Unless the sky falls (again), we will be moving in less than a week. It’s hard to believe. In fact, it’s impossible to believe, but that’s okay. Today is real, and I know what I need to do right now. The future can take care of itself.
As I moved around the kitchen early this morning, feeding (and tripping over) the cats, making breakfast, heating water for tea, watching the sky lighten, it occurred to me the last seven years in this old farmhouse have taught me a magnificent lesson.
Maine Farmhouse and Barn
When I moved to Maine, I had a solid idea about what I was moving into, a whole set of expectations and dreams, none of which turned out to be real.
The loss of my fantasies was heartbreaking and took me years to process. During that time, I started this blog and later remodeled it, finished my first book, wrote my second, and began my third, started publishing my fiction serially on Substack, put everything I’ve learned about emotional intelligence into action, grew deep roots in my community, found a great job I love, and became part of a second family.
At the same time, I experienced disempowerment in terms of my living space and physical surroundings. Never before have I lived in a place where I had so little power to respond to my needs and preferences, and never have I been so overwhelmed with maintenance tasks I could not take care of.
Because of my emotional intelligence training, my disempowerment was visible to me, and I was able to turn towards what I did have power over, again and again, until it became second nature. It didn’t feel good, but it was invaluable practice at managing my own power, at recognizing my own power.
Always before in my life, I’ve had plans and projects, things I wanted to buy, walls I wanted to paint, the ability to rearrange furniture, make repairs, have new shelves built, and discard what was no longer useful. Such activity gave me a great deal of pleasure and was thoroughly distracting. It was never finished, so I stayed firmly focused on externals.
In this house, that distraction has been unavailable. To stand in my own power has been to stand still with myself, to work internally, to feel my feelings, create, stretch, grow, learn, explore. It’s been lonely. It’s been uncomfortable. It’s been transformative. It’s been internal, invisible, and has nothing to do with a shiny presentation.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
Most of us would acknowledge real change and healing come from the inside, not from the surface. But understanding that intellectually is not the same as spending years living it. I would never have voluntarily given up the power to manage my surroundings. When I realized it was happening I had a choice to make, and I chose to explore this new, unexpected territory.
That choice is one of the best I’ve ever made.
I have learned a dream home, a dream wardrobe, a dream body, a dream library, is not a life. What others see of me and my possessions and home is not me. My presentation has nothing to do with my state of health, presence, and groundedness.
Our new home is old, though not as old as this farm, and it needs some work. Sure, it needs new exterior paint and other cosmetic help, but that’s not where I’ll start. Those changes are fun and everyone can see and appreciate them, but the invisible, internal issues like plumbing, wiring, and insulation are what will really make a difference to my experience living there.
The looks of the new house are not what matters. It’s the life we create inside it that matters.
The color of my hair doesn’t matter. It’s what’s inside my head that matters.
The clothes I wear don’t matter. It’s the health and peace in my body that matter.
Attaining perfection (and perfect control) of my space is not what matters. It’s the ability to manage my thoughts and feelings, maintain integrity, and live well that matter.
In these last few days of packing, sorting, and endless tasks and details, at every step I’m thinking about what I learned and how grateful I am for the lesson. I didn’t choose to learn it. I wouldn’t have volunteered to learn it. I was forced into it, tricked into it, even.
But that’s not important. My life has consistently taken me exactly where I need to go, in spite of how much I whine and complain about some of the places I’ve been. Now, just ahead, is a whole new chapter.
I wonder what I will learn.
(Next weekend we’re moving, so you won’t see a post here from me. I’ll be back in two weeks!)
Pete Walker’s material on complex post-traumatic stress disorder suggests revisiting old traumas remaining in our memory as painful, nonhealing wounds, and rewriting. He talks about it in terms of time travel. One goes back, as an adult, into memories of childhood and enters the scene as a new character, creating a new and different narrative. Our adult selves can defend our child selves, shield them, help them explain themselves, provide comfort to them, and, if needed, remove them before whatever terrible experience occurred.
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
Intrigued, I tried this method, and I was shocked, though I know the power of stories, at how well it worked and how much fun it was. Not only has it helped me heal from past trauma, it also strengthens my ability now to automatically stay on my own side and defend myself.
Seth Godin also talks about this concept. His language is “rewriting the script.” Same idea, slightly different presentation. Godin is business oriented, while Walker is psychology oriented.
Godin suggests, instead of saying to ourselves “here we go again,” we simply rewrite the script this time, which means we throw away our expectations and take each experience as a fresh one, rather than another terrible iteration of something in our past.
This is powerful for me as we navigate the process of moving house. I’ve done it more times before than I want to count, and I’ve always found it deeply traumatic, but this time is different. In spite of broken contracts, changing timelines, obstructions and reversals, and the usual financial and physical stresses, I’m managing to stay grounded and balanced. It feels like a rough patch, for sure, but I don’t feel traumatized. I have moments of amusement and even more moments of curiosity. What on earth will happen next? How will this all work out? Where will I be sitting in 6 months?
Old traumas and wounds are just that – old. We don’t have to insist new, similar experiences cut as deeply. It is a choice, although not an obvious one. We could just tear up our old scripts, the ones that hurt us, the ones that never work out for us, the ones filled with fear and heartbreak, and write a new one. Now does not have to be the same as then.
In yet another way to think about this, I came across advice from a writer on how to appreciate one’s progress. She, too, suggested time travel. If we feel stuck and as though we’re making no progress, and never have, and never will, and what person X told us way back when we were children, that we’ll never amount to anything, seems a curse we can never lift, we can sit quietly with ourselves and think back a year, or five, or ten. Stepping back helps us gain perspective and see exactly how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, how much we’ve grown. What if we went back, in imagination, to cheer on the self we were a year ago, whispering to them of all the wonderful progress ahead?
Scripts and storylines can be changed. We don’t have to give them our power. It’s so easy to forget that. It takes an act of presence and will to change the script and reclaim our power, but we can let go of our limiting expectations and beliefs and allow ourselves a different kind of experience. Not here we go again, but here’s a new experience – I wonder what will happen?
Sometimes all we need to do is shift our gaze from the hopeless and frightening places where we have no power and focus on the places we do. If we can stay there, rest there, live there, the chaos and tumult, though unpleasant, won’t knock us down and trample us. Such times pass by, pass over without traumatizing us, and we’ll come out on the other side more resilient than ever.
I was cleaning cat hair off our furniture a couple of days ago and thinking about the Golden Rule. I muttered about it, too. To the cats, who had no opinion but thought the whole removing-cat-hair-with-a-dish-glove business highly entertaining and a good game. They wanted the cat hair back. I wanted to get rid of it.
Sometimes I feel I’ve spent my life cleaning.
Don’t get me wrong. Cleaning can be a sacred activity, a Baba Yaga kind of activity. Few things are as satisfying to me as making order out of chaos; sorting the unwanted and unnecessary from the useful and beautiful is something I always enjoy.
When I say “I love you,” part of that is a commitment to provide a clean, comfortable, healthy space. Part of my own self-respect and self-love is providing myself a clean, comfortable, healthy space.
It’s not a question of money. Paint is peeling off many surfaces in this house. That doesn’t mean those surfaces need to be dirty. Yes, the floor is pitted, stained and scarred. That doesn’t mean I don’t bother to scrub off the grime. Yes, the front door gaps and sags. The metal screen door is getting rusty. That doesn’t mean they have to be filthy.
So, cleaning. For all of us, myself, my partner, and the cats.
I know some people will say the cats don’t care. My partner has said he doesn’t notice.
But I care. I notice. And I don’t know the cats don’t care. Why should they live in unnecessary squalor?
Anyway. The Golden Rule. Do unto others, etc.
I think the Golden Rule is a good way to live. I live by it. The problem is the rule itself implies others will do unto you as you do unto them.
I’m angry about that. Living by the Golden Rule is expensive in time, energy, and patience. I choose to do it because it’s part of my integrity as a human being, but it’s not easy, and it’s not an investment that always pays off. Which is sad. And disconnecting.
I’ve asked it before and I ask it again. When have we given enough?
Then I received a post in my Inbox from Joshua Fields Millburn titled ‘The Boundaries of Discontent’ about this very subject. Tolerance, he says “can be a magnet for neglect.”
The Golden Rule is an effective guide for choice. I feel good about myself and the way I show up in the world when I employ it. But it’s only the first step.
The second step is observing whether it’s reciprocated in any given situation and continuing to make healthy, self-supportive choices based on that observation.
It’s wonderful to give positive things to the world and others, but we need to notice if we’re not receiving in kind. Giving out of an emotional deficit is not sustainable. We deserve more than that. We can find people who live the Golden Rule, people like us.
Millburn says we encourage what we tolerate, and he’s right. Tolerance is too heavy to carry alone in a relationship, and unbalanced tolerance is simply clutter. When we stop tolerating the absence of reciprocity, or more than a few days of cat hair on the furniture, we can move into a simpler, clearer, cleaner life.
Healthy boundaries are not intolerance.
I don’t want to be the friend who never reciprocates. In fact, I’ve voluntarily left more than one relationship because it was clear that who I am was making others unhappy or uncomfortable and I was unable to find a way forward into something healthier with them. I don’t want toxic people in my life, and I won’t be a toxic person for anyone else, either. Do unto others has sometimes meant letting go and moving on for my sake and theirs.
Tools for healthy relationship and connection like the Golden Rule work best when both parties bear their weight and use them. If that’s not happening, the tool becomes ineffective, even destructive, and the relationship falters.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To a point. But don’t get too carried away. And don’t build expectations of reciprocity around it. Follow it because you believe it’s the right thing to do and let go of the rest.
I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.
All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.
I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.
I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.
I would have been wrong.
I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.
Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.
The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.
This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.
If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.
When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?
I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.
For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.
It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.
I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.
It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.
The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.
We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.
No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.
True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.
My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.
Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.
Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.
Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.
I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.
I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.
I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.
I’ve never noticed that before.
Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.
I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote that first blog post.
I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.
Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.
What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.
Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.
Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.
But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.
I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.
I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.
Here’s something I can do!
The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.
All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.
Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?