Tag Archives: emotional intelligence

Garden of Thorns

The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.

Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that could puncture tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.

The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds that mated, nested, hatched, quarreled, sang and lived their lives among its thorny branches.

Honey Locust Tree

I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.

I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.

I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned that thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.

Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.

Just like my beloved locust tree.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.

It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood that nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but I it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.

Honey Locust Thorn

I need to protect myself.

That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.

I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.

The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience that pleasing people and having no boundaries lead to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.

This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me that revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.

Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.

I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.

Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high that I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.

I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.

I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to be like that.

My daily crime.

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.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

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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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.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Nyana Stoica on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Dinh Pham on Unsplash

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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