All my life, when I tackle a problem or a challenge, if I don’t succeed I assume it’s about me. I’m not fill-in-the-blank-enough. I’m a failure. So, I work harder. I perseverate. I obsess. I refuse to give up. I try, and I try, and I go on trying until I’m used up, and then I try some more.
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Every now and then I get jarred into a wider perspective and I suddenly understand some problems can’t be solved. Some challenges can’t be mitigated. Sometimes the change I’m seeking is not possible. This happened recently with a short note from Seth Godin in my Inbox titled “The Win-Win Fallacy.”
I’ve studied power dynamics for several years now, as regular readers know. One of my most important filters in evaluating others is whether they come from a power-over (win-lose) or power-with (win-win) perspective. This discernment is not necessarily loaded with judgement. In some cases, power-over is both effective and appropriate. In terms of personal relationships, though, I’m not eager to engage with people working for power-over.
The invisible problem (to me) with this filter is I haven’t thought of it as a continuum. I’ve thought of it as two isolated positions. You’re one, or you’re the other. (You’re with me or you’re against me.)
I abhor black-and-white thinking. Way too much of it in the world. It’s always a trap, and it always feels manipulative. Maybe one of the reasons I dislike it so much is that I’m so prone to it myself. It sneaks up on me, completely invisible, and I’m chagrined when I realize I’ve fallen into it. Again. Aargh!
These few sentences from Godin point out many problems don’t have a win-win solution, especially problems that have been around a while. If there was a win-win, someone would have found it. Think about gun control, for example. (I know, I don’t want to think about it anymore, either, but our children are going to keep dying in schools until we figure it out.)
Maybe it’s not that I’m too stupid to find the win-win in any given situation. Maybe there isn’t one.
Maybe some problems can only be solved on a continuum of sort-of-win, sort-of-lose, or even definitely win-lose, at least in the short term. Maybe, as Godin points out, what we should work for is something better than we have now, a situation in which most people are happier than they are with the current status quo. This, by the way, is what’s known as compromise.
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Time changes things. I’ve often lost in the short term but won in the long term, or vice versa. Winning and losing are relative positions, a snapshot of one moment in time. They can and do change. (A private prayer of thanksgiving here.)
We are obsessed with winning in this culture. We’ll kill others and/or ourselves in order to be right. We’ll lie, cheat, and steal to ensure we win. We elevate winners with power, money, and authority. Some people are unable to accept losing anything, ever.
People who operate from this perspective are unable to discuss, negotiate, or compromise. They have no interest in the price of their win, as long as they get it. They don’t care who loses, who suffers, who dies. They don’t care about justice. The win is all. Nothing else matters.
Then there are people like me who are convinced justice (always assuming we can identify and agree upon what’s just!) is desirable and achievable and must prevail at any cost. I’m equally obsessed with the belief that winning doesn’t matter a damn and people who think winning is power are pathetic. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. What matters is working together to figure out the greatest good for everyone, for all life on Planet Earth, most of which is not human, by the way.
But what if there’s not a win-win, in either the short or the long term? We’re losing animal species every day. Maybe certain kinds of human thinking and behavior should also go extinct. Maybe we need losers so the majority wins.
So the majority wins, not the most powerful minority. Just to be clear. And that means sometimes we need to be willing to lose something for the greater good. A small sacrifice. What a concept.
It’s tricky. I don’t want it to be tricky. I want it to be clear, because that’s easier. Win-lose, or win-win.
But I see it’s not clear. It is a continuum. Lots of shades of grey in there, lots of ways to win and lose at once, and even that changes over time.
On a purely personal level, I need to stop making myself and everyone else crazy with my neurotic obsession with absolutely equal power, a perfectly equal win. I do believe it can happen. I believe it’s possible. On the other hand, Godin has me convinced it’s not always possible. If I’ve tried as hard and as long as I can, maybe the problem isn’t me at all. Maybe the only solution(s) are somewhere between the pure and saintly win-win and the power-grabbing win-lose.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.
We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on reptiles, plants, fish and insects warning of toxicity.
We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.
I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.
Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.
Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.
The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.
Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.
Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.
Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.
Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of patterns resulting in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.
As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.
One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.
What I like best about Eddy is he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.
Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.
In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:
Preoccupation with blaming others
–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)
The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.
In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.
In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.
If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.
If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.
Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.
In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.
Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.
I’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, which 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 the 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 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 others within the family can avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.
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.
What happens when the scapegoat is spit upon, reviled, cursed and turned away, staggering and stumbling under everyone’s unacknowledged shadows, darkness, and feelings? 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 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 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.
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 …
I’ve been considering confidence for some time through the lens of minimalism. As I transition from clearing unneeded objects from my life (relatively easy) to clearing unwanted behavior patterns, habits and beliefs from my life (hard!), I follow the same basic tenets: How can I replace two or more similar but limited internal tools with one multi-purpose tool?
I’ve always had a messy relationship with confidence. At this point in my life, I’m confident of my own worth, but have no confidence anyone else will view me as worthy. Truthfully, this doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Aside from a few close and longstanding relationships, I don’t much care what most of the world thinks of me. I realize now most people aren’t spending a minute thinking about me at all. Most of us are primarily preoccupied with ourselves!
I see confidence as a choice. The Latin root of the word means “have full trust” (Oxford Online Dictionary), and trust is certainly a choice. Confidence, like success, can be tried on like a hat. What I discover is choosing confidence for a day or even an hour significantly diminishes my internal clutter.
If I choose to be confident, perfectionism is no longer relevant. Neither are shame or anyone else’s expectations, judgements or criticisms. Defenses and pseudo self are no longer needed. Outcomes cease to feel like a matter of life or death. I don’t need to win, be right or exercise my outrage. I don’t need to explain, justify, or make sure everyone understands what I’m up to. Choosing confidence means letting go of all that, which means reducing my mental and emotional clutter, which means more peace, more time and more energy.
As I’ve been thinking about confidence, I’ve also been teaching swim lessons at work to children from infancy to nine or ten. I discovered as a teenager working with children teaches me as much as it does them. That was true when I was a teenager in the pool, in hospitals, in schools, as I parented, and now, again, in the pool.
I suspect confidence is built from a combination of nature and nurture. Some people seem to be inherently more confident than others. On the other hand, it’s not hard to mutilate a child’s confidence. Sustained criticism will do it. Careless language will do it. Refusing to acknowledge a child’s wants, needs and feelings will do it. Mockery and teasing will do it. Rigid and unrealistic expectations will do it.
I can tell within five minutes if I’m dealing with a confident or mistrustful child. Confident kids may be shy, hesitant, or wary of a new environment and a new person, but they’re willing to trust, explore and try. Mistrustful kids cry, act out, refuse to engage, or (most heartbreaking of all) stoically endure, rigid with tension and terror. A child who shrinks from my touch and cowers in fear of being dragged bodily into deep water and left to drown has certainly been forced by someone they trusted to do things he or she was not ready to do.
As a swim teacher, I notice how much effort and energy mistrust costs us, not only the one lacking confidence, but everyone around them. A mistrustful, frightened child requires constant reassurance and encouragement. Their fear makes them more at risk in the water (and elsewhere) than their lack of skill. A confident child may frequently need to be hauled up from water over their heads by the scruff of the neck, spluttering and coughing, but as soon as they’ve snorted the water out of their nose, they’re ready to try again.
At the end of the lesson, all the kids are tired, but some are tired because they wriggled and flopped and kicked and bubbled with such enthusiasm and willingness they wore themselves out, while others are exhausted from lack of confidence and the firm belief they can’t. Carlos Castanada said, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
Confidence, I’m pleased to report, can certainly be repaired, and not only in those of us who are nicely mature! Confidence is contagious. I have a four-year-old in one lesson who spends a great deal of time comforting and reassuring another child who lacks confidence. The confident child encourages the mistrustful one, demonstrating skills first to show they’re fun and easy, and promising “Miss Jen will keep us safe.”
From the lofty eminence of adulthood, I can reassure a child I will not break trust with him or her in the water, but a peer is in a much more powerful position with such reassurance, particularly a peer who is willing to go first. A child whose confidence has been injured is at a distinct disadvantage in all areas of life and learning. Building confidence is possible, but it takes time, consistency, and patience with kids whose trust has been violated in the past.
We can’t learn if we believe we can’t. Being willing to try or to learn requires a teacher who never sees failure and only focuses on progress and effort, no matter how small. A child who is afraid to blow bubbles in the water gets praised to the skies if he or she can be coaxed to dip their chin in the water. Even if that’s the only progress they make in a lesson, it’s a huge step for a frightened child who lacks confidence. Blowing bubbles will come when the child is ready. I’m confident of that, I repeat it aloud with confidence in front of the child and his or her parents, and invariably, a lesson or two later, that same child is blowing bubbles with great glee, in between accidental inhalations of pool water. Buoyed by praise, celebration and high fives, the child develops some confidence, but it took the other kids in the lesson, the swim teachers, and watching staff and parents to do it.
Lack of confidence is very expensive, and very cluttered. Confidence, the single quality of the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary) can replace a whole host of ineffective and energy-consuming thoughts and beliefs.
It’s obvious to me that consciously choosing confidence is the simplest thing to do. As has frequently happened in the past, children show me the way, and I do my best to return the favor, not only as a teacher, but also as a parent, friend and coworker. When others believe and trust in us, we are empowered. When we believe and trust in ourselves, we are empowered.
Broken confidence can be repaired. In fact, it must be repaired if we are to thrive. Not everyone in our lives deserves or earns our trust, of course, but if we are unwilling to trust ourselves, we are truly lost in the darkness without a guiding light.
“Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you.” ― Zig Ziglar