This piece from Leo Babauta hit my Inbox recently, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
Before I go any further, I need a moment to sit here and shudder. Because walking away is hard. It’s devastating. It’s an atomic bomb.
At least it’s felt that way when I’ve done it in my personal life, probably because I’ve waited, dithering, denying, distracting, hanging on and trying harder, so long for things to change. For me to change. For the other person to change. For divine intervention. For some event or person to rescue me.
By the time I do walk away I’m utterly exhausted and used up, and I hate myself far more than those affected by my walking away, though they, of course, don’t understand that. The relief inherent in walking away, the freedom, the reclamation of personal power, have only made me hate myself more.
Babauta’s article doesn’t start with the interpersonal stuff, though. He comes at it from a minimalist perspective. Can you walk away from an unhappy job? From a new car? From a deal or negotiation? From a tempting but unethical situation in which you might gain? From a new gadget or toy you really want but don’t need and can’t afford? From being too busy, too noisy, too tired, too stimulated?
Can you walk away from what the neighbors think, or your family? Can you walk away from the belief you need any particular person in your life to be happy? Can you walk away from your hopes and the beautiful dream you know is never coming true? Can you walk away from a toxic situation you’re deeply invested in? Can you walk away from the things and/or people destroying you?
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
If you can’t walk, can you crawl away? On your belly, clawing at the ground, sobbing, naked and alone, can you crawl away?
It’s more than that, though. Will you?
Most of us can walk away if we have to. Many of us have had to and have done it. But who hasn’t felt stuck, unable to walk away, no matter how dark and dirty our fantasies are of leaving it all behind?
(Come on, I know you’ve had that fantasy at some time or another. Get in the car and drive until … until you’ve reached the edge of the world, of your life. Until you’ve run out of money or gas. Until you hit the ocean. Until you can stop.
Or go out the front door and start walking without looking back. Disappear. Vanish like a drop of water in the desert. Become nameless, faceless, rootless, homeless.)
But sometimes we feel stuck. Forever. Or what might as well be forever, because in this moment we’re so tired, so drained, so empty, there’s no comfort in the thought that things will change someday. One day.
One day is too far ahead. We’re not sure how to get through this day. But we have to. And the day after that. And the day after that. We made promises. We have responsibilities, loyalties, duties to others. We’re the keystone, the essential piece, the glue holding it together. It depends on us. If we’re not there … what? What would happen? Would everybody die? Would their lives be ruined? Would the sky fall?
Would they stop loving us?
That’s the worst fear, isn’t it? They’ll stop loving us. We love them and we have to walk away and then they’ll stop loving us. How can anyone love us when we’ve walked away? How can we love ourselves? How can anyone ever understand?
Does love require we allow ourselves to be destroyed? Are we supposed to love others more than ourselves?
Or are we allowed to walk away if we must to save our own lives? But what if no one believes us?
(For God’s sake, stop whining! Stop making such a big deal out of everything! You’re so dramatic!)
The terrible, inescapable truth about walking away is if we can’t do it, we’ve given away part of our power. If we choose to do it and reclaim our power, the price can bankrupt us financially, mentally, and emotionally.
On the other hand, sometimes the simple act of walking away sets us free in extraordinary, joyful ways we can’t even imagine.
Sometimes (perhaps hardest of all) we face annihilating consequences and experience freedom.
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, contemptuous 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 have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve ever come across, Holistic Management by Allan Savory.
Savory is a wildlife biologist, farmer, and cofounder of the Savory Institute, an organization that teaches and supports regenerative land management. I read the book because I admire Allan Savory’s lifetime commitment to understanding the delicate complexity of our environment. He has successfully restored ecosystems and land on several continents using animals. His work, and the work of others like him, can restore and revive our planet, if we can muster the political will and willingness to give up some of our cherished and destructive ideas about how to manage land and animals.
Savory is an enormously important teacher for farmers. I became familiar with his work because of my interest in permaculture. This particular book, however, is a blueprint for managing any complex system, not just a farm.
I’m a great planner, goal-setter, and list-maker, but I’ve never seen any decision-making or management process like this, and as I read the book I marveled at how intuitively right it feels. Policies and standard operating procedures are so often inadequate, not enforceable, and ineffective, in spite of hours and hours of committee work and good intentions. This book explains why.
I picked up the book around the same time I was deciding to get more proactive with my writing. I recognize that I need a plan, but feel overwhelmed by all the moving parts and how to use my time and other resources effectively. What about work-life balance? I do, after all, have a job. What should my priorities be? How much time will I need for each aspect of writing? What about money?
As I read Holistic Management, I took copious notes. I could see Savory’s framework for decision making was more complete than any I’d seen before, and specifically suited to complexity.
After finishing the book, I created a document using Savory’s model. Now comes the hard part. I need to apply his bare outlines to my own situation. It occurred to me that might be an interesting process to make visible, as this is a kind of decision-making most of us have never seen before, and who doesn’t have something to manage, a household, a family, a business, finances, a life?
The first step is figuring out the whole under management. Right away, we’re in new territory, because Savory realizes that any system is not a series of separate boxes, but a dynamic, nonlinear, and complex series of overlapping wholes containing people and resources, including the land on which the system exists. No matter what we’re trying to manage, the land will be part of the whole under management. Water cycles, mineral cycles, soil, animals and plants sustain every human activity, and creating management plans without acknowledging that truth has led us to climate change, catastrophic pollution, diminishing resources, and the destruction of billions of acres of land around the world.
Holistic management of anything must take into account the effects of our choices on the environment.
The whole under management includes decision makers, physical resources, people as resources, and financial resources. I’m the decision maker for my writing plan. For physical resources, I listed our 26 acres and the buildings on it, as well as the soil, water, plants and trees. I added technology to that list as well. For people as resources I listed friends, family, my partner, a professional support team, my community, and readers.
It didn’t occur to me until later to add myself as a resource. Typical!
Financial resources include money earned, inherited, borrowed, or dollars generated from my resource base, that is dollars earned from writing or the land under my management.
Working with the concept of wholes under management provides a new frame for decision-making that depends (surprise, surprise) on the recognition that effective planning means sharing power. When we approach management from the position of power-over others, including natural resources, we have failed to create a successful, sustainable policy or plan before we’ve even begun. Any system that ignores the needs of any part of the whole is doomed to failure, maybe not in the short term, but certainly in the long term.
This is particularly true in the context of relationships, as in a family or community. If we feel disempowered, our investment, loyalty, trust, and level of participation all diminish. We may, for a while, choose to comply with whatever it is the Grand Poobah at the top (power-over) demands, but sooner or later that system will fail and the Grand Poobah will fall. Unfortunately, this kind of pattern is hugely expensive in terms of lives, health, and resource.
Savory’s holistic management model is specific, complex, and requires time. The very first step – identifying the whole under management – can’t be speeded through. If we get that piece wrong, everything that comes after will be flawed. If we can’t define all the moving parts, we’ll never be able to figure out how to support them in working together, and we won’t notice or respond appropriately when things go sideways. And things always go sideways somewhere, at some time.
Defining the whole we are trying to manage forces us to step back and look objectively at our situation. Are we being too reductionistic in our view? Are we appropriately addressing the complexity of the entire system we want to manage? On the other hand, are we trying to manage aspects of a situation that are not ours to manage? Are we taking on, or allowing others to force us into, responsibility for parts of the whole that are not rightfully ours?
Take it from an experienced people pleaser. Trying to manage an interpersonal situation we’ve been coerced into, even if our intentions are the best in the world, is doomed to painful failure. Most people don’t want to be managed, even if they say they do. If we can’t get decision makers and human resources on the same page, our policies and plans will always dissolve. In such a case, perhaps the whole needs to be redefined and refocused on where our power rightfully lies.
I worked with Holistic Management a chapter at a time, and now I’m filling in the decision-making framework a piece at a time, feeling my way into mastery of this amazing new tool.
As I think about the whole(s) I want to manage in my life, I watch patterns and interactions in my workplace, the push-pull of politics as President Biden takes power after the disastrous last four years, and the ways I interact with my partner. All are complicated systems encompassing overlapping wholes. I’m looking at life through a new lens.
I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.
This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel I had the ability to do something good.
This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.
So, what does that mean?
If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.
Been there, done that. Not doing it again.
If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.
Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.
Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.
Here’s the hardest thing of all: it may be the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.
I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.
If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.
Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.
We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”
An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.
Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.
Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:
Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
Do I rush in and try to fix problems belonging to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.
We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.
Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.
As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.
I’ve struggled all my life with confusion about the difference between enabling and love. Most of us think of enabling in the context of addiction, and we’re familiar with the idea that helping an addict avoid the consequences of their addiction is not, in the long run, useful.
It’s a pretty clear idea in theory. In practice, however, it’s a whole different story.
Enabling, denying, or allowing destructive patterns of behavior to continue extends far beyond the issue of addiction. Compassionate, loving people who sincerely want to help and support others wind up enabling all kinds of toxic behavior with the best intentions in the world, or completely unconsciously.
That’s the problem. Enabling can look and feel so much like love. Choosing not to enable can look and feel so much like rejection, selfishness, or even hate.
I’ve spent years of my life enabling toxic behavior in the name of love, duty, and loyalty. I’ve truly believed with enough modeling and patience I could heal the destructive behavior of others. For most of my life I’ve lived with the delusional belief my unconditional love is enough to keep my loved ones happy and healthy.
I only wish I had that much power.
Choosing not to enable or deny is heartbreaking. It’s a choice I’ve made, and I feel daily anguish over it, even as I know in my heart I’m doing the right thing for myself and those I love.
Those of us who are intimately familiar with patterns of addiction and toxic behavior know the unrelenting pressure from well-meaning but clueless onlookers to excuse and/or rescue loved ones from the consequences of their choices.
People who expect or demand to be enabled do everything they can to keep the dynamic alive. Remember those who punish us for our boundaries are the ones who gain the most from their absence. One of the important patterns that helps identify relationships in which enabling is taking place is when we make any kind of excuse for a pattern of destructive behavior. So-and-so is not loved. Nobody has ever understood them (but us). They’ve had various kinds of trauma. The world is against them. Nothing ever works out for them. They’re disenfranchised and alienated. They’re suffering and nobody cares. They have no one to turn to. They can’t afford to get help.
Solving or covering up someone else’s problems is very different from empowering them. We empower when we teach skills, share resources or give someone tools that support them in solving their own challenges. The difficulty is someone stuck in a chronic pattern of destructive behavior doesn’t always want this kind of power. Resources, tools and skills are of no use if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our troubles, and it’s so much easier and more comfortable to deny or blame someone or something else for our destructive patterns and their consequences.
Unfortunately, the emotional dynamics of enabling are hard to fully understand until and unless we’ve experienced them for ourselves. I want to protect loved ones from going through the pain and damage that occurs to relationships when toxic behavior is present. I never want them to feel as torn apart as I have. I want them to use the resources and tools I can offer and learn from my mistakes.
Again, I only wish I had that much power.
As a lifelong caregiver, I’ve abdicated rescuing myself in favor of rescuing others. This is the shadow side of caregiving. Enabling others, entering into an unspoken agreement to work harder on their problems and lives than they do, is a dead end that keeps us nicely distracted from coming to terms with our own challenges. Even worse are relationships based on an unwritten agreement to mutually enable one another’s dysfunction.
Another part of why we choose to enable can be to help soothe our own anxiety. We don’t want to be in conflict with those we love. We don’t want to lose relationships dear to us. We don’t want to deal with a lot of trauma and drama. It’s easier and quicker just to write another check to help out one more time because our family member or friend can’t stay employed due to their substance abuse. It’s easier to manage their lives ourselves than watch them muddle along without clean socks and food in the fridge or listen to their constant complaining.
You’re an enabler if you’re asking why they keep doing it. Ask instead why you keep allowing it. As long as you allow it, they’ll probably do it. They’ve got no motivation to do anything else.
Enabling is painful, stressful, and will burn us out. It might take a long time, but eventually it will eat us up and drain us dry. It may feel like love, or duty, or loyalty, but it isn’t. It’s destructive for everyone involved.
For me, one of the most insidious aspects of enabling is keeping secrets. I’m not talking about protecting personal privacy or keeping confidences. I mean pretending not to notice that Brent is high again on the job, or looking the other way when a loved one drives home drunk from the bar. The biggest reasons I’ve kept secrets are shame (I must be a terrible person if someone I’m closely connected to is in such trouble), loyalty, and my effort to protect others.
You’d think I’d learn.
Keeping secrets implies tolerance, and it allows destructive patterns to continue and worsen. Every single time we pretend not to see, cover up or make excuses, we’re making the inevitable crash worse for everyone involved. Another reason I’ve kept secrets is for fear of no one believing me, or being told I’m overreacting (which masks their own denial). It’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and say nothing. Then everyone is more comfortable. Everyone except me. All that unsaid feeling and horror becomes a stone I carry in my heart, mute, but agonizing.
As counterintuitive and inadequate as it seems, the best thing we can do for loved ones struggling with toxic patterns of behavior, including addiction, is care for ourselves and stay firmly rooted in our own lives. If our offers of skills, tools and/or resources are rejected, we have no further power in the lives of others. We can only meet our own needs and solve our own problems, even if it means we must walk away from relationships in order to save ourselves.
Not everyone will understand or support us in refusing to enable, particularly the person we’ve been enabling. However, making the choice to live another day in our own lives means we can continue to be available to appropriately love and support someone when they’re ready for it, and at the very least provides a model of empowerment and self-responsibility.
Enabling is not love. It may seem like the easiest choice, but love requires much more than easy choices.