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  • Stephen Gaddis

Knife Edge

Five months since my last blog despite gentle reminders and urges from my colleagues!

I have been helped to understand that too much time between blogs can have real effects, like making us look bad as an organization. The cultural norms for blogging, website management, and organizational development seem to suggest “best practices” have to do with regular and uninterrupted blogging.

I can feel pressure inside me to relate to myself harshly for failing to measure up to those norms. I can sense shame wanting me to understand my gap in blogging as a personal failure. I can sense guilt wanting me to think I do not care enough about the NTI. I can feel the pull of abusive ways of relating expecting me to punish myself through some form of self-criticism, self-hate, or self-loathing. Can any of you relate?

I was recently preparing to teach a course at NTI, and before I left the house I told myself to remember to bring a knife to cut the bagels in half. Fifteen minutes later, while standing in line to buy the bagels, I realized I had forgotten the knife. Instantly, I was hearing in my head, “What the f*** is wrong with you? Why are you so stupid?!”

What happened in the next moment is a lifelong achievement that makes me happy. First, I was able to be aware of the internalized presence of this way of relating that I consider abusive. Second, I was clear that I do not support abuse in any form wherever it takes place, even in internal dialogues. Third, I was able to respond to the presence of the abuse with a clear stance that consisted of my stating, “That is not an okay way to relate to me!”

Those three actions may appear to be an obvious and, therefore, easy achievement, but in my experience they are the outcome of years of re-claiming my right to be free of abuse and to find an alternative way of relating to problems. As a boy, these abusive ways of relating to “mistakes” were normal for my parents. It was normal for parents to have internalized these ways of relating to their children because of the success of stories about the right way to “punish bad behaviors” in the service of helping children learn and grow. So, like my parents before me, I was indoctrinated to these abusive ways of relating as a “natural” response to problems, even small ones like forgetting a knife.

In my work, I see these internalized ways of relating regularly, which is awful, if not surprising, to witness. People are regularly engaged in ways of relating to themselves and others in abusive ways, and this has real effects on their lives. If I hadn’t stood up against the internal abuse in response to my forgetting the knife, it would have had real effects on how present I was to teach and how confident I felt about teaching, for example, which then would have had real effects for the students attending the course.

What happened after I stood up to the internalized abuse really surprised me. Standing up to that internalized bully disempowered it, and everything was suddenly quiet. In that quietness, a simple question emerged, “What was I going to do about the problem of having forgotten the knife?” Without having to protect myself from abuse, I was free to think calmly about all kinds of ways of responding to the problem: I could ask the people at the bagel store if they could cut them for me; I could drive back home and get the knife since I had plenty of time; or, I could trust the students could figure out how to eat bagels that weren’t cut in half for them. It was weird to have a problem and be so free from some claim about me being a bad person, but it was awesome!

Thirty years ago, I stood up to my father who regularly related with me in these abusive ways. I took the stance that he no longer had rights to a relationship with me. I stood up against ideas that he should have those rights because he was my biological father and I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for him, that family is always most important no matter what, that love means accepting whatever a person does, and that forgiveness means only looking forward and not backward as well. Instead, I took the stand that first and foremost a person only has rights in a relationship if they are not abusive. Now thirty years later, I am able to take that same position internally that I took externally.

So, as I return to the problem of not having written a blog in five months, I continue to wish to stand up against abusive ways of relating. I wish to say to myself, “It’s understandable given that you have had many things you have been working to care about since you last posted. It is great you are getting back to it now. And, I understand that you want to be able to post more frequently going forward.” I also wish to say to you the reader, “If not posting a blog has had some kind of negative effects for you and you want to share them with me, I would be happy to hear about them and offer a response that is not abusive. I stand for compassion and understanding instead.”

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