The canary in the coal mine

An exploding canary really...

A couple of recent conversations with colleagues have been really impactful. Some aspects of what Seth Godin calls ‘practical empathy’ had escaped me.

I had forgotten that the people I work with and the people I serve don’t know what I know or think what I think. I had taken my expertise for granted much to the detriment of both myself and my clients.

This is part three of what started as a five part series that is now six. Here, I’m exploring my personal, practical knowledge and why it enables me to help people build more resilient businesses, relationships, and lives by connecting better with themselves and the world around them. My hope is that from reading these, you might see yourself in some of my stories. Perhaps you’ll find the courage and humility to get help and become more resilient in all aspects of your life.

And?

This is the first draft of my second book. The Book of Wrong Answers Volume 2 - Exploding Canaries.


I don’t work with children. Children are ‘done to.’ Children lack agency to make real changes in their family. They lack the ability to change the dynamic field of experience that they are raised within. They don’t pay bills. They don’t make choices. They are powerless over many aspects of their lives. To ask them to withstand the pressures and storms of their family of origin and be the change is asking too much of their growing minds. Their behaviours and adaptations emerge from the circumstances of their family and what is done to them as they are growing up. 

An essential part of becoming an emotionally aware and resilient adult is about becoming clear on what you are responsible for and what you are not. 

This is where a therapist can be really helpful.

When you remain in the role of the designated patient, the family scapegoat, you remain in the role of a child, propping up a functioning family at your own expense. This again, is why I don’t work with children. I think far too often, children are held accountable for the shortcomings of the family and are put into therapy to be ‘fixed’. 

There is a caveat here. There are some with really different wiring. For these highly neurodiverse children, a diagnosis, and a relationship with a therapist who specializes in how they exist in the world can be highly beneficial.

And?

That’s not me.

My story is about what was done to me and how I’ve adapted and grown from that. This is the story of how I developed the ability to help others make sense of the same. In my family of origin, I was the weirdo. I was the scapegoat. I was the black sheep. 

In reality? I’m just a super sensitive person who is neurologically diverse

Jimmy’s Too sensitive.

That’s what I regularly heard.

There was a lot of chaos in the mine shaft of my childhood family home. My parents were in their early twenties when I arrived. My sensitivity put me in the position of being the canary in the coal mine of our family. 

There was noxious gas everywhere that they were ignoring. They were raised in their own mine shafts of chaos. My mother lived for years in a basement, waiting for the rest of the house to be built. A curtain separated her family of five from her aunt’s growing family.  She left home and became a teacher, determined to give herself and her children a better life where she wouldn’t be dependent on anyone.

My father was a firefighter. He escaped the burning building of his childhood and began running into them professionally. He saw a lot of ugly. He claimed he couldn’t have had PTSD as it hadn’t been invented yet. 

Back then, living in the echoes of the Second World War and in the shadow of ‘the bomb’ alcoholism and anxiety were everywhere. My parents were successful in escaping the chaos they came from. They felt much more safe, but lived without awareness of the shadowy, noxious chaos they were creating.

While I chirped out a warning, they all got angry at me for being so loud.

So, I kept chirping. I was a canary who refused to be quiet.

I was an exploding canary.

What’s wrong with you Jimmy?

What happened to you?

We give you everything

You oughta be ashamed of yourself…

These questions absolved them from the responsibility of reflection.

These questions helped the shit of their lives flow downhill to become my problem.

At the bottom of the mineshaft as the designated problem child, I escaped brushes with the law or an early demise.

To this, I credit taking my ability to take responsibility for how the coal mine impacted me.

Now?

I work with highly sensitive people. The people I serve are really aware that something is wrong in their life world. There are things wrong far beyond their responsibility, influence, and control. 

Yet, these fellow canaries? Many of them believe that because they notice things are bad, it’s either their fault or responsibility. Or worse, both! It’s difficult to break free from sensitivity and to learn how to not be the scapegoat any longer. 

When you’ve lived your life as the designated patient, the ‘broken one,’ or the family scapegoat, it’s a difficult role to escape. 

It was difficult for me to stop taking on the role of the scapegoat. It takes time to learn how. I have been wired to be highly reactive. And because I’m a super sensitive, exploding canary, in new situations, I explode often and bigly.

I used to assume that people didn’t like me. I believed on a preverbal level that there was something wrong with me. I’d act like an asshole to prove myself right. I’d push people away with shitty behaviour or by talking about things that made people uncomfortable. I was a canary bathing in its own shit and chirping about the stink.

I still do this from time to time. Even now when the phone rings, there are times where my first thought is, Oh shit, what have I done wrong? This person must be mad at me and is calling to chew me out.

Recently, a friend who’s a police officer stopped by the house. Both myself and my wife were really unnerved. We asked ourselves: What the hell did Jim do now? The answer? Nothing. He was just in the neighbourhood and was being friendly. Yet still I was shaking in my cage, attempting not to chirp.

These self-fulfilling, cyclical behaviours feed themselves. They frequently led to frustration and rage. I raged because I felt trapped. Trapped by expectation that I was an asshole. Trapped by a story about myself. One moment I was ok, the next, I was an asshole. I was a canary pinned up against a dark vein of coal. I was unseen for who I was, and unwelcome for the inconvenience of my emotions. I learned to stuff things down. I was pretty good at stuffing. Only problem? My heart could only hold so much before I would explode yet again.

Even though I wasn’t in the coal mine of my family home, everywhere felt like a coal mine. All I could smell was gas. The only problem? In a lot of cases there wasn’t any gas around. I found ways to create a stink though.

My nervous system became attuned to conflict. My nervous system was engaged in a constant level of alert. I was always ready to fight. 

I kept finding myself in shitty situations. I was recreating the original problem of being unaccepted by behaving in ways that were unacceptable. I was like an angry Bill Murry in a rage filled Groundhog Day.

That was my dance of anger. Kinda like a little kid doing a pee dance. Only a lot uglier. I started picking fights with people. I would test people by saying edgy controversial stuff to push them away. It was a test. I was always testing people to see if they could tolerate my nasty side. 

I drank. As discussed earlier, I woke up on park benches. My behaviour could have led me to jail or death. I’m alive because I took responsibility for my life before the authorities could make me accountable for my anti-social behaviour.

Accountability is something done to you, from the outside, based on the standards of another. Responsibility is something we choose. In order to leave the role of a scapegoat, people learn how to be clear on what they’re responsible for. 

You’re not responsible for being sensitive. You’re not responsible for what was done to you or the world you were raised in. You do have an opportunity to take responsibility for what you do with the cards you’ve been dealt. You have an opportunity to leave the mine shaft, tweet once and find some clear air to live in. You get to take responsibility for ‘what’s next’.

I did it with ongoing support. I saw a therapist for years and learned how to be both gentle and demanding of myself. I could not have done it alone.

These days, I ask myself, too sensitive for who? My sensitivity is how I am. With all the good intentions, the world tried to beat my sensitive nature out of me.

By working with a therapist, I learned that connection and intimacy didn’t necessarily come with hooks and daggers.  I learned how to lean into my sensitivity. Sure, I could grasp this in my head. And? It took a long time before I could know it in my body. Still, to this day, this is where I struggle.

Again, anxiety, depression, survivor of cruelty PTSD are all things that could have been said about me. These are all labels. Bottom line, I didn't feel okay with who I was. Through a therapeutic relationship, I learned not to hate myself anymore. And in fact, sometimes I’m even pretty ok. 

I’m not always acceptable to everyone in the world. But now? I’m accepting of myself. I kinda like who I am. That’s the power of a therapeutic relationship.