Wonder Woman is standing inside the mouth of a giant lizard or dinosaur with dozens of sharp teeth. She is holding open the jaws.

How are you really doing?

In the United States, we have a commonly used greeting exchange, “how are you? Fine, how are you?” It’s not typically meant as a genuinely curious, information-seeking dialogue. These exchanges are pleasant, subtly disarming noises of politeness we make to each other before we get to the main conversation. 

One white cat in the foreground laying down, another cat, grey, facing the viewer. They both have their ears back in a threatening pose.
Lennie and Marvin make no promises to not bite each other.

“I come in peace.” 

“Ca va? Oui, ca va.”

“I promise not to bite you [yet].”

Dialogues feel like they miss a beat when someone responds with something other than, “Fine, how are you?” When I ask someone in my close circles, “how are you doing REALLY?” I hear answers that suggest they are not _just_ fine. They are anxious, glad, depressed, tired, excited, sad, proud, angry, scared, thrilled, and sometimes all of those things all at the same time. It’s not that they are lying when they say “fine.” The generic exchange serves a social function. But when we say “fine,” we aren’t usually telling the truth either. 

Truthtelling as a duty despite risk to be frank

A woman is in the foreground. She is pulling on her thick red hair. She's wearing a blue dress and sandals. There are flowers at her feet. An old city is burning behind her, with smoke rising in to the sky.
Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London)

Parrhesia is an ancient Greek concept of an obligation to speak the truth for common good. It feels deeper to me than finding or using my voice. It’s “a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself).” A truthteller (parrhesiastes) “…uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy” (Foucault, Fearless Speech, 1983). 

  • Truth: Say what you know to be true
  • Frankness: Say all you know
  • Criticism: Criticize those in positions of power
  • Duty: Obliged to speak the truth 
  • Danger: Speak the truth despite the risk

Speaking truth to myself

I have spent most of my life saying I am fine while at the same time not saying how I’m doing, what I need, and what I enjoy. Fear kept me from speaking truthfully, both to others and to myself. As a survival adaptation to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and resulting complex PTSD, I became Wonder Woman. I learned to be a peacekeeper. My fear-based survival strategies tend toward people-pleasing and overwork, rescuing everyone and everything while putting myself last on the priority list. I learned it was selfish to prioritize myself so I kept my own experience invisible. The inner shame scripts that maintained the Wonder Woman persona were harsh and relentless. Power dynamics around me at the time made it a necessity and duty to NOT be a truthteller about my experience.

In the Eisenhower Matrix, my peacekeeper self spends most of her time in the Urgent/Not-Important box: doing things for other people that don’t necessarily have to be done by me, fixing and smoothing the way for others. In situations that I associate as particularly dangerous to my sense of self and belonging, I dissociate, separating myself from the experience of those overwhelming emotions and sensations, especially feelings of anger, resentment, and exhaustion. To unwind from that perpetual, zombie-like Doing state, I do Not Urgent/Not-Important things like email and doomscrolling (more zombie-like doing). 

Things about me
What matters to me
Related to purpose 
What inspires, enriches, feels good
Not important
Things about someone else or something else
Keep time-bound
Maintain accountability
Demands full attention
Top priority
Drop everything
Do it immediately
-Things with reasonable, achievable deadlines
-Things with meaningful, observable outcomes
Delegate or automate
-One-off tasks
-Last-minute requests
-My skills aren’t necessary (anyone can do it)
Maintain oppressive institutions
-Don’t contribute to my long-term growth
-DOING, not being
Not urgent
Spacious time
What fills the spaces
Potential for growth, connection, and relationships
Schedule and commit
-Personal growth
-Maintaining a house
-Investing in values, interests, wellbeing
-BEING, not doing 
-Time wasters
-Other people’s responsibilities
-Repetitive marginal tasks
-Email, social media
-Numbing, avoiding
My Eisenhower Matrix. My survival strategy self spends all her time in the Not-Important column. When I’m most at ease and authentic, I’m doing Not urgent/Important things.

All of these strategies generally fall in the “fawn” category of the fight/flight stress response. My life before my leave of absence in spring 2022 was one long, subsurface panic attack in the important-to-others column with nothing joyful at all as rest, recuperation, restoration, or recovery. In the language of Twelve Steps, my life was unmanageable. In fact, I wasn’t even owning my life as my experience to have. And I wasn’t letting others in on my experience in a way that allowed them to help.

My experience is important to me

My learning communities for graduate students have always been spaces where we manage power, danger, and fear together to encourage truthtelling. And yet, I wasn’t being a truthteller to myself or people within my own communities. My own fears of the dangerousness of power were in the way of my truthtelling. 

When I’m being truthful with myself…

  • I can hear an inner voice saying, “my experience matters” and “this isn’t working for me” and “this isn’t the experience I want to be having right now.”
  • I admit that under stress I default to not-important things in the Eisenhower matrix. 
  • I can distinguish between old, valid feelings of fear and the present, realistic dangers.
  • I know that I have the agency, authority, and autonomy to choose BEING over DOING.
  • I choose to make space for the Important-to-me bucket of things that bring joy, fulfillment, growth, and connection. 

All the stuff that I love doing and am good at, all the stuff that’s in a state of flow for me, is in the Important-to-me/Not Urgent bucket. Those activities still do speak truth to power. When I stop engaging in the perpetual noise of Doing because of fear, I can be right with my way of Being.

Words describing Parrhesiastes: Truthtellers are in bubbles on either side going down the image (truth, saying what you know to be true; frankness, saying all you know; criticism, criticizing those in positions of power; duty, obliged to tell the truth despite the risk). There are sprigs of green herbs along the middle: rosemary, thyme, basil.

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