My partner and I have been watching Lie To Me, a television series that ran on Fox from 2009 to 2011. The show is based on the work of Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s greatest expert on facial expression.
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I am absolutely fascinated.
All my life I’ve been extremely aware of body language and what I’ve always called the “energy” of the people around me. I’ve frequently had the experience of picking up the hidden emotions of others and taking on responsibility for them, a result of ineffective boundaries. When I was trained in emotional intelligence I cleaned up my poor boundaries and many other destructive habits. I also began to openly and unapologetically trust myself after a lifetime of cognitive dissonance caused by the difference between words and nonverbal cues from others.
Now, at last, I have real world validation for the way I can sometimes “read” others. It’s not magic, and I’m not a freak, a fantasist or crazy. Science now recognizes the universality of human facial expressions for basic emotions (fear, surprise, contempt, happiness, sadness, disgust, shame), and technology allows us to slow down video footage and capture microexpressions, which occur in much less than a second, as we speak and interact with others.
Our words can lie, but Dr. Ekman’s work reveals our bodies give away our emotional experience in all kinds of ways of which we’re not even conscious. The way we hold our hands, a slight shoulder shrug, the way we move our heads, how we direct our gaze and small, fleeting expressions passing across our faces with the help of 42 complex muscles can contradict our words.
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We know some people have a great deal of difficulty reading and interpreting body language and subtle cues, while others are skilled at it. Paul Ekman’s work and research makes it possible for anyone to consciously learn how to detect emotional deception. Every episode of Lie To Me incorporates not only a story line told by actors, but also footage from real people — politicians, leaders and other famous and infamous folks — displaying exactly the same facial expression or body movement. It’s amazing.
Some people are difficult to read. I’ve worked hard to develop a stone face and have often been told I’m opaque. My oldest son is extremely provocative, and my expressionless countenance stood me in good stead when he was a teenager and woke me in the middle of the night to tell me he was going to ski naked at midnight with a girl in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Any show of outrage or upset only egged him on, so I learned to control myself. I’ve also had some exposure to narcissists and other Cluster B people, who feed on emotional energy, and I know the best way to deal with them is to become a grey rock, that is to be so completely flat, uninteresting and uninterested that they move on, a technique far more effective than trying to get rid of them directly. Yet even though I may be harder to read than average, I know my body language gives me away every time, or would to a trained observer.
(Fortunately, my teenage sons were not trained observers. Let us be thankful for small mercies.)
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Sedating substances and Botox injections can interfere with or blunt muscle movement and smooth out microexpressions, but eventually we all give our truth and lies away. We can’t help it. Microexpressions and body language are often totally unconscious on our part.
I’ve been told I have an intense gaze that can make others feel uncomfortable. I suspect this is a function of the focus and presence necessary to evaluate how the people around me present themselves as I compare what they say with what their expressions and bodies tell me. If I feel confused or receive a mixed message, I always go with body language. Words lie too easily and too frequently. We lie to ourselves and we lie to each other. When I experience cognitive dissonance as I observe and interact with others, now I no longer tell myself I’m making things up. Even more importantly, I don’t allow other people to make me feel bad and wrong. Nobody likes to have their cover blown, and someone with things to hide is naturally not going to appreciate feeling exposed. Rage, denial, projection, gaslighting and other abusive behavior can all be effective distractions from the truth.
A lie comes with a cost. The truth may come with a cost as well. We navigate our lives between the two, making the best choices we can. I have no desire whatsoever to uncover the secrets and lies of others, but I am interested in being able to evaluate if there are secrets and lies. I don’t believe we owe others 100% of our emotional truth, but every healthy relationship and connection requires some level of trust, and I don’t want to be with people I can’t trust. I think of mixed messages as a red flag.
It’s amazing to learn, after all these years of mysteriously and often uncomfortably picking up more information from others than I ever wanted to know, that inconsistency is a red flag. Words that are incongruent with facial expressions and body language are untrustworthy. My ability to recognize concealed emotions is not hateful or crazy.
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Frequently we don’t seek to deceive others as much as we wish to deceive ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves are perhaps the most powerful of all, and we protect those kind of lies the most ferociously.
It’s important to understand recognizing the presence of a lie does not mean we know the substance of the lie or why it’s being told. As a writer, I find that why infinitely interesting in its possibilities. What kinds of things do we conceal? What motivates us to do so? What are the consequences of our various lies, great and small, to ourselves and to others? How do our bodies unconsciously communicate our emotional deception? If we spot emotional deception in someone we’re close to, what do we do with that information? What kinds of lies are terminal in relationships, and what kinds survivable? How do we forgive ourselves and others for emotional deception?
The looming presence of social media in our culture means many of our daily interactions, perhaps most, are not face to face, which greatly diminishes the complexity and depth of human communication and makes emotional deception easy. Body language is invisible. Tone, pitch and other verbal clues and idiosyncrasies are unheard. We use sanitized little emojis to represent our meaning, or at least to represent what we want others to believe our meaning is.
Paul Ekman has written several books I’m looking forward to exploring, and one can take online classes and learn more. I intend to learn a lot more.
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Arguing with what is.
Possibly the most fruitless endeavor in the world.
Yet many of us consistently argue with how we are, how others are, and how the world is.
Arguing with what is is like living in an unending war. Clinging to a story inconsistent with what is requires constant vigilance. Our lives begin to revolve around the fear that the truth we refuse to acknowledge will escape or be exposed.
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We cannot allow that to happen, so we put all our energy into convincing ourselves that what is isn’t. Then we start trying to persuade others to validate our particular reality because God speaks to us, or we’re especially victimized, marginalized, enlightened, rich or powerful. If we can’t persuade others, we try to create and enforce rules requiring them to fall into line, to agree, at least tacitly, with our point of view and belief system. We scorn critical thinking, science and evidence-based data. We discourage questioning, careful definitions and nuances. We create jargon, acronyms, blacklists and smear campaigns. We enlist the sympathy, empathy, kindness and compassion of well-meaning but naïve people. We set up zero sum games, use gaslighting, violence, abuse, projection, deflection, sweeping and inaccurate generalizations and distortions. We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others.
Arguing with what is is a full-time job.
My particular version of arguing with what is takes place mostly in my head. For example:
I don’t feel loved.
What? How can you say that? Remember that one kiss at the beginning, the most passionate kiss of your life? You know you want that again! Think of how funny he can be, how charming, how much fun! If you don’t feel loved it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. You’re ungrateful. You’re disloyal. You’re a bad partner. You don’t deserve him. You want too much. You’re needy and demanding. Of course he loves you, he’s just not comfortable saying it! You are happy and loved. Get a grip!
I don’t feel happy or loved.
I had this ding-dong conversation with myself for years. I desperately and repeatedly tried to convince myself I was both happy and loved, but I could never quite silence that deep internal voice that went right on saying, “I don’t feel loved.” It wouldn’t shut up. After years of this nonsense, I finally got so exhausted I stopped arguing with my true feelings and ended the relationship. Then, one day I came across narcsite dot com and immediately recognized the narcissist-empath dynamic.
You know what? I was right. I didn’t feel loved because I wasn’t, in fact, loved.
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Arguing with what is means fear and self-doubt are my constant companions.
So what’s the other side of the coin? What’s the fix for arguing with what is?
This magical phrase: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Say it aloud: However this needs to be, it’s okay with me. Is it a lie? It usually is a lie for me when I first apply it to any given situation. I want things to be predictable, controlled and adhere to my expectations and standards. I expect that of myself, of others and of the world.
I haven’t had great luck with that expectation. The rebellious world is chaotic, unpredictable and unexpected. I’m not in charge of anyone but myself, and my feelings (along with the rest of me) are disobedient and refuse to be controlled.
My need for control and predictability are rooted in fear and lack of trust in myself. If, at any moment in any day, however things need to be is not okay with me, I know I’m dealing with fear or lack of self-trust, and those are both places where I have all the power. That instant refocus from avoiding, denying or refusing an inconvenient or unexpected truth or reality over which I have no power to the very center of my power clears away anxiety, confusion and fear. What happens in me, in a day, or in the world is not really the problem. The problem is in the way I manage my power and my choices. Addressing my own power and choices allows me to say, with perfect truth, that however this needs to be, it’s okay with me.
Being okay with the ways things are doesn’t mean endless love, light and turning the other cheek. It doesn’t mean I accept boundary violations, bullying, coercion, violence or any other kind of power-over games. It doesn’t mean I tip-toe through life pleasing others, following rules and keeping silent. It doesn’t mean toadying to the political correctness police. It doesn’t mean I feel no frustration or disappointment, or that the status quo should remain unchallenged and unchanged. It means clarity about where my power is.
Nobody wants a flat tire, herpes, an unwanted pregnancy, a cancer diagnosis, mental illness, the flu or to lose a loved one. We don’t want superstorms that wipe out our homes, the uncertainties and anxiety of climate change or food and water shortages. Nobody voted for lead in their drinking water, or to experience genocide. Nobody wants to be silenced, attacked, abused, marginalized, shot or scapegoated.
Yet all these things are. They’re real, along with many magical, wonderful things, and I can’t change the way things are.
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I can only change the way I am. I can decide when and how to speak. I can decide how I interact with others. I can listen, learn, research, ask questions, think critically and decide where I stand on important issues. I can speak up for those without voices. I can pay attention to my own integrity and operate within it. I can disengage, refuse to pick up poisoned bait, move away from where the blow is going to land (sometimes) and learn self-defense.
I can say no.
I can learn to trust my own courage, willingness to love, intelligence, feelings and ability to adjust and adapt to whatever happens. I can choose confidence and curiosity as companions.
I can make sure that however I need to be, it’s okay with me.
I can surrender to others in all their strengths and imperfections. Each one of us is however we need to be, sick or well, destroyer or hero, weak or strong, power-over or power-with. People in the world are okay with me, and I choose who I engage and connect with, who I support or hinder, who I share power with, who I collaborate and cooperate with and who I allow in my life.
However this minute, this hour, this day needs to be, it’s okay with me. If I catch the flu, it’s okay with me (Ugh). If I can’t get out of the icy driveway to go swimming, it’s okay with me (Rats!). If I reread the rough draft of this post and decide it needs to be rewritten before tomorrow when I post, it’s okay with me (what a pain in the neck!)
I can accept what is, deal with it, and go on.
Or I can argue with what is.
It’s a chocolate-or-vanilla choice, and we make it a hundred times a day.
Whatever you choose, it’s okay with me.
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And so, after all, it was no use,
That desperate determination to please.
In the end a hidden, untamed thing
Always looked out of my eyes,
Beseeching for freedom,
And none of us could beat it down.
Now all the rigid outlines of my life
Have fallen around my feet in graceful folds.
I’ve counted silver threads and lines
And granted freedom.
If there’s no lover for what I am
I can kiss my own shoulders.
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Power lies beneath the layers at the center, the heart, the core. All avenues of thought, all paths of inquiry lead back to power. What is it? Who controls it? How do we manage and maintain it? Power is the fuel of life. Every relationship is rooted in power. Managing our power is the key to managing our lives at every level, physical, emotional, creative, sexual, spiritual and intellectual.
Narcissists stalk emotional power. They seek it, they lust for it, their voracious hunger and need drive them to control it. They are a yawning abyss that can never be filled because they lack the ability to generate their own emotional power. They will never cease hunting for prey.
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The prey of the narcissist is carefully addicted and programmed with romance, charisma, and sex into becoming emotional power machines, set and calibrated to take full advantage of finely-gauged specifications of the prey’s need and vulnerability, so as to provide an unending stream of high-quality emotional power on which the narcissist gorges at will: The fine wine of our love, the exotic spices of our passion, the honey of our confusion, the refreshing tang of our jealousy, the nectar of our anguish and the bitter dark chocolate of our despair. Eagerly, we spread our longings, hopes, fears and fantasies before the icy coruscating mirror concealing the narcissist’s true nature. Narcissists manufacture networks of emotional power machines and pit us against one another in order to obtain ever more abundant, complex and complicated fuel. We are not released until we malfunction, and then we’re contemptuously eliminated (but not freed) to make room for a shiny new machine, and we languish until called for again.
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The only hope of escape and healing lies in power, the center, the heart, the core beneath the layers. We must cease to hoard, deny, silence, or give away our emotional power. We must claim it, excavate it, call it by name, learn the flavor and scent of it. We must weep with it, rage with it, release it in righteous orgasm, create with it, fight with it. We must look through its unclouded eyes and follow it, wherever it takes us. We must pray with it, surrender to it and adore it. We must soar within its rapturous fiery wings and plunge into its healing green water. We must build a cosmos out of our emotional power and fill it with galaxies, adorn it with jeweled planets and sow it with shooting stars.
We must defend our emotional power with our lives, for without it we cannot live. We must seduce and enchant ourselves with the rapture of our own emotional power so we cannot be captivated by the scintillating mirrored eyes of the narcissist, for if we’re captured by those mirrors we’ll find nothing but our enslavement and performance as emotional power machines reflected back to us, and the stench of the charnel house will invade our souls.
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We must look in those glittering mirror eyes, look deeply, look well, and say, “Ah, here is my own reflection, my ravishing emotional self, entirely naked and unashamed.” We must say, “No, I will not be your emotional power machine, no, you can give me nothing that wasn’t already mine, no, I name you Narcissist and I know your terrible secret: You are powerless without your prey,” and turn away, dance away with our bountiful bared breasts and strong hips, pressing our lips to our own shoulders with love because we have everything we need, everything we want, as we embrace our own emotional power beneath the layers in our center, in our heart, in our core.
For more information on recognizing, understanding and managing narcissists and their behaviors, explore narcsite dot com, created and written by a narcissist. If you suspect you have had or now have a narcissist in your life, read ‘The Prime Aims’ on that site for clarification. If you are now or have been entangled with a narcissist, seek help and support immediately if you have not already done so. Your life is at risk.
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except where otherwise noted
A good thing happened recently. I declined to take poisoned bait.
The bait arrived in the form of a terse email from an individual with whom I’ve recently done business. I’ve never met them in person. I approached our business transaction with a willingness to negotiate, share power, cooperate and communicate directly, thoroughly and clearly. I saved all documents, contracts and emails regarding our business, and upon successfully (in my view) concluding our interaction, I moved on with a sense of gratitude, satisfaction and relief.
More than a month later, I had an email expressing frustration and blame.
It felt like a slap in the face, unexpected and hurtful.
My immediate impulse was to strike back, followed quickly by the thought that I hadn’t communicated well and I could fix things by explaining myself (again). Obviously, I had been misunderstood.
Then I decided to pause for a day or so and think carefully about this.
The fact is, I have a longstanding deeply-rooted pattern of believing I’ve been misunderstood due to my inept communication. This belief keeps me firmly locked in escalating attempts to explain and be heard and understood. What I’ve failed to perceive, over and over again through the years, is that I’ve frequently been in relationships with people who had no interest in explanations. They were deliberately fostering misunderstanding, drama and conflict because it fed them in some way.
This, by the way, is a very common strategy of narcissists, psychopaths and borderline personality disordered people. I’ve written previously about projection and gaslighting , two tools frequently used to control others.
Deliberately keeping another in confusion and on the defensive, constantly changing the goalposts and passive aggressive tactics like the silent treatment are all baited hooks I’ve eagerly swallowed and writhed on for years. Words can’t convey the anguish and erosion of self that occurs in the context of this kind of long-term abuse. I’ve crept away from relationships like this as nothing more than a cracked shell of woman, my sexuality and femininity withered, my emotions torn to shreds, my body impoverished and barren, and firmly convinced of my own worthlessness, ugliness and inadequacy.
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A perfect set-up to fall for it all over again.
But not this time!
This time I had hard evidence. Over and over, I checked the timing of contract and closing, emails sent and received, all the fine print. It was all right there, the date my responsibility ended and the date after that of a sudden dissatisfaction I was expected to fix.
I concluded I’d done nothing wrong. On the contrary, I’d consistently demonstrated the kind of integrity I aspire to in every interaction. I went above and beyond. I provided explanation, suggestions for resolution and alternate options, along with names and numbers of possible local resources.
That email was bait.
So, a couple of days later I took a deep breath, opened my email and replied with sincere wishes for happiness and success. One sentence. Then I signed off and hit “send.”
This happened about three weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a small thing, but it reveals to me how very far I’ve come in healing, growth and wisdom. I now know that I have the power to decline an invitation to struggle. I recognize poisoned bait for what it is. I know it conceals a hook, and that hook no longer tempts me. I don’t need to waste any energy in defense or repeated explanations. I don’t choose to revisit old bones of contention and chaos. I accept that people think what they think, make up and believe the stories they make up and believe, carry the assumptions they carry, and none of it has anything to do with me.
Misunderstanding certainly occurs, but it’s not that difficult to clear up, given two adults who intend to. The trick is to identify as quickly and accurately as possible if the person I’m interacting with is an adult who to intends to clear up misunderstanding. In the case of my email, that person was only peripherally in my life and we’ll probably never interact again, so I didn’t bother. However, we all have people in our lives with whom we have ongoing connection. In those cases, I use a single question to clarify “misunderstanding.”
“Is there anything I can say or do to clear this up and repair our relationship?”
This direct, simple question seems to encourage surprisingly honest answers, albeit answers I haven’t wanted to accept or believe. However, if the answer is some variation of “no,” then everything immediately becomes blessedly clear. I want to repair. They don’t. Continuing to engage is a waste of our mutual time and energy, and if any kind of a hook remains dangling, I know it’s a manipulation. They’ve made up their mind, and I have no power there.
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The words on the screen fail to convey the annihilating heartbreak attendant on understanding that someone you care about and even love doesn’t value your relationship enough to make repairs, but arguing with what is has never worked for me, and I think we owe it to ourselves and others to pay attention when people tell us who they are, no matter how devastated we might feel or how much we want to deny what we hear.
I don’t think of this as too-sweet maiden, politically correct, starry-eyed liberal ideology. Neither is it a religious thing for me, or some kind of higher moral ground tactic. It’s not about making nice and giving others the benefit of a doubt, turning the other cheek, or making excuses for why people do the things they do. It’s also not a blanket rejection. I’m perfectly prepared to turn aside into another conversation, activity, or form of connection. I’m also perfectly prepared to walk away.
No. This is about dignity. It’s about wisdom. It’s about self-defense and self-care. Explaining oneself once, apologizing if warranted, taking responsibility if appropriate, is healthy, adult behavior. Distortions, refusing to hear or accept explanations, verbal or physical threats or violence, scenes, emotional meltdowns and shame and blame games are signs and symptoms of dangerously abusive relationships, and I’m no longer available for those.
I’ve changed my diet and I don’t take that poisoned bait anymore.
I’ve had a bellyful of it already.
My daily crime.
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except where otherwise noted