Bring your life into balance

Empathy works. It always does.


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Shame, Creative Tension, and More

All my commitments fly out the window: “I reflect, before I react.” “I see the positive in every person and every situation.” “I accept myself unconditionally, especially when shame arises.”

In a second. I have nothing left but a puddle of shock, fear, shame, and anger.

‘Tragic expression of unmet needs?’ Never heard of it. All I hear are criticisms, demands, evaluations. ‘Seeing our interdependence?’ Not today. I take her remarks personally and my mind races with defenses, counter arguments, attacks. ‘Empathetically guessing: “Are you feeling upset and scared? You want more respect and safety?”’ My mind draws a blank.

All I can do, is stare at her moving video image on my computer screen and desperately (and thanks to my Sangha, moderately successfully) try NOT to express the angry, anxious thoughts clamoring to come out of my mouth.

I barely succeed in saying “I love you” at the end.

After we hang up, I feel deflated, discouraged, hopeless.

My thoughts are: “What a fool I am for believing I could create a warm, extensive community that includes me, my husband, my family, and friends. What an utter idiot I am for having that crazy dream, trying to get my reality closer to my vision.”

The emotional tension is so intense that all I can think is “Give up, give up, give up. Pack your stuff and fly back to the Netherlands.”

And then I also think of something I read in Peter Senge’sThe Fifth Discipline”:

“The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call ‘creative tension’: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.”

“People often have great difficulty talking about their visions, even when the visions are clear. Why? Because we are acutely aware of the gaps between our vision and reality… These gaps can make a vision seem unrealistic or fanciful. They can discourage us or make us feel hopeless… If we fail to distinguish emotional tension from creative tension, we predispose ourselves to lowering our vision.”

This was a literal and figurative call back to reality. Apparently I am not anywhere close to seeing my vision fulfilled. My reality is very different from where I thought it was. Yes, this is a set-back, and yes, I feel discouraged about it.

And that doesn’t mean that my journey is in vain. It means the difference is a learning opportunity for me. Where am I on the path? How do I work -not fight- with the obstacles I face? How can I be more creative, resourceful, and whole?

How can I make the journey the reward?

And with that inquiry I shift to feeling a little more settled, at peace, and hopeful.

Let me know: how do you work with creative tension? I would love to hear from you.


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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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Scratching, unwholesome seeds, and mindfulness

It is 5:00 am at the second day of our Mindfulness Retreat. I wake up in the dark with a terrible itch on my left foot. I guess that it is probably fire ant bites from walking in the woods. The itch is overwhelming, it drives me crazy. I start scratching as hard as I can, until I feel it starts to bleed. The itching just gets worse.

After 10 minutes, I finally pause my scratching and attempt to practice “accepting what is”. I breath in and breath out of the terrible itch, and try to have an openhearted curiosity about what it is like to have a big itch. I do my very best to accept the experience, rather than to change it.

I have to say, I am not completely up for the challenge. I fail several times at holding back my scratching. Half of my brain would like to apply a sander to get rid of the itch. The other half gradually surrenders and succeeds at breathing in and out of the big itch.

Eventually I fall back asleep.

The next morning I wake up with less itch and a little more understanding about what I believe Thich Nhat Hanh means by wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our consciousness.

“Whether we have happiness or not depends on the seeds in our consciousness. If our seeds of compassion, understanding, and love are strong, those qualities will be able to manifest in us. If the seeds of anger, hostility and sadness in us are strong, then we will experience much suffering.” Thich Nhat Hanh

At the surface it might seem that Thich Nhat Hanh is making a distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, an instruction to only water the ‘good’ seeds. A moral dichotomy.

After my itchy experience, I see this differently. He is instead simply inviting us to be present with whatever is: to make our choice based on our most mindful vision for ourselves and others. If I want to keep my foot happy, I better stop scratching, even if the scratching feels good in the moment.

By extension, I imagine that if I want more happiness, peace, and love in my life, I might do better if I water the seeds of happiness, peace, love, understanding, and compassion in myself. If I want more conflict, suffering, or stress I might focus on watering the seeds of anger, fear, deficit.

When we are in choice about which seeds we water, we can be in choice of how we experience our lives. This is a practice with no right or wrong, just trying, and failing. Then trying again. Failing. Sometimes doing things that are not so wholesome, but feel good in the moment. We try to be curious and we try again. We continue until we are practiced enough to transform unwholesome habits into more wholesome ones.

Which seeds do you nurture within yourself? Let me know, I would love to read from you.


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Self-Compassion and tree cutting

Hurricane Harvey approaches Texas. The weather forecast calls for 35 mph winds in Austin. I feel scared.

I look at the trees that are marked by Austin Energy. They are to be trimmed, because they endanger electric power lines. One tree in particular worries me. It leans heavily against the power lines next to our bedroom. I imagine that the storm winds might swing it back and forth so strongly that it will break the lines and cut power to our house and our neighbor’s.

It’s early Friday morning and my husband is still asleep. I decide to act with vigor and determination and keep our neighborhood safe. I’ll cut down the tree.

I get a saw and start sawing. Not too bad. I cut through quite easily and the tree falls in the planned direction. I feel satisfied.

Until I look up.

The tree is not leaning against the lines anymore. It’s hanging on them. With it’s full weight.

OMG! That’s not good. That’s not good at all. That’s horrible! The weight will certainly tear down the electric lines, and we are only hours before Harvey hits the Texan coast. No electricity for days and Austin Energy will probably have something more important to do than restore the power to our little house.

Unless it ignites a fire! Oh my goodness! I start to panic … Okay, breathe in, breathe out … I tell myself: “Pick up the trunk and move it off the lines …”

Despite all my weightlifting practice, I can’t move it an inch. Worse yet, with my moving it, the tree gets more entangled.

I breathe in, I breathe out …

I remember Thich Nhat Hanh saying “If you’re in a hurry, slow down”. Okay. “Elly, don’t act — think.”

I know I can’t stay for hours holding a trunk that’s way too heavy for me. And I don’t see or hear anyone who is within ear distance to call out for help. I conclude it’s up to me to solve this, for better or worse.

I succeed at pushing the trunk into the ground far enough that I think it won’t slide away and the tree will stay upright rather than dragging down the power lines. I run to the shed to get a ladder to get closer to the higher branches. It takes me half an hour and a lot of mindful breathing to fix the problem and get the tree out of the way of the power line. Nothing is broken. We are still safe.

That’s when a tornado of self-critical thoughts engulf in my head: “You absolute, stupid, idiotic moron! You could have killed yourself, you stupid, idiotic moron.” Some of them in Dutch. All of them extremely painful to hear.

I feel super grateful that we just offered our Self-Compassion workshop. I remember that self-compassion is not reserved for those situations, where our suffering is triggered by others. Self-compassion is especially needed when our suffering results from our own mistakes.

Yes, I was unconscious of my incompetence in tree cutting. I feel ashamed and embarrassed for the potential harm I created. That doesn’t make me a person undeserving of compassion, love, and belonging. On the contrary, I need it now more than ever. With some extra attention to my breaths, and some kind words in my head, I start to feel relieved, and even a bit amused by the whole situation. After all: this is the stuff newsletters are made of.

When do you need self-compassion the most? Let me know, I would love to read from you.


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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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Authenticity and Courage

I am redesigning my website. I want it to look professional, authentic, and inspiring. A colleague asks me what authentic means to me. Me at my most vulnerable, me at my best, me at my worst?

Haha…! Funny question!

Is it? … Maybe not so much. Authentic is not just me at my most cutest, vulnerable, my most delightful.

Authentic is also me in the middle of a fight with my husband, having judgmental thoughts about others, or seeing my poochy belly hanging out of my t-shirt.

I am pretty sure I don’t want any of that on my website. I want the me at my most lovable best. Me worthy of love, acceptance, and belonging.

Certainly not the me that might trigger criticism. Not the me that might prompt people to turn away, or turn against. Certainly not any part of me that might trigger being alone, all by myself.

When I consider the parts of me I want to keep private, I start thinking of the times when fear of rejection stopped me from living my truest dreams: my longing to go to theater school, to tell the first love of my life I had a crush on him, or to pursue publication of my first children’s story.

When I sit with this fear of rejection, I wonder if courage means taking a social risk and still doing what I believe is true? Maybe courage doesn’t mean risking my life to help war victims in Syria, or offering myself to replace the inmate on death row just before his execution.

Maybe my courage lies in holding on to my vegan diet, even if others find it weird. Or calling upon my co-mediators in the lunch meetup to recycle their plastic plates, instead of throwing them away. Or repelling from a cliff with a terrifying fear of heights, with guys I’d never met before.

What if authenticity means living your deepest aspirations, even if you might face negative consequences? Would my answer to my colleague be that authenticity means being true to my values, living them in everyday life?

Courage and authenticity seem interrelated, especially if we’re not sure we’ll face an empathetic, accepting response. So my questions to you are:

  • What means authenticity to you?
  • How is courage connected to authenticity?
  • What comes up for you?

Let me know, I would love to read your response.


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Compassion Without Empathy Can Be Harmful. I Learned First-hand.

I’m at my friends’ house. They have two kids, Maya and Kiran, and two dogs, Luna and Sol. I wrote about the family earlier in “Stepping Into Poop”.

The dogs are playing in the living room, the kids and I are working on math and essays, the parents are at work.

Everything is peaceful, everything is quiet.

Till we hear one of the dogs whine. Like real whining. The kids and I jump up to find out what’s going on. I feel dismayed by what I see. At least, by what I think I see.

From my vantage point, it looks like Luna is biting the jugular vein of Sol, ready for the kill. I feel terrified, and start slamming Luna on the head… Poor dog, if only I had looked better…

It doesn’t help. The whining gets worse, and one of the dogs bites my left arm, even if only a scratch. I start pulling on Luna’s collar, believing that will force her to let go of the jugular vein, and preventing Sol from being killed…

My goodness, if only I had looked better: the whining gets even worse, and one of the dogs now really bites my arm.

But they do get loose.

However, not by any of my actions.

Maya was the one who saw that Luna’s jaw got stuck under Sol’s collar, and couldn’t get loose. The more Luna (or me) pulled, the more in pain Sol and Luna were. So Maya jerked off Sol’s collar, and resolved the whole tangle.

If we define compassion as the desire to relieve suffering, and empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing, Maya and I both acted with compassion, only Maya had more empathy.

It made me think of all the other times I have acted with lots of compassion and insufficient understanding. Instead of relieving pain, like I intended, I ended up making things worse.

When we don’t understand what’s going on, we don’t see the causes, the correlations, or the consequences of the suffering. It helps to have empathy skills, when we want to relieve suffering. Without empathy, compassion leads to unskillful actions: well-intended and not effective.

Have you ever acted with compassion and insufficient empathy? Would empathy have helped you to relieve the suffering more effectively? Let me know! I would love to learn from your experience.