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.
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 I’m smiling, chatty, and engaging, then the next day or hour or moment, dour, quiet, and withdrawn.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…
 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!