Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.
To begin, let me say that although I don't consider myself a New Ager, I am guilty of every form of abuse this article decries. In fact, I offer this article not only as a watchdog who smells something rotten in our midst, but also, I offer it in apology to all the friends, clients, and family members I have ever mistreated.
Here's my definition of abuse, from Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook: "Abuse happens whenever one person uses another person to meet some need, in a way that doesn't work for the person being used." Obviously, we all use each other to get our needs met, but this should be a mutually respectful experience. I purposely equate abuse with disrespect so people will take respect very seriously. As one of my dearest friends says, "I don't care if people understand me, but I want to be respected."
In October 1997, The New Times published an article I wrote called "Mania, Money, and Three-Legged Angels." [Send SASE to The New Times for this or any other reprint desired.] It was about my past experiences with insanity and my current process of leaving a 17-year career in counseling to commit to writing. I also wrote about my physical health and its relationship to my need to ask for financial help in order to independently publish my book, Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook.
A few days after the article came out, I went to my postbox and found a lovely purple envelope emblazoned with a golden sun and dancing stars, from a woman I don't know (I'll call her "Esmerelda"). When I aunfolded the matching stationery, little sparkly angels fell out. The first line was wonderful: "It took great courage for you to write the article in the October New Times!"
Imagine my surprise, then, when the next sentence leapt off the page like an attacker in the night: "You are stuck in WANT."
Whoa! Nice "you" statement, Esmerelda!
She continued: "There is a way to have your heart's desire without having to ask others to provide the money for you, which smacks of codependence."
Double whoa! I don't know who taught Esmerelda about codependence, but asking for help is the antithesis of codependence. Aside from this confusion about terms, however, Esmerelda's tone was unmistakable. She was shaming me about money and making me wrong for requesting help.
Next, she informed me that the solution to my stuck-ness was to use "Conscious Languaging": "I can, I am, I will, I choose, I have, I love, I create, I enjoy."
As a former card-carrying member of the New Age Party, I'm well acquainted with this kind of language. It's part of the "you create your own reality" fundamental. This idea (and the language) has its good points, but when it's taken as gospel, I think it reveals a state of arrested development. In the early stages of infancy, babies believe their thoughts and actions are the sole determinants of everything that happens to them. Sound like any New Agers you know?
As my dear shaman, Michael Harner, says, "I think that the human mind is not necessarily the biggest thing in the universe." My own 25-year study and practice of cross-cultural shamanism continually reminds me of my place in the universe. I am one tiny speck of interdependent consciousness neither more nor less important than anyone or anything else. To me, the idea that I create my own reality insults the complex mystery of creation, and it reduces me to a pathetic megalomaniac. I'd rather be puny than pathetic!
Along with Esmerelda's admonition to change my language, she included multiple pages about some "Mastery Seminars" she thought I needed. Finally, she took it upon herself to question the integrity of my partner, John Giovine, under the guise of being helpful. When she got done insulting him, she closed with this prize-winning double message: "I would probably like both of you if I met you in person. You both have big beautiful smiles. And behind the beauty and the light is the dark side we all have a dark side. It is a challenge to be faced!"
Telling John and me that we have dark sides is like telling a couple of frogs that their skins are watertight. Shadow work is our passion! While many believe the shadow is evil, we think it's simply the repository of all our disowned parts. It can be a source of tremendous power if these parts are loved into new forms of expression.
At any rate, I trust you get the picture with Esmerelda. Despite my hurt, I realized quickly that her epistle was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it spurred me to write this long-considered article, since her letter provided a classic case of New Age abuse.
Another reason it was a gift was that it allowed me to clean up another mess. As part of my spiritual practice, I take 100% responsibility for all pain that enters my awareness (see my September 1997 New Times interview with Haleakala Hew Len for more on this). As soon as I felt hurt upon reading Esmerelda's letter, I immediately asked myself, "What is going on in me that I have caused this pain, and how can I rectify it?"
This question allowed me to move out of victimhood as I remembered all the times I've "processed" people the way Esmerelda had processed me. Though this puts me in the unflattering position of perpetrator, it levels the playing field and gives me a chance to ask forgiveness, inwardly and/or outwardly.
Taking responsibility for pain is not the same as blaming myself for "creating" it. To blame myself for pain or hardship is ignorant, at best, and cruel, at worst. Such thinking stems from the limited belief that each of us is in complete control of everything that happens. How egocentric and infantile! Sometimes I wonder how much of my former New Age obsession with mastery was stimulated by fears of helplessness, powerlessness, and neediness.
Did you flinch when you read those words? They are taboo in many New Age circles. In my experience, the degree to which people shame me for my needs is the degree to which they are uncomfortable with their own neediness, helplessness, and powerlessness. In other words, people's judgments of me are statements about them, not me.
Conversely, I must remember that my judgments of others are statements about me, not them. This humbles me, and humility is good, since I'm a recovering know-it-all. Speaking of know-it-alls, I'd like to describe a few styles of disrespect. Although I include them in this essay about New Age abuse, they transcend all categories of race, creed, class, culture, gender, and sexual orientation. If you recognize any of these styles in yourself or others, don't beat anyone up! Congratulate yourself for noticing, keep your sense of humor, and use your awareness to work on yourself.
The Nicey-Nicey Knifer: Nicey-nicey knifers slip in sweetly. Once your heart is open, they insert the knife. If you cry out in pain, the standard response is, "I was only trying to help!"
The Know-It-All: There's nothing wrong with being knowledgeable, but problems arise when I push my opinions on others without permission.
The Missionary: The missionary is a know-it-all with proselytizing tendencies. If you have the misfortune of exposing your pain to these folks, you're in for a sermon based on their favorite book, guru, healer, seminar, tape series, or dietary plan.
Mr. Fixit: Although men are traditionally accused of entering "fix it" mode whenever anyone discloses a problem, the truth is, there are a lot of female Mr. Fixits. We often end up in the helping professions!
The "For Your Own Good" Bully: For 15 years, I've been wishing I could make one book required reading for everyone: For Your Own Good, by Alice Miller. Parents, helping professionals, and spiritual zealots of all persuasions are particularly susceptible to "for your own good" bullying, but all kinds of authorities commit soul murder when they impose their will on others, saying it's "for their own good."
Typhoid Mary: Ram Dass tells the story of an army nurse who ministered to the wounded, not realizing she was a carrier of typhoid fever. Oblivious to her own "stuff," this kind of person has no idea that she is wreaking havoc on those she means to help.
The Queen of Denial: People in denial are likely to shame or blame others for exactly those qualities or behaviors which they themselves unknowingly exhibit.
The "Kill the Messenger" Fanatic: These characters don't realize that when they get triggered by someone else's words or actions, it's something in them that needs attention. To deflect their upset, they criticize, crucify, or sometimes even kill whatever or whomever they see as the source of their distress.
The Nicey-Nicey Knifer Know-It-All Missionary Mr. Fixit "For Your Own Good" Bully Typhoid Mary Queen of Denial "Kill the Messenger" Fanatic: I chose Esmerelda's letter as a classic case of New Age abuse because her words hit every style of disrespectfulness. Can you spot them?
Lest you think I'm being unfairly judgmental, let me say that it takes one to know one. I have to keep tabs on all these shadow characters myself constantly!
To conclude, I'd like to share my personal "Rules of Respect."
1) Take 100% responsibility. With any problem, ask: "What is going on in me that I have caused this problem, and how can I rectify this problem in me?" Then act according to the information received.
2) Speak in "I" statements. In general, "you" or "we" statements are justifiable only if I have outright permission from others to speak for them.
3) When someone else is talking, listen. Don't interrupt, don't swipe the focus, and don't offer unsolicited advice.
4) If I want to tell others what I think of them, or what I think might help them, ask permission first. If someone doesn't want my input, keep quiet.
5) To practice respectful caring, use Lucia Capacchione's three simple questions: "How do you feel? What do you need? How can I help you get what you need?" Notice that the last question doesn't say I must necessarily provide what's needed, only that I might like to help figure out how to get it.
6) Nurture the capacity to ask for help clearly and without expectation. When I ask for help, it's not the other person's job to supply my need. It's my job to ask elsewhere and elsewhere until I get what's needed.
7) When someone asks me for help, give only what is right for me, if anything. Don't sacrifice self-care on the altar of altruism.
8) Don't attack anyone personally, but feel free to get plenty feisty about ideas!
9) Never criticize anyone for saying "ouch." If someone feels hurt by my words or actions, listen and respond with kindness. Don't say I was "just kidding" or that the other person is being "too sensitive."
10) Ask trusted friends to speak up if they think I'm not walking my talk. If they do speak up, listen carefully. Solicited feedback from friends is extremely valuable.
11) If I feel disrespected or hurt by someone's words or actions, speak up when appropriate, using "I" statements. If I continue to feel disrespected, withdraw.
12) Give myself (and others) the freedom to withdraw at any time for any or no reason without fear of shame, blame, coercion, or retaliation.
13) Respect the power of privilege. Those who are not aware of their position of power are likely to abuse it, however unintentionally. This applies to all types and levels of relationship: cultural, racial, sexual, physical, financial, emotional, intellectual, professional, political, and spiritual.
14) For kick-ass pattern busting, use my daily prayer: "Show me the flip side of my patterns so I can get to compassion faster."
15) Trust that everyone is doing the best she or he can, given everything.
Special thanks to the kind people who have responded with support to my continuing request for help to independently publish Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook.
Thanks also to John Giovine, Leslie Heizer, my secret uni-buddy, Bette Lamont, and Leanne Garn for their help with this difficult article.
You can write me, Cat Saunders, Ph.D., in care of The New Times at NEWTIMES@SPEAKEASY.ORG or (206)320-7788 or fax (206)320-7717.
The front-page illustration for this article is a touch drawing by Deborah Koff-Chapin, creator of SoulCards and author of Drawing Out Your Soul. Find these items at your bookstore or call (800) 989-6334. She was the subject of an interview by Ms. Saunders in The New Times several years ago.