“and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last)

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about self-differentiation, defining it as “knowing where others and I begin and end.” Being (most of the time!) a well-developed “self”, was…is for me one of the most difficult aspects of human living. For I arrived at adulthood through childhood and adolescence (I write this without any want or need to blame my folks, but rather with a firm hold on my responsibility for me) with a powerful and abiding yearning to be acknowledged and accepted.[1]

Whenever I’ve followed the leading of this longing, I’ve fallen into a chameleonic trap, adjusting what I do and say, even what I think to adapt to others’ expectations. (I say “trap”, for such people-pleasing conformism always proves too high a price to pay in misshaping and losing my self, my soul. Moreover, given that the person I’d presented myself to be was inauthentic, whatever acknowledgement and acceptance I gained was counterfeit.)

Now, whenever I’ve maintained a genuine respect for (that is, acknowledging and accepting) my need for acknowledgement and acceptance, I’m able to behave in a variety of healthy ways. I can hold in balance my dependence on others and their dependence on me, truly, our mutual interdependence. I can face criticism without defensiveness, conflict without retaliatory offensiveness, and rejection without self-pitying sadness.

This brings me to toxic people or, truth be told, people when they are (when I am) toxic. For the balance of self-differentiation is simply and profoundly that. A balance that I do not believe any of us, being marvelously and maddeningly consistent in our human inconsistency, always achieves or constantly maintains.

Speaking always and only for myself, when satisfying my hunger for acknowledgement and acceptance is my topmost aim and especially if…when I don’t get the response I seek, I’m subject to exhibit manifold unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors. Though I don’t intend to universalize my experience, there are two chief attitudes and actions I’ve seen in myself and others that I now identify as toxic: being unpredictable and unapologetic.

Unpredictable. I’m smiling, chatty, and engaging, then the next day or hour or moment, dour, quiet, and withdrawn. You, concerned, ask, “What’s wrong, Paul?” I shrug and sigh, “Oh, nothing.” Will you take the relational bait and pursue? If so, I’ve got you hooked wondering, worried about what you may have done to provoke such a change and perhaps wishing you could fix it.

At times like this, one my dearest friends, truly, brothers, the late, great Tim Veney, knew best, that is, healthily and helpfully, what to do. Walk away, leaving me to deal with me and telling me, always with a kindly smile, “Come back when the real Paul returns.”

Unapologetic. You try to engage me, reasonably describing your observations of my suddenly sullen discontent. I’ll lie, “No, I’m not. I don’t know what you’re talking about” or I’ll deflect, refusing to name and claim my feelings, “Hmmm, methinks you’re the one with the issue. Are you upset about something that you’re not saying? If I had a problem, I’d tell you” or I’ll exaggerate, “You always try to make it about me” or “You never really try to understand me” or I’ll recriminate, “Do you remember last week when you were acting like you’ve accused me of behaving?” or I’ll judge, “When you’re like this, I’m much kinder to you than you are to me.”

When I’m in my toxic rut, my beloved wife, Pontheolla, like Tim, well knows and faithfully practices healthy and helpful, sanity-saving responses. Sometimes, she does it with a look, all at once, understanding and firm and sometimes with a word, “Paul, I will not engage you now. When you’re ready to talk, I’m here.” Either or both ways, the effect is calming and disarming and sooner than later I return to my best…well, my better self.

There are myriad toxic behaviors, but the two aforementioned shall suffice. Moreover, this is my final word (for now) on human behavior. So, I’ll end where I started…

I began this series (October 12: “and” – a personal reflection on human behavior) with an opening word about a certain presidential candidate. As I reflect, he professes to be unpredictable and unapologetic. Hmmm



[1] I mentioned my need for acknowledgement and acceptance in my October 13 post: “and…most of the time!” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 2. It took me quite the while to discern how and why I am this way. For years now, I’ve seen it clearly. The roots trace back to my formative years and upbringing. I perceive my hungering need to be acknowledged and accepted as a combination of the sometimes spoken and largely unspoken and perhaps unintended lessons of my household and, equally, how I reacted to my foundational, familial environment. Given the latter, again, I have no desire or need to blame my folks (Lord, have mercy, I confess that I’ve done enough of that for a lifetime!). I also need not or ever blame anyone or anything else, for, until I die or become too decrepit or disabled to remain a sentient, semi-autonomous, ethical actor in the world, I’ll be the only me for whom I’m – and no one else is – responsible!

5 thoughts on ““and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last)

  1. Dear Paul,

    I’m sorry to see the series end. I must admit that when we first meta I fell into the trap often, thinking I personally did something to annoy you. Not being as smart as Tim or Pontheolla, I would engage you and you would get defensive.

    Those exchanges helped me though, in an odd way, in that they helped me increase my level of patience with my Mom because you’re never going to get the same person twice when dealing with her. So I’m grateful and blessed in two ways…. that we were able to remain friends and that I learned much more about relationships, behavior and acceptance of where people are than I thought possible. Thank you for the series, I enjoyed it tremendously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Loretta, God knows I tested you, even when I wasn’t conscious of myself (and my “self”) and what I was doing.

      In the way of deepest paradox, I believe one of the unconscious (now, conscious, I believe) degrees of our connection had/has to do with facing and overcoming the fear of being left. In this, you stuck with me – in part, I think, in response to your fear of being left that urged you to persevere so not to be the one who left – through the travails of my unpredictability and, thereby, signaled to me (indeed, witnessed to my soul) that I could risk exposing to you the truest me and not merely the/my self-protective exoskeleton of my gruff behavior.

      I thank you for that. I thank you, most sincerely, for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re most welcome!! It’s been a great experience for me staying put!! I hadn’t even realized until you pointed it out that my fear of leaving or being left kept me from walking away. How right you are!! Unless a relationship is so toxic that it threatens my emotional health I’ll hang in there! A lot has changed in the 10 years we’ve known each other and walking away from all that has never been an option in spite of how mad I was at times. And of course you had to put up with me too!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good morning, Paul. I have been following this fascinating and courageous series of posts over the past week or so. (I’ve just returned from two weeks on Great Cranberry Island, Maine – a celebratory writing retreat with friends after turning 70 on September 25 and retiring from a lifetime of working on September 30.) I find it incredibly rare that someone strives so faithfully to know himself and to see his needs, impulses, and behaviors so clearly. I find it even rarer that the striver has the courage and the love of both self and others to relate what he discovers so honestly and so publicly.

    You have my respect and admiration for many reasons, Paul, but most of all for this willingness to share yourself deeply and without pretense. I see myself in many aspects of what you describe – the willow-the-wisp/hide-and-seek tendencies, the projections, the deep need for acceptance and acknowledgment, etc. Your uncommon candor bypasses comfortable defenses and embraces the shadows that we must name and learn to love in order to be whole human beings, in order to understand, finally, that we, most especially in all our weaknesses, are beloved children of God just as we are.

    Once again, I am humbled by the gracious gift of having met you and Pontheolla this summer. I could never have dreamed that going online and looking for a comforting place to stay in Spartanburg as I made the farewell journey for my mother and brother would have led me to the two of you. You have my continuing deep gratitude for your presence and ministry in these posts, in my hometown, and in the world.

    Much love to both you and Pontheolla,


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Karen, you are kind to me. I appreciate your sense of my sharing. Often enough I find it a struggle to be and to deal with me, for legion are my shadows within. Still, there are moments – and this blog series proved to be one – where light dawns and I see myself and the world around me more clearly, if only for an instant. For it is funny – not humorous, but rather ironic – that this series began with a thought about Donald Trump and quite without consciousness direction morphed into an exploration of human behavior via the lens of my perception turned on myself. Not at all what I thought to do at the start.

    And blessings be upon you for what sounds like a wondrous moment in time of your two weeks on Great Cranberry Island writing, I imagine, to your heart and soul’s content and listening to the reflections of others. Ah, how sublime.

    Pontheolla and I, too, are most grateful for having met and spent time in your, Ted’s,and Emilia’s presence. Know that we think of you.

    Much love,


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