Manipulation and people pleasing

Lots of stuff  floating around in my head.

I didn’t mention this, but I know a lot of it is because I had space to grieve for Nata. Things kind of shook loose in my mind. I don’t mean I remembered new things, but I made new connections.

I was looking at something C had posted to her new and terrifying boyfriend–a kind of love note thing.

It popped into my head she’s manipulating him. Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn’t, but I’ll tell you why I thought that. It seemed to me she was using his disordered attachment, his emotional hunger, to protect herself from the possibility of abandonment. If he shows signs of getting too close to too far or whatever, she can distance herself, he’ll grovel. She gets a hit of importance, power and control. Meanwhile, she gives him what she believes he wants–what she believes everyone wants, because that is what her abuser wants, which is a sense of superiority and specialness by telling him complimentary things.

No one is really vulnerable. No one is showing their real selves. He emotionally blackmails her with need. She insulates herself against real need.

I don’t really know whether she’s doing that. I did start thinking about all of the ways she has struggled to remain in control with me, and how I’ve just kept going, because she needs me.

But people do.

I think my ex did. It affected me differently, because I didn’t know why she was doing it. I didn’t know why someone would want that much control. I didn’t know how much fear it pointed to. Thinking about it gave me insight into the push and pull involved, the cycle of it, and what my ex got out of the ruptures she claimed to hate.

I didn’t know that if I you believe, deep in your soul, that you are destined to be unloved, unwanted and unaccepted, the best you’ve got to keep people around you is tricks. Your best shot at life is people-pleasing and manipulation.

That’s a lot of fear.

And at the end of it, I would guess, you have no idea who you are.


I was in Target looking at pencils. There were some in bright colors and patterns with sharks on some of them. I liked them. I felt a little sparkle inside–I was looking at things to send C.

I recognized my next feeling as shame. I can’t really remember what I thought, but I really clear sense of feeling teary and being unable to raise my gaze.

I suppose I thought about it for a while, and it came back at other moments as well.

I began to connect it to my mother’s still face–a la The Still Face Experiment. Whatever my more adult cogitating about what I have to be ashamed about, it’s that feeling of sparkle that really feels to me like it isn’t okay. I feel, very deeply, it isn’t okay to be happy or to connect over a sense of shared joy. It doesn’t feel okay to be affectionate. That is the absolutely deepest feeling I have.

The other feeling I have that is just about equally difficult is feeling longing isn’t okay. It isn’t okay to experience separation express, to miss someone or to need someone.

There are other layers of trauma, other tough stuff to deal with–fears about performing up to a certain standard, for example–but those two are the most hard-wired. I can’t be happy and I can’t be sad.

No guarantees

I had a brief chat with C. It felt good. It felt good just to have a brief connection with her, and I started to notice I had more energy suddenly. I felt optimistic. I went in the house and did some productive things.

I reflected back on what this book says I read last week (the one by Brene Brown): Joy gets us through the tough times. We cannot selectively numb, and when we use numbing to get through the bad times, we also lose the good stuff and we end up more depleted and less able to cope. I’m not blaming myself. I had no other useful strategies.

I had: therapy (which didn’t help) and activities (which left me numb).

I don’t really know what I am doing now, but I am able to cope with a lot more. I also take on less. I don’t grit my teeth and try to get through “healing” the way I believe I am supposed—to whatever that might be.

Anyway, I told her some things that were very vulnerable—just I love her, she is special to me. I started to realize how vulnerable I was. I started to think I don’t really feel worthy. I don’t feel good enough. But I am essentially all I have. And I am not good enough, there is not anything I can do. I just sat with that for a while. I am the best I have. I can keep trying to do better and be better, but at any given moment, I am the best I have to offer anyone. And it’s possible for someone not to like that or to consider me to be enough. There are no guarantees.


When you are small, and you have separation anxiety, and your attachment figure comes back—again and again, that person comes back, then that becomes the pattern fixed in your mind. People go away and you miss them and feel sad, but then they come back and everything is fine.

When you love someone who doesn’t come back, then that becomes a reality you have to find a way to live with. It is not vague and insubstantial as a possibility. It is not something that might happen, but you can’t vividly imagine because it has never happened. It has happened and you know exactly what it feels like. And you have to live with that.

When someone dies suddenly and violent that you truly loved, then you know anyone you love can die. Even if it’s unlikely, as an emotional reality, it is there and you have to live with that.

I had kind of a distressing evening—very suddenly. I think I was primed for it. I was making a Russian salad that I probably ate as a child. I think it’s evocative. My friend kind of freaked out over a small thing. It was very momentary. It didn’t escalate into anything that could be called anything, but I totally shut down. I was really frightened, and I went on with my work, just aware of how frightened I felt and how paralyzed—even though I went on making the salad.

I finished up, sat down to check my Facebook, and C’s boyfriend had posted a picture of C with very affectionate things on it. By Country X standards, pretty provocative, I suppose. I was worried. The whole relationship really worries me. I can’t imagine it being anything less than a train wreck.

I just sat there and felt that. I felt how frightening it is to know that something could happen to her. She could be irreparably harmed.

And if something happened to her, my life would be upside down. I wouldn’t be okay. I’d muddle on somehow—we all do. But I wouldn’t be okay. And that’s the kind of the risk we all take in relationships that really mean something to us.

I know, because someone suddenly, violently died and I know what it’s like when someone who really matters to you can just be ripped away from you like that. I am not 13 years old anymore. I have better coping skills, but I know the light would go out in my life if something happened to C and I would have to go about finding it again. I know what it feels like when the light just dims. It’s awful. And it isn’t just awful for a little while. It is awful for years.

Saturday afternoon

I feel kind of in shock today and I don’t know why.

I had a pretty good week. I tried to create more of a structure for myself in the part of my day I have some control over, so that I had more of a chance for my emotions to come up—I started to see over the vacation how much I am holding things in all the time. I started to think if I can create a crack for myself that is really going to help, even if really I am not alone except for about an hour or two a day and I am keeping my emotions in for the benefit of other people nearly all of my waking hours.

The vacation gave me some space to let out some of what I was holding in and to process it, and when I did go back to school, I noticed that I was able to be more present with people when I got home in the evenings than I had been before. I was doing less of going through the motions and more able to connect with people, because I had a less intense private experience going on.

I should add on to that that I have a belief now that difficult emotions are uncomfortable for people, especially if they can’t easily identify with those experiences causing them, and people frequently do act in ways that will encourage having a different emotional experience from those around them to refrain from expressing or displaying those emotions.

We’re social animals, and the contagiousness of emotions and the need to replicate emotional experiences in order to empathize is mostly designed to help us cope with common problems. When people respond to the same experiences very differently, it’s distressing. That’s just how it is.

I have been noticing this all week—on the train with strangers and with students. When someone is emoting a lot over something I can’t see any reason to emote over, I find I want to get away from them. I want what feels like emotional noise to stop. I have less judgment about this, and it relieves me of years of guilt over not sharing more with other people or, when I did used to share, at the fact that it did not usually make me feel better—like even when sharing about myself, I’m kind of a failure.

A lot of times, the stuff going on in my head is what you share in only your very closest relationships. I don’t really have those, and generally the people around me are just not it. Not that I never talk about my experiences at all, but now I feel much more free to choose who I share with, what I share, and under what circumstances. I don’t feel caught in this weird space of all the things I am supposed to feel (confident to share about myself, supported relieved after I do share, etc.)

Yeah, mostly people don’t want to know. It’s not personal. And most people have no how to support me. That’s not personal either.

The other thing I’ve become aware of is a greater understanding of situations when I feel vulnerable and why I might feel vulnerable in them. I think this is a huge step for me. I think being able to notice and grapple with feelings of vulnerability—rather than denying or avoiding them—is huge. It means I have come a long way with processing trauma. Because, of course, that’s where it came from. Feeling vulnerable reminds me of trauma, so I don’t want to be reminded of that. I don’t want to feel vulnerable at all. Feeling I am not sure if someone will be interested in my idea at a meeting is the same emotional experience as not being sure if my mom’s going to beat the crap out of me. It’s not the same situation, but indeed it’s the same feeling—that requires having been able to cope with that feeling from the past enough to make the linkage that it is the same.

At the same time, I’ve begun to realize that because I have avoided feelings of vulnerability either by withdrawing or by armouring up and not noticing indications of rejection, I don’t honestly know as clearly as someone else my age would what might be expected or acceptable in a social situation. I might feel more uncertain than someone else. I’ve never really had a conversation with anyone and been fully present in that situation.

I know in the past I have tried to create certainty for myself and ignored my feelings of vulnerability, but it’s okay to feel vulnerable. It’s okay to feel “this may not be the best idea” or “this might not work out.” Sometimes it isn’t or it doesn’t. That feeling of uncertainty merely prompts me to pay more attention to the situation, slow down perhaps, be cautious perhaps, rethink it. It’s not actually a feeling I have to run screaming out of my own mind from.

I had to work at regulating emotions for a long time before it could be okay just to feel, but I am here.

Everything fits together

I am really excited tonight. I read something that made everything in my head make sense. It was this book.

Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology, and Culture

It begins with the premise that our emotional responses are adaptive solutions to problems. In other words, our emotions aren’t bad. Which I appreciate.

There are four possible responses to threat: fight, flight, freeze or appeasement.

Shame is the emotional experience that accompanies appeasement. The book claims, in a lot more words than this that are much more eloquently used, that shame is a way of signalling submission with, essentially, the behavioural communication that I have less status than you, I don’t pose a threat, and please don’t hurt me.

It’s commonly felt when we transgress social norms, because other people tend to react to the transgression of social norms with aggressive retribution.

It’s not really surprising that shame comes up as a feeling commonly associated with traumatic experiences. There is no social norm involved a lot of the time, but we are responding to aggressive violation of our boundaries, which can appear to best be solved by giving the person what they want.

But,if talking about that particular trauma, does violate social norms, we might will feel shame just about telling it.

I was thinking in abusive families, “norms” are invented, just to give someone a sense of control they aren’t able to gain by simply ordering and structuring their own lives. I have a friend with a controlling husband who has some weird belief about poison bananas he inflicts on the rest of the family.

Or the norm is something you can’t change, such as your nose, or something that doesn’t really matter and no one else actually cares about (suddenly your skirt is an ugly colour) Or even something you are not developmentally able to control, like crying when you are hungry or having separation distress.

Someone like me, who grew up with inconsistent boundaries, is scanning all the time for what the social norms are, because they were hard to figure out. So there are a lot of threats to react to.

Lacking a consistent caretaker in early childhood made it hard for me to learn to regulate myself physiologically, and all of these reactions to threat are hard to calm down or understand.

Particularly since admitting to feelings of shame itself violates a social norm.

It’s incredibly difficult to write today.

It’s been interesting to acknowledge to myself that I hate the daily journal-writing torture. I think it has helped me in some important way to acknowledge it isn’t the experience I believe it is supposed to be. It’s not a slightly guilty but pleasurable act of self-love. It’s me trudging through the swamp of how dreadful I find myself. It’s horrible. It’s good for me, but I hate it.

Maybe I am realizing this is equally awful.

I just finished 20 minutes of a mindless computer game and I am now reading fake news. Two articles, because basically they are both not very interesting.

It seems as though I would rather do anything than be vulnerable.

I had some potentially useful thoughts. It’s not very coherent, I suppose, but it’s my struggle. Some days, I do the triumphant survivor thing, but mostly I don’t do triumph. This blog is about struggling.

I also ate 5 Peeps in a row.

Struggling in public is scary, even if all of you are basically really nice to me about it.

I was thinking it’s hard to acknowledge and cope with my vulnerability, because my vulnerability as a child was never recognized or responded to. My mother never stopped mid-beating because she suddenly realized she might break my head open or permanently damage my psychological development.

We learn what is real and what isn’t from other people around us. We learn through observation too, but a huge amount of what we know is communicated through other people’s behaviour. A part of how you learn traffic is dangerous is via your parents’ fearful responses when you wander out into the street.

If your body and heart are treated like play-dough, then your (my) vulnerable feels seem both irrelevant and confusing, and that tends to make them louder until sometimes–depending on the situation–you feel like you are going to drown in them. As I live more authentically, I think I am going to be experiencing a lot of vulnerable feelings.

I am just thinking it might not make sense to cope with it all by saying I am certain I don’t feel certain about. It’s okay to not know.



I told you I was reading a book by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection, which is a nice title.  It’s about needing to be vulnerable in order to live a satisfying life. Basically.

I was reading a chapter that was more or less about creativity. I started to think about my writing, or even just the fact that this is the only writing I do. I don’t know how to explain this, but I write more or less for survival. I am trying to make sense of my own mind. That’s all.

I am not criticizing myself.  That’s not the point of this.

But I did think when I write I risk having nothing of interest to say. Every time I take that risk of writing and publishing something of interest to me, I risk discovering that what interests me holds no interest to anyone else. I risk being alone with my thoughts and my experience, and I risk it in a way that feels permanent to me, because that’s the default I am starting with. I start with, “I am not of interest to anyone,” and I gently reach out with the hope that my default position is mistaken. When I am not of interest, I revert to the default.

I don’t know how to say this either, but if I don’t reach out and try to get connection, I can remain in a place of uncertainty and ultimately of hope. When I try, I risk knowing something I might not want to know.

Most of the self-help ideas out there that have lingered on in my mind have to do with avoiding ever needing to confront that.

If I hold onto the belief that my ideas are interesting and people will be interested in them, because they are “good” ideas, I never have to confront the possibility that they could still be boring–no matter how good I think they are.

If I hold onto the idea that I am “worthy” and people will care about me because I am “good,” I never have to risk not being cared about.

I never have to be vulnerable. I never have to risk being boring, unlikeable, unwanted or uncool. I never have to grapple with the potential for disappointment or loss.

I think the reality is every time we try something new, care about someone, or trust, we risk disappointment and loss. And I also think that’s okay. It’s okay to have feelings, even negative feelings, and the only way to be whole is to be able to accept those feelings. It doesn’t need to be okay with someone else for me to experience loss or disappointment or shame. It needs to be okay with me.

I think the reality is that every time I care about someone, I risk not being cared about in return. Every time I bond with someone, I risk losing them to distance or death or disinterest. I have to be able to cope with that–not insulate myself against the possibility of loss by believing life is certain and I am always loveable.

I am not always loveable. Sometimes I have bad breath. Sometimes I stress sweat. Sometimes my outfit is a fashion don’t. Sometimes I say idiot things. Sometimes I am clumsy, thoughtless, and inconsiderate. The days when I was cute no matter what I did are long past.

That needs to be okay with me.

If I spend my life trying to insulate myself against the possibility of loss, I am either trapped into people-pleasing or an off-putting narcissism that counter-intuitively drives people away.

I can’t live like that.




Morning and night

I have a thought about my sadness at night.

I think it’s the sadness of not having more chances that day. That’s all you get. You’re done. Whatever satisfaction or connection you were able to wring out of that 12-16 stint of wakefulness is all you are going to get out of it.

I think that’s a sadness I have felt my whole life. I couldn’t connect all day, or not as well as I wanted to, and that’s it. No more chances. The day is over and I failed at being a human being again, because basically I don’t know how.

That might not sound like the nicest way to say it, but it feels okay to say that. I am just describing a feeling the best way I know how.

The thing is if I did get some connection that day, I don’t want to let go of it. That’s even sadder.

I was watching SuperNanny again. This one was about a mother who really couldn’t assert herself. Her little ones couldn’t let go of her at the end of the day.

She wasn’t assertive enough to feel like a solid presence to her children and when it was time to let go of her at the end of the day, they couldn’t. She wasn’t enough of a presence during the day to still feel like a presence when they slept. That’s how I felt.

My mom wasn’t consistent. She couldn’t set boundaries. She inserted herself needlessly into my activities simply to regain a sense of power and control over me. She withdrew and slept. She was murderously violent and terrifying.

It was completely unclear to me who she was. What did seem clear about her was so either so discouraging or frightening that what there was of her in my head I wanted to kick out. There was no there there.

I really do believe as we grow up, we need to have internalized images of supportive others in our minds. We don’t need to be aware of them, but they need to be there. When someone struggles profoundly with shame about who they are, they cannot be a presence in the lives of other people—including their children. There is no back and forth, no understanding and being understood.

I wake up in the morning feeling the same sadness, and I think that is about my hope—or lack thereof—of getting connection that day. When someone continually interferes with what you are doing just to assert your control, you don’t develop a sense that anything you are trying to do has a likelihood of success. Not connecting with others, not connecting with yourself. The disappointment any obstacle recalls is crushing. It’s hard to attempt anything, when someone has kept you from doing basically everything you wanted to do just to fuck with you. The despair is crushing. One little thing goes wrong, and you tend to think, “Here we go again.”

But if no one has ever seen that pattern or helped you identify it, if you (or even me) have never worked out my mother didn’t dislike me or the things I did in particular, she just wanted control because she was scared, you have no idea why you even feel discouraged.

I never realized I may wake up today and have no one want to have a conversation with me and not just ask me to be an ear, no one share any interest or activity with me. I may not even be allowed to go about my day without someone throwing a bit of discouragement my way.


I had a chat with C about her schooling. It’s been on my mind that I ought to give this some attention while I still have some time to think, because mostly I find the hard part in life is thought: it’s weighing the options, planning next steps. Action is the easy part.

I told her I wanted to talk to her about something.

“Wat abt mom”

I said her schooling next year.

She said I know I won’t qualified. (Still working on verbs, as you can see.) Not everyone wins a place in 11th grade. She was about in the middle of her class last year. She might feel worse knowing I am not confident she will be successful this year, but I believe she needs unconditional acceptance the most. That was my thought. That’s why I brought it up.

I said she might qualify but I am prepared to send her to private school. She said, “Nope, I will nt go to private i hate private.”

So then we talked about failure and what that means. Mostly, I did, but I got some full and complete sentences out of her.

As we chatted, I really thought about how angry and frustrated she would feel when she can’t understand the content. Communication is what life is all about as a human being. We want to understand. We want for someone to understand us. It made sense to me that she feels enraged when there is a failure in connection, even if it is with a teacher or a textbook. It made sense to me that she might punish herself with harsh words when she feels that kind of rage. Anger makes us want to punish someone. That’s just instinct. We learn to be angry without hurting anyone only with time. If her parents never learned to control themselves, how would she? What she would learn is to hurt someone smaller and more helpless than the adults around her—which is herself.

I am also aware how this relates to reaching toward your parent. Your first task in life was to establish a relationship with your caregiver. What if you can’t?

I said I don’t want you to punish yourself with your words when you feel angry. A lot of other stuff too, but that was the gist.

I said you aren’t bad or useless.

“Ok mom.”

That process of really trying to understand what she is going through and why she would think and feel the way that she does—that is what is missing in her relationship with her parents, most likely. It is what was missing in mine. They can’t seem to feel her, because they can’t imagine or respond to her emotional state in a way that doesn’t create an explosion and send her running for cover. When she has strong emotions, she can either keep them to herself and lose connection that way or she can try to connect and be abused. It’s a lose-lose situation. She cannot be “felt” by her parents.

Later, I was writing in my journal and I thought I really hate doing this. I hate writing in my journal. I have this idea it ought to be lovely and relaxing and I could really enjoy observing my own thoughts and feelings. But I don’t. It makes me fucking suicidal. It is the single most horrible thing I do every day. I have an image in my mind of what it might be or could be or ought to be and it is not that.

It is what it is and it is not that.

I am in the business of accepting reality these days. That’s reality. Observing my own thoughts and feelings sucks. I hate it. It is not lovely and relaxing and wonderful. It’s horrible.

That sort of got me going onto other realities.

After a while, I began to think about C and really needing someone who can be with her in her rage and frustration and not have to lose connection with other people because she is having strong feelings. I thought that is unconditional acceptance. You are where you are. You feel the way you feel. And I love you. I am here with you while you feel it and go through it.

That is what I did not have as a child. That is what it means to have a mother. I don’t mean to idealize motherhood. But I think a “good enough” mother does stay with you while you cry as an infant because you have gas or an upset tummy. They get through your toddler tantrums somehow.

I did not have that. My mother is and was mentally ill. I don’t know why she is that way, but she is and she couldn’t hack my infant colic or my toddler tantrums. There was no one who would stay with me and offer connection when I had strong, painful feelings.

And I am grown up now. I am an adult and responsible for my own behaviour. Essentially, it is too late for me to experience unconditional acceptance, because I need to behave. No one is obligated to stick around if I act like a jerk because I can’t handle my own shit.

I did not know that. I did not know what I needed to grieve for or mourn.

The thing about grieving is that it does allow you to let go. It means things can still be okay even if with all of your losses. The losses hurt. If you can never find a way to cope with the pain of your losses, you can’t move on from them. No matter how firmly you force them out of your mind, they will still hurt.

I do think I am healing.

I don’t think I have ever been so tired in my life.