He complains about the gross inaccuracy and therefore unfairness of the too familiar criticisms. Criticisms that have dogged his every step since grade school. The criticisms hurt him. Make him feel helpless and confused. He has tried believing the criticism. Protesting the criticism. Fighting back. He has tried self-loathing. Despair. He has even tried a melodramatic resignation that his lot in life is to simply pretend and be phony if he is to have peace in important relationships. He finds this painfully ironic, since one of the criticisms is that he is phony.
The criticism comes in varied rhetoric, but it all comes down to the same thing: You’re too intense, you suck the life out of the room, you’re too demanding, you’re a narcissist, you think you’re better than me, I feel ‘put down’ when I’m with you, you’re condescending, you expect too much, you overwhelm me.
I ask if there are other recurring messages he has received over his lifetime. Yes, he does remember other messages: You lift my spirits, you brighten up the room when you walk in, you’re optimistic, you’re empathic, you have an infectious enthusiasm, you make me think, you are fluid and fun, you have a great sense of humor, you say what you mean, you have a knack for putting things into words, it’s flattering to hear you share your critical reflections about what I’m doing or thinking.
I emphasize to the man that these two disparate messages are talking about the same guy. One gives his motive the benefit of the doubt. One impugns his motive, a priori.
The man is tortured between three choices. Either he surrender to the idea that something is really terribly wrong with him, or he fakes his way through life to maintain some semblance of family and friends, or he stands on some metaphorical mountain and shouts to his tormentors “Go to hell,” and decides to be alone. As I listen to him, I think he’s lived most of his life doing all three things simultaneously.
I make an admiring mental note about him, that he has managed to walk these 48 years on the planet with reasonable success. I think he doesn’t know how resourceful he is. How much healthy ego strength he has.
His lament is one I’ve heard before. There are people in the world whose type/temperament is naturally enthusiastic (from the Greek enthusia, meaning “filled with God”), who carry charisma, acute sensitivity and high energy into the world. If, on top of all this they are also intelligent … well, they find themselves unintentionally provocative to some folks. And they are, over and over again, surprised by this, and hurt by the attacks that come.
I wonder aloud to him: What if there was a path wherein you didn’t have to fake it, didn’t have to despise yourself, didn’t have to be alone, and could less often have to dodge these kind of conflicts? What if your most beautiful, powerful character attribute – enthusiasm – was also the thing getting in your way?
If you’ve ever been on a boat at a local lake, then you know about marinas and the rules for coming and going. When you chug the vessel back from your excursion, you pass a floating barrel posting a speed limit. As you get closer, another barrel tells you to slow down yet again. And again. Then the last barrel, which reads “Flat Wake.”
Past this barrel, you are required to operate the boat at a speed sufficiently slow as to create no appreciable wake. No significant swell of the water as your boat moves forward. Defy this rule, and the harbor patrol will write you a juicy citation.
Good man, what if your only consistent flaw here is allowing your enthusiasm to get ahead of your good manners? Okay, and maybe you are a bit of a show-off. Your boyish joy and wide-eyed wonder sometimes unwittingly overwhelm others. Leave not enough room for others.
The ‘fix’ here is not to pathologize yourself. Nor to change yourself. Nor to hide and pretend. Nor to isolate. The fix is more attention to boundaries. Decorum. Hospitality.
You’re like a boat that comes into the dock too fast. You pull in, and then wonder why all the other boats in the marina are so agitated. Bouncing up and down.
What if you learned to come and go more often with a flat wake?
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, an author and an Episcopal priest. You may reach him at “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)” email@example.com).