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The Price of Belonging

As I serial publish my Webbd Wheel series on Substack, I’m discovering some kindred spirits on the platform. Keri Mangis writes a newsletter called The Power Source, and she recently wrote a piece about being an outsider that caught my eye.

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

I’ve written about the longing to belong previously. The desire to feel firmly anchored in family and community is an ache I’ve felt most of my life. Though I’ve belonged a few precious times in my life and I know what it feels like, I know more about what it doesn’t feel like.

Mangis suggests being an outsider is powerful because being an insider is so much work. We trim and prune and espalier ourselves to stay safe in our feeling of belonging. Humans are social animals. We’re neurobiologically wired to fear being outcast and alone.

Childhood is about learning roles, rules, familial and cultural norms, and, for most of us, under which specific conditions we can be loved and accepted and achieve belonging. Unconditional love is not our best thing.

By the time we’re young adults, we know what’s expected of us if we want to belong. The parts of us that don’t fit in are amputated or hidden, and we often live a double life, one secret and one playing to our audience, or we make ourselves into masks and shells, acceptable to our peers, families, and communities, but lacking authenticity or vitality.

Either choice is a lot of work. Making yourself small is exhausting. Ask any woman.

What we really want is for our real selves to belong, our honest, authentic selves, but few of us are lucky enough to find that easily, and the fear of being alone is huge.

We have a tendency to think of maturity as taking place in the first 20 years of life. By then we’re in our adult bodies and generally able to function on our own. We define ourselves as grownups, adults. We take on responsibilities, pursue education and interests, figure out the economics of independence. Some people form partner bonds and raise children. We’re busy in the world and much of that busyness has to do with belonging, taking care of social obligations, participating in production and consumption, and bumping up against limitations, rules, and taboos. We use our manners, follow traffic rules (sometimes), stand in lines, allow ourselves to be directed by signs, and generally follow the same standards of civility we learned in school.

We also subscribe to ideologies and resist change in the form of new information or critical thinking. We can’t endanger our places of belonging. Our identity depends on them.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

In exchange, we are paid for our work, have friends, family, and community, wear our labels comfortably, and stay safe in the middle of the herd.

Then suddenly we’re old, negligible, invisible, and burdensome.

Then we die.

But what if the first 20 years are just the beginning? What if, as Mangis suggests, we embark on a new level of maturity in late middle age? What if that level requires we outgrow the need to belong and leave the longing for it behind?

I know from my study of power dynamics fear-driven choices indicate power loss. The fear of being outcast and alone is terrible, and so is the fact of it.

However, it is survivable, and it’s also a much, much easier way to live. The degree to which we’ve spent our first 50 years or so living underground or in the shadows is the degree to which our lives simplify if we decide belonging isn’t so important after all.

Suddenly, we can be as big, as expansive, as individual, as happy, as creative, as expressive, and as strong as we choose. We’ve spent 50 years learning about ourselves and the world. We’re no longer overwhelmed with the physiological needs of reproduction. If we give up our fears and struggles around belonging, what could we do with that energy? Belonging is expensive, and so is longing.

Perhaps mid-life crises are really just another growth spurt, a milestone to be celebrated and welcomed.

Instead of framing these years as the beginning of the end, perhaps we could look at them as the beginning of our most authentic years, the years in which we’re less concerned about how acceptable others find us, stop apologizing for who we are, and focus on reclaiming ourselves and belonging in our own skins.

At the end of the day, we belong only to ourselves. We’re not required to give up our power for transformation in order to belong to anyone else.

All we have to do is let go of our longing for belonging.

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Give Your Best

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less  dropped this little spring blossom in my Inbox recently. I’m not on Instagram but she passed this on from @sierranwells from @theshineapp.

Paraphrasing, giving our all leaves us empty. It’s unregulated and indicates questionable boundaries. A better choice is to give our best.

Don’t give your all. Give your best.

What an amazing distinction! When I say that to myself, I feel as though a mountain has been lifted from my shoulders.

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I don’t have to give everything and everyone my all. I can choose instead to give certain people, situations, and efforts my best. My best financial donation. My best support. My best effort. My best investment. My best love.

My all is reserved for me and my writing.

The filter between my all and my best immediately clarifies life and choices. It frees me to recognize when I’ve done enough. I’ve given my best. I can stop now. I don’t have to give and give and give until I have nothing left, not even enough to crawl away. I have the power. I make the choices. I decide where the boundaries are. I make an offering of my best, and if it’s not wanted or useful, I move on.

After all, if my best hasn’t been good enough, likely my all won’t be, either. I know that intellectually, but I’ve lived my whole life with the firm conviction that my best is inadequate and withholding. What’s required of me is to give my all, every last penny, every last bit of my time, energy, patience, and love. Everything. No boundaries. No reserves. No personal needs. Boundaries, reserves, and needs are selfish.

Wait, says a little voice inside me. Doesn’t unconditional love mean giving it all continuously, no matter what?

Does it? Is that what unconditional love means?

Unconditional love means love without strings attached.

I don’t know if human love is limitless. I don’t know if mine is. I’ve loved several people with everything in me before, but today I don’t feel as though any of those loved ones found my love useful or even noticed it for what it was. Perhaps it was lost in translation.

Perhaps they never wanted it or needed it in the first place.

I still love some of those people, because they are woven into my flesh and bone, but we are not actively connected and for the most part my love is mute and suffering. I have not found an acceptable way to give it, which is to say I have not found a way to feel it’s recognized, valuable, received or even welcome. It’s unconditional, but it’s unwanted.

Yet I do know one person who longs for my best and my all – all my unconditional love, all my compassion and empathy, all my strength and wisdom, all my creativity and courage.

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Me.

As I approach my 60s, I spend less and less time thinking about how to give my all and waiting for scraps and crumbs to come back to me. Now I’m focused on how to connect with and unconditionally love myself. Because I deserve it. And it’s my turn. And I want me. I need me.

The people (and cats) in my life get my best. Sometimes that seems regrettably inadequate, but I’m intentional about giving my best to those I interact with, work with, and live with. I give my best to what I do in life, from cleaning the bathroom to teaching a child to swim. My best love, care, and effort are no mean contributions to my loved ones and my community.

But I don’t owe my all to anyone. Not at this point in my life. I’ve never yet given my all without subsequent emotional bankruptcy it took me years to recover from. I’ve never yet felt my all was reciprocated. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

I thought I had to give my all. I thought that’s what love was. I thought one proves love, commitment, loyalty, what have you, with an investment of one’s all. I thought that investment was guaranteed to provide rich returns.

So far, I’ve failed to reap rewards from that strategy. I’m rethinking my investment plan. Might it be that giving my all to me increases the quality of my best to others? Could it be that giving my best to others will prove a better investment than giving my all? Is this a case of working smarter, not harder?

Maybe our all is only useful when we give it to ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t work elsewhere because it’s not supposed to. Maybe our best is better for the people around us.

In any case, I feel lighter, freer, and healthier, both in myself and in my relationships, when I endeavor to do my best within healthy boundaries and reserve my all for myself and my writing.

Enabling Is Not Love

I’ve struggled all my life with confusion about the difference between enabling and love. Most of us think of enabling in the context of addiction, and we’re familiar with the idea that helping an addict avoid the consequences of their addiction is not, in the long run, useful.

It’s a pretty clear idea in theory. In practice, however, it’s a whole different story.

Enabling, denying, or allowing destructive patterns of behavior to continue extends far beyond the issue of addiction. Compassionate, loving people who sincerely want to help and support others wind up enabling all kinds of toxic behavior with the best intentions in the world, or completely unconsciously.

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That’s the problem. Enabling can look and feel so much like love. Choosing not to enable can look and feel so much like rejection, selfishness, or even hate.

I’ve spent years of my life enabling toxic behavior in the name of love, duty, and loyalty. I’ve truly believed that with enough modeling and patience I could heal the destructive behavior of others. For most of my life I’ve lived with the happy but delusional belief that my unconditional love is enough to keep my loved ones happy and healthy.

I only wish I had that much power.

Choosing not to enable or deny is heartbreaking. It’s a choice I’ve had to make, and I feel daily anguish over it, even as I know in my heart I’m doing the right thing for myself and those I love.

Those of us who are intimately familiar with patterns of addiction and toxic behavior know the unrelenting pressure from well-meaning but clueless onlookers to excuse and/or rescue loved ones from the consequences of their choices.

People who expect or demand to be enabled do everything they can to keep the dynamic alive. Remember that those who punish us for our boundaries are the ones who gain the most from their absence. One of the important patterns that helps identify relationships in which enabling is taking place is when we make any kind of excuse for a pattern of destructive behavior. So-and-so is not loved. Nobody has ever understood them (but us). They’ve had various kinds of trauma. The world is against them. Nothing ever works out for them. They’re disenfranchised and alienated. They’re suffering and nobody cares. They have no one to turn to. They can’t afford to get help.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Solving or covering up someone else’s problems is very different from empowering them. We empower when we teach skills, share resources or give someone tools that support them in solving their own challenges. The difficulty is that someone stuck in a chronic pattern of destructive behavior doesn’t always want this kind of power. Resources, tools and skills are of no use if we aren’t prepared to take responsibility for our troubles, and it’s so much easier and more comfortable to deny or blame someone or something else for our destructive patterns and their consequences.

Unfortunately, the emotional dynamics of enabling are hard to fully understand until and unless we’ve experienced them for ourselves. I want to protect loved ones from going through the pain and damage that occurs to relationships when toxic behavior is present. I never want them to feel as torn apart as I have. I want them to use the resources and tools I can offer and learn from my mistakes.

Again, I only wish I had that much power.

As a lifelong caregiver, I’ve abdicated rescuing myself in favor of rescuing others. This is the shadow side of caregiving. Enabling others, entering into an unspoken agreement to work harder on their problems and lives than they do, is a dead end that keeps us nicely distracted from coming to terms with our own challenges. Even worse are relationships based on an unwritten agreement to mutually enable one another’s dysfunction.

Another part of why we choose to enable can be to help soothe our own anxiety. We don’t want to be in conflict with those we love. We don’t want to lose relationships that are dear to us. We don’t want to deal with a lot of trauma and drama. It’s easier and quicker just to write another check to help out one more time because our family member or friend can’t stay employed due to their substance abuse. It’s easier to manage their lives ourselves than watch them muddle along without clean socks and food in the fridge or listen to their constant complaining.

You’re an enabler if you’re asking why they keep doing it. Ask instead why you keep allowing it. As long as you allow it, they’ll probably do it. They’ve got no motivation to do anything else.

Enabling is painful, stressful, and will burn us out. It might take a long time, but eventually it will eat us up and drain us dry. It may feel like love, or duty, or loyalty, but it isn’t. It’s destructive for everyone involved.

For me, one of the most insidious aspects of enabling is keeping secrets. I’m not talking about protecting personal privacy or keeping confidences. I mean pretending not to notice that Brent is high again on the job, or looking the other way when a loved one drives home drunk from the bar. The biggest reasons I’ve kept secrets are shame (I must be a terrible person if someone I’m closely connected to is in such trouble), loyalty, and my effort to protect others.

You’d think I’d learn.

Keeping secrets implies tolerance, and it allows destructive patterns to continue and worsen. Every single time we pretend not to see, cover up or make excuses, we’re making the inevitable crash worse for everyone involved. Another reason I’ve kept secrets is for fear of no one believing me, or being told I’m overreacting (which masks their own denial). It’s easier to just avoid the whole issue and say nothing. Then everyone is more comfortable. Everyone except me. All that unsaid feeling and horror becomes a stone I carry in my heart, mute, but agonizing.

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As counterintuitive and inadequate as it seems, the best thing we can do for loved ones struggling with toxic patterns of behavior, including addiction, is care for ourselves and stay firmly rooted in our own lives. If our offers of skills, tools and/or resources are rejected, we have no further power in the lives of others. We can only meet our own needs and solve our own problems, even if it means we must walk away from relationships in order to save ourselves.

Not everyone will understand or support us in refusing to enable, particularly the person we’ve been enabling. However, making the choice to live another day in our own lives means we can continue to be available to appropriately love and support someone when they’re ready for it, and at the very least provides a model of empowerment and self-responsibility.

Enabling is not love. It may seem like the easiest choice, but love requires much more than easy choices.

Not enabling, but empowering myself and others. My daily crime.

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Good Girl, Bad Girl

Last week, Thursday approached, arrived and passed, and I had nothing. Nothing to post; no insights, inspiration or coherent questions. No journeys, organized notes, serenity or discipline.

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

What I did have was the feeling I was inadequate, ridiculously undisciplined and failing to manage my stress and anxiety. I had a collection of entirely made-up apocalyptic stories about the future and a migraine headache. I had worries about friends and their families, people who were sick and couldn’t get seen or tested for coronavirus or anything else. I had rumors about numbers of infected community people that couldn’t be either confirmed or denied. I had pacing, restlessness, climbing the walls, apathy, and a feeling of futility and disconnection I called depression. I had hours invested in online Mahjongg solitaire.

I also had squirrels in the ceiling of my attic aerie, scampering, wrestling, playing, gnawing, and making soft sweeping noises that sounded very much like making a nest. By day, the noise was distracting, even if I did smile in sympathy because it sounded like they were having so much fun. The gnawing, however, was maddening, as we could neither locate the exact location of the animal(s) or the access point(s). It sounded like they were going to come through the wall into the room any minute.

By night, their noisy activity was beyond distracting. As I lay staring up at the ceiling over my bed, I thought bitterly they were having much more fun this spring than I am. They also had a lot more energy than me. Nice for some people to have a night of romance, play and planning for a family in a cozy, sheltered place.

Squirrels are rotten roommates.

My partner and I missed walking for a few days due to weather (cold, windy, and more snow — Aargh!), and just feeling out of sorts in general.

When we finally did get out again during a breezy but reasonably mild sunny afternoon, as we walked up the hill my partner asked me a question:

“Have you ever felt yourself to be a good girl?”

Wow. What a terrific question. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I had never asked myself that question before.

It didn’t take any thought.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

One of the first things I knew about myself is that I was not a good girl. I am not a good girl. Not in any sense of the word. I’m not a good female. I wasn’t a good daughter, sister, mother or wife (especially wife!).

After that immediate knee-jerk response, though, I really thought about the question, at which point I wondered what, exactly the definition of good is. A little bell began ringing in the back of my head. Hadn’t I written about good and bad in some other context lately?

As we walked that day, my partner and I played with the concept of being good or bad, how we form such pieces of identity, and how we are shaped and influenced by our self-definition. My partner said that being a “good girl” means being an obedient girl.

Well. If that’s true, no wonder I’ve never been a good girl! My best friend couldn’t truthfully call me obedient. I noticed I immediately stopped feeling hopeless, worthless, tearful and miserable, thoroughly distracted by the conversation. In fact, I suddenly felt amused.

Somewhere inside me is a three-year-old who equates being good with feeling loved. I know, intellectually, that’s nonsense, but evidently I can’t quite get it emotionally. I keep thinking I’ve dealt with this thing as I’ve worked on my pernicious habit of people pleasing and deconstructed so many old beliefs and patterns, but a certain kind of stress and experience dumps me right back into my three-year-old self before I know what’s happening.

At that point, I temporarily forget every step of the long journey I’ve made in reclaiming myself and my power.

I went back and found my post about good and bad creative work. It made me smile, because as I wrote it, it never occurred to me to take the concepts of good and bad a step further and think about them as they apply to who we believe we are as people.

Here’s a brief review of the definitions of good and bad from Oxford Online Dictionary:

Good: “To be desired or approved of,” “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.”
Bad: “Of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”

So what have we got? Two entirely subjective black-and-white descriptors, that’s what we’ve got. Furthermore, neither have a thing to do with unconditional love, which is the only kind worth giving or receiving, as far as I’m concerned. “Love” predicated on compliance and obedience isn’t love at all, it’s a toxic mimic and a control tactic.

If being good is being obedient, I have no interest in it. Neither do I have interest in being bad. Both are non-concepts. Good and bad have no power unless I have no power.

Goodness and badness are as impotent and limiting as compliance and obedience. There is no there there, no wildness, no creativity, no complexity, no gravid chaos, no resilience or flexibility, no authenticity, and no personal power.

Am I a good girl?

God, no! My whole life I’ve been so much more than that!

Photo by 小胖 车 on Unsplash

Divisive Truth

Sometimes these posts are like puzzles. I pick up fragments in the course of daily life, and I find they all belong to the same idea. Remember doing dot-to-dot puzzles as a kid? I’m never sure what the shape is I’m working on, but I turn the pieces of the puzzle around until I’m satisfied with a coherent (hopefully!) post. It’s fun.

Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

If I was bent on delivering a learned lecture in this post, I would have titled it “Postmodernism.” I’m not interested in lecturing, though, or philosophizing, or exploring current ideas and trends in a scholarly way. Ick. If you’re not sure what postmodernism is, here’s a link. You can educate yourself and draw your own conclusions — always the best way!

As I researched postmodernism I came across a referral to “post-truth.” Huh? Post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)

YIKES!

Truth is a slippery concept, and I’m not interested in debating whether it’s “real” or not. The tension between objective facts, denial and beliefs is a can of worms I have no interest in opening. I do accept science-based inquiry and methodology, particularly if data can be replicated, the process is peer-reviewed, and the funding is clean and unbiased. For me, truth and learning are dynamic, flexible and organic. What might be true for me today may change tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean today’s truth is necessarily a lie.

I don’t accept that belief and truth are the same, and I don’t accept that feelings and thoughts are necessarily objective facts.

The puzzle pieces I have collected this week all fit into postmodernism, but, as usual, I come at it in my own unique (and slightly off-center) way. Here are the pieces, in no particular order:

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One of my four most important values and priorities in making choices is to see things clearly; in other words, not to argue with what is, be in denial, or wholly and unconditionally believe in my own stories, assumptions, and feelings. Understand, I validate, value and rely on my feelings, but I’m very aware they don’t always point to the truth. I might feel rejected, for example, but that doesn’t mean I am rejected. It doesn’t mean I’m not, either. The feeling points me toward something needing further exploration, that’s all.

When I say “see things clearly,” I mean accepting what is without fear, resistance, apology, or the need to rewrite or sanitize my experience.

The second puzzle piece is a conversation I had with an approximately 30-year-old man in which I described a relationship that was not working well and what I did about it. His comment was “harsh.” Intrigued, I asked if it would have been better if I’d lied to the other party, or continued the relationship in spite of believing it was unhealthy for both of us. He had no answer for that. I asked if he had a suggestion for a kinder or different way I could have communicated my truth clearly. He had no answer for that one, either. What I was left with was, from his point of view, it was wrong for me to feel the way I did and tell the simple truth about it, without shame or blame, honestly communicating my sadness, my need to part ways, and my caring for the other party.

I’ve thought a lot about this conversation. As regular readers know, I dislike labels and sweeping generalizations, but I wonder if part of his problem with my choice about ending my relationship has to do with the trend in his generation toward postmodernism; that is, that there is no truth, all stories are equal, and to speak “truth” is somehow hateful, bigoted, and/or mean. I’ve even been told stating the truth is “dehumanizing.” Wow.

From my point of view, identifying and speaking the truth is by far the kindest thing we can do for each other and ourselves. Communicating the truth means we are taking responsibility. It means we have the courage to have a difficult conversation face-to-face, rather than ghosting, making excuses, living a lie, or leaving someone with no closure. It means we are healthy enough to take care of ourselves and manage our time and energy, and authentic enough to be heartful and committed in what we choose to do with our lives.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

I realize, of course, that some people use the truth as a club, and take no trouble to employ clear, kind language. Shame and blame and refusing to take responsibility are not truthful. Pretending is not truthful. Making excuses is not truthful. Cultivating a pseudo self is not truthful.

The third piece of this particular puzzle was in a book titled Roadwork by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King). Here it is:

“But Mary’s footsteps never faltered because a woman’s love is strange and cruel and nearly always clear-sighted, love that sees is always horrible love, and she knew walking away was right and so she walked …”

I’m a fan of King’s writing, and this quote really caught my eye. I stopped reading, bookmarked the quote, and thought about being a mother and all the agonizing choices one makes when raising a child. (The context of the quote has to do with a mother and child.)

It’s terribly difficult (and sometimes terribly painful) to be clear-sighted about our own children. We are forced to make decisions that tear us apart, always striving to do what we think is best and frequently missing the mark. Moreover, having children means we are forced to look at ourselves more clearly for their sake, and that process is humbling, painful, and occasionally terrifying.

I ask myself, is this how King experiences a woman’s love? If so, is it a woman’s love for her child he has his eye on, or a woman’s love in general? Is it terrible love because it’s “clear-sighted,” or because women who love are capable of making horribly difficult choices and sacrifices for the sake of those they love? Is it the love that’s “strange and cruel,” or the clear-sightedness of that love? Or both?

I recently wrote about unconditional love. Is that kind of clear-eyed love “horrible” because it’s so powerful?

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

I’ve mentioned before somewhere on this blog that in the Tarot deck, which has pre-Christian roots, The Devil symbolizes authentic experience. This indicates to me dealing with the truth is not a new challenge for human beings. Postmodernism is just another cyclical iteration we’ve come up with as we struggle with the truth, misinformation, outright lies, authenticity and pseudo self, the sincere desire of many to be kind and compassionate, and the equally sincere desire on the part of others to control cultural narratives and (dis)information. I’m the first to admire and practice kindness and compassion, but taken too far they become enabling, denial, codependence, pseudo self and abdication of our own self-defense and needs.

The last piece of the puzzle was this link I received to a piece of satire about the “divisiveness” of truth. Satire is not my gig (I have a sneaking suspicion it’s above my head), and I don’t normally enjoy it or pass it on, but this was certainly timely, and it demonstrates the (to me) crazy thinking postmodernism leads to.

It seems to me truth is connecting rather than divisive. I’m wary of anyone who responds to the presentation of an objective or science-based fact with a rant about divisiveness. Those who seek to persuade us there is no truth anywhere, that whatever we believe is Truth, are the ones who are actively divisive. Critical thinking is not about hate, fear, control or manipulation; it’s about seeing the world around us with curiosity and clarity.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

So what’s the deal with the demonization of truth, or authenticity, or honesty, or facts, or whatever? Does it have to do with technological cultural influences? Is it connected to our broken educational system? Does our decreasing literacy (TLDR — too long, didn’t read) play a part? Do our burgeoning health problems, poor diets and ever-increasing toxin loads affect our ability to think well?

Have we become so fat, lazy and comfortable we simply don’t want to make the effort to learn, explore, reflect and think critically?

Are we so entitled and selfish we reject unpleasant or unwelcome truths that might threaten our status quo?

Sometimes the truth is painful, inconvenient, and difficult to hear and say. Are we so precious, pampered and cowardly we need everything sugar-coated and artificially flavored and colored in order to deal with it, never mind if it’s truth or lies? (Have you watched any commercials lately?)

I don’t know. The only power I have is what I do with my own life. In my own life, endeavoring to see things clearly, to understand, to excavate what’s true for me at any given point in time and put it into effective, clear, responsible language and action, are paramount. Objective facts matter. History matters. Science is important. I value literacy, learning, education and professional expertise.

I’ve spent much of my life people pleasing and enabling the destructive behavior of others. I’ve spent much of my life assiduously cultivating what I thought was an acceptable pseudo self. I lacked the courage and support to face my own truths in the privacy of my head, let alone speak them to others. I allowed others to bully, manipulate and punish me for seeking objective facts. I allowed myself to be the target of gaslighting and projection.

Those days are over. And that’s the truth.

 

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