teflon, ducks, and 12-step groups: why everyone’s under the influence of something

“You gotta put on your teflon,” Matthew, my coach/guru would say to me, sometimes.

What he meant was that when someone in front of me was spinning, venting, angry, taking their shit out on me, the most loving thing to do was to:

  • a.) stay present, and
  • b.) not attack back, and
  • c.) lovingly protect myself by mentally putting on my “teflon” (more formally known as Polytetrafluoroethylene, of course–say that ten times fast!) and letting their words slide right off of me.

That is to say–no stick.

It reminded me of when I was a child and my younger sister and I would get into fights. We’d go to our mother, wanting her to settle it. She told us to be like ducks, letting the water roll right off our backs.

“But she–!” one of us would protest, only to be met with our mother chanting,

“Be a duck, be a duck, be a duck!”

It was infuriating at the time, of course, but this is now one of my fondest and funniest childhood memories–my mother chanting at us, refusing to play referee. I fully intend to pull that out of my bag o’ parenting tricks, someday.

And then that reminds me of the year I spent going to Al-Anon meetings.

Al-Anona is the (immensely powerful!) 12-step group for friends and family members of alcoholics. Many people start attending Al-Anon thinking they’ll learn something about how to stop someone else from using or abusing alcohol. After a few meetings, though, the message is clear–it’s not about controlling someone else’s behavior.

It’s about coping with their behavior–about not letting their behavior “stick.”


Be a Duck…Dammit

Recently, I had an experience where I was bullied, “Mean Girls” style.

I shit you not.

The details aren’t even important–it was a situation that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and a sadness that a few people were choosing an experience of me that I know is so different than the friendship, support, and loyalty that I wanted to offer.

I spent a good 24-hours debating about what to do, turning the events over in my head–then I was irritated at myself for even giving the situation that much power.


Putting on the teflon

Because God/spirit/The Universe has been granted an open invitation to hang out in my life, of course–of course!–the very day I had this conflicted encounter, I had tweeted,

“I’ll commit to seeing that if you show up unkindly, it’s not who you really are.”

Of course I had done that–of course.

So I was steamed about this experience, running my Stories, all of that. I talked to people in my tribe, checking in.

–then I thought about what I’d tweeted, and that eventually had me thinking about teflon, ducks, and 12-step groups.

Particularly, I thought about Al-Anon, and how many a-ha moments I’d witnessed.

Shares sounded something like this: “He had been drinking, and he started his same routine, telling me what a fuck up I was. But then I realized–it wasn’t him talking, it was the alcohol talking. I could differentiate between who he really was, and how he acted when he drank.”

In those a-ha moments, that person was putting up their psychological teflon. They were witnessing, not attacking back, and simply letting it roll away–like water rolling off of a duck’s back.

No stick.


Everyone’s Under The Influence

The thing is, everyone’s under the influence of something.

Bad parenting. A health problem. A fight with their best friend. No sleep. Pregnancy scares. A drug habit. Workaholism. Jealousy and envy. TV coma. An essential lack of connection to oneself, to meaning, to fulfillment. Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear.

If everyone’s under the influence of something, then perhaps we would do ourselves a favor by taking the detached view–taking their fear masquerading as bitchiness about as seriously as we would take someone who was falling down drunk and spewing expletives.

I find that point of view a bit easier to digest than “just don’t take it personally.” I can see clearly that when some drunk dude on the street calls me a name, he’s just drunk, and thus, suffering. I don’t like the behavior, but it’s easier to get over it, not to mention have a little compassion along the way.

It’s harder when our friends, family members, co-workers, or the people you’d least expect it from–people planning to go into a counseling-related profession, for instance–but still helpful. After all, other people get to choose their experience of me.

The truth is, we don’t know what anyone else is under the influence of. We couldn’t possibly know.

I can only know that everyone is under the influence of something, because everyone has their areas where they’re stunted, myself included (of course).

In these situations, I know I am committed to: the belief that if you show up unkindly, it’s not who you really are.

We don’t really need more answers than that.

boundaries, baby–boundaries

“Boundaries are like drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Beyond here I will not go and you cannot come.’ ” –Iyanla VanZant

Here’s a revolutionary thought: other people get to choose the experience they have of you.

  • Not, “Let me try to be better so that they’ll like me.”
  • Not, “I’ll do my best to be a good person so that no one ever thinks I’m a bad person.”
  • Not, “If someone thinks I’ve done something wrong, I’d better go to them, find out what I did, and profusely apologize.”

Nope–Other people get to choose the experience they have of you.

This is not to say that working on shifting habits that don’t work for you, living your personal vision of integrity, or apologies are wrong.

This is saying, as Mary Oliver writes in her poem Wild Geese, “You do not have to be good.You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”

You do not have to lash yourself with a whip to work it all out so that other people will be happy with you, endlessly evaluating what you “might have done to upset them,” filing away behaviors into a mental card catalog of do’s and dont’s. All you can be responsible for is your intention and attention. Apologize and make amends as necessary. Move on.


For Example

You’re choosing your experience of me, right now.

This blog post is either a New Agey, self-helpy rant by a bitchy, wannabe guru (all accusations that have been lodged at me, though not all at once, thankfully), or I’m someone who’s truth-telling, attempting to be of service, and ferociously committed to believing that you matter and deserve to live a good life (other interpretations of this blog and my writing that I’ve been offered).

Either way, you’re choosing.

I really have no part in your experience, actually. I’m just over here, doing my thing. The interpretations are 100% yours.

The same philosophy applies whether you’re dealing with conflict at work, feeling the strain of judgmental in-laws, or you’ve just made a joke at a party and realized it was a complete faux-pas.

Other people are choosing their experience of you.

Conflict at work: They choose whether they see you as a team player or an arrogant control freak. Only you can really know whether or not you’re being a team player–and your integrity matters, so I hope you’re being honest.

Judgmental in-laws: They choose whether or not to judge what you do and say. Only you can really know whether you desire to get along with them, or not, and whether your actions are intended to achieve that aim–and your integrity matters, so I hope you’re being honest.

The faux-pas: They choose whether to see you as a human being who made a mistake, or not. Only you can really know whether you intended to offend–and your integrity matters, so I hope you’re being honest with yourself.

If you want, you can dance in a top hat and spin more top hats on canes, putting on quite a show for people.

In the end? There are still going to be people who are going to say that you suck.

Why? Because people are going to do what they are going to do, and we can’t control other people’s behaviors or interpretations.


Meet me on the Flip Side

You’re also choosing your experience of other people.

If your co-workers accuse you of not being a team player, if your mother-in-law monitors every move you make, if you make a joke and people don’t like you for it–you get to choose an experience of them as “bad” people–or you get to choose something else.

A few options to consider: Perhaps they are…people who have a limited perspective that might change if they had a fuller picture? People who need a heart-to-heart with you? People who just need to be left alone with their opinions of you, because life is short and sometimes, it’s okay to just let people not like you if that’s what they want to do? People who are in choice around forgiveness? People who don’t have the tools to use open communication because they’ve never been taught? People who are dealing with untold stress that you don’t know about, and they’re not acting the way they’d normally act, otherwise?


No Cast-Offs

Choosing powerfully is not about self-righteousness. Setting boundaries is not about rigidity. I’m not suggesting that anyone sticks their nose in the air and says, “Fine, they just get to think what they think, I’m so much better, I choose more powerfully than they do!”

It’s not a retaliatory flipping of the bird to compensate for a lifetime of hoping that if you just do it right, you’ll be liked.

This is about having boundaries–drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Beyond here I will not go” (I won’t be beating myself any longer to hope to meet your approval, nor will I avoid taking responsibility for my own integrity), and “beyond here you cannot come” (I won’t take on your stuff–you get to choose the experience you want to have of me–nor will I avoid taking responsibility for my own integrity).

Either way, you’re taking responsibility for your own integrity, in whatever way the situation calls for it. Having boundaries is about saying, “I will take responsibility for choosing the experience I have of you, and let you go ahead and choose the experience you have of me.”

It’s boundaries, baby–boundaries. Guess who’s in charge of those? Guess who gets freed up when she lets go?

You got it–you.

* * *

irritating or liberating? You get to choose.

In my life as an English professor, this was a common scenario:

  • A student enters my class with some serious, or repetitive, grammatical issues.
  • Whatever the issue was, I’d encourage them to work on it. As budget cuts grew worse, I’d procure and then loan out my own grammar books. I’d stay late to talk to the student. I’d meet with them outside of office hours.
  • I’d let the student know that really–if we’re being technical–their issues with grammar needed a semester in an intensive grammar class before proceeding with ours.
  • “I know, I know–my grammar is bad,” the students would say. “I’m working on it. But don’t drop me. I want to be in this class.”
  • So, okay, fine. I never wanted to discourage anyone. I’d remind the student that they were not to get help from another person–you can’t have someone copy-edit your papers for you, in an English class where the skill being developed is the ability to write and edit your own work–and we’d move on.
  • Paper #1 comes and goes. The grade is not a passing grade. We have another conversation. “I know, I know, my grammar is bad…” They still admit they have issues, and I’m not (yet) the enemy.
  • Paper #2 comes and goes. The grade is, again, not great. Uh-oh.

The pattern played out predictably. It was (usually) only a matter of time before:

the student would go from admitting that they had issues with grammar, to suddenly attacking me. I was the unfair one; I was the enemy. Even if I could point out 20+ grammatical issues just in the first paragraph alone, I was the bitch who was so mean and awful and unfair.

The first few times this happened, it would eat me up–I was devastated that I’d tried so hard to help, and hadn’t succeeded. I’d mentally review all that I’d done to try and help, and then the NEXT time this situation would present itself, I’d work EXTRA hard to make SURE that the student knew that –while I would not pass sub-par work–I was committed to helping.

One semester, I did this for a group of 3-4 students who had somehow made it to the college’s most advanced English class with serious issues (e.g., “She write about feminist article.”)

We had a night class that ended pretty late. I’d stay even later to help, getting home at 11:30, almost midnight–all unpaid time–even though I had an early morning class to teach the next day.

They were still failing their papers. The issues with grammar were far too intense to possibly remedy in one semester.

Guess what happened that semester? When that group realized they weren’t going to pass, they went to my department chair and said that I discriminated against students who spoke English as their second language.

It was infuriating. I had stayed late all those nights! Didn’t they “get” that I wasn’t paid for those hours? I had loaned my own books. I had found and photocopied extra handouts. On their papers, I had spent more time noting grammatical errors, so that they’d know exactly what to focus on.

What’s more–until they were “officially” failing the class, they had AGREED with me that their grammatical abilities were sub-par.

Were they kidding me?

And then–finally, I “got it.”


When the Pain Sets In

The thing is, when the pain sets in, most people will do almost anything to “get it off of” themselves. Almost no one grows up with adults who model taking responsibility for their own lives.

Also? Denial rules in this culture. There’s the denial that there’s a problem in the first place, and then there’s the denial that taking any different steps (i.e., dropping my class and taking a more appropriate class, which would be both humbling and inconvenient) would be a better option.

Most people’s thinking–whether we’re talking about improving grammar or showing up powerfully in a relationship or anything else–tends to be, “I’m sure that if I just keep trying hard doing this thing I’m doing, if I just work hard enough, things will go my way.”

What was that that AA says about the definition of insanity? Oh, yes–it’s doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

We all do it. I do it. You do it. It’s just what we do, until we don’t.


Irritating and Liberating

So…now what? Just let the students get pissed at me, over and over?

Uh, pretty much.

There arrived a certain point where I just had to accept that people are going to do what they’re going to do, and see what they’re going to see, and act how they’re going to act, and sometimes, they’re going to do that EVEN IF I try really, really hard to not get them to do it, whether by being supportive or tip-toeing around or not speaking the truth…or anything else.

At first, that thought seems irritating. Sometimes, especially after that particularly difficult semester, I’d think, “It’s not even my responsibility to help students with grammar, beyond the basics in the course outline. If I’m just going to have complaints lodged, why bother?”

But then–if you really turn it over–it’s liberating to release, to simply have acceptance.

People just get to do what they’re going to do. I (you) don’t need to try so hard to keep them from doing whatever they’re just going to do, anyway.

I have no control–none, whatsoever. People take things personally. People deny what’s right in front of their faces. That’s not my responsibility.

What is my responsibility? My personal integrity–the kind of integrity that drove me to stay late and go the extra mile because that’s what the situation called for. I know what these students are up against, and they’ve had a shitty education so far, and the three teachers before me passed them instead of really helping those students, and I don’t need to pass the buck, like those teachers did.

Is it fun, to stay late? To watch students shift from admitting they have a problem, to making me the problem?

No. But if they’re going to do that, that’s just what they’re going to do. In the meantime, I need to do what I know is the right thing, and as a professor, that has meant digging deep and continuing to go above and beyond my formal job description.

I can only be in charge of me. You can only be in charge of you.


It Comes To This

You can’t control anyone else’s behavior. We are under the illusion that we can, that if we say and do the right things someone else will follow along–but we can’t.

So what’s integrity, for YOU? Not for them–for you? If you’re taking total responsibility for your life, what’s that look like?

I get it–the compulsion to note where someone else is wrong, is strong, especially when you know that even an objective observer would say that you’d done your best and that the other party was wrong.

It’s just an illusion that focusing attention over there is going to get you anywhere. When we aren’t busy monitoring someone else’s behavior, deciding how they “should have” acted, a hell of a lot of energy gets freed up.

So–irritating or liberating? What will you choose?