I’ve seen a lot of chatter the past days about Teo Bishop’s announcement that he’s moving from Paganism back to Christianity. There’s a few folks that I’ve seen get rather irate about this. It’s an inappropriate response–but it’s also a very natural reaction–particularly in our culture. In the dominant Western culture, we (people) generally have really crappy boundaries.
I don’t know Teo, and I’m sorry to see him go as he has written some insightful things. I saw him as one of the Pagans who was working to raise the bar on Pagan writing and bring us that one step further out of our squabbling adolescence. I’m glad he’s hanging around a bit and continuing to do some writing. So this post really isn’t about him so much as what I’ve observed in this situation about ego, boundaries, and the idea of betrayal. And it’s important things for every single Pagan to reflect on if we want to actually build healthy, sustainable community.
Most of the time, when people say “You betrayed me!” what they actually mean is, “You betrayed the vision I had for you. You said no when I wanted you to say yes. You aren’t who I wanted you to be.”
It’s a hard pill to swallow. I remember when my mentors at Diana’s Grove introduced me to this concept. If most betrayal is about me and my expectations, then, I don’t get to blame things on someone else. I have to take responsibility for my own feelings, my own reactions, my own actions. Another saying we had at Diana’s Grove was, “It’s not about me.” Which is shorthand for, if you’re ticked off at me for something, very often it has nothing to do with something I did, but rather, your expectations of me that I might have failed to meet, that I might have betrayed.
Whether or not I knew about your expectations. Whether or not I consented to them.
When people get all riled up and angry at someone for converting to a different religion–or any number of a host of perceived betrayals–it’s a red flag for poor boundaries. Generally, it’s an ego/self identity/boundaries issue. I have experienced that many people who have a hard time accepting someone else’s decision to do something that they personally don’t like, tend to have a poor sense of self identity, ie, they don’t have a healthy ego. They also have poorly defined boundaries.
Boundaries are the idea that where my skin ends, I end. Person A with poor boundaries sees Person B, who might be a close friend, partner, or leader. Person A sees Person B’s to do something Person A doesn’t like as a huge betrayal. They literally don’t end their own self identity at their own skin–they “annex” or extend their identity to the actions of this other person that they are close to, or respect.
It’s an unspoken “I want you to do what I want.”
Ego is self identity, it’s the psychic skin that holds in the gushy bag of our mental organs, so to speak. When our ego does not have healthy boundaries, we tend to either let other people’s desires drive our actions, or, we tend to be pushy and try to drive others actions to be in alignment with what we want of them.
I’ll offer a personal example of a common “ego annex.” For me, one of my paintings is an extension of myself. Many artists, writers, and creators do this, and it’s not a bad thing, per se. Another example is that the events that I host become an extension of my identity too.
Here’s where it can get problematic. If someone maligns my event, or does something to harm it, I feel, in many ways, as if they have personally attacked me. If I’m not aware that I have that lack of boundary between myself and my creation, I might go totally ballistic on someone who complains about my event. In my case, I’m aware that my creations are an ego annex, and thusly I can manage my own emotional response to that, but that’s taken years of personal work.
If you find that you get really bent out of shape and snap at someone for maligning your event, or your friend, or your tradition, or your leader, or something else you care deeply about, take a look at your feelings about this. Is your response appropriate? Is it over the top?
This sounds ridiculous, but I know people that get personally offended if someone doesn’t like their cat. Because, their cat is an extension of their identity, their ego. Just because someone doesn’t like your cat, doesn’t mean you are bad.
And that’s where the ego annex becomes problematic. It’s Ego’s job to maintain a positive self identity. If someone says we are bad, then we can’t be good, right? And if someone says our painting/group/friend/leader/cat is bad, then we, by extension, are bad. Being able to establish boundaries means we can say, “Well, they don’t like my tradition, but that’s cool, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” instead of, “You suck and you’re wrong.”
Going further, if someone’s always on the defensive, it’s also a time to take a look at personal self identity, self esteem, and old wounds of the ego. If you’re defensive all the time, always attacking anyone who offers negative feedback about your favorite author, your tradition, or other things you care about…this is a really big red flag. I used to be really defensive all the time, and it was years of personal work and a little therapy that helped me to understand why. When I built up my sense of self confidence, my self esteem, when I built up a healthier body image, I wasn’t as defensive.
I still have issues. I have moments when I get sucked into the pit of poor self esteem, like when I saw a bad review of one of my books. However, most of the time I’m confident enough that I can handle negative criticism of my work. I’ve literally had Pagan leaders screaming in my face, or even just standing in front of a group of 40 Pagans complaining about me being brought in as a mediator/facilitator, and it didn’t phase me. Because, I knew that their issues weren’t really about me. I didn’t need to be defensive, because I wasn’t being attacked. Their own issues were what was on display.
In fact, I was able to have compassion for what they were going through and try to get at the underlying needs. These are techniques taught in the tool of Nonviolent Communication, which isn’t directly related to the boundaries issue and yet can help to work through things like this in groups. Check out the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, or a local practice group.
Leaders and Pedestals
In Teo’s case, people identify him as part of the Pagan community, as a voice, a leader, as someone to respect. Now he’s now gone and done something that takes him away from that identity. Not One of Us any more. He’s no longer toeing the party line of what people would have of him–what their desires for him might be as a leader, writer, thinker, etc.
I disagree with people’s choices all the time, but as long as they aren’t harming anyone, I respect their sovereign right to make those choices.
I’m tempted to post a Grumpy Cat photo here. If you’re wondering if you have poorly defined boundaries, ask yourself this. Do you have a hard time saying no? Do you feel like you have to say yes when someone asks you to do something, even if you don’t want to or don’t have time?
When I teach leadership workshops, this falls under the category of “New Moon” boundaries. You’re waiting for someone else to define what you should do. Another example of New Moon is that you might have a hard time feeling an emotion until someone else near you is feeling that emotion. Ie, you start to cry when someone else starts to cry.
Where New Moon becomes a red flag is if you say “yes” to people and what they want of you, and then gripe about it, or you drop the ball. This is another common thing in the Pagan community–volunteers agree to help, and then fail to do so. Sometimes it’s a boundaries thing, where folks feel the pressure to say “yes I can help” but they didn’t really want to commit that much time to helping. Or, if you agree to go visit your family for the Holidays, and then complain about how much time it’s taking up in your life, but you go anyways. The problem, here, is that New Moon boundaries reflect poor ego and poor self esteem; if you are saying yes all the time, it’s because on some level you’re afraid of saying “No.”
The consequences of saying no are too much to risk. If I say, “No, I won’t visit you for the holidays,” family will be mad at me. If I say, “No, I can’t help you with your event,” the group leader will be mad at me. Saying “Yes” = Person will like me = I am a good person. If we need that constant outside approval, it’s because we don’t have a strong internal sense of self worth. I am a poster child for this, and it’s taken a lot of work for me to crawl out of having New Moon boundaries.
The other side of New Moon would be, of course, Full Moon. Full moon is when you might find you are asking people to do things, but it’s kind of a subtle pressuring. I am guilty of this one too. Most people in leadership positions are, particularly in the volunteer-run Pagan community. Those who can keep a group going past 3 years are typically the stubborn visionary types. But it also means that we’re often subtly pressuring people to say “yes” to our vision, whether that’s organizing a local ritual or a Pagan Pride or something else.
However, on a more subtle level, Full Moon is just the state of being so full of your own vision for something that you aren’t even seeing someone else’s needs and desires. Someone who’s really Full Moon might not even understand that not everyone wants to put in 20 hours a week to make XYZ festival happen. So when someone says “No” to a Full Moon, they get really pissed off.
And here we come back to betrayal. When we’re in Full Moon mindset, we have a vision of what we want. Maybe it’s something we want for our partner or friend or child, or something we want for our community or a group leader or other person we have put on a pedestal. And when someone doesn’t toe the line with what we want of them, we feel betrayed. And we may never have told that person what we wanted of them, what we expected.
A ridiculous–and common–example is in romantic relationships. Person A wants Person B to just “know” what they want. “He should know I want flowers.” “She should know I want her to offer to pick me up at work.” Expectations and assumptions go hand in hand when they are covert. That is, not transparently articulated. If you want someone to do something, but the two of you never discussed it and they never agreed to do it, it’s not really a betrayal. They’re betraying what you wanted them to do.
When there’s an overt agreement that’s broken, that is more of a betrayal. When people agree to marital fidelity and one partner cheats, that’s a betrayal. When a group leader commits to an ethical standard and fails to uphold it, that’s betrayal. Now–sometimes people agree to something, and then after several years find it isn’t working. And the contract then has to be renegotiated or broken. Betrayal isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s usually a rough time of transition. We had these expectations, this future we dreamed of with XYZ person or ABC group, and that future is dying. There’s a grieving associated with betrayals, even the ones that aren’t malicious but are just renegotiated contracts.
Given how many Pagans bitch and moan about freedom of religion and how Pagans don’t have equal rights, getting angry at Teo for following his spiritual calling is tremendous hypocrisy. Pagans talk about tolerance, and then freely complain about Christianity every chance they get. The thing is, you don’t really get to complain about religious freedom and how you can’t come out of the closet or you’ll risk your job, if you’re not willing to stand up for someone else’s sovereign right to choose their own spiritual path. Well, you can, it’s just hypocritical.
I fight for the rights of Pagans to follow the religion that calls to them. And I’ll fight for Teo’s right, too.
For some excellent writing on boundaries, and other concepts of personal development, I recommend checking out articles and blog posts over at http://www.lcarolscott.com/publications. Dr. L. Carol Scott was one of my own mentors and she is the one who fundamentally introduced the concept of boundaries to me through her work with concept of Independence. She’s also where I learned to frame boundary issues as New Moon and Full Moon.
Another resource is the book, “Where You End and I Begin.”