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Traumatic Response: Fawning

Sometimes I think I’ve been collecting puzzle pieces my whole life, never knowing they would all fit together someday to make a complete picture. Now, as I approach my 60s, I have enough pieces that I begin to see larger patterns I never knew were there.

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In a recent post I mentioned Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I’ve read it cover to cover twice, and I can’t possibly convey to you how it’s changed my life.

Walker explores, in depth, four human responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Fawning is defined as exhibiting affection, attempting to please, or seeking favor or attention. It’s a behavior we often see in dogs, especially when they’ve just done something naughty. (No self-respecting cat would ever fawn!)

We develop trauma responses when we’ve experienced some kind of emotional or physical trauma, and many times we develop them so young we don’t even remember the trauma, thus spending our lives unaware of (or deliberately denying or avoiding if we do remember) the wounds that have locked us into ineffective and destructive behavior patterns.

The four trauma responses are not cut and dried. Most of us exhibit some facet of more than one or all of them when we’re faced with situations that trigger our fear. However, we usually favor one or two responses and unconsciously fall back on them when we feel threatened.

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Each of the four trauma responses involves a cluster of easily recognizable behaviors. Much of my writing, both in this blog and creatively, has been, at its root, about trauma response. I just never knew it until now.

My very first post was about pleasing people. Pleasing and appeasing people has long been a compulsive behavior I can’t control well and am not entirely conscious of. Pleasing and appeasing others is the trauma response called fawning.

With the help of Walker’s book and graphics on his website, I have been able to put several pieces of my problematic behavior together into fawning. I’m chagrined to find it in every aspect of my life.

This is life-changing work.

I will probably manage my trauma responses, including fawning, for the rest of my life, and that’s okay with me. Most internal work, I find, is a practice rather than a quick destination to complete health and blissful forever-after happiness.

Here are the ways fawning shows up in my life. Do any of these sound familiar?

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Apologizing all the time about everything. Apologizing to chairs for bumping into them. Apologizing to other drivers for using the road. Apologizing for making anybody wait for any reason. Apologizing to the cats when they get under my feet and trip me. Apologizing for needing any kind of service or assistance. Apologizing for being less than perfect. Apologizing for being alive, taking up space, having a thought or feeling, breathing the air or using a chair. Apologizing for not reading everyone else’s minds and anticipating their every move, feeling, desire, and need.

Obsequiousness (being obedient or attentive to an excessive degree). This is a tough one. I can’t really find the line between excessive and adequate, and I’m not sure I want to because adequate feels so inadequate. But then, I’ve always felt inadequate, even when (especially when?) being excessive.

I notice this mostly at work, where I’ve unconsciously made a mission out of greeting and bidding farewell to every patron, patient and staff member who enters or exits the pool facility.

On the one hand, we as a team work hard to make the pools a friendly, safe, and respectful environment, and that’s good. On the other hand, I know many of our patrons don’t need me to be so obsequious. Some people are engaging, friendly, and even demanding of our attention. Others, not so much.

As an experiment, I’ve been refraining from saying good-bye to every departing person. If we happen to make eye contact, or I’m helping them manage their mobility and the door or having another direct interaction, I wish them well and say good-bye. If I’m guarding the pool and they walk by without engaging me, I don’t speak. Our population includes many elderly people, some of whom are, not to put too fine a point on it, grouchy! I suspect they find obsequiousness a pain in the ass. (I find it so, even though I can’t help myself sometimes.) I’ve been letting them come and go in peace, too.

The sky hasn’t fallen. I doubt very much if any of my coworkers have noticed this small change in my behavior. I doubt if the people we serve have noticed it, either.

I notice two things. One is how anxious it makes me to stop being so obsequious. The other is how much less exhausting I find my hours at work.

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Servitude. This is a big one at work, too, but also at home. This also played out in my parenting in negative ways, I regret to say. Once again, I have a hard time finding the line between being of useful service in the world and edging into slavery or excessive servitude. I reason that with the world in such a mess, how can we hold anything back when it comes to being of service? Yet at a certain point we can lose ourselves entirely in service to others. My challenge is balancing service to myself and service to others, and I don’t know a woman who doesn’t or hasn’t at some point faced this challenge.

This issue is further complicated by the fact that people with Cluster B behavior demand and expect complete servitude and retaliate in various devastating ways if they don’t receive it. Also, women are burdened with a heavy cultural expectation to be of unending service to their families. Emotional labor is part of this service.

Trying too hard. Trying to be the best person I can be. Trying to protect people. Trying to communicate my love to people. Trying to make a positive contribution. Trying to never be a burden or an inconvenience. Trying to make sure nobody feels “stuck” with me. Trying to please. Trying to be perfect.

As I recently asked in a post, when have we tried hard enough?

As I identified in that very first post: fawning doesn’t work. We learn it when we are powerless and depend on the adults around us to care for us, but it’s not a life strategy. As adults, it doesn’t keep us safe or loved. It’s entirely disempowering. It strips away our dignity and sends a message to others that we don’t value ourselves. If we don’t value ourselves, why should anyone else value us?

Recognizing these various fawning behaviors and the underlying anxiety and fear triggering them has been a revelation to me. Challenging them by refraining or making different choices is an even greater revelation. Dredging automatic patterns from unconsciousness into consciousness is weary work and reveals how deeply-rooted my fawning behavior is. No wonder I find socialization so exhausting.

Now that I notice my own fawning, I’m sad to recognize it frequently in others. Fawning is a common human trauma response, especially for women.

Peter Walker is helping me disengage from fawning in such a way that my natural inclinations toward love and service, empathy, fairness, and listening are more effective and genuine and less exhausting and personally destructive. This is a win for everyone around me as well as myself.

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Past Happy

It’s interesting, the way I begin with a book report in this series of posts on happy, and wind up squarely in my own current experience.

For the first three posts on this subject, go here, here, and here. All posts are inspired by Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness.

Seligman suggests that enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is that thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is that they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.

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As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.

The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.

However, research clearly indicates that our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes that changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.

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This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.

Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.

Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.

I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.

For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes that we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.

The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.

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When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.

The best part about working with our past is that we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.

The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?

Past happy. My daily crime.

Freedom

Gratitude

This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for some while. I’ve taken my time approaching it because it seems to be something of a landmine for some people.

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In simplest terms, to be grateful is to be thankful.

It’s easy to be thankful for the things we enjoy and make us happy. Thankfulness can also be a matter of routine or ritual, as in the case of saying grace before meals, or a display of good manners, like thanking a service person.

Those are the smiling, kindly faces of gratitude.

But gratitude can also wear the aspect of a hag, and then we’re in darker, grittier territory.

Part of the experience of life and relationship includes pain and trauma, there’s no getting around it. We all have a haunted cellar in our soul in which we have suffered. Sadly, many people live in that cellar, picking their scabs, reopening their wounds, and competing with others to win the Most Victimized and Best Haunted Cellar awards.

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That’s a choice.

I’m not suggesting our feelings of disillusionment, pain, rage, fear, shame, betrayal and self-pity are wrong or inappropriate, nor am I victim blaming or shaming, taking some kind of high moral ground, or minimizing the tragic challenges and traumatic experiences we face in life.

Our inevitable wounds are not the point. The point is what we choose to do with them. Do we heal them or not?

It’s important to acknowledge that some people don’t want to heal. Some find the payoff for chronic bleeding too seductive to want to stop it. I don’t understand this, but I know it’s so, and I respect that choice.

We can be a motionless victim or we can practice gratitude and allow it to sweep us forward. We can’t do both.

If we do want to heal, we have to give up blame. This is a big thing to let go of, and some will choose not to. Again, that’s a choice I can understand and respect. It’s also a dead end. If we insist on holding tight to our blame, we’ve cut ourselves off from the possibility of full healing. As long as we blame others or ourselves, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own responsibility and power.

Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean we’re necessarily responsible for our trauma. I mean our responsibility for how we handle it, and our responsibility for our feelings. Taking responsibility for our lives is empowering. Blame leads us into an endless loop of victimhood and/or self-hatred.

We can use addiction, compulsion, and other self-destructive behaviors to numb, distract, or forget our wounds, but none of those coping mechanisms help us reclaim our power.

Healing takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes years, or even decades. There is no shortcut around our feelings. We often need support. Healing can be a messy, exhausting, ugly, extremely vulnerable business.

Healing, like relationship, is a crucible, a dark womb in which we transform our wounds into scars. Gratitude is one of the agents of that transformation, but it can’t show up until we’ve begun to actively work through our feelings.

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Gratitude and forgiveness are often hand in hand. Note I did not say forgetfulness, but forgiveness. Scars are permanent reminders of our journey, but they need not be a matter of shame. We can choose to view them as medals of honor. We can choose to relate to others out of the empowerment and wisdom our scars represent rather than the wounds that caused them.

In every experience there is something to learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about others. We learn about the way the world works. We learn about power. Learning makes us bigger, stronger, wiser, more effective, and more powerful in our lives. If what we learned is bitterness, we’re still blaming. We haven’t taken enough time, or found the right support, or finished the journey from wound to scar. Bitterness does not grow gratitude. It’s not empowering. It makes us small and shrivels our hearts.

We can’t control what other people do, but we can choose to see those who hurt us as teachers, learn the lesson, graduate, and be grateful. We can look back on the most uncomfortable experiences in our lives as the most meaningful and growthful.

Our culture encourages us to be dissatisfied with our lives as they are. We’re trained from childhood in longing and envy rather than in gratitude. The truth is that if we can’t be thankful for what we have right now, this minute, we won’t be thankful for more money, a different body, a different job or house or car.

Thankfulness is acceptance of whatever our circumstances are in the now, even if they’re difficult and we need to change them. Especially if they’re difficult and we need to change them. If our lives aren’t working and we know it, we can be grateful for accepting what is (we’re miserable) and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to manage our power in such a way that we can make positive change. Misery is highly motivating.

So often we have an ideal in our heads, or a set of expectations, that keeps us reaching for more, or different. The practice of gratitude requires us to settle down and take a good long look at what we have, what we are, and where we are. What is there to learn? What can we be grateful for? Expectations are devoid of gratitude, because they don’t reflect reality.

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Gratitude takes strength and courage, especially during dark times of pain, fear, and despair. It’s also one of the most powerful choices we can make. It leads us into the light. It comforts our raw feelings. It keeps us focused on joy, and the simple gifts in each day.

In seeking gratitude, we go deeper than we’ve gone before, far beyond the fact of our wounding. We reclaim our power, not over what happens to us, but how we use such events and circumstances to water and feed our best selves. To feel gratitude is to come fully into peaceful alignment with our lives, whatever they have been, whatever they are now, whatever they might be.

Thank you.

My daily crime.

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In the Void

I’m fascinated with thresholds, the ground between us, the spaces between, and the edge of chaos. The void between one thing and another is filled with unknown possibility.

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Tarot cards appeared in the fourteenth century, when they were used primarily for play. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the cards began to be used for cartomancy. Tarot cards are archetypal (they illustrate recurrent symbols), and countless modern decks are available, some of which are beautiful works of art.

When I work with the Tarot, I use a common classic 10-card spread called the Celtic cross. One of the richest and most enigmatic parts of the Celtic cross spread are the seventh and eighth cards, representing the querent as he/she sees him/herself and the querent as others see him/her.

I’ve learned, after decades of working with the cards, to pay close attention to what lands in those two places. If the cards have similarities, I know I’m living with reasonable authenticity. I’m staying grounded in who I am, and I’m showing up in the world and in my relationships honestly. I have a sense of being at home, of belonging in my own life. My connections feel solid and healthy.

If the cards are wildly opposing, however, I think carefully about what’s going on. In emotional intelligence coaching, this gap is key. Whatever is hidden between our own authentic experience and how others see us can be excavated, examined, healed, released, and/or renewed. The most effective coaches coach to the gaps.

In psychology, this idea is expressed with the Johari window, a model used to illustrate the relationship between ourselves and others.

Johari window

What’s in that square of the Johari window that nobody knows, not us, and not others? What lies in the cleft between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us? What possibility or potential sleeps or hibernates there, waiting to wake up or be discovered? What insight and information are we missing as we look at others and ourselves?

Here are some possibilities:

  • We have crafted a highly-polished and highly-defended pseudo self and our authenticity is buried underneath it.
  • We are keeping too many secrets out of shame or fear; our authenticity is blocked. We are trying to stay safe.
  • We are low in our ability to emotionally express ourselves.
  • We have no idea who we really are; we accept the expectations of others about what we should or must be and try to fit those definitions.
  • Our closest connections are not healthy; those around us are employing abusive tactics like gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns and chronic blaming. We know who we are, but we’re overwhelmed by what they say about who we are. We’re in the wrong place, connected to the wrong people.
  • We ourselves are a Cluster B disordered person; we are unable to have insight into why we do what we do or the ways our behavior and choices affect those around us. We think of ourselves as victims and blame others.
  • We are in denial.
  • We are too fearful to explore ourselves or others or ask or answer questions.

It doesn’t matter if we approach these kinds of questions via a mystical route or a more science-based path, to be human is to ponder about who we are and what we are for; to strive to make meaning out of our lives and experience.

We believe we know what we know, and we spend a lot of time defending that knowledge. We’re much less comfortable with what we don’t know, and some people refuse to explore that terrain at all.

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For me, however, that uncharted territory, both within and without, is where all the good stuff is. The cracks and crevices, the blind and blank spots, are filled with the possibility and potential of insight and clarity. Healing is there, though it may come about through cautery or amputation. Growth is there, though it might mean our bones ache and we must alter our lives to accommodate that growth.

As humans, we are social, and we need others in order to survive and thrive. When I consider the rift between how I see myself and how others see me, I remember the power we each have in the lives around us, and the power those around us have on us. We can’t change other people, or save them (especially from themselves), but we can and do have influence on others. When we believe in the good things in others, we are making a difference. When we choose to manipulate or tear down others, we are making another kind of difference. This is the line between friends and frenemies.

It makes me squirm to understand the people around me know things about me I’m blind to, and see me in ways I can never access. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Yet the same is true for everyone. If my friends feel the same kind of affection and willingness to allow me to be who I am that I feel for them, I’m both humbled and grateful, but I’m still squirming—just a little!

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I learned long ago that the people I want to be closely connected to are willing to live with some degree of authenticity. My best friends have been those who told me the truth; the ones who let me know when I’m off the rails, or otherwise acting like an idiot. If we can’t tolerate feedback from others, we lose a quarter of the Johari window; a quarter of our available experience, potential, strength and growth.

Likewise, if we are unable or unwilling to give honest feedback to others, they lose a quarter of their Johari Window.

It’s only in the tension of connection that we become greater than the sum of our parts, greater than we could ever be on our own. The powerful friction and shaping that occurs in relationships forces us to explore, discover, question, learn, unlearn, adapt and adjust more than we would ever do in isolation.

Living in the complex, enigmatic, fascinating void between how I experience myself and how others experience me. My daily crime.

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Scapegoat

I’ve been exploring the concept of scapegoating. The information I’ve uncovered so far indicates the idea originates in the Bible, though I won’t be surprised if I discover pre-Christian roots to the practice.

Briefly, in Biblical times, two goats were chosen when the community felt it needed cleansing. One was a sacrificial goat, which was killed to appease the Divine. The other goat was symbolically laden with the so-called “sins” of the people and driven into the desert to die, thus eradicating the sin.

Sigh. What a ridiculous coping mechanism. If only it was that easy! Eradicating real or perceived “sins” by assigning them to innocent animals and then killing them strikes me as immature, cowardly, impotent, and completely ineffective.

As an aside, in my experience those who thunder about the “sins” of others are the most destructive and guilty of all. Just ignore the man behind the curtain!

The role of a scapegoat seems to be essential to human society. We scapegoat individuals and we scapegoat groups. One of the reasons I’m more and more resistant to labels is they support and feed our ability to scapegoat others. Scapegoating is the root of genocide.

Scapegoating is abusive, and it’s a psychological trick, a distraction, a projection and a manipulation. Worst of all, it’s dishonest.

It’s also, frequently, murder, by which I mean the deliberate destruction (or attempted destruction) of an innocent. Ironically, family systems that scapegoat children often choose the most sensitive, empathetic, loving and talented child (often the healthiest family member) and set out to begin a systematic long-term campaign of destruction of that child so others within the family can avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.

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One can spend all day online exploring scapegoating. It’s depressing research. Those who are scapegoated have a horrendous experience of pain, isolation and rejection that frequently leads them into addiction and other self-harming behaviors, and cripples their ability to form healthy relationships, particularly with themselves, and make positive contributions. Many scapegoats do, in fact, go metaphorically out into the desert or wilderness and die.

But not all of them.

Let us not forget that of the two, the scapegoat is the one who survives. The sacrificial goat is out of time and out of choices, but not the scapegoat.

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What happens when the scapegoat is spit upon, reviled, cursed and turned away, staggering and stumbling under everyone’s unacknowledged shadows, darkness, and feelings? What happens in the lonely black cold of the desert night, in the blazing, thirsty grit of the desert sun?

A long, slow death by inches from despair, isolation, thirst and hunger?

Do scapegoats meet other scapegoats, and if so, do they compare notes and experiences and support one another in surviving and healing, or do they, in their turn, scapegoat those they meet and perpetuate their own misery and damage?

OR do they meet an Angel, or another aspect of the Divine? Perhaps they reclaim and reanimate themselves. Maybe dreams and visions come to them. Maybe a fearsome Hag or an animal guide teaches them to find or create water in the desert. Perhaps a desert mouse or a scorpion appears and relieves the scapegoat of all that does not belong to it, either burying the toxic waste of others in the clean, hot sand of the desert or, better yet, sending the poison back to its source(s).

Perhaps scapegoats meet the Devil in the desert. Do you know the meaning of The Devil card in the Tarot? Authentic experience. Some people fear authentic experience more than anything else in the world, and they’ll do anything to silence, destroy or stifle it. Who is more feared or hated than the Whistle Blower, the One Who Tells Their Truth?

Maybe tribal shaming and exile are in fact a release from prison and a doorway to personal power. Maybe the desert has been waiting to embrace the scapegoat for an eternity, waiting with gifts and spirits and guides, waiting with wisdom, patience and healing.

When we flush the toilet, we don’t expect to see the contents again. Occasionally, something goes wrong and we do see the contents again! Very disconcerting. Imagine being a bearded patriarch with a paunch and a fine embroidered cloak of arrogance and entitlement. The beard hides a weak chin and the paunch hides a frightened, impotent, controlling personality that is unable to be wrong, learn or grow. In order to relieve the chronic stress of maintaining a pseudo self and constant unacknowledged fear, the patriarch symbolically loads a goat with all his unwanted psychological and emotional shadow and darkness (which he has just increased) and drives it away with rocks and blows.

Now imagine the goat returns some time later, strong and broad-shouldered. It dances in the moonlight on stardust hooves outside the city walls. Its thick, silky coat stirs in the desert wind. The twists and spirals of its horns gleam like marble sculpture. Free and unburdened, the scapegoat has become a wild, enduring, sensual creature of primal instinct and power.

The patriarch, by contrast, has become smaller, weaker, and more wretched.

I’ve reached two conclusions about scapegoats and scapegoating.

The first is scapegoating doesn’t work. Not only is it ineffective, it’s weak, and, frankly, I’m embarrassed for those who engage in it. People who scapegoat others are only drawing attention to their own meagre hearts and intellect. They can’t meet their own gaze in the mirror; they prefer to displace and project their self-hatred, fears and feelings onto others.

The second conclusion I’ve reached is the day we are driven into the desert from the gates of our loved ones or our homes as scapegoats may also be the day we are reborn into something fine and powerful, something wild and resilient and enduring.

A Horse With No Name
America

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After two days in the desert sun
My skin began to turn red
After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love

You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
La, la …

Songwriters: DEWEY BUNNELL© Warner