That Mean Girl

Wow! I was not prepared for her to greet me when I woke up this morning. Mean Girl was ON FIRE.

What the hell is the matter with you? Everybody else is doing something to help ease the suffering in this world right now, and here you are sleeping in. And once you get up, no doubt you’ll just play around with your hobbies and keep working on those projects you’ve put off for ages.  You’re lazy and self-serving.  And did you see all those people doing video chats with bunches of friends? What have you been doing holed up in your house? Do you even have friends? Probably not, you loser.

criticalperson

Like I said, she was on fire. And I hadn’t even fully opened my eyes or had a cup of coffee yet. It took me a long minute to figure out who was even talking to me. Oh yeah. Her. Mean Girl.

I used to believe that witchy woman in my head. She squatted in my entry way so everything in my life had to go past her. And I don’t mean she was forever in a crouched position. I mean she pitched her tent and set up residence. She had an opinion about everything – and nothing satisfied her.  I don’t often hear from her anymore so this morning took me by surprise. Of all times to show up, in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t ideal. But, then again, we are talking about a mean girl. They’ll kick you when you’re down.

So, take a deep breath. No, I don’t believe a mean girl actually lives in my head nor do I hear voices. But I imagine a good number of you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s that part of your brain that just won’t cut anybody any slack – especially not yourself. Over the years I’ve found it’s important to step back and observe my life and my thoughts instead of accepting everything at face value. And I find it easier to be objective about these thoughts by giving them a name. So, Mean Girl it is.

No doubt I was born with some of these tendencies, and then I took some well-meaning teachings and ran with them so far as to believe it was God who was “correcting” me – minus the minor curse words. And, well, you certainly can’t be mad at God, because He’s God and the Bible says He is love. So I was forced to accept that apparently the slave driver in my head was doing it for my best and for my eternal salvation so I ought to be happy about it. Right? Mmmm… that’s messed up.

Now, I have a super hard time telling my head to simply stop thinking or doing something. It’s like that Bob Newhart routine where he plays a psychiatrist. “Just stop it!” Yeah, it doesn’t work. I have to have a good reason to stop or change and an alternative something to hang on to – otherwise it’s just brain gymnastics.

For me, it was a paradigm shift about God that allowed me to kick Mean Girl into the closet. It was a realization that God isn’t about performance and there is no need to compare myself to other people. God is the weightiest “person” in my life, so no need to worry about what other people think of me. He’s also very gracious, so I don’t have to perform or prove myself to Him. It’s been a very freeing shift. I have a much easier time accepting myself and others for the flailing humans we are, experiencing life together, learning as we go. Mean Girl still pops her head out now and again to stir the pot, but I’ve gotten a lot quicker at recognizing her and shoving her ass back into the closet.

But…. I’ve been checking out Non-Violent Communication the past many months. This past week I’ve been reading about judgment, criticism, and listening for understanding instead of listening to the words. Aaannnd…I got to thinking about Mean Girl. What if I used that process on my own wacky thoughts that blast into my life uninvited? Does Mean Girl have something to … contribute…??  Could she possibly be of value to me?? If so, what was Mean Girl saying? If every communication is either a please or a thank you, I’d have to say Mean Girl was pleading with me this morning. Agreed, she has the communication skills of a five-year old having a temper tantrum, but what did she need?

If I had to guess, which I do when dealing with 5-year old Mean Girl, I’d say she is feeling isolated and missing her friends. I’d say she’d like to feel connected. She’d like affection in the form of a few hugs. She feels helpless and wants to feel like she has something meaningful to contribute to the world right now.

I hear ya, Girl Friend. I hear ya.

I’m right there with ya’.

I’m a Bad Mom

What had started out as a typical day, was morphing into a crash- and-burn day. One of my kids had shared with me a struggle they were having. And in short order, I was having my own multi-level struggle that was interfering with my ability to empathically be there for my child.

In my spiraling state of mind, I maintained my wits about me enough to send out an SOS to my neighbor friends. “Can I come over later to cry? I’m feeling like an inadequate mom and need to reset with some tears.” I said “inadequate”… but in the constant sorting game that’s been programmed into my brain, “inadequate” falls squarely in the bad camp.

God bless my neighbors! We’ve formed a small sisterhood of support and my life has been bettered by them being in it. One of the “sisters” was available and we had a chat. I explained what was going on and how I’d responded. She failed to see where I was being inadequate or bad.

With more processing, I realized I’d based my opinion of myself not on anything that was going on that evening, but on several broad-based assumptions:

  • If I’ve been an adequate parent, my kids will successfully handle difficult situations and personal challenges without missing a beat.
  • I am responsible for this problem because I raised them.
  • I inadequately prepared them for life.
  • I am supposed to fix this problem.
  • I have failed and am failing.

I had grabbed what was squarely their struggle and made it mine.

Have you been there?

struggle-675x500

What’s interesting about all these assumptions is that they are based on a belief that I have the potential to be, and actually must be, omniscient and omnipresent. I must understand the inner workings of my child’s brain. I must understand how every interaction will impact them now and in the future and selectively control what those interactions are. I must have all the answers. I have the power to determine the outcome of their lives. And really this whole responsibility thing would also require me to be responsible for the chemical make-up and neurological wiring in my child’s brain. Wow! Really? Am I God?

After a visit with my neighbor I was able to return home to be a mom instead of a god, to listen instead of scramble to fix, to share life together instead of control, and to empathize with the situation instead of cast blame.

Breaking the cycle of self-blame and criticism is a long and slow process. But until compassion is found on the inside, for the fallible soul who inhabits the body you see in the mirror, freely giving compassion to others will be unattainable.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” starts with you.

Basics of NVC

I’m definitely a newbie with NonViolent Communication. But my last post sparked some conversation and I decided to share a little more backbone to the process as I currently understand it. This information is primarily coming from a couple of videos linked in my prior post, as well as this website and this book by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, the developer of the process.

Basic tenets:

There are universal feelings and needs that are common to all of us. By finding those things we share in common, we develop empathy toward ourselves and each other. Once that connection is made, solutions to problems are more easily found. The goal of the process is to come to the place of empathetic connection. Here are the basic steps:

Step 1: Describe the event

What happened? Stick to the facts. What are observable things that you noticed? “You are lazy” is not it. “Over the past two weeks, I never saw you do the dishes” is it. That’s something you could put on a tally sheet and quantify. And notice that it leaves room to be clarified by the other person. Perhaps they did do the dishes but you just didn’t see them. “You never listen to me” is not it. “You have been looking at your phone and not giving eye contact for the past 5 minutes while I’ve been talking” is it.

Step 2: Find the feelings

What are you feeling? This might be tougher than it sounds. “I feel like you…” is not a feeling. It’s an opinion or a thought. “I feel that…” also not a feeling.  “I feel abandoned” is a feeling-ish.  “Feelings” like that are often used in a way that insinuates blame and is likely to trigger defensiveness… such as an implied “You abandoned me”. That kind of statement is an opinion. Instead of “abandoned”, try one or some of these feelings- lonely, sad, afraid, perplexed, livid or resentful.

Step 3: Identify the needs

Take the feelings you found above and try to determine where they’re coming from. “I feel __________ because I need ____________.” These needs are universal. “I feel hungry because I need a French fry” is not universal and “hungry” isn’t a heart feeling.  “I feel edgy because I need food” is universal. “I feel angry because I need you to….” umm, no. Not it. You might have something you’d like someone else to do for you, but that’s actually a request. It doesn’t describe your need. “I feel lonely because I need intimacy” is an expression of a universal need that underlies the feeling. Notice that your feelings are a direct result of your need.

Step 4: Make a request

AFTER mutual connection (which means the above process is explored until both parties are understood), describe what action might meet your needs. Be specific. Be concrete. Be current. What tangible thing could the other person do in the present that would increase your joy factor? Be flexible with the other person and with yourself. The specific strategy used to meet your need can fluctuate without negating your need. What is the other person willing to do?

NVC

What it’s not:

A way to make a demand. If you actually intend to make a demand, you are not practicing NonViolent Communication even if every other step is completed. Sometimes we don’t even recognize a demand in ourselves or someone else until a “no” gets thrown in there. If someone loses their cool or things turn nasty after a “request” is turned down, it was never a request. You can and will have feelings about a “no”. But having feelings and trying to shame, blame or guilt the other person because they gave you a “no” are two different things. NVC is intended to provide a deeper level of connection. Any use of force, coercion or manipulation is opposed to the intent of NVC. Perhaps the other person will do something for you that you request of them, but that’s the icing on the cake if it happens.

A panacea. In my opinion, there will be those with whom you may desire to connect but who don’t have the capacity for empathy or who insist on making demands rather than requests. I would also speculate that a person whose reality is unstable/ substantially shifts – not their interpretation of  or thoughts about prior events but their recollection of actual prior events – will be unable to make it through the process given that the fist step involves agreeing on basic facts. I also struggle to see how NVC applies in legal matters. But, Marshall Rosenberg successfully used NVC as a tool to bring peace in the worst of circumstances, so maybe my mind will shift on this as I learn more.

A cancellation of boundaries. Having empathy for another person does not mean you will or must agree on their requested strategy to meet their need.  Or perhaps you have a competing need that makes it unfeasible for you to meet the other person’s need at all. No still means no.

What it is:

Difficult. It’s a new language for your brain. Learning a new language is difficult. We have been trained to tune out feelings, or react to our feelings without even identifying or owning them. And being in the USA, strength and independence are king. Identifying our feelings and admitting to our needs is tough going. Taking responsibility for our own feelings and needs is perhaps even more foreign. “I feel impatient because you are making us late” is a much more typical way of assigning responsibility as compared to “I feel impatient when you are running late because I need consistency.”

Uncomfortable. I went to a practice session last night. We did a very simple exercise working through the above steps for each one of us. Most of us gave a one sentence observation we had on our hearts and minds. Then we identified a handful of feelings we had in relation to the situation. During the next step we identified a few needs we had that provoked the feeling. Holy Moly! How often have you actually listened to and been with someone else as they shared their heart, their mutual humanity, their life bloodwithout trying to judge, analyze or fix a thing? Most of us have been trained to judge, analyze and fix all within 30 seconds. Simply being with the other person in their discomfort is… uncomfortable.

Powerful! One of the attendees at the practice session I attended expressed surprise by the personal revelation they found while going through the process. “By golly, this thing really does work!” I think we all felt that way to some extent.

I hope you take the opportunity to learn more about NonViolent Communication. I’d love to hear what you think of the process and how it has impacted your life. Many have found peace with this method. And Lord knows this world could use more peace.

Them there are fightin’ words!

Your previously scheduled program is being interrupted to bring you the following special.

Wow! I didn’t know what to say! After practicing podiatry for several years I’d decided that surgery wasn’t my thing. I felt ill-prepared for all parts of the surgical process – the pre-op decision making, the technical components of the surgery, and the post-op management and possible complications. I wasn’t living in an area where support was easily accessible – and I really didn’t know how to ask for what I needed anyway. Add to that my preoccupation with perfection – and I was slowly killing myself with stress. Something had to give, and I decided for the sake of my health and that of my patients, surgery would no longer be in my repertoire. I’d heard of podiatrists who didn’t perform surgery, but they certainly weren’t the norm. My decision left me feeling relieved and isolated all at the same time. I broke the news to my office manager – who also happened to be my husband – with hopes of gaining support in my corner.

Now for those of you who have loved Jeff, stick with me here. I promise I’m not throwing him under the bus. He might look more human to you before this is over, but human is enough. In fact, human was exactly what I was needing!

To think his response would be supportive was a miscalculation. He said some fightin’ words topped with a healthy serving of spite. “How can you even call yourself a doctor if you don’t do surgery?!”

1055591-1-eng-GB_rough-sea

Wow! My waves crashed! I didn’t know what to say! The options as I knew them to be…

  • Tell him what a jerk he was being. Nah. Two wrongs don’t make a right.  Besides it certainly wouldn’t swing him around my way. I didn’t do that.
  • Smile. Say nothing. Make him a special supper. Lavish kindness on him. Turn the other cheek. Bite a hole in my tongue while disguising the truth of my angst. When I couldn’t take the inner turmoil any longer, complain to my friends about the terrible things he said, driving a wedge of separation between us. I didn’t do that either – at least not the first part.
  • I could tell myself not to take things so personal. I shouldn’t be so easily offended. I should just live my own life and not be so influenced by what he thinks of me. Shame myself out of my feelings. But that would have required a medically-induced coma to achieve. I didn’t do that.
  • Put up a boundary. Something like “It hurts me when you talk that way. If you speak disparagingly to me again, I will have to….blah, blah, blah.”  Have you ever noticed that boundaries ill-played can come out sounding demanding and controlling? What I wanted was someone in my corner. Forcing an external behavior would do nothing to assure me I had someone in my corner. And if I wasn’t successful in forcing the external behavior, would I really follow through on the “consequence” (aka – threat). I didn’t do that either.
  • Explain to him why I could still call myself a doctor so he would apologize for his ignorant, mean words. I would win him over with facts and information while keeping a distance from either one of our hurts and needs. Always the believer in logic, I did that. It had zero impact. He wasn’t interested in a logical explanation as to why I still considered myself a legitimate doctor.

The tools in my “navigating human interactions” tool chest were perhaps typical, but were weighed in the balances and found to be wanting. At the time you can be sure I didn’t see it that way. I only saw that he had been found wanting.

Now, I promised there wasn’t going to be a casualty. Stick with me. We’re about to get to the saving part. Nobody is going under the bus.

Some fifteen years later… I GOT A NEW TOOL! It provides a framework for taking the weight out of the words while hearing, loving, and connecting to the person. It’s a judgment-free zone. No need to concern yourself with who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s the good person and who’s the bad. Those classifications are inconsequential. (IKR…! What is this heresy!) No internal or external brainwashing, tongue biting, or manipulating involved.

And dog-gone-it, what I wouldn’t give for a do-over!

We would have ROCKED this thing!

jakal-giraffe1

What is this magical tool that has brought such hope? It’s called Non-Violent Communication. It’s got simplistic ideas like developing giraffe instead of jackal ears. (Learn more here and here…) But to say it will be simple to adopt as a way of thinking would be highly inaccurate. No new way of thinking is going to be simple after 50 years of paving the neural roads. I mean, really, what about that part where there’s “no need to concern yourself with who’s right and who’s wrong”…?? That alone requires a major detour!

A basic premise of NVC is that all communication can be boiled down to either a please or a thank you. If needs aren’t being met, it will be a please. If needs are being met, it will probably be a thank you. Things that you might have considered fightin’ words, you can now think of as a tragic expression of a please. “Tragic” because the veiled request is unlikely to result in anyone’s needs actually being met. But given compassion, time, and effort, we can get there without inciting World War III or adding a new layer to our Enemy Image portrait (more about that here). And the good news, it only takes one person to change the tide of a conversation.

“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.”
― Marshall Rosenberg

So here’s how I imagine the conversation could have gone using my very novice Non-Violent Communication skills…

  • Hubs – “How can you even call yourself a doctor if you don’t do surgery?!” (There’s no way to twist that around to make it thank you. It is most certainly a tragic expression of please help me.)
  • Me – “It sounds like you’ve got strong feelings about this. I want to understand. Are you feeling afraid?” (If one person isn’t equipped to express their feelings and needs, the other person helps them out by guessing and checking.)
  • Hubs – “Yes, I’m afraid. I don’t think you understand what this will do to our future!” (Hubs expressed his feeling – but hasn’t expressed his need that causes the feeling.)
  • Me – “In what way? What do you mean by that?”
  • Hubs – “How can you make a living and support our family not doing surgery?”
  • Me – “Ok, tell me if I am getting this right. You’re afraid for our financial security if I don’t perform surgeries. You need to know that our family will be provided for. You have a need for financial security.”
  • Hubs – “Yes!”
  • Me – “Ok. What can we do that would reassure you? Can we run some reports and review them together? Talk with other podiatrists? Would those things help?”  (And here we jumped straight to strategy to meet the need.)
  • Hubs – “Yeah, ok. That would help.”
  • (Now that his feelings and needs were met, then it would be time to get to my feelings and needs.)

Now – realistically do I think this emotionally charged situation would have been peacefully resolved in six interchanges. Nope. But you get the gist. In my heart, I can now empathize with his feelings and needs. I hear his “please!” on so many levels and in so many ways. The unresolved conflict had nothing to do with anyone being bad or wrong or offensive. It had everything to do with unexpressed feelings and unmet needs – which thankfully can be corrected with a bit of effort.

By connecting on a deeper level to the needs we have in common, compassion is aroused and both parties become more inclined to consider mutually-agreeable strategies to resolve the matter. Being fully, deeply human is exactly what works best to resolve conflict.

I challenge you, if you’re feeling offended by someone in your life, try something different with your conversation next time. It can get better from here.

 

In the Silence

It’s been a while since I’ve written much. Sometimes it takes a good long silence for experiences, thoughts and beliefs to shape into words. It’s been one of those “pauses” for me, and even now I’m not absolutely sure where to start. But I’m just going to begin, realizing I may need to hit “rewind” periodically.

feather reflection

I’m in a good place right now. I’ve not moved nor made any major changes to my house for at least a year, so the “good place” I’m in has little to do with the physical space I inhabit – but yet something to do with where I live given the positive impact my neighbors have had on my journey. But that’s probably another story.

Speaking of “journey”, I used to think the journey of life was something you did equipped with the right answers – you know, like a trip with a fully developed itinerary.  Furthermore, if you were a committed Christian, the journey would all play out in proper order. If it didn’t, the derailment was no doubt due to the choices of lesser Christian people with whom you mistakenly associated.

~But then again, I used to think a lot of things.~

Like many life stories, mine includes a pit. And like many stories, circumstances and choices put me there. But if I try and describe what came before the pit to influence my circumstances and choices, I then also get caught up in describing what came before that, and then before that… and pretty soon it’s all a pile of tangled spaghetti with too many ends to manage. So let’s start the story in my pit – which is a place I used to think was taboo to talk about.

~But then again, I used to think a lot of things.~

While in my pit, a friend of mine threw me a line. She recommended I attend a recovery group. I didn’t have a history of substance abuse – but I had some doozer thought patterns. They were harmful to my well-being but I stuck to them anyway.  And in spite of that description matching the definition of an addiction, I was certain I’d have nothing in common with addicts – especially not these addicts. The group was not of my denomination, which meant I believed they were without The Truth, the Whole Truth and nothing but The Truth. And because I knowingly joined such a heretical group for the purpose of gaining something from them and not for the purpose of converting them, I was pretty certain if God was paying any attention at all He would strike me down with lightening. And if He didn’t, I would surely be led astray by their trickery.

~But then again, I used to think a lot of things.~

Right about that same time I met with my pastor to talk some things over. During that conversation it actually came out of my mouth that the majority of my life choices were controlled by guilt and fear. Shocking. Shocking that I had enough self-awareness to recognize it. Shocking that I was brave enough to say it out loud. And equally shocking – and sad- that it was true. To be certain, being controlled by guilt and fear doesn’t result in a perfect life that never causes harm to self or others. It simply means that one is burdened with guilt and fear.

Your most obedient child, BTW, might be the one to especially check on. The “should”, “have to”, “must” burden is a killer of a load. What happened to simply being human? Isn’t that enough? But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Quick on the heals of recovery, was a whole new library of books. Emotional intelligence…? What is that? Isn’t knowing the facts and understanding how to articulate them precisely all that really matters in life?

Boundaries…? Are those authors even Christian?? I mean really, since when do my needs matter? I have needs, but doesn’t Christianity secretly require a manipulative dance to get them met? To directly express my needs and limits sounds, well, selfishThat’s certainly not Christian. I should at least try to be selfless and then hope God will make up the rest.

Gifts of Imperfection…? Gifts?? Now you certainly are not Christian! Imperfections are only gifts after they are ground off with the polishing stone, or burned out with the fire, or made as if they never were by use of some other Biblical purifying method. Aren’t they?

~Ah, yes. I used to think a lot of things. ~

Those beliefs, more often than not, seem like a lifetime ago. But it has been no easy process for me to experience growth from the new concepts. Some foundational cards have had to be pulled from the house. Because unless you get to the thing behind the thing, the thing never really changes.  And so my house of cards has come tumbling down. Frightening. But a different kind of fear than what I’ve carried with me all my life.

More next time on what allowed me the freedom to pull the cards, and where I find myself on this journey now.