I probably haven’t told you that I’m taking clown classes. Well, they’re not really classes, it’s more like a practice space where we get to know our inner clowns better. All of us have clowns within and I’ve seen how mine has so much to teach me! In one of our sessions we played with natural objects like dried flowers, bark and plants. We worked in pairs: one person pretended to be the object and as their clown partner interacted (sometimes in rude and curious ways) with the leaves or flowers, we imagined that our bodies were being manipulated in the same way. My natural object was a little succulent in an oversized coffee cup. It’s a fragile little guy and as I moved and touched it, many of its little leaf-nubs fell to the floor. Even wearing the hat and red nose of my curmudgeon clown, I soon found it impossible to be present in the exercise; I was obsessed with picking up the fallen pieces of the plant. It was unimaginable for me to leave that mess on the floor; even though, obviously, I could have cleaned it up later.
What part of me finds disorder so unbearable? Why am I allergic to errors and dead-ends? How did I come to believe that causing disappointment and discomfort to others the world is the gravest of sins?
As those of you who read this blog regularly will know, I invited my parents to Oaxaca for the arrival of our baby. I wanted my mom to be in the room with me when I gave birth. In the end, it was both amazing and awful to have them here. We all held each other well, each of us on our own paths of grief, converging and diverging.
My feelings were pretty jumbled up during that time but in the weeks that followed, I realized that I was feeling incredible shame about Rafael’s death. I felt I had let the whole world down; that I had deflated the giant heart-shaped balloon of hope I’d been carrying around. I’ve written about the embarrassment I felt encountering near strangers, but the person I felt I had most let down was my mom. I know that this is a ridiculous thing to feel-think. I’m sure that there are those who – upon reading these words – might feel the need to hurriedly reassure me that it certainly wasn’t my fault and that my mother most definitely does not see it that way. Of course I know all that. But sometimes feelings and self-perceptions contain subtleties too complex for the rational mind to grasp. After nearly three years (“Impossible!” says my heart.) I’ve come to realize that this deep-seated fear of disappointing others, or causing discomfort or “rocking the boat” as they say, is mostly the result of social and familial conditioning.
Ironically (or maybe not) I believe that a lot of this training came through my mom herself. By no means was she the source of this striving for perfection and obsession with appearances and “goodness.” She also inherited this pattern from her mother. My grandmother, Ruby Bigler Manson, was the queen of caring about how things looked. And she probably learned it from her mother and her grandmother and so on and so on. In my opinion, this kind of socialization and the resulting worldviews / behaviors show the way that patriarchy, colonialism and superiority weave their ways into our minds, meld with our notions of self and self-worth and send us the constant message that we are not enough. The message comes through loud and clear that if we are to be enough, we must be perfect, we must avoid making other people feel uncomfortable and we must not disappoint… ever.
But life is life and she has her work to do on us. And sometimes that means that we pass through tragic and terrible experiences. And sometimes we blame ourselves for what has happened. Yet if I look at Rafa’s life and death and the fact that I felt I let my mom down when he died, this is actually a gift in some way. I can see the absurdity of this reaction. It opens a crack, a possibility to separate my authentic self – the one that fucks shit up all the time and lets people down and makes errors – from the “perfect” girl/woman I was trained to be.
This does not mean, in any way, that I have become “cured” of my ubiquitous striving to please and its partner in crime: a deep anxiety about making others uncomfortable. I recently helped steward this multi-month online course with 600 participants. We were a small team and it was a huge undertaking. During the previous iteration of the class, I experienced (and likely caused) much discomfort in the group. This time, I was fortunate enough to be collaborating with a brilliant Care Team, which offered the students emotional care and conflict resolution support. One of my fellow Care Team members called my striving and anxiety: “delusions of responsibility.” I love this because it both points to my own inner turmoil (delusions) as a source of this thought pattern/behavior, as well as insinuates that it would be impossible and unrealistic for me to be accountable for the experience of everyone in the class.
One of the elements deep at the core of this longing/fear, is control. I can see that my fear of “making waves” is really a desire to dominate my environment and relationships, to keep myself feeling safe and secure. I am seeking the shelter of the status quo. This is something that I am unlearning and will continue to allow to unravel within me. There are gifts in the waves: learning and expansion through the full range of emotional experience; growth in the places where I am not seen and applauded, in the places where I feel small and lost.
Going back to my maternal line, control has been passed down from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, my maternal grandmother also attempted to domineer over practically every aspect of her family. I imagine that her obsessions with both control and trying to assure that everything appeared perfect may have had their roots in a profound fear of the world. I try to cultivate compassion for her and my other ancestras: no doubt they experienced deeply traumatic and demoralizing moments under in the oppressive thumb of Mormon patriarchy. They learned to protect themselves by appearing perfect, by keeping it all inside and maintaining everything they could under control.
I read something from my new friend Sofia Batalha today that supported me in understanding the nuance of all of this (especially as it relates to past generations of women in my family):
When on our feet walking about life, we’ve been acculturated to endure scarcity and danger. We try to walk in each other’s footsteps, seeking not to misplace any foot so as not to fall or get injured, growing in fear only. But beyond fear, we can also gain perspective, reading the patterns.
Over the past year or so, I’ve started to recognize that this pattern (amongst others: a constant compulsion to try to help/save/fix; or a tendency to take up a lot of space, speaking at length about myself and my experiences) is partly a result of my social conditioning as a U.S. American white woman. It seems to me that a lifetime of striving for perfection and the fear of creating disruptions are not traits inherent to my personality or character, but rather are learned behaviors coming out of a specific context of place and time. As these patterns have become more and more apparent in myself and in other white women, I began to dream of creating a space where we can start to unpack these behaviors and tendencies, where we can take off the mask of “goodness” to discover what might be underneath. So, starting next month I’ll be offering an online practice space called What’s Up with White Women? where we’ll have a chance to do this work as well as engage in meaningful conversations with one another about race, power and privilege.
I want to close by saying that I don’t see this pattern (or any pattern, for that matter) as all “bad.” (Time to say bye-bye to binary thinking!) Of course there are positive and generative aspects of striving to do well, and it definitely isn’t surprising that most of us do not enjoy disappointing other people. What seems important, however, is to notice the ways that these repetitive patterns begin to carve neural ruts into our systems; we begin to think that this way of behaving is ‘right’ or the only way. We lose perspective of the pluriverse of ways to be. We become trapped and we don’t even realize it. Facing the disappointment that Rafa’s death brought and that I then felt had bestowed on others, has helped me get more perspective on this pattern. I now see it more, and this seeing opens the possibility of choosing to do things differently.