Tag Archives: gaslighting

Lasting Happy

This week I finished reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., which inspired several posts. See them here, here, here, here, here, and here.

In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?

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If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.

As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.

It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.

However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.

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The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.

Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.

I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.

A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.

If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.

I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.

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Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?

Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.

Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.

Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.

Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.

Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.

If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?

Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?

Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?

It doesn’t seem like a hard choice to me.

My daily crime.

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I See You

We’re seeing people masked on the streets, in the stores and in workplaces. At the same time, I’m noticing how effectively coronavirus has stripped away the pseudo self of so many people.

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Masks on. Masks off.

Pseudo self is a survival mask, often developed in childhood from the feeling that who we really are is unlovable. Others create a false persona for power and control. Think of the wolf pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.

We all have a pseudo self to some degree. Most of us can deal with difficult family members, coworkers and others with some degree of manners, tolerance and kindness most of the time. We can cooperate and collaborate when required. We can be professional. Hopefully, we also know how to be real with those we trust and love; how to be angry, how to be sad, how to let off steam.

The difficulty with pseudo self occurs when we lose touch with who we really are and our mask becomes permanent rather than something we choose to take off and put on. Creating a pseudo self and retreating behind it permanently means we’re never properly seen, never properly known, never properly connected.

Masks on. Masks off.

Coronavirus is stripping away pseudo selves and revealing the truth of who we are, how we operate, what our hidden agendas and priorities are, our paranoia, our fear, our anxiety and compulsivity, our rage, our unfinished business and our relationships with money and authority. We are distracted and distressed, and our nice, shiny, well-behaved and civilized pseudo selves are slipping, even as we don masks.

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This reveal is fascinating, and it’s everywhere, in our homes and workplaces, in our communities and on social media and TV. Especially on TV. Blame games. Competition rather than cooperation. Gaslighting. Ignorance on display. Lies. Distortions. Conspiracy theories. Disinformation. Paranoia. Ill-concealed fear.

You just can’t fix stupid, and stupid is what I’m seeing behind quite a few pseudo selves.

Masks on. Masks off.

Our leaders seem to feel we’ve reached a Y in the road. Are we more interested in political power and the economy, or are we more interested in saving lives? Some turn one way. Some turn another way. Right now, that stark (and false) choice is not hidden behind distractions and polished bombast. It’s right out there in front of us in every update and news conference.

Are we a global people who cooperate to save lives, or are we separate, competitive political entities who try to outbid one another for inadequate resources? Are we human beings concerned with dignity, quality of life and compassion, or are we robotic consumers addicted to a bloated, unsustainable capitalistic system? Do we care more about the lives of those around us or our own entitlements?

Do we share power, or do we grab all we can get during this crisis?

Masks on. Masks off.

I wonder if we’ll ever fully be able to grasp the ways in which this pandemic will reshuffle our personal decks. What are we learning about our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers and leaders? What are we learning about ourselves, the ways we deal with stress and anxiety, our resilience and adaptability, our priorities and concerns? What are we learning about what really matters to us and to those around us?

How will enforced working from home and non-traditional education change the way businesses and education work when the pandemic is over? How much bigger will we individually become as so many of us learn we are not our work? Coronavirus is giving us a crash course in being rather than doing or having. How many will graduate from this experience with a stronger, more peaceful sense of self? How many will fail to graduate?

Unexpected, stressful times like these bring out the real in us. We can’t prepare for such times or see them coming. We can’t pretend our way through them. Our choices and beliefs are visible to others. We are revealed. We are seen. And so are they.

Masks on. Masks off.

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The masks we wear for protection against the coronavirus conceal much of the lovely expression of the face. As I interact with masked people, I feel bereft and disconnected, unable to fully communicate and connect. I miss seeing the faces of my friends, colleagues and the strangers around me. Something about masks feels dehumanizing and isolating.

Still, I think this is another gift of coronavirus, this stripping away of all the nice-nice pretty-pretty pretense. I’ve always loved real, my own and the real of others. I suppose pseudo self has a useful place in a social context, but only a limited useful place. The ability to be authentic, to my mind, is far more useful and productive. Coronavirus is a great leveler. It doesn’t care about our clothes, our hair, our makeup, our bank account, our title or position, or our presentation in general. It doesn’t care about our politics or whether or not we believe it’s real. It doesn’t give a damn about the economy. All we are is a potential place in which to thrive and multiply. Our pseudo selves cannot shield us, hide us or help us survive this virus.

This pandemic is a fact. It’s real. It’s happening. Masks on or masks off, our authentic selves are showing. I see you, and you can see me.

Nice to know you. Be well. Stay safe. Raincheck on a hug or handshake.

My daily crime.

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Losing It

On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.

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I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.

I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.

During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson, contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague, lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.

It was a good day.

We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes, clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.

I couldn’t find my key.

Where was my key?

I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It wasn’t on the floor.

Where was my key?

I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.

My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine. No key.

It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.

There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him to come and get me.

What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling, boring story? We’ve all lost keys.

The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly that it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.

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For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted that I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.

My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was that I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.

My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind), and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.

My own experience of myself was quite different, but it didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.

In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full custody if that was best for them.

I didn’t think that was best for them.

But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered. I knew that.

So, I thought I would get an objective, professional evaluation.

We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.

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The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying that I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?

When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.

I was blinded by the realization that he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!

“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.

“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.

We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.

From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it, see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.

Yet the key was gone.

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I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality that others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?

All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.

Because I lost my car key.

While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm is looming on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.

All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?

Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational, sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?

Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.

Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car. My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses. The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the pool.

No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again. Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags without much hope.

A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held out the key on its fob in her palm.

For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.

So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?

We realized that my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.

The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.

Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience are real. I’m rational (most of the time—but I recognize my own irrationality when it’s happening!). I know the difference between reality and fantasy.

I’m okay. Again. Still.

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On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me over—hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.

My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities that I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.

In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.

Lost and found. My daily crime.