The Public Eye and other Controllers

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I recently came across a haunting question in my newsfeed:

Without a public eye, who are we?

Wow.

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

I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.

All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.

I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.

I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.

I would have been wrong.

I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.

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Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.

The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.

This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.

If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.

When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?

I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.

For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.

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It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.

Just me.

I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.

It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.

The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.

We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.

No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.

True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.

With or without a public eye, we are ourselves.

My daily crime.

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Who Am I Becoming?

As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.

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Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.

Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold onto my own hand as I go forward into the future.

I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).

At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.

Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.

I don’t want to do it all.

Doing it all is overrated.

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So, I have to make choices, practice saying no, maintain boundaries, and stay balanced and centered.

It sounds so neat and easy. So mature and together!

Ha.

Becker’s piece made me smile, and then laugh out loud. (I miss laughing out loud. LOL is not laughing out loud.)

He asks such a simple, and at the same time, deep, question: Do I like who I’m becoming?

Like all really good questions, an honest answer is complicated, because our experience of ourselves is often different in different arenas of our lives.

It reminds me of another question I frequently see as I practice minimalism: Does this choice make my life easier or harder?

Of course, needs, structure and choice underlie both questions, but I like the way they leave the mechanics aside and focus on feelings.

Do I like me? Are my choices making my life easier or harder?

I almost made a choice last week that would have made my life harder, but it also would have increased my income.

Naturally, I thought first about the income. Security, stability, savings. Sure, it would mean less time and energy for other things, but – you know, more money!

Except not that much more. And there was no denying it would take away from my writing.

And the writing, unpaid as it is at this point, is what makes me happy, the reason I’m in the world, the center of my life and experience.

Money can’t compete.

Chasing money has made me a fearful people pleaser, perfectionistic, compulsive, depressed, and anxious.

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Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.

Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?

The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.

Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.

I have no intention of going backwards.

Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.

We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.

Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.

Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?

We’ll see.

(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)

My daily crime.

Building Dignity

I’ve just read a book titled Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.

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Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; self-respect” (Oxford Online Dictionary); “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake” (Wikipedia).

Dignity isn’t a word I hear much these days. Respect is a hot topic, but dignity sounds old-fashioned.

The book was an eye-opener in several ways. Hicks sees dignity as a key component in peaceful negotiations, a refreshing topic in this time of divisiveness, hatred, and violence. Because of her work, the author has participated in and supported peace talks all over the world as leaders of opposing sides work to heal the trauma of conflict. Her observations, experience, and stories of people working together to connect as human beings, even in the context of terrible violence, are poignant and a testament to our shared humanity.

Hicks defines ten essential components of dignity, and ten violations. I wrote both lists down and I’ve been rereading and thinking about them ever since.

Here are Hicks’s ten essential elements of dignity:

  • Acceptance of identity
  • Inclusion
  • Safety
  • Acknowledgement
  • Recognition
  • Fairness
  • Benefit of the doubt
  • Understanding
  • Independence
  • Accountability

Here are her ten dignity violations:

  • Taking the bait
  • Saving face
  • Shirking responsibility
  • Seeking false dignity
  • Seeking false security
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Being the victim
  • Resisting feedback
  • Blaming and shaming others
  • Engaging in false intimacy and hurtful gossip

The concept of dignity joins tolerance and respect as a piece of emotional intelligence requiring reciprocity. If we want to maintain and protect our own, we must understand how to support the dignity of others. Dignity involves accountability. It’s not free.

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As I work with these lists, I come at them from three different directions. One is recognizing the ways in which my own dignity has been violated by others. The second is the way in which I’ve violated my own dignity. The third is the way in which I’ve violated the dignity of others.

This book was published in 2011, before acceptance of identity and inclusion were such politically loaded topics. As I think about these lists through the filter of current social ideology, it’s quite clear to me that working with the concept of dignity necessitates connecting with others through our shared humanity rather than our habits and beliefs. If we insist on hiding behind our labels and pseudo selves, as well as refusing to see the complexity of those we interact with behind their labels and ideology, we will not successfully connect and nobody can experience dignity. Conflict will escalate and divisions deepen.

We each have a right to our own beliefs, feelings, and sense of self. However, we do not have the right to insist others agree with our beliefs, feelings and sense of self. Respect, as I have pointed out before, is not agreement. Tolerance is not agreement. Likewise, dignity is not dependent on agreement, but rather the willingness to understand and accept the experience of another.

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The tricky part is if we wish to build and maintain dignity, we must help others build and maintain it as well. Demanding our own dignity be recognized while ignoring that of others demonstrates a desire for power-over and control.

Dignity is an equal opportunity concept. It’s based in our humanity, the ultimate in-group. No one is excluded, and no one is without the power to build their own dignity.

We can’t force others to treat us with dignity, but we have absolute control in how we handle our own, and Donna Hicks has experienced, over and over again, the power of our individual dignity and the way it influences those around us. The forward to this book was written by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose wisdom, compassion and dignity have inspired millions. He and Hicks have worked together for peace in Northern Ireland.

One way to destroy our dignity is to violate that of another, which is exactly what I want to do in a reactive moment when I’ve been hurt or witnessed someone else being hurt. However, that kind of reaction only escalates conflict. Hicks’s list allows me to identify other options that do not result in further violation, but begin to heal the original harm. Even if whoever I’m interacting with is determined to undermine both their dignity and mine, I have the power to stop the damage and conflict and protect my own self-respect.

Now more than ever in this country, we are divided. Some of us support dignity for all and some of us don’t. It’s not always obvious which team we’re on, either. Some people wave the banner of equality and justice and identify themselves as victims, but a closer look makes it obvious their agenda victimizes someone else. What they truly want is their conception of equality and justice for themselves and their in-group, exclusively.

Others of us are working for humanity as a whole, supporting such concepts as dignity for everyone, not just those wearing a certain label or set of labels.

Dignity. Mine, yours, and ours. My daily crime.

Ozzy 2021