Happiness

I’m getting coaching. My coach is cool. We talk about dragons and stuff. I’m also in the middle of a major life upheaval. This has given me the opportunity to explore and re-evaluate some of my core beliefs.

(Sounds better than “I’m getting slammed in the face by reality so hard that I’m feeling permanently concussed,” doesn’t it?)

One of the things that have emerged out of this fortuitous combination is that I have some really, really messed up beliefs around happiness. They’re not thoughts I willingly entertain: they are part of my original programming, and have been living at the bottom of my brain, buried so deep within the machinery that I couldn’t see them, and quietly fucking shit up for me.

I think, but I’m not sure, that they’re the result of growing up in a profoundly fucked up family. I also think that I’m not special; other people with a similar background may also be infected with the same malware. What I’m going to do here is list the damn things. Scribbling them down seemed to help me. Maybe reading them will help somebody else.

  1. My happiness doesn’t matter. It’s not a metric by which I should judge my life. It’s not something I should strive towards. It’s not something anyone else should care about.
  2. Unhappiness is unnatural / a bad behaviour / a character flaw. If I’m unhappy, I am either doing something wrong or I am wrong. Either way, I deserve to be unhappy, but I also need to stop being unhappy immediately because that’s wrong, which means that I deserve to be unhappy (repeat until no longer funny).
  3. I don’t deserve to be happy. If I’m unhappy, that’s what I deserve. If I am happy, that happiness is bound to be short-lived because it is undeserved, and I’ll be punished for experiencing it.
  4. I need to earn my happiness by being A Good Person or being Good At Things. I cannot gain happiness by simply working towards it.
  5. I am happy/unhappy about the wrong things. If something that makes me happy doesn’t meet X set of pre-established criteria, then that thing is wrong, my happiness is wrong, and I am wrong.
  6. My happiness comes out wrong. For instance, it is too loud, too risky, not suitable to a Good Kid / Nice Lady, blah blah.
  7. I should be happy with what I have, even when what I have does not make me happy. Whatever situation I’m in, I should be able to find happiness within it rather than trying to change it. If I can’t, that’s bad and I should feel bad.
  8. Things that have no purpose but making me happy are a waste of time and resources. I should be happy doing things that have A Worthy Purpose, even if they don’t in fact make me happy. See point 5.
  9. Striving for happiness is selfish/sinful. Good People don’t do that kind of thing, and only Good People deserve to be happy.
  10. Working out what makes me happy is a surefire way of ensuring that I won’t get it. “They”* will find out what I want, take it away from me if I have it, and punish me for wanting it if I don’t.

*No idea at present who “they” are.

I think these beliefs all pretty much fucked. I’m putting them up for reference, not as a suggestions list. If you disagree – if you think that they’re perfectly valid and they work for you – good on you. They don’t work for me, though. I haven’t picked them, I don’t agree with them, and they’re screwing me up, so I’m going to do what I do best, and kill them with fire.

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Note: I don’t know a damn thing about LARP, but I’ve seen this kind of dynamic in re-enactment, martial arts, and pretty much any other club or institution I can think of. It’s a thing. It’s probably a thing in the places you go to, and just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

My favourite part of this: the term “black hat” is infinitely more specific and less controversial than any other term I’ve seen to date. Also, it does not require a specific “diagnosis” of the problem, which is often where people and groups come unstuck (“Chad isn’t a bully, he just plays rough…” “Kevin isn’t a perv, he’s just awkward around women…”).

Addendum

Addendum to the previous blog.

A whole bunch of people got in touch to point out that the false hope that “if you only did/were X, then everything would be just fiiiiine” is just one of the tools abusers use to keep you in your place. And yeah, that’s often true.

There’s another side of the coin, though, and this is probably where I put my foot in it. Abusive behavior doesn’t necessarily stem from a wish to hurt someone. People – parents, partners, teachers, whoever – can establish and maintain an incredibly toxic environment and totally screw up the people around them without in fact meaning to. They might be replicating the dynamics they were brought up with. They might be doing what they think is necessary or good. They might be simply messed up, unable to do any better, for whatever reasons. Whether we still want to call these people “abusers” is a serious conversation, but it’s one I won’t be participating in. I’m far more interested in accurately labelling the behavior.

Some abusive tactics are used in order to elicit a certain response from the target – not in order to cause them pain or distress, but in order to make them do something. The pain and distress invariably happen, but they are side effects rather than goals. [Inevitable book plug: there is a parallel with “negligent creeps” I described in “Creepology“.]

An example would be a parent who wants their child to learn to play the violin, and is willing to resort to absofuckinglutely any means necessary in order to achieve that goal. If the child does not practice enough, or does not improve at an adequate pace, the child is punished. If the child does meet those standards, however, the abusive behavior goes away. Hell, if the child exceeds expectations, they might actually be rewarded! The violin playing is, for real and no shit, the key to the child’s happiness. It is only so because the parent makes it so, but the connection is tangible and real. It isn’t a mirage, a vain hope of a brighter tomorrow; it’s a contract. Although it has been unilaterally established by the parent, the deal it offers is solid.

The problem with this kind of behavior is that it isn’t anywhere as clear-cut as the trope of the abusive relationship where one person is hell-bent on using another to get their jollies. When there is Evil in play, it’s easier to decide what’s OK and what isn’t. When the behavior isn’t motivated by cruelty, however, things can get a lot more complex. Each and every one of us is going to have to decide where they draw the line, and that is likely to be based on a number of factors. What kind of rewards and punishments do we deem acceptable? What expectations are realistic? What are the relevant cultural norms? What is the impact on the child in question? We’re going to have to know a hell of a lot more about the specifics of that actual situation before we can decide whether the “abuse” label fits. In some situations, we might decide that the parent isn’t being abusive: they are just doing what they think is best for their child. The child will thank them when they’re older.

There are two fabulous twists on this kind of story – as in, worth of being included in good, old-fashioned fables of the blood-and-gore kind.

Firstly, in these situations the abuse only become visible when the child fucks up. While the child meets the parent’s expectations, they are treated perfectly well. The problem is that that apparently wholesome family situation is resting on a foundation of fear. The parent may be treating the child “well,” but it’s only because their wishes are being met. The child may be performing “well”, but they might only do so out of the sheer terror of what would happen if they didn’t. Although they might be getting adequately looked after in all respects, they know what would happen if they slipped up. And, although they may be perceived as “driven,” in reality they are pushed, or dragged.

I don’t think I can describe the impact of that fear in a way that would make those who’ve not experienced understand it. I don’t even know if I want to try. I don’t have the stomach for it. Just try and imagine it, if you’re that way inclined.

[I occasionally read articles about the psychological and emotional problems experienced by “gifted children” – low self-esteem, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, depression, anxiety, burnout, social difficulties, etc. I always privately wonder how many of them stem from the giftedness itself, and how many from being the child of parents who pride themselves on being “the parent of a gifted child.”]

Secondly, for some children, the deal isn’t about a thing they have to do: it’s about who they are supposed to be. Sometimes the parents reject or punish a single key aspect of a child’s identity  (e.g., gender or sexuality). Sometimes the parent’s demands are so stringent that the child is left no space to actually be the person they want to be. They are under such close examination that they not only have to control their every action, but also make sure that their feelings and thoughts are in line with their parents’s wishes. They have to perform, rather than be, every moment of every day. If they slip in their performance, they are punished. For those children who are punished with ostracism, the choice is clear: lose themselves, or lose everyone else. For a small child, dependent on their parents for absolutely everything, that is no choice at all. And, from the outside, no part of their struggle is visible.

CW – abuse & control.

 

There’s an idea I’ve tried to put across to a bunch of people, and failed. I’ve only ever managed to explain myself properly once, and that was with Dillon, whose brain is wired so much like mine that I could fart and he’d still know what I mean. So I’m obviously going to try to put it across in writing, to a bunch of strangers, because that’s likely to work so well. Hey ho. Here goes nothing.

When you’re in an abusive relationship, that relationship is all about what the abuser wants. Your needs and wants are only relevant as ways to get to you. You can be punished by having something taken away, or punished for wanting something you shouldn’t. The abuser is in control. That’s the whole point.

There’s another side to the relationship, though, a way in which the abusee has a lot of control, too – or the illusion of control, anyway. That illusion originates from one of the common narratives of abuse.

I’ve personally met no abuser who was honest about their agenda. Parents are particularly great at that. They don’t tell their children “Sorry, I’m just a terrible person who enjoys watching you suffer, so I’m going to do horrible things to you to get my kicks. It has nothing to do with you, and you can’t fucking stop me.” On the contrary, they generally justify their misdeeds by turning them into reactions to their kids’ behavior. Daddy isn’t a rageaholic who gets pissed up just to have an excuse to trash the place and all within it. He’s just tired, or stressed, and you were too loud, or too rude, or too slow. He flipped out because you made him. Mommy isn’t a manipulator who discovered that going into hysterics at the drop of a hat causes everyone to walk on eggshells around her. She is having a nervous breakdown because you gave it to her. Uncle isn’t a sexual predator who’s been waiting years for someone within reach to cross the threshold of puberty. He is acting creepy because you turned him on.*

It’s all on you. In a way, you’re the one with all the control in the relationship: you have the power to control people’s actions, their feelings, even their health. A too-loud sneeze can cause a burst of violence, send someone on a bender, or give them a three-day migraine. And it’s not just about your actions: even your feelings and thoughts are under constant scrutiny. You said “thank you” for your present, but you didn’t seem to mean it enough – cue a maelstrom. Everything you do or say is enormously important and can have disproportionate consequences. You end up spending the majority of your time and energy trying to work out not just what to do, but who to be in order to make the bad things not happen. If you could just get yourself right, everything around you would get right, too. That’s what you’re told, time and time again. Even when it doesn’t make any logical sense, it can be what you end up believing.

That’s the flipside of a lot of abusive relationship: they hinge on a perversion of the locus of control, on implanting you with the belief that by doing the right things, thinking the right thoughts, feeling the right feelings, being the right person, you could make it all alright. You could make all the problems go away. If only you could fix yourself, everything would be fixed. It’s obviously bullshit when you look at it from the outside. On the inside, though, it makes sense, and exponentially more so if that’s what you grew up with.

That belief can fuck you right up. Not only it can make you stay in abusive relationships longer than you ought to (which is precisely no time at all – run soon, run fast, run far, if you can), but it can also make you stay in shitty situations, or in situations that are just shitty for you. Maybe something isn’t universally awful, but it’s just not right for you. It doesn’t make you feel good. It doesn’t allow you to get what you want, or what you need. And instead of looking at it for what it is – a bad fit – and moving on to find a situation that would suit you better, you bend yourself like a freakin’ pretzel trying to make yourself suit the situation you’re in.

The problem with that is that, even if you can crack the code, even if you can force yourself to act, think, and feel the right things, those things that make the situation around you tolerable, or even good, you’re almost guaranteed not to be happy. Part of the problem is that you don’t in fact have magical powers: you might be able to make people alter their behavior for a short while, but your actions are unlikely to change their basic nature. As soon as you stop pushing for a result, or as soon as the novelty of your presence in their life wears off, they’re more than likely to revert to type. The other part of the issue is that if you have to be someone you’re not to make a situation work, then you, the real you, is forever going to be neglected. You will never get what you need when everyone, you first and foremost, is deliberately ignoring what that is.

 

*Heeeey, check me out, throwing stereotypes all over the place! That’s what I grew up seeing in my life and those of my friends. I know that there are other narratives, but those are the ones I know.

 

No, it ain’t.

There are some posts flying around where self-defence instructors advocate for letting bullying take its course as the best (or only) solution to the issue. As far as I can understand, these posts are predicated on a syllogism:

  1. Bullying is only, solely, and uniquely a form of social violence, i.e. a monkey dance.
  2. Monkey dances are structured in a way that makes them self-limiting, hence inherently safe.
  3. Hence bullying, if allowed to take its proper course, is self-limiting, hence inherently safe.

The proponents of this theory then go on to suggest that the proper course of action is to teach kids how to engage in/with bullying, and that all bullying-related problems stem from the fact that kids are prevented from learning the “rules of violence.” Which sounds like a nice, epic statement, but is actually a crock of shit.

The basic problem with this line of reasoning is none of the premises are accurate.

The first premise contains two major holes. The first one is that social violence can take many forms, and the monkey dance is only one of them. The two terms are nowhere near equivalent, and cannot be used interchangeably. The second one is that a quick check of the dictionary informs us that bullying means “using superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something.” That is not the definition of a monkey dance. It’s not even close.

A monkey dance is a type of duel – a mutual context for the purpose of gaining or maintaining social worth. If my friend Dillon, who is three times my size and trained in all the martial arts, forced me to fight him, there’s no way in hell that his goal would be to prove himself in front of our peers. People who can bicep-curl my weight do not need to throw down to prove that they are stronger than me. The resulting physical confrontation wouldn’t be a duel: it’d be a stomping. It may be a form of social violence between Dillon and his friends, to be sure, but it wouldn’t be a monkey dance between the two of us. If we were looking for a parallel in adult life, I’d look under “assault.” If the relationship was ongoing, I’d check out “abuse.”

The second premise conflates “self-limiting” (i.e., the fighting stops as soon as one of the fighter stops) with “safe.” Monkey dances are a damn sight safer than assaults, no doubt, but they are not inherently safe. People can take a lucky punch, fall over, smack their heads on the curb, and change their lives forever, or end them. While this is a statistical unlikelihood, it is a possibility. It is not entirely unreasonable for people responsible for (or invested in) the survival of minors to want to avoid that risk. Schools cannot just let kids “fight it out” any more than jails can, for the simple reason that they are tasked with keeping their charges safe and sound.

When you combine the risks inherent in any physical confrontation with the strength imbalance inherent in bullying dynamics, things can get really dangerous really fast. It would be easy for Dillon to subdue me without damaging me, but if he didn’t want to damage me in some way, why would he have engineered the confrontation? On the other hand, it would be incredibly difficult for me to prevail upon Dillon without damaging him. Seriously, the safest way I could win that game would be to take him out. In the parking lot. The day before we were due to meet. And to take my friends along in order to do so.

I can’t even be bothered arguing with the conclusion. A syllogism is only ever as good as its premises. As these do not hold water, the syllogism is worthless.

It isn’t, however, useless. On the contrary, it is incredibly useful: it tells us a lot about the people pushing it. I can see two main possibility:

  1. They are lying to suit their purposes, or;
  2. They are genuinely clueless.

I am struggling to decide which option I find most repugnant. Being willing to peddle advice that could severely harm children for profit is hardly admirable, but being that oblivious to the realities of bullying requires serious dedication, or a genuine inability to hear victims’ voices. I have serious reservations as to whether either of these is an attribute suited to a self-defence instructors.

State of emergency

Recent events have helped me rediscover an old truth: I am a good person to have around during emergencies. Throw an emergency at me, and I actually do better than a lot of people – and I don’t say this about anything else. Generally, I’m really not that great at… anything, honestly. Most people I know are better than me at most things. Emergencies, though, put me ahead of the pack. I’m not saying that there are no emergencies I’ll shit myself in front of, but, up to now, my past records suggest that my freeze is comparatively short, I can think (mostly) rationally throughout, and I generally get shit done. It’s most likely because I’m a coward, and my immediate response to fear is to charge towards it, but it works. Kinda.

Give me an emergency or upheaval, and in under a half hour I will have not only dealt with any immediate needs, but I will have come up with at least 12 different contingency plans, graded them in terms of their effectiveness, desirability, and associated risks, and started to work towards at least two of them. It’s not something I have to make myself do: it’s my natural response to this kind of thing. It would be harder for me not to do it. If couldn’t get up and going, I’d probably drown in my own anxiety. I’m someone who gets shit done. Faced with an emergency, no matter how I feel, I carry on getting shit done.

Therein lies the rub. No matter how I feel, I carry on getting shit done. That attribute isn’t something that activates in case of emergencies: it’s there all the time. And, while it’s a freakin’ superpower during emergencies, it’s a humongous liability in everyday life.

I carry on getting shit done regardless of how I feel. That is not a good way to live. It’s a great way to survive, but it can never take you past that point, into thriving. Yes, it can help you survive up to the point where you have the opportunity to thrive (which, if you perish earlier on, won’t ever happen). But unless you can turn it off, unless you can allow yourself to respect your own feelings, which are reflections of your needs, you won’t ever thrive, regardless of how auspicious your circumstances are.

I can look at my history and plot exactly where, when, and how I learnt to do this. It’s a story so freakin’ common that it’s a trope. I grew up in a state of emergency, surrounded by grown-ups who couldn’t cope with their own shit and wouldn’t help me cope with mine. I was put under too much pressure at too young an age. I was constantly overwhelmed and constantly insecure, unable to rely on my caregivers or on myself. We were all equally incompetent, for different reasons.

If I crumbled every time something made me feel overwhelmed, I would have spent my entire life in a heap. Not only that wouldn’t have helped me get out of the shit, but it would have also encouraged those around me to give me a good kicking. Weakness, of any kind, was a target on your back. Show that you’re hurting, and they’ll hurt you worse. Show that you have a vulnerability, and that’s where they’ll hit you. The solution was simple: bury all those feelings, and charge on ahead. Do what needs to be done, no matter how you feel about it.

I occasionally speak to self-defence experts and they tell me how wonderful this is – not because childhood trauma is a desirable formative experience, but because of how I’ve “transcended” it. I could have been mangled by my experiences, and instead I’ve turned into someone who, when thrown against the ropes, uses that momentum to launch themselves forward. I get what they’re trying to say, but I think they’re missing a point: being good at emergencies is making me bad at life, and I want to live. That takes a completely different set of beliefs, priorities, attitudes, skills… and I’ve never developed those. Not yet, anyway. That’s my next project.

The funny thing is… If I treat it like a fucking emergency, I know, I actually know, that I will get through it.

Babosología

Aaaaaaand we’re up!

On the Kindle and as a paperback. In Spanish, no thanks to my language skills.

(It was really interesting for me to learn that one of the Spanish equivalents of “creep”, which has largely reptilian connotation, is “baboso,” i.e. slug. Sticky, slimy, and extremely appropriate, I think.)

 

Turtles all the way down.

Things are still manic around here, so I’m going to leave you with a priceless bit of wisdom:

When you drag yourself out of a rut, things are gonna be bumpy for a while.

 

(If you think that’s an obvious truism, just think about how common it is for people to stick a toe out of their comfort zone, feel uncomfortable, and take that as an indication that the whole thing was a terrible mistake and they should retract all digits with immediate effect and never stick them out again.)

Fears.

The last six months have been… interesting, in the Chinese curse meaning of the word. Life has been peppered with events that have given me the opportunity to taste fear.

I am a fearful person. I often get told I’m not. People who don’t know me have a tendency to think I’m brave, or at least to say that they do. I state that I’m not brave clearly, loudly, and often, but it generally gets ignored. I have a tendency to move towards what scares me, but it isn’t out of bravery. It’s normally one of three reasons:

  1. I’m too fucking chickenshit to let it be. I cannot live with monsters in my closet, so I will pick up a poker and a flashlight and go seek them out.
  2. I know from the onset that I will probably lose and probably get fucked up, so there’s no point in worrying about that. But I’ll be fucking damned if I don’t make it expensive for the bastards. If I’m going to go, I’m going to cause as much damage as I can on the way out, because fuck them.
  3. I care less about me than I care about something else. Standing up for something or somebody may get me trounced, but I care about that something or somebody more than I do about myself, so I charge forth. (Note: having nothing to lose is liberating, but when that “nothing” is yourself, your well-being, your survival… not healthy.)

In the last few months, I’ve not had a chance to do anything about the events that have summoned my fears; they have been outside of my control, things that happened to or around me regardless of any steps I could take. I was too small a cog to affect the machinery. I couldn’t do anything about the events, so I found myself charging towards something else instead: the source of my fear. It is an accepted dogma in modern pop psychology that anger isn’t a primary emotion: it’s what you feel when you don’t want to feel what you really feel. I find that that idea gets misused and crowbarred into a variety of inappropriate situations, which is an issue. My other issue with it is that I have no idea why we don’t try and do the same with other emotions, and fear in particular.

I think very few fears are inherently there, inevitably ours. The fear of falling, some weird phobias we seem to be born with, those may be there, in our bones, installed as factory standards. Much of the rest of our fears, though, seems to me to be the result of a combination of experiences and thoughts or expectations. I raise a fist towards my puppy, and he isn’t frightened: he has never been punched, so he hasn’t learnt to associate a raised fist with pain, so he feels no fear. On the contrary, he thinks we’re going to play. I raise a fist towards other dogs, who have been hit, and their reaction is completely different. The way they respond will depend on the strategy they have developed to avoid that pain. Will they attack or cower?

I am one of those dogs. It just so happens that the way my fear manifests in the world makes me looks a lot like freakin’ Despereaux going off to be a knight, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of the fear on my mental landscape. So, in my fear-induced quest to vanquish my fears, I have tried to find their source. It’s a work in progress. The results have been interesting.*

Why am I afraid? The most obvious answer is “past experiences”: you get hit, you get hurt, you learn that getting hit hurts, so you’re afraid of getting hit again. That is a simplification, though, and it ignores a variety of other factors. You could get hit and block or evade. What do you learn then? Your interpretation of your experience will inform that lesson, probably more than the events do. At one extreme, you could learn that you are capable of avoiding a hit, that you can deal, which could lessen your fear of future hits, including those you can’t possibly block. At another extreme, you could learn that people are dangerous and should be avoided just in case. What your experience teaches you will depend on how your head is already wired, on what you believe about yourself, on how you have learnt to tell your own story.

No experience I’ve coped with has taught me that I can cope. Not a single one of them. I have never overcome something and felt victorious, or even capable. It’s always been a toss-up between calling myself lucky, stupid, or both. The events outside of my control that came at me didn’t kill me, but they didn’t make me stronger: they made me realise how weak I am, how perilous the world is, how easily things could have gone another way. The mistakes I made in the past and gotten over taught me that I am a person who makes mistakes, hence a person whose decision-making abilities can’t be trusted; not a person who gets over things. I have never looked at a future challenge and shrugged it off because I’ve already overcome far greater ones. I think of myself as incapable of not only of coping, but of learning to cope or to avoid situations in which I have to cope.

I am scared of what has already happened, because if it happened once then it can happen again. I am scared of what nearly happened, because I know how lucky I was to have escaped it the first time. I am scared of what might happen, because I don’t trust myself to be able to deal with it. I am scared all the time, regardless of how I prove myself to myself, of how much I grow, of how much I learn. And, if I carry on thinking of myself as I do now, I will live with fear forever.

I don’t want to. It’s not the choice I’d make for anyone else, so I won’t make it for myself. Now the issue is: how do I go about unfucking all this?

I could try and reverse-engineer those thoughts to their origin, to travel back to the “source of my trauma” (sorry, but my life just hasn’t been epic enough for me to be able to use those words without inverted commas). At first glance, the most obvious answer is “I grew up in a state of emergency, surrounded by adults who couldn’t cope and wouldn’t help me cope.”

Another strategy, the strategy I’m currently preferring because I’m hoping that it will offer me a shortcut, is to address my beliefs about myself directly. They are not rational and they are not visible, so I’m trying to spot them by looking at the stories I tell myself about my own life, then changing the main character. Would I tell the story the same way if instead of me going through X it was anyone else? If I interpret my own life in a radically different manner, that’s a thing I need to be aware of. The awareness, in and of itself, may do something.

 

*Aside: the last fiction I published was about Alya. She is a bundle of managed fears, a collection of scars, and the most autobiographical character I’ve ever written. She is more than just an aspect of me: she’s basically me. And I can’t stand her. Finding that out was also very interesting.

 

 

News

So, I missed blogging last Monday for the first time. (Did you miss me? No? Hmpf.) A large lump of brown stuff hit a rotating implement with a resounding thud, and chunks are still flying all over the place. Said brown shower is likely to persist for a wee while yet, so bear with me. Or not. I’m not your supervisor.

In more positive news, this is happening:

‘Tis the Spanish version of the “Creepology” book. I have a whole bunch of very, very clever friends, and one of them translated it. It’s currently available for pre-order on the Kindle, publication date being the 6th of April. The paperback version should be available on the same date, but pre-order isn’t an option. If you know of any Spanish-speaking persons or institutions who may be interested, please shove the link directly under their nose.