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.
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:
- notice your unmet needs and any feelings they bring
- guess the needs the “enemy” was trying to meet by their behavior
- acknowledge that their behavior left your needs unmet
- 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.