Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Practise makes... imperfectly perfect

I had a very surprising, yet interesting, experience recently -- an opportunity to test my boundaries and skills in dealing with verbal abuse.  The assault came with no warning, out of the blue, from a person and within a situation I would never have expected.

There are several people in my world who I can pretty safely assume will verbally and emotionally abuse me if we are in the same room or telephone line together.  These are the people I try to avoid being in the same room or on the same telephone line with.  But... it's not always possible to avoid such things, and so, when I know I'm going to have to deal with them, I spend several hours (even several days, sometimes!) remembering their favourite triggers, rehearsing a number of different options for getting myself out of an abusive situation, practising my "lines," which I repeat to myself over and over again when actually in that room.  You're right, it's not much fun, and hardly a positive relationship, but... it gets me through and out of there with minimum damage, and then I can have a nice big cry when nobody is looking.  I could go in with guns-a-blazing and we'd end up with a room full of carnage.  Instead, I choose to just wear some really good armour and nimbly side-step the bullets they fire my way.  No bloodshed necessary.

So, while not perfect at avoiding and deflecting abuse from the usual suspects, I know I have been improving -- and I have noticed that the usual suspects are now a little more wary about starting in to the same old routine now, as well.  Maybe they're learning, or maybe they're just regrouping to find better ammunition, who knows -- but I think a big part of their calming down is that they no longer get the result they were hoping for.  They no longer get "power over" because 1) I really don't give a crap what they think of me anymore, 2) I'm now experienced enough to know and tell them that what they used to bully me into never ended up working, and the times I've trusted my gut always have, so I'll do it my way now, thank-you-very-much, and 3) I'm now strong enough to call a bully a bully, so if they want to save face, they'd better just STFU.  :-)

I've often wondered, though, how I would fare without the fair warning and preparation -- if I didn't have my armour and dancing shoes on, would I just slip back into old habits?

I'm very happy to report: the answer is NO.  No fancy equipment needed -- the training wheels are off.  (Armour, dancing shoes and training wheels -- how many metaphors can I slip in here?)

It all started out peacefully, jovially -- a "Bambi meets Godzilla" moment.  A group of us were sitting together, talking, laughing and joking.  I made a light-hearted quip about my less-than-perfect childhood, and then BAM!  One of the guys suddenly went into attack mode.  I was accused of saying things I hadn't actually said, and every time I tried to correct, my sentence was interrupted with more accusations, twisting a couple of the words into the previous couple of words, and forming a whole new sentence I was attacked for supposedly saying.  This person -- who never knew me in my childhood, nor has he ever asked me any questions about it -- then proceeded to tell me what my childhood had REALLY been like (hmm...), and what I *should* remember and feel about it (hmmm...)

As he was ramping up, I kept thinking: "it kind of feels like somebody is starting to juggle chainsaws in my belly... this is not good... oh wait a sec, I remember this, he's verbally abusing me!  Oh look, I think I'm about to throw up some chainsaws... 5... 4... 3... 2... 1..."

It became very clear, amidst his one-sided ranting, that this was creating a very black-and-white situation for him, and that when I was saying my childhood was imperfect, he was hearing it as there was absolutely nothing good about my childhood, I thought I was perfect and everyone else was evil.  And he seemed to really want, no, NEED my childhood to be 100% perfect for some reason.  No shades of grey were allowed (which is weird, because this is a person usually pretty good at that sort of thing).  Obviously, my comment hit some sort of trigger in him, because he's never talked to me like that before, and it snapped him from Jeckyll to Hyde (or whatever one is which) in an instant.  Someone who is usually good with shades of grey and the odd balances of life suddenly needed black and white, and needed me to be the one on the opposite side (and the side seemed to change pretty constantly).

This was SUCH a familiar situation for me, and such a HUGE trigger in the past -- don't see anything wrong with anybody you love, you're with us or against us, etc. -- it would have been SO easy for me to slip into the brain-cloud of the past.  But I didn't.  I didn't let him pull me into the black-and-white.  I didn't let him tell me what I was "really" thinking or "really" saying, or what my life was "really" like.

I deflected.  Politely, firmly, I deflected.  I would not take on the role he was trying to force on me.  And as awful as the chainsaw-juggling was, I was kind of smiling at myself on the inside, recognizing my strength, and how far I've come.

But... once someone's started down that path, it's difficult for them to grind to a halt.  He wasn't getting the result he wanted, so he escalated, telling me louder and louder who I was and what I was and how he was somehow a better expert on my life than I am.  He got louder, I kept an even keel and deflected, deflected, deflected.  Although I could feel the tears starting, my voice stayed quiet and calm.  The piece-de-resistance came when he shouted "you're so f-ing hostile!!!" -- I laughed, looked around the room, and asked "does anyone else see the irony in that statement?"

I think that's when he started to realize that what he was doing was unacceptable.  He kept trying a few more jabs, but the air was starting to leak out of his puffed-up bravado.  (Or maybe it's the fact that my tears were now in the uncontrollable stage, although my voice was still miraculously stable.)

That's when I finally got a chance to tell my own story -- not that I was in any mood at that point to actually let him in to the deep dark insides of my psyche, but I was able to make it clear that he didn't have the first clue about what I was really thinking or feeling, or what my childhood was really like.

He did acknowledge that he had put words in my mouth, he did acknowledge he hadn't let me finish sentences.  Baby steps...  He did deny going on the attack, he did deny being aggressive, he made lots of excuses of why he was aggressive (yes, I do see the contrast between those two clauses, no, I don't think he did, at least not at that point), he did manage to sneak in a "Well, I know there's nothing I'll be able to say to convince you otherwise" statement at the end (uh, just for starters: 1. You don't know anything about my future thoughts or actions, 2. Maybe, if you want to convince me otherwise, you should use your imagination and your words and discuss it with me, but... whatever)  As I said, Baby Steps!

From how, in the past, I've seen him talk to and about people, I imagine he's been brought up to believe this is an acceptable way to have a "conversation" -- so for him to acknowledge that it wasn't acceptable, and was very upsetting to me... well, not just baby steps, Big Steps!

The group went back to supportive of everyone.  We all tried to work stuff out together.  Everyone said they actually felt better in the aftermath, and closer to each other.  Nobody had stormed off in a huff.  We had reached a group understanding.  We still liked each other.  There was more chatting and laughing and we all parted with hugs.

The world -- and the friendship -- did not end when I put my foot down and defended my boundaries.

His world did not end when I put my foot down and defended my boundaries.

Everyone who was in that room has a better understanding of each other, despite -- or perhaps because of -- me putting my foot down and defending my boundaries.

And yes, it was awful at the time, but I'm so glad it happened.  Life sent me an answer to the question I had been asking myself.  Yes, I CAN do this.  I can have boundaries and love at the same time.  I can maintain my boundaries even when I don't have days to rehearse them.  I can feel those chainsaws coming and know that it's not because there's something wrong with me, but because there's something wrong with the situation.  I don't have to have a hissy fit to defend myself, I can be polite and calm and firm and consistent.

Yes, here in my 40s, I'm finally capable of the skills I should have learned by grade school.  I blame my imperfect childhood.  ;-)

We are ALL so perfectly imperfect.  And when we're able to brush up against others' perfect imperfection, wrestle with it, and come out the other side in one piece -- that's when everyone gets a chance to grow and learn.  Acknowledging your own imperfections, and the imperfections in the people you love, is actually a really good thing.  Obsessing on the imperfections, not so good.  But recognizing that we're all doing our best, warts and all, is the very basis of compassion -- both to those around us and to ourselves.

Don's been reading a book by Brene Brown called "The Gifts of Imperfection".  A little while ago, he was very excited to read her claim that those figures in the world -- Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, etc. -- who we count amongst the most compassionate are also the types of people who have the strongest boundaries.

It all comes together.  Embracing imperfection, having strong boundaries, being compassionate, having a good life that gives back to the world.

I may not be perfect, but I'm practising.  And we're all perfectly imperfect.  Life is good.  :-)


  1. Ya' know. You look good in dancing boots swirling a chainsaw above your head! oh -- sorry -- that's your cello. No! Never your cello. Definitely a chainsaw.

    You my friend are amazing -- and the lessons your teach through sharing your story are amazing too!

  2. Too bad I never learned how to juggle! ;-)