Bring your life into balance

Empathy works. It always does.


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Our four choices when receiving hard to hear messages

(This is a re-post from January 2018, when it was still cold. I hope this is a refreshing reminder that everything is impermanent, also temperatures)

It is sleeting. The road is getting slippery. It’s also getting dark. And it’s rush hour. Everyone seems anxious to get home, before the road completely freezes up and driving becomes a car balancing act on ice.

I’m on my bike. And I feel scared. I don’t like biking when it sleets. I have had my share of slips and falls growing up in the Netherlands with these road conditions. I have no desire to add one more to my track record.

I have to cross a busy street without stop signs or traffic lights within half a mile. I decide to cross without that support.

I wait and wait and wait till there are no cars in either lane. I cross the first lane as careful as I can. Before I am half way, the cars from the other side have a green light and are coming at me. I have to wait. As I look over my shoulder, I see that the cars behind me also got a green light. They’re speeding up. One truck in particular. In my lane. I see him coming right at me. I feel terrified he will drive into me, but I have nowhere to go. There are cars in either lane and I can’t make myself smaller with my bike. I just have to hope and pray that the truck is gonna spot me, before he hits me.

He does. He swirls around me within six yards, hunks at me, and continues with at least 50 miles per hour. No one gets hurt.

I tremble as I get on my bike to finally cross the street.

In my upset I start to rant blame toward him: “He is f*cking going way too fast on a slippery road, and the idiot was probably texting too. What a moron he is!”

After biking a few blocks, I turn the blame toward myself: “You are an idiot too, not taking the time to walk over to the traffic light and cross when it’s safe. You’re a fool for risking your life for a few minutes efficiency! You’re not competent to ride a bike! (Ouch, that’s very painful for a Dutch woman to hear)”

It’s only when I am home and feel safe, that I start to empathize with myself: “Gosh, Elly, you were terrified that you would be hit and end up with a wrecked bike, broken legs or arms, or… dead. You want to know that car drivers care about your needs for safety and consideration.”

It takes a few more hours, before I start to empathize with the car driver: “He probably didn’t see me at dusk. He probably didn’t expect a cyclist in the middle of the road. Maybe he was tired and anxious to get home safely. Who knows, he might have had to pick up a sick kid.”

I feel super grateful for Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings on our four choices when receiving a hard-to-hear message:

  • ​blame outward
  • ​blame inward
  • ​empathy inward
  • ​empathy outward

Realizing I can choose how I respond to difficult messages and situations helps feel empowered. I am not in full control about what’s happening around me, but I am in control of how I respond.

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


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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.


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Does Self-Criticism help us learn?

We have two armchairs in our living room. They have been around for 25 years. We also host two weekly Nonviolent Communication classes and a monthly workshop in our living room. People come in clean or not so clean and sit on these chairs.

I am a big fan of cleanliness and talk with my husband about washing the cushion covers. We agree to run an experiment and machine wash one set carefully in cold water on delicate setting.

With some excitement, I undress the covers of the chair cushions. I put them in the washing machine and take them out an hour later. As soon as I see them, I feel anxious. Like very anxious.

I know my husband really likes these chairs and he has taken good care of them for more years than he has known me. Except for some wear and tear, they were in excellent shape.

Were.

Now with my washing, the covers are shrunken and shredded. With all my might I barely succeed in pulling the covers back over the cushions. They are seven inches short.

I sit down deflated. With lots, lots, lots of self-critical thoughts. “You stupid, stupid, stupid idiot! IDIOT! What a complete moron you are for not checking the settings on the washing machine!” I feel pained and upset, and angry with myself.

Finally I decide to get up and walk mindfully for three minutes. Then another 20 minutes around the block. The physical movement helps me shift my self-criticism to self-compassion.

A friend asked if I think self-criticism is essential for growth and learning. I don’t believe it is. After reading and listening to people I respect (Thich Nhat Hanh, Marshall Rosenberg, Rick Hanson, Kristin Neff, Martin Seligman) I’ve come to the conclusion that criticism is not only not needed for learning, it is likely detrimental.

Criticism targets who we are, not what we do. Criticism conveys something is fundamentally wrong with us, as if we are unworthy of love, acceptance, and belonging. As social animals, these needs are essential to our survival. When we hear criticism of who we are, we fear that our emotional, social, and physical safety is in jeopardy. Our reptilian brain is activated and we react with fight, flight, or freeze. We lose access to the part of our brain that helps us find creative, collaborative solutions to the problems we face.

That’s not to say that we can’t regret and mourn what we did. When we approach our regret with self-compassion, instead of self-criticism, we can redirect our energy to thinking what we could do differently in the future. When we acknowledge our flaws, we can try to make amends, learn from the experience, and restore connection. We see that making mistakes (even irreversible ones) is part of our shared humanity. Humans are fallible and that doesn’t mean we’re not worthy of love and belonging.

With self-compassion, we don’t have to hide our mistakes to protect our emotional, social, and physical safety. We can more clearly see the needs that we tried to meet, even when our actions failed. We can think of better ways to meet our needs while caring for the needs of others.

Rather than shame and expulsion, we are empowered to ask for support and learn.

How do you nurture self-compassion? Let me know, I would love to read from you.


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Have your experience and enrich it

Ever traveled business class?

I hadn’t.

In all my travels to and from my family and friends in the Netherlands, I travel economy class. I certainly have looked with envy as I walked past the business class seats, seeing them transform into beds, with clean, cotton pillowcases and yummy comforters.

I have never wanted to spend the money. I have made do with squeezing into an economy seat that I can’t stretch out, expecting to be startled awake when my head slips, as I try to sleep upright in a less than ideal position.

This July, I again traveled to the Netherlands to see my family and friends. And lucky me, my friend used his air miles to buy me plane tickets. When he emailed me my ticket, he wrote that the ticket allows me to use the lounge in Amsterdam and Houston. I didn’t pay much attention to that clue until the evening before my departure.

That evening when I print the ticket, I notice I have a seat all the way in the front of the plane!… When I take a closer look at the seating map, I see… YES! row eight IS business class, and my seat is one of those amazing, reclining seats…

So here I am, a simple girl from the Netherlands, sitting like a queen in this luxurious and comfortable chair. I can’t stop smiling. I play with all the different buttons testing my seat positions: all the way down, all the way up, my legs up and my back down, back up and legs down, everything at 45 degrees! You might understand why, with my excitement, it takes me more than an hour to finally take a nap. Nope. Not a nap. Sleep, deep sleep for more than four hours!

In this glorious moment of having all my senses satisfied, I remember an exercise by Rick Hanson to help change my brain for the better.

It is the HEAL process:

  • Have the experience: bring awareness to your needs being met, that you have feelings you enjoy, that something positive is happening in your life
  • Enrich the experience by focusing on the freshness of the moment, engaging all your senses
  • Absorb the experience as if you’re basking in sunshine, extending the positive feelings with a few minutes
  • Link this positive experience to a negative one in the same realm, to transform the brain’s negativity bias – which Rick Hanson describes as “teflon for positive, velcro for negative”.

Doing this exercise I notice I’m transforming distracting thoughts of scarcity, that I don’t have enough, that I don’t have support to seeing that in this moment I have more than enough conditions to be happy and that I have all the support I want. A sheer delightful experience of abundance.

Which positive experience can you link to transform a negative one? Let me know, I would be delighted to read from you.


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A car driver throws his booger at me

I’ve just been to the dentist. I feel tired. The procedure was more complicated than anticipated. I spent two and a half hours in the dentist chair with my jaw jammed open.

Not very pleasant.

So I feel happy to leave and bike home, an eight mile ride.

I love biking. I love the sense of agency and empowerment I get by navigating traffic, pedaling up a hill, zooming down the hill, feeling the sun and wind on my skin.

The second half of the ride I’m starting to feel exhausted. I have 650 feet of climb, mostly unshaded from the sun, and it is now 101 degrees. I feel too tired to stop and drink water. By the time I’m at 38th Street and Duval, within a mile of home, I feel completely overheated and worn out.

I stop at the traffic light and tap into the last of my resources to be considerate of the driver of the car next to me. He is in the right turning lane, and doesn’t have his turn signal on. I want to know which way he plans to turn. If he is turning right, I will move to his left and give him space. If he wants to continue straight, I will move to his right.

I try to get his attention to coordinate. He doesn’t respond. I turn toward him with some frustration, pointing at his non-blinking lights, and throw my hands in the air, trying to mimic that I want to know which way he’s going. Then he smirks at me and rolls down his window. I assume to coordinate.

Nope.

He throws his booger at me. And drives off.

I feel shocked. I want more care, consideration, and respect in traffic.

Thank God I have learned Marshall Rosenberg’s term “tragic expressions of unmet needs”. Nonviolent Communication teaches that everything we say and do is an attempt to meet beautiful, human, universal needs. Sometimes these strategies do not meet the needs of others. That’s tragic.

This car driver tried to meet precious needs by throwing his booger at me. Maybe he wanted respect (he received my frustration as a form of criticism), autonomy (he wanted to follow his own choices in how to drive), or self-worth (he didn’t like the suggestion that he made a driving error, and wanted to reinforce the thought he was a capable driver).

When I understand that the car driver’s behavior was about his needs, I can take it less personally. I can see that he lacked creativity or support to meet his needs in ways that would nurture my needs too. I can have compassion for his inability to meet his needs in a more collaborative manner, and hold my unmet needs with compassion.

This insight didn’t help then. It helps now by seeing the human behind the tragic expression of unmet needs.

Let me know how this lands for you.

This is a repost from my newsletter, The Lovable Cockroach Gazette, Issue 23, July 21, 2017


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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.