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.
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
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
I’m in a shame storm. I’m in our NVC group, practicing empathy with a buddy. My husband walks by. He says “I hope my eating won’t disturb you too much, honey.”
I feel the urge to explain to my buddy what my husband is talking about. “Well, uh,… you know,… I have this issue…”
My goodness, why did my husband say that? So innocently expressing his care for me. And triggering so much shame? As if I am exposed in my nakedness, covered in poop?
I look at my empathy buddy. He doesn’t seem too concerned by my stuttering. He just listens with a calm smile. I trust him to listen with empathy. I feel safe expressing honestly. “Well, you know… I hope you will not judge what I’m saying… I fear judgment… I get super triggered by eating sounds.”
Sigh… Relief… The truth is out… I never shared this with anyone, other than with my husband.
“It’s any eating sound: smacking, slurping, licking, screeching your fork with your teeth, or banging your spoon against a glass bowl.”
Another sigh of relief. My empathy buddy doesn’t seem too disturbed by my confession. He’s still listening. “You can fart as often as you want and I won’t mind. But making eating sounds drives me through the roof! I’ll get so triggered that I’ll either find an excuse to leave the table or I’ll turn it against you with something like: ‘There is something wrong with you for eating like that!’”
My empathy buddy still listens with care, nodding understanding and acceptance. No judgment whatsoever. I continue “And the truth is, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with me for having this sensitivity. I have the thought: ‘I am defective, beyond repair.’”
I feel a sadness come up. It is the first time I speak about this issue I feel so ashamed about. And it is just as Brené Brown describes: my shame disappears. Shame only survives in hiding. If it is brought into the light and received with compassion and acceptance, it loses it’s power. In the connection, acceptance and understanding, we experience the opposite of what shame wants us to believe. We experience that we are worthy of acceptance, love and belonging. We realize there is nothing wrong with us for having an issue. We notice we are not an issue.
I’m still not proud of my issue. It’s a handicap I didn’t chose. My eating sound sensitivity might never change. And now that I talked about it honestly with an empathy buddy, I can make different choices around it. I can ask for help without blaming or criticizing the other person. I can expand my compassion for everyone else who struggles with their own issue. I can choose mindful walking when my trigger overwhelms me. And most of all, I can work on self-acceptance and my longing to connect, even while eating.
With empathy and honesty, we can explore creative solutions that work better.
Let me know how you deal with issues you feel shame around.
We’re at Sangha, my Thich Nhat Hanh mindfulness community and we’re starting our mindful walking. One step in front of the other, taking a breath with every step, solidly feeling the ground underneath our feet.
I always love this practice, it slows me down and solidifies me in the support I have from our Earth.
For the last couple of months I practice synchronizing my steps and speed with the person in front of me. A sort of bodily empathy.
“Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does? Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate or judge it? Can I enter it so sensitively that I can move about in it freely, without trampling on meanings which are precious to him?” Carl Rogers, “On Becoming a Person”.
This time I walk right behind my husband. It’s enlightening to see where I’m stuck in my dedication to physically understand what it means to walk this Earth as someone else. I notice all kinds of judgments and evaluations come up: “That’s so unique: he drags his feet in a 45° to his other feet, as if he’s waltzing.” “That’s weird: he turns the corner in a 90° angle, as if he is in a military marching band.” “His steps are way too big!”
It reminds me of all the other times when I lose my empathic presence. Where I’m being triggered and focus my attention on my reaction to what someone’s sharing, instead of on their experience.
It usually doesn’t help with the connection, and certainly not with the understanding.
So now what?
- The first step it to acknowledge that I often hear two things at the same time: what they’re saying, and what I’m saying as a reaction to it.
- Then: honor that both voices are worthy of respect and being heard.
- And finally: make a choice what I want to do: pause the interaction and listen to the thoughts in my head first, or pause my inner voices and tell them I will listen to them after my connection to this other person.
When I am in that mindful state of knowing what’s going on within and around me, I can create the greater sense of connection and understanding I want: with myself and with them.
And you, what do you to maintain empathic presence? Let me know: I would love to learn from your experiences.
I’m up early. Before the crack of dawn. I love it. I feel energized and excited about a new day, about being alive and having the opportunity to contribute, learn, and receive.
I get dressed and make my tea. Green tea. Yum.
Then I hear the alarm on my phone go off. First softly, then loudly. I rush toward the sound, I don’t want my husband to wake up. It gets louder, the closer I get to the bathroom.
As soon as I think I am getting close, the sound fades. Shoot! So where is it? I don’t want it to go off next to his ear. I feel relieved to hear it again, in the kitchen. That makes sense, it must be on the counter, where I made my tea.
And again, as soon as I think I am close, the sound subsides. No! My husband worked late last night and needs his sleep. Where is my phone?!
The sound increases, in the dining room. I look around, more frantic now. Nothing to be found nowhere.
Then it dawns on me. My cell phone has been in my pocket the whole time.
My alarm sounds like ocean waves rolling on the beach: softer and louder with each wave coming in and fading away. The precious thing I was looking for, was right there in my jeans all the time.
It made me think of a story Pema Chodron tells in “When Things Fall Apart”. It’s about a woman who’s sent out into the world with only a coat. She ends up destitute, with no means to support even her basic needs for survival. She complains about her poverty. Her coat goes to shreds, and in the hem she finds diamonds. Plenty enough to sell and support her.
That woman is me, running around, looking for my Buddha nature, my Christ essence, my basic goodness. All the while, I’m stuck in my anger, fear, jealousy, and judge myself for having these feelings.
I hope there comes a moment where I realize that I had Buddha nature all along, buried in my hardened heart. The place where I stop, connect, and celebrate my innate compassionate nature. Where I acknowledge my love, care and gratitude as “enough conditions to be happy”. Where I see my happiness and suffering as expressions of our shared humanity.
Our shared humanity with people I like, and people I don’t like. People who think and vote like me, and people who do the opposite. People whose words and actions are in alignment with my values, and people who speak and act in ways that conflict with my dreams for our world.
I imagine that when I am grounded in my own goodness, I can offer my insight to help others see theirs. To help them pause, take a breath, and smile at life.
I think that thàt is the best gift I can give to others.