Tag Archives: pleasing people

Garden of Thorns

The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.

Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that could puncture tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.

The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds that mated, nested, hatched, quarreled, sang and lived their lives among its thorny branches.

Honey Locust Tree

I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.

I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.

I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned that thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.

Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.

Just like my beloved locust tree.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.

It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood that nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but I it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.

Honey Locust Thorn

I need to protect myself.

That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.

I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.

The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience that pleasing people and having no boundaries lead to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.

This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me that revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.

Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.

I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.

Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high that I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.

I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.

I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to be like that.

My daily crime.

A Contest of Generosity

As I sit in my attic space this afternoon, the wind is roaring in the bare trees. Last night it rained. This morning on the way to our weekly breakfast date at a neighborhood diner there were snowflakes in the air as we navigated the crumpled, buckling, pot-holed roads.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

I’m still listening to David Whyte, and he’s still inspiring me. Listening to him speak is similar to reading his poetry. Each repetition unfolds new layers and depths in my heart and mind.

Today I’ve been reading, sorting, paying bills, and taking care of the oddments we all accumulate on our work surfaces and in our technological tools while we’re out in the world working or doing other things.

Outside the wind rocks the trees, which are just beginning to swell with buds, and David Whyte talks to me of friendship with life, with others and with ourselves. He suggests that healthy relationships are a continuous contest of necessary generosity in which we develop a discipline of forgiveness and allowing others to forgive us.

Photo by Ivan Jevtic on Unsplash

I think of forgiveness as a blessing.

It occurs to me that the more I forgive myself, the less I need the forgiveness of others. If I love my choices and decisions, I don’t need anyone else to do so.

Do we need forgiveness for who we are? Sometimes we need forgiveness for the boneheaded choices we make, but do we need forgiveness for who we are?

It seems to me the only reasonable answer is no, yet I’ve spent my life apologizing (and in latter years trying not to apologize) for who I am, what I need, and what works and doesn’t work for me in my life.

I have a dear friend who frequently apologizes for the way she expresses herself and interacts. I understand. We have that self-judgement in common. When she apologizes anxiously for something she said or wrote, or didn’t say or write, I smile to myself. It sounds like she’s apologizing for who she is, but I love her because she is who she is. I have more space for her than she does for herself.

Photo by Jenelle Ball on Unsplash

She has more space for me than I do for myself as well. I hope, with time, our friendship will help us both be less critical of ourselves.

I’m great at giving other people space to be who they are. It’s always been one of my strengths and gifts in relationship.

I’m so good at it, in fact, that several people with whom I’ve been closely connected quickly took it for granted that I would accommodate whatever they needed and/or wanted. Rather than a contest of generosity, such a relationship becomes an endless exercise in trying to please (on my part) and demand (on the part of the other).

The bad news is that the only way I can see out of this loop is to learn to say no and enforce boundaries, two things guaranteed to send any person who expects to control my behavior and choices into meltdown.

I hate scenes.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Naturally, my history of allowing others to take control in any given situation positioned me to attract into my life people who insisted their own needs and desires trumped mine. They had no interest in the thoughts and feelings behind the choices I made and did everything they could to manipulate my compliance with their expectations.

The wind blows because that’s its nature. Does it ask forgiveness from the trees? As I gaze out the window, looking for nothing and trying to see everything, I glimpse the possibility of living in such a way that I give myself the space I’ve always given others. The wind blows. The water flows. Mice nibble holes in cushions. Woodchucks dig up the Echinacea roots and eat them. None of it is personal. All act according to their nature, and there’s a kind of inexorable beauty about that.

I want to be beautiful like that.

Yet I have often sought to limit and even hurt myself. The twin disciplines of self-forgiveness and giving myself space have been exceedingly difficult to undertake and maintain, especially in the context of relationships with loved ones. My generosity has been for others, not for myself.

When people come into our lives and force us to make a choice between their expectations and our needs, they’re playing to win at any price, and the only way for them to win is for us to lose.

Not a contest of generosity, but a competition for power.

I have no interest in playing power games, and even less interest in “winning,” particularly if it means someone else has to lose. I’ve never been competitive. On the other hand, I’m finally committed to extending generosity to myself, and I love the gentle persistence in David Whyte’s language: “a continuous contest of generosity.”

Can I enjoy my own thoughts, feelings and expressions with the same generosity that I enjoy the boisterous spring wind, or my dear friend? Can I honor myself even when people around me tell me I’m bad and wrong? I fought as hard as I could to protect my children and give them a good start. Now, can I surround myself with that same fierce loyalty and generous love? Will I?

Yes.

My daily crime.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Loyalty: Weapon or Tool?

I’ve been thinking about loyalty recently. Loyalty is one of my bigger rabbit holes. I most often use the term when I’m beating myself up. A nasty little internal voice frequently hisses “Disloyal!” in my ear. This happens so constantly, in fact, that I’m bored. I’ve decided to unpack the concept of loyalty, spread it out, let the cat sniff at it, and either own my own disloyalty without shame or permanently silence that particular internal accusation.

The first thing I notice is that I want to be loyal. Loyalty is a virtue. Good, loving people are loyal. I certainly want to be a loyal family member, friend and partner. Loyalty has always been an important part of my identity, which is why it’s such an effective lash for me. What’s more shameful and ugly than disloyalty?

I don’t want to be shameful and ugly. If I am shameful and ugly, I certainly don’t want anyone to find out.

Loyalty, then, is something that depends on what onlookers think about my behavior and choices.

Before I’ve even crawled into the mouth of the rabbit hole I’ve moved out of my power. Interesting.

Photo by Kevin Quezada on Unsplash

Tuesday morning I took my cup of tea and spent two hours with dictionary, thesaurus and my laptop looking at poetry, quotes, memes, definitions and articles. I read about families, patriotism and dogs. I discovered that 80% of results returned for a search on loyalty have to do with manipulating customer and product loyalty. Of course. What a world.

At the end of that two hours, I felt no wiser. I had some notes, but I still didn’t have a clear idea of what loyalty really is, what it looks like, what it feels like to give or receive it, and how it overlaps with trust, authenticity, truth, enabling, coercion and control. I can point to people in my life I feel loyalty for, and I can point to people who I feel are loyal to me, but the truth is I don’t trust myself on this issue. Maybe my confusion means I am, in fact, shamefully disloyal. A humbling and humiliating thought.

At the same time, would I feel so torn apart by family and personal social dynamics if I was thoroughly disloyal? My sense of loyalty to others has given me much anguish over the years. Surely if it was absent in me I wouldn’t struggle so hard with it.

Simply defined, loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance. That definition leaves me even more clueless than I was before. It has to be more complicated than that, doesn’t it?

Well, doesn’t it?

Is it just me, or does the cultural definition of loyalty consist of a much more convoluted hairball of expectations, assumptions and false equivalencies?

I often use back doors when I feel stuck. My two hours of research did give me some ideas about what loyalty is not, at least in my mind. But already I can see that others might disagree. Still, that’s why we have dictionaries and definitions.

Loyalty cannot be slavery or prostitution. If I have to compromise my integrity in order to fulfill someone else’s expectation of loyalty, it’s no longer a virtue, but an abuse and manipulation. True loyalty must be freely and heartfully given. Authentic loyalty can’t be bought, sold, stolen or owed. It’s not demonstrated by obedience or compliance. If it’s not free and spontaneous, it’s only a sham, an empty word that sounds great but has no substance. Loyalty is not a weapon. It’s a gift.

Loyalty is not a weapon. It’s a gift.

Said another way, from a perspective of power (and you know how much I think about power!), loyalty is a tool of power-with, not a weapon of power-over.

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

Loyalty is not blind. Part of its value is its clarity. We prize it so highly because seeing and being seen clearly, warts and all, and demonstrating or receiving loyalty in spite of it is an act of strength and love. In that case, compassion, tolerance and respect are all involved in loyalty. It follows, then, that loyalty does not require agreement. I can feel entirely loyal to a loved one while disagreeing with some of their choices and beliefs.

Loyalty does not imply denial, arguing with what is or colluding in rewriting history in order to sanitize it. Loyalty is not a right or an obligation.

In fact, the thesaurus suggests the word “trueness” as a synonym for loyalty. Interesting. Isn’t trueness the same as authenticity? I count on those who are loyal to me to tell me the truth of their experience with me and of me. I count on them to trust me with their thoughts, feelings, concerns and observations. I count on them to ask me questions about my choices, and to forgive me when I’m less than perfect. I hold myself to the same standards. This can mean a hard conversation now and then, and uncomfortable vulnerability and risk, but real loyalty is not cheap.

The thesaurus also supplies the word “constancy” as a synonym for loyalty. Constancy is an old-fashioned word these days, but it leapt out at me because consistency is very important to me. I’ve had some experience with Jekyll-and-Hyde abuse patterns in which the goalposts and rules constantly change without notice, keeping me nicely trapped in trying to please people who have no intention of ever being pleased no matter what I do. Loyalty is not present one day and absent the next, then present again, then unavailable. That kind of “loyalty” is an abuse tactic.

As always, the construct of loyalty is two-sided. There’s the loyalty that extends between me and another, and then there’s the loyalty I extend to myself. This circles back around to slavery, prostitution and silence. If I have to betray my own needs or make myself small in order to earn or retain someone’s loyalty, something’s very wrong. If I’m called disloyal for saying no, having appropriate boundaries or telling the truth of my experience, then we are not in agreement about the definition of loyalty or I’m being manipulated (again). How loyal can I be to others if I fail to be faithful to myself?

True loyalty will never require me to make a choice between myself and another. Loyalty is strong enough to compromise and collaborate.

Loyalty becomes weaponized when we demand or command absolute agreement, devotion and unquestioning support. Then the concept becomes very black and white. This is demonstrated all over social media and media in general. One unwanted question or view leads to unmerciful deplatforming, silencing and a torrent of threats and abuse. Our loyalty is questioned and tested at every turn. We allow bullies, tyrants and personality-disordered people to achieve and maintain control, terrified of tribal shaming, being unpatriotic or being cast out of our social groups and communities.

The label of disloyalty is extremely powerful, but when I strip away all my confusions and distortions around loyalty and return to the simple definition, it’s not complicated at all. I certainly feel a strong allegiance and support for many individual people, for my community, for my country, for women, for writers, for this piece of land I live on, and for myself.

I suspect many others would like me to wear the label of disloyalty, but I can’t do a thing about their distortions except hand them a dictionary. Very elitist behavior, I’m sure you will agree. Not to mention the disloyalty of refusing to collude in my own shaming.

Being called disloyal doesn’t make it so.

That voice in my head has to do better, find a new slur. I’m willing to own being disloyal if I am, but my conclusion after this investigation is that mostly I’m not, and when I am, my greatest trespass is against myself. That I can do something about.

Loyalty. Setting down the weapon. Picking up the tool. My daily crime.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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