512-589-0482 elly@ellyvanlaar.com

Taking the leap

It is Jugglefest and Noah offers a workshop big-ball-balancing. I’m curious enough to watch others do it, but too terrified to try it myself. At age 12, I do a head roll and land on my neck. I can’t breathe or move for minutes and think I am gonna die. I don’t, but I never completely overcome the fear for acrobatic stunts.

But now Noah is here. He tells me how to get up on the ball and extends his hand. His presence helps me take a risk and go way beyond my comfort zone. I trust that even though I might hurt myself, I won’t harm myself.

Learning

I realize that when we have the support we need, we can do things we never thought ourselves capable of. We can expand our self-limiting beliefs and do things that fear keeps pushing off to the back burner of our aspirations. Those Big Hairy Audacious Goals come within arms reach with enough support.

We might fail at reaching them -even more than once- but we learn from the failure, not die from it.

Having needs doesn’t mean we’re needy

The challenge for many of us is to ask for support in the first place. We belief that having needs, means we’re needy. That asking for help, means we’re weak. Making a request, shows we’re incompetent. And some of us have come to believe that we’re unworthy to ask for anything to begin with, that our needs come second place to everyone else’s.

We struggle to see our needs as beautiful, human, and universal. We don’t realize that getting support for our needs, means we’ll be happier. And that when we are happier, we are so much more giving and less self-centered. We see asking for support as an expense to others, not an investment in our community.

Seeing needs as beautiful, human, and universal

Imagine a gardener who takes care of a bougainvillea. She doesn’t criticize the bougainvillea for needing eight hours of sun, or very specific amounts of watering, or severe trimming right after the last frost. The gardener supports the bougainvillea with delight, because she knows that if she takes care of the bougainvillea’s needs, it will bloom exuberantly.

We are not bougainvillea’s. We are human beings with a rich, sometimes painful, history. Some of us need support to see our needs as beautiful.

How to find support to see our needs as beautiful

  1. Search for people, communities, and living beings that you feel safe with. It might be your aunt, your mindfulness community, your therapist, God, your dog.
  2. Bring awareness of the acceptance, support, and respect you’re receiving and let this restorative healing experience sink in. Connect to your physical sensations, feelings, needs and take a deep breath.
  3. Once you have experienced that your needs matter, ask someone you trust for help, even if it is just for a simple ask.
  4. Celebrate that you did! Whether or not your request got support, you took a step to live the life you really want, with yourself and others.

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Let me know how this landed for you: I would love to hear from you.

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This very moment is the perfect teacher

My ex-husband, Rob van Gils, passed away November 16, 2017. His cremation was Thursday November 23.

My visit to the Netherlands for his cremation service was much harder than I anticipated. Rob and I had succeeded in having –what our mediator described as– “the most peaceful, loving, and harmonious divorce.” We had also figured out how to have a caring friendship beyond divorce. While we had moved on, four of his best friends still harbored pain and anger about my decision to leave him nine years ago for my second husband.

The cremation service becomes not only a moment of intense grief and mourning over the loss of my first love, it becomes a startling confrontation with unresolved issues of loss and perceived betrayal in our former circle of friends.

One friend turns away as I approach him. Another can barely say ‘thank you’ when I share my condolences. A third lets me wait for two minutes, before he interrupts his conversation, then looks at me with a face that seems to convey his wish I had died instead of Rob, and says with emphasis, “You better leave. I don’t want you here.”

I leave the service quickly, too overwhelmed with confusion, pain and grief.

That night I read Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart”:

“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors –people who have a certain hunger to know what is true– feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

As enemy images of Rob’s friends race through my head, fretting how they should have behaved, how badly I am treated, how not deserving of their wrath I am, I notice I soften. I am open to using this experience as a wake-up call to lean into where I’m stuck. To let it all be, the pain and sorrow, the hatred and shame. I am willing to allow myself to be penetrated by my feelings –to be changed by them. Slowly I relax into my human condition, and experience the vulnerability of being alive.

That evening, I do not reach enlightenment. I do stop myself from becoming frozen in my judging of how life “should” be. Instead, I accept what is: the pain and the hurt triggered by people needing understanding and compassion.

I take another step on the path of the spiritual warrior, facing adversity with dignity and compassion.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.

I lied

I lied

To my husband. I feel pretty shitty about it. Scared. I fear I’ll lose acceptance by confessing. I know this feeling from long, long ago and it has motivated me more than once to show up with less honesty than I wanted.

A few weeks ago I described washing the cushion covers of one of our living room chairs. My husband has taken care of this chair for 25 years, and it was in almost pristine condition. I had asked to clean it and we had agreed to try the washing machine set on cold temperature and delicates. I shared in a previous story that the covers came out shrunken and shredded. I wrote that it was an accident, and that I forgot to check the temperature.

I lied.

I actually knew the temperature of the washing machine and had made a conscious choice to wash them on a ‘warm’ setting anyway. I thought it wouldn’t do any harm, and I was convinced that a warm setting would do a better cleaning job. When they came out shredded and shrunken, I felt shocked.

I did irreparable harm, and it was my fault. I felt shame. I feared my husband would be angry, blame me, and we would lose connection.

So I lied.

At our next Nonviolent Communication empathy practice, a friend asks me if I really hadn’t checked the temperature. With my husband nearby, I decide to continue the lie. I don’t want her to know the truth, before he does. That only seems to aggravate the lie. I feel horrible immediately. I sacrifice my needs for integrity and honesty in service of my needs for acceptance and emotional safety.

As soon as our practice ends and our community leaves, I tell my husband the truth about what had happened. To my relief he seems to already have understood this. He appears to hold no grudge or judgment, just a genuine regret that the cushions were ruined.

It reminds me of a lesson about mourning and self-forgiveness:

“Mourning in NVC is the process of fully connecting with the unmet needs and the feelings that are generated when we have been less than perfect. It is an experience of regret, but regret that helps us learn from what we have done without blaming or hating ourselves. We see how our behavior ran counter to our own needs and values, and we open ourselves to feelings that arise out of that awareness. […]

We follow up on the process of mourning with self-forgiveness. Turning our attention to the part of the self which chose to act in the way that led to the present situation, we ask ourselves, “When I behaved in the way in which I now regret, what need of mine was I trying to meet?” (Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication).

I feel relieved to see how much I value intimacy and honesty in my closest  relationships and cleanliness in my house, and how my strategies failed to include my hubbie, my roommate in brainstorming strategies that meet all those needs.

When I call my friend that same evening and explain what happened, she laughs. Wholeheartedly. She is amused by the tangle of cushions, honesty, and acceptance. She doesn’t have any judgments. Just compassion for our human predicament, and empathy for my needs for love, acceptance, and belonging.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.

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.)

Juggling and learning new things

I’m juggling. Four balls. My best is maybe five catches. I drop them a lot. Almost all the time.

My husband juggles too. He drops too. More than I do. He’s practicing seven balls force bouncing on a double stacked rola bola balance (watch the video, it’s insane). He has 107 World Records.

When we’re learning a new trick, building a new habit, or changing our situation, we can have a lot of misses. It’s inevitable when you’re learning something you haven’t yet mastered. If you knew how to do it, it wouldn’t challenge you. I would already qualify four balls, stop eating when I’m full, be more consistent and disciplined following my work plan.

Apparently, growth is not simple. We have to overcome homeostasis, the tendency of systems to revert back to an original set point. We can make a conscious effort to change our habits. And in that effort we can get lost, make mistakes, slide back.

For me, the trick is not to beat up myself, blame or shame myself, when I don’t meet my own aspirations.  The trick is to see that a failure in action is not a reflection of who I am, but of what I do in this specific moment. I am not a failure, because I failed here and now. If I can’t accept my failures as the natural consequence of sincerely trying, if I think I’m a failure when I don’t succeed, I would feel so discouraged and disappointed that I would stop trying altogether.

My challenge is to endure “creative tension” (Peter Senge in the Fifth Discipline). This is the difference between my reality and my vision — between where I am and where I want to be. If I can’t stand this tension, I resign to my situation and give up on my dreams. When I can stay with my thoughts and feelings around this tension, I can change my current situation and get closer to my dream.

For me, it means accepting that dropping balls is part of the path to learning juggling. What’s important to me, is learning and getting better, not being attached to the results.

When can you accept and celebrate your ‘mistakes’ as a sign that you’re learning and growing? Let me know, I would love to read your wisdom.

Diagnosis and understanding

I am not a big fan of diagnoses.

From 1997-2007 I worked for mental health institutions. I have seen the same person diagnosed as manic-depressive, then depressive, then borderline personality disorder, then back to depressive. I have seen more than 100 people who carried the diagnosis ‘schizophrenia’, not one of them the same. Their symptoms might have had some resemblance, and their individual behavior was so different that the diagnosis could only partly help you help them.

Diagnoses reduce human beings to a uni-dimensional view of their being.

I believe in seeing whole humans. People with different backgrounds, different vulnerabilities, different potentials. People trying to meet precious, human, universal needs in different ways.

I do believe that diagnoses can help us understand people.

We can use a diagnosis as a working hypothesis for what might be going on. If this person is diagnosed with schizophrenia, does that help me understand that their aggression is a result of them seeing people I don’t see? If this person is labelled autistic, does this explain why they don’t make eye contact? Can I better accept that someone is in bed 18 hours a day, if I know they have clinical depression?

My compassionate response to a diagnosis is that – while incomplete – it might help me better understand what another person is experiencing. When one of my clients thought there was another person in the room, and talked to him while we were in conversation, I was respectful until he finished. I didn’t tell him there was no one else but us, because I accept that his reality is different and no less valid than mine.

With this unconditional acceptance, I can step into their reality and try to see the world through their eyes. When I know my friend has delusions, I accept that his truth is that the Suriname Embassy is trying to kill him. I might try to distract him, offer this moment right here as an alternative to his delusions, and reassure him that his life has meaning to me. If someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis, needs structure and predictability, I can try to be complete when I tell him my schedule. If my friend is diagnosed with Borderline, I support a clear sense of boundaries in our connection and open myself to the beauty they have to offer, and deflect their anger.

Diagnoses do not define people. They can be an incomplete starting point for understanding.

And I am a big fan of understanding. Anytime. Anywhere.