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.
One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled.
How can doing things real ever be good enough?
As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible?
The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?”
I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope!
A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart.
How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections?
It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them.
I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own?
I don’t want to be one of those people.
Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them.
Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself?
Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message:
“You didn’t do that right.”
No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there.
This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better.
What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place?
Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive.
The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself.
It’s entirely disempowering.
But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy.
I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me.
I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out?
Doing it right or doing it real?
My daily crime.
I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?
The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.
I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.
Ironically, I realize now that by far my greatest failure in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover that accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.
This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.
The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another—a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide with the values of others.
Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.
As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.
I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.
Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!
The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is that there’s no recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.
I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.
As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?
As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again—that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?
Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume that others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.
Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs alongwith the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.
The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.
Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that could puncture tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.
The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds that mated, nested, hatched, quarreled, sang and lived their lives among its thorny branches.
I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.
I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.
I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned that thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.
Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.
This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.
Just like my beloved locust tree.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.
It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood that nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.
I need to protect myself.
That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.
I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.
The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience that pleasing people and having no boundaries lead to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.
This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me that revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.
Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.
I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.
Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.
Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high that I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.
I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.
I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to be like that.
As I sit in my attic space this afternoon, the wind is roaring in the bare trees. Last night it rained. This morning on the way to our weekly breakfast date at a neighborhood diner there were snowflakes in the air as we navigated the crumpled, buckling, pot-holed roads.
Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash
I’m still listening to David Whyte, and he’s still inspiring me. Listening to him speak is similar to reading his poetry. Each repetition unfolds new layers and depths in my heart and mind.
Today I’ve been reading, sorting, paying bills, and taking care of the oddments we all accumulate on our work surfaces and in our technological tools while we’re out in the world working or doing other things.
Outside the wind rocks the trees, which are just beginning to swell with buds, and David Whyte talks to me of friendship with life, with others and with ourselves. He suggests that healthy relationships are a continuous contest of necessary generosity in which we develop a discipline of forgiveness and allowing others to forgive us.
It occurs to me that the more I forgive myself, the less I need the forgiveness of others. If I love my choices and decisions, I don’t need anyone else to do so.
Do we need forgiveness for who we are? Sometimes we need forgiveness for the boneheaded choices we make, but do we need forgiveness for who we are?
It seems to me the only reasonable answer is no, yet I’ve spent my life apologizing (and in latter years trying not to apologize) for who I am, what I need, and what works and doesn’t work for me in my life.
I have a friend who frequently apologizes for the way she expresses herself and interacts. I understand. We have that self-judgement in common. When she apologizes anxiously for something she said or wrote, or didn’t say or write, I smile to myself. It sounds like she’s apologizing for who she is, but I love her because she is who she is. I have more space for her than she does for herself.
Photo by Jenelle Ball on Unsplash
She has more space for me than I do for myself as well. I hope, with time, our friendship will help us both be less critical of ourselves.
I’m great at giving other people space to be who they are. It’s always been one of my strengths in relationship.
I’m so good at it, in fact, that several people with whom I’ve been closely connected quickly took it for granted that I would accommodate whatever they needed and/or wanted. Rather than a contest of generosity, such a relationship becomes an endless exercise in trying to please (on my part) and demand (on the part of the other).
The bad news is that the only way I can see out of this loop is to learn to say no and enforce boundaries, two things guaranteed to send any person who expects to control my behavior and choices into meltdown.
I hate scenes.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Naturally, my history of allowing others to take control in any given situation positioned me to attract into my life people who insisted their own needs and desires trumped mine. They had no interest in the thoughts and feelings behind the choices I made and did everything they could to manipulate my compliance with their expectations.
The wind blows because that’s its nature. Does it ask forgiveness from the trees? As I gaze out the window, looking for nothing and trying to see everything, I glimpse the possibility of living in such a way that I give myself the space I’ve always given others. Wind blows. Water flows. Mice nibble holes in cushions. Woodchucks dig up the Echinacea roots and eat them. None of it is personal. All act according to their nature, and there’s a kind of inexorable beauty about that.
I want to be beautiful like that.
Yet I have often sought to limit and even hurt myself. The twin disciplines of self-forgiveness and giving myself space have been exceedingly difficult to undertake and maintain, especially in the context of relationships with loved ones. My generosity has been for others, not for myself.
When people come into our lives and force us to make a choice between their expectations and our needs, they’re playing to win at any price, and the only way for them to win is for us to lose.
Not a contest of generosity, but a competition for power.
I have no interest in playing power games, and even less interest in “winning,” particularly if it means someone else has to lose. I’ve never been competitive. On the other hand, I’m finally committed to extending generosity to myself, and I love the gentle persistence in David Whyte’s language: “a continuous contest of generosity.”
Can I enjoy my own thoughts, feelings and expressions with the same generosity that I enjoy the boisterous spring wind, or my friend? Can I honor myself even when people around me tell me I’m bad and wrong? I fought as hard as I could to protect my children and give them a good start. Now, can I surround myself with that same fierce loyalty and generous love? Will I?