I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.
I’ve been exploring the concept of scapegoating. The information I’ve uncovered so far indicates the idea originates in the Bible, though I won’t be surprised if I discover pre-Christian roots to the practice.
Briefly, in Biblical times, two goats were chosen when the community felt it needed cleansing. One was a sacrificial goat, which was killed to appease the Divine. The other goat was symbolically laden with the so-called “sins” of the people and driven into the desert to die, thus eradicating the sin.
Sigh. What a ridiculous coping mechanism. If only it was that easy! Eradicating real or perceived “sins” by assigning them to innocent animals and then killing them strikes me as immature, cowardly, impotent, and completely ineffective.
As an aside, in my experience those who thunder about the “sins” of others are the most destructive and guilty of all. Just ignore the man behind the curtain!
The role of a scapegoat seems to be essential to human society. We scapegoat individuals and we scapegoat groups. One of the reasons I’m more and more resistant to labels is they support and feed our ability to scapegoat others. Scapegoating is the root of genocide.
Scapegoating is abusive, and it’s a psychological trick, a distraction, a projection and a manipulation. Worst of all, it’s dishonest.
It’s also, frequently, murder, by which I mean the deliberate destruction (or attempted destruction) of an innocent. Ironically, family systems that scapegoat children often choose the most sensitive, empathetic, loving and talented child (often the healthiest family member) and set out to begin a systematic long-term campaign of destruction of that child so others within the family can avoid taking responsibility for their own lives.
One can spend all day online exploring scapegoating. It’s depressing research. Those who are scapegoated have a horrendous experience of pain, isolation and rejection that frequently leads them into addiction and other self-harming behaviors, and cripples their ability to form healthy relationships, particularly with themselves, and make positive contributions. Many scapegoats do, in fact, go metaphorically out into the desert or wilderness and die.
But not all of them.
Let us not forget that of the two, the scapegoat is the one who survives. The sacrificial goat is out of time and out of choices, but not the scapegoat.
What happens when the scapegoat is spit upon, reviled, cursed and turned away, staggering and stumbling under everyone’s unacknowledged shadows, darkness, and feelings? What happens in the lonely black cold of the desert night, in the blazing, thirsty grit of the desert sun?
A long, slow death by inches from despair, isolation, thirst and hunger?
Do scapegoats meet other scapegoats, and if so, do they compare notes and experiences and support one another in surviving and healing, or do they, in their turn, scapegoat those they meet and perpetuate their own misery and damage?
OR do they meet an Angel, or another aspect of the Divine? Perhaps they reclaim and reanimate themselves. Maybe dreams and visions come to them. Maybe a fearsome Hag or an animal guide teaches them to find or create water in the desert. Perhaps a desert mouse or a scorpion appears and relieves the scapegoat of all that does not belong to it, either burying the toxic waste of others in the clean, hot sand of the desert or, better yet, sending the poison back to its source(s).
Perhaps scapegoats meet the Devil in the desert. Do you know the meaning of The Devil card in the Tarot? Authentic experience. Some people fear authentic experience more than anything else in the world, and they’ll do anything to silence, destroy or stifle it. Who is more feared or hated than the Whistle Blower, the One Who Tells Their Truth?
Maybe tribal shaming and exile are in fact a release from prison and a doorway to personal power. Maybe the desert has been waiting to embrace the scapegoat for an eternity, waiting with gifts and spirits and guides, waiting with wisdom, patience and healing.
When we flush the toilet, we don’t expect to see the contents again. Occasionally, something goes wrong and we do see the contents again! Very disconcerting. Imagine being a bearded patriarch with a paunch and a fine embroidered cloak of arrogance and entitlement. The beard hides a weak chin and the paunch hides a frightened, impotent, controlling personality that is unable to be wrong, learn or grow. In order to relieve the chronic stress of maintaining a pseudo self and constant unacknowledged fear, the patriarch symbolically loads a goat with all his unwanted psychological and emotional shadow and darkness (which he has just increased) and drives it away with rocks and blows.
Now imagine the goat returns some time later, strong and broad-shouldered. It dances in the moonlight on stardust hooves outside the city walls. Its thick, silky coat stirs in the desert wind. The twists and spirals of its horns gleam like marble sculpture. Free and unburdened, the scapegoat has become a wild, enduring, sensual creature of primal instinct and power.
The patriarch, by contrast, has become smaller, weaker, and more wretched.
I’ve reached two conclusions about scapegoats and scapegoating.
The first is scapegoating doesn’t work. Not only is it ineffective, it’s weak, and, frankly, I’m embarrassed for those who engage in it. People who scapegoat others are only drawing attention to their own meagre hearts and intellect. They can’t meet their own gaze in the mirror; they prefer to displace and project their self-hatred, fears and feelings onto others.
The second conclusion I’ve reached is the day we are driven into the desert from the gates of our loved ones or our homes as scapegoats may also be the day we are reborn into something fine and powerful, something wild and resilient and enduring.
On the first part of the journey I was looking at all the life There were plants and birds and rocks and things There was sand and hills and rings The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz And the sky with no clouds The heat was hot and the ground was dry But the air was full of sound
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name It felt good to be out of the rain In the desert you can remember your name ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain La, la …
After two days in the desert sun My skin began to turn red After three days in the desert fun I was looking at a river bed And the story it told of a river that flowed Made me sad to think it was dead
You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name It felt good to be out of the rain In the desert you can remember your name ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain La, la …
After nine days I let the horse run free ‘Cause the desert had turned to sea There were plants and birds and rocks and things there was sand and hills and rings The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground And a perfect disguise above Under the cities lies a heart made of ground But the humans will give no love
You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name It felt good to be out of the rain In the desert you can remember your name ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain La, la …
I looked up the word “denial” to find a quick definition as a starting point for this post. Fifteen minutes later I was still reading long Wiki articles about denial and denialism. They’re both well worth reading. I realize now the subject of denial is much bigger than I first supposed, and one little blog post cannot do justice to its history and scope.
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
I wanted to write about denial because I keep tripping over it. It seems to lurk in the background of every experience and interaction, and it’s nearly always accompanied by its best buddy, fear. I’ve lately made the observation to my partner that denial appears more powerful than love in our culture today.
I’ve written before about arguing with what is, survival and being wrong, all related to denial. I’ve also had bitter personal experience with workaholism and alcoholism, so denial is a familiar concept and I recognize it when I see it.
I see it more every day.
I was interested to be reminded that denial is a useful psychological defense mechanism. Almost everyone has had the experience of a sudden devastating psychological shock such as news of an unexpected death or catastrophic event. Our first reaction is to deny and reject what’s happening. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first of five stages of psychology in a dying patient. Therein lies the distinction between denial as part of a useful and natural cycle and denial as a permanent coping mechanism. In modern psychology denial is followed by other stages as we struggle to come to terms with a difficult event. We (hopefully) move through the stages, gathering our resources to cope with what’s true and coming to terms with the subsequent changes in our lives.
Denialism, on the other hand, is a “choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth” (Wikipedia). For some, denial is an ideology.
In other words, denialsim is all about fear, fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of painful feelings, fear of loss of power, fear of one’s cover being blown. This is why some of the most rabid and vicious homophobes are in fact homosexual. Unsurprisingly, projection and gaslighting are frequently used by those who practice denialism.
I’ve no doubt denial is an integral part of the human psyche. I never knew anyone who didn’t have a knee-jerk ability to deny. I do it. My partner does it. My friends and family do it. My partner and I have a code phrase: “I’m not a vampire,” that comes from the TV series Angel in a hilarious moment when a vampire is clearly outed by one of the other characters. He watches her put the evidence together: “… nice place… with no mirrors, and… lots of curtains… Hey! You’re a vampire!” “What?” he says. “No I’m not,” with absolutely no conviction whatsoever. It always makes us giggle. If Angel is too low-brow for you, consider William Shakespeare and “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Denial is not a new and unusual behavior.
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The power of denial is ultimately false, however. Firstly and most obviously, denial does not affect the truth. We don’t have to admit it, but truth is truth, and it doesn’t care whether we accept it or not. Secondly, denial is a black hole of ever-increasing complications. Take, for example, flat-earthers. Think for a moment about how much they have to filter every day, how actively they have to guard against constant threats to their denialsim. Everything becomes a battlefield, any form of science-related news and programming; many types of print media; images, both digital and print, now more widely available than ever; and simple conversation. I can’t imagine trying to live like that, embattled and defensive on every front. It must take enormous energy. I frankly don’t understand why anyone would choose such hideous complications. It seems to me much easier to wrestle with the problem itself than deal with all the consequences of denying there is a problem.
Maybe that’s just me.
It seems our denial becomes more important than love for others or love for ourselves. It becomes more important than our integrity, our health, our friends and family, loyalty, and respect or tolerance. Our need to deny can swallow us whole, just as I’ve seen work and alcohol swallow people whole. Denial refuses collaboration, cooperation, honest communication, problem solving and, most of all, learning. Denialism is always hugely threatened by any attempt to share new information or ask questions.
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Denial is a kind of spiritual malnutrition. It makes us small. Our sense of humor and curiosity wither. Fear sucks greedily on our power. We become invested in keeping secrets and hiding things from ourselves as well as others. We allow chaos to form around us so we don’t have to see or hear anything that threatens our denial.
This is not the kind of fear that makes our heart race and our hands sweat. This is the kind of fear that feels like a slamming steel door. It’s cold. It’s certain. We say, “I will not believe that. I will not accept that.”
And we don’t. Not ever. No matter what.
A prominent pattern of folks in denial is that they work hard to pull other people into validating them. Denial works best in a club, the larger the better. The ideology of denialism demands strong social groups and communities that actively seek power to silence others or force them into agreement. Not tolerance, but agreement. This behavior speaks to me of a secret lack of strength and conviction, even impotence. If we are not confused about who we are and what we believe, there’s no need to recruit and coerce others to our particular ideology. If you believe the earth is flat, it’s fine with me. I’m not that interested, frankly. I disagree, but that’s neither here nor there, and I don’t need you to agree with my view. When I find myself recruiting others to my point of view, I know I’m distressed and unsure of my position and I’m not dealing effectively with my feelings.
I’ve written before about the OODA loop, which describes the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide and act. The ability to move quickly and effectively through the OODA loop is a survival skill. Denial is a cheat. It masquerades as a survival strategy, but in fact it disables the loop. It keeps us from adapting. It keeps us dangerously rigid rather than elegantly resilient.
Some people have a childlike belief that if something hasn’t happened, it won’t, as in this river has never flooded, or this town has never burned, or we’ve never seen a category 6 hurricane. Our belief that bad things can’t happen at all, or won’t happen again, pins us in front of the oncoming tsunami or the erupting volcano. It allows us to rebuild our homes in places where flood, fire and lava have already struck. We ignore, minimize or deny what’s happening to the planet and to ourselves. We don’t take action to save ourselves. We don’t observe and orient ourselves to change.
Some things are just too bad to be true. I get it, believe me. I’m often afraid, and I frequently walk through denial, but I’m damned if I’ll build a house there. The older I get, the more determined I am to embrace the truth. I don’t care how much pain it gives me or how much fear I feel. I want to know, to understand, to see things clearly, and then make the best choices I can. It’s the only way to stay in my power. I refuse to cower before life as it is, in all its mystery, pain and terrible beauty.
Ultimately, denial is weak. I am stronger than that.
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.
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
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 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.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
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 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!)
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.