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Red Flags

A little over three years ago I wrote a post titled “Questions Before Engagement.”

Since then, the world has changed, and so have I.

I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.

A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.

The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.

We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.

We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?

If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.

So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:

  • Do we trust ourselves?
  • Do we respond to our intuition?
  • Do we choose to defend ourselves?
  • Do we have healthy personal boundaries?
  • Do we keep our word to ourselves?
  • Do we know how to say both yes and no?
  • Do we know what our needs are?
  • Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?

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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.

Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.

The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.

If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.

Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.

Power-Over

  • Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
  • Win and be right at all costs
  • Gaslighting, projection, DARVO tactics (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender)
  • Fostering confusion, distrust, disinformation, and violence
  • Dishonesty
  • Poor communication and refusing to answer questions
  • Emotional unavailability
  • High-conflict behavior
  • Blaming and shaming of others
  • Refusal to respect boundaries
  • Inconsistent
  • Refusal to discuss, debate, learn new information, take no for an answer
  • Lack of reciprocity
  • Lack of interest in the needs and experiences of others

Power-With

  • Encouraging questions, feedback, open discussion, new information, ongoing learning, critical thinking
  • Prioritizing connection, collaboration, and cooperation over winning and being right; tolerance
  • Clear, consistent, honest communication
  • Fostering clarity, trust, information (facts), healthy boundaries, reciprocity, authenticity, and peaceful problem solving
  • Emotionally available and intelligent
  • Taking responsibility for choices and consequences
  • Words and actions are consistent over time
  • Respect and empathy for others

We don’t need to be in the dark about red flags. Here are some highly recommended resources:

  • The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
  • Bill Eddy’s website and books about high-conflict personalities
  • Controlling People by Patricia Evans

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

Avoidance

One of my greatest unconscious defaults in life is avoidance. I know now, thanks to Peter Walker and his work, avoidance is a natural trauma response.

Nothing makes me crazier than people who avoid unpleasant things.

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Is there a pattern here? (Laughter in the wings.)

I’m thinking about this because I’m steadily publishing my fiction in serial form on Substack, week by week, about 10 pages by 10 pages, and it’s a challenge.

Something in me wants to avoid revealing my own creativity. My writing takes me to some dark, and some people would say inappropriate, places. Every week (I just posted for the 8th week), I push myself through whatever the content of my post happens to be. More than that, I deliberately take it on in an accompanying essay.

I’m an expert in self-sabotage. I’ve been doing it my whole life, largely through simple avoidance. At the same time, it appears my previously intermittent and now increasing tendency to call a spade a spade and be honest about my experience is one of the characteristics others struggle with most when they deal with me.

It’s a strange paradox, and it creates ongoing internal tension.

The avoidance part of me is childish and disempowered. The direct, take-the-bull-by-the-horns part of me is powerful and hangs out with Baba Yaga.

I love the direct part of myself, but I don’t think anyone else can. I think others want the avoidant woman, because she’s so damn “nice.”

Ick.

When I first began writing creatively, I thought it would all be sweetness and light, love and romance, happily ever after.

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

As the years passed, and I expanded out of (mostly bad) poetry, played with writing oral stories, and then started seriously writing fiction, my output took a darker turn. The sweetness and light included bitter and dark. The love and romance became raw sensuality and included detailed sexual content. I took old fairy tales, cleansed by the brothers Grimm and others, and excavated the darker, dirtier, more violent roots. My characters graphically tore out eyes and watched them change into marbles. They killed people. They ate people. Shapeshifters had sex. Towers fell. People went to war and practiced genocide.

My writing wasn’t dark on every page, but it wasn’t sweetness and light on every page, either. It made me cry. It made me cringe. It made me uncomfortable because of its emotional power. I wondered at myself. Yet never have I been so captured, so challenged, so confident, so happy as I am when writing.

After all, in those days almost nobody read it! I wrote for myself, and held nothing back.

Now I’ve deliberately changed that. Now anyone can read it. And some people are.

For a while I considered cutting the parts I judged as being too … what? Too honest? Too sexy? Too potentially offensive? Too violent? Too real?

Yes. All those things.

My impulse was to avoid revealing myself. Stay safely hidden. Stay small. Refrain from making myself or anyone else uncomfortable.

Even as I considered that, I knew I wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t betray myself that way. If I’m to be judged as not good enough, I want the judgement based on the deepest, most complex, most powerful and honest work I’m capable of.

Because that’s the only way my writing is good enough for me.

My Substack post last week included explicit sexual content. There will be more, but that was the first. I wrote an essay to go with it titled “Creating the Webbd Wheel: Sex.” I’ve been worrying about that post for weeks. In the end, I kept it simple and direct. I was writing about sexual content. The title was clear. Why prevaricate?

Substack provides writers with statistics 24 hours after they post, and I was informed my essay got the most reads of anything I’ve posted so far.

I’ve been giggling ever since. So far, nobody’s given me a bad time about my sexual content, but even if they do, I know I was right in what I wrote in that essay. Nobody wants to talk about sex, and we all have a lot of judgement and fear around it, but that doesn’t mean it occupies none of our private attention. We can’t amputate ourselves from our sexual nature, no matter how much we wish we could or others tell us we should.

I will probably unconsciously default to avoidance for the rest of my life. It’s a deeply-rooted pattern. I’m socially rewarded for being “nice.” On the other hand, I personally value authenticity and honesty far more than I do niceness. I want to grow up to be direct and clear. Not mean, but not avoidant or arguing with what is, either. It’s a fine line, one I don’t walk steadily or gracefully.

But I’m not going to avoid trying.

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The Nexus of Power: Choice

As I work with the next piece of Allan Savory’s holistic management model from his book, Holistic Management, I’m thinking about choice.

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When I learned emotional intelligence, I understood choice as central to our personal power. The choice to say yes. The choice to say no. Our power to choose mindfully and intentionally is constantly under attack.

I also learned, to my chagrin, how much time and energy I had spent trying to change or fix what I have no power to change or fix and overlooking the places in which I do have power. I could not effectively make decisions until I learned to let go, stop arguing with what is, step away from where the blows land, and stop taking poisoned bait.

As Joshua Fields Millburn says, “letting go is not something you do. It is something you stop doing.”

Reclaiming our ability and power to choose from our unconscious patterns and addictions is a difficult journey. Reclaiming our power of choice from those who have stolen it or seek to steal it is a journey into fear. Reclaiming our power of choice in spite of our fear is an exercise in heroism.

Once we have narrowed the whole we’re trying to manage to the dimensions in which we truly have power, we’re faced with learning how to make decisions and carrying them through.

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The power of choice comes with responsibility. Some people don’t want to consciously choose because they don’t want to take responsibility for the outcomes they create with their choices. Another pattern I’ve often seen is the desire to have as many options as possible at all times – a recipe for noncommitment and a tactic that invariably steals power from others.

Choosing one option means we leave others behind. Choosing, and working with the consequences of our choices, requires flexibility, resilience, and the willingness to be wrong.

We will inevitably make choices that result in unwanted, unexpected results.

However, refusing to choose is still a choice. Inaction has consequences, just as action does.

If we don’t choose, someone else or circumstances will choose for us.

Is the goal of decision-making perfection or empowerment?

Is the right choice the one that gives us the outcome we want? Is the wrong choice the one that results in an outcome we didn’t foresee or dislike?

Some choices are easy, like which shirt to wear.

Some choices tear us apart, like being forced to choose between caring for ourselves and caring for someone we love.

Most of the choices we make in a day we never even notice.

Some choices change the direction of our lives and we never forget the moment we stood at a crossroad and made a decision.

We can’t necessarily tell the important choices from the unimportant ones when we’re faced with them.

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The ability to choose is strength and power.

The ability to choose involves risk and uncertainty. No matter how well we gather information, weigh pros and cons, and try to imagine the future, choice is largely a leap in the dark. As we choose, so do those around us. Our choices impact them, and their choices impact us.

It’s absolutely impossible to predict where some choices will take us.

In Savory’s model, the holistic context directs decision-making. If we know something about where we are, and something about where we want to end up, we can build a path from here to there. Our choices are steps along the path, taking us forward. The cause and effect of choice is always uncertain and dynamic, so we can expect our path to fork, detour, double back, and otherwise confuse and confound us.

Choosing is a flow that never stops. Once we’ve decided to step into it, one choice leads to another, and another.

No one, no one can make better choices for us than we can.

Savory proposes a list of questions, called context checks, to help in decision-making:

  • Does this action address the root cause of the problem?
  • Might this action have negative social, biological, or financial consequences?
  • Does this action provide the greatest return toward the goals for each unit of time or money invested?
  • Does this action contribute the most to covering the costs inherent in the endeavor?
  • Is the energy or money used in this action coming from the most appropriate source in our holistic context?
  • If we take this action, will it lead us toward or away from the future resource base described in our holistic context?
  • How do we feel about this action? Might it lead to the quality of life we defined in our holistic context? What might its adverse effects be?

These questions ask us to think beyond our immediate desires and consider the possible impact of our actions on others, now and into the future. They ask us for our best predictions, and to think carefully about our goals through the lens of sustainability.

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The context checks are not a one and done exercise. Savory suggests they be revisited frequently, either at set intervals or in case of unexpected outcomes and events.

There will certainly be unexpected outcomes and events, as well as new information. Each choice we make teaches us something, and we (hopefully) integrate what we’ve learned into our next step.

Learning to make choices, and discerning the places in which we have no power to make choices, are two of the most essential things we can do in life. It seems to me the act of choosing is far more meaningful than whether we or others judge our decisions and their outcomes as “good” or “bad.”

Sadly, our culture seems more concerned at present with criticizing and/or eliminating the choices of others rather than developing and supporting good decision-making skills that foster personal power for everyone. Many of us spend too much time preoccupied with things we cannot change, actively disempowering ourselves and making ourselves miserable.

Making my own choices and learning from the consequences. My daily crime.

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Reshuffle

I love solitaire. I find it infinitely soothing. Of course, there’s a line between soothing and numbing, just as there is with any activity. As long as I mindfully use a game or two as a tool rather than being used by it, it’s one of my favorite wait-I-need-to-think-about-this or catch-my-breath techniques.

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

The thing about solitaire, whether we play the old-fashioned way with a deck of cards, or online, is that each game is different because we shuffle the cards.

We shuffle the cards.

We make choices as we play, so we have some control, but the shuffle is random. Always the same cards, but in different positions every time.

Sometimes we win. Sometimes the cards don’t fall right, or we make mistakes, or both, and we lose.

One of the unexpected results of working with holistic decision-making is that it’s forcing me to reshuffle my cards.

Each of my relationships is a card. My job-for-a-paycheck is one, and exercise, and sleeping, and eating. My Be Still Now time is a card. All the ordinary household tasks and activities of daily living have a card. My time is a card, and my energy another. Each piece of my life can be represented by a card.

When I don’t shuffle the deck, I keep laying out the cards in the same old way, in the same old order, and experiencing the same old frustrations and challenges.

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Holistic decision-making demands a fresh look at what I’m trying to manage and why, as well as an assessment of my personal deck of cards, including priorities, resources, and sustainability. In looking at my life from an unaccustomed vantage point, through the filter of Allan Savory’s model, I see previously unconscious choices and patterns that are not in line with my current intentions.

The cards haven’t quite fallen right, or I’ve made mistakes, or both. My deck is too large and I need to discard, or too small and I need to add some cards. I’ve dealt less important cards on top of essential ones.

So I’m reshuffling my cards and exploring new layouts.

I can’t do everything. I want to. I think I should. I can’t.

Everything and everyone can’t be a priority. Some of my time and energy investments have provided little or no return. In some ways my life hasn’t been reflecting the truth of my heart.

So I’m reshuffling my cards.

Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

I could refuse to reshuffle. Eventually, life will force a reshuffle, maybe in painful and unexpected ways. I could wait for that. On the other hand, I can face my fears, be willing to cut my losses, tell the truth (at least to myself), and let go of what’s no longer serving me.

I choose to reshuffle.

Not enough time/space/energy for what’s really important? Exhausted and overwhelmed?

Reshuffle.

Distracted and out of balance? Unfocused?

Reshuffle

Feeling disempowered?

Reshuffle. Take out the Joker. And cut!

Reshuffling my cards. My daily crime.

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Holistic Management 1: The Whole

I have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve ever come across, Holistic Management by Allan Savory.

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Savory is a wildlife biologist, farmer, and cofounder of the Savory Institute, an organization that teaches and supports regenerative land management. I read the book because I admire Allan Savory’s lifetime commitment to understanding the delicate complexity of our environment. He has successfully restored ecosystems and land on several continents using animals. His work, and the work of others like him, can restore and revive our planet, if we can muster the political will and willingness to give up some of our cherished and destructive ideas about how to manage land and animals.

Savory is an enormously important teacher for farmers. I became familiar with his work because of my interest in permaculture. This particular book, however, is a blueprint for managing any complex system, not just a farm.

I’m a great planner, goal-setter, and list-maker, but I’ve never seen any decision-making or management process like this, and as I read the book I marveled at how intuitively right it feels. Policies and standard operating procedures are so often inadequate, not enforceable, and ineffective, in spite of hours and hours of committee work and good intentions. This book explains why.

I picked up the book around the same time I was deciding to get more proactive with my writing. I recognize that I need a plan, but feel overwhelmed by all the moving parts and how to use my time and other resources effectively. What about work-life balance? I do, after all, have a job. What should my priorities be? How much time will I need for each aspect of writing? What about money?

As I read Holistic Management, I took copious notes. I could see that Savory’s framework for decision making was more complete than any I’d seen before, and specifically suited to complexity.

After finishing the book, I created a document using Savory’s model. Now comes the hard part. I need to apply his bare outlines to my own situation. It occurred to me that might be an interesting process to make visible, as this is a kind of decision-making most of us have never seen before, and who doesn’t have something to manage, a household, a family, a business, finances, a life?

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The first step is figuring out the whole under management. Right away, we’re in new territory, because Savory realizes that any system is not a series of separate boxes, but a dynamic, nonlinear, and complex series of overlapping wholes containing people and resources, including the land on which the system exists. No matter what we’re trying to manage, the land will be part of the whole under management. Water cycles, mineral cycles, soil, animals and plants sustain every human activity, and creating management plans without acknowledging that truth has led us to climate change, catastrophic pollution, diminishing resources, and the destruction of billions of acres of land around the world.

Holistic management of anything must take into account the effects of our choices on the environment.

The whole under management includes decision makers, physical resources, people as resources, and financial resources. I’m the decision maker for my writing plan. For physical resources, I listed our 26 acres and the buildings on it, as well as the soil, water, plants and trees. I added technology to that list as well. For people as resources I listed friends, family, my partner, a professional support team, my community, and readers.

It didn’t occur to me until later to add myself as a resource. Typical!

Financial resources include money earned, inherited, borrowed, or dollars generated from my resource base, that is dollars earned from writing or the land under my management.

Working with the concept of wholes under management provides a new frame for decision-making that depends (surprise, surprise) on the recognition that effective planning means sharing power. When we approach management from the position of power-over others, including natural resources, we have failed to create a successful, sustainable policy or plan before we’ve even begun. Any system that ignores the needs of any part of the whole is doomed to failure, maybe not in the short term, but certainly in the long term.

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This is particularly true in the context of relationships, as in a family or community. If we feel disempowered, our investment, loyalty, trust, and level of participation all diminish. We may, for a while, choose to comply with whatever it is the Grand Poobah at the top (power-over) demands, but sooner or later that system will fail and the Grand Poobah will fall. Unfortunately, this kind of pattern is hugely expensive in terms of lives, health, and resource.

Savory’s holistic management model is specific, complex, and requires time. The very first step – identifying the whole under management – can’t be speeded through. If we get that piece wrong, everything that comes after will be flawed. If we can’t define all the moving parts, we’ll never be able to figure out how to support them in working together, and we won’t notice or respond appropriately when things go sideways. And things always go sideways somewhere, at some time.

Defining the whole we are trying to manage forces us to step back and look objectively at our situation. Are we being too reductionistic in our view? Are we appropriately addressing the complexity of the entire system we want to manage? On the other hand, are we trying to manage aspects of a situation that are not ours to manage? Are we taking on, or allowing others to force us into, responsibility for parts of the whole that are not rightfully ours?

Take it from an experienced people pleaser. Trying to manage an interpersonal situation we’ve been coerced into, even if our intentions are the best in the world, is doomed to painful failure. Most people don’t want to be managed, even if they say they do. If we can’t get decision makers and human resources on the same page, our policies and plans will always dissolve. In such a case, perhaps the whole needs to be redefined and refocused on where our power rightfully lies.

I worked with Holistic Management a chapter at a time, and now I’m filling in the decision-making framework a piece at a time, feeling my way into mastery of this amazing new tool.

As I think about the whole(s) I want to manage in my life, I watch patterns and interactions in my workplace, the push-pull of politics as President Biden takes power after the disastrous last four years, and the ways I interact with my partner. All are complicated systems encompassing overlapping wholes. I’m looking at life through a new lens.

Identifying the whole in holistic management planning. My daily crime.

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