Tag Archives: labels

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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Identify Yourself

Identity is everywhere. Identity theft, identity politics, job applications and social media profiles confront us at every turn. We are constantly being commanded to prove our identity, not only formally, as in logging on to our bank accounts, but socially, in order to justify our existence, our beliefs and our values.

Technology has created new challenges in the way we talk about, understand and shape our identity. AI is no longer a piece of science fiction, and evidence grows regarding websites, social media trolls and other online entities that successfully manipulate, divide and interfere with social discourse, information and opinion.

We are woefully easy targets.

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Merriam-Webster online defines identity as “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” The online Free Dictionary says identity is “the set of characteristics by which a person or thing is definitively recognizable or known; the awareness that an individual or group has of being a distinct, persisting entity.”

Objective reality. The term objective means “(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” (Oxford Dictionary; emphasis mine.) This means a purple-polka-dotted snake cannot claim the identity of a green-striped zebra, no matter how indignantly and vociferously it insists it feels like one. Personality disorders are recognized as such because those who suffer from them are not always dealing with objective reality. A purple-polka-dotted snake who wants to be a green-striped zebra is divided tragically from itself and others, not only other purple-polka-dotted snakes, but all others, because it persists in trying to behave and be accepted as something it’s not, ultimately self-destructing.

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I’ve written before about labels, denial, arguing with what is and pseudo self, all of which ideas intersect with identity. Have you watched a potter at work with clay on a wheel? As they shape a vessel, one hand works inside and one outside. Identity is like that. The tribe we’re born into gives us our earliest sense of identity, and we take our cues from them. If our tribe is critical and we feel unaccepted and unloved, we internalize those voices and viewpoints and give them power in our psyche to mold our identity. At the same time, we go out into the world and our schools, jobs, communities, places of worship and other organizations identify us from the outside.

Years ago I worked with a group of gifted and talented middle and high school students as a school librarian. None of them fit in terribly well with their classmates. A young man I was very fond of was quite lonely, as well as being brilliant, and he said one day he was nothing but the “fat boy.” He was sixteen years old, and seemed resigned to carrying the identity of “fat boy” to the end of his life. I told him, entirely sincerely, that I never thought of him as the “fat boy.” He was obese. Obviously, I noticed. But to me he was a funny, interesting, curious, compassionate, vulnerable human being. His weight concerned me because of the social stigma and quality of his health, but I never thought of him as the “fat boy.”

He could see that I was telling him the truth. I haven’t any idea what happened to him or what he’s been doing all these years, but I’ve always hoped he remembered there was an adult in his life who saw beyond the limitations of “fat boy” and recognized other pieces of his identity and potential. I hope he learned at some point that he didn’t have to settle for a life defined by his weight.

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Over the years of my lifetime, more and more people seem to never mature past teenage identity. We build websites, profiles and a social media presence, desperately trying to sell a successful identity for attention, true love, power or money. We are so compulsive about taking selfies that we die doing it. There’s an explosion of people seeking plastic surgery in order to match their digitally-altered pictures. We have the technology to alter hair color, eye color and physical characteristics, and we’re saturated with digitally-altered images on media that keep us firmly convinced we’re unattractive and imperfect as we are. At the same time, we socially reinforce and perpetuate ridiculous gender, racial and ethnic roles, limitations and expectations.

Perfect strangers insist on imposing labels on us, or try to bully us into choosing one label over another. It’s an either-or black-and-white world, and new labels proliferate like maggots in road kill, creating ever-increasing lines of division and arenas for conflict.

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We are in such a hurry, we’re so overstimulated and anxious to not be left behind and to be validated, we’ve forgotten the simplicity of identity, and we’ve forgotten we don’t owe the world a public explanation or justification of our identity. Having a Facebook or Tinder profile does not constitute an identity. Having feelings and opinions about who we are is not an identity. Our carefully constructed pseudo self is not an identity. Our identity is not maintained and created by what others think, feel or say about us. Identity is not an endpoint, but a journey. Healthy identity is flexible. It adapts and changes as we live our lives. We are not who we wish we were, who we are afraid we are or necessarily who we think we are. We are not exactly who we were yesterday or who we’ll be tomorrow. We’re certainly not necessarily what others tell us we are, or must be, although objective reality always trumps our internal fantasies.

Our identity, like our power, is ours alone. We need not sell it or give it away, and it cannot be stolen from us. On the other hand, we must take responsibility for our own self-sabotage and mental disorders if we seek a healthy identity.

Healthy identity is complex and multi-dimensional. I’ve been daughter, sister, wife and mother, and I’m much more than any of those single roles. I’ve worked several jobs over my lifetime, but I’m more than any of those jobs. I have a physical identity in terms of vital statistics, Caucasian skin, blue eyes and female biology, but none of those markers identify me as completely as the fact that I’m a human being. A healthy identity also accommodates shadows, scars, less-than-useful coping mechanisms and behavior patterns.

“My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.”
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

Tech allows us to create superficial fantasies of bright colors and pleasurable images, but those worlds are empty and brittle, like an enticing piece of candy that melts in a minute on our tongue and leaves nothing but the taste of sugar and artificial flavor. We cannot judge identity by houses, gardens, cars, vacations, pets, children, selfies, clothing, jobs or partners. Our possessions, our pictures and our memorabilia are not our identity. Somewhere, under all that stuff, behind all those pictures of success and happiness, apart from our fear and unwillingness to come to terms with our objective reality and our denial, lies the powerful, complex, fascinating, valuable person we really are, and that person longs to be identified and welcomed into life. That person longs to give and receive love, make a valued contribution and live authentically.

I’m interested in the way people self-define and introduce themselves. It always points to either what we ourselves feel is the largest part of our identity or what we think others will value or connect with most readily. This is what lies beneath every dating profile. What do we imagine prospective partners will be most attracted to? What’s the perfect thing to say which will limit unwanted matches and encourage those we imagine might provide whatever we’re looking for? How can we optimize the algorithm and make it work for us?

Sometimes I walk away from meeting a new person feeling overwhelmed and deafened by all the ways they labeled themselves and with no sense of the real human being I just interacted with. Instead of an easy, exploratory, getting-to-know-one-another conversation, I was bludgeoned with political jargon and identifiers, patronized and gratuitously instructed out of some kind of claimed expertise. It feels aggressive, weak and demanding. This is who I am and you will recognize my status, authority and identity! If you don’t apply one of my proud labels to yourself, you should. All the best people do. In any event, my labels are better than yours.

“I look like vanilla pudding so nobody knows that on the inside I am spider soup.”
Andrea Portes, Anatomy of a Misfit

Our identity is not for others, but for ourselves. We’re the ones who need to know who we are, experience our feelings and monitor our thoughts. We’re the ones in charge of our dignity, our sexuality and our choices. We’re the ones responsible for our own integrity. As my hair greys and my fertility wanes, I become more and more physically invisible in the world. At the same time, I’ve never been as strong, as resilient, as wise and as compassionate as I am now. I’ve never loved so well. I’ve never felt so whole or comfortable in my own skin. I have no social media accounts and no cell phone. I don’t use any kind of apps, dating or otherwise. My identity is strong and dynamic, and it’s not for sale or on display. In fact, I’ve always felt being invisible is a great advantage. People who attract no attention are invariably underestimated and overlooked, especially aging female people.

At the end of the day, a life well lived is about being who we are, objective reality included, because everyone else is taken. Or a fantasy. Fantasy is fun, but real life is where all the juice is.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Letting Go

I have, on my desk, a small clay sculpture of a woman with her hands cupped in front of her chest. She holds a tiny clay bird and is surrounded by a couple of crystals, a piece of amethyst and a small geode. This little altar has been my daily companion for years. Wise and smiling, round and nurturing, the sculpture has comforted me through many losses, grief and rage. She’s one of my greatest treasures.

Letting Go

These days, the bird she holds is perched on the rim of the wooden dish that she sits on, looking out at the room, at the world, at me. It can stay, or it can fly away. For now, it is content to sit, watching and listening, as I live my life in these two small rooms at the top of our sagging farmhouse.

I have placed tiny polished garnets in the woman’s cupped hands where the bird once nestled.

I had a friend, dear and wise, in my old place who once said to me that if we open our hands and let something go, and keep our hands open, something new will come and fill them. As she spoke, I again saw the image of an open hand, generous, allowing freedom, and prepared to welcome and support the next thing, and the next.

Letting go is power. Letting go is serenity. Letting go is an authentic act of love toward self and others. The usefulness of letting go is not a secret. Almost any self-help book out there talks about it as an aspect of healthy functioning, but I think popular psychology doesn’t explore it deeply enough.

Letting go doesn’t mean we brush aside our feelings. Not at all. Unexpressed feelings cement us in place. We all know people who remain frozen in time because of a death or traumatic event. Years and decades pass, but they don’t heal. They don’t move on. Their emotional growth is arrested. This is what unfinished emotional business looks like. Unexpressed feelings can’t flow through us and dissipate so we can release them.

We know very little about appropriately expressing our feelings in this culture.

Feelings aren’t thoughts. They’re not stories, expectations, beliefs or ideology. They’re not labels or rules. Like it or not, admit it or not, we’re physiologically wired for feelings, and they give us good information about how things are with us. Our thoughts and beliefs, on the other hand, are frequently distorted, confused, inaccurate, misinformed, outdated or otherwise unreliable.

That’s where letting go comes in.

We’ve all had events in our life that left deep scars. We’ve all seen things we can’t unsee, heard things we can’t unhear and done things we can’t undo. We’ve all felt disempowered or victimized at one time or another. Death and disaster enter our lives with no warning and take those we love.

Some people move on from such events with more grace than others. I suspect part of that grace has to do with forgiveness. Not forgetfulness, but forgiveness of self and others. I suspect another part is the ability to fully experience and express the feelings attached to the event. That requires a certain kind of support, and many folks don’t have it. Some people simply don’t choose to move on or let go. They center their thoughts, feelings and energy in the event, whatever it was, and they hold it tight, cherishing it, feeding the fire of their pain, keeping their scars open with the razor blade of their attention and focus. It becomes part of their identity, part of their story, a grievance to cling to, a betrayal to treasure, a wound to worship.

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I have a book called Clean Sweep, by Denny Sargent. It’s filled with rituals and instructions to help us let go of what no longer serves us. The author outlines a banishing exercise in which he suggests the reader visualize holding tightly to a thorny branch. In my own version, the branch is heavy, so heavy I can hardly hold it, which drives the thorns deeply into my flesh. The branch is a person, event, memory or belief that gives us emotional pain. We can make an easy choice and cling to it, cradle it, embrace it, let it tear our skin and make us bleed. We can make a harder choice and set it down, open our hands and let it fall. We can walk away from it. We can burn it or bury it.

In order to let go, we have to be willing to surrender control and endure loss. Letting go of a core piece of identity, a long-held belief or a painful memory is difficult work, even when that core piece, belief or memory gives us great pain. Letting go will leave a hole. Then what? Then who are we? How do we fill that hole? How do we understand ourselves and our place in the world? This is scary stuff.

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Aristotle said nature abhors a vacuum. My friend was right. If we open our hand and release what we’re holding, something else will come, though we can’t predict or control what it might be. In fact, the thing released might return to us in another form. We can’t know. We’ll never know unless we release our need to control. We’ll never find out what might perch on our open hand if we’re not willing to walk through loss in order to reach gain.

I’m having a long and involved break up with my desire to control. Some days I go all day without thinking about it, and other days I want to micromanage everyone and everything in my life. Some days I feel light and free, a confident and lovely woman, and other days I feel like a grubby three-year-old hiding under the covers sucking my thumb because nothing and no one is the way I want them to be. I sulk and pout and snarl and I feel crushed by the thorny weight of my need to control.

Then, at some point, my eye falls on my little clay wise woman and her cupped hands and wide-open heart, and I say, “Oh, yeah. That’s right. Letting go.”

I feel annoyed when people tell me to “get over it.” First of all, I have a right to my feelings, and secondly, it’s not that easy. Letting go, for me, is a practice, and I need time to engage in it. Sometimes I go back and find my leaden armful of hawthorn or bramble or locust and hold it again for a while, opening up all the old wounds, exhausting myself, hurting myself, and, finally, opening my hands and letting it fall again. Sometimes I need to design a ritual for letting go, a prayer or a dance or some kind of purification rite. Sometimes I need to make a physical resting place, like a grave or a patch of garden or a newly-planted tree in order to let something go. For me, taking time to honor whatever it is I’m trying to release is helpful. Whatever it is that no longer serves, it was once a part of my life and experience. Laying things to rest in this way helps me release them fully and finally.

When it comes right down to it, this blog has been an exercise in letting go as much as anything else.

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When we know how to let go, we increase our power, as well as the power of others. Often, what we desperately hold onto is people. This is a strong archetype in old stories; locking the beautiful maiden in the stone tower to “protect” her. Part of love, as any seasoned parent will tell you, is letting go. Imprisoning, disempowering and trying to control others isn’t love. Refusing to let go of someone isn’t love.

Releasing our grievances with others frees them as well as ourselves. Being willing to accept an apology, an explanation, and the imperfections of others allows us all to move forward with lighter loads. The stories and memories we hurt ourselves with are often ghosts, events involving people who are long dead and far in the past. We can choose to bless them and lay them to rest.

I don’t want to haul around painful memories, toxic garbage, the futility of trying to control life and ineffective behaviors and beliefs. I can’t swim with all that tied to my ankle. I can’t dance. I can’t embrace anything or anyone with an armful of brambles. I can’t create with a heart full of thorns.

I want to be free.

I open my hands.

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Make a Boat

Make a boat
out of who you are
not what you have.
If you don’t know who you are
(Search for the desert between the worlds.
Find the Lady of Bones.
Recollect.
Reassemble.
Bathe in soul.
Birth yourself.)
That is another journey.

Your boat will be small.
You can take no one.
You can take no thing.

Shape your boat with the entirety of your truth.
Shape it with the joy in your hands
and the wisdom in the soles of your feet.
Make a chisel of rage and grief.
Sand with the grit of clarity.
Stain with blood.
Oil your boat with the moisture and musk of your life.
Take your time
And remember
Fear does not float.

When you know the boat is ready,
Sit in it.
Lay the backs of your hands on your knees.
Open your hands.
Let everything go.
Let everything go.

Keep your hands open
So that new things may come.

Without fear
Ask the one who stands just behind your shoulder
The one who shelters your life in the shadow of her wing
To come forward.
She will guide the boat.

Surrender yourself to your boat,
to the water,
to your guide.

Find your breath.
Stay there.
Find your heartbeat.
Stay there.
Keep your hands open.
Rest.

Don’t stand up in the boat!
Don’t throw yourself out of the boat!
Don’t you want to see where you are going?

Look. See how the feathers on her wing
trail in the water?

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted