I’ve been thinking 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 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 our feelings are value neutral. Some feelings are painful and others 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 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 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 I don’t in fact feel shame at all. It’s become a kind of chronic hitchhiker 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 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 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.
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I first heard about toxic mimics as I learned emotional intelligence. The term comes from radical environmentalist author and speaker Derrick Jensen. A toxic mimic is a destructive action, behavior or thing pretending to fill a primary human need. Rape is a toxic mimic for healthy, consensual sex. Sugar is a toxic mimic for food. Addiction is a toxic mimic for managing feelings. A job might be a toxic mimic for contribution. Pseudo self is a toxic mimic for authenticity. Some would argue that social media is a toxic mimic for connection.
I believe our modern culture here in the United States, at this moment, rests on an edifice of toxic mimics. People who create, design and sell toxic mimics have a simple agenda: Profit and power. We, the consumers and choice makers, the common people, if you will, happily hand over our power in exchange for the shiny; the new and improved; the seductive promise of success, wealth and love; and the popular. Toxic mimics give us the relief of distraction, instant gratification and the promise of an identity. They help us regulate our mood and feelings.
Toxic mimics have such power over us now that a majority of us (maybe) have voluntarily given management of our country to toxic mimics for human beings.
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What are the strongest human motivators? Fear? Love? Hate? I could also make a case for denial, but that might be too inextricably bound up with fear to separate. Toxic mimics are deliberately designed and marketed to appeal to the things that drive us at our deepest levels. They are engineered to target our greatest vulnerabilities. They seek to hook us, permanently, helplessly and hopelessly, and they’re so powerful they kill many, many people. Witness the power of nicotine, for example. Toxic mimics promise to fill our lives with everything we want and provide us an identity, but when we employ them we feel emptier than ever. Because we are conditioned to believe buying a product or service will make us feel better, we buy as much as we can as fast as we can, which necessitates a continuous stream of money, a resource that has become one of the most powerful Gods we’ve ever worshipped. Money, one might say, is a toxic mimic for God, or Gods, or whatever word you like to use to communicate the divine.
The deepest irony in this situation is we are the ones who perpetuate the power of toxic mimics. We willfully and intentionally participate. We create demand and gobble up supply. We continue to support advertising, algorithms and the handful of powerful companies who monitor our lives and mine us for information in order to sell us yet more toxic mimics. We applaud and admire what we call “progress”, “growth” and a “healthy economy.”
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A healthy economy. Healthy for who, I wonder. Healthy for the global system? Healthy for those of us living paycheck to paycheck? Healthy for the children who are victims (yes, I mean victims) of anti-vaxxers? Healthy for people who have no financial resource and thus cannot participate in the latest technology? In a country filled with disbonded children and broken families; rising antibiotic-resistant organisms, including STDs; rising illnesses like typhus which are perfectly preventable with vaccination; astronomical housing costs forcing employed professionals to live out of their cars; broken healthcare and public education systems and a population of obese, metabolically disordered, pharma-dependent, addicted, lonely, suicidal people, we have a so-called healthy economy.
Oh, good. I’m so proud to be an American.
It’s a lie. There’s nothing healthy about what’s happening now, but we’re so stupefied, so numbed, so habituated, that we no longer recognize lies when we hear them. We can’t afford to, because to recognize one means to recognize others, and if the whole thing is based on lies, we’re too afraid to know it. Much easier to cash the insurance check and rebuild, for the third or fourth time, in the same place than take responsibility for facing the effects, long predicted, of climate change.
Of course, insurance companies are not going to continue to subsidize climate change because it destroys their profits, so that might catch our attention — eventually.
In the meantime, we bend our heads over our handheld, shiny, talking, distracting and instantly gratifying techno-screens or settle down in front of our larger screens and surround sound systems and let the advertising and brainwashing wash over us. We call this life. Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it beautiful? Aren’t you happy?
A toxic mimic is a promise that never delivers. Sometimes we do it to ourselves. Sometimes we allow others to convince us of the necessity, morality and rightness of our toxic mimics. We’re told they will make us safe. They will make us successful. They will make us healthy and popular, beautiful and beloved. We’re told we have a perfect right to have what we want. We long to believe it. We buy, and then we don’t feel successful or beautiful, so we buy some more. We start giving away our power. We begin to hide our unhappiness. After all, toxic mimics are working for everybody else, aren’t they? Everyone on our favorite social media platform is doing just fine. We conclude there’s something wrong, broken and irredeemably ugly about us. It’s too shameful to admit or talk about. We take even more smiling selfies and post them.
Meanwhile, we elevate and empower not the humanitarians, the natural leaders, the ecologists, the visionary scientists, the emotionally intelligent, the critical thinkers and those who understand complexity and systems, but those who have wealth. Money, that amoral symbol made of paper and metal, is the God we’ve agreed is the most powerful and the most admirable. It’s not so, of course, but we make it so with our belief and our participation. We are driven by our fear of losing economically. We’re evidently prepared to follow the promise of economic power straight to Hell.
Fear is the most powerful hallmark of a toxic mimic. Fear of losing power. Fear of being wrong. Fear of consequences, justice and having to take responsibility. Fear of experiencing our feelings. Fear makes our lives, intellect and hearts smaller, not larger. Toxic mimics don’t meet our needs. They momentarily satisfy, perhaps, our cravings and addictions, our need for stimulation and gratification and our desire for distraction. Ultimately, however, toxic mimics dehumanize us, stop our critical thinking, retard our judgement, destroy our health, disable us from healthy connections and encourage us to hide our authenticity. Toxic mimics feed our rigidity, our ideology, our fear and paranoia, and actively attack our physical and mental health.
Are your needs being met? If you don’t know what your needs are, here’s a needs inventory to look at.
If that question made you cry, or your heart shouted “NO!”, make a list of all your makeup, your clothes, your car(s), your tech, your toys and the other stuff you recognize as part of your identity. Don’t forget your accounts, subscriptions and financial assets.
All that, and your needs are not being met?
Huh. Interesting, isn’t it?
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I looked up the word “denial” to find a quick definition as a starting point for this post. Fifteen minutes later I was still reading long Wiki articles about denial and denialism. They’re both well worth reading. I realize now the subject of denial is much bigger than I first supposed, and one little blog post cannot do justice to its history and scope.
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I wanted to write about denial because I keep tripping over it. It seems to lurk in the background of every experience and interaction, and it’s nearly always accompanied by its best buddy, fear. I’ve lately made the observation to my partner that denial appears more powerful than love in our culture today.
I’ve written before about arguing with what is, survival and being wrong, all related to denial. I’ve also had bitter personal experience with workaholism and alcoholism, so denial is a familiar concept and I recognize it when I see it.
I see it more every day.
I was interested to be reminded that denial is a useful psychological defense mechanism. Almost everyone has had the experience of a sudden devastating psychological shock such as news of an unexpected death or catastrophic event. Our first reaction is to deny and reject what’s happening. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first of five stages of psychology in a dying patient. Therein lies the distinction between denial as part of a useful and natural cycle and denial as a permanent coping mechanism. In modern psychology denial is followed by other stages as we struggle to come to terms with a difficult event. We (hopefully) move through the stages, gathering our resources to cope with what’s true and coming to terms with the subsequent changes in our lives.
Denialism, on the other hand, is a “choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth” (Wikipedia). For some, denial is an ideology.
In other words, denialsim is all about fear, fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of painful feelings, fear of loss of power, fear of one’s cover being blown. This is why some of the most rabid and vicious homophobes are in fact homosexual. Unsurprisingly, projection and gaslighting are frequently used by those who practice denialism.
I’ve no doubt denial is an integral part of the human psyche. I never knew anyone who didn’t have a knee-jerk ability to deny. I do it. My partner does it. My friends and family do it. My partner and I have a code phrase: “I’m not a vampire,” that comes from the TV series Angel in a hilarious moment when a vampire is clearly outed by one of the other characters. He watches her put the evidence together: “… nice place… with no mirrors, and… lots of curtains… Hey! You’re a vampire!” “What?” he says. “No I’m not,” with absolutely no conviction whatsoever. It always makes us giggle. If Angel is too low-brow for you, consider William Shakespeare and “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Denial is not a new and unusual behavior.
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The power of denial is ultimately false, however. Firstly and most obviously, denial does not affect the truth. We don’t have to admit it, but truth is truth, and it doesn’t care whether we accept it or not. Secondly, denial is a black hole of ever-increasing complications. Take, for example, flat-earthers. Think for a moment about how much they have to filter every day, how actively they have to guard against constant threats to their denialsim. Everything becomes a battlefield, any form of science-related news and programming; many types of print media; images, both digital and print, now more widely available than ever; and simple conversation. I can’t imagine trying to live like that, embattled and defensive on every front. It must take enormous energy. I frankly don’t understand why anyone would choose such hideous complications. It seems to me much easier to wrestle with the problem itself than deal with all the consequences of denying there is a problem.
Maybe that’s just me.
It seems our denial becomes more important than love for others or love for ourselves. It becomes more important than our integrity, our health, our friends and family, loyalty, and respect or tolerance. Our need to deny can swallow us whole, just as I’ve seen work and alcohol swallow people whole. Denial refuses collaboration, cooperation, honest communication, problem solving and, most of all, learning. Denialism is always hugely threatened by any attempt to share new information or ask questions.
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Denial is a kind of spiritual malnutrition. It makes us small. Our sense of humor and curiosity wither. Fear sucks greedily on our power. We become invested in keeping secrets and hiding things from ourselves as well as others. We allow chaos to form around us so we don’t have to see or hear anything that threatens our denial.
This is not the kind of fear that makes our heart race and our hands sweat. This is the kind of fear that feels like a slamming steel door. It’s cold. It’s certain. We say, “I will not believe that. I will not accept that.”
And we don’t. Not ever. No matter what.
A prominent pattern of folks in denial is that they work hard to pull other people into validating them. Denial works best in a club, the larger the better. The ideology of denialism demands strong social groups and communities that actively seek power to silence others or force them into agreement. Not tolerance, but agreement. This behavior speaks to me of a secret lack of strength and conviction, even impotence. If we are not confused about who we are and what we believe, there’s no need to recruit and coerce others to our particular ideology. If you believe the earth is flat, it’s fine with me. I’m not that interested, frankly. I disagree, but that’s neither here nor there, and I don’t need you to agree with my view. When I find myself recruiting others to my point of view, I know I’m distressed and unsure of my position and I’m not dealing effectively with my feelings.
I’ve written before about the OODA loop, which describes the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide and act. The ability to move quickly and effectively through the OODA loop is a survival skill. Denial is a cheat. It masquerades as a survival strategy, but in fact it disables the loop. It keeps us from adapting. It keeps us dangerously rigid rather than elegantly resilient.
Some people have a childlike belief that if something hasn’t happened, it won’t, as in this river has never flooded, or this town has never burned, or we’ve never seen a category 6 hurricane. Our belief that bad things can’t happen at all, or won’t happen again, pins us in front of the oncoming tsunami or the erupting volcano. It allows us to rebuild our homes in places where flood, fire and lava have already struck. We ignore, minimize or deny what’s happening to the planet and to ourselves. We don’t take action to save ourselves. We don’t observe and orient ourselves to change.
Some things are just too bad to be true. I get it, believe me. I’m often afraid, and I frequently walk through denial, but I’m damned if I’ll build a house there. The older I get, the more determined I am to embrace the truth. I don’t care how much pain it gives me or how much fear I feel. I want to know, to understand, to see things clearly, and then make the best choices I can. It’s the only way to stay in my power. I refuse to cower before life as it is, in all its mystery, pain and terrible beauty.
Ultimately, denial is weak. I am stronger than that.
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Slowly, I’m finding online communities of writers. As I’ve shaped Our Daily Crime, I’ve connected with other bloggers. These connections mean I spend at least an hour a day reading the work of others. I’m inspired, touched, tickled and provoked, and I feel at home in these digital communities because we all share the need to write and be read. We also share self-doubt, confusion, vulnerability, loneliness, the need for connection and the problem of earning a living.
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Over and over again, I read about personal struggles with depression, fear and anxiety. Many a writer sits down to their daily writing practice with goals and intentions and finds him or herself unable to do anything but express the here and now of their experience of ambivalence, avoidance, distraction or block. To be a writer is to occasionally live with shame and guilt about what we meant to write, what we should have written and the quality and subject of what we actually did come up with. We all doubt our ability, our value, and whether anyone will care enough to read our words. Creative expression is a daily leap of faith.
I’ve struggled all my life with depression. In more recent years, I’ve come to understand anxiety and fear are also large parts of the feeling I recognize as depression. Over the years I’ve tried to manage depression in many ways. Some worked, at least temporarily, and some didn’t.
It hasn’t been until the last decade that I’ve finally found a way to effectively manage and even largely banish depression. It doesn’t play with me anymore. Fear and anxiety still show up regularly, but the same method works to manage them, and I no longer worry one day I’ll just give up, step over some unseen edge, and disappear into crazy, a fugue state, or death.
One day, for no reason in particular except I felt exhausted, despairing, and bored with both, I said to Depression, “You win. I give up. Why not come out of the shadows and show yourself?”
Fat and happy, secure in its power, it did just that.
The first thing that I realized was Depression is an experience, not an integral piece of me. It’s something draped around me. It can be separated from me.
The second thing I noticed was my depression is male. He walked with an arrogant male strut and swagger and he spoke in a male voice.
I didn’t name him because he wasn’t a pet, he wasn’t a friend, and he most definitely wasn’t invited to be a roommate. He was merely someone who showed up at more or less regular intervals and made a nuisance of himself. He didn’t have the manners to knock on the door, wait to be invited or give any notice of his arrival. He just appeared.
I wondered what it would take to discourage him from visiting. What made me so attractive?
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Clinical depression is like a grey cave filled with fog. It numbs the senses and fills head and heart with cold, sticky, lumpy oatmeal. One is entirely alone with no hope. The simplest action, like opening one’s eyes, takes enormous effort. Depression envelopes and consumes every spark of power.
The only reason I’m in the world today is because I’m an unbelievably stubborn butthead. I’m also very nice. One does not cancel out the other, but nearly everyone persists in missing that second important point, with the result that I’m constantly being underestimated. This is a wonderful advantage in life.
Depression was no exception to the rule. When invited, he disentangled himself from me, parked his butt in a chair I pulled out for him, and began to tell me how things were going to be from now on.
On that particular day, I hadn’t showered (or the day before that, or the day before that). Annoyed by his high-handedness, I interrupted to say I was going to shower. He told me not to. Who would care? What was the point? I wouldn’t see anyone. No one would see me.
That was all I needed. I went and took a long shower. Washed my hair. Shaved my legs. Put on clean clothes and some jewelry. Depression sat in the bathroom and muttered at me. I ignored him.
I felt better then, and my irrepressible creativity began to stir, along with a childlike streak of playfulness I usually keep well-hidden. One small act of rebellion had helped me regain a tiny sense of power.
One of the things that used to happen when depression struck was that I stopped eating. I’d go all day with nothing but a salad and a piece of toast. I hadn’t eaten a solid meal for several days on this occasion. I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry (this is common), but I knew I needed to eat.
Depression didn’t like it. He threatened and complained and trotted out all the usual points. I was too fat. I hadn’t been doing anything useful and didn’t need to eat. I didn’t make enough money to deserve to eat.
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I put a chair at the table for Depression (I lived alone at the time), invited him to sit, set the table for two with complete place settings, right down to two glasses of water, made myself a meal, and ate. I offered him some food, but he refused. I read while I ate and ignored Depression, who sat and sulked.
Well, you have the idea. The more he protested when I wanted to take a walk, sit in the sun or work in the garden, the more stubborn I became. I politely invited him to join me in my activities, but he refused, which meant the more I got out in the world and did things the less time I spent with him. He hated my movies and my audio books. He thought walking to Main Street for an ice cream cone was a criminal waste of money, along with feeding the birds. The only activity he approved of was my work, which involved sitting for hours in front of my computer with headphones on doing medical transcription as fast and accurately as possible for only slightly more than minimum wage.
He absolutely hated my music. I quickly developed the habit of turning on Pandora first thing every morning and listening to it most of the day.
We also conflicted over sleep. Depression said there was no point in getting up in the morning because no one would notice. No one would care. In fact, the only things really worth doing in life were working and sleeping. This attitude ensured I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. and walked every day at dawn.
I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t fight or struggle. I made sure he had plenty of space and a good pillow in my bed. I gave him a spot at the table and a seat in front of the TV. I took out a clean towel for him and invited him to browse in my personal library.
Every single time he told me not to do something I did it, no matter how much I didn’t want to. I was pleasant, noncompliant, resistant and stubborn as a mule.
You know what?
He went away.
One day, he was just gone.
I knew I’d found the key.
Externalized, Depression suddenly became more pathetic than terrifying. He was so predictable, and so limited. All he had to say were the same things he’d been saying all my life. He was boring. He was like a batty old uncle who must be invited to every family gathering and tells the same interminable stories year in and year out.
He came back, of course, but for shorter and shorter visits at wider and wider intervals.
“Back again, I see,” I’d say. I’d set a place at the table, take out a clean towel, make space in the bed and on the couch. I’d realize I was sliding again and concentrate on eating more regularly, exercising, playing music, putting flowers on the table or maybe scheduling a massage.
I tried to have conversations with him, but Depression had no conversation, just the same tired monologue, mumbling and whining. He was really quite sad. He stopped spending the night and then gradually stopped visiting altogether.
I guess he was no longer getting what he needed from me.
Fear and anxiety are still regular visitors. Things are different here in Maine. I don’t live alone, for one thing. I still play imaginary games, but only in my head. Still, when either fear or anxiety show up, I recognize them. (Anxiety bites her fingernails; I always recognize her hands.) I don’t try to keep them away and I don’t try to hide from them.
I focus on giving them no power. I don’t buy into their catastrophizing. I appreciate they’re trying to keep me safe, poor things. All they can do is make up terrible stories about what might happen and then sit, paralyzed by their imaginings. I know they’re wretched. I wish I could help. I try to be kind — at a distance. They usually don’t stay long.
This experience is the sort of thing I used to hide, but I realize now my struggles are not unique. I’m inspired by the creativity, honesty and vulnerability of other writers. Coping with depression, anxiety and fear is like figuring out how to eat. Every body is different. Everybody needs to find their own path to healing, health and sanity. At times, it’s difficult to break through social expectations and shoulds and make a complete left turn into something creative, intuitive or outside the current norms.
Still, nothing succeeds like success. Turning Depression into an externalized character helped me see I didn’t have to define myself by it. I could choose to set aside that label and all it implies. Once I truly believed I had the power to choose, everything changed.
Sometimes, running away from sudden or passing danger is appropriate. However, running from these chronic spectres dogging my heels has not worked. I can’t get away from them. I can’t avoid or evade. Being chased by anything is fearful. The moment when I stop running, turn around and deliberately go toward whatever threatens me is the moment in which I begin to regain power. Monsters suddenly become mice. My own fear and abdication of power are what made them monstrous. I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to defend. I only need to consistently and patiently demonstrate I will give them nothing they want so they choose to leave me.
It helps when they tell me what to do.
Don’t tell me what to do!
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As an oral storyteller, I’m committed to gathering old tales from all over the world and retelling them because they contain blueprints for life. Each story is a teacher, a small piece of code, a seed, a fragment of wisdom, a snippet of DNA. Stories speak to us about who we are, who we have been and who we might yet be. They speak in the voices of place, people, history and culture.
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Story does not exist without storytellers. Literacy is not necessary, as long as people remain connected enough to pass story on orally. A culture which unravels and frays in its ability to form healthy connections and bonds and at the same time stifles the acquisition and sharing of knowledge is in grave danger of losing stories, and when old stories are lost much of the collective wisdom of our ancestors is lost with them. We become crippled and impoverished. We lose our way in the world and we have to spend time and energy reinventing wheels we learned how to make hundreds of years ago.
As a storyteller, then, I come to you this fine spring week when the snow is ebbing in Maine, leaving behind rich, greasy mud, with the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Every old story is in fact many stories. A piece of oral tradition is like a many-limbed tree. As it grows and matures it branches out over and over. Every teller who passes on the tale adds or takes away a piece of it, reshaping it according to the teller’s context in history and place. Still, the skeleton of the story remains recognizable, because the bones contain the wisdom, the old truth, the regenerative pieces reanimated over and over by those of us who share them.
The essential truth contained in the idiom “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” has appeared in many times and places. According to my research, the first time was in the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, as a warning against false prophets. The sermon goes on to suggest actions speak louder than words. Thereafter, the phrase was repeated in other Christian religious writing and from there entered into European vernacular. A Latin proverb arose: “Under a sheep’s skin often hides a wolfish mind.”
A 12th century Greek wrote a fable about a wolf who changed his appearance in order to get access to ample food. He put on a sheepskin and mingled with a flock of sheep, fooling the shepherd. The disguised wolf was shut up with the sheep for the night. The shepherd decided he wanted mutton for his supper, so he took his knife and killed the deceitful wolf, mistaking it for a sheep. Here is a branch in the story tree. The Gospel reference warns against deceitful teachers. The Greek fable warns evil-doing carries a penalty. The bones of the story — the consequences of a wolf disguising itself as a sheep — are the same. The story is now two-dimensional. Such pretense is dangerous for both wolf and sheep.
Another iteration occurs three centuries later in the writing of a 15th century Italian professor. A wolf dresses himself in a sheepskin and every day kills one of the flock. The shepherd catches on and hangs the wolf, still wearing the sheepskin, from a tree. When the other shepherds ask why he hung a sheep in a tree, the shepherd replies that the skin was of a sheep, but the actions were of a wolf. There it is again: Actions speak louder than words.
Aesop wrote two fables having to do with wolves gaining the trust of a shepherd and killing sheep, but the wolf is undisguised in these cases. Even so, the common theme is clear. A wolf is a wolf, and cannot be trusted with sheep.
In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Italian, French and English writers adopted versions similar to the early 15th century Italian tale, in which the wolf pretends he is not a threat to the sheep.
Most of us know the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, whose origins can be traced back to 10th century European folk and fairy tales. In the familiar modern version, a wolf disguises itself as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the innocent too-sweet maiden is fooled and subsequently eaten.
My favorite story of wolves and, in this case, goats, comes from my own childhood, the tale of the wolf and the seven kids (young goats). The mother goat must leave the house and warns her seven children about the wily wolf who might try to gobble them up. She says they will recognize her by her sweet voice and white feet, and they mustn’t open the door to anyone else. I was mightily amused by the wolf’s machinations in trying to fool the kids: Swallowing honey to make his rough voice sweet, whitening his black feet with flour. Of course, he does fool the kids and they are eaten, but, much like Little Red Riding Hood, the kids are saved from the wolf’s stomach in the end.
As an adult, this tale doesn’t seem nearly so amusing.
Lastly, modern zoology makes use of the term “aggressive mimicry,” which describes a method of deception by an animal so it appears to either predator or prey as something else.
I’m deeply troubled by what I see going on around me in the world. It appears many millions of people are no longer able to discern the difference between wolves and sheep, and this is creating dire consequences for all life on Planet Earth.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? When did this happen? How are we producing college graduates who don’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing? What kind of a so-called educational system, public or private, produces such myopia? For two thousand years we’ve understood the dangers of failing to clearly see the difference between sheep and wolves. Such a failure of judgement is bad for the wolves as well as the sheep. Tracing this old tale through time (when most of the world’s population was largely illiterate and uneducated), clearly shows us this is a learned skill. Little Red Riding Hood, the seven kids and several confused shepherds, all innocent, naïve, and inexperienced, had to learn to recognize a wolf when they saw one, or starve or be eaten. Critical thinking is not an innate skill. Parents, teachers and leaders must actively teach it.
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Here is a wolf. It’s an apex predator; intelligent, flexible and canny. The wolf is evolved to survive and pass on its DNA. It’s not confused about what it eats or the meaning of its life. Its job is to do whatever is necessary to survive and successfully reproduce. As a predator, wolves are an essential part of the complex system we call life. A healthy population of wolves benefits both the land and prey animals.
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Here is a sheep. It’s an herbivore, a prey animal. It’s evolved to produce milk, meat and wool, survive and pass on its DNA. It eats grass. It too is an essential part of the web of predator (including humans), prey and plants. Its presence, properly managed, benefits the land and predators.
One can certainly throw a wolfskin over a sheep and say it’s a wolf, but that doesn’t make it so. Now we have a sheep in the throes of a nervous breakdown, but the animal is still a sheep. It still needs to eat grass. We cannot change a sheep into a wolf.
Likewise, a wolf wearing a sheepskin does not begin to crop grass. Wolves eat meat, no matter what kind of a skin they’re wearing. A simple shepherd might be fooled by a single glance in the dusk if the disguised wolf mills among the sheep, but five minutes of observation will quickly reveal the truth. Sheep do not tear out one another’s throats. A wolf cannot be changed into a sheep.
The wolves of the world, those who prey on others, naturally have a large inventory of successful speeches and manipulations. They study their prey and learn quickly how to take advantage of it. They are everywhere, in politics, religious organizations, schools and cults. They’re athletic coaches and businessmen, people of influence and power. They’re shadows behind conspiracy theories and cults like QAnon. They disguise themselves with projection and gaslighting, mingle freely with their prey and pick them off, one by one.
In the natural world, an overpopulation of wolves eventually runs out of prey animals. At that point, the wolf population goes down dramatically while prey animal populations recover. Nature seeks a balance of life, and if we create endless flocks of fat, stupid, blindfolded sheep, the grass will run out, wolves will increase, and slaughter will commence as the sheep begin to starve for want of food.
That’s a lot of destroyed land, dead sheep, fat and happy wolves and then, in the next generation, a lot of young wolves starving to death and, (one hopes) a few smarter and wiser sheep and shepherds.
People say we’re a superior species to wolves and sheep. I don’t see much evidence of that recently. We can’t seem to remember what we once knew well. We teach our children how to press buttons, look at a screen, and pass a standardized state test, but they can’t tell a wolf from a sheep, and neither can we. The wolves are not confused, but the sheep are milling around aimlessly like … well, like sheep, ripe and ready for slaughter. We’ve allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into believing our true nature is expressed by appearance, words and socioeconomics. Actions don’t count, and neither does DNA. Off we skip to the slaughterhouse, following honey-tongued wolves dusted with flour, who praise us for our compassion, compliance, inclusivity and political correctness while drooling at the prospect of all that food. Meanwhile, our planet degrades so no one else is properly fed and natural checks and balances are destroyed. Even the noncompliant, troublemaking sheep who manage to escape slaughter will starve. So will the wolves, eventually, after they’ve devoured everyone else.
Maybe then the complex system of life can begin to heal. I hope so.
In the meantime, I’ll be separating wolves from sheep and telling stories.
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I recently had a conversation in which I learned about the degree to which my anxiety affected at least one of my now adult children.
Parenting is an ironic business. Having been a chronically anxious child myself, always feeling unsafe and afraid, I strove mightily to protect my own children from any sort of fear or insecurity. Of course, I did this by assuring them all was well, all the while fearing all was not and never would be well. Being no less intelligent than I am, they heard the words but knew the truth of my feelings, and thus their trust in me was damaged, an exact replay of what happened between me and my own mother. You know, that thing I was never going to do when I was a parent!
Well, I’m humbled. I’m also sad, because I didn’t want either of my kids to battle with the burden of anxiety. It’s a hard way to live.
However, I understand parenting, at best, is an imperfect process, and I try to hold my mother and myself with gentle arms regarding our choices as mothers. Parenting less than perfectly does not imply a lack of love. I know we both did the best we could with what we had at any particular point in time. No parent can do more.
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Still, this kind of revelation is a far cry from my hopes, dreams and intentions when I held my newborns. On the other hand, it speaks to the strength of my relationship with my adult children that they can tell me the truth about their experience and I can hear it.
After our conversation, I’ve thought a lot about fear and anxiety. I can’t go back and reparent, but I wonder if I might, even at this late stage, find a way to extricate myself from the insidious tentacles of anxiety. I’ve been thinking about my life and trying to understand exactly what the roots of my anxiety are.
According to an Internet search, fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear is considered real, in that it’s right there in front of us, and elicits an immediate response.
Anxiety is an “emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of turmoil; a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically regarding an imminent event or something with uncertain outcome; a nervous disorder.” Anxiety is differentiated from fear by being more diffuse and generalized and focusing on imaginary outcomes and possibilities. Physiologically, it elicits the same response, and therein lies part of the problem.
Both are unpleasant emotions or feelings affecting us physically, intellectually and emotionally. We evolved to respond to fear in certain specific physiological ways, returning to baseline as the fear passes. Fear is a valuable feeling, helping us discern and avoid danger. I certainly don’t want to disable mine. I know the feeling of fear, but it’s not a frequent experience.
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Anxiety, on the other hand, is a chronic state for me. I can’t remember ever being free of it. I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms over the years, some more effective and appropriate than others, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. As far as I can tell, the feeling of anxiety provides no benefits whatsoever to me or anyone around me. It’s highly contagious and negatively impacts others in my life, to say nothing of the damage it does to me. We are not constructed to tolerate the chronic level of physiological arousal produced by anxiety.
I never before actually looked up these words, and I’ve never had the above distinctions between fear and anxiety until this week. I conclude that I have no problem with my relationship to fear, but I’m a slave to anxiety.
I find a kind of mordant humor in having a chronic unpleasant feeling regarding uncertain outcomes. Excuse me? All outcomes are uncertain for everyone until they happen! Most of us operate most of the time as though we know exactly what will happen next, but we don’t. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s all an illusion. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next on any level. For some reason, I’ve given that fact the power to make me miserable.
I have a powerful imagination, which makes me a good writer and creator. However, it also occasionally makes me captive to my own stories. I forget that my stories are just that — stories. I make them up, tell them to myself over and over, and behave as though they’re true, never really noticing when they diverge from reality. In my head, it’s all so real. I do know the difference between a story and what’s real, but I have to remind myself to keep the two separated.
Some stories are so old and deeply ingrained it takes a cataclysm to make us realize they’re not true, and then we have to deal with being wrong and all the consequences, an uncomfortable, humbling and messy process.
If my anxiety is rooted in uncertain and imaginary outcomes and possibilities, it seems obvious I can disable it with a little discipline, a dash of surrender to uncertainty, a lot of presence and the will to change. I’m chagrined by the possibility my anxiety is a lifelong bad habit as much as anything else. Could that be true? Yikes.
I wish with all my heart I’d been a better equipped and less distressed parent, but I remind myself I can’t go back. I can’t begin parenting again from ground zero. I can’t go back to the young woman I was and explain all this and give her the support and safety to actively choose to turn away from anxiety before starting a family. There’s only today, so many years later, as I sit with my laptop in my lap and the sun coming in the windows, glancing at my notes, thinking and writing.
I know all I’ve ever wanted for my own mother is health and happiness. I want the same for my kids. I suspect Mom and my sons also want that for me. Perhaps it’s time for me to shape an anxiety-free life now, not only for my own sake, but for those closest to me as well.
We build our lives on outcomes, one after another, more than we ever notice. We remember the spectacularly good and spectacularly bad outcomes, but what about the countless others? Outcomes are complex, not black and white. Outcomes can create visible and invisible ripples that last a lifetime. I can hardly think of a more fruitless endeavor than worrying about or trying to control outcomes. I’ve survived every outcome to date. What makes me think I won’t continue to do so — until I don’t, of course? But the outcome of death is largely out of my control, too. Why worry?
There are so many things I’d rather do than struggle with anxiety!
There are so many stories to imagine, share and write, rather than keep in my head and hurt myself with!
Anxiety is too expensive. I’m not interested in maintaining it anymore.
Better late than never. My daily crime.
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