Tag Archives: simplicity

Patterns and Labels

We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on dangerous reptiles, plants, fish and insects that warn of toxicity.

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We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.

I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.

Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.

Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.

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The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.

Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.

Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.

Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.

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Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of choices that result in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.

As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.

One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.

What I like best about Eddy is that he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.

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Power-with and win-win, in other words.

Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.

In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behavior
  • Preoccupation with blaming others

–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)

The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.

In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.

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In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.

Responsibility strikes again.

If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.

If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.

Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.

In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.

Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.

What would you like to do?

My daily crime.

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Living Deep

I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread that runs vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.

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Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.

As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.

This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.

My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breath and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.

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In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.

We all have access to this deep life, but it seems that the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.

To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.

Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. It’s in that deep space that I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.

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I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.

This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.

James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.

The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.

The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.

Perhaps I’ll see you among the deep roots.

My daily crime.

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Frozen In Place

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

I moved to Maine with a U-Haul packed with things from my old life. I was moving from a small, tight, energy-efficient home where I lived alone to a slouching, leaking farmhouse with a cracked foundation and a peeling roof. I didn’t trust my cherished possessions to the dubious protection of the house or the barn, also dilapidated and leaking.

So I rented a storage unit.

Now it’s four years later and I’ve been reading and thinking about minimalism. Minimalism appeals to me because it creates space and simplicity in our lives. I’m gradually coming to understand that even my most cherished possessions are not that important to my quality of life. In some ways they even block my view and obscure thresholds and openings.

That’s not to say I don’t frequently miss my just-the-right-firmness double mattress and box spring in storage, or my comfy couch and matching chair. I do miss them, but they don’t fit into my life anymore and they don’t fit into the house. Literally. I don’t think we could get my modern overstuffed couch in the old front door.

My bed and furniture, along with a few boxes, have languished in subzero temperatures in the winter, and heat and humidity in the summer, and I’ve faithfully paid the monthly rent all this time.

A couple of weeks ago we had a call from the owners/operators of the storage unit to say there was flooding on the property.

Here in Maine, we have yet to experience a snowstorm this season that wasn’t mixed with freezing rain. What this means is layers of ice have built up on the frozen ground and clogged culverts and drains. As temperatures see-saw between normal below-freezing and subzero and much warmer air that turns falling snow to rain, the rain has nowhere to go.

The storm that caused the problem at the storage unit dumped several inches of snow and then three inches of rain. Cellars and basements that had never flooded before got wet. Intersections and streets flooded in town. It was a mess. At the storage unit, all that water couldn’t drain away from the buildings, so it crept along the ground and washed through them.

When we unlocked the door and pushed it open, we found ice covering the floor of the unit. The floor slopes a little, so the ice thickness varies from half an inch to two inches or possibly more in places I couldn’t see well. Everything on the floor is absolutely frozen solid to the cement.

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For now, there’s nothing much I can do. After the initial look, I went back with a friend for moral support on another day. As I pushed up the overhead door, I had the usual pang of nostalgia and loss at the sight of all those pieces from my old life, unused and abandoned. Added to that is the bitter cold and solid ice locking it all into place as though it will never let go.

The irony is inescapable. I was trying to keep all those things safe from water and fire while I waited for a life they would fit into again. Keeping them safe felt like keeping me safe, or at least parts of me. Memories. History.

It’s all an illusion, though. How safe is any object? Objects get lost, broken or stolen. They get damaged. We have to manage them, care for them, protect them, carry them from place to place.

A couple of inches of ice have forced me to confront my thoughts and feelings about my stuff. Embracing minimalism is all about de-owning and decluttering, but as I go through my possessions in the house I’m in control. I can choose what to discard and what to keep. Now an act of nature has taken away some of my choice.

My cherished bed, for example, is nothing more than a mattress and box springs leaning against the wall in the back of a storage unit that got wet and are now firmly anchored in ice. When I am able to remove them and take them to the dump, all I’ve lost is the objects themselves. I’ll still remember with pleasure my wonderful bed and using all the bedding that goes with it. I’ll still remember my cat with love and gratitude, and treasure the happy hours we spent together on that bed.

Photo by silviannnm on Unsplash

I’ve lost nothing but the necessity to store the bed for the sake of my memories and/or future possibilities. The truth is I have no use for a double bed in the life I’m living right now.

Why do we save things? Why are our lives full of things we wouldn’t buy today for the life we live now? Why do we save things “just in case?” Just in case of what? Does just in case ever come or is it merely a scary or hopeful story we tell ourselves? Do the things around us speak of who we are right now, or of who we once were or who we wish we were? Are we frozen in the past or in our fantasies? 

The poet David Whyte says that most of us are at least three to four years behind our own growth and change. That struck a chord with me. My storage unit is filled with things from a life I left four years ago, a life I couldn’t go back to even if I wanted – and I don’t. I have moved on and out and up. As precious and sweet as some aspects of my old life were, they’re gone.

Except that I’ve been holding on, which has cost money and now created a situation requiring me to cut my losses and clean up. Maybe, if we took the front door off its hinges and even removed the door frame, we could have gotten my couch into the house, replaced the broken-down one we presently use, and been enjoying it all this time.

(Except the TV is always on in the living room. I hate the TV. The couch is mine. It used to be my reading place, but I can’t read in our disaster of a living room with the TV on. I don’t want it here if I can’t ever enjoy it! It’s mine. And the cat will sharpen her claws on it. And what if the house burns down?)

There is no moral to this story, aside from having learned it really is a good idea to put pallets down in a storage unit! It will be some weeks before the ice softens enough to chip off the floor and sweep out or melt. I have gone in and salvaged what I could, discarded some things, assessed some of the damage. Everything will have to come out while I dry the floor. Then I’ll need to discard whatever is ruined, buy and transport pallets and re-pack the unit.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the number of objects I’m carrying through my life. For far less than I’ve already spent on the storage unit we could have tightened up at least two of the outbuildings right here on the property for storage. How badly do I need anything I haven’t used in four years?

I’m inclined to be grateful for the flooding of my unit. It forced me to ask some important and provocative questions. It forced me to consider what’s truly important for my happiness. It challenged me to let go of things that no longer serve me without fear or regret.

When I left Colorado, I told friends that I was coming to Maine because I thought I had a life here waiting for me. It’s taken me some time to find it, but I was right about that. I chose not to remain frozen in place, and that’s still my choice. Perhaps it’s time now to free my things from that old life as well.

Thawing the ice. My daily crime.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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