Category Archives: Emotional Intelligence

Questions Before Engagement

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When I came to Maine in 2015, I had a short list of goals. One of them was to learn everything I could about relationship and connection. I had so many questions. Why did I feel I’d failed practically every relationship I’d ever had? What was different about the ones that did work well? If I was bad, ugly, unlovable and unworthy, why was that? Was it something I could fix? Or was that a false belief, and if so, where did it come from?

Why did it seem so impossible to find the kind of relationships I had always wanted to have with others?

All my life I’ve struggled with these questions.

I realize now that all of us struggle with these questions, at least at some point and to some degree. It’s called being human.

Emotional intelligence training was a revelation, and as I learned about boundaries, needs, reciprocity and many other aspects of relationship, I began to appreciate the complexity and art involved in healthy connections.

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Relationship is a skill, and most of us don’t have great models for how to do it appropriately and effectively. Relating well to others is messy because being human is messy. I learned, and believe, that healthy connection is a primary human need and driver of behavior. I also learned to build and maintain better boundaries and separate what I have power over (myself) from places where I have no power (what others say, believe, think and do).

Over the last years, my partner and I have continued to be fascinated by the way in which we humans interact with each other as parents, family, partners, coworkers and members of the community. We observe ourselves and others and read with interest current research and insight into all the ways humans connect and disconnect, motivate and manipulate, perpetrate acts of violence and hate, build community and parent.

I’m an information junkie on some subjects, so I enjoy all this learning. I don’t want the information so I can speak learnedly or advise or persuade others. I’m not interested in labeling, judging, feeding my fear or getting bogged down in an empathy swamp. I have no ambition to be an expert in anything but my own life.

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What I want to do is see myself and others clearly. I want to understand what I don’t understand. I want to learn how to keep myself safe and meet my needs for connection.

I want to take better care of myself.

My partner and I sat in the sun this morning, watching the birds at the feeders and newly-wakened insects buzz around the rotting wood of the porch looking for summer quarters. I picked up paper and pen and we jotted down a list of things to look for when considering a relationship. I titled the list Rules of Engagement, but then crossed it off and retitled it Questions Before Engagement.

I like questions. I’ve told you that, right?

Does the person you’re interacting with:

  • Accept no for an answer?
  • Demonstrate the desire to cooperate and connect (power-with) or win and be right (power-over)? (Carmine Leo)
  • Consistently treat self and others with respect and kindness in action and word?
  • Speak in either/or black/white terms, or do they appreciate shades of grey?
  • Employ blame and shame tactics or take responsibility for their own choices? If they take responsibility, do they take too much responsibility (a sign of weak boundaries)?
  • Employ DARVO tactics: Deny, attack, reverse victim and offender? Does he/she see him/herself as a victim?
  • Make your life bigger or smaller? (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, How to Love a Woman.)
  • Communicate clearly, honestly and consistently, or avoid responsibility (“I forgot”), gaslight, give inconsistent or mixed messages and refuse to answer questions?
  • Demonstrate consistency between what they say and what they do? Keep their word to self and others? (Chronic lateness, for example, is a red flag).
  • Leave you feeling good about yourself or as though you’re hopelessly bad and wrong and/or completely drained?
  • Have boundaries (even if messy) and respect yours (even if messy)?
  • Present themselves as a whole, healthy, independent person with something to contribute or are they needy and dependent and looking for someone to nurture or “fix” them? (Co-dependency is not a healthy relationship!)
  • Demonstrate a full range of feelings and appropriate expression and management of those feelings? Is their life one long drama and trauma? Do they flip abruptly from rage to affection and back again?
  • Demonstrate flexibility, curiosity and the willingness to learn?
  • Provide an equal and reciprocal level of commitment, time and energy to the relationship that you do? (Carmine Leo) Are you doing CPR on a long-dead connection all by yourself? If so, why?
  • Last but not least: What does your intuition say? Do you feel safe with this person, physically, sexually, creatively, emotionally, financially? Listen/feel for a yes or a no and don’t second guess or negotiate a no! Extricate yourself and move on.

The strength in recognizing these questions and their answers does not derive from judging or labeling others. The power is in our own ability to navigate intelligently through the world of people we all live in. I myself have communicated poorly, been codependent, been self-destructive, made myself small, and had poor boundaries. I’ve also worked hard to learn to be more effective and heal. Now and then we’re all inflexible, or disrespectful, or unkind.

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Perfectionism is a black hole I refuse to get sucked into and certainly don’t expect from others. We need and form all kinds of relationships in life with all kinds of people. Certain behaviors from a colleague or roommate might be acceptable; the same behavior from a lover could be a deal breaker. There is no one size fits all in terms of relationship. We have to figure it out for ourselves.

We all have good days and bad days. This list is intended to specify red flags that might occur intermittently or consistently across time. A pattern of red flags is a sign to go carefully and stay present and aware with our interactions. There are millions of well-meaning people in the world. There are also millions of narcissists, borderline and other Cluster B personality-disordered people, psychopaths, sociopaths and other predators and vampires. It’s up to us to figure out how to spot them and avoid or free ourselves from them. Failure to do so wastes our time, energy and love.

Questions before engagement. My daily crime.

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Living the Questions

I haven’t very often met a problem in life I couldn’t solve. I have moments of bewilderment, of course, but I generally am able to figure out what’s not working and how to fix it. At times the fix is so difficult I delay, avoid, deny and procrastinate until I’m forced to take the action I knew I was going to have to take from the beginning. Such delays frequently make everything worse, but sometimes it takes me a while to do what I know must be done.

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Now and then, however, I find myself completely stymied. There seems no solution, no detour, no fix within my power.

Being self-sufficient and self-reliant, when this happens I feel panicked and despairing. It usually does not occur to me to ask for help. I’m more likely to withdraw and try to figure out what the hell to do privately.

I’m in the habit of making daily notes, a kind of abbreviated journal. I do keep a journal as well, but my daily notes are in the form of a brief list, noting things like exercise, working hours, what I’m reading, what’s in my attention, and little snippets of observations from the day. I also note any creative inspirations.

It occurred to me this morning, as I walked down through a soggy field to the brimming river that borders our property, that it might be time to accept that some problems have no solution, at least not at the moment we want them. I remembered Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, writing about living the question.

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 in Letters to a Young Poet.

As I make and review my daily notes, I have a lot of judgement about how I spent my time. I often feel I’ve wasted my day or not produced enough. I’ve always concentrated on doing and having rather than being, and I’m hard on myself when I don’t see activities in my daily notes that I was taught to define as “useful.”

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I wondered, while I was walking, what would happen if I wrote at least one question in my daily notes about my activity and stopped judging the way I spend every single second. Can I faithfully record my daily experience without judging it either positively or negatively?

Can I note my current unsolvable problem clearly, simply, honestly and neutrally, state my feelings about it, and formulate a great question? For example, if I’m binging on my favorite numbing activity, instead of beating myself up over it can I make a note about doing it and ask myself about the feelings I’m trying to numb?

It takes a kind of mental strength to live peacefully with questions, to pause and hold them in our laps and refrain from desperately seeking answers. I have several times been connected to people who disliked and resisted questions. That always catches my attention. I think of questions as a tool for opening up lost or hidden feelings and thoughts. In fact, as I grow older I’m beginning to value questions more than answers, even though questions contain the most tension. Maybe an answer or solution, after all, is not the goal.

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Judgement feels good because it relieves my tension, but judgement is limiting and small. It weakens power and reduces possibility. Questions keep everything wide open and foster curiosity and flexible thinking. Judgement is black and white.

I assume that all problems have a fix and all questions have an answer. That might be true. On the other hand, maybe some problems feel unsolvable because they are, or what I need to work with is my perception. Maybe what I call a problem is in fact a gift I haven’t yet unwrapped properly.

Unanswered questions and insolvable problems. I don’t like the way they feel. I’ve always resisted giving them time, space and attention. That hasn’t worked particularly well, and I’m ready to try something new. We seem to be much better at judgement than questions in this culture right now, a trend that is both divisive and dangerous. There are questions aplenty, but it’s increasingly difficult to tell truth from lies, and many times the questions themselves are not honest, but merely tools for labeling and judging.

Asking an honest question and living without an answer. Challenging judgement. My daily crimes.

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Rewrite

I’m currently reading The Intuitive Way by Penney Peirce. Various notes and bookmarks remind me I’ve started it before, but I didn’t finish it. I picked it up again because I’m also reading The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker (for the second time), and he talks about how important intuition is in our ability to avoid danger.

I’ve always been interested in intuition. What is it? How does it work? I know from personal experience that it’s a real kind of perception or knowing, but I also know many people view it as “woo” and scientifically unprovable. I’ve frequently been met with fury and denial when I voiced an intuition about someone’s state of mind or behavior. Certainly I might be wrong, but then why all the fuss?

As I began writing this post I explored Peirce’s website for a few minutes. I listened to an interview and read a couple of her posts. Yes, it looks rather New Age and “woo” to me.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong!

As a matter of fact, science is catching up to what we call intuition. Scientists and researchers like Paul Ekman, who recognized how important fleeting micro expressions and body language are, have begun to assemble the neurological pieces of the process of intuition. Experts in their own fields like de Becker are revisiting the importance of intuition to our resilience and survival.

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In any event, I picked up The Intuitive Way again to see if it was something I wanted to work with and explore or pass on to the library for donation. I’m glad I did. I’m uninterested in debating whether intuition is real or a worthy subject for study, but I’m very much interested in any tools which might assist me in healing and living a more joyful life and/or shaping my creativity. The book is filled with provocative writing exercises. I remember now it takes me ten minutes to read a chapter and ten days to play with all the exercises.

When I learned emotional intelligence I was introduced to the work of Byron Katie. Her great question is: Who are you without your story? Peirce’s book asks the same question in a slightly different way, providing exercises challenging the reader to replace fearful, limiting beliefs with those that are loving and life-enhancing.

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Who am I without my story? What a wonderful, important question. What a game changer. It’s like asking ourselves who we are if we stand bodiless in some infinite but undefined space with no memories, no objects around us, and no other context. If we’re not a name; an age; a family member; a job; an ethnicity and tribe; a set of beliefs, experiences, memories and stories, then who the hell are we?

My mind boggles, and the artist in me salivates. So much of my self-identity is bound up with stories about my life and experience, and many of those stories are small, hard, stony things about breaking, severing, smashing, exile and futility.

I have fantasies about who I’d like to be and how I’d like to feel, of course. They’re fantasies, though, not the real story. I know the difference.

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But do I?

We write our stories from our feelings and experiences, many of which occurred in childhood. Do children necessarily see a wide picture? Are they able to understand all the behavior and choices of the adults around them? Are they able to process their feelings and separate them from their thoughts about their feelings?

I doubt it. I certainly wasn’t able to.

As we grow up, we have opportunities to compare our stories with those of our siblings, or others who inhabited our childish world, and we notice then that our stories aren’t the only ones in the mix. Everyone has a story, and they aren’t the same one! A word or event burned in my brain might be something no one else even remembers.

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Stories are slippery things, powerful as an anaconda and just as hard to pin down.

All that being so, how would it be to simply erase the parts of my story that limit me, to find the file, open it, hit “delete” and then empty the trash of all the feelings, conclusions and thoughts my story carried? No more story. Just a clean space …

… In which to write a new story!

As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by all the creation stories from around the globe. As a writer, I’ve even written a couple of my own. I’ve never considered writing a story about my own creation before, though. After all, I already know all about the story of my first ten years. I’ve been telling it to myself for decades. It’s shaped me profoundly.

But would a different story have shaped me differently?

Would a different story shape me differently now?

I don’t suggest we deny or bury our feelings and memories. I’ve never found that particularly useful. I think of my story as an old-fashioned quilt, carefully pieced together out of all kinds of scraps of feelings, memories and experiences from which I formed conclusions and beliefs over my lifetime.

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I can lift that quilt out of the cedar chest of my psyche, unfold it, hang it on a clothesline in the sun and spring breeze and examine it. Which pieces make me feel stained, frayed, torn or damaged? Which pieces are vibrant, vivid, gorgeously colored and textured?

After the quilt has aired, I can unpick stitches and remove the pieces that hurt, distort or limit me, replacing them with scraps that make me feel happy, confident and loving. I can rewrite some of those childhood monsters and villains, understanding now that people are complex and we don’t always know their motives or secrets. I can consider painful pieces of my story from the view of another character in it instead of from my own narrow perspective. As I unpick stitches and loosen up my old story quilt, I can think about forgiveness, gratitude and being wrong, and revel in stitching new patterns and colors into it.

Rewriting our story, like reworking a quilt, takes time. Writing our original story took time. Events happened in our lives. We had feelings and experiences. We had thoughts about our feelings and experiences. We came to certain conclusions about who we are, who others are and how life works. We wove a story and told it to ourselves over and over again, until we believed it completely and it became unconscious. We carry our story with us into the world and it influences every choice and action.

The thing about story is that it’s limited and limiting. It can never catch all of reality, even in a single moment. If we understand this and work to bring our personal stories back into consciousness, we become aware of all the ways our stories hurt and/or help us. They can limit and paralyze us or inspire us with courage and confidence. It’s all up to us, because we are the authors of our own stories. We have the power to rewrite.

Many cling to their stories as though they were a matter of life and death, not to mention identity. I’ve noticed that some people with miserable stories cling the hardest. I can only conclude that for some, even the most wretched and harrowing story provides some kind of a payoff for the one holding it. Such a person doesn’t want to rewrite their story, in spite of how ineffective or painful it may seem to be.

I choose not to be run by my story. I can do, be and contribute more than parts of my old story say I can. I don’t want to validate and reinforce outdated conclusions that made me fearful and small. I don’t want to continually irritate and open up old wounds.

I refuse to be a victim, especially not a victim of myself!

So I’m writing my own creation story, from before the beginning, when two cells joined and created the miracle of my life. From those two cells came the complex human being that I am, and a complex human being contains and creates many different kinds of stories with many different feelings, experiences and thoughts.

Rewriting my story. My daily crime.

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