My first-grade twins came home from school on September 11th this year and told me they had learned about Patriot Day, a day named in memory for the tragic events on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t ready to tell them about that part of our history yet, but they learned it from their teachers. I asked them what they were told, and our conversation went something like this:
Kids: The bad guys flew airplanes into buildings and a lot of people died. Why did they do that mama?
Mama: Those guys thought they were the good guys and we were the bad guys.
Kids: How did they come to think we were the bad guys?
Mama: Those are the stories they told at their schools.
Here’s another “bad guy” story, a different story from a different time when we also wanted to use the idea of “us vs. them,” to get mad at those guys:
In August 2017, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville and a popular hashtag surfaced on the internet. People typed #itsnotme. They wanted to say that they did not condone the activities of white supremacists nor did they contribute to the problem. In other words, the white supremacists — those guys — were the bad guys.
The stories we tell matter. They set patterns into motion. When we tell the story of “us vs. them” instead of simply “us,” it makes room for us to hurt each other because we dis-own each other, we emotionally distance ourselves enough to send planes or bombs or soldiers or drones and kill. When we dis-own the terrorists or the white supremacists, we are telling the same story that they are telling. In other words, we are part of the problem. Instead of pointing the finger at those guys, let’s turn the finger on ourselves and see what we can do. Here is my question: Is it possible for us to put the stories about those guys into a time capsule and say goodbye? Can humanity finally say, it’s just “us”?
I fell in love with the study of systems growing up watching nature shows. One of my favorite stories is about the African fig that depends on one special kind of wasp which in turn depends on the fig tree for survival. I’ve learned about soil systems, the human body as a system of organisms, epigenetics, fungal networks through which plants feed each other and Bowen Family Systems Theory. And here is what I have learned: everything, everyone functions according to their system. For humans, this means something significant that we can talk about, that we can tell stories about. It means that there are no those guys, no good guys and bad guys. It means that we are all doing the best we can. Even our most beloved stories about our most beloved bad guys can be re-told: the wicked witch and Darth Vader function according to their systems, and they are doing the best they can. And, their friends, family and enemies all play a part in their stories.
So, what can we do when we see bad things happen, when we hear of another shooting or when we see gatherings like those in Charlottesville? The past pattern is to dis-own those guys, to give permission to hurt them, and in turn, we continue the pattern making space where it is ok to hurt each other. Because when there are those guys, my family will always be someone else’s those guys too. The first step is to stop telling the stories of “us vs. them.”
Instead of dis-owning them, we claim “them.” We integrate them. We say #thisisus. We say, “Those guys are my sons, my brothers, my cousins.”
And we say: What stories am I telling? What am I doing that is hurting us? I am doing the best I can, but is there something different I can do? Can I change this pattern?
My answer is yes… Maybe. Here is an idea. Let’s talk about anxiety. What if anxiety arose from an animalistic tribal need for survival basics like food, water, shelter and safety? At some point in our collective past, there wasn’t enough food for everyone, so we get anxious, we make our tribe anxious and we hurt others, we create the story of “us vs. them” so that we can get what we need to survive. And now, some of us have enough. Many of us have enough. And, that chronic, contagious, polarizing anxiety is still sticking around like unhelpful ancestral goo.
With social media, we are more closely linked than ever before. Is it possible you could be contributing to anxiety in the system? Is it even possible that your anxiety could be influencing one of the people you might have labeled as one of those guys? Perhaps something you are doing does not directly influence one of those guys, but through systemic ripple effects, you may not be helping their situation. You are connected to your family and work systems that in turn are connected to other larger systems that are connected to those guys. And when there is anxiety in one corner, it spreads. It’s like an engine with a damaged part.
Does this mean you are to blame? No. In systems thinking, there is no blame. Things are the way they are. Instead, we take responsibility for the parts we play.
So, we own the anxious system we’re a part of. And we own those guys. Now what? Embracing the idea of systems makes us powerful. We can actually DO SOMETHING, because we are part of that engine. Healthy behaviors are contagious too, and they also ripple throughout a system.
Here is the next step. Instead of thinking #itsnotme, let’s try #iampartoftheproblem. I’ve made this list of anxious behaviors to help you identify how you might be contributing to anxiety in the system. Anxiety has many faces, and awareness of it can help us to end it. Once you recognize your personal behaviors, then you can work on reducing them in your day-to-day.
- Blaming. Complaining. The need for perfection.
- An “us vs. them” mentality. Black and white thinking.
- Frequent use of high-pressure language, like absolutes and generalizations.
- The need to control or convert or approve of someone. The need for approval. These are juicy. If you can identify these folks you seek approval with (especially family members) and work on letting go of those needs, it can make a big difference for your anxiety and the anxiety in your system. Try this: “They do what they do. I do what I do.”
- Identify gossip by the use of high-pressure language. Also, there is a difference between talking about someone to get support and talking about someone to feel more powerful than them. It’s useful to say: “I’m feeling triggered, and I’m trying to figure out why (so I won’t feel triggered anymore).” Talking that way could help the system.
- Reactivity and the belief that feelings aren’t important. Feelings are interwoven with our primal instincts. They can cause us to be reactive: quick to anger, quick to agree and quick to give up. Are your feelings your own, or have you caught them like a virus from someone else? Thoughtfully consider how you personally feel and how you would like to responsibly react. This can help you move from a reactive state to a rational state. When your thoughts, feelings and actions are integrated, you will be less anxious.
- Anxiously dwelling on past failures instead of non-anxiously owning them. In systems, there are no regrets (and no failures). You did the best you could, and so did everyone else.
- Thinking that others close to you have the problems (not you). People are like magnets: We are attracted to folks who are like us. (It may take humility and deep breathing to understand this.)
- Lateness, rushing, procrastination. Anxiety addicts (me included) get hits of adrenaline and cortisol through lateness, and we spread that anxiety at home, on the road and when we arrive. Be generous to yourself and others with realistic timeframes.
- (And, some anxiety is normal and even helpful sometimes. It’s chronic anxiety that causes problems.)
When I read over this list, I see evidence of the story of “us vs. them” all over it, sometimes even making ourselves out to be the bad guy! Try not to beat yourself up over these anxious behaviors. They have been coping tools for you, so you can say, “Dear anxious behavior, I love you. Thank you for getting me this far. In some ways, I needed you to survive. And now, I am ready to work on letting you go.”
If you identify one or two of these behaviors and you work on making a shift, you might begin to see how you can be #partofthesolution for anxiety in the system. Please note: shifting away from these behaviors does take work. The system likes to stay put. You, your environment and the people around you feel comfortable with the way you currently behave. Breaking some of these habits might feel like breaking an intense physical and environmental habit, like quitting cigarette smoking.
If you do make a shift, I’d like to say congratulations, and thank you. Because as I write this, I am thinking about how you (yes, you) are connected to me, too.
So, if we let go of the “us vs. them” story, what kinds of stories do we need? Stories of self-discovery, reconciliation and community. To be an inclusive community of “us,” we do not have to be the same. Humanity could not survive if we were all the same: true diversity can be a source of strength and wealth. We can be in community together and thrive together. We don’t have to live together, but we can live beside each other. We can do this. We are already telling these stories. I see these stories in my family, in my neighborhood and even at the movie theater.
I think these ideas are useful for functional adults who have their regular survival needs met (food, water, shelter and safety). I am speaking from the perspective of an American, white, middle-class-family woman in the suburbs, and I expect there to be valuable perspectives that are different from mine.