Strange title, eh? I was trying to figure out how to share about a particular set of personal flaws i’m trying to master, and i thought it might serve me well. Maya Angelou once spoke about not allowing oneself to be “pecked to death by ducks.” I understood that only years later, when i was extricating myself from friends and family who took little pieces out of me every chance they got. The backhanded compliment and the voice of disdain and the subtle eyeroll… It was difficult and scary to move away from these relationships until i clued in to how much better i was feeling. These people “meant to have my life,” a piece at a time, and i was bleeding to death slowly, from a thousand little bites.
Getting space from them –which is all i’d intended to do when i began– allowed me to start healing from these attacks. After a while, i had an experience of peace, so much so that even i, in my generally dissociated state, was able to easily mark the anxiety that welled up inside me at the mere prospect of any contact with them. I’ve been happily estranged from all of the pecking ducks in my life for nearly 10yrs now.
It’s only been in the last year or so that it’s come to my attention that i can also be a duck sometimes. And i’m guilty of pecking at those with whom i share living space, particularly my husband and my sons.
There are reasons i do this, of course. Everyone has reasons – genuine, legitimate reasons. The people i left behind that did it to me probably have some fine ones. However, that does not excuse crappy behaviour. The behaviour i’m currently focused on eliminating is entrenched, and broad in scope. It’s manipulation. It’s an ugly trait of mine – a ubiquitous stinkweed in my garden, and i’m pulling it out at the roots, wherever i find it.
It was taught to me, and modeled for me. My mother was a master manipulator. By the time she had me, i think honesty and forthrightness were already well behind her. And once she made the decision to use me as a commodity, i doubt she drew an honest breath. Whatever her own reasons, she snuck up to whatever and whomever she wanted. If she ever came at anything head-on, it was calculated, and generally secondary to what she really wanted. I am convinced that people were sport for her. We were all mice in her maze, and she took pleasure in seeing what she could make us do. We were either utterly clueless, or wrong about her true intentions.
When i was barely out of toddlerhood, she taught me panhandling and shoplifting. I would stand outside the local bar, while she was inside, targeting some drunken mark. It wasn’t as big a deal for a child to be out on their own back in those days, and if anyone ever expressed concern, i knew what to say and how to act to allay their fears. I was always tall for my age, and i presented as older than i actually was. I was the perfect blend of innocent and precocious. I was always clean and well groomed in those days. I looked nice – but not too nice. After speaking with me for a couple of minutes, many people were charmed into believing i wasn’t being abused or neglected, but my mother and i could sure use a couple of bucks, which they thoughtfully tucked into my pocket or purse.
She taught me cold reading, too. She was a skilled fortune-teller. I’m not here to speak on whether or not any of it is for real, i’m only saying that her “gifts” were pure con. I knew what to say to whom, based on how they dressed, how they spoke to me, what they drove, whom they were with, what purchases they might be carrying… As i got older, she taught me palm reading, reflexology, reading auras, etc. She also taught me how to shoplift food and necessities from grocery departments. Knowing what i know now –that she worked good jobs that paid a living wage– i don’t know why we were so poor. I think it was mostly selfishness with a little bit of lousy money management, but whatever it was, i grew up extremely poor. What little we did have was tightly controlled by her, and could be given or withheld based on her whims.
What methods of control and manipulation she didn’t teach me outright, i picked up by how she treated others. She could get what she wanted from me or my stepfather or siblings with a variety of recognisable methods:
– a withering look;
– an eyeroll;
– a dangerous glare;
– a deep sigh;
– the silent treatment;
– a sarcastic comment;
– a pointed question, e.g. Do you think you should be eating/wearing/saying/doing that?
I know a lot of people do these kinds of things. They’re easily identifiable as manipulative by anyone who’s even half paying attention. My mother had developed these methods to a fine art, though. And as with most families, a lot of how we acted and responded to each other was unconscious and reflexive in nature. Plus, we were all afraid of her – every single one of us. She could escalate a situation, going from zero to light speed in seconds flat. And she wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone –oh, she could play scared and hurt and sad when it suited her purposes– but i’m convinced everyone was a mark to her. Underneath her sweet and jovial facade lay a deeply dangerous woman, full of white hot fury that could quickly manifest in a capable, easy violence.
I grew up thinking that sort of behaviour, that kind of treatment, was normal.
If i thought about it at all, that is. (I did not, until i was an adult.)
I can be petty even now, sure. I’m far from perfect, like most of us. But i’m specifically posting today about some of those sneaky, petty, duck-bitey ways of getting something from someone. It’s a way to get what i want without actually having to ask for it.
It’s about control, and avoiding rejection.
Repeating that last bit louder, for my friends in the back row:
It’s about control, and avoiding rejection.
I’m working at removing all of those behaviours from the above list. Those petty, passive-aggressive, nasty tendencies that were bred into me, that i thought were just the price of 2 human beings doing business with each other. One had to get over on the other. Life as a zero sum game.
(To be honest, you will pry my sarcasm from my cold, dead hands… But i will use it judiciously, okay?)
I found out a few years ago, that there are not a few people intimidated by me. I was surprised by that. After giving it some thought, i figured out where the disconnect was happening. I see myself from the inside, and i interpret things through my experiences, my opinions and beliefs, my filters. I have blindspots; things i’m unaware of, things i haven’t learned yet.
I see myself as this sweet, nice, funny gal with a salty tongue and twisty sense of humour. I’m privy to how insecure and frightened i can be, and how intimidated >>i<< am by other people and the world around me. >>I<< know that some of how i present is a facade, created out of childhood trauma, mental illness, neuroatypicality (if that’s not a word, it is now), a desperate need for connection and yet a colossal fear of rejection.
The truth is i AM sweet and nice. I am kind and empathetic and generous. The truth also is that it can be hard to get past all of my protections to have a genuine experience of me as who i am. Another truth is that it is no one’s job to get past my myriad defenses.
It is MY job to lay down my weapons, lower the drawbridge, stand at my battlements, and invite those i will to come in.
And who’d want to approach with snapping, cavernous-jawed, toothy creatures in my moat and a cannon at every embrasure? Why come in to break bread and drink a toast when the hearth is cold, the hallways damp and drafty, and there’s nothing in the pot, bubbling away and wafting a welcoming smell?
Enough imagery – now to the meat of the matter. Heh.
I’m working hard to drop all of my passive-aggressive defenses and manipulative conduct. There’s no longer any need for it. I am not in danger anymore, i am surrounded by loved ones who dearly love me. They have proven already that they will not reject me, nor betray me, and they are willing to take the time and effort to work out any issues between us or difficulties we may have navigating a relationship with one another. From this bastion of comfort, care, and commitment i can venture out or invite others in to take a load off and set a spell.
If a visitor overstays or otherwise becomes unwelcome i am free and well within my rights to bid them adieu. I needn’t fear that, or an outright rejection of my invitation and hospitality. My castle is filled and fortified and guests may come and go as either of us will it to be so.
I ask for what i want and i state what i do not, plainly and without fanfare.
I do not take to my chaise longue with a case of the vapours.
I no longer treat others as if they’re stupid for not knowing something that i do.
I’m not playing for the power position.
I don’t view asking for something as a vulnerability, nor do i see it as a loss to have to ask, or a victory to receive it without using plain language.
I’m not expecting everyone to eventually hurt me and leave me.
I act on the outside who i am on the inside, because i know for a fact that rejection won’t kill me.
I seek kindness, generosity, understanding, and willingness in others as i do in myself.
No more pecking.
I won’t allow anyone to nip little bits out of me anymore.
And i hope that anyone who reads this and knows me personally doesn’t tolerate that crap from me.
At least, not ever again.
And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire
~ Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart
With Thought and Care,
*As she aged, gained weight, and became more of a shut-in, it slipped more and more until she wasn’t fooling anybody anymore. At the end, the only people she could exert control over was her husband, her kids, and various members of her 12-step program and her church.
IMAGE: Robert Gramner