Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.
When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?
The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.
One thing I can say is that I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt that I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!
Another obstacle has to do with schedule shaming. When I was younger, my days were filled to the brim with emotional labor, earning a paycheck, and taking care of others. I was busy all the time. I raced from one need to the next, none of them mine.
Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed for wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.
This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is that women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.
What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.
Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.
The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.
I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.
I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.
Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.
When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.
But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.
I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.
We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.
I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?
The most evil twist of all in this is that caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.
So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?
Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel that I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware that many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.
Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.
That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking. My daily crime.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week’s post was inspired by the work of R.D. Laing in his book, Knots. The first page of this book gave me so much to think about I worked with it for several days before reading all the way to page 3:
“It is our duty to bring up our children to love, honour and obey us.
If they don’t, they must be punished, otherwise we would not be doing our duty.
If they grow up to love, honour and obey us we have been blessed for bringing them up properly.
If they grow up not to love, honour and obey us either we have brought them up properly or we have not: if we have there must be something the matter with them; if we have not there is something the matter with us.”
In my experience and observation, family ties are the most inescapable and powerful connections in our lives, regardless of our feelings about them, either positive or negative. However we view our parents, they’re the only ones we have and nothing can change that. Those of us who have biological children must come to terms with the intimacy of conception, gestation and birth leading inevitably to loss as our children grow up and fly away into places we cannot and should not follow. Each of us must deal with these blood-and-bone connections as best we can; there is no escaping the shadow of one’s parents or the ghosts of one’s children, alive or dead. They are our greatest and most powerful teachers.
When I was a young woman, it was all so simple. I would find a good man to love and be loved by. I would get married and have children. I would love my children and they would love me.
Now that we’ve all finished laughing (or crying), let’s think about duty, just one of the thousands of hidden landmines in parent-child relationships. It’s hidden because we all talk about it without ever agreeing on what it means or questioning its role. Laing was writing in the 70s, so his language is a little outdated. Even so, is it true that it’s our duty to bring up our children to love us? Can we coerce love, even from a child? Is it more important to teach them to love us as their parent or to love themselves?
Do we deserve their love? Have we earned it? Are we entitled to it? Does our love for them obligate them to reciprocate? For that matter, does a child’s love for his or her parent oblige the parent to return that love in kind?
The point I’m trying to make here is that these knots we get ourselves tied up in, these eternal loops of bad logic, are so often based on a questionable statement that we don’t think to question. Breaking down the statement loosens the knot.
What does it look like, to love, honour and obey? Does it mean keeping secrets? Never asking questions? Being unfailingly compliant? Is a child to have no viewpoint, opinion, need or desire independent of his or her parent? What happens when love is lost in translation? What if what my child or parent calls love is something I call enabling, and refuse to give — out of love?
Punishment. What a great incentive for love! No wonder it works so well. On the other hand, are healthy boundaries punishment? Is refusing to lie for someone punishment? Is telling the hidden or unpalatable truth punishment?
Who gets to define all these terms? Who has the power in any given parent-child dynamic? Is there a desire to share power, or is someone determined to come out on top?
None of this is what really caught my eye on page 3 of Knots, however. What stopped me in my tracks was the endpoint, the either/or conclusion. If our children don’t love, honor and obey us in the manner in which we expect or feel entitled to, either something is wrong with us and the way we raised them, or something is wrong with them.
I freely admit this is the same either/or conclusion in my own mind regarding both my parents and my children. Either I’m a total failure and fuck-up, or they’re unhinged. I’m like a dog with a smelly old bone. I dig it up, chew on it for a while, cry, rage, hurt, feel confused and regretful, hate myself, rehash old scenes and stories, feel sorry for myself and generally carry on until my mouth is bleeding from bone chips and I’m sick to my stomach, and then I bury the bone until something brings it all up again and I dig it up to gnaw some more.
It’s not just me, either. Every single woman I know does this, either trying to come to terms with her parents or her children. Or both.
I’ve always had a talent for untangling knots. I’m not sure why it is, but I really enjoy picking them apart. Mental knots are even more fun. I think for some this endless bone-chewing provides a kind of payoff, but it doesn’t for me. I hate chasing my tail. There’s no way I’m ever going to come to any kind of conclusion about my parents, my children or myself in relation to them. What I do believe is that each one of us has in every moment done the best we could do with the information and resources we had in that moment. As far as I’m concerned, we all get a pass.
The first time I read the above page, I recognized that twisted knot of pseudo logic can be undone with good questions.
What if there’s nothing wrong with our kids and there’s nothing wrong with us or our parenting? What if love, honor and obedience are beside the point and not important? What if punishment doesn’t enter into it because it’s not useful or effective and nobody’s done anything wrong?
In short, what if we’re all just fine, not broken, not failures, not fucked up, not unhinged? What if we were good enough children, good enough parents, and our kids are good enough people, each one of us whole, loved and loving?
What if we just stopped all these contorted and painful mental gymnastics and loved ourselves, our parents and our kids as best we can, or our memories of us and them?
Then I picked up the next book in my current stack, and read this, and smiled.
“Why would I be embittered? It is far too late. A month ago, after a passage of many years, I stood above her grave in a place called Wyuka. We, she and I, were close to being one now, lying like the skeletons of last year’s leaves in a fence corner. And it was all nothing. Nothing, do you understand? All the pain, all the anguish. Nothing. We were, both of us, merely the debris life always leaves in its passing …” Loren Eiseley— All the Strange Hours
My daily crime.
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When I went through emotional intelligence training, I learned about three basic human needs: Contribution, connection and authenticity. If these primary needs are not adequately met, our lives don’t work well. I’ve written about my wary relationship with my own needs before. As I explore emotional intelligence, I’m struck by the simplicity of the three basic needs, the paradoxical complexity of each one, and the unique ways, often unconsciously, we each approach getting these needs met. I also notice the way these needs are inextricably woven into each other.
In these first couple of weeks of a new job, it’s been necessary to build a new schedule, which felt overwhelming until I remembered the three basic needs. I’m a creature of habit and I quickly stop assessing how I spend my time once I have a workable schedule. I engage with activities I’m accustomed to engage with and that’s that.
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When I trained as a medical transcriptionist and started working from home, I was motivated by the necessity of earning a living and managing my then-teenage sons as a single mother. Medical transcription was a perfect solution. Gradually, without me really noticing, I allowed the job to become a prison. The boys grew up and moved out. I was promoted twice, but never earned a comfortable living. The job came with intense pressure that triggered my stress and perfectionism. It was isolating. It was difficult physically and keyboarding began to give me overuse injury.
I depended on my inadequate paycheck. It was the only income I had.
I was aware during the last couple of years I worked as a transcriptionist that the job was no longer meeting any of my needs, aside from the paycheck, but a paycheck is kind of essential. In fact, in my mind it was the essential priority in my life, and I labored away in spite of migraine headaches and increasing pain in my upper extremities and shoulders until the day came when I could no longer keyboard without sobbing and I developed a frozen shoulder. I couldn’t take off my shirt without feeling faint from pain.
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The hardest thing about that job was not the poor pay, but that I felt my contribution didn’t matter. The medical professionals were dictating into a piece of equipment and rarely, if ever, considered the human being trying to transcribe their dictation, unless it was to complain and criticize errors. The company I worked for is a huge global conglomerate on the cutting edge of speech recognition technology and a whole host of other businesses. I was nameless and faceless. All training and in-services were done remotely. Management had a high turnover. Changes happened without notice, like getting transferred to a new book of business. Overtime, when needed, was mandatory. Transcriptionists were expected to work 24/7 and weekend shifts were required.
Many people can type quickly and accurately. It’s mostly a matter of practice. I was a pair of hands and ears racing the clock, along with hundreds of others like me, both here and overseas. The job wanted no authenticity from me or anyone else. It’s a job for robots.
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I am not a robot.
I’ve been seeking a new job because I want to start earning income again, but this time I promised myself I wouldn’t take a job that didn’t feel meaningful to me, and I knew exactly what I meant by meaningful. A meaningful job is not about the paycheck. Yes, obviously, I need money in today’s world. Not a lot, but some. Enough to justify my time, travel and commitment. However, the work I do in exchange for a paycheck of any size is only meaningful if it makes a positive difference in the lives of others. I don’t want to be paid for being a robot impersonator. I want to be paid because I contribute something wanted or needed out of my own authenticity.
Working as a member of a team in order to keep people safe, assist patients in rehabilitation, and teaching swimming feels meaningful and allows me to work from the heart. In my little corner of the world I can be part of something healthy and healing for myself and others.
As an ex-people-pleaser, I endeavored for most of my life to make a positive difference in the lives of my family and immediate connections. I worked as hard as I could at it, and making a meaningful contribution was my top priority. In spite of all my efforts, I failed. In fact, it seemed the harder I tried the more obnoxious I was to those around me. Naturally, I concluded that I was nothing. I had nothing to offer than anyone wanted. It would be better for everyone if I disappeared and relieved them of the burden of my presence.
Two important things I’ve learned from those years are that people pleasing doesn’t work, and some people are determined never to be pleased. I learned to define for myself what a “good” job is. I began to seek paid work I enjoyed as much as volunteer work and kept my focus on the feeling of making a positive contribution.
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I see and hear a lot of discussion about the increasing problems of loneliness and depression, and I suspect many of those affected feel unable to make a meaningful, authentic contribution in their families and/or communities. Somewhere along the way we decided a paycheck is more important than the quality of our contribution, but ultimately, as human beings, no paycheck is an adequate substitute for feeling our contribution matters. Our culture does not necessarily reward authentic contribution. We like our infallible robots and good soldiers, those who do and say exactly what they’re programmed to do and say. Loose cannons like me are a problem nobody wants in the classroom or the boardroom.
I’m sorry I believed for so long I had nothing to contribute. It made me miserable and was the root of many destructive choices. My belief now is that we all have a great deal to offer, and someone out there needs exactly what we can contribute. What would the world be like if every man, woman and child truly felt they had something unique to give that made a positive difference in just one other life? What if contributing and receiving contributions were not tied to money? What if we all woke up in the morning knowing the world is a better place because of our presence?
What would it take to make that a reality for everyone?
I’m fortunate to have found a way to make an authentic, meaningful contribution combined with a paycheck. Not everyone is able to do that. But everyone is able to do something. Plant a tree. Walk dogs living in animal shelters. Visit hospital patients. Assist in schools, day care facilities or retirement homes. Volunteer to answer a hotline. Buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person. Teach literacy.
Someone out there needs what we can give. Someone is waiting for us. All we have to do is go find them.
I looked up the word “denial” to find a quick definition as a starting point for this post. Fifteen minutes later I was still reading long Wiki articles about denial and denialism. They’re both well worth reading. I realize now that the subject of denial is much bigger than I first supposed, and one little blog post cannot do justice to its history and scope.
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I wanted to write about denial because I keep tripping over it. It seems to lurk in the background of every experience and interaction, and it’s nearly always accompanied by its best buddy, fear. I’ve lately made the observation to my partner that denial appears more powerful than love in our culture today.
I’ve written before about arguing with what is, survival and being wrong, all related to denial. I’ve also had bitter personal experience with workaholism and alcoholism, so denial is a familiar concept and I recognize it when I see it.
I see it more every day.
I was interested to be reminded that denial is a useful psychological defense mechanism. Almost everyone has had the experience of a sudden devastating psychological shock such as news of an unexpected death or catastrophic event. Our first reaction is to deny and reject what’s happening. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first of five stages of psychology in a dying patient. Therein lies the distinction between denial as part of a useful and natural cycle and denial as a permanent coping mechanism. In modern psychology denial is followed by other stages as we struggle to come to terms with a difficult event. We (hopefully) move through the stages, gathering our resources to cope with what’s true and coming to terms with the subsequent changes in our lives.
Denialism, on the other hand, is a “choice to deny reality as a way to avoid a psychologically uncomfortable truth” (Wikipedia). For some, denial is an ideology.
In other words, denialsim is all about fear, fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of painful feelings, fear of loss of power, fear of one’s cover being blown. This is why some of the most rabid and vicious homophobes are in fact homosexual. Unsurprisingly, projection and gaslighting are frequently used by those who practice denialism.
I’ve no doubt that denial is an integral part of the human psyche. I never knew anyone who didn’t have a knee-jerk ability to deny. I do it. My partner does it. My friends and family do it. My partner and I have a code phrase: “I’m not a vampire,” that comes from the TV series Angel in a hilarious moment when a vampire is clearly outed by one of the other characters. He watches her put the evidence together: “… nice place… with no mirrors, and… lots of curtains… Hey! You’re a vampire!” “What?” he says. “No I’m not,” with absolutely no conviction whatsoever. It always makes us giggle. If Angel is too low-brow for you, consider William Shakespeare and “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Denial is not a new and unusual behavior.
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The power of denial is ultimately false, however. Firstly and most obviously, denial does not affect the truth. We don’t have to admit it, but truth is truth, and it doesn’t care whether we accept it or not. Secondly, denial is a black hole of ever-increasing complications. Take, for example, flat-earthers. Think for a moment about how much they have to filter every day, how actively they have to guard against constant threats to their denialsim. Everything becomes a battlefield, any form of science-related news and programming; many types of print media; images, both digital and print, now more widely available than ever; and simple conversation. I can’t imagine trying to live like that, embattled and defensive on every front. It must take enormous energy. I frankly don’t understand why anyone would choose such hideous complications. It seems to me much easier to wrestle with the problem itself than deal with all the consequences of denying there is a problem.
Maybe that’s just me.
It seems our denial becomes more important than love for others or love for ourselves. It becomes more important than our integrity, our health, our friends and family, loyalty, and respect or tolerance. Our need to deny can swallow us whole, just as I’ve seen work and alcohol swallow people whole. Denial refuses collaboration, cooperation, honest communication, problem solving and, most of all, learning. Denialism is always hugely threatened by any attempt to share new information or ask questions.
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Denial is a kind of spiritual malnutrition. It makes us small. Our sense of humor and curiosity wither. Fear sucks greedily on our power. We become invested in keeping secrets and hiding things from ourselves as well as others. We allow chaos to form around us so we don’t have to see or hear anything that threatens our denial.
This is not the kind of fear that makes our heart race and our hands sweat. This is the kind of fear that feels like a slamming steel door. It’s cold. It’s certain. We say, “I will not believe that. I will not accept that.”
And we don’t. Not ever. No matter what.
A prominent pattern of folks in denial is that they work hard to pull other people into validating them. Denial works best in a club, the larger the better. The ideology of denialism demands strong social groups and communities that actively seek power to silence others or force them into agreement. Not tolerance, but agreement. This behavior speaks to me of a secret lack of strength and conviction, even impotence. If we are not confused about who we are and what we believe, there’s no need to recruit and coerce others to our particular ideology. If you believe the earth is flat, it’s fine with me. I’m not that interested, frankly. I disagree, but that’s neither here nor there, and I don’t need you to agree with my view. When I find myself recruiting others to my point of view, I know I’m distressed and unsure of my position and I’m not dealing effectively with my feelings.
I’ve written before about the OODA loop, which describes the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide and act. The ability to move quickly and effectively through the OODA loop is a survival skill. Denial is a cheat. It masquerades as a survival strategy, but in fact it disables the loop. It keeps us from adapting. It keeps us dangerously rigid rather than elegantly resilient.
Some people have a childlike belief that if something hasn’t happened, it won’t, as in this river has never flooded, or this town has never burned, or we’ve never seen a category 6 hurricane. Our belief that bad things can’t happen at all, or won’t happen again, pins us in front of the oncoming tsunami or the erupting volcano. It allows us to rebuild our homes in places where flood, fire and lava have already struck. We ignore, minimize or deny what’s happening to the planet and to ourselves. We don’t take action to save ourselves. We don’t observe and orient ourselves to the changes happening.
Some things are just too bad to be true. I get it, believe me. I’m often afraid, and I frequently walk through denial, but I’m damned if I’ll build a house there. The older I get, the more determined I am to embrace the truth. I don’t care how much pain it gives me or how much fear I feel. I want to know, to understand, to see things clearly, and then make the best choices I can. It’s the only way to stay in my power. I refuse to cower before life as it is, in all its mystery, pain and terrible beauty.
Ultimately, denial is weak. I am stronger than that.