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?
(For the beginning of this series of posts, inspired by Allan Savory’s book, Holistic Management, begin here.)
Allan Savory’s holistic decision-making process “ends” with a feedback loop of planning (assuming the plan is wrong, as in planning for failure), monitoring, controlling, and replanning.
So, having spent a couple of months working with this model and writing about it, what have I got? Where am I?
I have no idea! I feel like I’m in the middle of a hairball.
Using Savory’s template is not the problem. It’s elegant, logical, effective, and sustainable. It’s a model based on power-with and win-win.
It’s effective because learning the process has successfully excavated resistance, blocks, and unconscious beliefs that are and have always been obstacles for me in all areas of my life. Until and unless I deal with my internal landscape, neither this process nor any other will work for me.
As I think about defining my creative output and consider how to get it in front of those who would find value in my work, I’m forced into a narrow focus. I’m forced into choice and commitment.
In the beginning, starting Our Daily Crime and writing my books was an act of defiance. I had no expectations at all. My motivation was to express myself honestly in spite of what anyone thought or said.
Now, years later, I’ve created a body of work, grown from those first bitter seeds of defiance. I discover I’ve written a blueprint, a map for reclaiming and managing personal power through emotional intelligence. It’s not finished. It will never be finished. Not everyone wants it, or can use it.
But some people do, and can. People like me.
Who are they? Where are they? How do I find them?
Upon waking this morning, dimly hearing peepers in the pond (Spring!), a robin, and a couple of barred owls, I had this thought:
I cannot be/give/do/create anything that anyone wants.
To say that’s a belief is completely inadequate. It’s a law of nature, like gravity, immutable, everlasting, absolutely indestructible.
It’s a belief that underlies my whole life.
Is it true?
Panic stations! It doesn’t matter. I refuse to answer that question right now.
OK, I said to myself. Let me ask you this: If it were not true, how would you find your audience?
Now, that’s a question I can work with!
I would have fallen on Our Daily Crime and its content with joy and relief, had I found it eight or ten years ago. It’s exactly the support and resource I needed.
I well remember how I started on the journey of emotional intelligence and power reclamation. I know where I’ve found my people – and where I haven’t. I follow several people who add value to my life and serve as teachers, guides, and examples of simplicity, honesty, and effective marketing. They have found their audience.
I can find mine, too.
If I empower the belief that I have nothing to contribute that anyone wants, I’m at the end of possibility as a writer. If I acknowledge the belief and work around it anyway, I’m in a new world of unexplored, unimagined possibilities, and Savory’s model provides me with a decision-making tool that allows me to pursue my own joy and success, remain cooperative and authentic, and maintain healthy connections with others. Everybody wins.
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.
Resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” (Oxford Dictionaries.) One of the most prevalent difficulties in modern life seems to be the ever-growing cacophony of Those Who Are Offended. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but last week I read an interview with author Lionel Shriver that brought my own sense of offense to a head. Here’s a quote from that article:
Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash
“Shriver … is not the first to argue that the right to give offense is one of the very foundations of freedom of speech. ‘We’re moving in the direction of enshrining the right not to be offended, which is the end of liberty and certainly the end of good books.'”
Oxford Dictionaries defines offense in four ways:
A breach of law or rule; an illegal act.
A thing that constitutes a violation of what is judged to be right or natural.
Annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one’s standards or principles.
The action of attacking someone or something.
Photo by David Beale on Unsplash
The principle of free speech is taking a real battering in the United States. It’s a one-size-fits-all justification for whatever beliefs and ideologies we espouse. Freedom of speech, however, is not absolute. There are limitations around it intended to protect community and individual rights, including the “offense principle,” a restriction based on perceived offense to society. Freedom of speech is a principle that relies on social guidance, which is to say the intelligence and compassion of us, we the people.
This is a problem in a nation where compassion is daily more distorted and taken advantage of and critical thinking and civil discourse are increasingly difficult to come by. Who gets to define “perceived offense to society?”
Everywhere I look, listen and read, I observe people who appear to believe they have a right not to be offended. Freedom of speech grants such people the right to be offensive, as they’re quick to point out, but it’s only a one-way street. Offensive ideas and beliefs are becoming a broad category. Disagreement is offensive (and hateful and bigoted). Certain words, like ‘uterus’ are becoming offensive. Certain pronouns are offensive. Real or perceived exclusion is offensive. A perception of cultural appropriation is offensive. Identity politics of any sort are offensive. Science and evidence-based thinking are offensive. Name any religion or spiritual framework you like — it’s offensive.
When did we become so precious, infantile and entitled that we stopped dealing effectively with being offended?
When did the cancer of selfishness destroy our willingness to consider the needs of those around us?
When were individual distorted perceptions given power over a larger, more common good?
When did disagreement, questions and citing scientific data begin to earn death threats?
Our social, cultural and political landscape is enormously complex, at least at first glance. We’ve become fantastically and gleefully skilled at silencing, deplatforming, invalidating, gaslighting, projection and the fine art of withering contempt. We suffer from an epidemic of what I call Snow White Syndrome. Remember the wretched queen stepmother and her mirror? “Me, me, ME, not you! I’m the fairest, I’m the best, I’m the most victimized, I’m the most downtrodden, I’m the richest, I’m the most offended!”
At first glance, as I said, it’s all so complex. At second glance, it’s all distraction and bullshit. The bottom line is always a power dynamic. Is an individual or group requesting or demanding power-with or power-over?
It really is that simple.
I’m offended every single day. School shooters offend me. Tantruming and pouting politicians offend me. Silencing tactics offend me. Being forced to deal with the sexual fetishes of others offends me. The list goes on and on. You know who’s responsible for dealing with all this offense?
It’s not your responsibility to refrain from offending me, and it’s not my business to tippy-toe around your delicate sensibilities, either. Many of us try to approach others with kindness and courtesy, but that doesn’t mean we’ll receive either in return. I don’t expect the world to accommodate me. Life is not fair. Equality is an ideal rather than a reality. Inclusivity is not a right.
My rights and needs are as important, but not more important than anyone else’s.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
Individuals and groups who lobby to take away the rights of others work from a power-over position. They’re weak and fearful and use violence and intimidation to distract others from their impotence. Individuals and groups who lobby to create more equal power dynamics work from a power-with position. They’re confident and seek authentic connection through information sharing and constructive contribution toward the well-being of all.
Resilience, not priggish rigidity or sheep-like agreement with the prevailing social fashion, always wins the evolutionary jackpot. Resilient life flexes and bends, masters new environments, learns and successfully reproduces, continues. Life that doesn’t dies. Evolution is not personal. It makes no distinctions between a human being and a cockroach. Evolution has a lot of time, millions upon millions of years. The ebb and flow of species on earth is nothing but ripples. Patiently, intelligently, life begins again, over and over, building its complex web.
Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash
If we can’t figure out how to live in harmony with our bodies, our communities and the earth, we will be deselected. Walking around with a mouth like a pig’s bottom because we’re offended, mutilating and poisoning our bodies, creating sexual pathology that interferes with our ability to reproduce our DNA, wasting our time and energy engaging in idiotic arguments and eradicating education and critical thinking will all lead to deselection, and it should. Such a species is more destructive than constructive to all the other forms of life on this planet.
Difficulties of all kinds are a given. They always have been. Difficulties are the pressures that shape us and make us stronger — or deselect us. If we want to survive, we need to put aside our offended sensibilities and concentrate on the things that contribute to the stuff of life: food, water, shelter, connection, raising healthy children, our physical and mental health and the well-being of Planet Earth. It seems to me that’s enough to be going on with. If we can’t begin to achieve resilience, the debate over who gets to use which bathroom becomes as moot as it is ridiculous.
Resilience can be learned. We foster it by letting go, learning to be wrong, exercising our intelligence, and forming healthy connections so we can learn from one another, figure out how to share power and support one another. Life was never advertised as a free ride. The privilege of life comes with responsibility, demands and competition. Taking offense is not a life skill. Malignant destruction of life, either our own or somebody else’s, is not a life skill. Taking our proper place in the food web and the natural cycles of life and death, on the other hand, is essential if we expect to continue as a species.
Life, in the end, is for those sensible enough to live it, and part of surviving and thriving is resilience. Maybe, if we can get a grip and refocus on what matters, we can learn from the cockroaches, viruses, bacteria, mice, flies, ants, crows, soil organisms and many others that have figured out how to adapt and evolve through every difficulty they encounter.
Alchemy: A seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination (online Oxford Dictionaries).
Emotional intelligence training opened my eyes to the power of needs in our human experience. Coming to terms with my own needs catapulted me into a new life. During the months in which I learned to navigate through my feelings, needs (click here for needs inventories), limiting beliefs and stories, I kept coming back around to the same question.
If I accept that all human beings have needs, and a right to have them met, what then do I do with my unmet needs, past and present?
We might all have a right to get our needs met, but that doesn’t mean we have a guarantee they will be met, or that we can hold anyone responsible for meeting them. We can meet some of our own needs, but not every one. Some needs require healthy connections with others, but not everyone has that. Some people don’t have a single healthy connection with another human being, let alone many, and one relationship can’t meet all our needs.
Unmet needs are devastating, make no mistake. They drive addiction, all kinds of violence and power-over behavior (like school shootings), mental and physical disease and illness, and suicide. A chronically unmet need is a nonhealing, stinking ulcer on the soul. We may hide it from others and even ourselves, but it never stops oozing blood and pus. Unmet needs can cripple and/or kill us. We can let go of some people, behavior and beliefs, but needs are intrinsic.
None of us can entirely meet another’s needs. We all have limitations of some kind, and finite resources of time and energy. Being unable to meet another’s needs is not necessarily because we’re unloving or uncaring. Most of our close relationships probably do meet some of our needs some of the time, and we meet some of their needs some of the time. It’s not black or white. It’s a continuum, a balance of reciprocity.
So, I ask again, what about our needs that just don’t get met because even our healthy connections are unable to fill them?
At that point we make choices. We can choose to:
Act out in some desperate, destructive or deadly way that hurts ourselves or others.
Blame the people around us for failing to meet our needs.
Blame ourselves for having needs and feeling the pain of having them unmet.
Deny that we need anything from anyone — ever (my personal favorite).
Figure out how to neutralize the experience of unmet needs.
By neutralize, I mean accept and surrender to how painful it is to carry around a bone-deep, persistent longing for something that’s unavailable.
Acting out has never been my style. I’m also not much interested in blaming others for what goes wrong in my life. It feels like a cop-out and it disempowers me. Blaming myself — now that I’m very good at. I’ve spent years perfecting the art of self-loathing, but it’s never been helpful. Not even one time. Besides that, it hurts. I can’t pull off denial, at least not for long. I might refuse to admit certain things to someone else, but I don’t play games like that in the privacy of my own head. I have a file in my documents labeled ‘Denial File.’ Now and then I put something in that file and leave it there while I wrestle with my unwillingness to believe. When I’m ready to stop arguing with what is, I take it out and re-file it. Usually, the Denial File is empty, but I like knowing it’s there for the really tough information.
That brings me to the last choice, which leaves me standing squarely in my power. I don’t hurt myself, I don’t hurt anyone else and I get to think outside of the box — my favorite thing! What kind of alchemy transforms, creates or combines an unmet need into something beautiful?
For several months I’ve been researching outer space for my second book. I’ve compiled lists of constellations and the mythology around them. I have definitions of meteors, comets and nebulae. I’ve spent hours looking at images from space. Astounding, mysterious, vast and lovely, the universe is infinitely larger than the largest playing field I can imagine. I gulp down science fiction books and I’ve watched hours and days and weeks of Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and yes, yes, Star Wars!
I also, fairly frequently, turn up The Star card when I work with my Tarot deck. The Star symbolizes creative powers, confidence and diversity.
So, what if I create a cosmos? Great word, cosmos. It means “the universe seen as a well-ordered whole” (online Oxford Dictionaries). I’m always in favor of well-ordered, especially when I get to define it. All the pieces of my experience, including unmet needs, are part of a whole. I prefer combination and integration to amputation.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Here I am, with my unmet needs, my history, the people who have been significant in my life and a lot of passionate feelings to express and process. I’m an alchemist, a creator, and before me is a vast black nothingness.
I want stars in my cosmos, so every tear I’ve ever cried becomes a star. I fling them far and wide, like handfuls of tiny crystals. My cosmos is so vast there’s always room for more.
I want planets in my cosmos. I hang them carefully, one by one. These are the people in my life, past and present, living and dead. Some are hot planets, sere and lifeless. Others are cool and green and blue. Every cosmos needs a bloviating, bullying gas giant with heavy gravity that sucks more than its fair share of, well, everything! Rings are decorative, and spots and alien seas and strangely-shaped continents. Also, sand dunes and storms, poisonous (to us) gases, radiation, erupting volcanoes, mountain ranges and glaciers.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
How about moons? Cool and sterile or lush and verdant; I definitely want moons. I want constellations, too, and stories to go with them. Blazing meteors and trailing comets add movement. Nebulae add color and mystery. Galaxies swirl and spiral or spill like ribbons of milk against the darkness. Black holes suck. Suns supernova.
One by one, I use my unmet needs to decorate my cosmos. I turn them into color, texture, pattern, alien world, moon, star, sun, comet, meteor and nebula. I name them, animate them with feeling, polish them like jewels and set them in place. Maybe they stay in the farthest reaches of my cosmos, where I rarely visit them, or maybe I keep them closer. Perhaps my unmet needs appear from time to time in a meteor shower or a comet with a long tail, and I marvel at their beauty and mystery and remember again their taste and feel before they burn away to ash or disappear behind a planet.
Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash
My cosmos is my laboratory and my kitchen, illuminated by starlight. I stir and simmer over the heat of suns; chop and mix under waxing and waning moons; grind alien insects, rocks and roots for pigment and infuse gas and cosmic dust with color. I orbit, I dance from galaxy to galaxy in bare feet, combine a pinch of this with a handful of that until I float, weightless and free, in a cosmos of my own design and decoration.
Whenever the world is too much with me and I find myself staggering under burdens of unmet needs and other things I cannot release, I unlock a hidden door with the key I carry between my breasts and find star candles lit, suns asimmer, planets revolving and black holes lurking. Mortar and pestle, cauldron and crucible wait for my magical offerings as I combine, create and transform the material of my life into a complex and resplendent whole.