We compare ourselves to others in contests and competitions. Our capitalist culture shapes us to believe winners receive the most money and fame.
Our culture assures us money and fame equal power, and winners have to spend a lot of money in order to win. Everyone else has to spend a lot of money in order to compete with them.
The fact is, contests and competitions produce one winner and many losers. But those losers want to win, so they spend even more money to become winners.
Win-win for capitalism, but lose-lose for almost everyone else.
I recently heard of a question on Facebook to men: What woman do you admire?
Nearly all the answers involved women of extraordinary intelligence and talent who have made important contributions to the world but are not necessarily well known, although their male colleagues are!
Are they losers because they’re not rich and famous? Can they be winners if we’ve never heard of them?
Is our win meaningful if nobody recognizes it? Is it meaningful if it’s not part of our identity?
Is it the win we care about, or the validation, power and applause we expect to receive as a winner?
Are our wins and losses about what we think of ourselves (empowering) or about what others think of us (disempowering)?
How important is winning? More important than the truth? More important than our own integrity and dignity? More important than our health and well-being?
Is our win really about someone else losing (I’ll show them!)?
Winning, like perfectionism and people pleasing, is a moving target, not a permanent state. Winners come and go, just like losers. Money and fame come and go, just like winners.
Our personal power stays with us, win or lose, rich or poor, famous or unknown. We each hold the keys to our own success.
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.
We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and
hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label
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.
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.
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.
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
In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:
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.
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.
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.
Standing up for what is right. (Understanding that we’ll never all agree on what is right.)
Expanding horizons – letting go of the familiar.
Facing suffering with dignity and faith.
Forbes published an article entitled “10 Traits of Courageous Leaders” that also caught my eye. As far as I’m concerned, these courageous traits are not specific to leaders. Again, my comments are in parentheses.
Confront reality head-on. (Reality has become subjective. ‘Alternative facts’, anyone? I think of this as the willingness to see things clearly and accept the world (and others) as it is.)
Seek feedback and listen. (Refusing to answer questions or hear feedback is a red flag. So is the inability to shut up and listen.)
Say what needs to be said. (Authenticity)
Take action on performance issues. (Ooda loop: Observe, orient, decide, act.)
Communicate openly and frequently. (Authenticity)
Make decisions and move forward. (Ooda loop again.)
Give credit to others. (Gratitude, appreciation, acknowledgment.)
Hold people (and yourself) accountable. (Integrity)
Most will agree that courage is a good thing, an attribute we want to have, an attractive quality we’d like others to see in us. The hardest part of courage, it appears at first look, is simply overcoming our fear and taking action anyway. Then everyone will admire, like, and respect us.
From the bottom of my scarred heart, I wish that was so. Maybe it is so for others, but my experience with courage is that the people closest to me, whose opinion I’ve most cared about, have called some of the most courageous choices I’ve ever made cowardice, and I’ve paid a steep and ongoing price for those choices, even though from my perspective they were the right things to do.
Perhaps the most powerful way to think about the traits and
aspects of courage listed above is to consider whether they are present or not
in our own relationships, groups and communities. Most of us will pay lip
service to the idea of courage, but when it comes to taking courageous action,
we are severely discouraged from doing so, and we often do all we can to
prevent others from doing so as well.
Let’s face it. Courage is damned inconvenient and
uncomfortable. In fact, for many, it’s a frank threat.
This is a shadowy aspect of courage few talk about directly,
with one major exception.
For example, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden: “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie.” To tell the truth, make courageous choices out of that truth, and be invalidated and/or disbelieved by those close to us is a terrible kind of pain. When others call our courage selfishness, cowardice, malevolence, irresponsibility or hysteria, relationships shatter.
Then I found this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you Kept shouting their bad advice— though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. “Mend my life!” each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible. It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do— determined to save the only life you could save.
It’s one thing to be a member of an in-group that provides support as we make choices. It’s a whole other thing to be cast out, scapegoated, or tribally shamed because others do not accept or believe in our fears, dreams, and authenticity, and thus cannot appreciate our courage.
Courage, I find, takes enormous
As I contemplate courage, my relationship to it, and these points, two aspects stand out: The terrible loneliness of courage, and how subjective it is.
Fear is, of course, subjective, too. This came home to me
particularly this week as I had a conversation with a young student about
concerns and plans for schools reopening. I realized afresh, during our brief
interaction, that we all fear things in the coming months. Some are afraid
they’ll be forced to take a vaccine for coronavirus in order to attend school,
or forced to wear a mask all day. Others fear equally there will be no vaccine,
at least not a safe and effective one, and students won’t wear masks.
To be human is to know fear. We all have that in common. I wish we could stay rooted in that commonality and work together, but instead most people take it one step farther and fight about which fear is real and legitimate; not a successful strategy for problem-solving.
There’s an old proverb: “Fear and courage are brothers.” Most of us understand that courage can’t exist without fear. This is an aspect of courage that’s heavily underlined as I research. It doesn’t help us much now, though, when we fear so many different, if not opposite, things.
If fear is subjective, then courage must be, too. Right now we see a mad scramble as different groups work to legitimize their fears and invalidate those of others. Contempt, violence and broken relationships are the result, and we wind up more thoroughly divided than we started.
Courage, then, becomes something we each define for
ourselves, rather than a concept we all agree on.
Because our culture has such low emotional intelligence, and fear is such a loaded thing to talk about honestly, the idea of courage becomes equally difficult to address and remains nebulous and elusive, a thing in the shadows.
Who would have thought how
complicated courage is?
I have no grand conclusions. What I will say is that thinking about courage has softened some of my certainty that I can recognize and appreciate it in those around me. What do I know of what lies in the hidden places of others? I’m also reminded that, at the end of the day, the best friend and support we have is ourselves. Nobody can walk in our shoes but us, and that means nobody has access to the full truth of our experience, our fear, or the fullness of our courage. Our own love and approval may be all we get, and that needs to be enough.
Practicing courage, in spite of the price. My daily crime.