Tag Archives: empathy

Discovering Character

Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a person in a novel, play or movie.

Photo by Nick Grappone on Unsplash

I’m fascinated with the places between. All the places between. Threshold places. Edge-of-chaos places. Here-there-be-dragons places off the edges of maps. It’s in the gaps, fissures, cracks and edges that I mine for the characters that inhabit my writing. It’s in the between places my own character is shaped, and I gain the clearest understanding of the characters around me.

I’ve written about labels before. Discovering characters is not about labels. Labels aren’t people. We’ve had a lot of reminders recently that talent, success, money and power fail to fully define character. Ours is a culture of texts and tweets, acronyms and jargon like “neoliberal” and “postmodernism.” We’ve become skilled at reducing ourselves and others to one-dimensional paper dolls with the application of a label. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of culture. We’ve no time or interest to invest in understanding complexity.

But what lies between the enormously talented actor and his serial sexually abusive behavior? What is the untold story of the “perfect” mother who drives into a lake with her kids in an act of murder and self-destruction? How do we think about the extraordinarily gifted writer who is also homophobic, or a child abuser? Who are we in the gap between what we believe ourselves to be, what we define ourselves to be, what we want ourselves to be, what we’re afraid we are, and how we actually show up in the world in the experience of others?

In that space between lies real character. That’s where I’m at work, listening, taking notes, asking questions and observing. As a writer, I must know my characters. What are they afraid of? What’s their worst memory? What’s their ideal vacation? What motivates them? What does their sock drawer look like? What’s in their car? What’s on their desk? How do they treat a service person? How many unopened emails squat in their inbox? Where do they want to be in five years? In ten years?

Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic, choice or ideology doesn’t build connection, understanding or empathy. We can spend hours online, commenting, facebooking, blogging and interacting with others about every issue from sexual politics to diet, but none of it defines our character as honestly as how we treat a real live co-worker who identifies as transgender, or what kind of food we actually have in our refrigerator.

Those tantalizing, fertile, often concealed places between! Interestingly, words obscure the places between. Words are capable of seductive lies, but action, especially action taken in the stress of an unexpected moment, points unfailingly to true character.

Another problem with labels is their inflexibility. We each perform hundreds and hundreds of actions a day, and some are notable for how well they don’t work out. Labels imply that we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t adapt and adjust and learn, when in fact the opposite is true.

The Johari Window is a concept created by a couple of psychologists in the 1950s to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The window suggests that we cannot see ourselves or others entirely, and there is always a space of possibility to discover. Fully defining character becomes a community project. Even so, the unknown or hidden parts of character can and do appear suddenly and overwhelmingly, often resulting in some kind of heinous act and leaving us struggling with what we missed, what we didn’t know or what we didn’t want to admit.

It’s so fatally easy to misunderstand and underestimate others, especially when we can’t observe, talk and interact face-to-face with someone and compare their actions with their words over the long term. Complexity takes time. Making judgements based on labels does not.

As a writer, I’ve learned to look at myself and others with a more interested and less judgemental eye. I’ve learned to set up camp in the places between, look and listen carefully, observe keenly and ask a lot of questions. I’ve concluded that people who toss labels around are often in too much of a hurry to achieve power over others and silence challenge or dissent to engage in thoughtful dialog or discussion. Label users reveal far more about themselves than whoever they’re labeling. It’s a diversionary tactic.

Who is that character hiding behind all the labels they’re slinging left, right and center? What’s really going on with them? What kind of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, pain or lust for power motivates them? Who taught them to use labels so carelessly and unhelpfully? What needs are they trying to meet?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

An engaging character is one who defies labels, one who challenges preconceptions, one we empathize with and even care about in spite of the abhorrent choices they make. A well-written character is complex and dynamic.

This week is one of those between places. We’re swinging between Christmas and the New Year, between 2017 and 2018. The holiday season has stirred up our memories, our family situations, our nostalgia, grief, gratitude, financial fears and resentments. We’ve traveled, abandoned our usual diet and routines, gotten worn out and indulged in sugar and alcohol. The flu is abroad. The package was stolen off the porch. The dog bit Santa when he came down the chimney.

Here, my friends, is the between place of authentic character. Not who we wish to be. Not who we say we are. Not who we present ourselves as on Facebook or pretend to be for our families and coworkers or resolve to become in the New Year, but who we are today, with our blind spots, our secrets, our fears, our greasy oven, our favorite coffee cup, indigestion, bills to pay, snow to shovel, our comfy sagging chair and what we choose to do with this in-between time.

Powerful characters. May we create them. May we discover, foster and celebrate them in others. May we honor our own.

Our daily crime.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Wellspring of Love

A few weeks ago I wrote about romance and in that blog I confessed that at this point in my life I’m not sure what love actually is. A strange admission from a reasonably intelligent, well-educated, middle-aged broad with two marriages and two children in her history.

Writing that post enabled me to clearly separate romance from love; though I suppose love might include a little romance from time to time. I’m convinced that romance is not synonymous with love, however. I began to make a mental list of what love is not, as I often approach things from the back door first. Love is not a synonym for:

  • Romance
  • Sex
  • Slavery
  • Control
  • Possession
  • Obsession
  • A suicide pact
  • Abuse
  • Fear
  • Duty
  • Obligation
  • Enabling
  • Obedience

All right. So what is love? My Randall House Collegiate Dictionary says it’s “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for a person” or “a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection.” This definition doesn’t satisfy me at all. My rewrite is that love is a feeling of warm, tender connection and deep affection. I don’t think love is always passionate and I don’t like the word attachment. If anything, love implies to me an attitude of nonattachment.

But what about unrequited love? What about failed love or withdrawn love or love as a weapon or a tool? What about the inability to accept love, or feeling unloved though being told we are? What about those who make us feel our love is ugly, twisted, shameful or inadequate?

I’m always playing with words in my head. This week it’s “What is love?” and “What is a crone? and “What are the differences between compassion, empathy and sympathy?” I lie down with those inquiries and wake up with them. I turn them over while I shower, cook bacon, wash dishes, take my morning walk, practice Tai Chi and drive to town. I’m constantly scribbling notes.

I gave a neighbor a lift this morning and asked him to talk to me about compassion, sympathy and empathy. Poor man. He didn’t know what to make of me.

Yesterday, during my frosty morning walk, I dove into a stand of staghorn sumac below the barn and went to visit the spring. This is a daylight spring that comes out of the hill on which the barn and house stand. A long time ago, someone dug a well there, and at one time a pump and tank were installed, along with a system of black plastic outdoor lines to carry water to and from the barn, the garden, and down through the woods to, presumably, crops in the fields below. All the equipment is many decades old now, fallen over and covered with leaves and moss. The well is protected by a round cement cap, much too heavy for me to lift alone (drat!).

Spring 10/2017

This spot is hidden in a thick tangle of vine, briar and trees. We rarely go in there, though it’s in close proximity to the barn.

It’s fall and it’s been dry, but the drainage where the spring emerges is clearly marked by rocks and moss. The ground underfoot felt soft, and when I brushed away the leaves I found moist earth. A yard or two below that is mud, and then a trickle of water and then, at the bottom of the hill, a quiet film of water, barely moving, reflecting the tree-laced sky. Right now It’s full of apples dropped from a wild apple tree that grows alongside it.

As I slipped and slid, tripping over vines and getting scratched by hawthorn and raspberry bushes, feeling the velvety moss coating the rocks and stepping cautiously on rotting wood, it occurred to me that love is like this spring.

I’ve always thought of love as an action verb, something I do to another in exchange for receiving the same. I thought I knew what I meant when I used the word, though I was never challenged to define it exactly. For me it’s been a catch-all term, synonymous with dozens of other, more specific actions: Want, need, desire, honor, trust, respect, care about, listen to, defend, make excuses for, enable, protect, support, believe in, etc., etc.

But what if love is just being? What if it has no object, but just is?

Spring 10/2017

This little spring is absolutely true to itself. Water drains off the hillside above us and carves a path through the earth and rock until it emerges and runs down the surface at the foot of the hill. We pay no attention to it whatsoever. It’s reliable, predictable and faithful, but not because anyone is looking. Its unobtrusive, quiet presence has created a lush pocket of life, a complex system of plants, fungi, animals and insects, but ten yards away on the open hillside it’s invisible.

What if I make a choice to allow my feeling of love to run through my life in the same way the spring runs through and over the ground? What if I carry within me a wellspring, a hidden cleft, moist, fertile, filled with life, rich in sensuality, simply because it’s an expression of self? If others find their way to it, sit a while, bathe, drink, and allow it to nourish and refresh them, they’re welcome. If others can’t see it, or don’t value it, or dislike the perfume of rotting wood and leaves or the feel of plush moss under their bare foot, it’s nothing to do with me. Not everyone chooses to make their way through raspberry and hawthorn bushes, after all.

What if I don’t need anything in return because I’m giving nothing away? Perhaps the act of love can be a simple state of being, not a totality, not a hurricane of passion and lust, not a romantic fairytale, not a prison and torture chamber, but a spring, a waterway, a shining thread that I can share without depletion. Can I allow it to seep quietly up through the roots of my experience, even if no one else ever finds it, wants it, returns it or deems it acceptable?

Our spring is part of a landscape of field and forest, river, pond and stream, rocky hillside and bog. The landscape contains many forms and embraces many systems of life. Birth and death happen on this land. Disease, erosion and flood happen on this land. Prey and predators carry out their sacred dance of balance here. Blood, bone, fur, feather, antler, musk, urine and feces are all here.

I, too, am a complex system of history, memory, belief, thought and feeling. I do not feel love for everyone and everything. My experience of love is that it’s a wild thing; it seeps up where it will and trickles away without warning, taking no account of rules and expectations. I can’t command it and I don’t choose to hold it back. My love doesn’t need anyone’s reception, appreciation, validation or praise.

Love is. I reserve the right to love as I will. I am the keeper of my own wellspring.

I love. My daily crime.

Spring 10/2017

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Projection

Projection is a defense mechanism used to displace the responsibility of one’s negative and unacknowledged feelings, behavior, beliefs and choices by attributing them to someone else.

The goal of projection is to create a distraction that helps avoid ownership and accountability. The victim becomes the focus, and is manipulated into taking responsibility for the abuser’s behavior, beliefs and feelings.

For example, an obviously angry parent confronts and accuses their child of hating them. The child, in fact, loves the parent, feels disliked by the parent, and walks away feeling ashamed and guilty for hating their parent, even though that’s not their feeling. For the moment, the parent has successfully displaced their own self-hatred onto the child.

Another example is a friend talking to another friend about her experience of a chaotic yet transformative life event that’s picked her up and set her down in a different place. The speaker is accused of being negative and making her friend feel stressed and upset, in spite of the speaker’s attempts to be clear about the exhilaration and joy of her experience. The speaker walks away with her friend’s displaced inability to deal with change and loss of control, her own joy forgotten.

Projection is a common defense mechanism, and most of us use it to one degree or another. It’s not necessarily a Big Evil. On the other hand, projection can be a subtle and cruel blame shifting game of power-over, and some people who employ this tactic intend to win at any cost. Their victim and the world at large are blamed for everything that’s wrong or feels bad. The projector is an innocent victim of the machinations and manipulations of others, the general unfairness of the world and bad luck.

People who use projection as a weapon can have a devastating effect in our lives, but I’ve been even more devastated by my own use of projection, and this is a skill the culture has actively and systematically taught me to perfect.

I’ve been brainwashed since I was a child to believe that all people share my desire for peace, compassion and cooperation. I’ve been led to believe that all others share my empathy, my thirst to learn and grow and my priorities for healthy connection. I’ve been taught the Golden Rule, the application of which ensures being treated with love and kindness. We treat people the way we want to be treated, and voila!

Furthermore, as a female, it’s my responsibility to be a representative of all these values. If I fail to exemplify peace, empathy, loyalty and kindness towards others, I fail to be a good daughter, wife, lover, friend, mother and woman.

It’s also my job to be the keeper and carrier of feelings the people around me don’t want to deal with.  It’s what I’m for.

No one ever suggested to me how dangerous it is to project my own value system onto another person…

No one ever suggested to me how dangerous it is to project my own value system onto another person, and I only just discovered this for myself recently. As it gradually dawned on me, I struggled for a time to find an alternative way to look at the people around me. If I don’t approach others with all my naïve projections, then what? I don’t want to assume everyone is destructive and dangerous, either!

Then it occurred to me that our approach to strangers (or even those we think we know) needn’t be either/or, friend or foe. A stranger is a stranger. An unknown. It’s not necessary or useful to project anything onto a stranger. The Golden Rule still applies and I still conduct myself authentically and respectfully and pay attention as I interact with an unknown person. I’m learning not to manufacture stories, make assumptions or project. I inquire, listen, watch and take responsibility for my own feelings and behavior.

Projection is a complex technique and can be very hard to see when it’s lurking under the bed. However, in this house we’re skilled at pulling all sorts of monsters out from under the bed (metaphorically, of course) and letting the cat sniff at them. Once identified, projection is perfectly manageable.

Projection, like gaslighting and mice, leaves tell-tale signs.

  • Any conversation about a challenging issue (money, parenting, fidelity, keeping one’s word, the nature of the relationship, why you got hit) winds up being about why it’s all your fault.
  • You’re accused of something (a feeling, lying, cheating, stealing, being demanding, interrupting) that’s not true.
  • In spite of your best efforts, communication isn’t successful. You can’t get your point of view heard and you feel chronically disempowered.
  • After an interaction, you feel ashamed and guilty.
  • No matter what you do, you seem to be continually hurting someone you care about.
  • You don’t experience reciprocity; the more loyalty, understanding, empathy, love, gratitude and forgiveness you extend, the more drained and alone you feel.
  • You feel like a disappointment, a failure and a burden.
  • You’re always bleeding; you had no idea what a terrible person you are.
  • You feel manipulated, used, disliked and angry, which increases your guilt and shame.
  • You feel confused, baffled and bewildered. Every time you turn around you seem to get sucker punched, literally or figuratively.
  • You don’t feel safe.
  • Your trust is damaged.
  • Your boundaries are chronically violated.
  • Your priorities, feelings and values are disregarded, if not brutalized.
  • Your needs are not met.

Abusers and personality disordered people who employ projection invariably give themselves away, right in plain sight, because at some point they project onto others something so bizarre the victim and/or onlookers have an Aha! moment and recognize the manipulation. For example, someone with sexual boundary issues accuses someone else of an assault that never happened. A thief projects stealing onto someone with scrupulous integrity. A liar accuses an obviously honest person of lying. A rageholic accuses everyone else of being angry while they put their fist through a wall.

Another common projection is “You don’t care!” when in fact we care so much we feel terminally ill, and we still can’t make it work.

Shame and guilt have enormous isolating power. One of the best defenses against projection is to verify someone’s stated perception of you and your behavior. I had a boyfriend who accused me of “always interrupting.” I was crushed. It was a heated, angry accusation that blew up out of nowhere, and he’d never given me that feedback before. I’ve studied good communication techniques for a long time, and communication is something I care about doing well. Furthermore, I frequently had the experience that he interrupted me, but I tolerated it because I loved him.

My choice (after I stopped crying) was to ask other people in my life if they had this experience with me and get a reality check. I had a couple of close girlfriends whom I knew would tell me the truth. If it was true, I wanted to know so I could change that behavior.

They thought I was nuts. One of my best friends, who had years of experience of me in groups as well as one on one, said she appreciated the way I always held space for others to speak.

I didn’t cry anymore and I immediately dumped that projection. Not long after that the relationship also ended.

Another good defense against projection is to name the behavior and refuse the projection. There’s no need to fight, raise your voice, cry, argue, persuade, explain, justify or throw something. Those are all distractions from the fact that the abuser is employing a toxic tactic that’s about them, not you. Let them escalate—it’s their game. You’re don’t have to play.

“No. That’s not how I feel. That’s a projection.”

“No. That’s not what I did. That’s a projection.”

“No. That’s not what I said. That’s a projection.”

Stand your ground, look them in the eye and refuse to get distracted from their behavior, no matter how juicy the bait they dangle. Hang up, disconnect, block, delete, walk away, disengage. If you can’t get away from them, repeat a simple statement like the ones above as many times as you need to.

Projection can be abusive and toxic. It’s essential that we recognize it, both when we employ it and when others use it against us. Good boundaries go a long way to disabling projection, and so does the work of authenticity. We can’t control the behavior of others, but we can learn to recognize and excavate our own projections and take responsibility for our choices and feelings, which makes us far less vulnerable to this tactic.

Check out my Good Girl Rebellion page for this week’s antitoxin to life-threatening niceness.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted