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Red Flags

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

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

I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.

A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.

The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.

We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.

We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?

If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.

So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:

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

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.

Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.

The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.

If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.

Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.

Power-Over

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

Power-With

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

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

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

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

Hate Speech or Haters Speaking?

As so often happens, there are several strands to this post. Chronologically, the first strand was this podcast from The Minimalists about race relations. I don’t usually take the time to listen to podcasts, but I follow The Minimalists and this discussion was a perfect antidote to the current disturbing headlines and media rhetoric. It made me think and provided some insight into the problem of racism. In the podcast, there’s a fascinating discussion about hate speech in which a suggestion is made that it’s not a real thing.

What?

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

I know. That was my reaction, too. Hate speech is everywhere, right? On social media, on signs and bumper stickers, in the mouths of ordinary people, and in the media. It’s true that words are frequently used hatefully as we talk and write. Language, remember, is a symbolic system used to convey meaning. Speech, or writing, for that matter, is simply the use of language. Speech is only a small part of conveying information, though. Nonverbal communication is more important than the actual words we use, things like volume, intonation, emphasis and body language.

Hate speech is simply speech used to convey hate. The words alone are mostly neutral. The speaker or writer are the sources of the hate.

It’s trickier even than that. Some common, perfectly neutral words like “uterus” are now classified by some as hate speech. This is clearly ridiculous. There’s nothing hateful about the word. When I use it, I’m certainly not feeling or intending to communicate hate. The hatred, if it exists, is in the listener.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Hateful people speak and write hatefully, and are predisposed to hear hate when none is intended. People who are not haters use the same words to convey simple meaning, and are surprised and incredulous when accused of engaging in “hate speech.” Fortunately, being accused of hate speech doesn’t make it so.

Let me be clear that I’m not poking at things like mascot names that demean American Indians, or use of words like “nigger.” I don’t support either, ever, for any reason. When a group of people protests that such terms are hurtful to their culture, history, and sense of worth, we need to be respectful. Some words are pejorative and ugly, and they’re meant to be. Language is not static; hundreds of slang words and idiotic labels are created and used every year, some with a specific intent to convey hatred and contempt. What I’m focusing on is standard language, words we use in everyday settings and circumstances that are defined in a dictionary.

I’ve thought a lot about this. Is there such a thing as hate speech, or is it simply that hateful people use language to say and write hateful things? In that case, the problem is people hating, not the words themselves.

That was the first thing.

The second thing was that a few days ago we adopted a pair of kittens. We both love cats, and our old cat died over the winter, so we had an empty place in our hearts, which these two have filled magnificently.

Ozzy & Izzy June, 2020

It’s been a long time since I’ve had babies to take care of, and it brings back a flood of memories and feelings, especially my desire to be a “good” mom. I notice how important it is to me that they be happy, healthy, safe, well-bonded and learn to differentiate between bare skin and clothing as they climb, play and explore. I want to do it right. I want to do it well. I spend time evaluating my patience, my efforts to keep them safe, my performance as litter box cleaner and fresh water procurer, my roles as playmate, limit-setter and comforter.

Am I a good kitten caregiver?

The third strand in this post comes from a book, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, who is one of my favorite writers.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a good or bad Christian,” I told him. “Only good or bad people.”

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

As I read that, I thought about the podcast I’d listened to, and my conclusion that perhaps there’s not such a thing as hate speech, just words used by haters. My practice of minimalism has taught me to simplify wherever possible, and it occurs to me that we’re all many things to many people in life, and most of us are trying to be “good” friends, partners, family members, employees, and probably an infinite number of other roles. We fragment our identities into all these shards and pieces. What if we let go of all that and focused on being “good” humans? Wouldn’t being a “good” human across the board take care of everything else?

Then, of course, we have to decide what we mean by good and bad, but I’ve already opened that can of worms a couple of times, so I’m not going to go there again. Let’s forget about the term “good,” which means everything and nothing.

If I practice love instead of hate (including with myself), if I strive to be tolerant, respectful, authentic, responsible and keep my integrity intact, then I bring those qualities to everything I do every day, whether I’m working, hanging at home, playing with kittens, spending time with friends, interacting with family, or buying groceries. I don’t have to worry about being a “good” anything. I simply strive to be the best human I can be, whatever the circumstances, whatever the context.

Let it be said that not everyone has a desire to be “good.” I am all too well aware that assuming everyone has my agenda is a fatal mistake. There are those who would love to see the world on fire.

Still, I believe most of us are trying to be a “good” … whatever, according to our definition of good. Sadly, especially when we think about religious and political pieces of identity, this is often where the hate begins.

It’s complicated. People are complicated. We’re also devious. Debating about what is and is not hate speech is a diversionary tactic that takes us nowhere. The issue is not words. Words don’t hate. The issue is our own hatred toward ourselves and others, and for that we are responsible. The issue is not our willingness or ability to fulfill expectations of what it means to be a “good” fill-in-the-blank. That’s nothing but pseudo self. Life is not a performance. The issue is what kind of humans do we choose to be? What kind of humans are we?

Certain ways of thinking support and feed my perfectionism, and other ways of thinking starve it. Being concerned with being a “good” this, that and the other is a lot of anxious work and encourages perfectionism, pseudo self, people pleasing, and a whole host of other unhelpful behavior patterns.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Approaching each day and activity with a desire to be my best and respect the needs and feelings of myself and others is not only simpler; it leaves me with energy and space to have fun, to love others wholeheartedly (even when they do climb up my bare leg with tiny pin-sharp claws), and to enjoy life.

I talk. I write. I listen to feedback about how my words affect others. I know I’m not a hater, and I don’t allow others to project their hatred onto me. I accept that I have no power over readers or listeners who are determined to misunderstand and twist my words into hatred. I practice respect for myself and for others. Words used by haters divide and leave deep wounds. Words used by non-haters have the power to connect and heal.

If we are not humans who hate, our language will not be hateful. If I practice love, responsibility, patience and tolerance, I’m a good-enough kitten caretaker. If I strive to be a “good” human (according to my definition), then I can forget about my individual performance of all those fragmented pieces of identity.

Choosing not to hate. Loving kittens. Striving to be a tolerant, respectful, kind, compassionate, responsible, authentic human. My daily crimes.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

Losing It

On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.

I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.

During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson, contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague, lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.

It was a good day.

We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes, clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.

I couldn’t find my key.

Where was my key?

I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It wasn’t on the floor.

Where was my key?

I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.

My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine. No key.

It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.

There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him to come and get me.

What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling, boring story? We’ve all lost keys.

The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.

Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash

For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.

My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.

My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind), and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.

My own experience of myself was quite different, but it didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.

In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full custody if that was best for them.

I didn’t think that was best for them.

But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered. I knew that.

So, I thought I would get an objective, professional evaluation.

We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?

When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.

I was blinded by the realization he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!

“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.

“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.

We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.

From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it, see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.

Yet the key was gone.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?

All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.

Because I lost my car key.

While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm looms on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.

All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?

Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational, sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?

Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.

Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car. My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses. The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the pool.

No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again. Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags without much hope.

A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held out the key on its fob in her palm.

For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.

So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?

We realized my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.

The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.

Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience are real. I’m rational (most of the time — but I recognize my own irrationality when it’s happening!) I know the difference between reality and fantasy.

I’m okay. Again. Still.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me over — hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.

My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities in me I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.

In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.

 

Discernment

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

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

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

 

In the Void

I’m fascinated with thresholds, the ground between us, the spaces between, and the edge of chaos. The void between one thing and another is filled with unknown possibility.

Photo by Jeremy Cai on Unsplash

Tarot cards appeared in the fourteenth century, when they were used primarily for play. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the cards began to be used for cartomancy. Tarot cards are archetypal (they illustrate recurrent symbols), and countless modern decks are available, some of which are beautiful works of art.

When I work with the Tarot, I use a common classic 10-card spread called the Celtic cross. One of the richest and most enigmatic parts of the Celtic cross spread are the seventh and eighth cards, representing the querent as he/she sees him/herself and the querent as others see him/her.

I’ve learned, after decades of working with the cards, to pay close attention to what lands in those two places. If the cards have similarities, I know I’m living with reasonable authenticity. I’m staying grounded in who I am, and I’m showing up in the world and in my relationships honestly. I have a sense of being at home, of belonging in my own life. My connections feel solid and healthy.

If the cards are wildly opposing, however, I think carefully about what’s going on. In emotional intelligence coaching, this gap is key. Whatever is hidden between our own authentic experience and how others see us can be excavated, examined, healed, released, and/or renewed. The most effective coaches coach to the gaps.

In psychology, this idea is expressed with the Johari window, a model used to illustrate the relationship between ourselves and others.

Johari window

What’s in that square of the Johari window that nobody knows, not us, and not others? What lies in the cleft between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us? What possibility or potential sleeps or hibernates there, waiting to wake up or be discovered? What insight and information are we missing as we look at others and ourselves?

Here are some possibilities:

  • We have crafted a highly-polished and highly-defended pseudo self and our authenticity is buried underneath it.
  • We are keeping too many secrets out of shame or fear; our authenticity is blocked. We are trying to stay safe.
  • We are low in our ability to emotionally express ourselves.
  • We have no idea who we really are; we accept the expectations of others about what we should or must be and try to fit those definitions.
  • Our closest connections are not healthy; those around us are employing abusive tactics like gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns and chronic blaming. We know who we are, but we’re overwhelmed by what they say about who we are. We’re in the wrong place, connected to the wrong people.
  • We ourselves are a Cluster B disordered person; we are unable to have insight into why we do what we do or the ways our behavior and choices affect those around us. We think of ourselves as victims and blame others.
  • We are in denial.
  • We are too fearful to explore ourselves or others or ask or answer questions.

It doesn’t matter if we approach these kinds of questions via a mystical route or a more science-based path, to be human is to ponder about who we are and what we are for; to strive to make meaning out of our lives and experience.

We believe we know what we know, and we spend a lot of time defending that knowledge. We’re much less comfortable with what we don’t know, and some people refuse to explore that terrain at all.

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

For me, however, that uncharted territory, both within and without, is where all the good stuff is. The cracks and crevices, the blind and blank spots, are filled with the possibility and potential of insight and clarity. Healing is there, though it may come about through cautery or amputation. Growth is there, though it might mean our bones ache and we must alter our lives to accommodate that growth.

As humans, we are social, and we need others in order to survive and thrive. When I consider the rift between how I see myself and how others see me, I remember the power we each have in the lives around us, and the power those around us have on us. We can’t change other people, or save them (especially from themselves), but we can and do have influence on others. When we believe in the good things in others, we are making a difference. When we choose to manipulate or tear down others, we are making another kind of difference. This is the line between friends and frenemies.

It makes me squirm to understand the people around me know things about me I’m blind to, and see me in ways I can never access. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Yet the same is true for everyone. If my friends feel the same kind of affection and willingness to allow me to be who I am that I feel for them, I’m both humbled and grateful, but I’m still squirming — just a little!

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

I learned long ago the people I want to be closely connected to are willing to live with some degree of authenticity. My best friends have been those who told me the truth; the ones who let me know when I’m off the rails, or otherwise acting like an idiot. If we can’t tolerate feedback from others, we lose a quarter of the Johari window; a quarter of our available experience, potential, strength and growth.

Likewise, if we are unable or unwilling to give honest feedback to others, they lose a quarter of their Johari Window.

It’s only in the tension of connection we become greater than the sum of our parts, greater than we could ever be on our own. The powerful friction and shaping that occurs in relationships forces us to explore, discover, question, learn, unlearn, adapt and adjust more than we would ever do in isolation.