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Red Flags

A little over three years ago I wrote a post titled “Questions Before Engagement.”

Since then, the world has changed, and so have I.

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:

  • Do we trust ourselves?
  • Do we respond to our intuition?
  • Do we choose to defend ourselves?
  • Do we have healthy personal boundaries?
  • Do we keep our word to ourselves?
  • Do we know how to say both yes and no?
  • Do we know what our needs are?
  • Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

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.

Power-Over

  • Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
  • Win and be right at all costs
  • Gaslighting, projection, DARVO tactics (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender)
  • Fostering confusion, distrust, disinformation, and violence
  • Dishonesty
  • Poor communication and refusing to answer questions
  • Emotional unavailability
  • High-conflict behavior
  • Blaming and shaming of others
  • Refusal to respect boundaries
  • Inconsistent
  • Refusal to discuss, debate, learn new information, take no for an answer
  • Lack of reciprocity
  • Lack of interest in the needs and experiences of others

Power-With

  • Encouraging questions, feedback, open discussion, new information, ongoing learning, critical thinking
  • Prioritizing connection, collaboration, and cooperation over winning and being right; tolerance
  • Clear, consistent, honest communication
  • Fostering clarity, trust, information (facts), healthy boundaries, reciprocity, authenticity, and peaceful problem solving
  • Emotionally available and intelligent
  • Taking responsibility for choices and consequences
  • Words and actions are consistent over time
  • Respect and empathy for others

We don’t need to be in the dark about red flags. Here are some highly recommended resources:

  • The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
  • Bill Eddy’s website and books about high-conflict personalities
  • Controlling People by Patricia Evans

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

Doorway to Passion

I’ve been listening to a Sounds True production of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes talk about Seeing in the Dark. I’ve listened to it before, but not for some years, and not since I developed a daily practice of sitting and breathing.

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

She suggests that a practice, whether it be meditation, prayer, or whatever else, is not a pathway to calm, but a pathway to passion. This struck me as a radical idea, and it made me reevaluate my Be Still Now practice completely.

Sitting in silence with nowhere to go, nothing to do, focusing only on my breathing, has been of inestimable value to me in ways I feel deeply but cannot easily put into words. I can talk about the effects in words: less speeding, diminished anxiety, a deeper connection with my intuition and creativity. But the pleasure of the actual practice during those few minutes a day is an experience I can’t share.

I would never have associated it with passion, however. Serenity, yes. I’ve pursued serenity and peace all my life, and that was my destination in creating a Be Still Now practice.

Pinkola Estes suggests I’ve not walked far enough along the path the practice opens up; that beyond the peaceful place where I stop and have my being in those minutes lies something more, some primal power I’ve been trying to control, hide, and even amputate for most of my life.

Passion.

What does passion mean? Passion is a strong or compelling feeling. It comes from a Greek root meaning ‘to suffer’.

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash

Passion expresses the full power of feeling. It’s a tidal wave, a hurricane, a tornado. It’s the grief we cannot bear, the rage we dare not fully express, the physical desire that overcomes our civilized facades and renders us as natural as wild animals.

Passion is agony and ecstasy. It’s a quality that attracts and repels. We admire passion in music, on film, and in other artistic expression, but it’s more easily appreciated when we keep it at an arm’s length. Living with our own passionate nature, or that of someone close to us, is an uncomfortably intense experience for most people.

My experience of my own passion is that it makes others uncomfortable at best. At worst, it’s a fearful threat, and when I’ve allowed it to bloom it’s been beaten down without mercy. Passion, for all its beauty, is also suffering, and none of us want to get too close to that. It might be catching.

The problem is that if we are passionate, to deny deep suffering is to deny all deep feeling, to live in a kind of numb, unchanging twilight. We show a bland, inoffensive face to the world, asking for nothing, needing nothing.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Creating nothing.

We know much more in this culture about numbing our feelings than we do feeling them. When I view any personal practice from this angle, I can see that being present without distraction is a natural first step to presence with our feelings. If we deliberately put aside all our coping mechanisms for pain, all that’s left is to feel it.

I don’t want to feel it. I want to feel peaceful. But my Be Still Now time doesn’t actually take the pain away. It takes my thoughts about the pain away. It allows me space to express and experience pain directly, without a lot of noise around it, but I have to actively consent to enter that space.

Passion is, of course, much more than pain. It’s also incomplete without pain. For me, pain is the top layer of passion, and if I don’t allow it, I can’t get to any other deep feeling.

Which means I can’t write from the fullness of my being.

Which diminishes the core of my life.

But, hey, nobody’s offended or uncomfortable. Nobody’s threatened, so it’s all good, right?

If I use my daily Be Still Now practice to connect wordlessly to passion, what would happen?

Just before I started writing this post, I read this:

Spring Azures

In spring the blue azures bow down
at the edges of shallow puddles
to drink the black rain water.
Then they rise and float away into the fields.

Sometimes the great bones of my life feel so heavy,
And all the tricks my body knows—
the opposable thumbs, the kneecaps,
and the mind clicking and clicking—

don’t seem enough to carry me through this world
and I think: how I would like

To have wings—
blue ones—
ribbons of flame.

How I would like to open them, and rise
from the black rain water.

And then I think of Blake, in the dirt and sweat of London – a boy
staring through the window, when God came
fluttering up.

Of course, he screamed,
seeing the bobbin of God’s blue body
leaning on the sill,
and the thousand-faceted eyes.

Well, who knows.
Who knows what hung, fluttering, at the window
between him and the darkness.

Anyway, Blake the hosier’s son stood up
and turned away from the sooty sill and the dark city—
turned away forever
from the factories, the personal strivings,

to a life of the imagination.

–Mary Oliver

I wonder if it’s possible for me to endure a fully passionate life now. I am attracted, and I am afraid. If my daily practice might be a doorway to reclaiming and inhabiting my own passion, I’m not sure I dare open it. There are reasons I’ve worked so hard all my life to bury passion.

And yet … to dance. To live in music. To be joyfully in the body. To howl and snarl and know the innocence of joy. To weep without shame. To love without fear again. To turn it all into words that awaken passion in others. Can I ever be truly peaceful without those? Is a life without passion peaceful, or merely numb?

My daily crime.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

Discernment

In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

 

This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!

The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.

Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.

It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s) accomplish the task.

Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.

Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:

  • Differentiating between truth and lies
  • Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
  • Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
  • Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
  • Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
  • Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
  • Realizing the difference between useless and useful
  • Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
  • Distinguishing between poisoned bait or toxic mimics and healthy choices
  • Understanding where our power is and where it is not
  • Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
  • Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
  • Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
  • Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy

Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.

Practicing discernment. My daily crime.

(Go to my Hanged Man page for a story about sorting poppy seeds from dirt. Scroll down to Baba Yaga and Vasilisa.)

Success

In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment representing one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.

I’ve always defined myself as a failure. This morning, before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that all day, in fact.

Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash

We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things happened that I could not understand. My childish reasoning was failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.

Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod for displeasure shielded them.

As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the repercussions on those I was trying to shield.

My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge I was doing the best thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.

The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.

I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.

I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems existing long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the real truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.

They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)

Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.

Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.

When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another failure of mine and a grief I deserved.

My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me I could take it off.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.

It was the kids all over again.

This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.

On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us. Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am proud of them.

What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children. I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.

As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.

This day has revealed to me every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered . . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way — it’s always me in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.

I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.

A Recipe for Courage

I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.

Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?

Perhaps.

So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?

Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.

Journal Note Long Ago

Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody
who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man
or woman who is afraid.

I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts
enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must
not ask others to go.

I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon
whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough
to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.

The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.

This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.

My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.

When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.

Photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit — all these inspire me and give me courage.

My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.

Photo by Nick Grappone on Unsplash

And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.

A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.

Courage.