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 dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn 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 choices that result 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 that 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.
Power-with and win-win, in other words.
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 thinking about shame. It lurks in many of my relationships. I observe it in people around me. I cannot remember a time when I was not deeply ashamed of myself. I’ve written about tribal shaming before, but I’ve never excavated the subject further until now.
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Wikipedia has a lengthy page on shame that summarizes different ways in which it has been studied. Assessment tools exist to measure shame and its effects in our lives. Shame has been divided into categories, and distinctions between shame, guilt and embarrassment teased out.
All this information provided me with a lot of interesting context and background, but the subject is not academic for me. I have a problem with shame I want to solve. How do I go about identifying and dealing effectively with the painful feeling of humiliation or distress we call shame?
I learned in emotional intelligence training our feelings are value neutral. Some feelings are painful and others pleasurable, but that doesn’t make them “good” or “bad.” Feelings just are. We all have them, whether or not we allow ourselves to consciously feel them or admit them to others. If we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they give us information about how we are. Feelings by themselves can empower and enlighten us, guide our choice-making and help us make strong, healthy connections with others.
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Feelings come and go, like the weather, if we allow them to. Refusing to feel a feeling, however, locks it in place, and then we have forged handcuffs and chains for ourselves. The other tricky aspect of feelings is what our thoughts are about them. Thoughts are what lead us into inappropriate action and expression of our feelings.
An emotionally intelligent person recognizes a feeling like rage and takes responsibility for it. In other words, they don’t blame someone or something externally for their rage. That’s a thought. They don’t seek revenge, payback or to re-establish their power over someone they blame as the cause of their rage. They take responsibility for their feeling of rage and discharging it appropriately, knowing none of us think well or make effective choices when we’re in the grip of strong feelings. They also don’t turn the perfectly normal feeling of rage inward against themselves.
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After safely discharging rage (hard physical labor, tears, journaling, talking things over, screaming, passionate creative expression, beating up phone books or pillows), the next step is to sit down and have a talk with it. Years ago, when I lived alone, I literally began to sit down and talk with some of my feelings. I’ve written about this previously. I sit in a chair across from an empty chair and imagine myself talking things out with the feeling occupying the other chair. I say something like, “You have my attention. What’s the deal? Why are you so angry?” and then I shut up and listen to my feeling. Feelings have presence. I’ve learned to notice where I experience them in my body, what color they are, their size and shape, their density and texture, their scent and sound. Our feelings are trying to tell us things we need to know, and the more painful, difficult and overwhelming they are the more important their message is.
This is what I have been doing lately with shame. I wait and watch for it, and when it comes I notice and pause. In the middle of a conversation with my partner, I’ll feel shame rise up like a foul smell and I’ll pause and look for what is happening that triggers shame. Something I said? Something I didn’t say? Something he said to me? Something else I’d rather be doing? A subject I don’t want to talk about or don’t care about? What else am I feeling?
After doing this for a couple of weeks, I discover any honest conversation that makes visible my needs and feelings triggers shame. No wonder I feel so burdened if shame is attached to every need and feeling!
Interestingly, during the in-the-moment pauses while I explore all this, more often than not I realize I don’t in fact feel shame at all. It’s become a kind of chronic hitchhiker attached to other feelings.
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A good example is driving. I typically go the speed limit or 5 miles over it, and in bad weather much slower than that. I rarely run late. I hate to rush. I enjoy music and audiobooks in the car and am quite happy driving. I love my commute. The world is full of people, however, who are in a hurry, reckless, and, to my way of thinking, rude. Of course, they think I’m rude for not getting out of their way!
I rarely drive without feeling shame, but I realize now I’m not really ashamed at all of my driving. On the contrary, I think I’m a competent, courteous driver. I’ve also been a lucky driver, because accidents happen to the best drivers out there and I’ve never been involved in more than a fender bender. When someone is crawling up my backside in a snowstorm in the dark on an icy road and I’m blinded by their headlights in my rearview mirrors and have no way to move over and let them by, what I do feel is mad and scared. The shame is about feeling mad and scared, not about my driving choices in that moment. I don’t want some idiot in a big truck to have the power to intimidate me on the road. I resent living in a world where I have to worry about sudden violence and road rage, or being a woman alone at night. I’m furious with people who follow too close, even in good conditions. I hate to be pushed and pressured, and I hate even more to feel I’m in someone else’s way or making someone wait on me. That’s an old trigger for PTSD.
It turns out much of my daily shame is nothing more than a habitual default. A rueful realization, but also good news. Habits can be broken, I’ve had a lot of practice with that.
I’ve never yet successfully broken a habit without replacing a not-so-useful thought or frame with a better one. So, what’s the opposite of shame? If I want to replace shame with something more effective, what would that be?
Shame is akin to contempt. Contempt is the atomic bomb in relationships between two or more people as well as in our relationships with ourselves. Contempt withers love and destroys trust. It’s never constructive. Those who employ it seek power and control over others. Shame and contempt are merciless. Guilt, the recognition of having transgressed against another, can be addressed. We can atone for our actions and words, apologize, take steps to repair the damage we caused. Shame and contempt are without mercy or the possibility of reparation. Guilt says we’ve behaved badly. Shame and contempt say we are bad, we are unworthy, and nothing can ever make us different.
I consulted a thesaurus to look at antonyms for shame and came up with respect. Respect!
Shame: Why are you so stupid and difficult? You’re always in everyone’s way! You don’t belong on the road. Why are you such a goody-two-shoes? No wonder nobody likes you, crawling along like an old lady! Nobody else drives this way. Joe Blow (partner, brother, colleagues, the guy at work who said the roads were fine and scoffed at slow drivers) wouldn’t be driving like this. You do everything wrong. People like you cause accidents because you go too slow.
Respect: Don’t let this idiot drive your car! Go as slowly as you need to. You’ve got good judgement and a lot of experience. These are dangerous conditions and feeling fearful is an appropriate response. I trust you. Don’t let this driver intimidate you. His need to go fast is not more important than your need to stay safe. People driving the way he is cause accidents.
Quite a difference, right?
I suppose there are more elegant ways to grapple with feelings like shame and a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would laugh at me, but I’ve found helping myself is incredibly empowering. My experience of therapy is that having a good guide is invaluable, but even the best guide can’t crawl inside our heads and do the work of staying present and making different choices. That’s all on us. Ditching an ineffective habit is difficult and so is encouraging a new one, but it’s perfectly doable. If I lost my right hand, I would eventually learn to use my left. It would feel clumsy, and no doubt be frustrating, and it would take time, but I would learn to do it. Our brains are surprisingly plastic, and we’re learning more all the time about healing and adapting neurologically and emotionally.
We aren’t born with a feeling of shame. We learn to feel it. Anything we learn can be unlearned. Shame stunts our growth and our joy. Respect is like the wind beneath our wings. I’ve made my choice.
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:
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“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
I went to the dentist last week. I spent the usual hour with the hygienist and then the dentist breezed in to give me four or five minutes of exam, comment, teaching and friendly conversation. Thankfully, I don’t require more than this, as my teeth are in excellent shape. In the course of those few minutes, I used the term “permaculture,” and he asked me what it was. I gave him a brief answer, and on the way out the hygienist said I had a “high dental IQ.”
“She has a high IQ, period,” he responded as he left.
I almost got out of the chair and went after him to explain that I’m the dumb one in the family, and certainly don’t have a high IQ.
As I’ve gone about life since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. I’ve also been feeling massively irritated, isolated and discouraged. This morning I woke out of a dream of being in a closet groping for my gun, my knife, even my Leatherman, absolutely incandescent with rage, because a man outside of the closet was having a dramatic and violent meltdown, intimidating everyone present because of something I’d said or done that he didn’t like.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was royally pissed off.
When I had my weapons assembled, I stormed out of the closet and came face-to-face with a clearly frightened woman who was wringing her hands and making excuses for the behavior of the yelling man. I screamed into her face that he could take his (blanking) opinions and shove them up his (blanking blank) and unsheathed my knife, not because of her, because of HIM.
I woke abruptly at that point and thought, I’m not depressed, I’m MAD!
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While I showered and cooked breakfast I sifted through IQ and conformity and cultural and family rules, economic success and failure, work, invalidation and silencing and keeping myself small. I thought of how pressured I’ve always felt to toe the line, be blindly obedient, follow the rules, ask no questions and be normal. Normal, as in compliant, and refraining from challenging the multitude of life’s standard operating procedures that “everyone knows.” Normal, as in not daring to resist, persist, poke, peel away, uncover. Normal, as in never, NEVER expressing curiosity, a thought, an experience, a feeling or an opinion that might make someone uncomfortable. Normal, as in never admitting that the way we’re supposed to do things doesn’t always work for me, and frequently doesn’t appear to work for others, either. I slammed around the kitchen, turning all this over in my mind, letting the bacon burn, and finally pounced on a keystone piece to write about.
What does it mean to be smart? Why do I feel like a lying imposter when someone makes a casual comment about my IQ? Why is IQ even a thing? Why does so much of my experience consist of “sit down and shut up!”?
Intelligence is defined on an Internet search as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Please note the absence of any kind of test score in that definition. Likewise, there’s no mention of economic status, educational status or social status. Also, this definition says nothing about intelligence as a prerequisite for being a decent human being.
The definition takes me back to the playing field in which I wrote last week’s post on work. Here again we have a simple definition for a word which is positively staggering under assumptions and connotations.
Fine, then. I’ve explored what work means to me. What does intelligence mean to me?
Intelligence means the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Good learners do not sit down and shut up. We question, and we go on questioning until we’re satisfied with answers. We try things, make hideous mistakes, think about what went wrong and apply what we learned. We don’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We exercise curiosity and imagination. We pay attention to what others say and do and how it all works out. We pay attention to how we feel and practice telling ourselves the truth about our experience. After a lot of years and scar tissue, we learn to doubt not only our own assertions, beliefs and stories, but everyone else’s as well. We practice being wrong. We become experts in flexible thinking. We adapt to new information.
Intelligence endures criticism, judgement, abuse, taunts, threats, denial and contempt. It’s often punished, invalidated and invisible. Intelligence takes courage.
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Intelligence is power. It does not sit at the feet of any person, ideology, rule or authority and blindly worship. It retains the right to find out for itself, feel and express its own experience, define its own success, speak its truth in its own unique voice, and it remembers each of us is limited to one and only one viewpoint in a world of billions of other people.
Intelligence is discerning the difference between the smell of my own shit and someone else’s.
For me, intelligence is a daily practice. It’s messy and disordered and fraught with feeling. It means everything is an opportunity to learn something new. Everything is something to explore in my writing.
I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t much care. I’m sick and tired of all the family baggage I’ve carried around about who’s smart and who isn’t and how we all compare. Honestly. What am I, 10 years old? Enough, already.
I’m also fed up with being silenced, and in fact I’ve already refused to comply with that, as evidenced by this blog. I understand a lot of people don’t want to deal with uncomfortable questions. Too bad. Those folks are not going to be my readers. It’s not my job to produce sugar-coated bullshit that can’t possibly threaten or disturb anyone.