If I want peace in my environment, I need to remove everything obscuring it.
If I want peace in my relationships, I need to clear away whatever obstructs it.
If I want internal peace, I need to peel away whatever destroys it.
It’s such a simple idea, and so monumentally difficult to put into action.
How do we figure out what’s strangling our peace?
Likely, at least some of what’s killing our peace are habits of action and thought we’re deeply invested in or frankly addicted to. Things we don’t want to give up or feel unable to give up. Sometimes we’re so attached to certain habits or possessions we feel life is not possible if we can’t have them or engage with them. Our survival depends on them, and peace takes a back seat to survival.
Except maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in the long run, we can’t survive without a certain amount of peace.
If we undertake the work of identifying what’s between us and peace, we’re going to find feelings. Lots of feelings. Feelings we don’t want to feel. Feelings we don’t know what to do with. Feelings we’re afraid to express. Feelings we’re ashamed of. Feelings that are tearing us apart.
Until and unless we find appropriate, effective ways of managing and processing our feelings, we’ll never uncover the peace buried beneath them.
What if there’s nothing to make and nothing to buy? What if there’s no app to use or post to make?
What if what we have to do is discard everything concealing the peace, love, health, time, self, or authentic life we want?
We can’t discard our feelings, but we can learn how to manage and integrate them. We can discard toxic pieces of identity. We can discard thoughts, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and addictions. We can discard digital and real-life clutter. We can discard time-wasting and destructive habits. We can discard toxic relationships and toxic relationship dynamics.
It’s easier to buy something. It’s easier to get on Facebook or a dating app. It’s easier to have a drink, or turn on Netflix, or get high, or get numb. It’s easier to eat a box of donuts.
Easier, but all those choices layer a further crust of chaos over the magnificent life we long for.
Uncovering peace. And other things. My daily crime.
Sometimes I think I’ve been collecting puzzle pieces my whole life, never knowing they would all fit together someday to make a complete picture. Now, as I approach my 60s, I have enough pieces that I begin to see larger patterns I never knew were there.
In a recent post I mentioned Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. I’ve read it cover to cover twice, and I can’t possibly convey to you how it’s changed my life.
Walker explores, in depth, four human responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Fawning is defined as exhibiting affection, attempting to please, or seeking favor or attention. It’s a behavior we often see in dogs, especially when they’ve just done something naughty. (No self-respecting cat would ever fawn!)
We develop trauma responses when we’ve experienced some kind of emotional or physical trauma, and many times we develop them so young we don’t even remember the trauma, thus spending our lives unaware of (or deliberately denying or avoiding if we do remember) the wounds that have locked us into ineffective and destructive behavior patterns.
The four trauma responses are not cut and dried. Most of us exhibit some facet of more than one or all of them when we’re faced with situations that trigger our fear. However, we usually favor one or two responses and unconsciously fall back on them when we feel threatened.
Each of the four trauma responses involves a cluster of easily recognizable behaviors. Much of my writing, both in this blog and creatively, has been, at its root, about trauma response. I just never knew it until now.
My very first post was about pleasing people. Pleasing and appeasing people has long been a compulsive behavior I can’t control well and am not entirely conscious of. Pleasing and appeasing others is the trauma response called fawning.
With the help of Walker’s book and graphics on his website, I have been able to put several pieces of my problematic behavior together into fawning. I’m chagrined to find it in every aspect of my life.
This is life-changing work.
I will probably manage my trauma responses, including fawning, for the rest of my life, and that’s okay with me. Most internal work, I find, is a practice rather than a quick destination to complete health and blissful forever-after happiness.
Here are the ways fawning shows up in my life. Do any of these sound familiar?
Apologizing all the time about everything. Apologizing to chairs for bumping into them. Apologizing to other drivers for using the road. Apologizing for making anybody wait for any reason. Apologizing to the cats when they get under my feet and trip me. Apologizing for needing any kind of service or assistance. Apologizing for being less than perfect. Apologizing for being alive, taking up space, having a thought or feeling, breathing the air or using a chair. Apologizing for not reading everyone else’s minds and anticipating their every move, feeling, desire, and need.
Obsequiousness (being obedient or attentive to an excessive degree). This is a tough one. I can’t really find the line between excessive and adequate, and I’m not sure I want to because adequate feels so inadequate. But then, I’ve always felt inadequate, even when (especially when?) being excessive.
I notice this mostly at work, where I’ve unconsciously made a mission out of greeting and bidding farewell to every patron, patient and staff member who enters or exits the pool facility.
On the one hand, we as a team work hard to make the pools a friendly, safe, and respectful environment, and that’s good. On the other hand, I know many of our patrons don’t need me to be so obsequious. Some people are engaging, friendly, and even demanding of our attention. Others, not so much.
As an experiment, I’ve been refraining from saying good-bye to every departing person. If we happen to make eye contact, or I’m helping them manage their mobility and the door or having another direct interaction, I wish them well and say good-bye. If I’m guarding the pool and they walk by without engaging me, I don’t speak. Our population includes many elderly people, some of whom are, not to put too fine a point on it, grouchy! I suspect they find obsequiousness a pain in the ass. (I find it so, even though I can’t help myself sometimes.) I’ve been letting them come and go in peace, too.
The sky hasn’t fallen. I doubt very much if any of my coworkers have noticed this small change in my behavior. I doubt if the people we serve have noticed it, either.
I notice two things. One is how anxious it makes me to stop being so obsequious. The other is how much less exhausting I find my hours at work.
Servitude. This is a big one at work, too, but also at home. This also played out in my parenting in negative ways, I regret to say. Once again, I have a hard time finding the line between being of useful service in the world and edging into slavery or excessive servitude. I reason that with the world in such a mess, how can we hold anything back when it comes to being of service? Yet at a certain point we can lose ourselves entirely in service to others. My challenge is balancing service to myself and service to others, and I don’t know a woman who doesn’t or hasn’t at some point faced this challenge.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that people with Cluster B behavior demand and expect complete servitude and retaliate in various devastating ways if they don’t receive it. Also, women are burdened with a heavy cultural expectation to be of unending service to their families. Emotional labor is part of this service.
Trying too hard. Trying to be the best person I can be. Trying to protect people. Trying to communicate my love to people. Trying to make a positive contribution. Trying to never be a burden or an inconvenience. Trying to make sure nobody feels “stuck” with me. Trying to please. Trying to be perfect.
As I recently asked in a post, when have we tried hard enough?
As I identified in that very first post: fawning doesn’t work. We learn it when we are powerless and depend on the adults around us to care for us, but it’s not a life strategy. As adults, it doesn’t keep us safe or loved. It’s entirely disempowering. It strips away our dignity and sends a message to others that we don’t value ourselves. If we don’t value ourselves, why should anyone else value us?
Recognizing these various fawning behaviors and the underlying anxiety and fear triggering them has been a revelation to me. Challenging them by refraining or making different choices is an even greater revelation. Dredging automatic patterns from unconsciousness into consciousness is weary work and reveals how deeply-rooted my fawning behavior is. No wonder I find socialization so exhausting.
Now that I notice my own fawning, I’m sad to recognize it frequently in others. Fawning is a common human trauma response, especially for women.
Peter Walker is helping me disengage from fawning in such a way that my natural inclinations toward love and service, empathy, fairness, and listening are more effective and genuine and less exhausting and personally destructive. This is a win for everyone around me as well as myself.
Or perhaps not becoming, but emerging. I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
I’m emerging as someone I was always meant to be.
This emergence began (I know you’ll be shocked) with a book by Pete Walker titled Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. In the pages of this book I found the self I’ve always known and the private experiences I’ve hidden out of guilt, fear, and shame.
I also found a map to a new person.
Although the catalyst was the book, which by its nature is intellectual, the process itself is almost entirely felt. I can’t think myself into a new sense of self and my life; I must feel my way.
This makes it hard to write about here.
As so often happens, a poem came along that perfectly describes what I feel in the subtle, intuitive, symbolic language of poetry rather than carefully crafted, concrete prose.
The Return by Leanne O’Sullivan
I walk through paw-prints the frost has dug, among the moist grasses, my silver hair flowing like a cat’s deep stretch.
This is my season. Again and again I die under the blossom of leaves and count my lives by the sapped rings of trees.
No one will know me, none but the wood growth, its hug of frost its scent of moss its naked shadow
and I, standing at the end of an embered wood where once a light passed through me and passes again,
before I remember how I appeared or how I ended, folding myself into my arms —
the seed, the root, the blossom, the stone shining with all my running juices.
From Cailleach: The Hag of Beara (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)
Emergence, I discover, is a kind of death, like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or moth. It’s a process of uncovering, of freeing something hidden inside, somehow familiar but never before seen. The soul and spirit I was meant to be was covered with a stony crust, originally formed for protection, but long ago becoming a prison. A crust of coping mechanisms and beliefs. A crust covering feelings too painful and overwhelming to acknowledge or face when first felt.
As I scrape away that crust, the feelings it covered swell into life, and they do not want my intellect or to be pinned down into a blog post.
They want to be felt.
And, having been felt, they dissipate like incense smoke, leaving behind a coating of scented ash that scatters with a single breath and reveals someone I’ve never known or been before.
In the meantime, external life goes on around my internal experience. My car is in the shop. It’s a heavy work week. We are stifling in high humidity. I have just finished editing my second manuscript and am rolling up my sleeves to begin writing the third. I’m working on my new website.
As I live the days, I recognize triggers I wasn’t aware of before, triggers to old feelings and reactions, and I apply new tools, habits, compassion, and understanding to them. I’m grateful for the foundations I’ve already built of mindfulness, creativity, and emotional intelligence. I didn’t know they would become the foundations of a new self.
I am changing. I am emerging. I am learning and growing. I am wondering where I’m going.
Wherever I’m going, it’s better than where I’ve been.
I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.
All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.
I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.
I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.
I would have been wrong.
I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.
Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.
The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.
This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.
If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.
When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?
I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.
For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.
It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.
I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.
It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.
The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.
We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.
No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.
True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.
My first post on this blog was about pleasing people. It surprised me, how easy it was to break that habit, once I made up my mind. I still slip into the old pattern of pleasing when I’m not paying attention, but I can even smile now (sometimes) when people express outrage because I Failed To Please. It’s not my job to live up to any expectations but my own.
Ah, there’s the rub. My own expectations, internalized from years of external expectations, can be crippling.
Along with the rest of the country, we are sweltering here in Maine, with heat indices over 100 degrees and the big three H’s: haze, heat, and humidity. Relief is on the way, but right now the only sensible thing to do is hole up with my window AC unit rattling and clunking, shut the blinds, and stay quiet.
Impossible to sleep without AC in my attic, with the temperature and humidity running neck-in-neck. I’m grateful for the cooling unit, and it’s noisy. I learned when I moved to Maine from Colorado the combination of cooled air and high humidity confuse the body. I need a sheet to protect myself from the blowing cool air. But the instant I pull up the sheet, I start gently steaming in my damp bed. Sheet on. Sheet off. Sheet on. Sheet off. Whirr … clunk … whirr … roar … clunk … whirr … goes the cycling air conditioner.
I lay awake during the night, tossing and turning and thinking about all the things I needed to do today, all the things I didn’t do yesterday, and how, and why, and how quickly, and in what order. I thought about carrying dishwater to the garden and prepping for this week’s swim lessons. I thought about the books I’m writing, my new website, this week’s blog post, and housework. I thought about the gardening I’m not finding time to do, switching from 5-lb to 3-lb hand weights and doing more reps, and the challenges my friends face in their private lives.
I felt fear, and I thought fearful thoughts.
I know much of what drives me is fear. It occurred to me my response to fear feels exactly like my cringing, cowering, I’ll-show-you-my-belly-and-be-a-good-dog-if-you’ll-only-love-me people pleasing.
I’ve never noticed that before.
Much of my behavior is unconsciously driven by a desire to propitiate fear. Speeding, perfectionism, toxic positivity, trying well past the point I should have turned away, finishing tasks quickly rather than well, judging my worth in terms of doing rather than being, the list goes on. Some part of me believes if I do it right, find a way to work harder or be a better person, fear will go away and I’ll be secure, happy, beloved.
I recognize the taste and smell of that belief. It’s the same one I thought I’d discarded when I wrote that first blog post.
I’m still pleasing, but now I’m pleasing fear rather than people.
Maybe the desperate people pleasing I’ve engaged in has really been about fear all along. If I don’t please you, you won’t love me. If I don’t please you, you won’t take care of me. If I don’t please you, you won’t be proud of me. If I don’t please you, you’ll leave me.
What I absolutely know about trying to please is it doesn’t work. People pleasing increased my fear and insecurity rather than diminishing it. It kept me squarely where the blows landed … and landed … and landed.
Pleasing fear. Not gonna happen. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I “succeed,” it will want more, or different. Fear will never be satisfied. Ever.
Fear. Danger. Pain. Threat. The specifics of our fear are unimportant. What keeps me awake Monday night might be a different list than what keeps me awake Friday night. It all boils down to danger, pain, threat. What I fear now, in my 50s, is different than the nameless fears of my childhood.
But the fear itself is the same, the same feeling, the same texture, the same merciless driver.
I need to find a different way to manage it than trying to please.
I can’t hide under the bed and freeze or flee from internalized fear. Fawning is people pleasing. What’s left? Fight.
Here’s something I can do!
The first step in fighting is to know one’s adversary, and emotional intelligence has taught me fear can be an advantage, a friend. I don’t want to eradicate my ability to feel fear. My fear, though, has grown into a monster, distorted, invasive, choking.
All that gardening I can’t get to? Maybe I need to do some internal weeding, pruning, and clearing this summer.
Is fear going to continue to use me, or am I going to master it?