Arguing with what is.
Possibly the most fruitless endeavor in the world.
Yet many of us consistently argue with how we are, how others are, and how the world is.
Arguing with what is is like living in an unending war. Clinging to a story inconsistent with what is requires constant vigilance. Our lives begin to revolve around the fear that the truth we refuse to acknowledge will escape or be exposed.
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We cannot allow that to happen, so we put all our energy into convincing ourselves that what is isn’t. Then we start trying to persuade others to validate our particular reality because God speaks to us, or we’re especially victimized, marginalized, enlightened, rich or powerful. If we can’t persuade others, we try to create and enforce rules requiring them to fall into line, to agree, at least tacitly, with our point of view and belief system. We scorn critical thinking, science and evidence-based data. We discourage questioning, careful definitions and nuances. We create jargon, acronyms, blacklists and smear campaigns. We enlist the sympathy, empathy, kindness and compassion of well-meaning but naïve people. We set up zero sum games, use gaslighting, violence, abuse, projection, deflection, sweeping and inaccurate generalizations and distortions. We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others.
Arguing with what is is a full-time job.
My particular version of arguing with what is takes place mostly in my head. For example:
I don’t feel loved.
What? How can you say that? Remember that one kiss at the beginning, the most passionate kiss of your life? You know you want that again! Think of how funny he can be, how charming, how much fun! If you don’t feel loved it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. You’re ungrateful. You’re disloyal. You’re a bad partner. You don’t deserve him. You want too much. You’re needy and demanding. Of course he loves you, he’s just not comfortable saying it! You are happy and loved. Get a grip!
I don’t feel happy or loved.
I had this ding-dong conversation with myself for years. I desperately and repeatedly tried to convince myself I was both happy and loved, but I could never quite silence that deep internal voice that went right on saying, “I don’t feel loved.” It wouldn’t shut up. After years of this nonsense, I finally got so exhausted I stopped arguing with my true feelings and ended the relationship. Then, one day I came across narcsite dot com and immediately recognized the narcissist-empath dynamic.
You know what? I was right. I didn’t feel loved because I wasn’t, in fact, loved.
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Arguing with what is means fear and self-doubt are my constant companions.
So what’s the other side of the coin? What’s the fix for arguing with what is?
This magical phrase: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Say it aloud: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me. Is it a lie? It usually is a lie for me when I first apply it to any given situation. I want things to be predictable, controlled and adhere to my expectations and standards. I expect that of myself, of others and of the world.
I haven’t had great luck with that expectation. The rebellious world is chaotic, unpredictable and unexpected. I’m not in charge of anyone but myself, and my feelings (along with the rest of me) are disobedient and refuse to be controlled.
My need for control and predictability are rooted in fear and lack of trust in myself. If, at any moment in any day, however things need to be is not okay with me, I know I’m dealing with fear or lack of self-trust, and those are both places where I have all the power. That instant refocus from avoiding, denying or refusing an inconvenient or unexpected truth or reality over which I have no power to the very center of my power clears away anxiety, confusion and fear. What happens in me, in a day, or in the world is not really the problem. The problem is in the way I manage my power and my choices. Addressing my own power and choices allows me to say, with perfect truth, that however this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Being okay with the ways things are doesn’t mean endless love, light and turning the other cheek. It doesn’t mean I accept boundary violations, bullying, coercion, violence or any other kind of power-over games. It doesn’t mean I tip-toe through life pleasing others, following rules and keeping silent. It doesn’t mean toadying to the political correctness police. It doesn’t mean I feel no frustration or disappointment, or that the status quo should remain unchallenged and unchanged. It means clarity about where my power is.
Nobody wants a flat tire, herpes, an unwanted pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, mental illness, the flu or to lose a loved one. We don’t want superstorms that wipe out our homes, the uncertainties and anxiety of climate change or food and water shortages. Nobody voted for lead in their drinking water, or to experience genocide. Nobody wants to be silenced, attacked, abused, marginalized, shot or scapegoated.
Yet all these things are. They’re real, along with many magical, wonderful things, and I can’t change the way things are.
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I can only change the way I am. I can decide when and how to speak. I can decide how I interact with others. I can listen, learn, research, ask questions, think critically and decide where I stand on important issues. I can speak up for those without voices. I can pay attention to my own integrity and operate within it. I can disengage, refuse to pick up poisoned bait, move away from where the blow is going to land (sometimes) and learn self-defense.
I can say no.
I can learn to trust my own courage, willingness to love, intelligence, feelings and ability to adjust and adapt to whatever happens. I can choose confidence and curiosity as companions.
I can make sure that however I need to be, it’s okay with me.
I can surrender to others in all their strengths and imperfections. Each one of us is however we need to be, sick or well, destroyer or hero, weak or strong, power-over or power-with. People in the world are okay with me, and I choose who I engage and connect with, who I support or hinder, who I share power with, who I collaborate and cooperate with and who I allow in my life.
However this minute, this hour, this day needs to be, it’s okay with me. If I catch the flu, it’s okay with me (Ugh). If I can’t get out of the icy driveway to go swimming, it’s okay with me (Rats!). If I reread the rough draft of this post and decide it needs to be rewritten before tomorrow when I post, it’s okay with me (what a pain in the neck!)
I can accept what is, deal with it, and go on.
Or I can argue with what is.
It’s a chocolate-or-vanilla choice, and we make it a hundred times a day.
Whatever you choose, it’s okay with me.
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And so, after all, it was no use,
That desperate determination to please.
In the end a hidden, untamed thing
Always looked out of my eyes,
Beseeching for freedom,
And none of us could beat it down.
Now all the rigid outlines of my life
Have fallen around my feet in graceful folds.
I’ve counted silver threads and lines
And granted freedom.
If there’s no lover for what I am
I can kiss my own shoulders.
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Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash
I love autumn, and autumn in New England is particularly poignantly beautiful. The leaves, oh the leaves! It’s as though the trees release their passion in one final gasp of ecstasy before their long sleep. The colors stun the senses with their beauty; it’s almost too much to absorb. Yet the trees’ splendor is fleeting. Inexorably, the leaves fall like golden tears, like blazing sparks, and as they fall the greatest power of all is revealed: The true shape of things.
The green and fiery sea of the forest and fields recedes. Lichen-covered rocks bare themselves. Trees stand or lean in bony beauty, gnarled and hollow, smooth and upright, each species clad in its own color and texture, but now the colors are russet and ivory, shades of brown and grey touched with black. Thorns and stems become semi-transparent cover for winter-colored birds and animals.
The bare forest is everything it is and nothing it is not.
I, too, am becoming reduced to my essential self. Confusion, guilt and shame are loosening their hold on me and drifting away, and I make a resting place for them in my writing. I look back in my memory and, for the first time, begin to see the true shape of things. All the words that weighed me down and kept me small, all the gaslighting and controlling, all the lies and distortions, are responding to some miraculous internal seasonal shift and slant of light. I am bursting into triumphant understanding, and then letting go, letting all that does not serve me fall away. My true shape emerges, and it’s strong and clear-seeing and wise. It always was.
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Now I begin to see the true shape of things. Now begins a season without pretense, unencumbered by expectations. Now the lineaments of my feelings lie bare. The landscape of my life becomes stark and uncomplicated, a walk through winter woods where a feather is a feather, a quill a quill and a swatch of fur on a thorn exactly what it is, not more, not less, not something else entirely. I reclaim the dignity of my own perception, intuition and experience.
It does not surprise me that traditionally this is the time of year when the veil between the worlds thins, ghosts walk, legends come to life, ancestors are honored, and we acknowledge that which haunts us. I do not fear my ghosts. Indeed, they’re old friends and companions. My bogeymen were flesh and blood concealed beneath dazzling costumes of false power, fearful only as long as their true shape was hidden from me.
Some fear the fading light, endings and truth. Some prefer the riot of distraction and confusion. Some refuse to see or know the true shape of things. My own courage is not strengthened by distraction, no matter how beautiful or seductive. My courage is a thing of unadorned simplicity, spare and clean as bone.
The leaves fall, ravishing, rapturous. At last, the true shape of things emerges from the blaze, pure and indestructible, and I embrace it like a lover.
Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash
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My partner has trained in Aikido, and he relates hearing the above advice years ago from his teacher. Ever since he repeated it to me, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
We lately found a Tai Chi teacher and joined a class. I’ve wanted to do Tai Chi for a long time, and it’s every bit as much fun as I always imagined it would be. I practice every day, and part of my practice is meditating on that wonderful piece of subtle Eastern wisdom: Don’t be where the blow lands.
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Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art focusing on energy manipulation, practiced for defense and health. Many of the people in the class we joined are there to address balance and strength. I’m happy to support both my balance and my strength, but I’m learning Tai Chi primarily as a grounding and centering tool.
We’re learning a series of specific slow, repetitive movements that flow into one another. Each movement is called a form, and each form has its own, often poetic name: The bow, the crane, windmills, the lute. Tai Chi emphasizes locating and moving from one’s center, and it’s interesting how difficult I find that.
Learning the forms and stringing them together is no problem for me. It takes a lot of repetition to get arms and legs coordinated and figure out proper positioning, but I like repetition and want to practice. What I notice, though, is how easily I lose my center. I reach or step too far. I find myself up on one toe or another when I’m not supposed to be. I put one foot directly in front of another, like a model on a catwalk, instead of maintaining a more stable, wider-based stance. My ankles are weak and unsteady. If I’m doing one form at a time in isolation, I can tighten my core and be solid, but Tai Chi is flowing movement, albeit slow, and after a few different forms my center is gone.
Losing my balance in this way is a perfect metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life until recently. My energy and attention were always directed outward. I had very little ability to support myself; I relied on external support and I didn’t distinguish toxic inputs from healthy ones. I was too hungry and had too many unmet needs; I took a lot of poisoned bait. Not only did I stand where blows landed and bullets sped, I made a camp there and called it home. I believed I needed those blows and bullets, that they meant love, that it was my responsibility to endure them, and that I deserved them.
We can’t avoid life. Harsh words, verbal attacks, physical violence and unexpected events like fire, flood, riots and sudden public violence are going to happen. Even so, there are ways in which to meet life’s blows with all the grace and elegance of Tai Chi, and as I practice the forms and movements, I think about the skills that allow me to absorb the blow, to flow with it, and to step away from where it landed before it can be repeated.
I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I always carry a knife. I’m not afraid to fight. One day soon I’m going to learn to shoot and buy myself a gun, which I will carry. That kind of self-defense is a separate thing from my practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not about any kind of an aggressor lurking in an alley or a parking lot; it’s about emotional and energetic safety.
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Tai Chi, along with swimming, dancing, ritual work, walking and writing, is a way to call myself home, back to the center, back to my bones and the source of myself. Maintaining my center absolutely requires my undivided presence. I can’t center properly if I refuse to know all of who I am. I can’t maintain balance if I refuse to love all of who I am. The minute I try to amputate bits and pieces of myself, deny my thoughts and feelings or start tearing myself down in any way, I’m standing (again) where blows are guaranteed to land. When I catch myself justifying; pleading; waiting for external validation; trying to please; choice-making out of fear, denial and self-doubt, I know I’m standing on the shooting range with a target pasted over my heart and head.
I’ve spent too much of my life staggering under loads of other people’s shit, carrying vampires and dragging chains. Confusion, fear, perfectionism, disempowerment and constipated unacknowledged feelings have all kept me standing where the blows land. Arguing with what is has cemented me in the path of bullets. Clarity, self-confidence, making friends with my feelings and reclaiming my power allow me to deflect, block or better absorb the blows that come my way.
I’m intentional about living with the wisdom of choosing not to be where the blow lands. Reclaiming my center and moving mindfully from danger, not only physically but creatively and emotionally, all but eliminates my fear and anxiety. Concentrating on grounding leaves no room for anything but strength and rootedness. The meaning of my life is not out there, in the noise and chaos of what others think, say and do. The meaning of my life is in here, centered within the container of my body, expressed by what I think, say and do.
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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can remember the windmills and the lute from yesterday’s class.
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A good thing happened recently. I declined to take poisoned bait.
The bait arrived in the form of a terse email from an individual with whom I’ve recently done business. I’ve never met them in person. I approached our business transaction with a willingness to negotiate, share power, cooperate and communicate directly, thoroughly and clearly. I saved all documents, contracts and emails regarding our business, and upon successfully (in my view) concluding our interaction, I moved on with a sense of gratitude, satisfaction and relief.
More than a month later, I had an email expressing frustration and blame.
It felt like a slap in the face, unexpected and hurtful.
My immediate impulse was to strike back, followed quickly by the thought that I hadn’t communicated well and I could fix things by explaining myself (again). Obviously, I had been misunderstood.
Then I decided to pause for a day or so and think carefully about this.
The fact is, I have a longstanding deeply-rooted pattern of believing I’ve been misunderstood due to my inept communication. This belief keeps me firmly locked in escalating attempts to explain and be heard and understood. What I’ve failed to perceive, over and over again through the years, is that I’ve frequently been in relationships with people who had no interest in explanations. They were deliberately fostering misunderstanding, drama and conflict because it fed them in some way.
This, by the way, is a very common strategy of narcissists, psychopaths and borderline personality disordered people. I’ve written previously about projection and gaslighting , two tools frequently used to control others.
Deliberately keeping another in confusion and on the defensive, constantly changing the goalposts and passive aggressive tactics like the silent treatment are all baited hooks I’ve eagerly swallowed and writhed on for years. Words can’t convey the anguish and erosion of self that occurs in the context of this kind of long-term abuse. I’ve crept away from relationships like this as nothing more than a cracked shell of woman, my sexuality and femininity withered, my emotions torn to shreds, my body impoverished and barren, and firmly convinced of my own worthlessness, ugliness and inadequacy.
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A perfect set-up to fall for it all over again.
But not this time!
This time I had hard evidence. Over and over, I checked the timing of contract and closing, emails sent and received, all the fine print. It was all right there, the date my responsibility ended and the date after that of a sudden dissatisfaction I was expected to fix.
I concluded I’d done nothing wrong. On the contrary, I’d consistently demonstrated the kind of integrity I aspire to in every interaction. I went above and beyond. I provided explanation, suggestions for resolution and alternate options, along with names and numbers of possible local resources.
That email was bait.
So, a couple of days later I took a deep breath, opened my email and replied with sincere wishes for happiness and success. One sentence. Then I signed off and hit “send.”
This happened about three weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a small thing, but it reveals to me how very far I’ve come in healing, growth and wisdom. I now know that I have the power to decline an invitation to struggle. I recognize poisoned bait for what it is. I know it conceals a hook, and that hook no longer tempts me. I don’t need to waste any energy in defense or repeated explanations. I don’t choose to revisit old bones of contention and chaos. I accept that people think what they think, make up and believe the stories they make up and believe, carry the assumptions they carry, and none of it has anything to do with me.
Misunderstanding certainly occurs, but it’s not that difficult to clear up, given two adults who intend to. The trick is to identify as quickly and accurately as possible if the person I’m interacting with is an adult who to intends to clear up misunderstanding. In the case of my email, that person was only peripherally in my life and we’ll probably never interact again, so I didn’t bother. However, we all have people in our lives with whom we have ongoing connection. In those cases, I use a single question to clarify “misunderstanding.”
“Is there anything I can say or do to clear this up and repair our relationship?”
This direct, simple question seems to encourage surprisingly honest answers, albeit answers I haven’t wanted to accept or believe. However, if the answer is some variation of “no,” then everything immediately becomes blessedly clear. I want to repair. They don’t. Continuing to engage is a waste of our mutual time and energy, and if any kind of a hook remains dangling, I know it’s a manipulation. They’ve made up their mind, and I have no power there.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
The words on the screen fail to convey the annihilating heartbreak attendant on understanding that someone you care about and even love doesn’t value your relationship enough to make repairs, but arguing with what is has never worked for me, and I think we owe it to ourselves and others to pay attention when people tell us who they are, no matter how devastated we might feel or how much we want to deny what we hear.
I don’t think of this as too-sweet maiden, politically correct, starry-eyed liberal ideology. Neither is it a religious thing for me, or some kind of higher moral ground tactic. It’s not about making nice and giving others the benefit of a doubt, turning the other cheek, or making excuses for why people do the things they do. It’s also not a blanket rejection. I’m perfectly prepared to turn aside into another conversation, activity, or form of connection. I’m also perfectly prepared to walk away.
No. This is about dignity. It’s about wisdom. It’s about self-defense and self-care. Explaining oneself once, apologizing if warranted, taking responsibility if appropriate, is healthy, adult behavior. Distortions, refusing to hear or accept explanations, verbal or physical threats or violence, scenes, emotional meltdowns and shame and blame games are signs and symptoms of dangerously abusive relationships, and I’m no longer available for those.
I’ve changed my diet and I don’t take that poisoned bait anymore.
I’ve had a bellyful of it already.
My daily crime.
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except where otherwise noted
This is the second of I’m not sure how many posts about boundaries. See last week’s post for the beginning of the discussion!
Today the aspect of boundaries I want to explore is the one I have the most trouble with. This aspect concerns managing boundaries with people we love.
Continuing with our metaphor of food on a shelf, last week I was comfortable with my identity of strawberry jam. I know who I am, I’m in an intact container (most of the time) and I intend to be labeled accurately and effectively. That’s all INTRApersonal start-where-you-are work.
However, there’s other food on the shelf. The universe doesn’t revolve around strawberry jam, alas! In fact, next to me is a jar of dill pickles.
Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash
We’ve been together as long as I can remember, sitting side by side on the shelf. We’ve watched other food in other containers come and go. The eggs in particular have quite the turnover rate. We’re companions, friends, and in fact it’s not an exaggeration to say I love Pickles.
But one day I notice something has changed. The clear green juice in the jar with floating bits of herbs and spices is getting cloudy. And is that — could it possibly be — grey fur along one side of a pickle?
Disaster. Catastrophe. It can’t be true. My beloved Pickles is beginning to grow fur. Everybody on the shelf knows what this means. Sooner or later, the refrigerator/cupboard/shelf Gods will cull Pickles. Gone forever.
I can’t imagine my life without Pickles.
Naturally, I want to help. No kind of food could possibly want to wear grey fur. There must be something I can do.
If I love Pickles, I must be able to fix this.
If I really, truly love Pickles, and my love is real and unselfish and unconditional (and Pickles is worth that kind of love), there’s a way for my love to fix this.
If I fail to fix this, my love is at fault.
That, ladies and gentlemen, eggs and bacon, is where I lose my boundaries. It’s all very clear and self-evident when it’s laid out in black type on the page, or in this case, screen. Love can’t fix everything. Love isn’t always enough. Sometimes we can’t “help” other people. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Loss is part of love. Right?
My brain understands this. My brain functions pretty well. My brain is not the problem. It’s my heart, my emotions, my stories, my beliefs and my expectations that are unruly and stubborn.
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Perhaps I haven’t explained it well, my connection with Pickles. I know him better than anyone. I understand him. He’s the most important person in my life. He’s part of who I am. If I lose him, I’ll lose part of myself. I thought nothing could ever part us, or damage our respect and trust in one another. In fact, we’re so close we don’t need boundaries.
(Naturally, he feels the same way about me. He doesn’t say so, but one doesn’t expect pickles to emote like strawberry jam.)
Loving fully and unconditionally means no boundaries, right? Isn’t that what we learn? If we love unselfishly, completely, without reservation, then boundaries are unnecessary and we can count on getting that same kind of love in return. Loving well equals being well loved. Isn’t that the way it works? Only a selfish bitch maintains boundaries, an unloving, cold woman, a ball breaker. Only an indifferent, unfit mother maintains boundaries between herself and her children. Only a judgmental, critical, power-hungry female protects herself with boundaries. Generous, attractive, truly loving people have no need of boundaries. They don’t count the cost. They always say yes. They give freely of their resources to whoever is in need without expectations or strings attached. They never keep score. They have no needs, these lucky, healthy, beautiful, abundant people. They feed and nurture the world.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
Boy, does this world need people like that. That’s the kind of woman/friend/mate/mother/daughter/sister I want to be. If I want to save Pickles, that’s the kind of person I have to be.
Here’s the thing.
I can’t be that. I’m not sure anyone can be that.
I’m not talking about ideology here. I’m not qualified for or interested in religious debate. What I’m saying is I can’t be a bottomless, endless nurturer and giver with no needs, and I’m not convinced anyone else can, either. I know some who say they can, pretend they can and/or expect others to be, but I’ve never met anyone who really lives like that — at least not long term. Not successfully and not happily, anyway.
But aren’t we supposed to?
Did I learn this wrong? Did I misunderstand? I can’t point to any one person who taught me this, after all. Did I make it all up? Or, alternatively, am I not the woman I think I am and aspire to be? Am I small, mean, petty, hypocritical and selfish? Am I unable to love the right way? Am I a fraud? Am I self-deluded?
Why am I in such chronic painful confusion about something my intellect sees so clearly? Why does it seem that managing boundaries INTERpersonally carries such a negative connotation? Why can’t I reconcile loving someone with all my heart with effective, appropriate boundaries between that person and me? What is the source of this cognitive dissonance?
Which is more devastating — people who have no boundaries themselves and bitterly resent mine, or people who maintain boundaries between us when I have none?
In the first case I feel trapped, resentful and intruded upon, and in the second I feel hideously rejected, unappreciated and used. Neither feel like healthy connection, but I call both love.
So here I am, side by side with Pickles on the shelf. We look at each other through the glass sides of our boundaries. I want to climb inside his container and take him in my arms, love him back into clear green juicy health, but if I do that I’ll start growing gray fur myself, and I know I can’t fix him at the same time I believe I should be able to. I want to run away, turn away, not know what’s happening, but I can’t.
There’s nothing I can do. My love is not enough. Grey fur is creeping over Pickles and I can’t avoid it, flee it or stop it. I can only wait and watch and sit here in my container, while Pickles sits in his.
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