Tag Archives: gaslighting

What We Didn’t Learn in Kindergarten: Thoughts and Feelings

One of the most important distinctions I’ve ever learned is the difference between thoughts and feelings. Sadly, I didn’t learn it in public or higher education. I didn’t learn it from my family. I didn’t learn it from my culture. I didn’t learn it, in fact, until I was 50 years old.

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What I understand now is that ignorance of the difference between thoughts and feelings effectively cripples us in every area of our lives. Our misunderstanding, fear and confusion about thoughts and feelings lie like a Gordian knot in the center of our psyches, inhibiting authenticity, clear communication, satisfying professional life, and healthy relationship. Our experience becomes a murky pond, breeding anxiety, fear and isolation.

To be human is to have feelings. It’s unavoidable. Some feelings are pleasant, and some are not. As very young children, we take our cues from others and label some feelings “good” and others “bad.” That is the starting point of our confusion, because “good” and “bad” describe thoughts about our feelings rather than the feelings themselves.

Feelings 101: Mad, sad, glad, scared and ashamed. This is a short list of basic human emotions that we all experience. Our feelings occur far faster than we can use logic, reason or language. Most of us recognize these core emotions in ourselves and others, though we often deny that recognition because of our thoughts about them. For example, many women of my generation have been taught that anger is unattractive and “bad.” Men are discouraged from feeling or expressing sadness. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to think about our feelings, rather than how to identify and express them appropriately.

As a result of all this thinking, we suppress, distort, deny, and try to amputate our feelings rather than welcoming, exploring, experiencing, and discharging them in a way that hurts neither ourselves nor others.

The problem is that if we don’t properly manage our feelings and allow them to pass through our bodies and our consciousness the way clouds pass through the sky, they become locked in place, festering and putrefying and eventually tearing us apart, both emotionally and physically.

Now I think of emotions as data, neither positive or negative. What we choose to do with our feelings is where the trouble begins, but the feelings themselves are neutral pieces of information indicating the degree to which our needs are met or not met. Our marvelous brains are evolved to collect specifics and details such as thoughts and feelings and organize them into some kind of coherence in order to facilitate life. Glad is not better than mad. Sad and scared are not necessarily negative experiences to be avoided.

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I vividly remember receiving my second divorce decree in the mail. I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at those official papers, feeling a kind of numb despair, mixed with relief.

I reviewed what seemed to me a lifetime of failure. I believed I’d failed my parents repeatedly, my brother, my kids, and both men I’d married. I’d dropped out of college. I was always struggling with money. All I’d ever done was work as hard as I knew how, and it seemed to me the harder I worked, the more I failed. I must truly be ugly and broken. It was no wonder nobody could love me. That I could feel even a little relief just showed how hateful I was. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself. I deserved to be alone.

Now look back at those last two paragraphs. The first one is two sentences long and identifies numb despair and relief, which are feelings. The second paragraph isn’t about my feelings at all. It’s about my thoughts about my feelings. My stories. My expectations. My beliefs. The second paragraph is about depression, the way I framed my past, and my inability to either accept or forgive myself. I offered myself no compassion or kindness that afternoon. I did not congratulate myself for having successfully exited an abusive marriage. I hated myself for my furtive but honest feeling of relief.

I don’t know about you, but the inside of my head is much better reflected in the second paragraph than in the first, and I would have, at that time, told you those were my feelings. They weren’t, though. They were merely my thoughts about my feelings.

I’m convinced that feelings are not what hurt us. In fact, they help us. When I feel mad, now I immediately ask myself if I’m experiencing or witnessing a boundary violation. Nearly always, the answer is yes. The emotion we call anger is helping me, giving me valuable information, pointing at something I need to deal with. That mad feeling is righteous and rightful, and it motivates action, hopefully appropriate and effective action.

Appropriate and effective action brings me to the most important aspect of learning emotional intelligence. It turns out that our thoughts and feelings, no matter how passionately we experience them, may not reflect reality.

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In other words, we can’t believe everything we think and feel. Or, rather, we can believe in our experience, but not necessarily our interpretation of our experience, and this means we frequently do not make appropriate and effective choices.

Managing our feelings requires we take responsibility for them.

As an example, many people walk around with PTSD triggers in their brains. I am one of those people. Now and then, specific circumstances trigger my panic, but that trigger is about me, not anyone else. I don’t expect the world to accommodate my PTSD. I don’t blame others when I get triggered. I feel the panic and all the other wretched symptoms, and those feelings are physiologically real. I’m not making them up. Yet I know what I’m experiencing is not real trauma in the moment, but a memory, a ghost, an echo of an old hurt.

Our thoughts can also lead us astray. We all have convictions, opinions and beliefs, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we can be wrong. In fact, we frequently are wrong. We misunderstand. We assume. We deny and distort. Our logic is flawed or we are ignorant of important pieces of information. We don’t think critically or for ourselves. We make up stories in our head, tell them to ourselves until we believe them, make choices as though our stories are true, and wonder why our relationships are disrupted and our lives don’t work well.

So, what to do?

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First, we need to go back to that 101 list of feelings and start recognizing, naming and accepting them when they come up for us. Where do we feel those core emotions in our bodies? What do we notice about our experience when we’re feeling mad, sad, glad, scared or ashamed? How do we manage the feeling? How is our coping style working for us? What happens if we sit down and hold an emotion in our laps without feeling compelled to take action, simply allowing it to ebb and flow through us? Who in our lives allows us to feel what we feel, and who doesn’t?

Secondly, we need to stop blaming anyone (or everyone) around us for our emotional experience. If we find ourselves in relationship with people who consistently make us feel angry, sad, exhausted and valueless, we need to take responsibility for exiting those relationships. We are not powerless. Chronic difficult feelings are asking for help, but we need to think clearly and carefully about the choices we make in order to help ourselves. Trying to feel better at the expense of someone else’s well-being is not appropriate. Self-destructing is not effective. It’s up to us to respond to our own emotional experience with kindness, acceptance and support.

Lastly, we need to monitor our thoughts, and challenge them frequently. I am constantly overhearing myself mindlessly repeating old beliefs and conclusions and saying, “Wait, is that true?” Nine times out of ten, it’s not true, or it only might be true. Another tactic I use now is to open my mouth and check out my perception. I live with a person I trust. If an interaction between us results in difficult feelings for me, I circle back around and talk about it, frequently finding out in the process that my thoughts and feelings have once again been skewed by old scars. I have misunderstood, or imperfectly understood, and leapt to mistaken conclusions and assumptions.

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Talking it over with someone we trust, someone who won’t gaslight us. What a concept.

Thoughts and feelings flow through our lives, sometimes in a destructive torrent and sometimes in a slow, life-giving trickle. They arise within us, are of us, and are our responsibility. Thoughts and feelings are two distinct pieces of data, and they do not necessarily reflect reality. We are not entitled to have them validated by the world. Our thought-and-feeling experience is not more important or true than anyone else’s.

I will not be a slave to my thoughts and feelings, or those of anyone else. My emotions are my friends and guides rather than my enemies or masters. They are not a matter of shame. I don’t believe everything they tell me about reality, but they do help me understand the places in which I can heal and grow, and they are part of my decision-making process.

I feel satisfied. I think this post is complete. 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.

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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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Denial

I looked up the word “denial” to find a quick definition as a starting point for this post. Fifteen minutes later I was still reading long Wiki articles about denial and denialism. They’re both well worth reading. I realize now that the subject of denial is much bigger than I first supposed, and one little blog post cannot do justice to its history and scope.

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I wanted to write about denial because I keep tripping over it. It seems to lurk in the background of every experience and interaction, and it’s nearly always accompanied by its best buddy, fear. I’ve lately made the observation to my partner that denial appears more powerful than love in our culture today.

I’ve written before about arguing with what is, survival and being wrong, all related to denial. I’ve also had bitter personal experience with workaholism and alcoholism, so denial is a familiar concept and I recognize it when I see it.

I see it more every day.

I was interested to be reminded that denial is a useful psychological defense mechanism. Almost everyone has had the experience of a sudden devastating psychological shock such as news of an unexpected death or catastrophic event. Our first reaction is to deny and reject what’s happening. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first of five stages of psychology in a dying patient. Therein lies the distinction between denial as part of a useful and natural cycle and denial as a permanent coping mechanism. In modern psychology denial is followed by other stages as we struggle to come to terms with a difficult event. We (hopefully) move through the stages, gathering our resources to cope with what’s true and coming to terms with the subsequent changes in our lives.

Denialism, on the other hand, is a “choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth” (Wikipedia). For some, denial is an ideology.

In other words, denialsim is all about fear, fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of painful feelings, fear of loss of power, fear of one’s cover being blown. This is why some of the most rabid and vicious homophobes are in fact homosexual. Unsurprisingly, projection and gaslighting are frequently used by those who practice denialism.

I’ve no doubt that denial is an integral part of the human psyche. I never knew anyone who didn’t have a knee-jerk ability to deny. I do it. My partner does it. My friends and family do it. My partner and I have a code phrase: “I’m not a vampire,” that comes from the TV series Angel in a hilarious moment when a vampire is clearly outed by one of the other characters. He watches her put the evidence together: “… nice place… with no mirrors, and… lots of curtains… Hey! You’re a vampire!” “What?” he says. “No I’m not,” with absolutely no conviction whatsoever. It always makes us giggle. If Angel is too low-brow for you, consider William Shakespeare and “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Denial is not a new and unusual behavior.

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The power of denial is ultimately false, however. Firstly and most obviously, denial does not affect the truth. We don’t have to admit it, but truth is truth, and it doesn’t care whether we accept it or not. Secondly, denial is a black hole of ever-increasing complications. Take, for example, flat-earthers. Think for a moment about how much they have to filter every day, how actively they have to guard against constant threats to their denialsim. Everything becomes a battlefield, any form of science-related news and programming; many types of print media; images, both digital and print, now more widely available than ever; and simple conversation. I can’t imagine trying to live like that, embattled and defensive on every front. It must take enormous energy. I frankly don’t understand why anyone would choose such hideous complications. It seems to me much easier to wrestle with the problem itself than deal with all the consequences of denying there is a problem.

Maybe that’s just me.

It seems our denial becomes more important than love for others or love for ourselves. It becomes more important than our integrity, our health, our friends and family, loyalty, and respect or tolerance. Our need to deny can swallow us whole, just as I’ve seen work and alcohol swallow people whole. Denial refuses collaboration, cooperation, honest communication, problem solving and, most of all, learning. Denialism is always hugely threatened by any attempt to share new information or ask questions.

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Denial is a kind of spiritual malnutrition. It makes us small. Our sense of humor and curiosity wither. Fear sucks greedily on our power. We become invested in keeping secrets and hiding things from ourselves as well as others. We allow chaos to form around us so we don’t have to see or hear anything that threatens our denial.

This is not the kind of fear that makes our heart race and our hands sweat. This is the kind of fear that feels like a slamming steel door. It’s cold. It’s certain. We say, “I will not believe that. I will not accept that.”

And we don’t. Not ever. No matter what.

A prominent pattern of folks in denial is that they work hard to pull other people into validating them. Denial works best in a club, the larger the better. The ideology of denialism demands strong social groups and communities that actively seek power to silence others or force them into agreement. Not tolerance, but agreement. This behavior speaks to me of a secret lack of strength and conviction, even impotence. If we are not confused about who we are and what we believe, there’s no need to recruit and coerce others to our particular ideology. If you believe the earth is flat, it’s fine with me. I’m not that interested, frankly. I disagree, but that’s neither here nor there, and I don’t need you to agree with my view. When I find myself recruiting others to my point of view, I know I’m distressed and unsure of my position and I’m not dealing effectively with my feelings.

I’ve written before about the OODA loop, which describes the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide and act. The ability to move quickly and effectively through the OODA loop is a survival skill. Denial is a cheat. It masquerades as a survival strategy, but in fact it disables the loop. It keeps us from adapting. It keeps us dangerously rigid rather than elegantly resilient.

Some people have a childlike belief that if something hasn’t happened, it won’t, as in this river has never flooded, or this town has never burned, or we’ve never seen a category 6 hurricane. Our belief that bad things can’t happen at all, or won’t happen again, pins us in front of the oncoming tsunami or the erupting volcano. It allows us to rebuild our homes in places where flood, fire and lava have already struck. We ignore, minimize or deny what’s happening to the planet and to ourselves. We don’t take action to save ourselves. We don’t observe and orient ourselves to the changes happening.

Some things are just too bad to be true. I get it, believe me. I’m often afraid, and I frequently walk through denial, but I’m damned if I’ll build a house there. The older I get, the more determined I am to embrace the truth. I don’t care how much pain it gives me or how much fear I feel. I want to know, to understand, to see things clearly, and then make the best choices I can. It’s the only way to stay in my power. I refuse to cower before life as it is, in all its mystery, pain and terrible beauty.

Ultimately, denial is weak. I am stronger than that.

My daily crime.

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Jennifer Rose
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