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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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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Am I under attack from a squirrel?

I am sitting happily in my backyard, writing in my journal. It’s 8 am. The sun is shining. The breeze is fresh, it’s finally cooling off in Texas. It’s quiet and peaceful.

Then I hear hassle and bustle in the tree above my head. I see a squirrel on the branch, maybe 12 feet away. His two beady eyes stare directly down at me. With curiosity. I assume.

I look back with delight at his beauty: his lush tail, dark eyes, brown fur.

As he continues to stare at me, I start to feel uncomfortable. Why is he waving his tail? Why is he gnawing so loudly? And why does he keep staring at me? What if this is not a curious squirrel? What if this is an aggressive squirrel on a mission to protect his territory, whatever it takes? What if he jumps down to plunge his sharp claws into my face, or worse, into my eyes?

I feel scared. I cannot take the risk. I want to keep my eyes. I hiss at him as ferociously as I can. I make enough commotion to scare him, and he runs away.

It reminds me of other moments when I use protective force to make sure my needs are seen and supported.

I use protective force, when I don’t trust the other person has the capacity or willingness to see and support all needs. I take action to keep everyone safe, including me.

For example, I would pull a kid out of the street, when a car is coming. Or I might leave a relationship when I can’t compassionately process the criticism, dismissal, or contempt I experience. I use force to protect my needs for emotional safety, respect, and to be seen.

It is forceful, because I make a choice without dialogue.

I don’t ask the kid: “Hey, do you see that car coming?” If I did that, the car crashes into the kid, before I finish my sentence. The same might be true for a relationship. If the pain I experience in my connection is larger than my capacity to process it, I am risking my physical, emotional and mental health.

Protective use of force is not about punishment.

I don’t need to shoot the squirrel to feel safe. I don’t need to blame or shame him for behaving as he does. He hisses and gnaws to meet his needs. That’s his choice. It doesn’t mean I have to accept it.

We don’t need to demand change, in order to protect needs.

I can protect my needs myself. If I am respectful and take a stand, I can find a solution that supports as many needs as possible. I can do it unilaterally, until the other party is ready to work together from a place of compassion. By protecting ourselves we transform from victim to actor.

Without a victim, there is no perpetrator.


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Stand your feelings

How often did I tell myself to stand my feelings? How often did I proclaim that this is the indispensable first step to connect to the needs underneath those feelings and recognize them as precious and beautiful? How often did I tell people that standing your feelings is crucial to find strategies that are truly supporting all needs, yours and those of others?

I don’t know. Maybe a couple of 100 times?

And now that I am in this rage of anxiety and fear, I hate the idea of standing my feelings. I hate my racing anxiety, my accelerating heartbeat, my running away urge. I want to find the culprit (and guess what, I already found her) and get rid of her (yep, the whole strategy is laid out in my head). I want to make sure that nothing triggers my anxiety, and if there are, that they are minor triggers, like the fear of a cockroach.

And yet.

3. Stand your feelingsI do want to practice what I preach. I take a deep breath and return to this simple tool of mindful breathing. Which, by the way, sucks. It is no fun to focus on my breath, when a boa constrictor is wrapped around my chest. Just so you know.

I focus on my second breath. No fun either. I’ll stop saying that I hate standing my feelings, but I can’t think of another way of saying how much I dislike it.

I focus on my third breath. BANG. Rudimentary, old fear. If I don’t stand up, the Nazis will come and take away those that I care about. I have to speak up. I have no choice. I have to save those that will be excluded.

I continue focusing on my breath, hand on my belly. The first panic attack dissipates. I am a bit more aware that I am here and now. That she is a human being, not a Nazi. That she is doing her best to serve the greater good, within whatever limitations she is facing.

The fear is still present. More tender now. More caring. More longing to connect, understand, be heard. The fear is willing to speak up for the needs unmet (safety, inclusion, transparency, dialog, fairness), and give me space to act in alignment with my aspirations, values and dreams.

Standing your feelings is not a command. It is not a trick to get rid of them. It is an invitation to listen, deeply listen, to what is true for you and make choices that are grounded in your values.


You want to learn to stand your feelings? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free discovery session to see how I can help.


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My fear, my child

She hears a soft crying. She can hardly hear it with Anger yelling in her ears. He is trashing the place down. She probably should pay attention to him, but something is drawing her to this crying. She can’t quite determine where it’s coming from, somewhere in the corner over there.

Image courtesy Flickr.comAs she walks over, she sees there is a door she has never noticed before. She feels her heart pounding as she turns the knob. The crying gets louder. Not that much, just a bit. It is dark inside, pitch dark. Coming from the brightly lit room, her eyes need to adjust. As she gets used to the dark, she sees a child. Maybe eight years old. Exhausted. Almost starved to death. She probably hasn’t been bathed for years. She can smell the urine and feces she has been drenched in.

The child turns her face to her. Startled, she recognizes this is her child. This is Fear whom she locked away years ago, hoping she would never see her again, hoping she would never feel afraid again.

As she looks at her child, a wave of compassion, love and care well up in her. A kindness for the child, a grief for the harm she contributed to. She strokes Fear’s hair. She sits with her for a long time. Finally she gets up to bring her some food, some water. As she walks to the fountain, she notices Anger sits in the corner, reading a book on compassionate communication. He looks quite satisfied and content.

She understands how Anger tried to cover up Fear, so she would not feel the anguish of being afraid. She has some appreciation for his efforts to empower her to overcome her fear and stand up for herself, even though they were somewhat unskillful. And she is grateful for having found Fear. For getting a second chance to connect with her child, and understand her. Collaborating to find ways to support her. Listening to how Anger can trust that she works on getting her needs for respect, safety, inclusion, and kindness met.


You want to learn to connect to your own anger and fear? Contact me 512-589-0482 for a free discovery session to see how I can help.


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Reverence for life and the death penalty

“Because all manifestation has both an individual an collective aspect, it would not be correct to say that a young man in prison bears the whole responsibility for his crime. He is the product of his family, his schooling, and society. If we look deeply, we may find that when he was younger, his parents often fought and caused each other and their child to suffer. Perhaps he was abused. Lacking love, lacking education, he tried to forget himself in drugs. With drugs, his ability to make good choices diminished even further. Committing a crime was the result.

Looking deeply, we see that the conditions for this young man’s actions did not arise only from his own mind and experiences. All of us bear some responsibility for creating the conditions that led him into the cycle of crime and addiction. If we only condemn or punish him, it will not help. People use drugs because they are in pain and want to run away from life. Putting someone who is suffering like this in prison is not the way to solve the problem. There has to be love and understanding, some means to bringing him back to life, offering him joy, clarity, and purpose.“ Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind.

Image courtesy to pbs.orgWednesday evening, September 10, 6 pm CST, Texas State killed Willie Trottie. Because he killed his ex-girlfriend Barbara Canada and her brother Titus.

I joined my Sangha to sit as a silent witness at the steps of the State Capitol in honor of our first mindfulness training: Reverence for Life. “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivate the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life.”

I thought of offering myself as a replacement of the convict to take an active stand against executions as a strategy for safety. I thought about it a long time. Then I realized that I would be terrified, panicked, and anguished in the certain prospect of death. I am too attached to life, and too averted to pain and suffering. Instead of peace, trust, love, openness, and understanding of impermanence and interbeing, I would offer fear and terror. I am pretty sure that would not help.

I think the only thing that helps is practicing compassion, understanding, love, and mindfulness in our thoughts, speech, and actions. For ourselves, for our beloved ones, for our not so loved ones, and for our society. So that we would help create a society where everyone receives so much support, acceptance, belonging, understanding, and compassion, that no one needs to kill to get their needs met.

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You want help to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary discovery session.


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Fear and veganism

Fear is being afraid of what’s gonna happen in the future. Fear is never about this moment. Jack Kornfield tells a beautiful story (at least I like it) in The Roots of Buddhist Psychology. A man goes camping. He sees footprints of a bear. He gets scared, because he is afraid he’ll be eaten by the bear. He starts worrying, even though he is fine in the moment. Then he sees the bear and starts running, scared of the anticipated pain he’ll feel, if the bear starts eating him. The bear runs after him, and indeed bites him. What the man feels in that moment is pain, hurt like hell, not fear. There is fear, but that  is not about the bite, it is about being eaten alive and dying. Something that might happen in the future. Fear is about an anticipated moment you dread in the future. Pain and hurt are what you feel as you experience this moment.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Vegan_patties_with_potatoes_and_salad.jpgI dreaded holding on to my vegan diet when I went to the Netherlands. I feared non-belonging, critical questions, ridicule as I was eating differently than everyone else. I was afraid I would roll over into eating cheese, butter-filled cookies, and anything else that might contain eggs or dairy, as I soon as I thought my sense of acceptance, belonging, and understanding would not be met.

None of it happened.

My family and friends easily offered me vegan food or accepted me bringing my own dish so I had enough yummy food to eat. To my big surprise my aunt, who I don’t think ever considered veganism, even made a separate dish that completely supported my choices. My family ate my vegan dishes with joy and delight, even though some of it didn’t turn out as yummy as I had hoped. I felt joyful, enthusiastic and excited to offer my compassionate alternative as an invitation to understand how our own happiness and suffering are not separate from the happiness and suffering of animals. I felt proud to water the seeds of compassion and interbeing in each of my family and friends, and they received it for the acceptance I have for their meat-eating choices.

I have learned that eating vegan isn’t synonymous for exclusion, loneliness, and ridicule. It equals inspiration, integrity, and connection.

Hallelujah.

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You want help to offer your compassionate choices as an invitation to understand the interconnectness of our happiness and suffering? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary discovery session.


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Fear in, jackals out

Sometimes our blame, criticism, and anger is actually an habitual, automatic response to our fear.

We perceive we’re in danger and we get so scared we immediately react with counterattack. We don’t allow ourselves to stop, breathe, feel, and connect to our needs. We don’t even think about it, our reptilian brain takes over. Fight and flight at the same time.

Image courtesy to David Nayer

It goes something like this: “Michelle is teaching an intro Nonviolent Communication at church.” “What a bitch!! She didn’t even connect with me first!! Who is she to barge in and think she is the big star?! Over my dead body: it’s not gonna happen without my support!! I’ll offer another workshop that same day, and make sure that no one shows up at her event. She is a selfish, inconsiderate taker.”

Bang.

Anger in full explosion.

There is something yummy about anger. You’re bumped up, you’re in control, you’re riding the wave of adrenaline. A little bit like flow, but without the peace part. Ready to crush, to slash out, and destroy. No one is gonna fool you, you stand your ground.

Feeling into your fear is much harder. To allow it to rush through you, to feel what it’s like to be that scared, to be thinking you’re helpless and cannot protect yourself from harm.

Yet, that’s where your empowerment lies.

In your vulnerability.

In this precious place of longing for safety, acceptance, inclusion, and belonging. All these needs that help us to survive and thrive.

If we dare to stop, if we have the guts to step into our fear, breathe, and be penetrated by it, we can open the door to self-care and self-compassion. “My beloved self, I see you’re scared she will get more attention than you. I get how afraid you are that she will attract more NVC-enthusiasts than you. I know how you’ve come to believe that being popular and interesting will bring you love and belonging and a sense of worthiness and mattering. I understand your pain. I’m here for you. I love you the way you are and I care for you.”

When we acknowledge our pain, we can offer ourselves support and understanding.

That’s how jackal ears out can help you to heal old, old pain.

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You want help to translate your jackals out into self-care and self-compassion? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary, discovery session.