Bring your life into balance

Empathy works. It always does.


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My dentist inspires me to transform my enemy image

I am at my dentist. I like her. She has an effervescent energy, a big smile, and bouncing red curls, and she explains what she’s gonna do. And, I get a heated cherry pit pillow in my neck and a bright pink blanket over my legs, every time I’m in the chair.

This time the procedure takes two hours. It is more complicated than she anticipated. In the middle of working with me, she walks away to work on someone else. I can hear them chatting cheerfully through the wall. She didn’t tell me she would be gone for half an hour, and she didn’t ask what she could do for me so I would feel comfortable in her absence.

I am left alone, confused and lost about what’s going on.

Soon, I need to go to the bathroom. I don’t know how to do that.  I’m hooked up to something and I can’t call for help to untie me, because there is a divider jammed in my jaw. All I can do is make a muttering sound. I can tell my mumbling doesn’t draw her attention: her chatter continues cheerfully.

After half an hour, she comes back, finishes up, and presents me the bill.

Ouch. Financially, physically, and emotionally: I wanted more care and consideration.

I am too exhausted to complain. Instead — I build an enemy image of her. “She is incompetent. She is an idiot. She doesn’t care. And I certainly should never, ever go back.”

It takes several days, before I find the compassion to unwind it. Nonviolent Communication offers the following advice to shift enemy images:

  1. notice your unmet needs and any feelings they bring
  2. guess the needs the “enemy” was trying to meet by their behavior
  3. acknowledge that their behavior left your needs unmet
  4. distinguish between who they are and what they do

This last step of distinguishing person and behavior is essential. The fact that my dentist acted in a way that didn’t meet my needs for consideration and care doesn’t make her an inconsiderate person. There is a difference between what someone does (specific in space and time) and who someone is (generalized and ongoing). Compare “I am a thief” and “Last Monday, I took a $10 bill from the desk of my employer, and I knew it wasn’t mine.”

Sure, there were things she could have done differently, but that doesn’t make her an idiot or an incompetent dentist. It makes her someone who didn’t have the spaciousness, awareness or creativity to figure out how to meet all needs. If anything, she needs help to succeed at that, not criticism or judgment.

I do want my needs to be seen and valued.  So my work is to receive enough empathy to know what I could ask of her at my next appointment. A request that’s about my experience, not her character.

Let me know how this lands for you.


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Walking my dogs and my anxiety, and becoming emotionally liberated

I walk my friend’s dogs Luna and Sol, my pack for the last ten months. I still have anxiety walking them. Whether it’s around the block or in the park: I feel stress. I believe it is my job as the pack leader to be “calm-assertive”, so they can trust that I will take care of our needs for safety. If I am not calm-assertive, I blame myself for failing to stay calm: I believe they pick up on my anxiety and get more aggressive toward other dogs. Before I know it, I’m in a self-feeding cycle of fear and failure.

And that’s when it hits me.

Nonviolent Communication tells us that every behavior is an attempt to meet needs, and that needs are universal throughout space and time. Feelings arise from our needs: feelings we enjoy, when our needs are met, feelings we don’t enjoy that much, when our needs are not met. According to Marshall Rosenberg emotional slavery is the stage where “we believe ourselves responsible for the feelings of others. We think we must constantly strive to keep everyone happy.” We avoid conflict and focus on making others (including dogs) happy, even at the expense of our own needs.

So that’s what’s happening. I’m so focused on keeping the dogs happy, that I forget about my own need for safety. Instead of accepting my anxiety as a messenger of an unmet need, I try to push my anxiety away and force myself to be happy with whatever is going on: dogs running away, attacking other dogs, chasing squirrels and cats.

If I want to transform my fear into calm, I need to include the need behind my anxiety.

So the next time we arrive at the dog park, I imagine I’m walking three dogs: Sol, Luna, and my anxiety. If I want to move out of emotional slavery, I need to balance their needs with mine.

My solution? Sol gets 10 minutes playtime with other dogs, before I put him on leash. Luna walks off leash, till we approach the car. I walk as fast as I can, so they have to follow me as their pack leader, reinforcing that I am in charge.

It works. They get playtime, exercise, and trust that I can protect the pack. I get the support I’m looking for from them. When we get home, we are all satisfied. The dogs sleep three hours, I get to work refreshed and relieved.

I’m not only walking the dogs, I’m working to become emotionally liberated.

“At the third stage, emotional liberation, we respond to the needs of others out of compassion, never out of fear, guilt or shame. Our actions are therefore fulfilling to us, as well as to those who receive our efforts.” Marshall Rosenberg, ‘Nonviolent Communication, a Language of Life’

Let me know how this lands for you.

(This is a repost from June 22, 2017. Since then, with a lot of concerted effort, Sol hasn’t been on leash in the park: he waits for us, and Luna hasn’t charged at other dogs. Big celebration for all of us.)


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Understanding My Dog’s Tragic Expression of Unmet Needs

You remember the two dogs I wrote about a week ago? Luna and Sol? Well, Sol is not the only one triggering anxiety. Luna does too.

Usually, she is a sweetie. Super mellow, listens to me, doesn’t disappear in the fields.

So this morning when we get at the dog park, I let her off leash. We walk up to the field where other dogs are playing with each other, happy to have found playmates for Sol and Luna.

Then out of the blue, Luna charges at another dog. Like really charge: her neck hair up straight, her teeth in a grimace, her posture in complete attack pose. I feel terrified.

I’ve seen enough dog aggression, and it all ended in a hospital visit: my baby sister got caught in a dogfight, my older brother was bitten in the throat by a Dalmatian, I got bit when I was caught between Luna and Sol, trying to disentangle Sol’s collar.

So teaching Luna to calm down or stop her from charging at other dogs, is not only a challenging task for me – it’s really scary. Being afraid, I’m nowhere close to call upon my calm-assertive Alpha-dog leadership quality.

And as I imagine the potential for violence, I perceive urgency, and yep: my anxiety spills over into anger and frustration. My calm-assertive energy becomes anxious-angry-confused energy and I start teaching Luna the wrong lesson: Fear! Anger!

Of course it doesn’t work. My anxiety doesn’t invite her calm: it triggers her anxiety, reinforcing this sense that we are in danger and that she has to be aggressive to protect us.

It takes a lot of self-acceptance and self-compassion, before I reach a place where I can focus on Luna’s needs and understand that Luna’s behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, offers that “Everything we say and do is an attempt to meet universal, human needs, and some behavior is a tragic expression of unmet needs.”

As soon as I shift my perspective on Luna’s behavior from “she’s a scary, uncontrollable dog” to “she needs leadership”, I get curious: which needs is she trying to fulfill? And how I could I help her with them?

She probably needs safety and support: “Hey, Elly, will you be the pack leader? I want to trust you’ll keep us and yourself safe, so I can relax. Show me you’ve got everything under control.”

With that in mind, I feel less scared and more excited to figure out ways to meet all needs: hers and mine. Even without an answer, I feel inspired to work on a solution and I enjoy experimenting with different strategies.

When were you able to receive someone’s behavior as a “tragic expression of unmet needs”? And how did that help you feel excited about brainstorming strategies that meet all needs?

Let me know. I would love to read from you.


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My dog runs away with my self-worth

I’m babysitting my friend’s dogs. I find them super sweet: when I wake up in the morning, they greet me with excitement, puppy ears up, tail wagging, head a bit slanting. I can hear them asking: “Are we gonna play? Are we gonna play?”.

​​When we go to the dog park … it becomes, hum … a bit of a challenge … As long as there are other dogs, Sol is fine. He can release his energy by running around with them.

​​But today, there are no other dogs. Sol decides to run off by himself. Into the fields. Chasing whatever he smells on the ground. I can see the tip of his tail happily wagging above the tall grass.

​​Then I see nothing. Nowhere. For five minutes. For ten minutes. I call him. I squeeze his squeaky ball — no sign of Sol. I call louder, squeeze the ball harder. I get anxious. What if he ran to the river stream, apparently home to coyotes? What if he got trapped and dies?

​​My anxiety turns into panic. My calling becomes yelling.

​​A fellow dog owner asks entertained if I lost my soul. I understand the pun.

​​I am not amused.

​​Then I see his wagging tail, followed by his perky ears, and big, brown eyes.  It takes me another five minutes to break his hunting spell and get his attention. When I finally do, he runs up to me.

​​Sure, I feel relieved. But mostly I feel ashamed and deflated, and full of self-critical thoughts about my “shitty” pack leadership qualities.

​​Then I think of Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings about taking things personally. His message is: whatever someone says and does is an attempt to meet their beautiful needs. It is NOT a reflection of who WE are.

​​I look at Sol: whatever he does, it is a reflection of his needs, not a reflection of who I am. He probably needs exercise, or express his innate drive to hunt. He is certainly not trying to demonstrate that I am a shitty pack leader.

​​Sure, I haven’t succeeded yet to channel his energy and innate drives, so he follows me, not a scent. I’m not yet trained to be a pack leader who supports both play and safety of the pack. But that doesn’t mean I’m less worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Sol is in charge of my sense of self-worth. That’s still up to me.

​​When we are aware that any behavior is an attempt to meet needs, we can take things less personally. Without the self-judgment, we can learn to balance all needs as effectively as possible, instead of trying to avoid shame.

​​What helps you to not take things personally?

Let me know. I would love to read from you.


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Self-compassion and cockroaches

Cockroaches and Self-Compassion

My husband and I cherish our vegan household. We don’t eat animal products, we don’t buy leather shoes, we don’t spread poison to kill bugs.

As a result, we have our occasional cockroach visitor.

Since we don’t want to kill or harm them, we try to catch them and transition them to the compost pile in the backyard, hoping that’s nirvana to them.

It’s not easy. Cockroaches are fast, and have a magic ability to disappear between cracks I didn’t even know existed.

So when we spot them, we have to stealthily get a glass bowl from the drawer, put it over them, shove a piece of firm paper underneath the bowl, and run carefully to the compost pile.

My success rate is around 60%.

I am pleased with that, until a friend tells me it’s not difficult at all: you just pick them up and throw them outside.

Well, I don’t know which countries he has visited. Maybe Tibetan cockroaches have more equanimity and are happy to be picked up, but our Texan friends are fast, really fast.

Irritated at hearing his claim, I prove my point by acting out my catching strategy on the living room floor.

Ouch…

Exaggerating the speed in my demonstration, I land badly on my thumb. I can hear it pop. It’s extremely painful. I feel the blood drain from my head and I can barely get up. Still feeling the original irritation, I pretend as if nothing happened, waving him goodbye.

When he’s gone, I hear a roar of critical thoughts swell in my head: “You stupid idiot, you are unable to regulate your irritation! You made a fool of yourself by being caught up in your own self-righteousness! You deserve a sprained thumb!”

It takes a few hours, before these elements of self-compassion surface:

  1. Awareness. Just noticing my pain and suffering around these critical thoughts and my thumb. “Ouch, that hurts, that really hurts.” We cannot foster self-compassion, if we don’t acknowledge we’re suffering.
  2. Befriending myself, being on my own side. Just wanting myself to feel better, caring about my needs. Something like “I wished I didn’t suffer.”
  3. Shared humanity. I start thinking of all the other people who hurt themselves while trying to impress others. I breathe in their pain, heaviness, and suffering. I breathe out love, light, and relief to them. “May all beings be happy, peaceful, and light in body and spirit.” Myself included.

Working with these elements of self-compassion, I feel better. I see myself for who I truly am: an ordinary human being, whose behavior is sometimes a tragic expression of unmet needs. I don’t need to judge myself for that. I need to reaffirm that I am still unconditionally worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging.

How could these elements of self-compassion help you to accept your mistakes and learn from them?

Let me know. I would love to read from you.