Years ago I was teaching the Intensive Learning Community and thought to divide the group into those who were MEAN and those who were NICE.
No problem–people knew exactly what I meant, and had strong reactions to those who were in the other group. Since then I’ve wondered about that energetic dichotomy. What is it where we many of us will do just about anything to not be perceived to be mean, whereas others are repulsed by the very thought of being nice?
Over the decades of living with my Inner Map,* I’m much clearer about this fascinating division. In fact, if I’m considering human behavior it’s almost impossible for me to not sort folks. When I hear someone called an asshole, jerk, or dick, I get it–they’re the Mean ones. Then there are the pussies, the weaklings, the wimps; clearly they’re on the Nice side. In other words, each group can name-call and project on the other side.
But now I understand that there’s something else at play. It’s the dominance and submission that are built into every single one of us and come out any time–any time!–we get perceive threat and get reactive.
Let me show you what I mean.
As you look at Reactive Brain (Below the Line) you can see the mobilized states (Pride, Anger, Agitated Fear) and the immobilized states (Frozen Fear, Sadness, Despair, Guilt, Shame). What I’ve realized is that these states are a matched set: Mobilized Reactive Brain is aggression and domination (MEAN!). Immobilized Reactive Brain is placation and submission. Oh, right–acting NICE.
Those are the points of the triangle I’ve traversed my whole life. In order to not be mean (like the people I’ve encountered along the way who said “hurtful” things, or I felt humiliated by, or were “attacking,” or, or all of the other villainous behavior I’ve judged to be “bad,”) well, I’ve tried to stay on the other side of the line. Smile, be thoughtful and considerate, empathize and understand the other’s perspective. You know, don’t you? Be nice. Block out all of that mean stuff in order to be, well, a good and warm and nurturing person?
Now, there was a hitch. Somewhere along the way I realized that “nice” (along with its cousins, “should and good”) meant going alone someone else’s ideas, beliefs that I’d internalized.
(My career as a Girl Scout fit right now–“clean in thought, word and deed”). I wasn’t following my own impulses, I was doing my best stave off my big red energy and seem okay.
This strategy helped me start relationships and a career. I was successful, except for the price that I–and people around me–paid. Internally I toggled between anxiety and depression, too much free-floating energy, too little. Relationally I jumped into power struggles that felt like a sliding, muddy slope into hell. I’d eventually find a way out of all of that, clamor for my landmarks (“thought! word! deed!”) and throw myself back into trying harder.
Eventually I discovered Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks’ work and their Four Pillars of Integrity, which boil down to: speak the truth, feel feelings fully, take 100% responsibility, and make great agreements. Applying these concepts lands you in the stream of life, where flow, connection, collaboration naturally exist.
As I’ve followed the Four Pillars over decades now, life got easier, but a whole other, darker part of myself emerged.
The mean side. The Villain that matches my own and others’ Victim, the aggression that I kept at bay in order to preserve relationships. Because aggression can be such a relationship killer, can’t it?! The blow-up, the nasty words, the snarling attacks; it’s hard for me to even look at these words as I type them. And yet I am capable of it all.
As are you. And all of us.
When we’re in Reactive Brain we are in hierarchy. Reactivity provides an immediate, automatic response that our human pack figured out so we’d shift into the social order that hierarchy allows for. No one in Reactive Brain believes in equality. We’re either up or down, mean or nice.
Or course, that’s not the end of the story.
The wide open skies of Creative Brain await, patiently grounded in a whole different realm, one where we get to be who we really are, our essential selves that were there all along. In Creative Brain we can find the authority of our own truth that the Hendricks were pointing us to with their Pillars, once we move back out of our reactive threat brains and back to the natural state of calm, open-heartedness, and clarity. From that place we can find Door #3, the sweet spot of speaking what is true and what we want without the overtones of aggression or placation that are the hallmarks of Reactive Brain.
So I ride out the aggression of my mobilized, bitchy self (thank you, boxing!), waiting for that mobilization to pass through my body. I tune into my attempts to control through caretaking and shift internally to what’s really true for me. I notice the collapse of my immobilized body and look for the anger, fear and sadness that are running in the river of my own life energy. And I breathe with relief when I bob back out of the roiling deep of my reactivity to the familiar surface of my true self. The one who isn’t mean or nice or weak, but just is.
Because beyond hierarchy is essence, cocreativity, collaboration.
We don’t have to struggle, we can just be. We can remember to blow kisses to each other’s Biggest Bitch and Worst Wimp selves. We can emerge from behind the clouds of our innate reactivity and shine into our own and each other’s magnificence.
I’m teaching a Virtual Intensive Learning Community! The next one begins June 3. See information/sign up here.
Do you and your partner get stuck in conflict? Come to “Rediscovering Essence: A Couples’ Retreat” on July 10+11. More information here.