I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
I’ve always enjoyed problem solving. It’s surely one of life’s most important skills. However, I’ve often felt blocked by others when I set out to solve a problem that includes someone else, and this brief piece by Seth Godin may have just helped me see why.
Godin makes a distinction between a problem (implying a solution(s)) and a situation, something outside our power to change.
He points out the first step in solving a problem is to agree a problem exists.
I learned as a child to be deeply self-reliant and as independent as possible. More often than not, asking for help or understanding made whatever situation I was struggling with much, much worse. So I learned not to. I don’t deny problems to myself, but I don’t share them readily, either. Being honest about what’s not working makes us vulnerable. It means we have to come out of hiding. It’s risky. I don’t want to be that direct and clear about my experience, because it feels disempowering and dangerous.
Learning curves are messy, and as I’ve worked on being more connected with others, I’ve gradually risked sharing problems involving others.
Sometimes I’ve received support and understanding, along with good advice and questions to help me better define whatever I’m dealing with.
I’ve never started with an objective discussion in which I clearly state the nature of my problem and ask for another point of view. Is it a problem for anyone else in the picture, or is it a situation? Do others involved feel it’s a problem worth solving? Can we agree to move forward together to seek a solution, even if there’s no easy or certain one right now?
I leap directly to problem solving before I’ve had any agreement that anyone else experiences a problem. I change my behavior, come up with strategies, and start tackling the problem. When my problem-solving strategies cause friction with others, I’m hurt and angry. This is a problem, right? I’m trying to solve my problem. I’m not asking you to solve it, I’m solving it. Why can’t you let me take care of my needs?
It would work if we all lived in bubbles instead of a web of interconnection, but inevitably, if I change my behavior, those connected to me are affected. And we don’t like it when people rock our boats, especially if we don’t believe in the problem they’re trying to manage.
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Like, say, coping with a global health crisis. The last three years have been a marvelous illustration of what happens when people disagree about problems and solutions (or at least mitigations). Chaos. Undermining. Disinformation. Division. Even violence.
When we can’t find validation for our feeling of urgency around a problem, then what?
I can’t answer for anyone else, but I set out to ease or solve the problem with solutions I have the power to implement. Sometimes they’re small tweaks. Sometimes they’re extreme, scorched-earth, desperate choices because I saw no other way.
Sometimes my problem is someone else’s convenience, pleasure, or deliberate choice.
Sometimes, and this is worth mentioning loudly, I tackle problems not belonging to me. I do it out of good intentions, with a desire to strengthen connection, but it rarely works out well. The problems of others are not mine to solve. It’s hard for me to understand mild bitching is not a plea for assistance in solving a problem. This is an area in which I continue to work on healthy boundaries.
Refusing to help, stalling, or obstructing problem-solving doesn’t stop me from going forward with solutions to my own challenges. It simply sends me underground, which is where I work most comfortably anyway.
Another block to solving problems: The Status Quo. Good old SQ.
If, and it’s a big if, we can agree on the problem, the SQ will immediately spring to life and block every attempt to make different choices. The SQ is comfortable. It knows what to expect. It understands how current systems and dynamics work. If something changes, the problem might become worse. It might multiply into several other problems. Change is hard. It might cost too much money. We don’t have time and energy for it right now. We’re not focused. We’ll forget. We’re too distracted. It’s not that big a problem, after all. In fact, why are you making such a fuss over nothing? Are you tired? Or sick? Or about to get your period? Are you in menopause? Are you having a bad day, sweetheart? Why don’t you relax and have a drink? Or a pint of ice cream? Or a pill? Or a cigarette? You’ll feel better then.
Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?
The SQ, you see, doesn’t want to lose any power, especially power it stole from others on the way to becoming the SQ. If you solve your problem, the SQ might lose ground. Not acceptable. You wouldn’t want to solve your problem at the expense of the SQ, would you?
I’ve written before about Bill Eddy’s work on high-conflict personalities. One of his strategies is to ask people who are dissatisfied or actively complaining for a plan. This acknowledges the perceived problem, invites ideas about solving it, and helps the high-conflict person feel heard and validated. It also asks them to take responsibility for changing the situation in such a way that a refusal is obvious and public. It forces active contribution rather than passive trouble-making. Are they complaining as a habit, or are they serious about creating a better way to do things?
Image by Valeria Lo Iacono from Pixabay
I’ve tried this, and in real life some people will simply shrug and say, “I dunno.” They have no plan. They have no interest in a plan. I don’t know if they don’t see a problem needing a solution, or they’re lazy, or simply deeply invested in complaining and don’t want to lose the source of their complaint. For whatever reason, they stonewall the process of problem solving.
Some folks will respond to a request for a plan. Often, people do have ideas about what might work better, what might be worth trying, or are interested in coming up with a new system. They only want an invitation.
A third response is the most problematic. These are the people who refuse to be clear. They won’t admit there is a problem, but there might be. They won’t admit it needs to be, might be, or could be solved. They won’t take any responsibility for the problem, even if they’re an involved stakeholder. They refuse to consider solutions and possible outcomes. They stall, obstruct, and speak for the status quo.
They don’t openly refuse to cooperate, but their noncooperation makes the message clear: It’s not who I am. I won’t remember. It’s silly. It’s too much trouble. It’s inconvenient. I’m not doing that!
I’ve drawn a new map for problem solving:
Define the problem. Be sure it belongs to me.
Seek agreement on the defined problem from others directly involved with or affected by it.
Ask everyone involved (including myself) for a plan. Consider each plan. Think about why, how and if it might or might not work. Come up with possible outcomes, positive and negative, for each plan.
Choose a plan, or to delay, or redefine the problem as a situation, at least for now.
I can’t help feeling it’s far easier to just solve problems on my own. Seriously.
On the other hand, I’m not alone in my house, my workplace, my community, or my life. Probably a good thing. Problems are inevitable, and solving them can be a team sport.
I’ve written in detail about boundaries before. I’ve spent a lot of time on the concept because boundaries were a key piece of healthy functioning I never understood or had before I was 50, and that lack caused constant problems and stress in my life.
This week I came across some questions about budgeting from Seth Godin that really caught my eye and started me thinking about boundaries again. Budgeting is much in my mind as we transition into our new house, new systems, and a new routine for everything from cleaning out the cat boxes to paying the bills.
A budget, in essence, is a boundary. I never thought of it that way before, but a budget is a framework we agree to stay within as we manage the resource of money. Boundaries are not specific to money, and three of the questions Godin proposed can be applied widely:
Are you able to understand yourself and your needs well enough to put boundaries around them? If you don’t, are you aware enough to know what you need to learn so you can?
Are you willing to be on the hook for managing your life so you don’t exceed your resource (time, energy, money, etc.)?
Can you embrace the imperfect nature of life and plans as you lean into boundaries and flex when appropriate?
Godin comes at this as a businessman, but the idea of budgeting (effectively managing financial resource) can be expanded to include any resource.
It strikes me budgeting is adulting. It requires a clear picture of expenditure and income, the ability to think ahead, the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know and need to learn. Whether we’re trying to shape a more effective life or remodel a bathroom, the process is the same. What’s not working? What are the needs? What are our options for change? What will the project cost in terms of resource over a period of time? What do we need in terms of resource for learning what we don’t know? Are we investing our resource wisely? What’s the starting point?
(This circles back around to showing our work, the subject of last week’s post.)
If we can’t dig into these questions, we can’t become a professional adult.
Budgeting also requires responsibility. Are we willing to be on the hook? Are we willing to make written commitments to ourselves and others? Are we willing to build in consequences for failing to meet our commitments, both to ourselves and others?
Lastly, perfectionism is not resilient. Plans, budgets, and boundaries are frameworks. They support us in meeting our goals and functioning effectively and appropriately. While we’re making plans and drawing up spreadsheets, however, life happens. Pandemics happen. Economic changes come and go. New technology comes onto the market. We often need to flex, consider new information, accommodate change, deal with delay and unexpected events.
None of those inevitabilities are excuses for abdicating from creating boundaries. If we care enough to take charge of our own lives or dive into a project, clarity and boundaries are essential, including a budget. It’s not good enough to fly by the seat of our pants, to say contractors won’t work within a budget anyway, or budgeting ruins the fun, or we’re unwilling to compromise in order to maintain our boundaries.
If we won’t take responsibility for our endeavors, why should contractors or anyone else? If we can’t manage boundaries around our lives and resource, why should anyone else respect our needs? If we won’t do the up-front planning and work and communicate it clearly to those we’re engaged with, how can we expect to meet our goals?
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Moving into a new house invariably results in needing skilled tradesmen like plumbers and electricians. Such people are not easy to find, especially in a small city. Obviously, one wants someone who is skilled, but I’ve also been reminded how important it is to find someone who runs an effective business. Liking and appreciating people who do work for us and being pleased with the work done doesn’t balance out lack of written bids, receipts, invoices, contracts, etc. I can’t budget if I don’t have good information. I can’t plan payments. Flying by the seat of one’s pants is not good business. It leaves both customer and service provider in the dark. Fortunately, I keep good notes and records, but there’s a big difference between a handwritten (by me) list of dates and amounts paid (Labor? Equipment? Was this the outside faucet or the leaking sink? How much more will I owe? When is the final total due?) and a professional invoice indicating costs for equipment, labor, the work that was done, and payment status.
Budgeting and boundaries. What an odd couple. Recognizing budgeting as a boundary makes me determined to embrace it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. I know all too well the result of having poor boundaries.
After years of hesitation, I have given up my landline and transitioned to my cell phone.
Many who read this will shake their heads in amazement at my tardiness, but I know others will understand.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
When I think back about why I hesitated for so long, the simple root is I’ve always had a landline.
I’ve always had a landline, and it’s served me just fine. Why fix something that’s not broken? Why do I need some kind of new high-tech toy? (Okay, I know they’re not new new. But I grew up with rotary phones with curly cords, so in my personal context they’re pretty new.)
Another big reason was my internal protest against habits and technology which break connection. The TV is my most hated object under this heading, but when I watch people in the world bent over their screens, I feel angry, sad, and scared. Why can’t we make human, face-to-face, real connections anymore? Why can’t we actually watch our child while they’re in a swim lesson, or at a gymnastics meet, or at their horseback riding lesson? Why can’t we talk to each other without constantly being interrupted and distracted by our stupid phones? Will the world stop turning if we let the call go to voicemail, or let the text wait until we’re not engaged with the human being in front of us? Is it necessary to take the cell phone everywhere we go and never turn it off? I don’t want to be that available. Living a life, here!
Refusing to participate in cell phone usage was my resistance. They can, but I’ll never be like that! Right. And my children would never say or do that. (They did.) And I would never kill an animal for food. And I would never use a gun. Etc., etc. We all want to stand on high moral ground. Good luck with that.
It’s not as though refusing to buy and learn to use a cell phone made any difference at all to the perils of social media and screen addiction or fixed our social and cultural dynamics around connection and communication.
We just moved house, and I realized I was paying quite a bit for a landline I rarely used. My friends all use cell phones. My kids use cell phones. My workplace uses cell phones, including an app for a daily COVID check. I wondered why I was paying for a landline and a cell phone which I rarely used.
I did some research. I found landlines are on the way out, probably in the next 10 years. We were moving to a small city with good cell phone infrastructure and excellent access to WIFI and Internet.
I talked to my friends, who were supportive and kindly did not laugh at my hesitation, at least not in front of me. None of them have landlines.
As I cancelled and transitioned our utilities during the move, I let go of the landline.
Everyone knows the chaos of moving. I was uncomfortable with the cell phone at first. It was a learning curve. But boy, was it a great tool! My partner and I could stay in touch about timing, U-Haul rentals, where that important box was, scheduling the electrician, dumpster, and plumber, and who was going to have the key to the old house and the new house at any particular time. Quickly texting back and forth was a huge help. It didn’t take long to get comfortable with the device. I had to. It was all I had.
Somewhere along the learning curve I remembered the cell phone is my tool, not the other way around. If I don’t want to take it everywhere I go, I don’t have to. If I want to turn it off, I can. If I want to ignore a call or text, that’s my choice. It can’t disempower me unless I allow it to do so. I’m perfectly free to continue to prioritize my relationships and myself over answering or playing with my phone.
The whole thing has made me think about change in general. I’ll never be a person who immediately welcomes the latest gadget and technology. I’m a traditionalist, and I’m nearing 60. I want to live a simple life. I don’t want to buy or own a lot of objects. I’ll always enjoy a good book more than any kind of technology. I’ll always prefer a face-to-face interaction with my loved ones to a text or phone call.
On the other hand, new technology can be amazingly useful. I’ve discarded most of my music CDs at this point, because almost everything I want to listen to is on Spotify. Less stuff. Less storage. Less to move. All I need is – you guessed it! – my cell phone!
Not all change is bad. Not all change is good. I deliberated for years about getting an iPod. I never did, and then Apple discontinued them and I was glad I didn’t have one. I clung to a large computer with a tower, keyboard, and mouse (with a cord) for a long time. Then my brother talked me into getting a laptop, and it’s all I want to use now. It’s so much easier and more streamlined in every way.
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Change is always with us. The pandemic has been a notable catalyst for change in the last two or three years. Some of the changes it imposed and continues to impose were unwelcome, but we notice at work it forced us to create some more effective procedures we’ll probably retain even after the current restrictions are over.
Sometimes big problems require change, and often we’re resistant. However, on the other side of our discomfort and resistance we might find a better, safer, more equitable world. Those who don’t want a better, safer, more equitable world exploit our discomfort around change by making dramatic predictions and distorting and polarizing our choices, playing on our fear, playing on our entitlement. We’ve seen a lot of that with the pandemic, and now we’re seeing it again after the latest tragic school shooting in Texas. Red flag laws and sensible gun control do not mean everyone (including teachers) has a gun, and they don’t mean some malign alien superlizard overlord running the government will take away everyone’s guns, either. Get a grip, people!
Most change takes time. For a couple of years I had both a cell phone and a landline. Things happened, I reevaluated my phones, and I was ready to make a complete transition, so I did. Change is neither the enemy nor our One True Love. Maybe it’s just a new friend who could make our world a bit better if we allow it to. And who doesn’t want to see a better world?
Today is the Autumn Equinox. It’s cool, cloudy, and damp here in central Maine. My attic windows are open and I can hear acorns falling from our oak tree and cars going by, tires hissing on the wet road.
I’ve been reading The Enchanted Life by Dr. Sharon Blackie, and yesterday I laid the book in my lap as I sat outside in the bright sun and boisterous breeze and cried.
Dr. Blackie’s book is about reclaiming our relationship to the natural world. This process necessarily begins with reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and physical experience. We can’t feel at home in the world if we don’t feel at home in our own skins.
Blackie suggests that each of us is a part of the world, just like a flower, a tree, a bird, or a cricket. I’ve probably read something like this a thousand times in my life, worded a thousand different ways, but I’ve never read it without an automatic unconscious resistance. Others might be part of the world, but not me. I’ve never believed I had anything worthy to offer.
My lifelong feeling of being an intruder has kept me slightly divided from people as well as the natural world. A sense of pure belonging is so rare for me I can count the experience of it on one hand. The water. My children. A crippled cat, long gone. My dance group, also far away and long ago.
As I read about belonging to the world yesterday and relished the beautiful autumn day and the waning September sun, my resistance was unexpectedly absent. The words arrowed straight into my heart. For the first time, I seriously considered that maybe I am not just a tourist, a spectator, someone passing through. Maybe I belong in the world as much as any other form of life.
I realized then I’ve lived most of my life as a sort of apology for existing. I’ve felt gratitude, appreciation, even awe in the presence of the natural world, which I love and cling to. Most of my life I’ve lived in rural areas and revered the landscape, the plants, the animals. Yet I always felt ashamed to be intruding on the loveliness of the natural cycles and seasons and the wild places. As a member of the human race, I felt like a destroyer, a besmircher, part of what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s good and beautiful and natural.
Blackie writes of reciprocity; of listening to the voices of the leaves rustling on the trees and responding with our own voice. She writes about a woman who sings to the jungle, joining in with the myriad songs already there as a rightful part of the ecosystem.
When I touch a tree in reverence, is it touching me back? Is the feel of my hand as sacred to it as the feel of its bark and body are to me?
Healthy relationship is about reciprocity. I know that from my study of emotional intelligence. Communication is reciprocal, which is to say it moves in both directions. Moving fully into belonging, then, would mean not only learning and marveling at the liquid notes of the wood thrush, but sharing my own voice with him. He is in my world, and I’m in his. His song and my song are both part of the chorus of this place. We are, perhaps, woven together.
Could it possibly be that the world is richer for my presence, rather than burdened by it? Might my step, my breath, my voice, my touch, and my prayers be to others what the coyotes’ night song, the morning mist over the river, or the falling leaves and browning ferns are to me?
This shift in perspective is staggering. I don’t quite know what to do with it. It assuages a longing within me to belong, to be more than just tolerated.
When I look around from this perspective, I see gardens existing because of me. A variety of mushrooms grow in and around the compost pit because of me. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables thrive together, feeding insects and birds, creating habitat for snakes, amphibians, and rodents, because of me. There is greater plant diversity in the landscape because of me.
The most remarkable thing about this new perspective is that it lies at the heart of my fiction trilogy. I have a firm intellectual grasp of interconnection; I’ve just never included myself. I’ve been an outsider looking in. I haven’t seen myself as worthy enough to be part of the web.
Writing can be an exercise is discovering intuitive or unconscious truths we have not yet fully integrated. To date, I’ve written 700,000 words about interconnection, but not until yesterday did my heart accept that I’m part of it too, not as a stain but as a uniquely beautiful organism within a tapestry of uncountable other uniquely beautiful organisms. As I touch, hear, see, and smell the presence of others, they touch, hear, see, and smell me. As I communicate with others, they communicate with me, though I may not know it.
Life, the weather, the COVID virus are not happening to me. They are in relationship with me. We are woven together in a changing, dynamic dance of becoming, minute by minute. We belong to each other. I am neither alien nor separate.