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 reptiles, plants, fish and insects warning of toxicity.
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.
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.
Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of patterns resulting 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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes these posts are like puzzles. I pick up fragments in the course of daily life, and I find they all belong to the same idea. Remember doing dot-to-dot puzzles as a kid? I’m never sure what the shape is I’m working on, but I turn the pieces of the puzzle around until I’m satisfied with a coherent (hopefully!) post. It’s fun.
If I was bent on delivering a learned lecture in this post, I would have titled it “Postmodernism.” I’m not interested in lecturing, though, or philosophizing, or exploring current ideas and trends in a scholarly way. Ick. If you’re not sure what postmodernism is, here’s a link. You can educate yourself and draw your own conclusions — always the best way!
As I researched postmodernism I came across a referral to “post-truth.” Huh? Post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Truth is a slippery concept, and I’m not interested in debating whether it’s “real” or not. The tension between objective facts, denial and beliefs is a can of worms I have no interest in opening. I do accept science-based inquiry and methodology, particularly if data can be replicated, the process is peer-reviewed, and the funding is clean and unbiased. For me, truth and learning are dynamic, flexible and organic. What might be true for me today may change tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean today’s truth is necessarily a lie.
I don’t accept that belief and truth are the same, and I don’t accept that feelings and thoughts are necessarily objective facts.
The puzzle pieces I have collected this week all fit into postmodernism, but, as usual, I come at it in my own unique (and slightly off-center) way. Here are the pieces, in no particular order:
One of my four most important values and priorities in making choices is to see things clearly; in other words, not to argue with what is, be in denial, or wholly and unconditionally believe in my own stories, assumptions, and feelings. Understand, I validate, value and rely on my feelings, but I’m very aware they don’t always point to the truth. I might feel rejected, for example, but that doesn’t mean I am rejected. It doesn’t mean I’m not, either. The feeling points me toward something needing further exploration, that’s all.
When I say “see things clearly,” I mean accepting what is without fear, resistance, apology, or the need to rewrite or sanitize my experience.
The second puzzle piece is a conversation I had with an approximately 30-year-old man in which I described a relationship that was not working well and what I did about it. His comment was “harsh.” Intrigued, I asked if it would have been better if I’d lied to the other party, or continued the relationship in spite of believing it was unhealthy for both of us. He had no answer for that. I asked if he had a suggestion for a kinder or different way I could have communicated my truth clearly. He had no answer for that one, either. What I was left with was, from his point of view, it was wrong for me to feel the way I did and tell the simple truth about it, without shame or blame, honestly communicating my sadness, my need to part ways, and my caring for the other party.
I’ve thought a lot about this conversation. As regular readers know, I dislike labels and sweeping generalizations, but I wonder if part of his problem with my choice about ending my relationship has to do with the trend in his generation toward postmodernism; that is, that there is no truth, all stories are equal, and to speak “truth” is somehow hateful, bigoted, and/or mean. I’ve even been told stating the truth is “dehumanizing.” Wow.
From my point of view, identifying and speaking the truth is by far the kindest thing we can do for each other and ourselves. Communicating the truth means we are taking responsibility. It means we have the courage to have a difficult conversation face-to-face, rather than ghosting, making excuses, living a lie, or leaving someone with no closure. It means we are healthy enough to take care of ourselves and manage our time and energy, and authentic enough to be heartful and committed in what we choose to do with our lives.
I realize, of course, that some people use the truth as a club, and take no trouble to employ clear, kind language. Shame and blame and refusing to take responsibility are not truthful. Pretending is not truthful. Making excuses is not truthful. Cultivating a pseudo self is not truthful.
The third piece of this particular puzzle was in a book titled Roadwork by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King). Here it is:
“But Mary’s footsteps never faltered because a woman’s love is strange and cruel and nearly always clear-sighted, love that sees is always horrible love, and she knew walking away was right and so she walked …”
I’m a fan of King’s writing, and this quote really caught my eye. I stopped reading, bookmarked the quote, and thought about being a mother and all the agonizing choices one makes when raising a child. (The context of the quote has to do with a mother and child.)
It’s terribly difficult (and sometimes terribly painful) to be clear-sighted about our own children. We are forced to make decisions that tear us apart, always striving to do what we think is best and frequently missing the mark. Moreover, having children means we are forced to look at ourselves more clearly for their sake, and that process is humbling, painful, and occasionally terrifying.
I ask myself, is this how King experiences a woman’s love? If so, is it a woman’s love for her child he has his eye on, or a woman’s love in general? Is it terrible love because it’s “clear-sighted,” or because women who love are capable of making horribly difficult choices and sacrifices for the sake of those they love? Is it the love that’s “strange and cruel,” or the clear-sightedness of that love? Or both?
I recently wrote about unconditional love. Is that kind of clear-eyed love “horrible” because it’s so powerful?
I’ve mentioned before somewhere on this blog that in the Tarot deck, which has pre-Christian roots, The Devil symbolizes authentic experience. This indicates to me dealing with the truth is not a new challenge for human beings. Postmodernism is just another cyclical iteration we’ve come up with as we struggle with the truth, misinformation, outright lies, authenticity and pseudo self, the sincere desire of many to be kind and compassionate, and the equally sincere desire on the part of others to control cultural narratives and (dis)information. I’m the first to admire and practice kindness and compassion, but taken too far they become enabling, denial, codependence, pseudo self and abdication of our own self-defense and needs.
The last piece of the puzzle was this link I received to a piece of satire about the “divisiveness” of truth. Satire is not my gig (I have a sneaking suspicion it’s above my head), and I don’t normally enjoy it or pass it on, but this was certainly timely, and it demonstrates the (to me) crazy thinking postmodernism leads to.
It seems to me truth is connecting rather than divisive. I’m wary of anyone who responds to the presentation of an objective or science-based fact with a rant about divisiveness. Those who seek to persuade us there is no truth anywhere, that whatever we believe is Truth, are the ones who are actively divisive. Critical thinking is not about hate, fear, control or manipulation; it’s about seeing the world around us with curiosity and clarity.
So what’s the deal with the demonization of truth, or authenticity, or honesty, or facts, or whatever? Does it have to do with technological cultural influences? Is it connected to our broken educational system? Does our decreasing literacy (TLDR — too long, didn’t read) play a part? Do our burgeoning health problems, poor diets and ever-increasing toxin loads affect our ability to think well?
Have we become so fat, lazy and comfortable we simply don’t want to make the effort to learn, explore, reflect and think critically?
Are we so entitled and selfish we reject unpleasant or unwelcome truths that might threaten our status quo?
Sometimes the truth is painful, inconvenient, and difficult to hear and say. Are we so precious, pampered and cowardly we need everything sugar-coated and artificially flavored and colored in order to deal with it, never mind if it’s truth or lies? (Have you watched any commercials lately?)
I don’t know. The only power I have is what I do with my own life. In my own life, endeavoring to see things clearly, to understand, to excavate what’s true for me at any given point in time and put it into effective, clear, responsible language and action, are paramount. Objective facts matter. History matters. Science is important. I value literacy, learning, education and professional expertise.
I’ve spent much of my life people pleasing and enabling the destructive behavior of others. I’ve spent much of my life assiduously cultivating what I thought was an acceptable pseudo self. I lacked the courage and support to face my own truths in the privacy of my head, let alone speak them to others. I allowed others to bully, manipulate and punish me for seeking objective facts. I allowed myself to be the target of gaslighting and projection.
We woke to a snowstorm this morning in central Maine. I could hardly wait to get out in it and walk. It was snowing hard and accumulating fast, coming down in heavy, wet flakes. I headed to work midmorning, maneuvering out of the driveway with some difficulty. The ground was already well saturated before this storm.
Getting out of the driveway is the hardest part of winter driving here. I’ve been amazed at how well the roads are taken care of in Maine, much better than the rural roads and streets in Colorado. Still, winter driving is winter driving, and I gave myself plenty of time.
I quickly discovered the paved road was every bit as treacherous and without traction as the driveway. There was a heavy coating of slush and no sign of sanding or plowing. If I went over 30 miles an hour I lost traction and I almost couldn’t climb the steepest hill on the way into town. I turned on my audiobook, sipped my travel mug of tea, and settled down for a slow and careful commute, wondering why the road crews seemed to be ignoring the dangerous conditions.
I started down a gently sloping hill with a shallow curve. One minute I was driving and the next I was floating. I was alone on the road. Nothing happened. I hadn’t accelerated or braked or jerked the wheel. I just started slipping across a thin layer of slush between the tires and the pavement, and I knew I wasn’t going to make the curve. I kept my feet off the pedals and tried to steer into the skid, but the tires might as well have been glass slippers, for all the traction they had.
I was very lucky. The side of the road was thickly edged with woody shrubs like alder and willow. I didn’t hit a pole, tree or fence, and I wasn’t going fast. I also didn’t land in water, a real danger here in Maine. I recognized the weightless feeling in the pit of my stomach and knew I was helpless, a victim of momentum. All I could do was sit tight and wait for the car to stop. I wasn’t at all scared. I had a seatbelt on and I was only coasting.
I’m going to be late for work, I thought, resigned.
The brush and bushes caught me neatly. I turned off the audiobook and engine, turned on the hazard lights, gathered up my keys, wallet and travel mug of tea — not a drop had spilled — and set out for the nearest house.
I was greeted by the baying of several dogs, the alarm calls of a pair of geese and a woman about my own age with very blue eyes. I explained, said I didn’t have a cell phone, and asked if I could call for help.
She was extremely kind. The dogs were contained somewhere while I waited. The geese eyed me balefully. When I stepped inside, the house was warm and a stove glowing. It was a typical farmhouse kitchen, cluttered, friendly, comfortable, filled with plants. She handed me her cell phone, introduced herself as Sarah, and asked if I was hurt. I reassured her I was perfectly unharmed, called my partner and called work. I was about to call AAA when she offered to pull me out with her tractor.
I dithered. I have a horror of being a burden or needing help. Why should this woman leave her cozy kitchen and go out into the snow and slush to pull a stranger out of the ditch? She told me to stop apologizing and pointed out that AAA would likely take a long time to respond, given the local conditions. We both wore heavy mud/snow/rain boots. She flung on an old yellow slicker and fired up the tractor.
The tractor couldn’t get any traction, either. It churned up mounds of mud and grass, but the chain wasn’t long enough to allow it to pull from the pavement, and she came close to sliding sideways into the ditch, just as I had done.
At this point we’d both been lying on the slushy, muddy ground hooking up chains, the snow was coming down in wet clots, and the narrow rural road we were on was extremely hazardous. Sarah took the tractor back and returned with “Tank.” Tank is an old-fashioned heavy farm truck, painted in camo and looking indestructible.
Tank couldn’t pull me out, either.
During all this, everyone who went by stopped to ask if we needed help.
The snow turned to heavy rain.
We went back to the house and I called AAA.
I wanted to wait for the tow truck in the car, but Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. We could see the car from her kitchen window. We were both wet and muddy to the skin. We sat at the kitchen table and talked about our sons (her two and my two) and what we’d done with our lives so far. Every car that went by mine either slowed or stopped. We were so worried someone else would go off the road or my mishap would cause another accident, we put a note on the car window saying Nobody hurt. Waiting for tow truck.
About an hour later a big tow truck pulled up. I thanked Sarah from the bottom of my heart, put my sodden coat back on and went out into the pouring rain. There were two young guys in the truck. They considered the problem, walking around the car in their heavy boots and the bulky waterproof gear all the working men seem to wear here. They decided the only way to get me out was to pull me sideways back onto the road. I was shivering by that time. I got in the driver’s seat, rolled down the window (I could hardly have been wetter), and prepared to follow directions.
While they were working the road was effectively blocked. A big pickup truck came along, pulled into the center of the road behind the tow truck, and turned on his hazards.
They pulled this way and that. I went from neutral to park and back again. I braked when they told me to. The rain ran down my face and neck and under my coat and other clothing. Branches scraped across the car. The winch whined. Mud and slush churned. A few vehicles waited patiently. We finally got two tires on the road. They got behind me and told me to accelerate nice and slow. I did so, they pushed, and the tires found the pavement again.
I thanked them wholeheartedly. I waved to the kind and patient human being who blocked traffic and kept us all safe.
This morning in Maine there have been many, many accidents, including a flipped-over school bus, snowplows off the road, jackknifed trucks and people like me sliding into ditches, power poles and other cars. There have been cancellations, delays and detours. We are warned of flooding. This afternoon and tonight we expect freezing rain. The storm is not over, but my adventures for the day are. I crept back home three hours after I left it, shivering, wet and exhausted, and promptly got stuck in the driveway.
How do we thank the strangers who brush against our lives and lend a helping hand? I’ve never known. A simple thank you seems so wholly inadequate. Still, what else can I say? What about all those anonymous strangers who help in ways we never know about, or come and go so quickly we don’t even see their faces? As an old first responder, I know how essential traffic control is, but I don’t know if the driver who shielded us and stopped traffic was a man or woman. I suspect everyone’s plans were disrupted this morning, but people slowed and stopped to make sure the driver of the car in the ditch was not injured or needing help. Treacherous roads, blinding snow and then rain, a dark November day, and ordinary men and women willing to assist in spite of it, willing to leave their warm firesides and kitchens, willing to climb out of their dry, cozy vehicles, willing to do what they could for a stranger.
These are the darkest times I’ve seen in America in my lifetime, but this morning my faith in humanity was renewed. A series of strangers helped me when I was in need, and because of them I’m back home, safe, dry and warm. I’m grateful. I also know that all over the world people are practicing small acts of kindness all the time, ordinary people going about their business in neighborhoods, communities and at work. This post is for them.
Thank you for checking to make sure a stranded driver is okay. Thank you for answering a stranger’s knock at your door. Thank you for offering a cell phone or other means of communication to someone who is stuck without the ability to call for help. Thank you for helping direct or block traffic so further accidents don’t occur. Thank you for being patient when an accident holds you up. Thank you to all those first responders, tow truck drivers, utility company workers and the other hundreds of thousands who are there with tow chains, chainsaws, shovels and tractors when the unexpected happens. You might be doing your job, but thank you anyway for your smiles, your kindness, your expertise, your willingness to contribute, your difficult and often risky work, and your humanity.
My hope lies in all of us who do what we can in our little corner of the world. The simple, humble kindness of strangers may, in the end, save us.
I recently read a brilliant essay on tolerance that clarified for me why I haven’t always experienced successful outcomes while practicing it! Here’s a quote to think about from that article:
“[Tolerance] is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.” –Yonatan Zunger, ‘Tolerance is not a Moral Precept’
Photo by 小胖 车 on Unsplash
I’ve found that one of the many unpleasant effects of pleasing people, trying hard, being compliant and demonstrating unfailing compassion and kindness is that it’s stunted my emotional growth. It’s made me weak, naïve and dependent. It’s taught me to be powerless.
At this point in my life I’m making different choices, and as I do that I’m losing my fuzzy-headed, goody-two-shoes, sweet maiden aspect and becoming much clearer about who I am and what I believe in.
I’m not the only one, either. My second-hand exposure to social media through my partner, as well as my own reading of blogs, articles and essays, demonstrates loud and clear that many of us are in the process of refocusing our beliefs and values. Just yesterday I read an article about the devastating impact of the presidential election on close relationships and social media communities, as well as the way it’s opened up new connections.
As I listen, watch, read, write and think about it all, I return, again and again, to the conclusion that we’re all dealing with the same underlying ideas and issues. I know there’s a lot of heated and poisonous ideology out there about race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender politics, religion, and even what we eat, but underneath all that distracting noise are the same issues of tolerance and intolerance, power and identity, and fear.
I’ve written previously about reciprocity. When I read Zunger’s post, I immediately understood why my practice of tolerance has had, in some cases, quite devastating results. Once again, I was extending something I wasn’t receiving in return. Having been well trained (and slightly dim) it didn’t occur to me before that it’s not my responsibility to meet intolerance and disregard for my own boundaries with continuing tolerance. I’ve clung to the dangerous belief that if I just model and demonstrate well, the other party or parties will get it, and want to live in a more peaceful and effective way (my way, of course!)
After all, I don’t want to stoop to their level!
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
This is a pretty effective set of shackles. Like many women, I’ve accepted them meekly for most of my life.
I’m bored with that now. It’s never worked well. It’s always left me terribly and painfully vulnerable. Turn the other cheek sounds like a lovely ideal, but in practice it sucks. In my study of combatives, I’ve found another option: Go in peace, but if a predator attacks you, be so explosively aggressive you become the predator and they become the prey. Take them out of commission as fast and effectively as possible and get away from them. Permanently.
I know, I know. Unattractive. Not nice. Being part of the problem rather than the solution. Violence solves nothing.
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
That’s all fine, if it works for you.
It hasn’t worked for me. I’m not sure why it’s unattractive and wrong to defend myself (or others), except, of course, from the predator’s point of view.
I don’t care what the predator thinks. Predators have to take their lumps, just like the rest of us.
It seems these days going in peace means having no opinions, asking no questions, voicing no disagreement, stating no beliefs and citing no personal experience. There’s sure to be someone who will step in and try to shut us down with violence, abuse and threats if we speak up.
I love the idea of tolerance as a peace treaty. It gives me everything I need. It accommodates my intention to seek and support connection. It allows me to continue to be completely disinterested in someone’s religion, sexual preference, gender experience, physical anatomy, race, ethnicity, diet or reproductive choices as a criterion for judgement. Tolerance as a peace treaty leaves ample room for the things I do care about — authenticity, compassion, power-with rather than power-over, the desire to connect. It’s a peace treaty I can honor whole-heartedly.
Right up until someone tells me to shut up and sit down, make myself small, stop asking questions. Right up until someone tells me what to believe, what spiritual framework to use, what to think, what agenda to accept, what to do with my body and what my boundaries should be. Right up until I feel uncomfortable, in fact. Then the peace treaty is broken, and I give myself permission to exit, quietly if allowed and like a fighting tigress if hindered.
Tolerance is not an expression of weakness. It’s not permission to use and abuse. It’s not an agreement to abdicate self-defense. It’s not a suicide pact.
Nobody is entitled to tolerance.
Tolerance is a gift that must be both given and received. Let’s be worthy of it.