In my experience, the people who loudly proclaim that they are an independent person are just establishing an excuse for their upcoming rudeness. I expect most people would like to avoid being entirely dependent on someone else. As a parent and a pack animal, I understand and am comfortable with others depending on me.
It came as something of a surprise to me when a friend commented that I was an independent person. Over the last two years, I have noticed quite a few cases where my image of myself differs from everyone else’s image of me. In those cases I have been forced to reevaluate myself and change my thinking. So when my friend called me independent, I had no choice but to introspect and determine to what degree that is true.
While never stated explicitly, I learned in my childhood that the best I could expect was indifference; any interest taken in me was rarely benevolent. So it stands to reason that I would have become rather independent: I knew that I was on my own. Of course, as a child I had limited resources and that independence grew in a warped way.
I think that factors into a lot of aspects of who I am. I rarely ask for help not because I arrogantly think I need no help but rather because I am surprised when someone helps me when I ask. My first instinct is to not share what I am feeling because no one else but me cared what I felt. The experience of being an outcast manifests as paranoia and defensiveness. I strive to be strong and capable so that I can control my own destiny.
I have worked hard for decades to create a new family, a new pack, that can depend on me. I am not sure how that reconciles with my newly-discovered independence. I hope to remain polite, though.
Last weekend my spouse took the kids and the dog for a walk in a local park. Even though still recovering from illness, I decided to accompany them. But rather than take the dog for a walk, I took my camera and went off on my own.
Being alone in the park was nice. Having my camera made me even more comfortable. Walking quietly through the trees, scanning around me, holding a tool with some heft that would shoot when I pressed a trigger, it felt more than a little like patrolling.
I fear I am deeply abnormal.
A friend of mine recently described me to someone else as happy, not as a temporary reaction to a specific event but as a continual state. I am not sure whether such a description makes me unhappy. But I have reservations about its accuracy.
Another friend of mine once said that I work very hard at being happy. I would certainly own that assessment. I have no memories before my dad’s death but the twenty years after it had very little happiness indeed. Sadness was the dominant emotion of the first quarter-century of my life. Since I do not especially enjoy being sad, I definitely work hard at being happy. Even simple decisions like routes to commute or movies to watch are driven in part by trying to be as happy as possible.
Humor has always been my primary coping mechanism. (I am learning that it need not be my sole coping mechanism.) Given the amount of loss and terror in my younger years, it is unsurprising that my humor can be somewhat black at times. Maybe this is too fine a distinction but my humor at the darkness seeks not to celebrate it but to drive it back. I would love to live in a world without loss and sadness and terror. But until that happens I continue to try to improve the little bit right around me.
Even though it contradicts my belief about myself, I have to accept others’ perceptions of me. Maybe being a happy person is not what you are but what you do. Perhaps the fact that I work so hard at being happy is why I qualify as a happy person.
One of my coworkers made a statement last week that disturbed me. They opined that there should be no personal talk whatsoever at work and any such should not count toward the eight-hour-per-day minimum. Said coworker further recommended, if someone at work asked about one’s weekend, always responding with “fine” to discourage any followup jibber-jabber. I quite disagree with all that.
Admittedly I was raised in a polite society and in a family of origin where any misstep was severely punished. I would not be surprised if I am more sensitive to interpersonal niceties than the average bloke. (I think there is evidence that I am more sensitive in general.) However, I still hazard that most people would consider someone whose only words to them were to request some service to be at least a cold fish if not something of a dick.
I believe that all good teams have a personal connection between their members. I have no titular authority so my ability to influence others is entirely dependent on the strength of our connection. Of course, doing nothing but prattling and gossiping all day serves neither the team nor the task at hand. My experience shows that, within the context of any given endeavor, the strategic goals are accomplished better and quicker with a good rapport built with the tactical application of personal interaction.
One of my basic tenets is that everyone is a person who deserves to be heard. Life is short and too often ends with little warning. I take professional pride in doing a good job. But I would rather be remembered for how much I cared than how much I worked.
The topic of being triggered arose recently on my favorite podcast. Some things that trigger me fall squarely in the category of obvious, like seeing some reality show narcissist sucker punch someone. But other things can be less obvious, albeit no less triggering.
I never lose touch with reality and think that I really am back in one of those situations. But it feels like it on a certain level. Perhaps similar to getting something in your eye and having the feeling persist long after you have cleared the intruder, you intellectually know that it is clear but your body still reacts otherwise. Being triggered also contains the mental components, which are perhaps the most obvious.
After years of work I now at least recognize (or some hypervisor in my brain recognizes) that I have been triggered. Whilst it does not immediately stop the process or resolve the trigger, that recognition stops me from spiraling too far out of control. I have abandoned hope that there will be a time when I am never triggered. But at least it has become more bearable.
My day job is in a professional, technical environment. One of the perks of this is that I am rarely exposed to the behaviors that made my childhood so miserable. Yet there are still times when people, unintentionally or intentionally, trigger my survival instincts.
Some weeks ago, a buddy and I were having a laugh at one of my well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to collaborate with someone. In honest bonhomie he reached out to pat me on the shoulder. Literally before I consciously realized what was happening I had taken a half-step backward to put me out of range. We both realized it at the same time and the look of hurt on his face really bothered me. I forced myself to step forward under his still-outstretched hand so he could complete the pat. But it bothered me so much that a few days later I felt compelled to explain to him that my reaction was a result of previous abuse, not of anything he had done.
A month ago I had an entirely different kind of interaction with another coworker. I caught him trying to sabotage me with my manager and had to confront him. Because in my experience all conflict leads to combat, I purposefully adopted a calm tone and body language. Nonetheless, he quite literally turned on me, spinning around, and started yelling at me. My treadmill workouts get my heart rate up and I have been in some pretty hairy situations, but I have never felt my heart beating behind my sternum like I did then. I had no fear of physical harm from him but I did fear that my heart would fail. Even though I eventually managed to get him to stop shouting, the experience really rattled me. It was probably a fortnight before I could be in the building with him without going into red alert. While he has since apologized, I know the potential for a repeat attack remains.
I struggle with how much of my past to share with my coworkers. The vast majority of the time it has no bearing on my professional interactions with my colleagues. However, every once in a while something happens where the difference between normal experiences and my own is salient. I have no desire to be defined by my past but neither can I ignore it.
I often use the generalization that I can not dance. It is a generalization because it may not be strictly true depending on how one defines dancing. It is definitely true if one defines dancing in the freeform style that accompanies North American, popular music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is probably false if one defines dancing to include the haka. I would go so far as to say that I can only dance with words. If you have read much of this blog, you will probably have formed strong opinions about that dancing.
I first remember hearing the idea that martial arts are a form of dance in The Last Dragon. I can not dispute that some martial arts are a form of dance, especially in the face of capoeria. But, unless one defines dance in terms so broad as to be useless, not all martial arts are dance. In particular, none of the martial arts that I find interesting are a form of dance.
Despite my artistic nature, I see no reason to dance. This is not to say that I see no reason for anyone to dance. One of our friends is a dance teacher and that is a fine thing to be. Her husband’s sister is a professional dancer and that is also a fine thing to be. But for me, personally, there is no reason to dance.
More generally, I see no reason to embarrass myself and dancing is a strict subset of embarrassing myself. It turns out that I am quite accomplished at embarrassing myself without dancing. If you have read much of this blog, you will already know that.
A management course taught one of my coworkers, a big bloke, to stand sideways in someone’s doorway to avoid making them feel trapped and intimidated. (The rule has an informal name based on an executive who is both big and prone to blocking doorways.) I have not paid much attention to my positioning in doorways but I suspect that I avoid blocking them instinctively. It may be something of a cliché, but I am the sort who prefers to sit with my back in a corner and where I can see the exits. I address each room as if I will have to fight my way out of it.
It would be dishonest to say that I do not wish to be intimidating. I do like to be intimidating, but only in certain circumstances. The problem is that I seem to be intimidating when I wish not to be, but not when I wish to be. My eldest referred to me as “Scary Dad” when I was merely being stern. Yet I have had crazy ladies step up on me. While I think of myself as a nice guy and like to be perceived as such by others, I also want people to avoid attacking me.
I recognize the contradiction of those positions. A couple decades of having no one respect my boundaries gave me the instinct to create those boundaries with menace. I did not learn to use my words to enforce my boundaries because my family of origin ignored both my words and my boundaries. Rather I learned that the only way to enforce a boundary was by releasing the beast within. This was quite surprising for others, most of whom both expected me to use my words and had no experience with that level of fury.
My goal is to never need to be actively intimidating. I work hard to not be intimidating, to be sensitive to those as might feel threatened by my size or demeanor. Through years of work, I am learning to use my words and modulate my responses. But, to be honest, if I had to choose between being intimidating but respected and not being intimidating but disrespected, I would choose the respect, even though it came with the intimidation. Apparently I have more work to do.
I rarely feel successful as a parent. I feel contentment at my kids being protected and nurtured. But in no way do I feel a sense of accomplishment. On the best days I feel relief that they are flourishing in spite of me. On the worst days I feel shame that they are suffering because of me.
Along with software jedi and husband, I consider parent to be one of my three jobs. (That I keep forgetting to list taking care of myself as a fourth is telling.) My standards for being a parent are as strict as those that I have for my other jobs. Like all children, the experiences of mine reflect the experiences of their parents’ childhood. Unfortunately, my childhood had a pronounced paucity of good experiences.
Recently I stated that I do not know what normal is. A friend disputed me, saying that I know normal but just never experienced it. With respect for his opinion, I most certainly have no experience with normal parenting and hazard that I do know even know what it is. As with most things, I endeavor to compensate for this lack with hard work.
So I fake it, with a smile when possible. Perhaps all parents feign competence and I am just whining. I would be heartbroken if other parents felt as incompetent as I do but were content with it. I must believe that they care as much as I do, but are just so much better at parenting than I am.
I have no idea what success as a parent would feel like. My kids say they are happy with the job I am doing. But I said the same things as a child when I was markedly unhappy. By the time my performance can be truly assessed, it will be too late. I guess my success is that I have never quit.
I am not a normal person. That is not to say that I am better than everyone else: I am above-average at a few things and a flailing neophyte at all the rest. Rather, that is to say that I am neither typical nor expected.
Intellectually I know the provenance of this abnormality. For example, I used to think it was normal and reasonable to sleep with a loaded pistol in the nightstand. (Now I know it is not normal, just reasonable.) In a dysfunctional environment, the dysfunction prevented me from being able to recognize normal. I tried very hard to act normal, though I doubt I was very successful. I thought everyone else was acting, too.
I learned to approximate normality whilst terrified. Perhaps that could have been the start of a successful acting career if I was better looking. When I was about twenty a coworker said something about me being an actor. She meant it in the context of the movies and that is the context in which I dismissed it. But I suspect at some level everyone could tell that I was just acting. The façade must have cracked over the years; my mind certainly did.
It was beat into me throughout my childhood that I showed my emotions too much. However, outside of that environment the rest of the world begs to differ. What may appear to others as stoicism is merely the hard-to-break habit of pretending everything is fine. Part of that is that I react to different things than a normal person would based on my abnormal perspective. Even when panicked I do not appear on the outside like I feel on the inside.
I hesitate to catalog the areas where I am abnormal lest it send me into a shame spiral. But I continue to discover them empirically. Every time people give me that look that says that I should not laugh at some thing or I should erupt over some other thing, it reminds me that I am not a normal person.