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What I Learned

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!)

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

Choosing Bad

I subscribe to a Substack newsletter for writers by Lani Diane Rich. A few weeks ago, she wrote about being bad. On purpose. It made me laugh.

Photo by 小胖 车 on Unsplash

I’m one of those people who has a recording angel at my shoulder, busily writing down every single less-than-perfect thing I think, say, or do. It’s a full-time job.

The idea of being bad – on purpose! – caught my attention.

Well, maybe not on purpose. Maybe just living in such a way that “bad” and “good” don’t enter into … anything.

But then again, maybe on purpose. Maybe writing badly, acting badly, cleaning a dish badly, or eating a whole pizza and letting the grease run down my chin without regret or guilt on purpose.

My horror at the idea (not about the pizza, though) makes me giggle.

This writer makes a great point. Doing things badly, in general, will result in negative feedback of one kind or another. But so does doing things well. In fact, sometimes doing things well results in more negative feedback than doing them badly! Then there’s always the average middle ground: doing things well enough to get by, thereby avoiding attention for being really good or really bad.

Ugh. I’d rather be bad than fit myself into average if I can’t manage good.

How many times in my life have I thought or said, “I’m doing the best I can”?

Hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

Why is it my job to do the best I can?

It used to be my job because I had to justify my existence. However, I’ve outgrown that mindset now and I can’t take it very seriously. I don’t have to justify my existence anymore.

I also did it to stay safe and get loved.

Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash

It didn’t work.

I do it to make a deal with the Universe. I’ll do this thing as best I can if you’ll make sure I’m OK.

Hard to say if that’s effective. I’ve always been OK, but I might have been without killing myself trying to be good.

I do it to prepare for failure. I’ll try as hard as I can, and if (when) I fail, at least I’ll know I gave it my best.

Failure and success. I’ve redefined those. I haven’t always gotten the success I’ve wanted, but that doesn’t mean I’ve failed. In fact, some of my most stunning missteps and miscalculations have turned out to be life-changing gifts.

In the end, I have one good reason for being good, and that has to do with my own integrity. It’s important to me to know I’m doing the best I can in everything I do. I don’t expect praise or rewards. I’ve learned (sadly) it’s no guarantee my needs will be met. I know better than to expect reciprocity or appreciation.

It’s simply who I choose to be in the world.

But here’s a question: are “bad” and “good” mutually exclusive? Would I be more flexible, more creative, healthier, happier, and more whole if I could be bad as well as good? Is there unexplored territory in badness? Could the ability to choose to be bad be part of being good?

Huh.

Could I choose to be some degree of bad along with good?

Being skilled, productive, effective, useful, kind, reliable, honest, etc., etc. all the time takes a lot of energy.

A lot of energy.

When we’re kids, we’re taught good things come to people who are good.

It would be nice if life was that easy.

I can’t help but notice while I’m doing my best from dawn to dusk some other people are not. Other people are sloppy and lazy and careless and they’re not struck down dead by a celestial lightning bolt.

A little voice in my head says that’s all the more reason I have to be continually good, to pick up the slack the fuck-it-I-don’t-care people leave.

Bullshit. I’m not the Cosmic Miss Fix-It.

Maybe it’s okay to think about taking a break from the job of being “so goddamn excellent all the time,” in Lani’s words.

Everyone needs a day off now and then. A lunch break. A vacation. Maybe I’ve worked too much overtime being excellent. Maybe I’ve lost my work-life balance.

Maybe.

By Sean Stratton on Unsplash

Consistency

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.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

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, 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).

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Michael LaRosa on Unsplash

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.

Consistency. My daily crime.

Photo by Jonathan Crews on Unsplash

Win or Lose

Win: To be successful. Who defines success?

Lose: To fail to win.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Are those the only two options?

If we win, then what? Are our lives fixed? Are we fixed?

If we lose, then what? Are our lives broken? Are we broken?

Do we need to win? Do we need to lose?

We compare ourselves to others in contests and competitions. Our capitalist culture shapes us to believe winners receive the most money and fame.

Our culture assures us money and fame equal power, and winners have to spend a lot of money in order to win. Everyone else has to spend a lot of money in order to compete with them.

The fact is, contests and competitions produce one winner and many losers. But those losers want to win, so they spend even more money to become winners.

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

Win-win for capitalism, but lose-lose for almost everyone else.

I recently heard of a question on Facebook to men: What woman do you admire?

Nearly all the answers involved women of extraordinary intelligence and talent who have made important contributions to the world but are not necessarily well known, although their male colleagues are!

Are they losers because they’re not rich and famous? Can they be winners if we’ve never heard of them?

Is our win meaningful if nobody recognizes it? Is it meaningful if it’s not part of our identity?

Is it the win we care about, or the validation, power and applause we expect to receive as a winner?

Are our wins and losses about what we think of ourselves (empowering) or about what others think of us (disempowering)?

How important is winning? More important than the truth? More important than our own integrity and dignity? More important than our health and well-being?

Is our win really about someone else losing (I’ll show them!)?

Winning, like perfectionism and people pleasing, is a moving target, not a permanent state. Winners come and go, just like losers. Money and fame come and go, just like winners.

Our personal power stays with us, win or lose, rich or poor, famous or unknown. We each hold the keys to our own success.

Winning or losing has nothing to do with it.

Patterns and Labels

We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn of toxicity.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of choices that result in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.

As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.

One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.

What I like best about Eddy is that he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.

Photo by dan carlson on Unsplash

Power-with and win-win, in other words.

Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.

 

 

 

In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behavior
  • 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.

Photo by Lukas Budimaier on Unsplash

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.

Responsibility strikes again.

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.

What would you like to do?

My daily crime.

Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash