We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on reptiles, plants, fish and insects warning of toxicity.
We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.
I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.
Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.
Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.
The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.
Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.
Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.
Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.
Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of patterns resulting in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.
As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.
One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.
What I like best about Eddy is he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.
Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.
In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:
Preoccupation with blaming others
–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)
The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.
In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.
In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.
If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.
If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.
Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.
In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.
Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.
Middle age is great fun. I’m constantly amused at how much time I spent during the first half of my life being ineffective. I’ve had heartfelt intentions, goals and plans and I’ve worked hard, but I’ve never understood a thing about simply letting life be. I know all about discipline and almost nothing about surrendering to the natural flow of anything, including myself.
I call myself a gardener. During some periods I grew most of my own vegetables and herbs. It was a lot of work. In Colorado, water was always a problem, and in my rural gardens deer were a constant threat. Keeping a garden weeded, mulched and watered, along with raising two little boys, working, and running a household on a shoestring, was quite a challenge. I thought I knew a lot about gardening.
Here in Maine I don’t garden. We don’t have dedicated garden space protected from the deer, for one thing. For another, my diet has changed and I mostly eat meat now. I’m also older, my knees complain bitterly if I spend a lot of time kneeling, and my body does not want to bend over in a garden every day.
Photo by Louis Maniquet on Unsplash
On the other hand, we probably have thirty or more apple trees, wild raspberries (red and black), wild strawberries, highbush cranberries, blueberries, elderberries, roses, an ancient and persistent grapevine of unknown variety, sugar maples, pear trees and nut trees spread out across our land. The whole place is a garden.
We also have a short hedge of beach roses, thickly thorned and tough, running right along the road on the east side of the house. It gets the snowplow drifts of snow, ice and sand in the winter and the heat, exhaust and sometimes trash of every passing vehicle in the summer. I couldn’t kill them with an axe. It’s not a tall hedge, but it blooms pink in the spring and provides a small barrier between the house and the traffic. In this season it’s loaded with fat red round rose hips.
In the spring, we saw a lot of dead wood in the rose hedge and we began to give it a heavy pruning. It had been neglected for years, and I was certain it would come back, thicker and healthier than ever. It was miserable to work on because the thorns, though short, are numerous and tough, and defy the heaviest work gloves. We got about halfway through the task and then Spring caught us up, along with many other projects, and we never finished pruning the hedge. I raked up what we did take out, pitched the debris over a bank so the thorns were out of the way, and did nothing else for it. The denuded hedge looked spiky and ugly until it leafed out.
In the ensuing months I’ve watched that hedge bloom as usual with its bright pink flowers. One day I saw wild buttercup was also blooming in the places we’d pruned. Wild violets crept around the edges. Yellow hawkweed moved in. After the buttercups came white and yellow daisies. Then a froth of Queen Anne’s Lace draped around it, and tall purple clover beckoned the wild bees. As those faded, I recognized goldenrod and wild asters beginning to grow. Every couple of weeks my partner mows between the hedge and the house. That’s the only care and attention it ever gets.
Wildflowers have bloomed, each in their season, mingling with the roses, all summer and fall. Now there’s a foam of purple and white wild aster and the roses are blooming for a second time, mingling with hips. The hedge is a riot of color.
Beach rose hedge 09/17
This takes me back to the article I mentioned about what makes plants happy.
The article points out that plants grow in the wild according to their evolution, needs and contribution in a system. Some plants are tall and grow in isolation. Others are immensely social and form clumps or swathes. Some plants like to creep along the ground and grow low. Others are quite high and grow with tall grasses because they need the support of the surrounding stems. Look at a natural meadow or field in summer that hasn’t been grazed or recently mown, and you’ll see a system of plants and grasses growing together with no input from humans. There are no bare places that need to be mulched. Nobody comes along and dead heads and tidies things up. As flowers fade and plants die, or are fed on, vegetable matter and seeds fall to the ground and become food or sprout into the next generation of plants. The meadow or field, if healthy, will have a full complement of insects, birds and small rodents present, and so on, up the food chain.
Okay, you get the picture. Biology 101, right? But that’s not a garden.
A garden is where we prepare the ground by banishing “weeds;” amend, dig and turn the soil by exposing it and sterilizing it and wearing out our backs; spend money protecting the area with fences, animal repellents, insecticides and herbicides; buy bags and bags of expensive manure, peat, top soil and mulching materials; spend more money buying plants, often without particular regard to whether they’re native to our area and with no idea or interest in how they grow in the wild; and plant them in solitary confinement, carefully spacing them out in sad little oases amid the mulch. We do not give them appropriate companions or communities, allow them to build a family around themselves or allow them to make the contributions they were evolved to make to other plants and wildlife.
We hold gardens to our own standards of neatness, cleanliness, obedience and beauty. We cut and tidy away brown leaves and spent blossoms lest they offend the eye, never imagining we’re depriving our plants of the free food they were evolved to need. We plant to please our color and variety preferences, never asking ourselves or bothering to find out what those particular plants need in order to be happy. We never imagine ourselves a shrew, or a chipmunk, or a grasshopper, and it doesn’t occur to us to lie on the ground with our chins in the dirt and appreciate the complex layers of plant life covering it. The only view we consider is the one from above, and the only layer we see from that vantage point is the top one.
That’s what we call a garden. Isn’t it beautiful?
We humans have an incorrigible, idiotic kind of blind arrogance, myself included. I confess I never once thought about observing how Nature gardens and modeling my gardens on hers. Not once. Yet Earth has survived for millions of years, creating rich, self-sustaining forests, swamps, grasslands and other habitats without the interference of human beings. We don’t think about the plants’ point of view, though. We come along, wear out our bodies, spend money, try to reinvent elegant and sustainable life systems and wonder why gardens don’t thrive.
Beach rose hedge 09/17
I’ve been thinking about this article about what makes plants happy for months, and watching our little rose hedge. As we move into fall, I spend a certain amount of time pruning away dead wood and crowded saplings in many different places. We’ve cut a couple of old and dangerous trees. As I work, I carefully lay all the debris at the base of the plants I’m working on. I don’t uproot things. I don’t disturb the soil or the layer of wet rotting leaves on the forest floor. I cherish the sight of mushrooms growing everywhere, because I know they signal a healthy mycelium net underground, serving every plant and tree on the place and beyond. Apples and berries fall and rot where they lay, sinking back into the ever-richer earth. I notice how the wildflowers grow and spread and who they grow and bloom with. I’m making friends with the low ground-covering plants: Wild chamomile, wild strawberry, white clover, wild basil with its purple flowers, the sweet little violets and rabbit’s foot clover.
Unless in our way, we let trees lie as they fall and rot over time. We run the mower over autumn leaves and let them lie. We carefully stake volunteer or rodent-planted saplings to avoid mowing them, so the next generation of black walnut, maple, oak and beech can grow. We leave the tent caterpillars alone, because they provide food for birds, bears and other creatures.
I realize now all my neat gardening was driven by perfectionism, by a desire to feel in control, and by a need to please the eye of myself and others. I invested a lot of sweat equity in trying to garden “right” without ever questioning what that really meant. I made it much, much harder and more expensive than it ever needed to be.
It’s worth noting this is exactly the way I treat myself.
The rose hedge reanimated itself. It grows in the most inhospitable area of the whole place, but it knew just what to do. I stood back, let it alone and marveled.
You know what? I take it back. I’m not a gardener. But I do humbly enjoy a 26-acre garden.
I was absent last week in order to take a trip back to Colorado and finish selling my house. On the road, I thought about my last post and the second part of coming to terms with needs. Discovering, admitting and identifying one’s needs is, alas, just the beginning of what I suspect is a lifelong journey.
Photo by Will Shirley on Unsplash
So, to recap my last post, we all have needs, and we’re all driven by our needs, whether or not we’re aware of them. If we’re not aware of our needs or those of others, great big elephants are standing in the middle of our living rooms, invisible to us until we run into them, or they step on us. Our relationships and lives don’t work well and we have no clue why.
One of the trickiest parts of thinking about needs is taking responsibility for them. If we look at the needs inventory, consent to recognize and admit our needs and make a list of them, it seems logical to begin to evaluate how well our needs are being met by others.
Here’s the thing, though. All the people around us have needs too, some identical to ours and some different. That doesn’t mean we’re responsible to meet all those needs, and they’re also not responsible for meeting our needs.
Newsflash! Having a right to get our needs met and understanding our needs are as important but not more important than everyone else’s doesn’t guarantee our needs will actually be met by … anyone.
This seems unfair to me. Excavating my own needs and acknowledging them, even to myself, was a lot of work. I was annoyed when I realized nobody much cared what my needs are. They’re too concerned with their own! What’s the point of this aspect of emotional intelligence, then?
First of all, it’s about adulting. Grownups know who they are, including understanding what they need. Those of us who aspire to adulthood are required to possess this kind of self-knowledge and accept responsibility for communicating our needs to others, not because anyone has an obligation to meet them, but because we’re willing to know ourselves and allow others to know us, too.
Needs are inextricably enmeshed with boundaries. I have a long history of ineffective boundaries, frequently resulting in me choosing the needs of whoever I was with over my own. Paired with another person with bad boundaries, this quickly becomes an unhealthy, unhappy relationship. One of the words we use to describe such a connection is codependent.
The second point about working with needs is understanding our satisfaction and enjoyment of connection with others is directly related to the degree to which our relationships help us meet our needs. This is complicated by the fact that feeling love for someone doesn’t imply our needs are well met in relationship with that person. For example, media-driven portrayals of romantic love don’t address needs at all outside the realm of sex, and sex is not enough to create sustainable, healthy long-term relationships.
Thirdly, we humans have a great propensity to self-destruct when our needs are not well met. We use strategies like substance addiction, sexual acting out, eating disorders and cutting to manage the painful dysfunction of not getting our needs met. Sadly, the culture focuses on fixing the behavior rather than the cause — the unmet need.
Fourthly, making friends with our needs connects us to our power. When we understand what’s not working in our lives and why, we’re empowered to make better choices on our own behalf and create the kind of life we want. We build boundaries. We learn to be more authentic. We learn to be responsible, which is another way of saying we learn to manage our own power.
Another aspect of needs is that they change. Our needs change as we age, as we grow, as we move through our lives. Not only do needs change, we can be wrong about what we think we need and discover, accidentally, needs we never recognized we had.
I said this was tricky, remember?
Having our needs met is not a black-and-white experience. No one person can meet all their own needs or all the needs of another, no matter how beloved. Expecting any single person to meet all our needs puts an unbearable burden on that person and the relationship. Human beings need healthy community because community helps us all meet most of our needs most of the time.
So how many of our needs must be met for a relationship or a life to be healthy and effective? I don’t think there’s a formula for this. I suspect every case is different, because we’re all unique individuals. We have several core needs in common, but we don’t all need the same things to the same degree.
Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash
For example, think about noise. I’m very sensitive to noise. Prolonged and unrelieved exposure to traffic, loud music, television, crowds, airplane and car noise or even a beeping alarm unhinges me. First I’m frantic, then I’m exhausted and then I’m ill. I have a primary need to control the noise in my environment. I hate crowds, parties, loud restaurants and cities.
Other people don’t seem to even notice noise levels. Many millions live in cities with a constant background of noise quite happily. I was struck by how many people live along the interstate system as we drove from Maine to Colorado and back again. I couldn’t live beside a freeway for a day without losing my mind. Life would literally not be worth living for me.
If my need for a low-noise environment doesn’t get met, nothing else will work for me. I can’t function in a noisy environment, period.
On the other hand, I’ve always believed order in my environment was also an essential need. I’ve lived in such a way that I’ve controlled housekeeping, cleaning, etc., except for private bedrooms and workspaces romantic partners and children have had. Before I came to Maine, I was sincerely certain I couldn’t live happily in disorder, dust and clutter.
Much to my surprise, chagrin and irritation, I’ve discovered I can, at least temporarily. The old farmhouse my partner and I are living in is falling down and loaded with (to my eyes) junk and clutter, most of it undusted for years. I often feel frustrated and resentful about this. However, our relationship is meeting my needs in ways they’ve never been met before, and getting so many needs met balances out the squalor (my interpretation) in the house.
Managing my needs has become a kind of dance. After much practice, I now maintain a friendly relationship (mostly) with my needs as they ebb and flow. I’ve learned to tell others when my needs are not met without apology or justification, as well as communicate what I need simply and directly. I’ve got some beautiful boundaries in place. I’ve learned to ask others what they need, not because their needs are my responsibility, but because I want to support them in getting their needs met. I’ve let go of expectations that anyone is obligated to meet my needs, but I treasure and nurture those relationships in which my needs are met naturally.
I also have precious people in my life whom I dearly love who don’t meet many of my needs, and that’s okay. Those connections are based on other things. I probably don’t meet many of their needs, either, but it’s not for lack of love and it doesn’t mean anyone is bad or wrong.
Managing needs takes a lot of mess and clutter out of my life. If something’s not working, I notice it right away and a little contemplation leads me quickly to the bottom line — what need is not getting met? Where and how am I feeling disempowered? What can I do to help myself and who do I need to have an honest discussion with?
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Taking action when there’s a problem, communicating carefully and authentically and taking responsibility for my own needs invites those around me to do the same. Some people will accept the invitation and some won’t. We can’t control what anyone else does or doesn’t do. However, we can choose which connections to put energy into and which to bless and release, and we can commit to managing our needs effectively and appropriately for our own sake as well as the sake of others.
Last Friday I resigned from my medical transcription job. Shortly after emailing my letter of resignation to my supervisor, she called me, wanting to know why.
I told her the truth. I don’t feel as though my contribution matters. I don’t like the company culture of perfectionism and high stress. I don’t feel valued as an employee, and my skills and talents are worth more than I’m receiving.
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We parted in a friendly manner. She assured me I was eligible for re-hire any time and wished me well. I wished her and the rest of the team well. Cyber handshakes and smiles all around.
I’m in the middle of selling a property back in Colorado. I currently have wonderful renters in the house. They’ve been honest, cooperative, open and have done every single thing they’ve said they would do. They’ve become friends. I’m faxing paperwork, including the lease with these tenants, to Colorado and working with my Colorado real estate agent long distance. The agent expressed surprise that our rental agreement didn’t contain language about punitive consequences if the tenants suddenly decided to break the lease and leave.
It never entered my head to limit my tenants’ choice to leave if they were unhappy. Obviously, at least one property professional feels this is inappropriate business practice, but why would I want to force two people whom I respect and like to stay in a situation that wasn’t working for them?
Answer: I wouldn’t want to, I didn’t want to and I don’t want to.
Last evening I had a long conversation with one of my sons, and among the things we talked about was the idea of noticing how things are within ourselves and the choices we make about our own unhappiness and discomfort.
This morning, as I fried bacon and sausage and worked in the kitchen, I was thinking about this week’s post, trying to come up with something I wanted to write about from my current experience, and suddenly all these interactions lined up in my head (Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!) and I thought, well, there it is. I want to write about quitting.
What do you think of when you think of quitting?
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I think of the word “should,” as in should quit smoking, should quit drinking, should quit eating so much sugar, should quit fill-in-the-blank. These are the kind of circumstances under which quitting is supported and validated, but the “should” is an instrument of shame, guilt and fear, as well as a thoroughly ineffective motivator.
I was taught being a quitter or a dropper outer is a desperately mortifying thing. Quitting is associated with betrayal, abandonment, failure, letting others down and weakness.
Quitting is often an act of aggression. It’s what we do when we’ve hung on by our fingernails until they’ve torn out, one by one, and we have to let go or die. It’s hitting bottom. It’s burnout, breakdown and nothing left to lose, often accompanied by scenes, meltdowns and an exchange of insults.
Quitting is selfish and irresponsible. Choosing to be happy is an embarrassing thing to admit. We’re told If everyone did what made them happy, everything would unravel. Nobody would work. Important things wouldn’t get done. The economy would collapse.
There are cultural consequences for quitting. The label “quitter” impairs our ability to get hired, find stable relationships or make financial choices. A quitter is unreliable and untrustworthy at best. Someone who quits their marriage, family or children is so despicable as to be unforgiveable in some cases.
The word quit, according to a quick search, means to leave a place, resign from a job or stop or discontinue an activity. In short, it’s a word that defines a choice. Interestingly, one of its origins is Middle English, in which it means “set free.”
Set free sounds a lot more positive than quitting, doesn’t it?
It occurs to me that the whole idea of quitting is rooted in power. To quit is to stop. How is it that the culture is so unfriendly and unsupportive, for the most part, of making a choice to stop? Why are we so consistently and pervasively discouraged from saying no, from quitting, from changing?
I’ve written before about the yes and the no. To be in our full power, both consent and dissent have to be available to us. We have to be able to make a real choice. The inability to freely choose points to a power-over situation, and it doesn’t matter if it’s work related, relationship related, addiction related or some internal limitation like fear. Something or someone is interfering with our power to freely choose if we can’t make a choice to quit.
Said a different way, the problem is not so much the addictive substance, the miserable job, the narcissistic family member or the abusive romantic relationship. The problem is we’ve been systematically amputated from our full power to choose.
Sadly, this is a consequence, at least in part, of our current educational system in the United States. It doesn’t work for a lot of kids. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for my kids. I told my sons the same thing I was taught when they complained. Education is important. Everyone has to go to school. It’s the law. We all have to do things we don’t want to. Being happy doesn’t matter.
Ugh. I wish I hadn’t believed that. I wish I hadn’t said it, and more than anything I wish I’d listened to their distress and taught them to respond to it appropriately by responding to it appropriately myself. At the time, all I had was what I’d been taught, and I’m absolutely certain my own mother taught me the only thing she knew as well.
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash
The point is few of us learn how to respond to our discomfort or unhappiness, either by expressing it appropriately or taking action to help ourselves. Public education certainly doesn’t teach it. The way we work in this country doesn’t support it. Patriarchy in general doesn’t validate self-reflection, honest communication, or simply saying, “No more. This isn’t working for me. I’m stopping. I’m quitting.”
On the other hand, we’re great at demanding and commanding, as in “You should … You will … You must … You have to …” However, living in a cage of internalized and externalized shoulds is more power-over. When the shoulds have our power, we’re not free to choose. I know, because that’s how I’ve lived most of my life.
One of the hallmarks of power-over is its resistance to change. Change threatens the status quo. Traditional marriage vows are forever, no matter what. Many jobs reward length of service. We’re encouraged to grow up, settle down, get a stable life. Loyalty, dependability, reliability and predictability are all rooted in not changing.
But we do change. Our bodies change. Our needs and desires change. We learn new information. The things that captivate and delight us change. The best of us learn, grow, question, seek new experience, dance elegantly with challenge and tension, and develop a healthy relationship with being wrong. The best of us spend a lifetime making friends with our changing selves, investigating our motivations, our patterns, our behaviors and beliefs, our weaknesses and strengths, and doing battle with our fears and demons.
A relationship, job, priority or place may be a perfect fit at some point in our lives, and then be outgrown. A coping mechanism or response may work very well, even save our lives at one time, and cripple us at another. Life is always changing. The ability to flow with change, to welcome it and play with it, responding with free choice after free choice, defines a well-lived, powerful, elegant life
Quitting, like boredom, has a bad reputation. I suspect this is mostly due to a cultural smear campaign. My son is in his 20s, and as he shared parts of his experience with me, I realized we’ve arrived at the same place, he’s just 30 years ahead of his late-blooming mother. He’s reclaiming his power to respond to his own discomfort and distress and choose what to do, based on prior choices and how they worked out. He’s not waiting until he can no longer bear his unhappiness. He’s not quitting in a blaze of hand grenades and gunfire. He’s not self-destructing. He’s allowing himself to stop, to change, to leave. He’s setting himself free of what doesn’t work for him, and he’s doing it without guilt or shame or the need for outside validation.
Quitting is an art. I can be done with respect, gratitude and dignity. It can be a gift of love and authenticity to self and others. The right person for a job, place or activity is not someone who hates the job, place or activity. The right job, place or activity for us is not the one that makes us unhappy. Commitment, responsibility and keeping our word are all important things, but not unto death. Not unto madness and broken-down health. We are allowed to set ourselves free. We are allowed to change. We are allowed to learn. We are allowed to try and fail and move on.
I began this project of blogging with a letter of resignation. This week I sent another letter of resignation. In both cases, I hung on long after I knew I was miserable because I was afraid to make a change. I have more work to do in building trust with myself, but I’ve made a start.
Last week, my partner and I went to the movies and saw Arrival. Without giving any spoilers, I found it a stunning story about communication, among other things. It was the communication piece that really grabbed my attention, though.
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
Ever since then, I’ve been thinking in a newly focused and intentional way about communication — what it means, how it looks, where it breaks down and how to do it well.
The truth is, I don’t want to know how to do it well. I want to know how to do it perfectly.
Another truth is I’m always thinking about communication, because I’m always working on my book, on this blog or on relationships, and they all involve communication. My partner says there is no relationship without communication, and I think he’s right.
As regular readers know I am wont to do, I pulled out my Random House Collegiate Dictionary to give myself a starting place. Anyone who’s used a dictionary knows there are often multiple meanings for any given word, so I made a list of the definitions I liked, cut and pasted a little, and came up with this (emphasis is mine):
To give or interchange information to/with one another.
To express one’s true thoughts, feelings and moods easily.
To have or form a connecting passage.
Although I’m intellectually satisfied with this definition, it feels incomplete and inadequate. In fact, it makes me mad. If only effective communication was this easy and simple! Instead, it seems to be one of the most desperately difficult things we do, and we must communicate if we are to manage life in today’s world.
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How many ways does communication break down for us in a day? Are we even aware of all the ways it breaks down? How often are we communicating something completely unintentional?
At the same time, have we ever, in the history of humankind, had so many devices and forms of communication at our disposal? Have we ever had access to so much information and so many other people?
So why aren’t we happier, more authentic, more secure and sure of our worth? Why are so many of us starving for healthy, fulfilling connection? What’s missing?
If I knew, I would fix it in my relationships, but therein lies one of the problems.
This is the part that always sneaks up and bites me in the ass.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
Not everyone wants the level and quality of communication I do. Generally, I don’t take this cold little fact personally, but among my nearest and dearest it does feel personal, absolutely. I feel utterly and completely rejected and shut out, in fact.
Another problem is that not everyone is capable of the level and quality of communication I am. Many people carry terrible damage or experience disability that prevents them from being able to participate in touch, in sex, in eye contact and nonverbal cues, even in conversation. I can tell you from personal experience it can be very, very difficult to sort out those who want to and are unable to from those who simply don’t want to. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it all comes to the same thing. When communication is limited, relationship is limited.
Limitation frustrates me, whether it’s my own or imposed by others. I can do more. I want to do more.
A third issue is that communication is two-edged. It’s an enormously powerful skill and ability, both constructively and destructively. We all know people who use communication as a weapon, not a tool. Sometimes, a simple, ominous clearing of the throat can be far more terrifying and damaging than a blow. Both actions are communication. Even worse are people who deploy words saying one thing and demonstrate action that says another, like the abuser who says he loves you while he hits you. This is called gaslighting, and I’ll write about it in the future. It needs a post all its own.
A fourth point is we don’t have enough silence in the world. Silence is the cup that holds communication. It takes time to write, to create, to speak, to hug, to make love, to nurse an infant. It takes time to nurture a friendship, a lover, a child. Sitting with the ill or dying takes time and quiet. Listening takes time and presence. Our slavery to technology and stimulation has all but eliminated uninterrupted time for our relationships with ourselves, let alone with others.
And that brings up a fifth aspect. If we don’t, won’t or can’t communicate effectively and honestly about who we are, what we need and want and the truth of our thoughts and feelings, we can’t form a connecting passage, to quote the above definition. We’re not even connected to ourselves.
As though all those things didn’t make communication a big enough hairball, we have to remember who we are. We’re human, which is to say each one of us carries stories, beliefs, expectations, memories, scars and bleeding wounds that get in our way every time we communicate, even with (especially with) those we care deeply about. We all have painful triggers. We all get hijacked. We make assumptions. We misunderstand, deny, obfuscate, conceal. We filter through our particular history and experience. Few of us have any training in effective communication. We can tweet or text a sentence or two, but ask us to do more and we’re at a loss. For one thing, we don’t have time to deal with it.
We also have rules about communication, individual rules, tribal rules, cultural rules. We have rules about acceptable language, rules about keeping secrets, rules about being indirect, rules about protecting others, rules about loyalty and duty, rules about privacy, rules about what we’re willing to reveal to whom, rules about who we trust and don’t.
Even the words we choose can make or break communication. Here’s an example out of my own life I’m feeling particularly resentful about at the moment.
I’m a woman, a partner, a sister, a daughter and a mother. I love wholeheartedly and I’m very clear about how important healthy relationship is to me. I know the people I love well, and I try hard to accommodate their personalities, preferences and idiosyncrasies. I’m not Miss Fixit. I’ve no investment in protecting people, and the four men in the world who I love most are unbelievably capable and intelligent adults.
When I say, “What can I do to help? “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Is there anything I can do for you today?” I’m not implying they can’t manage their lives, dammit! I’m giving a message of love. I’m saying, “I’m here. You matter to me. I’m glad to lend you support. I’d love to collaborate/cooperate/work with you.” I’m making a connection. I’m giving what I most want. Catch me being insulted if someone asks if they can help me figure out how to run the errands, take care of work and cook a meal!
My male partner says, with great patience, that I should use the word “assist” instead of help.
Seriously???? These four idiot men, who know me better than anyone else, need me to tippy-toe with my language in order to hear a message of love and support?
Never mind. I’m over it. Figure out your own damn life, and I’ll figure out mine.
Furthermore, catch me allowing any of them to help me, even though I know that’s connecting for them. They don’t need anything from me, I don’t need anything from them.
See how that breaks down?
And half of that is about me. I’ve been taught to be indirect in my language, I’m giving others what I want myself (this never works well, because the recipient rarely understands that’s what I’m doing), I’m coming across as relentlessly mumsy-wumsy and overprotective, and I’m assuming these four men are like me and won’t ask for help if they need it, but I’m the one who can’t ask for help, and now I’ve fastened myself more firmly in that position because they won’t cooperate with me and allow me to love them, so I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of…
And so on.
My conclusion about all this is that communication among human beings is a clusterfuck. It’s confusing. It’s messy. Most of us don’t know what the hell we’re doing and many of us are not that well intentioned in the first place. We have wildly varying degrees of ability with wildly varying aspects of communication. We try to hide, we misunderstand, we make mistakes, we don’t remember accurately and we’re often terrible at listening. We want to be right, we want to be validated and agreed with, and we want others to meet our needs quickly and perfectly so life feels simple and uncluttered, emotionally, at least.
I’m never going to do it perfectly, and neither is anyone else.
But hey, let me know if I can help you in any way!