!), Empowered by Empathy and Become the Most Important Person in the Room. (Here’s my second wince: from empathy to narcissism—becoming the most important person in the room! I’ve never wanted to be the most important person in the room. My lifelong ambition has been to become the invisible person in the room!)

I’m embarrassed to admit that these two books, which sound entirely woo from the author’s name to the titles, have been remarkably important tools for me.

Life is strange.

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Online Dictionary). Whew. The definition, at any rate, is not woo! I’ve heard people use the terms empathy and sensitivity as though they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Highly sensitive personality types and empathy are strongly correlated, but sensitivity and empathy are not identical.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Furthermore, being a highly sensitive personality is not the same as being histrionic. Histrionic personality disorder describes a person with a pattern of uncontrolled attention-seeking emotions. Highly sensitive people are generally not attention-seeking; rather the reverse! If you are interacting with a histrionic personality, you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing when outrage, offense or other extreme (and loudly expressed) emotions are going to be triggered. You’re also being drained and exhausted by the constant demand for attention and validation the histrionic personality requires. Think: Intense, unrelenting drama and trauma.

Highly sensitive people think, feel and process deeply; are insightful; are often introverted; are frequently highly creative; and often struggle with overstimulation and overwhelm. We’re more likely to deal with our trauma privately and silently from under the bed or within a closet.

But I digress … I was writing about managing empathy. Rosetree’s books are filled with various exercises designed to help people figure out how to use their empathy effectively and appropriately, which is to say control it.

Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash

It may seem strange to a non-empath, but uncontrolled empathy is a recipe for mental, emotional and physical breakdowns. Unskilled empaths unconsciously push their own feelings, needs, and experience aside in order to absorb the unacknowledged or unwanted feelings of others. Hence, the need to learn how to become the most important person in the room, at least to ourselves, or even as important as everyone else.

Much of learning how to manage empathy boils down to managing our attention and presence. The exercises are ridiculously simple, and at first glance seem like a waste of time.

For example, one of the first exercises is to sit quietly and comfortably and do an eyes open and eyes shut two-minute counting exercise. The assignment is to create a habit of doing this a couple of times a day, just to remind yourself that you are you, having your own internal thoughts, feelings and experience, you are not someone else.

What could be simpler? It takes almost no time, it’s unobtrusive, and it seemed an easy thing to try.

It was easy. I sat in my comfortable chair, in my quiet workspace, the clock on the wall helpfully ticking off the seconds. No sweat.

Right. But the whole point of my space is that it’s mine. I don’t have to share it. Nobody is here to interrupt or distract me. I control the temperature, the clutter, the noise level, and everything else. Neither my empathy nor my sensitivity are challenged in my own space, which I have designed to be exactly the haven and refuge I need.

So I took the exercise to work. I obviously didn’t do it while I was lifeguarding or teaching. Somehow, I felt uncomfortable doing it during a break or while on desk duty, although technically there was time for it. There’s one place, though, where we’re all guaranteed a modicum of brief privacy.

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

I waited until I needed to visit the bathroom, locked the stall door, shut my eyes and started my count.

There were other women in the locker room, chatting, changing, showering. They seemed a lot more important than me. I should be out there. I should exit the stall in case someone else wanted to be there. I should say hello, greet patrons and patients by name, run a paper towel over the sink to pick up stray hairs and other ick, make sure there’s no trash on the floor. I should make sure that middle shower that drips is firmly turned off. A young mother is looking for a baby changing station. She must be new to the facility and doesn’t know there’s one next door, in the handicapped toilet stall. What’s going on out at the desk? Do they need me? Is the phone ringing? Is someone having to cover for the ten years I’m in the bathroom?

My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breath easily. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I concentrated and got through the first 30 seconds of the exercise. At that point, I felt as though I’d been sitting there for at least an hour, and I was so stressed I felt sick. The compulsion to hurry, hurry, hurry and get back to work was overwhelming. I was either going to cry, vomit, or wind up huddled on the floor next to the toilet.

I was amazed. I felt ridiculous, but there was no denying my physiological panic response to pausing for two minutes to do the exercise, even when combined with a legitimately needed bathroom break. I exited the stall, humbled, horrified and fascinated, washed my hands, said hello to everyone, introduced the young mother to the baby changing station, and went back to work.

I haven’t tried to do the exercise again at work. I don’t want to feel that way again. I had no idea the degree to which I’m compulsively and unconsciously speeding through parts of my life. I know I hate to be pressured or rushed, so I take great pains to give myself lots of time as I navigate through my days. I thought I never rushed anymore.

This experience stirred up one of my earliest memories.

I was trying to help my mom. She had some problems with pain, and I got it into my head that it was my job to do as much physical work as I could for her so she would have less pain. Empathy in action. What this meant to me was learning to do things like sort the laundry, make the beds, care for the animals and my younger brother, etc. I vividly remember how important it was to me to learn to tie my shoes, not only so I could tie my own, but so I could tie my brother’s, thus helping Mom avoid stooping, bending or squatting.

I had a little rhyme I’d made up that I’d say to myself as I “helped” (probably I was in the way more than anything else—sorry, Mom!). I never said it aloud, of course, but to myself I would say, “Hurry, hurry, biff and burry,” over and over as I tried to make perfect hospital corners, tuck in the sheets, pick up toys, or measure out dog food. Even then, I was playing with words. I was about three years old at the time.

That rhyme brought back a flood of memories and feelings, all feelings of what I would now call panic or anxiety. Feelings of intense pressure to be good enough, big enough, fast enough, competent enough, perfect enough, strong enough to help those I loved, to really make a difference, to communicate the depth of my caring.

Speed. I don’t know how or why speed became so important, but clearly it did, as my body reacts so violently to even a two-minute pause.

Although I’ve largely extricated myself from rushing through my personal life, when I’m working or interacting with others that unconscious pattern obviously still rules, completely invisible until I tried this simple little exercise at work and uncovered it.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

As an intermediate step between doing the exercise in my own space (easy) and at work (impossible, at least for now), I decided to try doing it in my workplace parking lot. As I’m always early everywhere I go (that’s what books are for), I’m usually at work early. Now I park, turn off the car, and start counting. As I close my eyes and begin, I feel compelled to check the time again, though I just checked it seconds before as I turned off the car. What if I’m late? I can’t sit here in the parking lot. They’re counting on me at work! I can sit through the compulsion to exit the car immediately, but it’s uncomfortable.

I feel better with my eyes open, but it’s hard not to be distracted. People are coming and going, some staff, some patients, some patrons. They all seem more important than me. I feel obliged to smile and wave, exchange a friendly word, offer to assist those with mobility problems or poor balance. I can’t just sit here and ignore all those important people. I’m at work! Sort of. Almost. What will they think?

Closing my eyes gets progressively harder. My anxiety kicks in and I feel unsafe. I have to open my eyes to be sure I’ve locked the car. I hear people leaving, arriving, slamming car doors. I need to watch what’s going on around me. I need to see if there’s some kind of a threat. This is hypervigilance, and I’m familiar with the feeling. I need to get out of the car, leave the parking lot, get into the building and go to work. Why am I sitting here sweating, trying to get through this stupid exercise? I’m supposed to be at work!

All this on a sunny winter afternoon, in a small, safe hospital complex parking lot, where I’m heading for a job I love working with wonderful people, and I’m not due to clock in for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nobody notices me sitting in my car. Nobody is paying me the slightest attention, and if they are, they probably assume I’m looking at or listening to my cell phone! For a whole two minutes!

Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

I realize I can’t develop the skill to manage my empathy more effectively until I’ve figured out how to stop speeding when I’m around other people. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but I’m determined to find a way. The habit of speeding is a deeply rooted coping mechanism that spares me from the intense anxiety and panic that occurs when I try to take my energy and attention from those around me and focus on myself. As I weaken the habit of speeding, I’ll reclaim part of my life, including control of my empathy.

Photo by Jonas Tebbe on Unsplash

Often, as I write and post these essays, I do so with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Amusement because being human is amusing. We’re all so convoluted, so illogical and complex and flawed and beautiful and ridiculous. Chagrin because many people think it’s not quite nice to tell the truth, to reveal our flaws and weaknesses, to talk about sitting in a toilet stall or the mess inside our heads, to reveal our dirty laundry. My rebellious streak is showing. Again. Maybe it’s not nice. I don’t much care, having no particular ambition to live up to “nice,” whatever that means!

I do care about honest connection, and to participate in that it’s necessary to tell the truth and risk being seen. I know I’m not the only person with dirty laundry, or the only person who sits in toilet stalls or flees there for a moment of privacy! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person speeding in some way, either. Perhaps many or even most of us have a treadmill in some shadowed attic of our psyches to which we’re chained, be it an addiction, a compulsion, a to-do list that’s never satisfied, or any other behavior that steals our time, attention, energy and power.

I don’t want to live like that. Do you?

Speeding. Fumbling for the brake pedal. Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

My daily crime.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

Scapegoat

I’ve been exploring the concept of scapegoating. The information I’ve uncovered so far indicates the idea originates in the Bible, though I won’t be surprised if I discover pre-Christian roots to the practice.

Briefly, in Biblical times, two goats were chosen when the community felt it needed cleansing. One was a sacrificial goat, who was killed to appease the Divine. The other goat was symbolically laden with the so-called “sins” of the people and driven into the desert to die, thus eradicating all that sin.

Sigh. What a ridiculous coping mechanism. If only it was that easy! Eradicating real or perceived “sins” by assigning them to innocent animals and then killing them strikes me as immature, cowardly, impotent, and completely ineffective.

As an aside, in my experience those who thunder about the “sins” of others are the most destructive and guilty of all. Just ignore the man behind the curtain!

The role of a scapegoat seems to be essential to human society. We scapegoat individuals and we scapegoat groups. One of the reasons I’m more and more resistant to labels is that they support and feed our ability to scapegoat others. Scapegoating is the root of genocide.

Scapegoating is abusive, and it’s a psychological trick, a distraction, a projection and a manipulation. Worst of all, it’s dishonest.

It’s also, frequently, murder, by which I mean the deliberate destruction (or attempted destruction) of an innocent. Ironically, family systems that scapegoat children often choose the most sensitive, empathetic, loving and talented child (often the healthiest family member) and set out to begin a systematic long-term campaign of destruction of that child so that others within the family can avoid responsibility for their own lives.

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One can spend all day online exploring scapegoating. It’s depressing research. Those who are scapegoated have a horrendous experience of pain, isolation and rejection that frequently leads them into addiction and other self-harming behaviors, and cripples their ability to form healthy relationships, particularly with themselves, and make positive contributions. Many scapegoats do, in fact, go metaphorically out into the desert or wilderness and die.

But not all of them.

Let us not forget that of the two, the scapegoat is the one who survives. The sacrificial goat is out of time and out of choices, but not the scapegoat.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

What happens when the scapegoat is spit upon, reviled, cursed and turned away, staggering and stumbling under everyone’s unacknowledged shadows, darkness, feelings and fears? What happens in the lonely black cold of the desert night, in the blazing, thirsty grit of the desert sun?

A long, slow death by inches from despair, isolation, thirst and hunger?

Do scapegoats meet other scapegoats, and if so, do they compare notes and experiences and support one another in surviving and healing, or do they, in their turn, scapegoat those they meet and perpetuate their own misery and damage?

OR do they meet an Angel, or another aspect of the Divine? Perhaps they reclaim and reanimate themselves. Maybe dreams and visions come to them. Maybe a fearsome Hag or an animal guide teaches them to find or create water in the desert. Perhaps a desert mouse or a scorpion appears and relieves the scapegoat of all that does not belong to it, either burying the toxic waste of others in the clean, hot sand of the desert or, better yet, sending the poison back to its source(s).

Perhaps scapegoats meet the Devil in the desert. Do you know the meaning of The Devil card in the Tarot? Authentic experience. Some people fear authentic experience more than anything else in the world, and they’ll do anything to silence, destroy or stifle it. Who is more feared or hated than the Whistle Blower, the One Who Tells Their Truth?

Maybe tribal shaming and exile are in fact a release from prison and a doorway to personal power. Maybe the desert has been waiting to embrace the scapegoat for an eternity, waiting with gifts and spirits and guides, waiting with wisdom, patience and healing.

When we flush the toilet, we don’t expect to see the contents again. Occasionally, something goes wrong and we do see the contents again! Very disconcerting. Imagine being a bearded patriarch with a paunch and a fine embroidered cloak of arrogance and entitlement. The beard hides a weak chin and the paunch hides a frightened, impotent, controlling personality that is unable to be wrong, learn or grow. In order to relieve the chronic stress of maintaining a pseudo self and constant unacknowledged fear, the patriarch symbolically loads a goat with all his unwanted psychological and emotional shadow and darkness (which he has just increased) and drives it away with rocks and blows.

Now imagine the goat returns some time later, strong and broad-shouldered. It dances in the moonlight on stardust hooves outside the city walls. Its thick, silky coat stirs in the desert wind. The twists and spirals of its horns gleam like marble sculpture. Free and unburdened, the scapegoat has become a wild, enduring, sensual creature of primal instinct and power.

The patriarch, by contrast, has become smaller, weaker, and more wretched.

I’ve reached two conclusions about scapegoats and scapegoating.

The first is that scapegoating doesn’t work. Not only is it ineffective, it’s weak, and, frankly, I’m embarrassed for those who engage in it. People who scapegoat others are only drawing attention to their own meagre hearts and intellect. They can’t meet their own gaze in the mirror; they prefer to displace and project their self-hatred, fears and feelings onto others.

The second conclusion I’ve reached is that the day we are driven into the desert from the gates of our loved ones or our homes as scapegoats may also be the day we are reborn into something fine and powerful, something wild and resilient and enduring.

Consorting with scapegoats. My daily crime.

Photo by J L on Unsplash

A Horse With No Name
America

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

Songwriters: DEWEY BUNNELL© Warner

Shame on You!

I’ve been thinking a great deal about shame. It lurks in many of my relationships. I observe it in people around me. I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply ashamed of myself. I’ve written about tribal shaming before, but I’ve never excavated the subject further until now.

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Wikipedia has a lengthy page on shame that summarizes different ways in which it has been studied. Assessment tools exist to measure shame and its effects in our lives. Shame has been divided into categories, and distinctions between shame, guilt and embarrassment teased out.

All this information provided me with a lot of interesting context and background, but the subject is not academic for me. I have a problem with shame that I want to solve. How do I go about identifying and dealing effectively with the painful feeling of humiliation or distress we call shame?

I learned in emotional intelligence training that our feelings are value neutral. Some feelings are painful and others are pleasurable, but that doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” Feelings just are. We all have them, whether or not we allow ourselves to consciously feel them or admit them to others. If we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they give us information about how we are. Feelings by themselves can empower and enlighten us, guide our choice-making and help us make strong, healthy connections with others.

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Feelings come and go, like the weather, if we allow them to. Refusing to feel a feeling, however, locks it in place, and then we have forged handcuffs and chains for ourselves. The other tricky aspect of feelings is what our thoughts are about them. Thoughts are what lead us into inappropriate action and expression of our feelings.

An emotionally intelligent person recognizes a feeling like rage and takes responsibility for it. In other words, they don’t blame someone or something externally for their rage. That’s a thought. They don’t seek revenge, payback or to re-establish their power over someone they blame as the cause of their rage. They take responsibility for their feeling of rage and discharging it appropriately, knowing that none of us think well or make effective choices when we’re in the grip of strong feelings. They also don’t turn the perfectly normal feeling of rage inward against themselves.

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After safely discharging rage (hard physical labor, tears, journaling, talking things over, screaming, passionate creative expression, beating up phone books or pillows), the next step is to sit down and have a talk with it. Years ago, when I lived alone, I literally began to sit down and talk with some of my feelings. I’ve written about this previously. I sit in a chair across from an empty chair and imagine myself talking things out with the feeling occupying the other chair. I say something like, “You have my attention. What’s the deal? Why are you so angry?” and then I shut up and listen to my feeling. Feelings have presence. I’ve learned to notice where I experience them in my body, what color they are, their size and shape, their density and texture, their scent and sound. Our feelings are trying to tell us things we need to know, and the more painful, difficult and overwhelming they are the more important their message is.

This is what I have been doing lately with shame. I wait and watch for it, and when it comes I notice and pause. In the middle of a conversation with my partner, I’ll feel shame rise up like a foul smell and I’ll pause and look for what is happening that triggers shame. Something I said? Something I didn’t say? Something he said to me? Something else I’d rather be doing? A subject I don’t want to talk about or don’t care about? What else am I feeling?

After doing this for a couple of weeks, I discover that any honest conversation that makes visible my needs and feelings triggers shame. No wonder I feel so burdened if shame is attached to every need and feeling!

Interestingly, during the in-the-moment pauses while I explore all this, more often than not I realize that I don’t in fact feel shame at all. It’s become a kind of chronic hitchhiker that’s attached to other feelings.

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A good example is driving. I typically go the speed limit or 5 miles over it, and in bad weather much slower than that. I rarely run late. I hate to rush. I enjoy music and audiobooks in the car and am quite happy driving. I love my commute. The world is full of people, however, who are in a hurry, reckless, and, to my way of thinking, rude. Of course, they think I’m rude for not getting out of their way!

I rarely drive without feeling shame, but I realize now that I’m not really ashamed at all of my driving. On the contrary, I think I’m a competent, courteous driver. I’ve also been a lucky driver, because accidents happen to the best drivers out there and I’ve never been involved in more than a fender bender. When someone is crawling up my backside in a snowstorm in the dark on an icy road and I’m blinded by their headlights in my rearview mirrors and have no way to move over and let them by, what I do feel is mad and scared. The shame is about feeling mad and scared, not about my driving choices in that moment. I don’t want some idiot in a big truck to have the power to intimidate me on the road. I resent living in a world where I have to worry about sudden violence and road rage, or being a woman alone at night. I’m furious with people who follow too close, even in good conditions. I hate to be pushed and pressured, and I hate even more to feel I’m in someone else’s way or making someone wait on me. That’s an old trigger for PTSD.

It turns out much of my daily shame is nothing more than a habitual default. A rueful realization, but also good news. Habits can be broken, I’ve had a lot of practice with that.

I’ve never yet successfully broken a habit without replacing a not-so-useful thought or frame with a better one. So, what’s the opposite of shame? If I want to replace shame with something more effective, what would that be?

Shame is akin to contempt. Contempt is the atomic bomb in relationships between two or more people as well as in our relationships with ourselves. Contempt withers love and destroys trust. It’s never constructive. Those who employ it seek power and control over others. Shame and contempt are merciless. Guilt, the recognition of having transgressed against another, can be addressed. We can atone for our actions and words, apologize, take steps to repair the damage we caused. Shame and contempt are without mercy or the possibility of reparation. Guilt says we’ve behaved badly. Shame and contempt say we are bad, we are unworthy, and nothing can ever make us different.

I consulted a thesaurus to look at antonyms for shame and came up with respect. Respect!

Shame: Why are you so stupid and difficult? You’re always in everyone’s way! You don’t belong on the road. Why are you such a goody-two-shoes? No wonder nobody likes you, crawling along like an old lady! Nobody else drives this way. Joe Blow (partner, brother, colleagues, the guy at work who said the roads were fine and scoffed at slow drivers) wouldn’t be driving like this. You do everything wrong. People like you cause accidents because you go too slow.

Respect: Don’t let this idiot drive your car! Go as slowly as you need to. You’ve got good judgement and a lot of experience. These are dangerous conditions and feeling fearful is an appropriate response. I trust you. Don’t let this driver intimidate you. His need to go fast is not more important than your need to stay safe. People driving the way he is cause accidents.

Quite a difference, right?

I suppose there are more elegant ways to grapple with feelings like shame and a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would laugh at me, but I’ve found that helping myself is incredibly empowering. My experience of therapy is that having a good guide is invaluable, but even the best guide can’t crawl inside our heads and do the work of staying present and making different choices. That’s all on us. Ditching an ineffective habit is difficult and so is encouraging a new one, but it’s perfectly doable. If I lost my right hand, I would eventually learn to use my left. It would feel clumsy, and no doubt be frustrating, and it would take time, but I would learn to do it. Our brains are surprisingly plastic, and we’re learning more all the time about healing and adapting neurologically and emotionally.

We aren’t born with a feeling of shame. We learn to feel it. Anything we learn can be unlearned. Shame stunts our growth and our joy. Respect is like the wind beneath our wings. I’ve made my choice.

My daily crime.

Photo by Yuan Yue on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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