A Tale of Two Doormats

Posted on September 26, 2016

It was the best of times, it was the worst of – well, it felt like the worst of times, though looking back it really wasn’t.

I had been living in Beacon, NY, where I’d moved for a job which hadn’t worked out.

The only idea I could come up with was to head back south to New Orleans, away from the snow and ice and associated misery.

I rented a container and some hardy chaps packed it for me in an ice storm.

As I left the house for the last time I noticed that my lovely striped doormat hadn’t made it into the container. A friend was with me and she said “Well, if you don’t want it, I’ll have it”.

So, rather than open the container and throw my doormat in, I handed it to her, knowing, even as I did so, that that wasn’t what I wanted to do.

Now, her intention was never to walk all over me. I’d been giving things away, she was my friend, and she kindly offered to take it, if I didn’t want it.

It wasn’t about her at all, but it illustrates an important point about the behavior of a doormat, conveniently using an actual doormat:

This was something I did to myself; a tiny, tiny abandonment of myself. A habit of dishonoring my own desires, a tendency to react impulsively in those kinds of situations in ways that deferred to the wants and needs of others over my own, and to regret it later.

The fact of losing the doormat is hardly even worth talking about, I know, but what it reminds me of is the “exploding doormat” syndrome.

When we allow these tiny micro abandonments to occur repeatedly, we chip away at our ability to express ourselves and to use our voices in ways that are constructive.

Then, some tiny thing happens and it’s the final straw, and by this time there’s so much pent-up emotion that the only way we’re able to react is by exploding.

We have suppressed our feelings, voices and opinions for so long that eventually we just cannot hold it in any longer and it comes bursting out of us in ways that are neither helpful nor pretty.

Then we’re faced with a vulnerability hangover – the shame of having exposed ourselves and lost it, the embarrassment of feeling that we spoke in a needy, clingy, childish way, or dumped our emotions on another person, or simply flailed about wildly, unsure what exactly we wanted to say, but knowing we simply could not take it anymore.


We fluctuate between two positions – feeling unheard and invisible. Feeling that our dreams and desires don’t matter and there’s no point in expressing them.

Or feeling that we are too much – if we do express ourselves, we’re too emotional, too vocal, too opinionated, too bossy, too controlling, too shrill, too needy, too, simply, WRONG.

We’re afraid our neediness will run rampant and unchecked and, if we reveal it, we’ll end up alone and unloved.

So we hold it all in and become increasingly disconnected from ourselves, allowing tiny abandonments like the doormat event to occur – all those moments that add up to a story of self-rejection.

Each time that happens, we abdicate responsibility for our own autonomy and our own empowerment.

We become unable to advocate for ourselves and, as a side-effect, for others too. If our own voices go unheard, do we – can we – hear and honor the voices of others?

This can be a very uncomfortable place to be. We can feel desperate. Afraid we’ll explode at any time. Feeling that we’re damned if we do (use our voice) and damned if we don’t.

We withdraw, we dissemble, we feel so annoyed with ourselves and others. Why don’t people just know what we want? Why do we have to speak up, thus risking love and approval?

It propels us into a child state – neediness, giving responsibility for ourselves to others, unchecked emotion. Because we haven’t practiced using our voices, we have difficulty expressing ourselves in a calm, adult way, unattached to the response.

Here’s the truth about the doormat thing – I could SO easily have said “No, I love it, I’m keeping it”, unlocked the container, chucked the doormat in and carried on with no repercussions at all.


So – what to do?

The answer is not of course to ride rough-shod over the needs and desires of others – that way lies narcissism.

But it is to put your own life jacket on first and to attach your own oxygen mask first.

Some helpful strategies might include:

  • Investigate what triggers your approval-seeking abandonment behaviors (a coach or therapist could help you with this).
  • Stall for time – don’t say the first, self-abandoning thing that comes into your head. Instead, take a breath. You might not immediately be able to state what you want in a way that satisfies you, so invent some stalling phrases that feel comfortable: “Let me think about that for a minute”; “Hmm, not sure, can I get back to you?” and so on.
  • Practice asserting your needs in tiny ways that are not loaded. Stop saying “Oh I don’t mind” or “Either is fine” when someone asks if you want vanilla or chocolate. Pick one. It’s great practice.
  • Consider – actually question – your assumptions about the consequences of these behaviors. What if people are annoyed with you? Won’t they get over it? When you feel cross with someone over a tiny thing, does it always herald the end of the relationship? Probably not, right?
  • Imagine yourself as that needy child. What would you say to her if she was an actual child, right there beside you? Would you tell her to sublimate her voice and her desires in order to be liked? Or would you gently encourage her to speak up for herself?

This is a process, dear heart. It won’t change overnight, but, with awareness, patience and support, you too can hang onto your fancy-schmancy “Design Within Reach” fifty-dollar doormat, plus stop with the exploding.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Doormats

  1. desiree petitbon

    ali – i love this! i see myself and my daughter in so much of it. can’t wait to show it to her. so great to see you last night – desiree


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