Patterns and Labels

We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn of toxicity.

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We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.

I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.

Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.

Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.

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The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.

Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.

Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.

Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.

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Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of choices that result in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.

As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.

One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.

What I like best about Eddy is that he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.

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Power-with and win-win, in other words.

Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.

In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behavior
  • Preoccupation with blaming others

–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)

The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.

In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.

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In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.

Responsibility strikes again.

If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.

If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.

Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.

In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.

Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.

What would you like to do?

My daily crime.

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Courage

I’ve been thinking for some time about courage.

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Oxford Online Dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.”

As I explore definitions, articles, memes, and quotes about courage online, much of what I read seems superficial and uninspiring – nothing I want to write about.

As always, I did find gold. An article from Psychology Today lists characteristics of courage. My comments are in parentheses.

  • Feeling fear yet choosing to act.
  • Following your heart.
  • Persevering in the face of adversity.
  • Standing up for what is right. (Understanding that we’ll never all agree on what is right.)
  • Expanding horizons – letting go of the familiar.
  • Facing suffering with dignity and faith.

Forbes published an article entitled “10 Traits of Courageous Leaders” that also caught my eye. As far as I’m concerned, these courageous traits are not specific to leaders. Again, my comments are in parentheses.

  • Confront reality head-on. (Reality has become subjective. ‘Alternative facts’, anyone? I think of this as the willingness to see things clearly and accept the world (and others) as it is.)
  • Seek feedback and listen. (Refusing to answer questions or hear feedback is a red flag. So is the inability to shut up and listen.)
  • Say what needs to be said. (Authenticity)
  • Encourage push-back.
  • Take action on performance issues. (Ooda loop: Observe, orient, decide, act.)
  • Communicate openly and frequently. (Authenticity)
  • Lead change.
  • Make decisions and move forward. (Ooda loop again.)
  • Give credit to others. (Gratitude, appreciation, acknowledgment.)
  • Hold people (and yourself) accountable. (Integrity)

Most will agree that courage is a good thing, an attribute we want to have, an attractive quality we’d like others to see in us. The hardest part of courage, it appears at first look, is simply overcoming our fear and taking action anyway. Then everyone will admire, like, and respect us.

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From the bottom of my scarred heart, I wish that was so. Maybe it is so for others, but my experience with courage is that the people closest to me, whose opinion I’ve most cared about, have called some of the most courageous choices I’ve ever made cowardice, and I’ve paid a steep and ongoing price for those choices, even though from my perspective they were the right things to do.

Perhaps the most powerful way to think about the traits and aspects of courage listed above is to consider whether they are present or not in our own relationships, groups and communities. Most of us will pay lip service to the idea of courage, but when it comes to taking courageous action, we are severely discouraged from doing so, and we often do all we can to prevent others from doing so as well.

Let’s face it. Courage is damned inconvenient and uncomfortable. In fact, for many, it’s a frank threat.

This is a shadowy aspect of courage few talk about directly, with one major exception.

Artists.

For example, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden: “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie.” To tell the truth, make courageous choices out of that truth, and be invalidated and/or disbelieved by those close to us is a terrible kind of pain. When others call our courage selfishness, cowardice, malevolence, irresponsibility or hysteria, relationships shatter.

Then I found this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite writers:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
Kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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It’s one thing to be a member of an in-group that provides support as we make choices. It’s a whole other thing to be cast out, scapegoated, or tribally shamed because others do not accept or believe in our fears, dreams, and authenticity, and thus cannot appreciate our courage.

Courage, I find, takes enormous courage.

As I contemplate courage, my relationship to it, and these points, two aspects stand out: The terrible loneliness of courage, and how subjective it is.

Fear is, of course, subjective, too. This came home to me particularly this week as I had a conversation with a young student about concerns and plans for schools reopening. I realized afresh, during our brief interaction, that we all fear things in the coming months. Some are afraid they’ll be forced to take a vaccine for coronavirus in order to attend school, or forced to wear a mask all day. Others fear equally there will be no vaccine, at least not a safe and effective one, and students won’t wear masks.

To be human is to know fear. We all have that in common. I wish we could stay rooted in that commonality and work together, but instead most people take it one step farther and fight about which fear is real and legitimate; not a successful strategy for problem-solving.

There’s an old proverb: “Fear and courage are brothers.” Most of us understand that courage can’t exist without fear. This is an aspect of courage that’s heavily underlined as I research. It doesn’t help us much now, though, when we fear so many different, if not opposite, things.

If fear is subjective, then courage must be, too. Right now we see a mad scramble as different groups work to legitimize their fears and invalidate those of others. Contempt, violence and broken relationships are the result, and we wind up more thoroughly divided than we started.

Courage, then, becomes something we each define for ourselves, rather than a concept we all agree on.

Because our culture has such low emotional intelligence, and fear is such a loaded thing to talk about honestly, the idea of courage becomes equally difficult to address and remains nebulous and elusive, a thing in the shadows.

Who would have thought how complicated courage is?

I have no grand conclusions. What I will say is that thinking about courage has softened some of my certainty that I can recognize and appreciate it in those around me. What do I know of what lies in the hidden places of others? I’m also reminded that, at the end of the day, the best friend and support we have is ourselves. Nobody can walk in our shoes but us, and that means nobody has access to the full truth of our experience, our fear, or the fullness of our courage. Our own love and approval may be all we get, and that needs to be enough.

Practicing courage, in spite of the price. My daily crime.

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Gratitude

This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for some while. I’ve taken my time approaching it because it seems to be something of a landmine for some people.

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In simplest terms, to be grateful is to be thankful.

It’s easy to be thankful for the things we enjoy and make us happy. Thankfulness can also be a matter of routine or ritual, as in the case of saying grace before meals, or a display of good manners, like thanking a service person.

Those are the smiling, kindly faces of gratitude.

But gratitude can also wear the aspect of a hag, and then we’re in darker, grittier territory.

Part of the experience of life and relationship includes pain and trauma, there’s no getting around it. We all have a haunted cellar in our soul in which we have suffered. Sadly, many people live in that cellar, picking their scabs, reopening their wounds, and competing with others to win the Most Victimized and Best Haunted Cellar awards.

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That’s a choice.

I’m not suggesting our feelings of disillusionment, pain, rage, fear, shame, betrayal and self-pity are wrong or inappropriate, nor am I victim blaming or shaming, taking some kind of high moral ground, or minimizing the tragic challenges and traumatic experiences we face in life.

Our inevitable wounds are not the point. The point is what we choose to do with them. Do we heal them or not?

It’s important to acknowledge that some people don’t want to heal. Some find the payoff for chronic bleeding too seductive to want to stop it. I don’t understand this, but I know it’s so, and I respect that choice.

We can be a motionless victim or we can practice gratitude and allow it to sweep us forward. We can’t do both.

If we do want to heal, we have to give up blame. This is a big thing to let go of, and some will choose not to. Again, that’s a choice I can understand and respect. It’s also a dead end. If we insist on holding tight to our blame, we’ve cut ourselves off from the possibility of full healing. As long as we blame others or ourselves, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own responsibility and power.

Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean we’re necessarily responsible for our trauma. I mean our responsibility for how we handle it, and our responsibility for our feelings. Taking responsibility for our lives is empowering. Blame leads us into an endless loop of victimhood and/or self-hatred.

We can use addiction, compulsion, and other self-destructive behaviors to numb, distract, or forget our wounds, but none of those coping mechanisms help us reclaim our power.

Healing takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes years, or even decades. There is no shortcut around our feelings. We often need support. Healing can be a messy, exhausting, ugly, extremely vulnerable business.

Healing, like relationship, is a crucible, a dark womb in which we transform our wounds into scars. Gratitude is one of the agents of that transformation, but it can’t show up until we’ve begun to actively work through our feelings.

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Gratitude and forgiveness are often hand in hand. Note I did not say forgetfulness, but forgiveness. Scars are permanent reminders of our journey, but they need not be a matter of shame. We can choose to view them as medals of honor. We can choose to relate to others out of the empowerment and wisdom our scars represent rather than the wounds that caused them.

In every experience there is something to learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about others. We learn about the way the world works. We learn about power. Learning makes us bigger, stronger, wiser, more effective, and more powerful in our lives. If what we learned is bitterness, we’re still blaming. We haven’t taken enough time, or found the right support, or finished the journey from wound to scar. Bitterness does not grow gratitude. It’s not empowering. It makes us small and shrivels our hearts.

We can’t control what other people do, but we can choose to see those who hurt us as teachers, learn the lesson, graduate, and be grateful. We can look back on the most uncomfortable experiences in our lives as the most meaningful and growthful.

Our culture encourages us to be dissatisfied with our lives as they are. We’re trained from childhood in longing and envy rather than in gratitude. The truth is that if we can’t be thankful for what we have right now, this minute, we won’t be thankful for more money, a different body, a different job or house or car.

Thankfulness is acceptance of whatever our circumstances are in the now, even if they’re difficult and we need to change them. Especially if they’re difficult and we need to change them. If our lives aren’t working and we know it, we can be grateful for accepting what is (we’re miserable) and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to manage our power in such a way that we can make positive change. Misery is highly motivating.

So often we have an ideal in our heads, or a set of expectations, that keeps us reaching for more, or different. The practice of gratitude requires us to settle down and take a good long look at what we have, what we are, and where we are. What is there to learn? What can we be grateful for? Expectations are devoid of gratitude, because they don’t reflect reality.

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Gratitude takes strength and courage, especially during dark times of pain, fear, and despair. It’s also one of the most powerful choices we can make. It leads us into the light. It comforts our raw feelings. It keeps us focused on joy, and the simple gifts in each day.

In seeking gratitude, we go deeper than we’ve gone before, far beyond the fact of our wounding. We reclaim our power, not over what happens to us, but how we use such events and circumstances to water and feed our best selves. To feel gratitude is to come fully into peaceful alignment with our lives, whatever they have been, whatever they are now, whatever they might be.

Thank you.

My daily crime.

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