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Doing Things We Don’t Want to Do

Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.

It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.

But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.

The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:

Life is not much fun.

I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.

Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.

This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.

A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.

  • If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
  • If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
  • If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
  • If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
  • If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
  • If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.

And so on.

I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.

It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

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

Part 1: In Praise of Rudeness and Unity

“Unity does not mean sameness. It means oneness of purpose.”

–Priscilla Shirer

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking about this quote for a couple of weeks now. It’s especially relevant for these times, when social and political tensions are so high around division and unity.

We’ve understood the strength inherent in unity for a long time, but what exactly is unity? Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as “the state of being united or joined as a whole.” Note ‘sameness’ is not part of the definition.

Division and disconnection, however, are excellent ways to disempower individuals or groups of people. Authoritarians know this and take advantage of successful strategies and tools to achieve social chaos, violence, and play on our innate paranoia and tendency to distrust and blame others. Controlling media and communication as well as the flow of information (facts), stamping out free speech and critical thinking, invalidating science and data, weakening education, and allowing ideologues, fanatics, and seriously disordered people to gain and maintain positions of power are direct frontal attacks on unity.

We can see how highly effective such strategies are. Slowly, we’ve drifted into the belief that unity is sameness. Black and white can’t work together. Men and women are enemies. Republicans and Democrats, left and right, vaxers and anti-vaxers, must all maintain oppositional positions.

But unity does not mean sameness.

Neither can unity be forced. Some time ago I wrote about Gaven de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. As far as I’m concerned, this should be required reading for every woman in the world. One of the concepts de Becker has coined is that of “forced teaming.”

Forced teaming is an intentional, directed manipulation projecting shared purpose or experience where none exists. It’s an effort to force premature trust and false intimacy. The example de Becker uses involves a strange man approaching a woman juggling bags of groceries and offering to help. Ignoring the response of “No, thank you,” the man speaks in an insistent, friendly, pleasant way of “we.” “We neighbors need to help one another out.” The woman, polite and not wanting to be unpleasant to this nice man, acquiesces. She unlocks her door and lets the man in with a couple of bags of her groceries.

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

Forced teaming is extremely hard to deal with because it’s subtle, and rejecting it feels rude.

Rude.

I tripped over that word and fell flat on my face. My inability and complete unwillingness to ever be rude has handcuffed me my whole life. It’s opened me up to abuse and trauma, silenced me, and fueled my self-hatred and self-harm.

All because I didn’t want to be rude.

I never consider whether someone is being rude to me. All I have room for is the desire to avoid behaving in such a way at all costs.

Ladies, when a strange man approaches us in a vulnerable situation, it’s rude. And dangerous. He may mean well. He may not. We can’t tell and we’re fools if we trust a strange man when we’re in an unsafe situation. I don’t care how well he’s disguised as Prince Charming or how solicitous and warm and friendly he is. Forced teaming does not occur in a situation of coincidence. It’s deliberate and directed at manipulating us. Are we unable to push past the taboo of rudeness and say, “I didn’t ask for your help and I don’t want it”? Would we rather put ourselves at real risk for violence? Is the social mandate against rudeness, especially for women, that strong?

It’s not, when I lay it out like this, on the screen, in words. Of course I can see how foolish it is to put manners ahead of my own health and safety. But in the moment, I’d be a woman who didn’t notice my “No, thank you,” was ignored. I wouldn’t want to make a fuss or a scene. I wouldn’t want to hurt the nice guy’s feelings. I wouldn’t want to be a bitch.

I wouldn’t want to be rude.

Oxford Online Dictionary defines rude as “offensively impolite or ill-mannered; startlingly abrupt.”

Notice the subjectivity of that definition. Many people currently appear to believe disagreement is rude. Biological fact is rude. The truth is rude. Boundaries are rude. Questions are rude. Discussion and debate are rude. Speaking up in self-defense is rude. Saying no is rude.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Rudeness is tricky. We all have a private list of rude behaviors that make us cringe. It’s important to note the list varies from person to person. I’ve known people who were brought up to consider sneezing out loud rude. They go through all kinds of contortions to avoid it, emitting a variety of hilarious sounds. It always makes me smile when I run into this. I wasn’t raised with a prohibition against sneezing, so to my way of thinking it’s not rude if the sneeze is covered or contained and a murmured “excuse me” follows it.

Rudeness is so often in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, those who try to control us with forced teaming and other manipulative techniques will be loud about how rude we are when we refuse to accept those tactics. We’re likely to be publicly shamed and called hateful names.

But we’re less likely to get dragged into a car, raped, or murdered.

It boils down to the old problem of saying no. If we decide saying no is rude, the only polite way to live is to have no power and no boundaries. Who would benefit from a such a compliant and disempowered population?

I like the idea of oneness of purpose. It’s a container for strength, cooperation, and integrity. However, this, too, is a minefield because, to put it rudely, people lie about their purpose and agenda. Forced teaming comes into play. A small group with intentions to grab power approaches a larger, well-established and organized group working for empowerment and support of a marginalized population and says we’re with you! We want the same thing! Look how alike we are! You have to include us!

Individuals and groups who have been marginalized are particularly loath to repel this kind of invasion because they believe in kindness, tolerance, and an equal playing field, and they know from their own experience how painful and unjust systemic discrimination and bigotry are. They are successfully infiltrated, manipulated, and weakened from the inside by the smaller group, who never had any intention of working and playing well with others and only wanted to co-opt the established group’s presence, position, and power for their own ends.

To achieve oneness of purpose, we would have to agree on priorities, have equal access to information (facts) and resources, create strategies and systems to improve our situation, tell the truth, and consent to work with people different from us in a variety of ways.

It sounds lovely. It also sounds like fantasy in our current social context.

Never in my lifetime has unity felt so out of reach.

Never in my lifetime has unity appeared so necessary.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Enough

When we teach Parent and Child swim classes, most of what we teach is for the parents. Holds, encouragement, how to demonstrate skills, the importance of trust, safety, and initiating lots of play are among the highlights. One of the things we talk about is the “Terrible Toos.” Too far. Too many repetitions. Too tired. Too scared. Too hot or cold. Too hungry. Too thirsty. Too much sun. All of these impact a child’s ability to learn.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
I begin lessons with a lesson plan, but I’ve worked with children all my life, and I know one never knows how a session will go. Every time is different. One day they’ve napped, and another day they haven’t. One day they have a tooth coming in, or they’ve just had a doctor’s appointment, or they’ve been to school. Sometimes they’re getting sick. Sometimes they’ve just gotten a new puppy. Sometimes they’re up for learning, and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, I need to set aside my agenda and work with where the child is. It’s surprising, how many skills we can practice during 30 minutes of “play!” Recently I read this article about figuring out what is enough from Becoming Minimalist, and it made me think about the “Terrible Toos.” We know so much about more, and so little about too much and enough. Enough. As much or as many as required for satisfaction. There’s a problematic definition! Satisfaction is entirely subjective. We are taught from babyhood to consume, to want, to desire more. Our culture is structured around appeals to our longing for belonging, connection, and more than we have. More clothes. More food. More friends. More tech. More money. I wonder how many people know what enduring satisfaction feels like. Enough is a boundary. It’s a destination. It’s power. Unlimited More is a black hole. Enough is reality.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Unlimited More is addiction, or perfectionism, or pleasing. It never ends. It never stops. It’s never satisfied. It’s based on the fantasy that if only we had more _______, our lives would be better. If we were only more ________, we would be loved. Enough is a choice to say yes or no. No, I don’t need that. No, I don’t want that. No, I have enough. Unlimited More is not a choice. It’s yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, I need more. When are we good enough? When have we tried hard enough? When do we have enough? When have we suffered enough? When have we given enough? When have we loved enough? When have we forgiven enough? When have we tolerated enough? When have we accommodated enough? When are we fast enough? When are we busy enough? When are we enough? Enough. My daily crime.

The Public Eye and other Controllers

I recently came across a haunting question in my newsfeed:

Without a public eye, who are we?

Wow.

This single question encompasses much of my uneasiness around social media and identity politics.

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.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

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.

Just me.

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.

With or without a public eye, we are ourselves.

My daily crime.