My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.
Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.
Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.
Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.
I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.
I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.
I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.
I’ve never noticed that before.
Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.
I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote that first blog post.
I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.
Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.
What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.
Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.
Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.
But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.
I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.
I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.
Here’s something I can do!
The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.
All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.
Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?
Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.
Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.
We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.
I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.
It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.
Where does the balance go wrong?
It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves.
The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.
So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.
Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.
Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.
It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.
Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!
By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!
The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.
The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.
The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”
Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.
I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.
I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.
My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.
When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.
Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?
I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.
Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.
Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.
Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.
Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.
All right. I’m thoroughly exasperated by this “I refuse to live in fear” bullshit. Here’s an open letter to all those wannabe heroes out there.
Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)
The ability to feel and recognize our fear is an enormous advantage, one we were evolved to experience. If our ancestors had been unable to feel and respond to fear, none of us would be alive today. The inability or unwillingness to listen to fear is a sure way to get deselected.
Yes, fear is an unpleasant feeling. Get over it. It helps us make choices that keep us alive. One of the best books out there on fear is Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. Another author who understands the importance of fear in survival and resilience is Laurence Gonzales. A list of his work is on my bookshelves page.
Asserting that we refuse to be fearful is like saying we refuse to observe, learn, and use neurological information like “hot,” “cold,” “sharp,” and “pain.” Babies can do this, people!
Fear is pro-life and a rational response to a possible threat. Ignorance and denial are not. Responding appropriately to fear is a powerful life skill. It makes us tough. Willful ignorance and denial are weak and impotent,
I’ve written before about the OODA loop, an acronym for resilience that includes Observing the situation, Orienting oneself to the situation, Deciding how to respond and Acting. People with slow or broken OODA loops stand with their mouths agape watching tsunamis roll in, volcanoes erupt, shooters aiming at them and cars heading for them at speed, and they die.
Evolution in action.
“I refuse to live in fear” is pathetic nonsense. A more truthful statement would be “I refuse to be told what to do,” or, even better, “I’m shit scared and I don’t know how to deal with it.” Or how about “I’m afraid to face reality?” I suspect those are all closer to the truth. Denialism is not a successful life strategy, and neither is willful ignorance.
When I see people masking, I see resilience, adaptation, responsibility, a desire to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and common kindness and courtesy for the most vulnerable among us. I see people learning and doing their best in a scary, difficult, rapidly changing situation. When I see unmasked people wearing pitying smiles or having toddler tantrums when asked to mask, I see a bunch of fearful pantywaist boneheads waiting for Darwin Awards.
You just can’t save people from themselves.
It’s hard to face reality. I get that. I’ve spent plenty of time in denial myself. The fact is, we can’t control life and death and the ebbing, flowing activity of viruses, which vastly outnumber us. There is no one to blame. Viruses do not conspire against us. We’re not that important. Learning curves are messy, and we can’t always get clear answers, nor do we “deserve” them. We are not the Kings of the Universe, above the natural laws that govern life. We are not entitled to be comfortable. Our needs, feelings and lives are not more important than anyone else’s, now or across the whole span of human history. Our beliefs don’t change what’s real.
Real life takes guts. I’m sorry if you don’t have them, but don’t pretend that’s courage. It’s not.
Nobody has asked me to live in fear, and I don’t, but I’m exceedingly grateful to live with the advantage of fear, because I’d like to go on living for a while. Fear is power, and I’m certainly strong enough to manage it. I’m also tough enough to deal with wearing a mask.
So go ahead. Refuse to “live in fear.” Throw tantrums. Be abusive. Display your ignorance on social media and elsewhere. Make the most of your contempt and outrage. Argue with what is. Increase the spread of coronavirus. I can’t stop you.
But you’re not a hero. Your cowardice is showing, and I’m embarrassed for you.
This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.
I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?
It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.
Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.
Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.
In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, that they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.
I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.
During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.
I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.
We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?
Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?
And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?
What about our failing democracy?
Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.
That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.
It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?
I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.
I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.
Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.
The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.
We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.
Now, wouldn’t that be something?
I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.
Last week I came down the steep stairs from my little attic aerie, sat in a chair in the living room and cried while I asked my partner if he thought I would ever have a less effortful experience of life.
It’s not that anything was really wrong. What I was feeling was an old, familiar feeling of tryingto manage my life and myself as efficiently as possible and feeling worn out and unsuccessful.
Photo by Bradley Wentzel on Unsplash
Trying. Manage. Efficiently. What am I, a machine?
I was tired that evening, and worried about diminished workflow and subsequent diminished paycheck. I wasn’t seeing a way out of my work/income situation, which is a place I’ve been in for several years.
One of the things I did last week during a work shift devoid of work was join She Writes, an online community for, obviously, women writers. I’d been procrastinating about doing so for a long time.
For years, I’ve been trying to find a writing community, both locally and online. I’ve joined a professional local organization, but their programs are rarely offered up here in Central Maine, as Portland is their headquarters. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to find beta readers for my first book. I put up an invitation to start a writer’s group at the local library and didn’t get a single call. I tried a give and take partnership with another writer so we could read one another’s work and provide feedback, but my partner had other priorities and needed to drop out.
And, of course, I need to work for that paycheck, so my time and energy are largely gobbled up by my financial needs rather than the joyful work of my life. This produces a chronic background tension that grinds away at my soul.
Anyway, I decided the time had come and I was ready to join She Writes and see what possibilities might open up through that community. I had to apply to join.
Engaging with life from a place of love rather than fear is not a new idea for me, or probably for anyone reading this. It’s the kind of thing we hear and read all the time. I would have said I do that. It’s always my intention to show up in the world with love, which is to say kindness, compassion and respect.
The wording of Carter’s post, however, indicates motivation, an internal thing, not external action. Make choices with love, not fear. Decide what to do based on love. Do nothing for fear.
Right, I thought. I treat others and myself well. Of course.
I treat others well because I think it’s effective and I’m afraid of violence, hatefulness, rejection and just plain crazy.
I treat myself well because I’m afraid to be unhealthy, unable to earn a living and/or unable to be independent.
Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
It’s all for fear. It’s not for love.
Furthermore, treating myself well doesn’t equal loving myself. I caretake my physical form like a good property manager takes care of a rental. I exercise, eat well, brush my teeth, wash my body and take care of injuries.
What I think about myself is that I disappointed my parents, drove my brother nuts (not literally!), failed two marriages and made unforgiveable mistakes as a parent. I think I’ve never made a successful career or had a good enough job. I think I’m ridiculously hard to live with. I think I eat too much, use too much hot water in the shower, like obnoxious music, try too hard and am too sensitive. I think I’m unattractive and few people want to hug or touch me. I think I’ve spent years writing a 300,000-word book that, for all I know, has less value in the world than a roll of cheap toilet paper. On sale.
Those are some of the things I’m conscious of. When I look at my fear-based choice making, it appears I also think if I don’t hold my own feet to the fire at all times I’ll become a lazy, irresponsible, selfish slacker; demanding, mean, dishonest and greedy.
Carter’s post made me realize I could hardly think of a choice, any choice, whether important or mundane, that I haven’t made based on some kind of fear. Ever. From earliest memory.
The greatest motivator in my life is and has always been fear.
Not only that, but I’ve created a whole pantheon of idols I obsessively and ceaselessly worship in order to avoid the vengeful, punitive God I’ve made out of fear. I make daily bloody and brutal sacrifices of time, energy and life to appease them, but insatiable fear just gets more and more powerful. Here are some of the idols:
I read that post on Friday. There and then I decided to start making choices based on loving and believing in myself rather than fear of consequences and see what happened.
Without leaving the chair, I asked myself what the hell I was doing messing around with a job that wasn’t meeting my needs and I was unhappy in.
On Saturday I applied and tested for a job as an independent contractor to do transcription for an online company.
On Sunday I applied and tested for a job as an independent contractor to do transcription for a second online company and was hired on the spot. I also wrote the publisher of She Writes Press and asked for help with the next step for my book manuscript.
On Monday, when I ran out of work, I began getting qualified (via testing) to do various kinds of transcription through my new job and looked up the resignation process from my current medical transcription job.
Yesterday the second online business hired me.
This morning She Writes Press wrote me back with support, suggestions, a recommended professional who might read the manuscript, and what it would cost.
The fear is not gone. In fact, it’s louder than ever because I’m challenging it on so many fronts at once. The difference is I’m not standing nose to nose with it right now. Playing with the new toy of making choices based on what’s loving for myself gives me another option, which means now I can make a real choice.
Fear is not a bad feeling. We need it to survive. It’s just that mine has grown bloated and swollen on all the power I’ve given it over the years. The bigger it gets, the more space it takes. At this point I’ve become its thing. It thinks it can do as it likes with me.
I’ve had a belly full of life based on doing things out of fear. It’s exhausting, demoralizing, joyless and hag-ridden. It doesn’t work well and I’m sick of it. When I think about it rationally, I know I don’t need to beat myself with a stick through every day for fear I’ll become lazy, selfish, etc., etc. If I was going to turn into any of those things I would have done it long ago.
How would it be if I used regard for myself as a motivator and refused to do or not do out of fear? What might a life based on doing things out of thinking well of myself look like? What if I stopped giving anything to fear?
The funny thing is life looks much the same. The difference is largely in the outwardly invisible motivation behind my choices. Am I going to relax with music or a video and stretch because that’s the right and responsible way to treat my tiresome physical needs after a long day sitting in which I earned inadequate money, or am I going to do it because I love the way it feels after a tiring day in which I worked hard, whether I earned money or not?
Life is crazy right now. Everything feels like it’s in transition. I hardly know what to concentrate on in any given moment, there’s so much on the table. Even so, now when I run out of energy in the afternoon I spend a few minutes writhing between making a choice between demanding more from myself out of fear or doing something pleasurable and relaxing. So far, every day I’ve managed to choose rest and relaxation after another wild day.
It appears I’ve begun a new practice. I didn’t know that evening I sat in the chair and cried I was standing on an important threshold. I didn’t know by the end of the week I’d have not one but two new jobs. I didn’t know I was going to finally get serious about putting my manuscript into a professional’s hands and risk failure and rejection. I didn’t know in just a couple of days I was going to begin making a habit out of rolling out of bed and stepping into the day’s embrace with curiosity and a resolve to think well of myself as I navigate, rather than wondering fearfully what would happen next and whether I would manage it adequately.