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The art of ghosting

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Is it not the case that reflection of one’s actions is prompted only when you are on the receiving end of said actions? In my case, I am eluding to the concept of ghosting. Rather, the passive aggressive art form of deleting someone or something from your life. In other terms, the active avoidance of another, a group, or scenario that causes you great discomfort. This futile and exhausting attempt is a painful experience for both the ghoster and the ghosted. It wasn’t until recently—when I was ghosted myself—that I had to reconsider the repercussions of my own avoidant behaviors.

In theory, you will eventually outgrow the protective patterns and mindsets that no longer serve you, with an emphasis on the word “eventually.” My ghosting practices certainly served to protect me during adolescent years, but now only serve to hurt the ones that I hold closest to my heart. In my opinion, the pain of one’s own is manageable, but watching your loved ones in pain as a result of your actions is absolutely unbearable.

My ghosting patterns are most prevalent with the men in my life. However, this art form is also very much activated in other areas of my life as well. The basic equation being that when I put my whole heart into something and cannot control the response (because that is both impossible and impractical) I proceed to actively avoid the person, event or activity if the feedback is negative.

As with any deep rooted condition, tracing back my protective pattern takes me directly to early experiences and a layered relationship with my father, who passed away during my senior year at Duke University after suffering a heart attack. My father was an amazing human being, living his truth in a very honest and real way. My father was great, but also very ill.

He started drinking heavily around the time I was 13. His behavior was unpredictable and hurtful, so much so that my body conditioned itself to receive his irrational behavior by shutting down his negative feedback completely. For three years, my father would come home from work around 7 p.m. He would drink a six-pack of Sierra Nevadas. By 8 p.m. the cycle would begin. It didn’t matter what would set him off that night, but it would persist until he passed out on the couch.

Like clockwork, the next morning my father was again the loving and gentle man I knew to be under all of the layers of pain he desperately tried to avoid. Without missing a single day, he would make me breakfast, drive me to school and to all of my subsequent athletic practices. An impromptu wakeboarding coach, an amazing chef, my only consistent fan at every single game and a man who could become friends with each and every person who crossed his path. I knew that his alcoholism was the symptom of an active avoidance of his own pain—resulting from early unresolved traumatic experiences of his own. Despite this understanding and acceptance of sorts, it did not protect me from the very real pain I felt as a result of his actions.

In essence, my father ghosted his own feelings, his avoidant mechanism being alcohol. Though my methods were quite different, his example taught me that the only way to deal with my layers of pain was to avoid them all together as well.

It took three years of my father’s verbal outrages for my mother, brother and I to move out of our home and into a rental. It was then that I began practicing the art of ghosting. With great efforts and planning, I successfully micro-managed zero contact with him from sophomore to senior year of high school, despite living in the same town.

It wasn’t until college that I began to be an active participant in un-ghosting him—carefully dissecting his true being from his bad behavior and illness. I agreed to one lunch every time I came home from school. That lunch was very structured and took a lot of mental preparation on my part to show up. I would pick the restaurant, the time, and the topic of conversation. If he ventured into hot topics­—my mother, our finances or his business, I would get up and leave—which I did, twice. I took great care not to break my very structured way of filtering feedback, desperately attempting to avoid further pain during this vulnerable un-ghosting period.

While this pattern served me during adolescence, it has proved to be my greatest crux during attempting adulthood. My inability to receive negative feedback from those I hold closest to my own heart has hindered my ability to receive meaningful feedback as well. Throughout my undergraduate career, I somehow convinced myself that if I became perfect-untouchable-top of the game—always saying and doing the right thing, I would be immune to negative feedback. When the negative feedback did arise, I was unable to untangle the message from the source, regardless of if the source was attempting to help me grow and become a better human being. I would then proceed to avoid such source at any cost and quickly move on.

That being said, I have ghosted many people in my life, not exclusively to men. Each ghost began as someone that I initially cared about and still love to this day in a very real way. Even though I realize the repercussions of my behavior now, I cannot turn back the clock to mend the unresolved pain and distrust my ghosts feel as a result of my irrational behavior and deletion of them. Most of my ghosts will remain ghosts. Ironically though, the only ghost I have been able to completely resurrect is my father. Since his passing, I successfully removed the most loving, empathetic and caring man I had ever known from the layered and complex pain that fueled his destructive and negative feedback.

Thoughts of my father now only take me to the one fan at each and every sporting event, the man who supported and loved me unconditionally. An expert crepe maker. The man who would heat up my car before I drove in the snow. The man who taught me how to ski the moment I learned how to walk, and the man who took me to vet camps and cleaned all of my guinea pig’s cages because I thought it was too gross to do it myself.

When you care about something or someone, you are likely to feel more pain when things do not go your way, or when you cannot control all interactions, reactions or lack thereof. Control—as I have come to learn—is the absence of trust. Any true relationship worth holding onto is built on trust and inevitably involves a giving and taking of both negative and positive feedback. There are in fact relationships when the person or group in question does not have your best interest at heart—the feedback being solely negative. There are also cases, such as with my father, when the person cannot provide the type of tangible feedback necessary because it is hindered by too many layers of pain and addiction. In these cases, it may be best to ghost and leave it behind until you are in a position to approach it in a way that does not jeopardize your well being.

However, not every relationship that involves pain is toxic. It is your job to be able to sift through and determine which ones are real and which ones do not serve you. When you cut off a source which could provide very positive and pure feedback to avoid the painful feedback, you may lose something really worth holding on to. You truly never know when they will become a real ghost.

Allow for constructive criticism of both parties before dipping. As this type of honest truth could strengthen your relationship. Recognize when you are using passive aggressive behavior as a crutch. When you work through the pain, the intimacy and richness of your relationship grows. That I know to be true. However, when you ghost to avoid the pain, trust is loss and intimacy is diminished.

To put it simply. Pain is painful. We avoid it at all costs and make grandiose efforts to ensure that we do not feel it at all. Being open and vulnerable to negative feedback, even the constructive type, is extremely difficult. It takes a lot of courage and strength to undergo such. However, if you are able to sit with the uncomfortable feelings, they will surely pass. This temporary experience is very much worth the reward waiting for you at the end of the path less traveled. You may even find that you are left with something or someone that will add richness, growth, depth and profound meaning to your life.

Trust the process.

Catherine White is a former Chronicle columnist who graduated in 2016.