By Lisa Meuser.
Word is finally getting out – we’re starting to acknowledge that, for the most part, we’ve all been raised in a culture of dishonesty. As a result, we, as individuals, born out of this dishonesty, often don’t have our own sense of integrity, own up to how our behaviors have impact, or talk about accountability. And we don’t often explore – and sometimes don’t even know how to talk about – how to be honest, have integrity, be accountable, and be responsible, especially without blaming or shaming ourselves, or others. Instead, we often deny and project inwards and/or outwards, to protect our hurting and often confused selves.
Let’s face it, it can be really scary to hurt and painful to be confused (or in dissonance). Pain, especially as a child, can feel like death – particularly when we don’t have loved ones to help us through it, and even more so when it is our “loved ones” who are causing the pain.
If we don’t have healthy support to be with our pain, we learn to adapt. We learn to do whatever it takes to be “fine.” We do that in lots of ways, and depending on our contexts or environments, we figure out ways to adapt or manage our surroundings (or ourselves) so that we feel safe, in control, and “fine.”
When I was a kid I was expected to be fine. I was punished for being angry, and shamed for crying. I had low levels of fear almost all the time, not knowing how to “be me” in a way that was safe. I learned how to feign my way through life. Being dishonest with myself, and others, was the only way I could survive.
Feigning is a 4th fear response (when I’ve written about it before I’ve also sometimes referred to it as a strategy of not just feigning, but also to fawn, fake, fool, fuck… the list goes on, of ways humans engage so that we can feel safe in moments). We’re all familiar with fight, flight, and freeze. Feign is often not recognized as a fear response because when one is in feign it can look so “normal.” This is an important adaptive skill that saved my life, but it also had a cost later in my life.
Pretending became a way of life for me, so much that “I” didn’t know I was pretending. I didn’t even know myself, because I didn’t actually have a self. I had gotten so good at adapting and feigning that I had no real me. I was safest in not even existing. As you can imagine, later I gravitated towards spiritual practices that helped me avoid myself.
Learning to Exist
I was talking with a client the other day about personality tests. We talked about how hard those tests were, because we didn’t have a self to answer from. We only knew how to answer from our imagined senses of self – based on others, based on past, and /or based on future, but without the ability to answer based on a self that lives in the now.
When we don’t have a sense of self, we don’t really know who we are, or how we are. What we do know is that we want to feel good – we want to be comfortable. Of course! Unfortunately, when we don’t really have a sense of self, we can’t be connected to a sense of comfort from within. More than that, we may not even know what our bodies like, or the simple things or practices that might bring us comfort. It’s important that we “get to know ourselves”!
Some people came over to my house not long ago for the first time. One of them said, “Your house is so comfortable! Soft blankets and pillows and warm scents and colors!” Yes, as I became connected with my Being, I discovered that I could resource comfort in healthy, non-destructive ways. Once upon a time, I didn’t know myself well enough to support myself in such simple, loving ways. Instead, I relied upon dysfunctional adaptation and feigning, chasing the desire to feel comfortable in unhealthy ways. This often involved trying to get comfort from others (usually individuals who were also unhealthy), and by engaging in certain behaviors that were destructive, often with those same people. Double whammy! Getting honest that (1) I am a human being who has needs (comfort), and (2) there are ways to safely resource comfort, has literally changed my life.
Pretending to Death
I went home to see my family not long ago. In the course of a conversation, my mom let me know that things “are fine!” at home. I was taken aback – our metrics for “fine” are clearly very different, and also, sometimes we can’t see what we can’t see. When we’re in a situation where we don’t feel like we have any control, we will very easily neutralize dysfunction and toxicity, by adapting and/or pretending, even to ourselves, in the process. While it is understandable that we adapt so that we can feel (the delusion) of safety, it can also be unhealthy, and even dangerous.
I know the reality of this. I was in an abusive relationship – and I knew I needed to get out, but it.was.so.hard. Many of us have been in these situations in different ways – in dysfunctional relationships with people, organizations, places, behaviors, and things. We know X is “bad” for us, or that something “isn’t quite right here,” but we can’t stop/get out.
At that time in my life, a healthcare provider was uncertain what to do. She was seeing my health suffering and my nervous system in shambles, but she couldn’t make sense of it. “Are you having fun with him?”, she asked. She didn’t know that that wasn’t the right question to ask. Sure I was having fun. There was lots of sex, some drugs, and great rock and roll. In other words, lots of feel good hormones were flowing. I wasn’t having fun because I was in a relationship with *him*. I was having fun because I was an expert at adapting to dysfunction and pretending even to myself, and those feel good hormones made it so much easier.
Being in an abusive relationship distorts everything inside one’s psyche. The healthy sense of self that I had developed could not hold up under the cleverness of his sociopathy. He was the straw that broke my conditioning’s back, so to speak, and for that I will always be grateful. But recovering from that relationship was hard – the darkest nights of my soul.
Being forced out of my world of feigning was terrifying. I wanted to die every day of my life, but to most of the world I said I was fine. My life raft was my best friend – I could admit to her that I was not fine at all. And then a short while later, I felt safe enough to mention it to a somatic practitioner, who helped me to safely feel into how “not fine” I really was. Those first steps led me into a long period of recovery – where I learned that I had developed a deeply unhealthy relationship with Love, and to manage the pain of that, I had lost my Self. It took time to feel safe enough to no longer pretend to myself. It took time to develop a true sense of Being.
At the core of the healing (and waking up) journey is honesty. It’s not so easy, however, when we’re in a culture of dishonesty, and when we’ve not been taught or given good role models of people who live lives from integrity, accountability, and honesty. It can take a while to feel safe to be honest. It can take a while to FEEL at all. It is important to get support from loving beings while we learn to have a self, a self who needs love and comfort. In addition to the blog posts linked earlier, here are some other blog posts, here, here, and here, which may provide some more information and support. If you would like some gentle meditation/rest audios, you will find them free here and some here that can be downloaded. And, in the footnote are two more pieces not written by me.
The Burning Dumpster
It was a client who sent me the image that goes with this blog post. I laughed for quite a while after looking at the image, as it is sometimes the case that she can be feeling quite “on fire” but when asked, says “I’m fine.” She knows that for most of my life I also hid behind “fine”. It’s so common, isn’t it? To feel one way, but to say we feel another way. We are on a journey, we humans.
Just now, playing around with the words, I came to a turnaround of sorts…. After years of pretending I was fine when I wasn’t, after years of being afraid of the feelings involved, afraid of not feeling anything less than fine… after all these years, maybe it’s fine to be not fine. Maybe it’s fine to be a mess. Maybe it’s even fine to be on fire (not literally, of course).
And, maybe it was also fine to be not fine, but to say I was. Once upon a time, that was a very useful strategy. Sometimes it still is.
I appreciate how we are all on our unique journeys – not being dumpsters, but being human beings – and that here, we’re learning how to name our experiences, feel our experiences, and journey with our experiences – as ever changing as they are.
So, how are you?
To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.
 Stolen lands, stolen and then enslaved people, corrupt capitalism… just to name the overt biggies.
 Two other blog posts where I’ve written about Feign/fawn: Fear, Hope, Dreams…and Connection . Reconnecting with our Bodies. A Journey of Allowance.
 Feign as strategies of “fuck” and “fool.” One of the reasons feign can be known as a “fuck” is because having sex can become a way we try to manufacture safety. Fooling others is another- for example, manipulating people through charismatic modes of being is often found in spiritual teacher and/or narcissistic personality types who get safety by cleverly having power over others.