Book – Wyrd Allies: Asserting ‘I’

“I have a right to be here, no less than the trees and stars”. So says the Desiderata: yet it’s not just my ‘right’, but perhaps even more my responsibility. Often it seems that life just is – “life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans”, as John Lennon put it – yet to a surprising, perhaps terrifying, degree, life is, as another old adage puts it, what we make of it, what we choose. It often won’t feel like that… and it certainly won’t unless we choose to assert, clearly – and as much to ourselves as to others – our choice of ‘I’. “Who am I?” you say? Well, I can’t choose for you… and it would be abusive of me, and of you, if I tried to… so assert yourself, choose for yourself! What would you choose as ‘I’? And what would you choose as your part of each ‘We’ you share with others? It’s up to you…

‘I’ is a choice

Everyone has their own choice: what matters is that it is a choice – and also whether it’s a choice, rather than the result of evading choice and blaming the results on others. If what happens arises from a genuine choice, from asserting ‘I’, there’s an entirely different feel to it – powerful in an equally genuine sense – even when it seems to go ‘wrong’. A few weeks ago, for example, the canteen manager arrived at work with her arm strapped up, and obviously in some pain. She’s a small, vibrant woman, but I knew that her partner-relationship was a very physical one – she’d been gossipping gaily with her staff about their ‘sexercise’ – so I made a quiet comment. “Oh no”, she said, laughing and wincing at the same time, “this is what comes of trying to tackle a woman who’s built like a brick shithouse! I must’ve kissed the ground more often than any other time in the three years I’ve been playing women’s football – it’s a lot rougher than the men’s!”

To her, the risk – and reality – of bumps and bruises was far less important than the fun, and the empowerment – both power-with and power-from-within – that she gained from the game. That was her choice: ‘I’ is not that which changes, ‘I’ is that which chooses – and every choice has its consequences, or at least its interweavings, within the wyrd.

What do you choose for your ‘I’? What are some of the consequences, or interweavings, from those choices? There’s always a choice, there’s always a twist: what twists are you willing to risk? If you’re not willing to take any risks, you’re rather limiting your choices…

One of our greatest barriers is fear: and the only way past it is to look within, to find the courage – the literal ‘heart-madness’ of trust – to take risks, to “feel the fear, and do it anyway”. In the rough-and-tumble of a contact-sport such as football, what do you fear? Where do you feel that fear? What do you feel when you choose to face the risk, and do it anyway?

Fear reduces when we face it, and accept the reality – rather than only the fear – of the risk: so when you do take a risk, note what doesn’t happen as well as what does. Looking back at your past fears which you faced this way, what do you feel?

Yet it’s also essential to remember that, inflated though they may be by our fears, most risks are real: if and when it does express itself in your version of Reality Department, what do you feel? Rather than running from the fears and feelings, from where within you do find the courage to pick yourself up and start again? What help – power-with – do others give you in this? (Perhaps more to the point, what help will you allow others to give you in this?) Looking closer at the threads of your own wyrd, what do you learn about your choice of ‘I’ – and about the geasa which weave their inevitable way through those choices?

‘Consequences’ is perhaps the wrong word, because the wyrd has no sequence as such: whatever patterns we may perceive – such as the ‘common-sense’ concept of causality – arise as much from what we choose to see, and not-see, as from anything else. What we think of as cause-and-effect is no more than an apparent pattern in time: but the wyrd interweaves through everywhere and everywhen, hence any event is simply a ‘co-incidence’ – and any meaning it may seem to have depends on how we choose to interpret that event. In a very literal sense, it’s all coincidence, an endless ‘coinciding’: things happen because they happen to happen, and everything and nothing is the cause. Weird… but that’s the nature of the wyrd.

Yet there are patterns to be seen: there are parallels within the wyrd, there are ‘sequences’ that can seem like cause-and-effect. So events can have meaning for us – if not necessarily for anyone else. And those events gain their meaning only if we choose to let them do so – the ‘meaning’ being a glimpse of where each thread leads, and the possibilities open to us by choosing to claim it as part of our ‘I’, and following its path for a while. The twist is that to not-choose – to try to stay still, to hold on to what we have – is still a choice: we have no choice but to face choice itself.

So there’s always a risk: nothing – not even doing nothing – is ‘safe’. And there’s no way we can analyse everything, or even anything, in enough detail to be able to predict – and hence control – the ultimate outcome: since the wyrd contains the interweaving of everything, everywhere, everywhen, the possibilities within even the simplest of events are, quite literally, infinite. What does work, though, is what the Taoists called ‘doing no-thing’, or – in terms of the wyrd – allowing ourselves to be come aware of what the wyrd itself tells us. Once we allow ourselves to recognise it, there’s a clear sense of ‘impending wyrd’ that enables us to refine our choices, and to dance with those apparent risks – rather than hiding in some desperate all-or-nothing gamble…

And that’s another choice: to listen to that strange whisper of ‘impending wyrd’, or to ignore it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a clear warning, a clear message, about a more appropriate choice, a better way to go – even about something as simple as a traffic-jam – but have ignored it until too late: by which time the choice is gone…

Almost all of us have perfect retrocognition – otherwise known as ‘hindsight’ – but perfect precognition might be a lot more useful! Yet that weird sense of ‘impending wyrd’ can also provide us with what one friend described as ‘precognitive recovery’ (the art of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time!): what’s your experience of this? On the probably rare occasions when you’ve trusted that feeling of ‘impending wyrd’, what happened – or, perhaps more to the point, what didn’t happen?

The choice to ‘do no-thing’ is closely related to that sense of ‘impending wyrd’: taking action at what we allow ourselves to know is exactly the right moment, at that subtle balance-point between doing nothing, and doing too much. What’s your experience of this? How do you allow yourself to know that subtle point of balance, between not trying hard enough, and trying too hard – between oblivious enthusiasm, and the inward-turned anger of apathy? And how hard – or easy – is it for you to trust that inner knowing?

‘I’ is a choice; to assert who we are, and what we choose, is a choice. It’s perhaps the most important of all the choices we make, because without committing to that, we have no certainty to ‘I’ – or its boundaries. Trying to control others – either through aggressive abuse (power-over), or else by trying to entrap others through the more covert ‘passive’ abuse (power-under) – or refusing to assert ourselves in relationship at all – as in the old ‘anything for a quiet life’ scenario – helps no-one, least of all ourselves: the only way out is to become assertive, and live the expression of our choices. Courtesy of some ‘newage’ confusions, the term ‘assertiveness’ has unfortunately become something of a cliché: but it certainly wont feel like that once we start to put it into practice… To be assertive demands of us a full understanding of the distinction – yet also the arbitrariness – of the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’; it demands of us that we understand our own choices, and accept full responsibility for and about those choices; and it demands that we accept that others do exist, and that they do have right and responsibility for their choices, just as much as we have for ours. Sounds easy? Not exactly… but at least we do have one definite place to start: namely that subtle boundary between ‘not-I’ and ‘I’.

‘I’ is a boundary

I make my choices; you make yours; everyone else makes theirs. And wherever those choices overlap, there’s a boundary – a boundary of sorts, if often a weird one…

So here we come back to those boundary-issues that we looked at earlier: to assert myself, to claim and express my ‘I’, is exactly the same as asserting my boundaries – namely ‘to know and respect what I want, and to take responsibility for same’. If I don’t know what I want, there may not be much for ‘I’ to assert… if I don’t respect what I want, it’ll be no surprise if others don’t respect what I want either… and if I don’t take responsibility for knowing what I want, respecting what I want, and doing something about it, then it’s unlikely that anyone else will… All of these may seem obvious enough, and simple enough: but for most people, in practice, they are far from simple – and society’s rampant paediarchy can make it harder still.

“You gotta be yourself – be more like I tell ya!” – that classic double-bind, described in song by Joan Armatrading. Do you know what you want – rather than what other people tell you that you ought to want, you should want, you must want?

Given the social confusions and social pressures, it’s sometimes easier to start from what we don’t want rather than what we do: so what do you not want in your life? By the nature of the wyrd, every thread passes through us somewhere, so we can never entirely exclude anything from our lives: but to a surprising extent we can choose how we express or experience each thread. So in that sense, what threads of wyrd do you not want to express as part of your ‘I’? What threads would you not choose to experience as the main themes of your ‘I’?

That’s your choice: now comes the twist… Given that you now know at least something of what you want and don’t want in your ‘I’, in what ways do you respect that choice? In what ways do you take responsibility for that choice?

Neither of those is easy: so in what ways do you evade responsibility for expressing your choice of ‘I’? In what ways do you export to others the responsibility – or the blame – for what are actually your choices for ‘I’? As you begin to notice the extent – perhaps frightening extent – to which you do this, in what ways could you begin to reclaim that ‘response-ability’ to assert your own choice of ‘I’ – ‘to know and respect what I want, and to take responsibility for same’?

In a society as complex as ours, we cannot do everything: we have no choice but to rely on others to some extent in most aspects of our lives. Whether we like it or not, there’s always ‘We’ as well as ‘I’ – which means that there are always likely to be confusions about boundaries, about where my ‘I’ ends, and yours begins. The wyrd, helpful as ever, will often provide us with its own weird reminders of this…

Another quiet Sunday morning – my favourite time of the week. Off to my favourite café for a leisurely breakfast, reading the paper, catching up on the local gossip: just what I fancy! Into the familiar gloom, and – but… hey! Wait a minute! There’s someone sitting at my table! How dare they! Behind the counter, Kel sees my horrified expression, gives me a wry shrug in sympathy, and points me to another table. But it’s not right: breakfast tastes wrong, coffee’s different… none of this would have happened, I’m sure, if they hadn’t been sitting at my table – it’s all their fault! I’m grumpy, irritable, resentful… yet “resentment is a demand that the Other feel guilty – a common form of covert abuse”, as that weird Inner Adult reminds my decidedly childish Inner Child! Uh-oh… oops… Better take a closer look at Reality Department…

Do I really think I own that table? They’re not regulars here: could they really have known that it’s my favourite table – or even that I was going to come in today? If I need to ‘own’ that table, I’ll have to demand, or cajole, or bully them to move: is that what I really want to do? Is it that important to me? Some other time, some other place, just possibly yes; but right here, right now, the answer’s a clear ‘No’. So how about asserting what I did come here for: a leisurely breakfast, read the paper, catch up on the local gossip? Sure enough, here comes Kel, grabbing a break to give me the latest news: great! Weird how things can change so fast, isn’t it?

What’s your experience of this? When the wyrd’s given you something other than you wanted, and you lose yourself in resentment and blame, what kind of weird reminders do you need to get back on track, and able to assert what you really choose?

All abuse arises from boundary-problems – from dishonesty to self or others, or from a refusal to take responsibility for self, for asserting ‘I’. We always have ‘response-ability’ for our boundaries, even when someone oversteps them: Transactional Analysis theory, for example, makes it clear that ‘playing victim’ invites abuse – and is itself often a form of abuse, in which the self-styled victim needs someone to blame in order to prop up their own “ain’t it awful?” attention-grabbing game. Caught in the webs of codependency – needing others to take the responsibility, or the blame, for us – most of us oscillate, without much awareness, between passive and aggressive: the only way out of the loop is to become clear about our boundaries, and to take responsibility for asserting our own ‘I’.

On the aggressive side of the cycle, we’ll find ourselves ignoring others’ boundaries, and treating them as objects, non-entities which we have a right to use – or abuse – according to our needs. By the usual weird twists, there are plenty of opportunities for well-meant confusion, especially when we can pretend that our aggression is on behalf of others: some of the worst offenders in recent times, for example, have been those feminists who’ve been so obsessed about women’s rights that they’ve fallen for the old “the end justifies the means” trap, and set out to enforce new laws which assign all rights to women, and all responsibilities – and blame – to men. Another common delusion is the notion that violence and abuse by women is always self-defence: the reality, as is indicated by that all-too-common experience of seeing frustrated mothers in supermarkets hitting their ‘uncontrollable’ children, is that all abuse is ego-defence – ‘defence’ of a self-image – which is not the same thing at all…

“I’m only defending my rights!” I say, angrily. Well, yes, that’s probably true – but I’m doing it in a way that’s riding roughshod over everyone else’s… I may think I’m asserting ‘I’, but to everyone else it’s just plain aggression – which might well explain why they’ve responded in the way that they have…

Embarrassment-time again, perhaps, but take a closer look at what you’ve done in the past that you’ve claimed was in self-defence: what were you really ‘defending’? Were you genuinely defending yourself – or simply exporting your fears, dumping them ‘over the boundary’ onto someone else? Notice the feelings that arise as you explore these memories – minimising, justifying, blaming, “it’s all their fault!”… those all-too-common kinds of covert abuse…

The past is gone: there’s little or nothing that you can do now about what you’ve done in the past, and you’ll help no-one by blaming – especially yourself. But you do have ‘response-ability’ for the present, and the future: when boundary-issues like these come up again, what can you do to assert your ‘I’ without falling back into old habits of aggressiveness or blame?

But if we don’t at least state our boundaries, then others will inevitably ignore them – not necessarily out of malice, but often because they simply don’t know that they’re there. This can be a problem, because many people do have some weird ideas of what constitutes ‘use’: and if we don’t tell others how we want to be used, they’re likely to assume – quite reasonably – that we want to be used in the way that they want to use us. We can be responsible about others, but we cannot be responsible for them; so our boundaries are our responsibility – and no-one else’s. If we choose to play ‘doormat’, and refuse to take responsibility for our ‘I’, we really can’t complain about the resultant feedback that we get from the wyrd…

“It’s not fair!” I wail – but I don’t have the courage to say so to anyone else, so it’s hardly surprising that it isn’t ‘fair’… Playing passive, as that infuriating Inner Adult quietly reminds me, evokes aggressive: so if I genuinely choose to break free from yet another co-dependent setup – rather than playing my usual game of looking for someone else to blame – then it’s up to me to assert those boundaries about what I believe is fair…

If you’ve long been in the habit of playing ‘doormat’, passively taking all the knocks as other people blunder through your boundaries, from where within you can you find the courage to trust that you do have the right – and responsibility – to assert your boundaries, your choice of ‘I’? As you begin to do this, notice the feedback that you get from the wyrd: there’ll be those usual weird ‘challenges’, of course, testing your commitment to the changes you make in your choice of ‘I’, but what happens as you hold to that commitment? Notice, too, that often the strongest challenges to that commitment will come not from others, but from you – “it’s too hard, it’s not fair” and so on… in what ways can you call on your own Inner Adult for aid in this?

If we’ve constantly been trampled on by others, it’s important to start off by saying ‘No’ – and assert clearly, and strongly, that ‘No’ does indeed mean ‘No’, and nothing else. (It’s then important to only use ‘No’ to mean ‘No’ – and not as ‘Maybe’, or ‘Perhaps’, or ‘Push a little harder and you may get to Yes’… there are plenty of weird confusions that can arise from that popularly dishonest game…) But on its own, ‘No’ is not enough: if it’s overused, it builds walls rather than boundaries – and then we’re really stuck, in a cage of our own making… In any case, the wyrd often has trouble with ‘No’: as several writers have commented, “there is no image for ‘not’ in dreams”, and if we only say what we’re ‘against’ in others, the wyrd – helpful as ever – tends to provide us with exactly that, to give us something to say ‘No’ to! So at some point we have to say what we’re ‘for’: we have to commit ourselves to a boundary, by saying ‘Yes’, claiming that particular thread of the wyrd as part of our ‘I’ – with the usual weird results.

“He was always late”, says the young woman in the bar, “and I always waited for him – getting angrier and angrier, but I never said anything. He was supposed to bring me here today, and he was late again; but this time, for once, I came here anyway, on my own, without waiting. And it feels really different – it feels great!” Defining a boundary, a boundary of time: saying ‘No’, then shifting to ‘Yes’. And at that moment he comes in through the door, and she greets him delightedly: despite his lateness, she’s pleased with herself – which means she can greet him with pleasure rather than her usual ill-concealed anger…

What happens for you when you become clear about your own boundaries, your own choices? In particular, what happens when you shift from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’?

‘What we’re for‘ can take a lot of finding, with many mis-takes – and many weird loops and repetitions of lessons – along the way. It does take a great deal of work to reach the fluid, dynamic inner certainty described in the Taoist expression that “in me the tiger can find no place to rest its claws” – an inner certainty which is echoed, in some weird way, in our interactions with the world ‘out there’. But it’s our responsibility – our ‘response-ability’. Ultimately, it is up to us: and no-one else.

Those boundaries of ‘I’ are our responsibility: but they’re also mostly about our choices, not what others choose – which is why it’s so important to use those ‘I-statements’ rather than ‘you-statements’ to describe them. Above all, though, ‘I’ is an expression of who we are, who we choose to be: and the best way to reach that expression – and avoid falling into passivity on one side, or aggressiveness on the other – is to learn to recognise, and understand, the feeling of ‘I’.

‘I’ is a feeling

The only way out of abuse – whether done to us or by us – is through asserting ‘I’. But when trying to correct for previous habits, it’s easy to over-compensate, and end up abusing in a different way: many feminists, for example, exchanged their old power-under for power-over, mistakenly thinking that aggression was assertiveness; many ‘pro-feminist’ men exchanged their previous power-over for power-under, and collapsed into the cowed and complaining röe of the ‘New Age wimp’; the end-results of those shifts have been to few people’s satisfaction… So the key is that asserting ‘I’ is also a feeling – one that is quite different from the feigned ‘helplessness’ of passivity, or the self-righteous indignation of aggression.

Like many other feelings we’ve explored here – each associated with, or attached to, its own thread of the wyrd – it’s subtle, yet specific: there’s no other feeling quite like it, so it can act as a clear indication that we’re ‘on track’ to assertiveness. There are all too many distractions on the way – it’s easy to confuse self-awareness and self-centredness, for example – but by watching the feelings, and watching the feedback that we get from the wyrd, we slowly become clearer about what ‘I’ is, and about what we genuinely want as ‘I’.

True assertiveness creates a balance at the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’, so one way to become familiar with that feeling of assertiveness is to explore not just the meaning, but the experience, of ‘equality’. Perhaps the best place to start is by asserting that equality means “equally deserving of respect” – all people are equally human, including ‘I’ and all ‘not-I’. Everyone: no exceptions.

There’ll be several people, or classes of people – politicians, used-car salesmen, ‘welfare widows’ or whatever – for whom you’ll find this a little difficult: “surely I’m not equal to them? surely they’re not equal to me?” Who are they? Why is it difficult to think of them as equally human – rather than superhuman or, in all too many cases, sub-human by comparison with you? What feelings does that question bring up for you?

Explore a little further, with that phrase from the Desiderata: “I have a right to be here, no less than the trees and stars”. Assert, then, that everyone has a right to be here, no less – yet no more – than the trees and stars; assert that everything, as well as everyone, is equal – for a start, the same threads of wyrd pass through all of them, all of us. There’ll be plenty of feelings that that’ll bring up, too… but somewhere in the midst of them is a specific feeling, one that’s assertive and aware of equality – what is it? Allow the wyrd to show you, and remind you, so that you can know when you’re truly asserting ‘I’.

Assertiveness is neither passive nor aggressive: it’s not just in the middle, between them, it’s somehow entirely beyond them. In some ways assertiveness is equality: but it’s more than just an idea, an idealised concept, it’s something that we learn to express by living it. What makes it hard at times is that it demands of us a rigorous honesty and self-honesty: a full awareness that we can – and usually should – be responsible about others, whoever or whatever they are, but that ultimately we can only be responsible for ourselves. We acknowledge our ‘response-ability’ – including facing what one friend describes as ‘the insecurity of apology’, when we face our responsibilities towards others; yet we also strive for an acceptance of ourselves, a weird combination of valid pride and valid humility without empty regret – an acceptance of ‘is-ness’. That’s assertiveness: that’s asserting ‘I’.

As usual, this sense of equality and assertiveness will remain no more than an idea unless we put it into practice: so it would be useful to go back through that list of categories from the ‘Duluth Wheel’ that we saw in the last section, but this time focussing on the assertiveness and awareness of equality that breaks free from control and abuse – or self-abuse. In each case, watch for that feeling of assertiveness, that will show you when you’re ‘on track’ to a genuine equality…

The first category was negotiation and fairness, whose opposite was coercion and threats. How hard is it for you to reach mutually satisfying resolutions to conflict – where you don’t ride roughshod over others’ needs, yet still fully acknowledge your own? What does it take for you to compromise with others – and create a space in which others are willing to compromise too? If ‘I’ is not that which changes, but that which chooses, what do you need in order to be able to accept change?

Next is non-threatening behaviour, the opposite of intimidation. That’s about talking and acting so that both you and others feel safe and comfortable expressing themselves and doing things: what do you need in order to be able to do this?

Then there’s economic partnership, the opposite of economic abuse: making money decisions together, making sure both others and self benefit from mutual financial arrangements. What challenges do these pose for you, creating a balance of equality between you and others, yet still asserting ‘I’?

Next comes respect, which is the opposite of emotional abuse: how hard is it for you to respect both yourself and others – to acknowledge the needs, the opinions, the concerns, the feelings and the fears of others and yourself, and to be emotionally affirming and understanding, both of self and others – all at the same time? It’s useful to avoid the resentful ‘demand that the other should feel guilty’, and the use of subject-centred words like ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’; it’s important to listen to others and yourself without judgement or blame; but what else could you do to create a mutual respect?

The next challenges come from shared responsibility – the opposite of privilege, that old pretence of ‘owning the law’. What does it take for you to create agreement with others about a fair distribution of work? How hard is it for you to ensure that everyone is heard, when making family and other group-decisions?

And there’s the need for trust and support, the opposite of isolation: this is similar to the issues about respect, but more concerned with dependency – or breaking free from dependency. How do you support your own goals in life, at the same time as supporting those of others? How can you assert others’ right – and responsibility – for their own feelings, friends, activities and opinions, whilst also respecting your own?

Next is responsible parenting, which is also about responsible leadership. What do you need in order to be able to share parenting, or leadership, with others? How can you live assertiveness and equality, rather than control and abuse, as a röe-model for children and others?

And perhaps the hardest of all, yet central to all, is honesty and accountability, the opposite of minimising, denying and blaming. What does it mean to you, to accept responsibility for self, and about others? What does it ask of you, to acknowledge your own past use of abuse – and to provide a safe space in which others can acknowledge theirs? How hard is it for you to admit being wrong – or to make it safe for others to admit having been wrong? From where can you find the courage to communicate openly and truthfully – fully expressing and asserting your choice of ‘I’?

Knowing how to assert our ‘I’ is an essential part of our toolkit: but we share this world with everything else within the wyrd – which means that we also need to know how to assert our own part of each ‘We’ which the weavings of the wyrd happens to bring our way. To do that, we need to become more aware of two more subtly-different members of the toolkit: sympathy, and empathy.

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