Three Lies We All Tell Ourselves

“I Would Never Do That”

“If you were in a survival situation, you would not only eat meat, you would crave it,” declared my husband in a conversation about choices made in life-or-death circumstances.

Intellectually, I knew he was right. The body’s drive for survival easily overrides any normal aversion I have towards animal flesh. Yet even though I know my instincts would temper my usual loathing for meat, I still struggle with the idea of willingly eating something that I view with disgust. But of course, I’m trying to imagine survival when both my stomach and pantry are full.

Just because we have trouble imagining something, does not mean that it cannot happen.

From a safe distance, it’s easy to judge. To think in terms of absolutes, always and nevers. It’s easier to declare something is impossible than to take the uncomfortable mental road of contemplating precursors that may lead to you doing the seemingly impossible.

So what’s the problem with these black-and-white declarations?

When we think in terms of absolutes, we both judge others and leave ourselves vulnerable to sliding into bad decisions.

Consider the common proclamation of, “I could never cheat on my spouse.” It’s an easy statement to make and an agreeable position to believe in.

Yet in taking that headstrong stance, you inevitably judge others that commit adultery. You view them as somehow weak or lacking in character. You take the moral high ground and shove them into a cesspool occupied by those who fail to live up to your standards. Instead of listening to and learning from the mistakes that led to their downfall, you judge their choices while insisting that you could not make the same miscalculations regardless of the circumstances.

I am by no means defending those who have chosen to be unfaithful. I find the behavior reprehensible and unbelievably damaging to everybody in its path. Yet I also see it as part of human fallibility. Not inevitable, but not entirely avoidable on a societal level.

But even though I can’t imagine ever committing adultery, I will not claim that I could never do it. From my current perspective, it is as unfathomable to me as choosing to eat meat. Yet, I cannot claim that a change in situation would not lead to a change in perspective.

If I believed that I could never stray, I would be more likely to slide into infidelity, unaware and unwilling to recognize warning signs and precursors.

So rather than say that, “I would never,” I find it more honest to say, “I never want to” and then make sure that my choices align with that intention.

“I Can’t Help the Way I Feel”

I shake my head every time I read about the every-increasing trigger warnings added to college syllabi and work presentations. On the one hand, I do think it is considerate to prepare somebody ahead of time for something that they may find difficult (I’m thinking of NPR’s habit of a brief warning for parents before broadcasting a story with language or content that may be inappropriate for children). On the other hand, the expectation of trigger warnings sends the message to the triggered that the responsibility for their well-being and mental comfort lies with others.

And that’s where I disagree.

We all have a right to our emotional reactions. We have a right to feel the way we feel and to respond to external stimulus as we choose. But we don’t have a right to demand that other people act in a certain way in order to regulate our emotions.

That’s an inside job.

If somebody does or says something that upsets you, you ultimately have two choices: learn to adjust your response or decide to avoid the person.

And that’s not easy.

It’s something I face on an ongoing basis with my fear of abandonment. There are so many innocuous things that my husband can do or say that can trigger this fear in me. My first instinct is always to shift that responsibility on him, to request that he refrain from the words or actions that make me respond in this way. I want to declare that my reactions are a direct response to his actions and that my fear is an inevitable response.

But that’s not true and that’s not fair.

Because I can help the way I feel.

Not easily and not all at once.

But the only way that I’ll learn to temper my fear of abandonment is by addressing it, not by asking others to protect me from it.

“I’m Right; You’re Wrong”

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen Covey

Most of us enter into discussions and encounters with the assumption that we are right and we require substantial evidence and persuasion in order to change our minds. We lead with the belief that our perspective is the correct one, our moral code is the superior one and our understanding is the penultimate one.

It’s a limiting view as confirmation bias simply feeds the perspective that we carry rather than challenging us to see something new.

When you enter a conversation with the conviction that you are right, your energy is expended on defending your position. Rather than listen, you grow defensive. Rather than question, you attack alternative viewpoints. Rather than engage in conversation, you end up participating in a debate, complete with scoring.

I know I have a tendency to feel threatened when my views are criticized. My inclination is to respond defensively, enumerating the reasons that my thoughts are right. I can easily interpret an attack on my beliefs as an attack on me.

And maybe you are right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the other person is wrong. Perhaps they have a different perspective born of different experiences. Maybe they are just at a different point of understanding and they need more time to gain clarity.

And maybe you are wrong. And by allowing the acceptance of that, you can begin to see another perspective.

Because after all, we are all human. Imperfect and messy.

No matter what we tell ourselves.

Advertisements

Virtual Reality

He noticed her as soon as her entered. An older woman, well dressed, standing at the counter watching the gemologist examine a rather large stone under magnification.

As my husband completed his transaction, paying for the new battery and taking possession of his watch, he couldn’t help but overhear the exchange between the woman and the expert.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to tell you. The stone isn’t real.”

“The bastard!, she exclaimed,”The other one wasn’t real either.”

Through the remaining conversation, my husband was able to glean that the woman had recently been divorced and the jewelry was awarded to her in the proceedings with an assumption as to its value. Only now she was learning that part (or maybe even all) of what she thought she had to her name was worthless. And a lie.

Perhaps she was spoiled, and looking for more than her substantial settlement, but my husband read her as more panicky than pampered.

When Brock recounted this story to me, my first thought was to the duration of the deception. Did her ex husband gift her that jewelry twenty years ago with false stones in place from the beginning? Or, as I was afraid my ex may have done, were the real stones replaced at some point with lookalikes so that the husband could surreptitiously withdraw from the marital funds?

My heart ached for the woman. Not only does it hurt terribly to discover you’ve been living in a virtual reality, it is disorienting beyond belief once those goggles come off and you have to decide what is real. And what is illusion.

The mystery of the woman and the ring mirror the one question about my first marriage that still haunts me – did I marry a false man or did I marry a real man who was replaced at some point with a counterfeit? 

That’s one mystery that will never be solved. All I know is what he was at the end was certainly no diamond, despite how he acted.

And when I went to sell my ring at the conclusion of the divorce, my stone was still real. I guess he wasn’t clever enough to squeeze that stone for cash. Thank goodness for small blessings:)

Character Assassination

I didn’t like reading how many of you relate to being gaslighted. It’s one of those areas that I know for me is still tender. There is much un-probed because it hurts too much to counter often-good memories with the knowledge of the duplicity and lies. And I finally realized that the daunting task of separating the strands of truth from the pot of lies is pointless. Even though I now know otherwise, I have chosen to find comfort in the fact that it was real enough to me at the time and that’s all that matters.

But that only works with the personal gaslighting, the stories told to me to keep me placid and distracted.

It doesn’t work with the external assault. The character assassination that carried nefarious seeds far and wide. That requires a different approach.

 

For much of our time in Atlanta, my then-husband and I were estranged from his parents by his choice. Over the years, we had many families “adopt” us for holidays and get-togethers, but one always stood out. The husband-wife owners of my husband’s company welcomed us into their family. We were at Christmas and birthdays. We knew the kids and the grandkids. We knew them as friends as well as employers. I loved the time with them and always appreciated the inclusion.

A few months before he left, my then-husband took a job with another company. It made the relationship with the family a little strange but we still kept in touch.

In the immediate aftermath of his abandonment, I did not think of them. Until a few days in when I found a note from the wife on my mailbox with instructions to call.

I picked up the phone expecting to hear shock and horror – the emotions expressed by everyone else I knew when they tried to digest the news. Instead, I got a more distant and guarded message. Condolences mixed with a dash of “well, what did you expect?”

I was shocked. Almost speechless. I asked what she meant. And heard about stories that my then-husband told at work. Tales of my cheating exploits, complete with a vivid story of walking in on me in his office with a man. Claims of staying late at work to avoid me and my wrath. He painted a picture of a horrible wife, a victimized husband and a marriage in peril.

This from the man that kissed me tenderly every night.

This from the man who knew where I was at all times because I was rarely anywhere but work, school or home.

This from the man that couldn’t keep his hands off me and bemoaned when work kept him away.

For years, I thought this family was my family.

But they never even knew me.

Because my monthly or so visits could never compete with his daily fictions.

I was too confused and surprised on the phone that day to try to defend myself. I simply hung up after muttering something in response to her request to keep her in the loop and ask for help if I needed it.

I never did call her back.

And I never will.

 

There are so many tears that come from this. I’m horrified that he was intentionally darkening my character for years. It’s hard not to wonder for how long. I’m embarrassed that people thought I was unfaithful and shrewish. And I’m sad that I lost these friends and others, as I chose to simply cut off those he had access to rather than to try to vindicate myself against his stories. Although I was tempted to send them a copy of his mugshot:)

He was telling them stories to cover his tracks. He was creating a fiction in his mind to defend his actions, both past and future. Perhaps he was desperate to see himself as the good guy so that he could temper any guilt. I’ll never know.

Much like I chose to walk away and cut my losses from the financial deception, I made the decision to leave those friendships behind. Some damage is too great to repair.

 

So, what’s the lesson in all this?

I know I first started to trust Brock when he actually encouraged me to have time around his friends without him there. It made me realize how my ex carefully negotiated my encounters with his friends.

I know I’ve had to let go of the concern of what people may believe about me and focus on what I know about me.

I know that realizing how my ex lived one way with me and another with others helped me realize that he was not the man I loved.

And I know that I’ve made many, many new friends who know me. The real me.

And that in the end, the only character he assassinated was his own.

 

I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own

In all of the pain after my ex husband left, there is one pain that stands out as more acute than the rest. After being arrested for bigamy and bailing out of jail, my ex decided to overdose on sleeping pills. It appeared to be a sincere suicide attempt, but he made sure to cover his bases in case he survived.

He composed and emailed a suicide letter to both his new wife and to my mom. I read that email while sitting outside the DA’s office waiting to meet the victim advocate. He was recovering in the ICU.

I felt reality slipping away as I processed the words that distorted the world I knew. In the letter, he speaks of me being “impossible to live with” and “negative.” He talks about my irresponsible spending habits and how I “just had to have my way” and he “couldn’t tell me no.”  Our last trip together – that he initiated, planned and executed – was recast as my demand for a vacation. He spoke of my insistence on building a deck when he counseled that we couldn’t afford it. He tells my mom that she “would love [the other wife]” and that he hopes they get to meet.

His words hit like a punch to an unguarded gut. I spent hours dissecting them, talking them over with each of my parents in turn. I knew they weren’t true but they still caused me to doubt. I feared that others (including my mom) might think his words were genuine. It felt like a vicious, spiteful attack on my character. And it wasn’t even factual.

He was rejecting reality and substituting his own.

He was gaslighting – using deception and manipulation to cast himself as the sane and balanced one and to make me look unstable and vile.

And it wasn’t his first time.

He was a master at creating and convincing others of his own reality. And, as trusting of him as I was, I was easy to convince. When you’re being gaslighted and you are unaware of the sleight of mind tricks being applied, you feel crazy as you begin to doubt your own perceptions and conclusions. It’s disorienting as the friction between what you see and you’re told you see don’t quite line up, almost like the view through 3D glasses when you turn away from the screen.

For months, I hated that letter. Every reading caused me to feel ill, like I’d swallowed something that needed to be purged. I shared it only with my parents and the close friend I lived with that year, finding comfort in their assurances that his words were mere deflection and trickery.

But still I wondered.

You see, he had trained me well. I still struggled not to believe his words over my own memories.

I struggled, that is, until I rejected his reality and found my own.

I picked apart each of his claims and refuted them one by one with physical evidence:

I spend too much? Then why do I read library books while he spent over a hundred dollars a month on Kindle downloads as evidenced by the checking account registry. And why do I drive the old, paid for car (that I still have!) while he insisted on buying a new one that came complete with a $500 monthly payment. I made a list of his possessions vs mine. It wasn’t even a contest.

I demanded the vacation? I unearthed an email sent to my work address where he proposed the cruise and described its details.

I insisted upon the deck? I found a trail of emails that covered everything from the summer school income I earned being used to pay for the costs to his enthusiastic sharing of his deck designs.

As for me being difficult and negative, that was harder to disprove. But the fact that I had many friends offer to take me in that year told a different story. I bolstered their offers with the hundreds of notes I had received from students over the years, praising my passion and positivity.

And as for my mom wanting to meet the other wife? Well, that was just plain funny.

Eventually, the letter lost its sting as I saw it for what it really was – an attempt to save his image by destroying mine. I wavered over whether to include the letter in the book. I was afraid I would be seen as the hateful woman he described. I decided to include it, even at the risk of his words being believed by people who did not know me. I knew that many of the readers would relate to being controlled by lies and I wanted to share a rare physical manifestation of gaslighting. Because the most painful part of gaslighting and what makes it so effective is that the evidence usually disappears like smoke in the wind, leaving you with only doubts and questions.

Gaslighting is a subtle yet relentless abuse. It’s one person using power and manipulation to control another. The damage is hidden and persistent, the worm of uncertainty taking up residence and calling everything into question. The effects linger as memories collide with new understanding, the deceptions fighting for dominance over the truth.

Gaslighting is often paired with physical abuse or addiction, the repainting of reality used to keep the partner calm and in place. It is a favored tool of narcissists and sociopaths. Those that are adept at its use tend to be charismatic and intelligent, lending a believability to their assertions. It is deliberate and cruel and can be immensely damaging.

Recovering from gaslighting takes time. Even recognizing that you were gaslighted takes time.

No one should have the power to create your reality other than you.

And your trust in another should never be greater than your trust in yourself.

Gaslighting thrives on doubt.

Starve it by believing in yourself.

Why I Refuse to Call My Husband a Narcissist

Character Assassination

Covert Abuse

I Was Wrong

I was wrong.

Very wrong.

And I couldn’t be happier about it.

When we were house hunting last summer, Brock expressed his lifelong dream of converting a basement into a theater. I responded with my not-a-lifelong fear of basements.

No, really. Read this.

As the house hunt became a home reality, this became a source of tension as he was responding with excitement about the proposed entertainment room and I was countering with trepidation.

That damned basement in my old life has almost a personified flavor of evil in my mind. It contained the molted skins of the man I loved as he morphed into some dark creature. It hid his secrets. It protected him as he carried out his nefarious deeds. It swallowed him for ever increasing hours as the marriage sped towards its inevitable and spectacular end. I was living atop a portal to hell.

And I was afraid that another basement might also serve as a conduit of corruption. That my new husband might also fall sway to whatever whispers arise from the blackness beyond the concrete walls. That he would be swallowed and return changed. That a new portal hell would be opened and new demons welcomed in.

But I was wrong.

Completely and spectacularly wrong.

He was largely on his own on this project due to my schedule and my general hesitancy about the undertaking.

And he has done a great job, turning a half-finished grubby former office into a slick and comfortable theater.

A theater for us.

For our friends.

It is not a place to hide.

It is a place to connect.

In fact, even with my stupidly early bedtimes, he rarely goes down there alone.

It wants to keep it special.

And it is.

I was wrong.

Very wrong.

And I couldn’t be happier.

The only demons in this space are imagined on the screen. And those can only hurt me if I allow them to.