Before diving into today’s letter, I wanted to put out there that people have requested an update from LW #354. While there is never an obligation to respond once your letter is answered here, if you are comfortable with it people would like to know: Are you okay? Can you pee on the regular now? You haunt our dreams.
Now, today’s letter:
Hi there, CA!
I’ve been getting a lot of feedback lately, from people I trust, that I’m a Chaos Muppet. I’m one of those people who weird things happen to: Things break when I’m around, weird accidents happen, things are lost.
I’m using the passive voice because, when I analyze how things went wrong, I realize that I didn’t *overtly* break that thing, or cause the accident or lose someone’s this-or-that. But because people see me as chaotic, I tend to get blamed first and apologized to later. The other day, I was making soup by blending it in a friend’s Cuisinart. I overfilled the container, water leaked out and dripped through the stove top into the stove below, shorting out a beloved vintage oven. It was totally an accident, but I do stuff like this!
I need to change this dynamic. How can I be more responsible? How can I stop this swirl of chaotic weirdness around me? My friend, whose oven I have probably ruined, said he thought I make these things happen unconsciously, to cause drama. How can I know if this is true?
I need a place to start. My work life has always been great, and my finances/living situation are in good order. It’s just in my personal life…shit happens to me and I want it to stop.
Dear Clumsy Lover,
I’ve been sitting on your letter for a while, waiting for the right metaphor to come to me. Then I mainlined a ton of Call The Midwife on Netflix, and she arrived.
She is wicked clumsy, and extremely uncomfortable in her own body, and sort of sows chaos wherever she goes without meaning to. When we first meet her, her self-consciousness is so great, and she is so worried about screwing up and on edge all the time that she does actually break things and cause accidents.
But [MILD SPOILERS]
…once she comes into her own a little bit, and, very importantly, surrounds herself with people who see her good qualities and validate them, she relaxes. Later in the series you meet her hypercritical mom and see immediately exactly where she got her un-confidence. By then you are so in love with her wicked sense of humor and compassionate & competent way she practices midwifery that you can’t even remember the clumsy person she was.
I am a clumsy sort myself, and never so much as when I am around my constantly “optimizing” and “correcting” dad. That dude will stand over me as I load the dishwasher, critiquing the placement of every fork and dish. On my recent trip to see my folks, he freaked out when I microwaved something for 15 seconds longer than he would have (we’re talking: veins popping out in forehead and spitting when yelling here). He called me stupid for not being able to immediately find utensils in a rental kitchen where I don’t live, because apparently the effort used in opening several drawers to find a paring knife was totally wasted. OMG I WASTED DRAWER-OPENING EFFORT. Other things that needed to be “optimized”:
- Which coat I wore – did I really need a coat? Did it need to be that coat? Would that coat be slightly too warm? WE MUST BE EFFICIENT ABOUT OUR COAT SELECTION AT ALL TIMES. IT IS NOT LIKE WE CAN JUST CARRY COATS THAT ARE TOO WARM IF THE WEATHER WARMS UP, PEOPLE.
- Did I want to sit in that seat in the minivan? Wouldn’t this seat be more comfortable?
- Did I need a light on while I worked? No? Howabout this one? Howabout this one? Howabout maybe just a little light?
- At one point the dude took my toast out of the toaster where it was toasting and re-arranged it to the “correct” toasting position.
Throughout the visit, my dad treated me like someone who could not be trusted to select my own coat and make toast. And over the four days, though I did stand up for myself and not just take it, I deteriorated into feeling crazy and needed to call my boyfriend for a reminder that I was not. I am a calm, organized traveler with many passport stamps, but flying back I was double- and triple-checking every single detail – Is that really my gate? Is my flight leaving on time? Did I remember my ID? I know I showed my ID to the check-in person, but did I maybe lose it between there and security? Where were my house keys? Did I have them FOR SURE? I was so on edge that I became clumsy and unable to think clearly and unable to trust myself. In the past, I sometimes dreaded visits home so much that I would become very accident-prone – tripping and falling, forgetful, dropping things, having trouble focusing on driving or loading change into a vending machine – in the weeks before. My “role” in my family from growing up is to be the girl who is really book-smart but completely lacks any life skills or common sense and who can’t be trusted to make toast, which is why I moved very far away and have a 3-4 day maximum on visits. It took a lot of therapy for me to stop seeing the constant criticizing and correcting behaviors that freak me out when I’m home as totally normal and totally all my fault. It turns out that when I am far away from my folks, I am perfectly capable of toast making, utensil-finding, and jacket selection and have little cause to question these abilities.
So, while there are many reasons stuff might be happening to you, one thing I suggest is to take the temperature of your relationship with these friends and your own comfort level around them. If they are watching you with the expectation that you will fail at things and using you as the scapegoat for why things get lost or broken, if they spend time looking for examples of how you are a “chaos muppet,” it can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy and very difficult for you to change that story. You say this yourself in your letter: “But because people see me as chaotic, I tend to get blamed first and apologized to later.”
Let’s take the case of the oven. You made a simple mistake that turned into some serious damage to a friend’s stuff. At that point, the right thing to do is to apologize and then ask what you can do. Can you help him find a repair person? Can you offer to pay for some of the repairs? Can you make a genuine effort to be more careful in the future?
Once you’ve offered an apology, made amends, and made an effort not to repeat the same mistake in the future, that’s all you can do.
Crap gets spilled on stove-tops all the time. An unwatched pot boils over. Counter space is limited so we use the stove top as additional counterspace (I do this ALL the time). Quantities are misjudged. A shaky hand slips when pouring the hot water into the tea-kettle. The mistake you made with the Cuisinart and the liquid could have been made by anyone, especially and including the oven’s owner. Yes, it sucks to feel like your friends are careless with your nice things or to have something precious ruined, but if this friend tries to make things about How You Are As A Person vs. a simple mistake, I would say to your friend what I wish I had said to my dad, namely:
“The damage to the stove might be able to be fixed, and I will do all in my power to see that it is repaired. The way you are speaking to me now is damaging our relationship, and that might not be so fixable.”
Because the suggestion that you subconsciously cause these disasters in order to cause drama is, frankly, dangerously close to gaslighting.
I mean, I believe you that enough chaotic stuff is happening that it’s freaking you out, but I also think that a good friend doesn’t make it about blaming you. They say “Friend, you seem really distracted and off your game. What’s going on with you? Are you ok?”
When someone makes you feel like a continual fuck-up, you act like a continual fuckup, because you are so tense and worried and uncomfortable. Luck is not with you in their houses. Your mojo doesn’t work around them. You say yourself – Your work life is great. Your finances are great. You are a perfectly capable person in many areas of your life. So what is it about these particular folks & spaces that are not great? I don’t think it’s necessarily you, or your subconscious. I think it’s that you have friends who have somehow decided that it’s your role to be a scapegoat among them.
So, yeah, my first suggestion is that you look at your overall relationship with these people. When did this story about you as the Chaotic One start? How do you feel when you hang out with them? Do you look forward to it or does some part of you dread it? Trust the dread, Clumsy Lover; it might be telling you something. It might help you to log “chaotic” events and your & other people’s reactions to them in a journal. How were you feeling when it happened? How did people react? What patterns exist? How often is this really happening? How often is it happening when you had nothing to do with what actually happened? Do they seem really invested in telling this story about you?
In my family, my younger brother* (who has a lot of developmental delays and probable mild fetal alcohol syndrome from his birth mom), lived 100% in the scapegoat role, so one of the ways we used to insult each other was to describe a fuckup as “Pulling a (His Name).” Nowadays I think it is pretty seriously wrong and abusive to use a family member’s name as a casual synonym for being a total disaster (Thank you, therapy!), though I think it is a depressingly common pattern in dysfunctional relationships and a depressingly easy habit to get into if one person is the designated Private Pyle and you’re sufficiently terrified of being treated the way that person is. It’s common enough that I must ask: Do your friends describe it as “Pulling a You” when they lose something or do something clumsy? If so, you might have a Surrounded by Assholes problem.
My second suggestion is to start resisting the stories where you star as the Seed of Chaos. I am stealing this from an old comment thread on abusive behaviors, but try adding “you think” silently in your head whenever one of these friends implies there is something wrong with you. After a while doing that, start speaking up. “I am really sorry you lost your keys, but I don’t think that the inherent darkness of my soul was the cause – it’s actually getting pretty unfunny when you guys suggest there is something deeply wrong with me.”
The third thing I suggest is some self-care.
a) Go to the doctor and get a check up, and especially take a look at emotional health. Tell your doc what’s going on and how you feel about it. Increased clumsiness/forgetfulness/inattentiveness might be a symptom of something else going on. We don’t diagnose conditions through the internet here, but I’m sure a lot of readers with ADHD or other executive processing issues are reading your letter and nodding at the familiarity of what you describe. I’ll allow discussion of those things here as long as they are describing the commenter’s own experiences and steps taken. “When I found out I had (condition), it was because of x, y, and z events, and this is what I did about it” = okay. Encouraged, even! “It sounds like you might have (condition), so you should ______” = 100% Not Okay.
b) Look at your stress levels. Are you eating enough, sleeping enough, getting enough fresh air/contact with people you like/down time to read and watch TV? When we’re overloaded, we rush or try to do too many things at once, and rushing turns to mistakes. Stress, PTSD, and being overwhelmed or exhausted can push us into dissociative states where it is actually unsafe for us to do things like drive, operate heavy machinery, knives, or anything involving precision. So some of your self-care might be paying more attention to your moods and bodily needs, and checking in with yourself before you do something complex and making sure you can concentrate on every part of it.
c) Do what you can to practice mindfulness. Even if you only do it a few times a day at first, try slowing WAY down and concentrating on every detail and step of what you are doing. Each footfall on pavement. Your breathing in and out. Washing & drying each dish.
d) Reach out to people you like who make you feel great & comfortable, and avoid people who make you feel brittle and clumsy. Even if your friends are genuinely expressing concern and not gaslighting you and you really like them, some people just bring out the worst in you or aren’t good at being on your side when you’re in a bad way. Knowing that “I’m in x headspace, so I shouldn’t really be around y person (or activity – like drinking, or, participating in a welding montage to turn an ordinary car into a tank so that you can help the helpless while hiding out from a corrupt government that smeared your name back in ‘Nam)” is part of self-care.
Readers, what do you do to regain focus and turn things around when you feel chaos bubbling all around you? What would you say to the Letter Writer’s friends if you were in their position of being called a “chaos muppet”?
*He moved far away, too, and is (mostly) ok.