State of the Cath, March 2015

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I’m a little teapot

 

How am I doing? Great! Thanks for asking. I hate talking about myself at parties. If you ask me this question in person, all you’re likely to get is the “Great,” and then I will subtly and skillfully shift the conversation to you. But me and how I am doing is a topic of interest, and I thought spring equinox was a decent time for reflecting in my blog where I don’t mind blathering.

It’s been nearly ten years since my mother was diagnosed with cancer. That same month, April 2005, I lost my second pregnancy and my husband was laid off from his job. My lifestyle has pretty much been one crisis to the next ever since, bouncing from medical issues, to work and financial crisis, to loss and grief, to renovation adventure, finally culminating in a PTSD diagnosis in 2014. All of that can make you a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so the first thing I want to say is my current life is calm, and thank god because I really couldn’t take any more.

Working on my self has been the most rewarding and important thing I’ve ever done. I’ve blogged some of the lessons I’ve learned through therapy, obsessive review of the self help culture, and a great deal of personal reflection. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to take that journey. It really has been a privilege. At the end of the day, the only thing we have the power to change is ourselves, and yet most of us spend our whole lives tilting at those external windmills. Now that I’m no longer dancing to the tunes of others, so much space has opened up in front of me that I can fill with people and experiences that nurture me.

And it’s not so much that the music has stopped, although ordeals such as my mother’s cancer had to be allowed to run their course. It’s more about learning not to dance. About handing responsibility back to others, not in an uncaring “deal with your shit” way, but with real trust and faith that other people can overcome their own challenges, and that I will cheer them on and love them and support them from the sidelines. And that has created so much peace in my life.

My latest career adventure is broadcast journalism. If you hear my voice on your local public radio station sometime in the near future, you’re not hallucinating. Michigan Public Radio fans have probably already heard news spots written (but not voiced) by me. I completely love it. I came home from the first day at the station and declared, “That place is full of Catherineses! I have found my people!”

All phases of renovation of our house are now finished, including the final phase wherein you’ve gone way over budget and your credit is overextended and you’re house poor. We’ve pushed the decimals around and now have a beautifully expanded and renovated home and a budget we can survive on. That’s a huge relief. It also means we can finally “settle down” and have space for all of our stuff and all of our hobbies and decorate and relax and garden and such, instead of struggling with a cramped space made for a 1924 lifestyle.

My health is virtually perfect. I seem to have developed a new latex allergy, but since it’s not formally diagnosed yet, I’m going to write “allergic to underpants” on all of my medical forms from now on. I’m otherwise holding up remarkably well for a person of a certain age, and I never stop being amazed and grateful. Having experienced so much loss in the past ten years, I fully understand we can’t take one single day for granted.

My social anxiety is gone. Vanished. I never had severe, life-limiting social anxiety, but I did struggle with situations involving lots of new people like conventions. Going to Confusion was a breeze this year. I was simply not worried about other people. It was such a mellow experience, and it was great to be able to stay in the moment. I remain an introvert and a generally reserved person, but the hamster wheel of anxiety is not a part of my experience.

That also means I now have a zero drama social life. If I want to be social, I reach out to friends or accept an invitation. If I need downtime to recharge, I send regrets. All with zero angst. I feel very satisfied with my relationships and my options. I am grateful for the people I have, I feel connected, and I welcome new experience. I am not part of any ongoing real life telenovella.

I’m also spending a lot of time with myself. I’ve always required time alone to recharge, but I’ve been really getting to know me lately, and guess what? I’m cute, kind, creative, and a lot of fun. Five out of five stars. Would friend again.

My son is nearly sixteen and is a complete delight. I hear so many comments about how difficult teenagers are, and that simply has not been my experience. The worst part of having a teen is missing my baby and my little boy. But in exchange, I get someone with adult level conversation and humor skills who can handle heavy lifting, to boot. Glen is doing well in school and in life and in every way I am pleased with him.

Life isn’t perfect. I still have challenges, and goals and aspirations. I would like to be in an even better place a year from now. But I would hope that each and every one of us could say that. A funny thing about living a more authentic and vulnerable life is that you realize a lot of people who seem to have their shit together are, in fact, struggling just has hard. I hope that the coming years are kind to me, but, more than that, I hope we can all be kind to each other. None of us asked for the burdens we carry, but we all have to deal with them.

 

Crazy what is it even

I grew up with a mother who had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, so the concept of insanity has been a part of my life since forever. Even with such a clear and specific example, it’s hard to draw a line between what is sane and insane, what is “crazy” and what is “normal.” It always feels arbitrary, even when you’re dealing with someone who is actively psychotic. You feel pretty sure a person is crazy when they calmly inform you that they just saved you from a nasty smiting by God Himself. But it’s less clear when God Almighty uses the person as a vessel to demand a hamburger and a small coke, without too much ice. Because people get hungry, you know. And God knows that, and He cares. What’s crazy about that? The existence of God? God wanting someone to eat a hamburger? God giving messages to people about hamburgers? Having less ice in your coke? Suddenly we’re splitting hairs.

In my past perspective, I viewed reality as being a pretty stable consensus construct, and crazy people were partway or all the way outside of what the rest of us “normal” people would agree is reality. Sort of like so:

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But that conception leaves out a lot. How do we really decide what is inside the circle and what is outside of it? Are gods’ requests for hamburgers crazy, or reasonable? I feel like a hamburger is a reasonable request. It’s not even like He wanted to Biggie Size it. Just a simple meal to meet human energy needs. God gets it.

And what about people like Galileo? Galileo was clearly all the way outside the big non-crazy circle by the standards of his time. But Galileo pretty much saved all of humanity from one of history’s greatest reality distortions.

I now view the sanity/insanity spectrum more like a shared projection, to which we all equally contribute, and which is co-created by each person’s individual point of view. Sort of like this:

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So each of us, whether we have a DSM diagnosis, a unique experience, a unique identity, or a totally “normal” experience and identity in every way has our own independent and unique and equally valid view of reality. None of us is experiencing reality directly. We perceive through our five senses, then we process and construct a model. Each of the smaller circles is an individual reality simulation, and the greater simulation only exists through social connection and communication.

If you envision all of the circles as a sphere, then each smaller sphere casts its own light through a convex section of the sphere–a LENS. Each of us sees reality through our own LENS. The nature of that reality is related to the clarity and accuracy of our simulation. In turn, the clarity and the accuracy of that simulation is determined by our connection to self, and our ability to process what we receive through our senses.

When connection to self is murky, distorted, or broken, our lens will show us a murky, distorted, or broken image of the reality we share with others. As a result, our communication and connection with others will be murky, distorted, or broken.

The degree to which any person is “insane” is less about whether their objective facts are correct, and more about the battle they are waging inside and their ability to sense and connect with their own inner selves. When those functions degrade to a significant degree, the result is pain and suffering. My mother didn’t suffer because she experienced God speaking to her directly. She suffered because she had an abusive relationship with her God. If her experience of God had been loving and uplifting, she would have been an extremely happy and highly functional person.

No one is crazy. Everyone’s beliefs and behaviors make sense inside their own sphere. But some people are waging such an epic battle inside themselves that they can’t function.

No one is sane. Because we are not directly experiencing reality, but an estimation of it, we all have distortions. I have come to appreciate people with psychiatric diagnoses much more as I have grown older, because people who struggle with those diagnoses are forced to have that simple insight–”my perception of reality is distorted.”

It’s so damn refreshing, compared to people who in their smug “saneness” never, ever look inside themselves, examine their own perceptions, or–God forbid–actually ask other people what their thoughts and motivations are. Instead they impose their worldviews on others, and if necessary validate their distortions by invalidating others.

Not that I want people to suffer. It’s a huge burden to live with any kind of psychiatric diagnosis. But it would be a better shared world for us all if supposedly “normal” or “sane” people were able to engage in introspection, and sought to raise their own self awareness. Everyone’s lens could use a bit of polishing sometimes. And because ultimately the light we need to see each other and our shared world comes from within us. If we are disconnected from ourselves, we truly can’t see others.

 

 

Why your inner child needs a babysitter

The idea of an “inner child” has become very popular, and most people interpret it as an encouragement to engage in playful activities. There’s nothing wrong with that. Play is an important part of a happy adult life. But that limited use of the inner child concept pretty much misses the point, too. Serious inner child work is about addressing self parts that for one reason or another didn’t get the nurturing they needed in childhood. The reason could be anything from trauma to bad parenting, but what happens is that as children we split off those unmet needs and they sort of “freeze” into a sub-self that remains at the stage of development where the trauma or failure of care happened.

When we grow up, we learn to suppress those childish needs, but at times of stress, the inner child takes charge, like a toddler climbing over the seats of a moving car and taking the wheel. When we are children, not getting our needs met is a life or death crisis. Children are not able to meet their own survival needs, so rejection, abandonment, or mistreatment by adults triggers a life or death crisis response, including some very strong emotions. When our adult self is reminded of that crisis, a child self may respond with life-or-death level emotion.

What results are some very childish behaviors, like:

Name-calling
Blaming
Refusing to apologize
Refusing to accept an apology
Hitting, pushing, biting
Tantrums
Not taking responsibility
Not using your words
Running away, freezing up
Not asking for what you need
Not wanting to go to bed
Stalling/procrastination
Selfishness
Black and white thinking (“good” and “bad” people; “right” and “wrong”)
Meanness
Grudges and resentment
Excuses and justification
Not taking responsibility
Jealousy
Emotional overreaction
Demand, threats and controlling behavior
Attention-seeking
Sulking and pouting
Trusting too easily or not trusting at all (sometimes at the same time)
Not being able to say no
Pandering, trying to please
Not doing chores
Neglecting self physically
Avoidance
Tattling
Seeking allies in a conflict
Gossip and backstabbing
Failure of empathy
Overindulgence (cookies, TV, video games, alcohol, recreational drugs, etc.)
Etc., etc.

If you’re thinking that most adults have some of these behaviors, you’re exactly right. Now that I know what to look for, well-adjusted, continuously-centered adults stick out like a sore thumb. They radiate calm assertiveness like a heavenly light. But they are few and far between. Most people I know get “little” sometimes. (And that’s ok. We’re all human.)

For some people, especially those with a specific childhood trauma or set of traumas, the psyche can temporarily fully regress, in a truly amazing and rather spooky display of human adaptability. Whether or not you have had a trauma, if you feel your emotions spinning out of control, and you have some of the behaviors above, try asking yourself how old you feel. You may surprise yourself with a very specific answer. Like I said, it’s spooky.

Most of us have learned to deal with our inner child through shaming and punishment. When the inner child starts taking charge, we punish her with harsh words and rejection. We shame her for behaviors she can’t control.

Would you treat a real child that way? Well, possibly, because our culture tends to support shaming and invalidation of children. But we do have another model. I’m sure even if you had parents who shamed and invalidated you, that you saw or knew of parents that would comfort, console, and reassure children who were having an emotional experience, and would meet their needs while setting limits with love. If you had parents who didn’t know how to do this (even though they may have done their best), it’s time to do it for yourself, which starts with acceptance and putting your adult self in charge. It’s not easy! Many of us operate from our inner child perspective, and then try to extrapolate what a centered, adult behavior would look like. From this, we derive a set of “rules” and then we force ourselves (and maybe others) to follow them.

One example would be “always apologize when you have done something wrong.” So if you have an inner child part that is a pleaser, she may apologize very quickly and preemptively in any conflict in order to get her needs met, without taking steps to protect herself or assess whether she was really at fault or is possibly appeasing someone who isn’t really treating her that well. The adult self, if in charge, would know when to set a boundary and would be able to acknowledge her own feelings in the conflict and take care of herself emotionally, only apologizing–if appropriate–after she had processed those feelings and taken time to consider all sides of the situation.

Likewise, some people are aware that their inner child rages when they don’t get their way, and they know that tantrums are unacceptable in adults. So they shame the child, suppress the rage and angry behavior, and do whatever seems “nice,” “mature,” or “generous.” Except the awful result is passive aggression, which fools exactly nobody. Just because you write a “nice” anonymous note about how to wash the dishes in the office breakroom doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t know how pissed you are about “having” to wash everyone else’s dishes. A person with their adult self in charge would either ignore the unwashed office dishes or attempt to talk directly with the culprit.

Adult behavior extrapolated by children can look and feel pretty uncomfortable.

The solution is not to punish and shame your inner child, but to embrace and care for her, and, yes, set limits for her. If you don’t know how to do it, it starts by acknowledging that you/your child have needs. Everything follows from there. For me, I really struggled until I was able to connect it with how I take care of others. I am very good at taking care of other people, including children, so I had to start very deliberately externalizing my inner child needs, thinking about how I would meet those needs, and then bringing it all back in. Voila! Adult Cat is back at the wheel. Kid Cat is strapped into her car seat with a sippy cup and a stuffed animal. (Actually, it’s a minivan with stairstep children between 3 and 6, plus a couple of surly adolescents.)

When you start doing inner child work, things can get a little crazy. If you’ve ever been a parent or cared for children, you know what happens when you realize behavior has gotten out of hand and you need to set limits. Tantrums! Protests! So many feelings! If you stick it out, things get better fast. Inner children, like all children, respond well to limits, and you can then enjoy the childish wonder and enthusiasm that is their birthright.

When tended properly, our inner children can indeed enrich our lives and feed our creativity and happiness in the way that popular culture tells us. But we can’t play until we have done our work and had our needs met.

Narcissism and the Working Writer

I had a conversation with a friend who wanted to bounce a self promotional communication off me. He wondered if it came across as too arrogant and self serving. It was a good, solid piece of writing, and it didn’t seem arrogant to me at all. I tried to stretch a bit to imagine if from a different perspective it might seem that way, and I realized something. I’ve seen a lot of grossly narcissistic behavior in the industry since my introduction to it in 1997, and some of it has disgusted me, but I’ve never seen it harm anyone’s career–at least not the positive, self-promotional behaviors. Amanda Palmer is a good example of an artist prone to over-the-top self promotional stunts, and it seems to work really well for her.

Real narcissism–the clinical kind–is diabolically effective for its “sufferers.” It creates a bulletproof shell for the overinflated ego that makes life very comfortable for them. (Not so much their partners and children.) People are attracted to the grandiosity of the narcissist and his egotistical behaviors. It looks like confidence, and confidence makes other people feel good about themselves when they can align with it. Narcissists are generally very popular, endearing people, and their self-aggrandizing antics are tolerated and often admired.

As a writer, I’ve always subscribed to the puritan work ethic–work hard, don’t grasp for attention, and your effort will eventually be recognized. This was a mistake. There’s no meritocracy in any entertainment-based career. Self-promotion isn’t always effective, but humbleness will get you nowhere. Waiting for others to notice you and give you your “big break” is taking a backseat in your own road trip to success.

Increasing your narcissism could be good for your emotional health, too. There is such a thing as a healthy level of narcissism and if you don’t have it, you may not be taking care of yourself well enough in your personal life, either.

I’m not advocating that we adopt the negative behaviors of narcissism–the callousness, interpersonal exploitation, entitlement, rage, dishonesty, compulsive infidelity, etc. But no one is going to “come down” with the actual clinical disorder by giving themselves permission to toot their own horn. Just believe me, honestly, every time I thought someone’s self-promotion activity was “too much” and it was going to cost them friends or hurt their career, I’ve been wrong. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be ignored, and that leaves you right where you started.

Now, don’t be stupid about it. Don’t fill your cover letters for short story submissions with crazy talk about your greatness and why the editor should buy your story. That’s not self promotion. That’s just being ignorant about how to write a good cover letter. Don’t accost editors at conventions and force them to listen to your novel pitch or shove manuscripts into their hands. That’s rude and kind of scary. But of all the things you might get judged for in the publishing industry, having too much ego is the least of your concerns.

My friend went ahead with his slightly narcissistic communication, and I got a text a short while later indicating success. Narcissism: go for it!

We’re not writing for our haters

As writers, authenticity is our currency. I’ve made an effort in my blogging this past month or two to stretch harder for authenticity, to challenge myself more, to dig deeper. A problem I have is worrying too much about image management. What other people think of me vs. what I think of me and what I want to say. And when I’m caught in that loop, authenticity suffers. For me, that results in preachy, didactic, disconnected writing that doesn’t have the resonance of real truth.

When I worry about what others think, I inevitably focus on the extremely small number of people who have poured poison in my ears, rather than the legion of friends, editors, and readers who have responded positively. I don’t want to give the haters more material. I want to prove to them how wrong they are. I want to SHOW THEM. But writing for the haters is like signing up for failure. If someone thinks a wrong thing about me, there’s really nothing I can do or say to prove to them that they are wrong. They’ve already decided. And if they change their mind, it will be their choice. We can debate our political beliefs. We can debate historical events. We can debate science. But who I am as a person is not open to fucking debate. And trying to prove my worth to someone who has already devalued me is like trying to teach algebra to an emu.

The only reason I would even worry about my detractors’ opinions is if they had hooked into my own self criticism. And so my quest is not to shut up my detractors, but to shut up my inner critic, so that it doesn’t take random uninformed asshat opinions and use them to disrupt the work of me being me.

Seeking validation by changing the minds of haters is a roundabout and largely ineffective way of dealing with your own inner critic.

When I’m writing anything–a blog post, a piece of fiction, a tweet–when I find myself straying from authenticity or digging defensive trenches, I have to remember that I’m not writing for the haters. If people are hate-following or hate-reading me, that’s actually kind of flattering. That’s attention, and people give attention to what’s important to them. So if someone wants to feed a grudge or resentment, or gather material to reinforce a wrong-ass belief about me, then more power to them. It’s a crapton more attention than I give them.

Writers agonize a lot about criticism. The thing about any criticism is that it’s first and foremost a confession. People will reveal their deepest insecurities in a piece of criticism or attack. If you can separate yourself from it, you can watch the fireworks and not worry that much about it. Try turning the criticism around. If your detractor calls you a dirty whore, then think about what that says about his/her sexual values. That sounds like an insult that comes from a place of hating women, doesn’t it? That person has a problem with women, and if it comes from a woman, she has a problem with herself. It also sounds like she’s kind of jealous, too, doesn’t it? The only reason an insult like “dirty whore” could hit home is if you were afraid of it being true. Is there even any such thing? Does *anyone* deserve to be called such a thing? Really deconstruct that shit. It’s full of gold. Where “gold” means “taking power away from your critic.”

What if someone lobs a criticism grenade at you that doesn’t make sense? Do you work hard to make it fit? To try to see in yourself what it is that “made” them come up with that? Senseless criticisms can show you a lot about the twisted logic inside someone else’s head. When someone tells you how you should have behaved, responded, felt, or believed and it doesn’t make sense, don’t question yourself. That’s just a close up view of the tools they use to flog themselves. There can sometimes be valuable feedback in a critical attack, even a meanspirited attack. But you have to be RATIONAL about evaluating it. If it doesn’t fit, it’s worthless, and all it tells you is that the person is mean. If it does fit, there’s a nugget of value, but it still tells you the person is mean. So you have information either way.

No one can tell you who you are, how to be, what to believe, or how to feel.

Who I am is not up for review. There will be no referendum on how I manage my life, my career, or my heart. I choose to write for people who support me and are interested in hearing my authentic voice, not those who want to shut it down, or use my truth as a weapon in their own inner battles. If people don’t like what I have to say, let them get their own blog, write their own story or article. I am not required to represent every voice in my work. I speak only for myself.

And this is the art of giving no fucks.

I’m in the alternate universe this time

My father had a heart attack Friday. He came through it with flying colors. In the world of heart attacks, it was the best possible outcome. But there was a day or so where we weren’t sure what the outcome would be. What a day.

When you lose a parent, the whole world changes, especially if it’s a parent who has been in your life since birth (or before). They day they are gone is the first day of a whole new world–a world without that person. I lost my mother three years ago, so when I heard my father was at the hospital with a possible heart attack, my emotional response was “Nope.” I’d actually been working with my therapist on some better tools for dealing with big stresses and emotions, and for the first couple of days was having a lot of success. But when this happened, I leapt frantically back into my dysfunctional patterns. I avoided. I spent two hours driving around town looking for a specific yarn. I refused to make any telephone calls. I refused to think about it. I refused to talk about it. I did not stay with my feelings. By the time I got home Saturday after my Dad’s procedure, my lower back had spasmed up so hard I couldn’t even bend over. That’s never happened to me before, but it’s a wake up call for me about what I face in my own life and with my own health when I deny those hard feelings.

Meanwhile, I have spent the subsequent days in a relief hangover. The vision I had–only briefly because I couldn’t allow myself to think of it–of burying my father and entering that new world where he doesn’t exist anymore, did not come to pass. And so I find myself living in the alternate universe that we so often wish for desperately when the terrible thing has indeed happened. For example, in some other universe, whatever DNA mistake triggered my mother’s cancer in 2005 would never have happened, so in that universe she’s still alive.

In some other universe, maybe my Dad didn’t take an aspirin or get to the hospital quickly enough, and the me in that other universe is hurting a lot harder. Meanwhile, I get to live in this one. It’s hard to say how rare or lucky it was that I got to be on this timeline, but I won’t be taking it for granted.

When my Dad came out of his heart cath procedure, he told me he wanted me to write more stories. That he’d been looking opening his subscription copy of Analog every month looking for my name. That’s something he maybe doesn’t get to say to me in that Darkest Timeline. So I’m going to go with yes. I’m going to go with gratitude. I’m going to let myself feel with my heart what had to be taken on by my back muscles Saturday. Time to write.

Why is everyone so bothered by that dress?

The internet had a collective psychotic episode Thursday night when someone realized that different people see the same photo very differently. The photo shows a dress that is either white and gold or blue and black to some eyes, with the two interpretations being wholly incompatible. It’s the sort of debate I’ve had my whole life with my husband, where I name something blue and he says it’s gray, and we go back and forth endlessly. For years we lived in a house we couldn’t agree on the color of: blue or gray? We finally settled the argument by painting it yellow.

 

The truth is I’m just more sensitive to shades of blue. I’m more likely to name an ambiguous color blue because it *looks* blue to me.

 

I come from a family preoccupied with color. My father is a painter, and my childhood was full of oil paints and discussions about the differences and qualities of various hues. I recall talking to my father about possible differences between perceptions of colors between people. What if you and I are both looking at a color and calling it purple, but are perceiving different shades? How can I truly know my definition of “purple” matches yours? We discussed this *at length* in my family of origin.

 

And now this happened, and I think it’s wonderful, because it proves, YES, we are seeing and describing different things when we name color. We just haven’t ever seen proof of that as clearly as with this dress photo. And wow!
But we also see something important about psychology, because a large number of people can’t handle the fact that others are seeing the same photo in different ways. There’s been a lot of energy invested in finding “the truth.” Because evidence seems to point to the real life dress being royal blue and black, team Blue and Black declares victory and invalidates team White and Gold. There are then various sciencey justifications for team White and Gold.

 

Meanwhile, some people are experiencing their own private cognitive dissonance hell, because they can look at the same photo and see the different colors at different times. They resolve it by declaring it an optical illusion. There’s even an XKCD cartoon that attempts to resolve the mystery by showing how the colors look different with different backgrounds. Except for me they don’t. It’s not an optical illusion for me. So now we have Team Blue and Black, Team White and Gold, and Team Both. There’s also Team Periwinkle and Tan and Team Colorblind (the happiest team).

 

What’s fascinating is how much emotion is going into this, and how much rage. You can see the rage in all of the AngryTweets, where people dismiss the whole conversation as stupid and claim to be annoyed or inconvienced by it.
Why is this bothering so many people? It’s because many people have a very hard time accepting that one person’s truth is not the same as another. Their ego defenses depend on making sure other people are Wrong whenever there’s a conflict or disagreement, and any attempt to view that other person’s perspective requires analyzing why they’re Wrong. Team White and Gold is Wrong because they’re old and the cones in their eyes have “worn out,” for example.

 

To a person like this, it is threatening to consider that the other party in a conflict might not be wrong, that they might just see things differently, and so, ironically, the more uncertainty there is in the facts, the greater the threat to the ego, and thus the greater the rage. Their essential Okayness depends on external verification that they are Not Wrong. Throw in some *conflicting* facts and theories and everyone completely loses their shit. Somebody is Wrong and we can’t tell who!

 

I remember the day I released that way of thinking. It was a pretty dramatic moment, where the quest to be sure that someone was Wrong became so overwhelming that I just gave up. And it was like lifting 10,000 bricks from my shoulders. Because suddenly an unacknowledged threat to my own Okayness disappeared. I am Okay. I am more than Okay. I’m awesome.
What is it to be Wrong, anyway? It may mean that you’ve made a mistake, have erred in some objective fact, have forgotten to carry the one, have intentionally or untintentionally committed a faux pas, have been selfish or inconsiderate, have crossed a boundary, etc. Is all of that so bad? Is it really so bad to be wrong? We are all wrong sometimes. We are all human. We all make mistakes. We are all selfish sometimes. We are all biased. We may all have elderly cones in our retinas one day. Blah blah blah. Why worry about it? Why not accept that we are doing the best we can and that our own perspective and viewpoint is still valid, and grant that grace to those opposite in conflicts.

 

Often times, the most traumatizing conflicts between human beings are those where two individual truths diverge so drastically that no one can make sense of it. Why do you think we call it “reconciliation?” It’s because two people have done the work to come back together and create a consistent, shared story of an event that they can both live with, like reconciling a bank statement. That requires both parties to release their need for the other to be Wrong in the shared interest of restoring a relationship.

 

It’s interesting that so many people could be so upset over something that harms no one. But what if someone were hurt by it? What if some pain resulted because Team White and Gold has Old Cones and did not notice the important blue nature of the dress in time to prevent the hurt? Does that make Team White and Gold Wrong? Are they Bad People? Is their perspective now and forever invalid? What if they STILL can’t see the blue in that damn dress, even after someone has been hurt? Will you punish them forever because you can’t see things the way they do, or will you just give it up and accept that you don’t agree with their perspective?

My truth is not your truth. We have to deal with that. Because in pursuing our own goal of being Not Wrong, we can trample all over and invalidate and harm others, creating conflict and pain where before there was only difference. Sometimes I have faith in humanity and the wisdom of crowds. Sometimes not so much. I don’t think there will be any wars over The Dress, but this is the very same sort of difference in perspective that starts real wars. Perhaps The Dress will be the touchstone that finally brings our deeply polarized world closer to Truth and Reconciliation.

Ambigudating!

Amy Sundberg writes about figuring out whether an ambiguous situation is a date or not on her blog. Over on facebook, and interesting conversation ensued about people’s various experiences with “Maybe-dates” or, as I like to call them, ambigudates. I was going to smugly say that I’ve never been on an ambigudate, but then I dug deep down into my memory banks and remembered that I have been on one. It’s been over 25 years, so I think the statute of limitations has expired on privacy, and I’ve long since lost contact with the other party, so I think it’s safe to share. Anyway, I spent a very enjoyable day hanging out with a guy I had met and found cute and intriguing and attractive. I thought it was a date. Or might be a date. But it unfolded more like a hangout between friends. Nothing romantic happened.

And that’s the whole problem. My default approach to romantic relationships at that time was to show absolutely no interest until it was completely clear that the boy was very interested. As you can imagine, I didn’t get any dates that way. It turns out that boys (or humans, really) don’t like to declare strong interest in someone who is showing no interest at all. Ideally, interest is revealed mutually, and in small increments to begin with.

As I recall, much of the conversation revolved around the boy’s desire to become a Catholic priest. I guess any girl would be confused on a “date” like that. But he was a kid and I was a kid, and I think that might have been intended as an opening for me to convince him of the sweet benefits of non-celibacy. Which I understand is an easy persuasive argument to make with a 16-year-old boy. So.

I couldn’t do it. I was too afraid of rejection. I couldn’t declare my own interest until I was 100% sure he wouldn’t reject me. Ever. That was unrealistic. So I basically created my own ambiguous situation. Then I was disappointed and kind of angry that it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Catholic priest indeed! What a waste of my time! Hmph.

Any wise grandmother will tell you, “We create what we fear.” If you are afraid of rejection, you’ll manufacture it by getting yourself involved with noncommittal people and ambiguous situations.

It takes two to create an ambigudate. Over on facebook, the main source of the situation seems to be lack of clarity about what the other person is thinking. The other person has asked you to hang out, but they didn’t make clear whether it was a romantic hangout or not. You feel some interest, so you agree, but you don’t know what to expect, and there’s a hesitance to ask because you then might be facing the embarrassment of declaring romantic interest in someone who only wants to be platonic friends. Ack! Rejection!

But if you don’t ask, you’re rejecting yourself. And look at it from the other person’s point of view. If they were romantically interested in you, and thought they were being clear about it, and you show up to the date acting like it’s a platonic hangout because you’re confused, they’re likely to pull way back because now *they’re* the one embarrassed.

The solution to all of this is to stop worrying so much about the other person’s level of interest and concentrate on your own. If you’re interested in the person romantically, you need to be clear with yourself first, and then you need to work up your courage and be clear with them. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the other person intended the hangout to be a date or not. If you WANT a date, this is your big chance and if you don’t want it to end in disappointment, you’d better say something. And if you can’t tell whether you’re into someone until you know if they’re into you, you maybe have a bit of an issue you should untangle.

The worst that can happen is they only want to be friends, and if your self esteem is healthy, that’s pretty ok, isn’t it? Right???

Where it can get tricky is with a person who has been a longtime friend. You’ve developed romantic feelings and now you don’t want to “ruin the friendship” by declaring interest unilaterally. But no matter how far the romantic exploration goes, the friendship–if it was real, mutual, and healthy–is only really ruined if one person can’t handle rejection. Again, self esteem is your key to surviving the situation.

A lot of people want more assurance of reciprocated interest before they show their hand. I know I did on that one ambigudate long ago. It took me quite a long time to realize that I actually can read those signs pretty reliably. For girls who like guys, I would say guys are really pretty easy to read, at least for the minimal level of attraction needed for a first date. For other gender combinations, I don’t have any advice, and of course for individuals your mileage may vary. But I feel pretty confident saying that if you’re a girl and you’re getting a vibe from a guy it’s real. That doesn’t mean he wants to date you, it doesn’t mean he’s boyfriend material, it doesn’t mean you’ll be hearing wedding bells, but you can trust your gut about attraction.

Other than self esteem, there are some safety reasons to clarify ambiguous stuff. Some people use ambiguous “hangout” requests to slide into casual or FWB situations. If that’s what you want, great, but it still should be clear up front. The problem is, if you’re somebody who is looking for sex and companionship with no commitment or without the “work” or emotional involvement, or if you’re just an emotional cripple who can’t really handle relationships, you’re not going to get many dates being up front about that. Or, you’re going to get dates with people even more emotionally crippled than yourself. So a lot of people who are not looking for a real relationship or can’t handle one will be very ambiguous and allow you to think that you’re beginning a real relationship when you’re actually just hooking up. They will take whatever you are willing to give for as long as it’s convenient for them, then they’ll check out and move on when you start calling them on their shit or the next new and shiny thing comes along. If you can’t handle that, you want to define those dates and be up front about what you’re looking for and what your needs are.

If you’re looking for a real relationship, it is therefore pretty important to clarify things right from the beginning. Truly, there’s never a wrong time to clarify where you are in your relationship, whether it’s the first date or the fiftieth.

The other thing is–gosh, it’s only a date. I’m not sure what’s happening in our culture where adults feel that it’s too risky and too much of a commitment to go on one single date to figure out if there’s potential for a relationship. Instead, I hear a lot of people saying they need a lot more undefined pre-date platonic group activity. Are we all in the 8th grade? If you like someone, try going on a date. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t accept another. Easy!

Good fences make good neighbors

I’ve been doing boundaries wrong my whole life, guys. In my defense, I’m not the only one.

Ideally, boundaries form throughout childhood, as you learn who you are, and who you are not. Natural boundaries happen spontaneously, because they are based on healthy self care and self esteem. If your childhood is bumpy, however, it’s easy to get off track with that natural process and become lost in others. I emerged into adulthood not really sure how to protect myself, what was allowable or not in interactions with others, or how to get what I needed in my relationships. At one point in high school, I didn’t talk to my best friend for two months. I don’t remember the triggering incident, and I don’t remember the reconciliation. I do remember the pain of separation, and realizing that I was punishing myself. I remember the lost time, and to some extent I’ll always live with the regret for wasting those two months, shortly before our lives took us in different directions forever. I stopped speaking to her because I was hurt, I didn’t know how to talk to her about it, I wanted attention, and maybe I wanted to punish her a little for whatever unremembered thing she did…that I now am sure had nothing to do with me. After we made up, I promised myself I would never hurt someone I love with silence and stonewalling again. Never, ever.

Having eschewed the tools of passive aggression, and having no permission ever in my life to engage in frank aggression, and also having no natural boundaries or assertive communication skills, I became like Kenny from South Park. Kenny dies in every episode. At the first hint of any conflict, I sacrificed myself, taking in the blame and the responsibility…and the control. Oh, sweet, sweet control.

I became the Nicest person ever, and held a barely conscious belief that if I followed excruciatingly correct rules of Nice Behavior, Nice Words, and Nice Actions, that other people had to be Nice to me, also. I invented a sort of Nicey McNicerson Social Contract. And it sort of worked. As long as I stuck with other people who subscribed to some version of Nicey McNicerson, and as long as I continued sacrificing myself, denying any anger or other Not So Nice Feelings, even from my own awareness.

But sooner or later, we all experience a violation of the Nicey McNicerson social contract. We either encounter a person from Fuckyouverymuchville or we can even run afoul of other Nicey McNicersons. The First Amendment of the Nicey McNicerson Bill of Niceness is that we don’t compare or debate what the rules are, because everyone is supposed to know how to be Nice. So the first time two Nicey McNicersons encounter a true conflict of values, mutual self-destruction is assured.

We do have a social contract. We have laws. We have rules of etiquette. But none of that replaces personal boundaries. Personal boundaries are the N of 1 version of all of those social rules, and as such, fundamentally can’t be assumed to be known to anyone other than the individual they apply to.

I now think of Tony Stark when I think of boundaries. Tony Stark (Ironman) has some kind of weird hangup about people handing him things. It’s never explained in the movies, but he gets quite upset if someone tries to put a package or letter or something in his hand, and he curtly informs the violator to set it down or hand it to an assistant. This is a quintessential example of a personal boundary. Boundaries can often be inferred from norms of social behavior, but many can’t be and you really can never be sure where they are until they are communicated verbally. We can’t have rules of etiquette applying to every situation and every person and every person’s unique set of feelings and circumstances. To be generous, one should generally assume that a breach of etiquette is a boundary issue unless you’re very sure that you and the violator are from the same sub-sub-sub-culture where all of the rules of etiquette are known and shared among all members.

Boundaries are more than just rules for how people can treat you. On a deeper level, they’re about teaching others to respect who you are, as expressed by your thoughts, feelings, and needs. As such, they’re rarely as simple as a rule that says “If x, then y.” More often, a boundary encounter looks more like, “I don’t like it when you x. Please don’t do that again.” That means anyone who is not able to say words like that—to everyone and anyone—does not have functional boundaries. That includes a very large number of people.

I’m still a work in progress with boundaries. There’s often a pretty long delay between the ringing of my boundary alarm and the initiation of the hamster wheel of a response. Often, by days or more. It becomes awkward to bring up something that happened several days ago, and say, “You know, actually…” But it’s necessary.

In years past, I thought having boundaries was about quietly withdrawing from people who made me uncomfortable, often in ways I couldn’t have articulated in a simple statement even if I wanted to. Ironically, I both wanted them not to know I was withdrawing so they wouldn’t be hurt, and ALSO to know exactly why I was withdrawing, and feel VERY VERY SORRY. The real message conveyed by withdrawal, silence, blowing people off, taking them off your Christmas card lists, not inviting them to things, etc., etc., is actually nothing. Some people won’t even notice. Others will be vaguely puzzled. Some will notice, and be extremely hurt, but they still won’t know what’s going on or why. Lack of data is lack of data. I may have achieved the same result by withdrawing from a relationship that I would have by confronting the behavior, but by not confronting, by never confronting, I sent a message to myself that I was not worth it. Asserting boundaries creates self respect, even if the other person doesn’t respect you, respect your boundary, or even remotely “get it.” If I have to lose someone from my life who doesn’t “get it,” I’d rather have the satisfaction of knowing I stood up for myself.

In the past, lacked boundaries to such an extent I didn’t even know where they should be. I felt other people’s feelings, analyzed their thoughts and behaviors, and tried to manage their responses by giving them what I thought they wanted or by expressing myself optimally so as not to cause upset. If that sounds kind of manipulative, it is. It’s not that I was never direct. In the land of Nicey McNicerson, I was actually a bit of a bitch. I dared to express preferences, not always like the same things my friends liked, state openly that I didn’t feel like joining a group activity, etc. Nicey McNicerson can get pretty hard core if they want and I wasn’t hardcore. But I really was not able to assert myself in the areas that were important to me.

I am slowly developing these skills, and some of it has been awkward. My husband deserves credit for his patience. Because anger is often our first “alert” that a boundary has been breached, many of us new to boundaries vent that anger at the person doing the breaching. But flipflopping from one dysfunctional boundary practice (withdrawal) to another (aggression) is not a solution. It may represent progress, but it’s not a place you want to stay unless you want to die alone and be eaten by your cats.

It was a revelation to me when I realized boundaries have nothing to do with blame. If asserting and holding boundaries are my responsibility, then there’s no room to blame the other person for crossing a boundary. The truth is we bump into other people’s boundaries all the time in life, and almost everyone does it unintentionally.

Sure, there is a small percentage of the population that push boundaries on purpose. They are deeply disordered people who either consciously or unconsciously get off on it. But if you treat everyone like an Evil Boundary Pusher you are not going to have any people left.

On the other hand, if you grant everyone a basic assumption of good will, but hold your boundaries firmly, you’ll find the Evil Boundary Pusher bounces off harmlessly. Evil Boundary Pushers can’t have any fun with calm assertive types. You don’t have to put black and white hats on people and label some people “Good” and some people “Bad” and then hide forever from the bad people because you’re too Nice to tell them off. (The case of the Evil Boundary Pusher who is actually an abusive parent or partner is another topic for another blog. For this purpose, I’m talking about casual acquaintances.)

Boundaries are for your own behavior, not others. A lot of us try to control other people with our boundaries. When I stopped speaking to my high school friend, I was hurt and offended by a behavior of hers, and the silence was my way of trying to force her to change. When we reconciled, she was the same person as before. All that had changed was that I had learned to accept her as she was.

Let’s say you set a boundary with your mother. You ask her not to call you at work anymore, because the interruption throws off your groove. She also pushes your buttons and makes you angry, which results in distraction and screwups. So you ask her, Nicely, not to call you at work. And she doesn’t. For two days. The the third day, there she is, calling you at work. You answer the call and tell her, very sharply, “I told you not to call me at work. This is very distracting and I do not have time for this right now!” and you are upset for the rest of the day. And now your Mom’s upset and confused. Everyone’s upset.

What if, instead of punishing your mother for violating your Precious Boundary, you had simply let her call go to voice mail and returned it after work? Would that be so terrible? Your boundary is for you, not your mother. You are never going to change your mother’s habit of…I don’t know..impulsivity, or whatever it is that makes her think she has to make a call as soon as she thinks of it. You just need some uninterrupted time to get your work done. The boundary is for getting your needs met, not correcting someone else’s character flaws. You have plenty of your own. Work on those. And, as a bonus, since actions speak louder than words, your mother may “get the message” that you don’t want calls during work time if you simply won’t take them. (Remember, you already told her–this is not a case of passive-aggressive withdrawal and seemingly random behavor uninterpretable to an observer. Mom knows why you’re not answering the phone, because you told her.)

Imagine if Tony Stark lectured everyone who tried to hand him a package about the evils of handing people things, rather than just accepting that the world is full of people who do that. By keeping boundaries about yourself, and taking responsibility for them, you respect others and let them be who they need to be. Boundaries are for you.

Yes, some people are persistent. Some people are aggravating. A very small number are predatory. Maintaining your boundaries means owning your feelings and taking care of yourself, not projecting thoughts and motives you know nothing about onto others. You don’t have to know why other people are doing the things they do to know you’re not ok with a certain behavior or interaction. And just because you, personally, are not ok with a particular behavior or interaction says diddly squat about the morality, social acceptability, or inherent rightness of the behavior. Other people might be totally ok with the behavior that’s driving you nuts. It doesn’t have to be “bad” to be a boundary for you.

A lot of people think boundary violations are mostly about being asked for something you don’t want to give, or being pressured in some way. Those of us who have had poor boundaries have been violated repeatedly in that way. But we have also violated the boundaries of others, and we have to own that. By trying to predict and control other people’s responses, by feeling their feelings and making assumptions about what they want, we’ve usurped their autonomy, and possibly made them feel kind of icky. What you think of as empathy may be perceived as unwanted intrusion by your target.

When you’ve grown up in less-than-ideal circumstances, you become hypervigilant. One manifestation of that quality is being exquisitely sensitive to other people’s feelings and mood changes. It’s a survival strategy. But in adulthood, it can be less than helpful. No one can read minds, and our spidey senses can mislead us catastrophically. Even if we’re right—and us highly sensitive, empathic types often are—if we don’t give someone a chance to identify their own feelings and make a choice or a statement based on that, we are interfering with their connection to self, putting our own egos in their way. I know I get very annoyed with people who name my feelings for me, even when they happen to be right. I prefer to be asked how I feel.

Having healthy boundaries means pulling those antennae back in and using them only when necessary, choosing verbal communication over mind reading, and curiosity over assumption.

Flattery is also a boundary violation. Basically, whenever you want something from someone, and try to get it from them without asking directly, you may be violating a boundary. Being direct and asking for what you need is a healthy boundary practice. And in order to ask for what you need, you have to know what you need. Identifying with your needs means having a solid sense of self. It’s all connected.

Sometimes we violate our own boundaries. Gossip and oversharing are boundary issues. Both practices are rooted insecurity. We think that by volunteering our own or others’ secrets, we can shortcut to the trust phase with another person, and get them to like us—the holy grail of the people pleaser. Inappropriate disclosure can have the appearance of building intimacy rapidly, and so in our eagerness to feel close and to feel important, we end up saying too much. I have fallen into this trap, on both sides. If you think you have no secrets, and share personal information with everyone, what you actually have is no boundaries. Likewise, when you share the personal information of others, there’s often a justification that you “care” and you’re just trying to find solutions for them. Alternately, some people justify that kind of gossip by rationalizing that the target will never know, or that he doesn’t deserve respect for his privacy because of some kind of character flaw or bad behavior. All of that is justification for a deep need to seek the approval of others by sharing privileged information and the appearance of superiority or specialness. When your boundaries improve, the desire to gossip and overshare disappears. In fact, it becomes tedious when others do it.

Having healthy boundaries is so simple if it comes to you naturally. You don’t even have to think about it. But if you didn’t receive that skill in your developmental toolkit, it can be extremely complicated and difficult. Now that I’m aware, I’m shocked at how often people tell me about some person or other that offended them and they never said anything. If the situation continues, it inevitably results in some kind of ugly conflict, reinforcing everyone’s avoidance behaviors. Usually the excuse for not telling the person who did the offensive thing is that they “should know.” Well, obviously, they don’t know.

A lot of people who are forming healthy boundaries for the first time get very emotional reactions from friends and family, sometimes even resulting in loss of relationships. In the process of developing my boundary skills, I asked a friend who has healthy, firm boundaries if he’d ever had a problem setting a boundary with a friend. “No, never,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad reaction.”

Not so lucky, me. My attempts at setting boundaries have been fraught with emotional overreactions and traumatizing retaliations. The difference, I believe, is in trying to walk back from some very unhealthy, enmeshed, boundary-less relationships. It’s the difference between reminding someone who is currently standing on the sidewalk not to step on the grass and calling the police on someone who is actively turfing your lawn with their pickup truck. No one would get that far in if they didn’t have boundary issues of their own, and once people get used to a version of “you” and are comfortable with it, they can feel very personally attacked when you tell them things are going to have to change. Furthermore, remember that people with poor boundaries tend to withdraw or aggress, so when you’re starting to set boundaries, you can’t be surprised if you encounter some withdrawal or aggression from people who are unable to talk about how they feel or what they need. Remember, this is not the land of Nicey McNicerson. Everyone is not obligated to applaud and support your personal growth.

Knowing people may be hurt when you assert a boundary does not obligate you to take care of them. In fact, there’s nothing that undermines a boundary faster than pursuing another person for their approval or agreement or good feelings about your boundary. Other people are responsible for their own feelings. At the same time, knowing people might be hurt when you assert a boundary is not license to be cruel or heartless. If you can’t set a boundary without insulting someone, or violating that person’s own boundaries, then you’re not setting a boundary. You’re engaging in some unhealthy drama, and possibly trying to control somebody.

At the end of the day, I know now that boundaries are not about picking “good” people and letting them “in,” while excluding “bad” people. That’s a childish and simplistic view of human beings. Boundaries are a way of relating to all people. They do not create intimacy, but are necessary for intimacy. People can’t be close to each other unless their individual differences are recognized and honored. Learning about boundaries has in some ways made the world a harsher place for me. No more Nicey McNicerson social contract. I have to accept that I don’t get along with some people, and never will. I can’t be everyone’s friend. I can’t please all of the people all of the time. That’s hard. The reward is that I can stop committing suicide every time I see conflict on the horizon. I think that’s worth it.

Tidying magic

I was at the book store recently, buying a different book, when The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo caught my eye. The cashier was trying to get me to pay for the book I was buying, but I kept ignoring her as I perused Kondo’s slim volume. I ended up taking it home, and becoming completely entranced. Like every other organizing guru, Kondo advocates rigorous decluttering. However, her approach is slightly different. Kondo claims her clients do not relapse to clutter, like just about everyone who undertakes a massive organizing project. Her method involves radical, one-shot tidying of your entire home in a short period of time, ideally six months or less. When done right, she claims, it will “stick” and your entire life will be changed.

That’s a departure from the “baby steps” methods of most other decluttering systems. The other difference is that she does not advocating organizing one room, drawer, or closet at a time. Instead, you gather all items of a category from every part of the house, discard, then organize all at once. That way redundancies and satellite clutter won’t undo your hard work.

The last unique element of her method is an animistic reverence for belongings. She talks about objects as if they have souls and feelings, which at first glance may seem silly, but addresses an emotional reality that I think is missed in most other systems. Our objects accumulate emotional charge; we have feelings about our stuff. Kondo insists you must personally handle each and every item, and search your feelings, keeping only items that spark joy. In running through this process with my clothes, I realized that a lot of my belongings not only don’t spark joy, they carry ugly burdens of obligation, guilt, or other heavy feelings. Kondo urges us to release those feelings by acknowledging the purpose once served by the object, thanking it, and releasing it. Even things never used can be thanked for the idea or potential they once carried.

I loved reorganizing my drawers and closets with Kondo’s method, and it is indeed wonderful running my hands over the neatly bundled rectangles of clothes that, without exception, make me feel happy and good about myself. There’s something deeply, deeply satisfying about opening a dresser drawer organized Kondo-style. She brings a passion to the subject of home organization possible only in someone obsessed with the subject from early childhood.

Kondo has a sequence for organizing types of belongings, and the sequence makes sense. I’m planning to follow her system, but am doing some pre-decluttering first, to make room, and because I have a lot of junk just sitting around that I know is going, no soul-searching necessary.

Writers, don’t panic. Although Kondo’s standards are just as strict for books as they are for clothes or other clutter, she does specifically give authors a pass to own more than her recommended number of books. Phew!

Kondo says her clients tend to experience positive life changes, and I can see why. If getting rid of a few souvenir T-shirts I never wear can make me feel emotionally lighter, I can’t wait to see how I feel when I lose a ton or so of junk from my basement. I hope my remaining possessions can show me better who I am and what my priorities are. I’m excited.