I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.
All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.
I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.
I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.
I would have been wrong.
I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.
Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.
The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.
This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.
If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.
When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?
I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.
For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.
It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.
I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.
It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.
The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.
We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.
No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.
True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.
I’ve just read a book titled Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; self-respect” (Oxford Online Dictionary); “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake” (Wikipedia).
Dignity isn’t a word I hear much these days. Respect is a hot topic, but dignity sounds old-fashioned.
The book was an eye-opener in several ways. Hicks sees dignity as a key component in peaceful negotiations, a refreshing topic in this time of divisiveness, hatred, and violence. Because of her work, the author has participated in and supported peace talks all over the world as leaders of opposing sides work to heal the trauma of conflict. Her observations, experience, and stories of people working together to connect as human beings, even in the context of terrible violence, are poignant and a testament to our shared humanity.
Hicks defines ten essential components of dignity, and ten violations. I wrote both lists down and I’ve been rereading and thinking about them ever since.
Here are Hicks’s ten essential elements of dignity:
As I work with these lists, I come at them from three different directions. One is recognizing the ways in which my own dignity has been violated by others. The second is the way in which I’ve violated my own dignity. The third is the way in which I’ve violated the dignity of others.
This book was published in 2011, before acceptance of identity and inclusion were such politically loaded topics. As I think about these lists through the filter of current social ideology, it’s quite clear to me that working with the concept of dignity necessitates connecting with others through our shared humanity rather than our habits and beliefs. If we insist on hiding behind our labels and pseudo selves, as well as refusing to see the complexity of those we interact with behind their labels and ideology, we will not successfully connect and nobody can experience dignity. Conflict will escalate and divisions deepen.
We each have a right to our own beliefs, feelings, and sense of self. However, we do not have the right to insist others agree with our beliefs, feelings and sense of self. Respect, as I have pointed out before, is not agreement. Tolerance is not agreement. Likewise, dignity is not dependent on agreement, but rather the willingness to understand and accept the experience of another.
The tricky part is if we wish to build and maintain dignity, we must help others build and maintain it as well. Demanding our own dignity be recognized while ignoring that of others demonstrates a desire for power-over and control.
Dignity is an equal opportunity concept. It’s based in our humanity, the ultimate in-group. No one is excluded, and no one is without the power to build their own dignity.
We can’t force others to treat us with dignity, but we have absolute control in how we handle our own, and Donna Hicks has experienced, over and over again, the power of our individual dignity and the way it influences those around us. The forward to this book was written by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose wisdom, compassion and dignity have inspired millions. He and Hicks have worked together for peace in Northern Ireland.
One way to destroy our dignity is to violate that of another, which is exactly what I want to do in a reactive moment when I’ve been hurt or witnessed someone else being hurt. However, that kind of reaction only escalates conflict. Hicks’s list allows me to identify other options that do not result in further violation, but begin to heal the original harm. Even if whoever I’m interacting with is determined to undermine both their dignity and mine, I have the power to stop the damage and conflict and protect my own self-respect.
Now more than ever in this country, we are divided. Some of us support dignity for all and some of us don’t. It’s not always obvious which team we’re on, either. Some people wave the banner of equality and justice and identify themselves as victims, but a closer look makes it obvious their agenda victimizes someone else. What they truly want is their conception of equality and justice for themselves and their in-group, exclusively.
Others of us are working for humanity as a whole, supporting such concepts as dignity for everyone, not just those wearing a certain label or set of labels.
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?