I once saw the movie 50 First Dates, about a young woman who had no memory. Every day she woke up as a clean slate with no past.
The movie gave me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll never watch it again. In several close relationships, both family and romantic, I’ve experienced the devastating grenade of “I forgot,” or “I don’t remember that.”
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In chronically abusive and dysfunctional family systems, “I don’t remember that” effectively shuts down any way forward into mutual responsibility, understanding or healing. Our traumatic memories suddenly waver. Did we, after all, make it all up? Did we misunderstand for years and decades? Are we unforgiving, mean and petty of spirit, hateful? Most frightening of all, are we crazy? If we’ve been chronically gaslit, we certainly feel crazy.
In “romantic” relationships, this memory failure is equally damaging. It blocks conflict resolution and discussion. If it’s true, it means the forgetful partner is unable to learn and adapt to the needs of the relationship and the other partner. There can be no learning and growing together. Nothing can change.
Most of all, this kind of response feels to me like an abdication, code for “it’s not my fault and I refuse to take responsibility.” It’s a signal I’m on my own with my questions and my need to understand.
It’s like a door slammed in my face, and I don’t beat on doors slammed in my face, begging for entry. I walk away.
Now I have a relative with dementia, and it’s extraordinary. I have never felt able to get close to this person before, though I have loved them deeply all my life. I’ve also never felt I was anything but a disappointment and a burden to them. I couldn’t find a way to get past their lifetime of accumulated trauma and pain, bitterness and rewritten narratives. As a truth seeker, I’ve been continually stymied and suspicious, believing I could not trust them to ever tell me the plain truth about anything.
Most painful of all, the fullness of my love has been rejected, over and over, for decades. Nothing I am or have to give was welcome; most of it was distinctly unwelcome.
Now I am witnessing a kind of metamorphosis. Gradually, gently, like leaves falling from trees in autumn, my loved one is letting go of their memories. And in some elemental way, as I walk beside them (because I have always been beside them), I am releasing the pain of my memories.
My loved one has experienced periods of extreme agitation and distress, and those are terrible for everyone. But, as the days pass, those periods seem to have passed too, and now I’m witnessing a gentle vagueness, a dream-like drifting, and in some entirely unexpected and inexplicable way I feel I’m at last catching a glimpse of the real person I’ve always wanted to know.
Even more amazing, I can now say “I love you very much,” that simple truth I’ve never been able to freely express, and they say it back to me. And I believe them.
After all these decades of pain and suffering, separation and bleeding wounds, I am finally able, in the words of Eden Ahbez, “just to love and be loved in return.”
This was all I ever wanted out of this relationship (and most others). Just this. To love fully and be loved in return. And I don’t care if it’s only in the moment. I don’t care that they’ll forget this elemental exchange of words of love as soon as they hang up the phone, or possibly before that.
What matters to me is they hear me, they accept my love, they return it. I’ve never had that with this person before. Maintaining bitterness, rewriting history, remembering old hurts, all require memory. And their memory is loosening, unraveling. What’s left is a person I’ve always sensed was there, a person of innocent simplicity, an undamaged personality who can participate in love. Someone who is not haunted by their past. Someone, oddly, who I trust.
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Whatever the next interaction brings, I don’t have to go into it fully armored. Forgiveness has no meaning when dealing with dementia. Cognitive decline is unpredictable, clearly out of anyone’s control. Whatever is said in any given moment will not be remembered, whether words exchanged are of love or not. So, there’s no point in me remembering, or taking anything personally, or trying hard to be acceptable, do it right, stay safe. It feels safe to trust again, to trust the naked soul I’m dealing with now. I don’t have to try to repair our relationship. My feelings of duty and obligation are meaningless, because those expectations reside in memory, and memory flutters in the winter wind, frayed and thin.
My loved one has attained, at least periodically, a kind of peace they have never demonstrated before in my lifetime. Peace from the past. Peace from emotional pain. Because they are at peace, I, at last, can also be at peace.
I hoped death would free us both. I never expected dementia would do it first. We have both found absolution, at least for now.
Whatever comes, these interactions are precious to me. I realize now I still reside somewhere in the heart of this damaged, unhappy person. I was and am loved, at least as best they could and can. Knowing that, feeling it at last, changes everything and heals much.
I am beyond grateful. And that’s a strange feeling in this context. Dementia takes so much away … In this case, it’s loosened prison bars and chains, unlocked shackles and manacles, and left behind something pure and tender, a glimpse of someone fresh and unscarred in an aged and battered body.
I wonder how much of our identity is built from our social context memories. Too bad we can’t just delete certain files, wipe our hard drive clean in spots, and begin again.
I ask myself if it’s wrong to be so happy, so grateful, so relieved at this unexpected turn of events. I tell myself I should feel guilty. I’ve occasionally worked with Alzheimer’s patients, and I frequently work with people who are dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s in their loved ones. I’ve never heard anyone suggest anything positive about it. Once again, I seem to be totally out of step.
I don’t take my self-doubt terribly seriously, though. I always think I’m doing life wrong. I’ve learned to tell that voice to shut up and sit down. Wrong or right, I feel a kind of exhausted joy at the lessening, maybe even the cessation of my loved one’s emotional suffering. Since I was a child I’ve wanted their health and happiness, their peace, wanted it more even than to be allowed to love and to be loved. I never expected those first passionate prayers from my child self would be answered, let alone in this manner. But here we are.
I try to remember my former life
and realize how quickly the current travels towards home
how those dark and irretrievable blossoms of sound I made in that time have traveled far-away on the black surface of memory
as if they no longer belonged to me.
From “The Sound of the Wild” by David Whyte
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
Trust: Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Mistrust: General sense of unease towards someone or something
Distrust: Specific lack of trust based on experience or reliable information
Leo Babauta recently published a piece on practicing trust which has given me much food for thought.
Trust is an uncomfortable subject for me. For most of my life I’ve considered myself to be shamefully distrustful. As I’ve learned emotional intelligence, I’ve realized I have plenty of good reasons for my mistrust and distrust, but there’s still a part of me that feels I should be more trusting, more willing to give others a second, or third, or hundredth chance, less guarded, more open, more forgiving.
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Except I know intellectually forgiveness does not mean an automatic reinstatement of trust.
In my heart, I feel like a bad person, especially a bad woman, because throughout my life people who say they love me have appeared to be hurt by my lack of trust. Yet those same people have given me reasons not to trust them.
When I wind up in these confusing emotional cul-de-sacs, I blame myself. I’m being too dramatic (again). I’m being a bitch. I’m mean. I can’t love, or let anyone love me. (Does trust = love? Does all love automatically come with trust?) When I explain the specific events leading to my mis- or distrust, I’ve frequently been told the other party doesn’t remember saying what they said or doing what they did. This implies I’m nitpicking, ridiculously sensitive, keeping score, or even making it up. I wonder if I’m being gaslighted, or if I’m just not a nice person.
Years and years ago I made a rule for myself: give every situation or person three chances before deciding not to trust. It still feels fair to me. Sometimes things happen. We have a bad day. We say hurtful things, or don’t keep our word, or make a boneheaded choice, breaking trust with someone. I know I’ve done it, and I’d like to be given the benefit of a doubt.
The benefit of a doubt is fair, right?
I still follow that rule. It feels appropriately kind to others and like good self-care. Yet I feel guilt nearly every day over the people in my life who I want to trust, feel that I should trust, and don’t trust.
Babauta’s article specifically addresses signs of distrust of ourselves, and some ideas about practicing self-trust. I never connected problems with focus, fear or uncertainty, procrastination or indecision with lack of self-trust, but I can see they might be. If we don’t trust our priorities, resilience, or choices, it’s difficult to be decisive or take risks with commitments and problem solving.
If we don’t trust ourselves to cope effectively with sudden changes and reversals and frightening situations, uncertainty and chaos disable us, making us vulnerable to anyone or anything promising relief, certainty, or help.
The boundary between trust in ourselves and trust in others is permeable. If we define ourselves, as I do, as “having trust issues,” presumably that includes issues with ourselves as well as others.
It makes me shudder to imagine living with no feeling of belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of anyone or anything. How could anyone sustain such an emotionally isolated condition, not only from those around them but from themselves?
I do have people in my life I trust. Is it possible I don’t have trust issues? Is that just a polite, apologetic, and roundabout way of avoiding a direct “I don’t trust you?”
Do I have to answer that?
It’s true I trust far fewer people than I distrust.
But it’s also true I give people and situations a chance. Three chances, in fact. At least.
Why does it seem so cruel to tell someone we don’t trust them?
Trust, as I experience it, is not all or nothing. I might trust a person to be kind and caring but never allow them to drive me anywhere. I might trust a person with money but never trust them to be on time. I trust myself to be there for others, but I haven’t trusted myself to be there for me.
Consumerism is about distrust. We’re actively groomed to distrust ourselves. Yesterday I was laughing with a friend about articles on MSN. There was an article about trends and fashion in decorating, as though it matters. Shiplap is out. White kitchens are out. Accent walls are out. Then there was an article about how to properly fold plastic grocery bags. I’m not kidding. Did you know you’ve been storing plastic grocery bags the WRONG WAY all these years? How could you be so incompetent? A capitalist culture only survives as long as people buy things, and advertising (and a lot of other media) is about the ways you need to improve, do it right, be better.
Advertising is manufactured distrust. We’re inadequate, but a widget would make us better. We buy, and we discover we still don’t feel good enough, and another ad tells us we need a nidget. So we buy that, but then we see a gidget on sale that will make us even better …
Who benefits most from our lack of trust in ourselves?
I believe information is power. I believe education is power. I believe in science, data, and critical thinking. I trust those things.
Who benefits most from the breakdown of public education, the demonization and gutting of scientific organizations and communities, manufactured misinformation, manufactured disinformation, and “alternative facts?”
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The Center For Nonviolent Communication says trust is a human need; it’s listed under connection needs. When our needs aren’t met, our health (mental, physical, emotional) suffers. If we are unable to trust we’re wide open to conspiracy theorists, ideologues, authoritarians, and other abusers and manipulators. Predators happily gorge off the results of manufactured distrust.
This is a big, big, problem, because it stands between us and managing things like climate change. Which, depending on who you talk to, isn’t even real because science has been the target of so much manufactured distrust.
One day, sooner rather than later in the Southwest, a switch won’t deliver electricity and a faucet won’t deliver water. Scientists have been talking about consequences of climate change and drought in the area for decades. It was one of the reasons I left my lifelong home in Colorado and came to Maine nearly eight years ago. A combination of manufactured distrust, denial, and the misplaced priority of winning the next election have effectively stopped any kind of collaborative or cooperative problem-solving around water usage throughout the Colorado River watershed, and here we are, on the brink of multi-state disaster that will affect the whole country.
Trust is a choice we make many times a day. Do we trust our families, coworkers, and friends? Do we trust the headlines we read, the news anchor we hear, or the algorithms providing us with “information” on social media? Do we trust what lands in our Inbox or the unfamiliar number calling us? Do we trust the oncoming car will really stop so we can safely walk across the busy street?
More importantly, do we trust our own instincts, feelings, and capability? Do we actively teach our children to trust theirs? Do we encourage our friends and loved ones to trust themselves? Or do we tell people they have it wrong, it didn’t happen, they’re being ridiculous, they don’t understand?
Choice comes with consequences and responsibility. Choice is dynamic; do we trust if we make a choice that doesn’t work out the way we hoped, we’ll choose again? Do we trust ourselves to be wrong and learn something before we choose again? Do we trust our ability to problem solve, bounce back, and do the best we can most of the time?
I suppose somewhere between having no trust at all and trusting everyone and everything lies a fine line of willingness to trust. We could approach new situations and people with curiosity and an open mind, be big enough to give the benefit of the doubt, and have healthy enough boundaries and the self-trust to disengage when we have evidence and experience indicating our trust is misplaced.
The first step in rejecting manufactured distrust is building trust in ourselves and demonstrating our own reliability, truth, ability or strength as we engage with others.
When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.
As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.
My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.
Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.
My body betrays me.
Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.
But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.
The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.
Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.
Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?
Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.
We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.
Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.
I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”
It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.
Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
Don’t take anything personally.
Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.
Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.
What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, contemptuous memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.