Tag Archives: people pleasing

Success

In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment that represents one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.

I have always defined myself as a failure. This morning, before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that all day, in fact.

Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.

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We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things were happening that I could not understand. My reasoning was that failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.

Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.

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In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod for displeasure shielded them.

As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the repercussions on those I was trying to shield.

My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was doing the best thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.

The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.

I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.

I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems that existed long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.

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Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the authentic truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.

They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)

Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.

Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.

When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another failure of mine and a grief I deserved.

My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me that I could take it off.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful that the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.

It was the kids all over again.

This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood that I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.

On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so that others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.

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As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us. Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am proud of them.

What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children.  I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.

As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept that others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.

This day has revealed to me that every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered .  . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way—it’s always me that’s in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.

I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.

My daily crime.

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Just Deserts

Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:

I get what I deserve
I deserve what I get

I have it,
therefore I deserve it

I deserve it
because I have it.

You have not got it
therefore you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
because you have not got it

You have not got it
because you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
therefore you have not got it.
R.D. Laing, Knots

This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!

So, what does it mean to deserve something?

Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?

Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?

Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!

The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe that we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?

No. I don’t believe that.

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My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Bookshelves page) has taught me that life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.

There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.

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I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.

We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.

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We will discover—we are discovering—that we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.

Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws that govern the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.

As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.

The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, that I’m joyfully letting go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.

As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”

My daily crime.

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Games

Books

We have books all over this house. The majority of them are neatly alphabetized in what we refer to as the “cat room,” because that’s where the litter box lives. There are also books in our bedroom, in my workspace, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, in the room where we eat, and in my partner’s small office, which is crowded and heaped and piled with extremely valuable and meaningful things (a.k.a. junk), liberally coated in dust. Just standing in the doorway makes me feel like tearing my hair out and bursting into tears.

But hey, we all deserve our own space, right? He doesn’t invade my space, and I don’t invade his. The peace treaty of tolerance in action.

Anyway. I digress. A few weeks ago he handed me a book, unearthed from his office, and told me I should read it. This is one of our favorite games—sharing books. I took it and put it in my to-read pile.

Yesterday I picked it up and fell in love.

Knots, written by R. D. Laing, was published in 1970 and cost $3.95. At first glance it looks like poetry rather than prose.

Here’s page one:

They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

That’s all.

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I was sitting in the sun on the front porch. I set the book down and thought about this, feeling a smile on my face. Knots, indeed. I could feel the door this little paragraph opened up in my mind, and I wanted to find words to think about it, but my first reaction was pure amusement. That’s still my reaction, as I sit with the laptop in my lap typing. Maybe there’s a lot I could say, but maybe Laing has already said everything worth saying. Maybe all I have to offer are some impressions.

Games, and the people who play them. Power and control games. Blame and shame games. Drama and trauma games. Triangle games. Have you ever noticed that the most manipulative and malevolent game players never, ever admit they’re playing games? I’ve always wondered if that’s because they lack insight into their own behavior and motivation or they simply lie. Maybe it’s both.

I can’t imagine a world where everyone is just straight, saying what they mean and meaning what they say. It would be a world in which we all took responsibility for our choices and had the ability and willingness to be authentic. It would be a world where each one of us had integrity.

The human game, the social game, the money game, the professional game, the health game, the marketing and consumer game, the education game, the sex game, the family and/or parenting game, the significant other game. Our days and lives are filled with games, and we take them extremely seriously. Our identity and ideology, our hopes and dreams, our very lives seem to depend on how successfully we play our various games. Are all these games fun? Are any of these games fun? When I think about my life and watch the people close to me, I see despair, rage, fear, violence, a pathological need to win and be right at all costs, and grief. Fun? Not so much.

Do you remember the vain and not-terribly-bright Emperor who wore no clothes? His courtiers seduced him into believing he had on the finest clothes ever made and no one dared to say that he was naked until he went out onto the street in a magnificent promenade. A child in the crowd said, “But he’s not wearing anything!” in the manner of small children who have not yet learned to play the game. The child was instantly hushed, but it was too late. That small arrow of truth could not be retrieved and the crowd roared with laughter.

Either everybody plays the game, or nobody does. No individual is allowed to call a game a game, however. No individual is allowed to challenge, ask certain questions, investigate and research independently, or have a different opinion. Such people are punished with tribal shaming, deplatforming, doxxing, threats and violence.

So we play the game, at least enough to escape notice. We try to stay camouflaged within the herd. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut. We pretend we think the game is real.

Some of us are better at that than others.

Some of us are born troublemakers and insist on thinking for ourselves, come what may.

Some of us are curious and play what we know is a game in order to find out what will happen.

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I was once with a bad boy man. He was magnetic and attractive. He was also filled with rage; collected gold, guns and ammo in an underground storage locker; grew illegal weed and mushrooms; and the local cops had a thick file on him. He said he’d met Jesus (while high). For various good reasons (trust me on this) I was with him for a few months during a bad time in my life. Everyone around me was appalled, which only added to my sense of reckless enjoyment.

I was sick and tired of being the good girl, the reliable one, the adult, the woman with no needs who always followed the rules and pleased everyone around her. I loathed my goody-goody, compliant self beyond words.

So, for a little while, I decided to be none of those things. One day he gave me a diamond ring, which I suspected had been stolen (you shouldn’t have!) while he was in another state a few years before. He asked me to marry him.

Now, not only did I have no intention whatsoever of marrying again, I knew he would never go through with it. I also knew this was not a man I would be in a long-term relationship with. He was meeting my need to be rebellious and reassure myself that I was still attractive enough, after two divorces, to fuck. Does that sound coarse? It was. But most women will understand what I mean. I didn’t go through a bad-boy phase as a young woman. I’ve always been a late bloomer. This was it. I needed it and I don’t regret it, in spite of some pretty severe consequences that made me a better and wiser woman.

The truth is I wanted to see what would happen. He was such a fruitcake. I wore the ring.

What happened is that I got bored with the alcohol, the weed, and the fact that he insisted on dumping his pipe into the bathroom sink and it always clogged the drain (which I had to clean out). Note to self: Guys who have a heavy alcohol and weed habit are not what you might call sensitive lovers.

So, ick. It was one of those things. Either you totally understand or your never will!

The point is that I knew it was all a game. Did he? I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I doubt he would have told me if he knew, but I also doubt he did know. Chronic use of weed doesn’t make one smart. What was the point of the game? What was, if you’ll excuse the phrase, the endgame? How far was he willing to take it? I was mildly curious, but not curious enough (or invested enough) to stick around and find out.

I don’t think anyone in my life realized I was playing a game. They were far too busy disapproving, which gave me a lot of private amusement. Nobody asked me what I was thinking or feeling. In the atmosphere of criticism and judgment, I didn’t bother to explain or defend myself. The onlookers had already made up their minds about who I was and what I was doing. I didn’t see that I owed anyone an explanation. I was, after all, 40 years old.

If one person had sat down with me and said “WTF are you up to?” I would have told them the truth. Would they have believed me? That question makes me smile. All we do is play unacknowledged games in life on every side. If someone admits they’re playing a (temporary) game with a sexy bad boy man, do we believe them?

I wonder.

So, games. My daily crime.

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