Giving Thanks

For many of us today, it is too easy to fall into despair, dejection, and pessimism.  Whether it’s the current political climate, struggles with work, or stress with family around the holidays, we can find ourselves focusing our attention on all that is wrong.  And when I let myself do that, I notice that I am more tired, I am less inspired and motivated, and I am grumpier.  When my mind is focused on my stress, anxiety, or problems then I become more lethargic and unhappy.

Now, of course we cannot ignore those things that are causing us stress.  But all too often we use this as an excuse to justify our fixation.  There is a difference between taking the challenges in life seriously and being overwhelmed with the problems in life.  And that difference has to do with perspective.  We lose our perspective on life when we become consumed with our anxieties and stress.  And one of the key ways we restore perspective is to practice gratitude, or thanks giving.

Since reading The Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book The Book of Joy this summer, I have been amazed at the power of gratitude in my own life.  Spending just five minutes noticing five things that I am grateful for this day lifts my mood, gives me energy again, and helps me have more perspective on the issues and problems I am facing.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’ve still had plenty of days where nothing seems to go right, I’m disappointed in myself, and everything seems insurmountable.  Those are the days I have needed my gratitude practice the most, and of course those are the days that it has been most difficult to maintain that practice.  Isn’t that how it always goes?  The moments we need something the most are the moments where it is the hardest to do.

And so on those days where things feel really out of control, I’ve had to slow down and notice the smallest things.  Maybe it was the delicious meal I had to scarf down between meetings, but it was still delicious.  Or maybe it was that short, brief, smile I got from a colleague that communicated “I know how you feel.”  Or maybe it was just the sound of wind chimes, or the fact that I get to sleep indoors tonight, or the few moments while watching TV that I didn’t have to think about my problems.  While all of these are banal, ordinary, small things, by spending time giving thanks for them they become real sustenance in the struggle to keep addressing my problems and life’s challenges.

You’re not running a 50 meter sprint, you’re running a marathon.  And to do a marathon well you need to pace yourself, and find strength, encouragement, and sustenance along the journey.  Spending time being grateful for even the small things in life will help you keep going.

November 29, 2017Permalink

Shame

The most powerful emotion in the human experience is not anger, fear, or joy: its shame.  Shame is the feeling associated with beliefs that I am wrong, broken, or bad.  Physically, shame may feel like a “cold sweat,” or “can’t breathe,” or “nauseous.”  We often have language that tries to soften or hide our emotion of shame.  We say we feel “embarrassed,” or “vulnerable,” or “exposed,” or the vague term “bad.”  Shame is the feeling you have when you can see in the other person’s eyes their disgust with something you’ve said or done.

But shame is not bad.  It is an emotion, like any other emotion.  It serves a purpose.  Shame helps us become of aware of when our actions are jeopardizing our social relationships.  We need social relationships to survive and to be healthy.  And so your experience of shame is trying to alert you to the fact that some action or state may cause you to lose those vital social relationships.  Think about a time when you felt “embarrassed,” did you also feel “alone,” “cut off,” or “singled out”?  That’s that interconnection of shame, a strong physiological and psychological alarm that your social relationships are at risk.

And shame has a destructive side.  Because we rely so much on social connections for survival and our health, we will do almost anything to avoid this experience of shame.  We’ll overeat, or drink, or use drugs to numb ourselves from that pain.  We’ll attack and blame other people as bad, “they should be the one who feels ashamed!”  And while sometimes the other person and the relationship is unhealthy, if the only way we cope with our shame is by cutting ties with others, then we will have a hard time truly discerning and enjoying healthy relationships.  Or we avoid the feeling of shame by blaming and criticizing ourselves.  “I’m so stupid!  I shouldn’t ever do that!”  And we’ll keep saying things like that to ourselves because it is more comfortable to be angry with ourselves than to feel shame.   Lastly we may be so traumatized by our shame that we simply avoid others and avoid the situation that put us in that place of shame.  “I’ll never speak in front of a group/class/office meeting again.”

Shame is also destructive because it can easily become attached to behaviors and states of being that won’t actually lead to losing social connection.  Shame is an emotion that is created by a community.  For example, a boy brings his teddy bear to show and tell.  And if the whole class (or even just the “popular” kids in class) laugh at him and call him a “baby”, this boy is likely to feel shame about his teddy bear, and possibly even shame around anything he does or is that suggests “immaturity.”  He’ll come home crying, throw the teddy bear away or in the closet, screaming “I’m not a baby!”

Or there is a multi-billion dollar industry that portrays a certain kind body as the ideal, sexy type.  And so a teenager moves through the world seeing magazines, tv ads, tv shows, movies, and more that all communicate the same message: “if you don’t have this kind of body, then you’ll never have friends, an attractive partner, and you won’t be very successful in life.”  In other words, if you don’t have the ideal body type then you’ll lose social connection.

And so the remedy to shame that has become attached to irrelevant or banal behaviors or attributes is acceptance and even pride.  Finding our way back to a place where we can see that we are a person deserving of love and connection, and noticing and celebrating the fact that we have social connection and support even with this particular behavior or attribute.

November 13, 2017Permalink

Using NVC In the Workplace

The workplace is rife with conflict, and yet it is an environment that is not conducive to expressing feelings and needs.  Rather than being a place where people are treated with empathy and collaboration, it is a place where we are treated with competition, efficiency, and task driven rather than relationship driven.

And so it makes sense to wonder: “how do I use Nonviolent Communication (NVC) in my workplace?”

I think it is vitally important to find ways to use NVC in the workplace.  The workplace is one of the few places left where we still encounter folks who we would not normally associate with.  People who may never experience another way of communication if we don’t try to show it to them at work.  And since the workplace occupies the majority of people’s time during the week, it is actually one of the main arenas where our wider culture plays itself out, and gets reinforced or changed.  Finding ways to use NVC in the workplace isn’t just about having better relationships at work and resolving conflict more easily, it is an act of cultural activism and subversion.

So I want to lay out three things that I think can help in this struggle of cultural activism.

First, as with any long term struggle, you’ll need to find some way to celebrate and savor the small victories.  There is no quick way to turn around an office’s culture of aggression, task-focus, and power.  Introducing NVC into this kind of culture is going to take time, a lot of time.  And so to keep going and to avoid burning out you’ll need to find some way to savor the small victories and success.  Maybe it’s noticing and celebrating your own behavior.  Whenever you react with empathy before giving advice/direction, whenever you share your own feelings in a meeting or a one-on-one discussion, whenever you make a connection request rather than jumping to an action request, these are all moments to celebrate.

And what does celebrate those small victories look like?  It looks like taking a moment in private to notice what needs those actions met.  Maybe it met your needs for integrity, to make a difference, or your own need for compassion.  Whatever needs those actions met, savor that.  Enjoy the feeling of satisfaction of meeting your own needs to make a difference and live in integrity.  Even if the other person didn’t react to your NVC approach the way you’d wished, still see if you can enjoy the fact that no matter how they behaved, you acted with integrity and compassion.

Second, the key to using NVC in any setting is safety.  Feeling safe enough to share vulnerably and honestly.  And sadly too often our workplaces are not places we feel emotionally safe to do that.  The key to creating safety is empathy.  Now, it doesn’t really work to go around and tell other people they should show more empathy.  Rather we have to show people what empathy looks like.  We need to model empathy.

We can do that by actively empathizing with co-workers or bosses when they’re frustrated or upset.  We can do this in business meetings by asking people to make some empathetic guesses about folks who will be impacted by our decisions.  “How do you think this will impact Bob, the HR person’s job?”  “How do you think this decision will affect our customer’s experience?”

Third, we can model empathy by transforming our judgements into empathetic guesses.

Try this, next time you have a judgmental thought about your boss or co-worker, take a few minutes and try to figure out what feelings and needs might have been motivating their behavior.  Were they feeling anxious because they want accomplishment and efficiency?  Were they feeling tired and wanted freedom from responsibility?  Whatever feelings and needs you think might be driving their “annoying” behavior, open the conversation with that guess, check it out with them, before you explain how you felt and how that behavior left you with unmet needs.

October 24, 2017Permalink

The Stories in Our Heads

Humans are storytelling beings.  The way we make meaning of the world is by telling stories.  We see this on the large cultural scale with things like religion, science, and philosophy.  But we do this on an individual scale as well.  We tell stories like “Bob is a mean jerk and is trying to stop me from helping the company improve.”  Or “my wife is working hard to make sure we can live the lives we want.”  Or “my children are rebelling against me and if I don’t make sure they have proper discipline they’re going to get into a lot of trouble in life.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with storytelling.  In fact, we need it in order to have meaning and purpose in our lives.  But there are two ways in which the stories we tell ourselves about the world, other people, and even ourselves can become problematic.  First, they can become a problem when we think they are objectively true.  That is, they become a problem when we forget that the story is something we have written in our own minds and it doesn’t actually exist in the outer world.

Now sometimes our stories are true.  But there is a big difference between making sure our stories are true and just assuming our stories are true.  For example, if I tell myself this story: “I cannot make any difference on national politics” and assume that is objectively true it’s going to create some problems for me.  When I believe that story as objectively true I feel powerless, I feel stuck, and ultimately I don’t put any effort towards trying to make a difference.  However, if I explore whether that story is true, rather than just assuming it is, I may discover a more nuanced story:  “As one person I cannot make any difference on national politics, but if I committed to helping organization Y then I can contribute to how that organization is influencing national policy.”  This more nuanced story can help me feel more empowered and gives me an option of something to do, rather than believing there is nothing I can do.  But I would never discover this more nuanced story if I just assume that my initial story (“I cannot make any difference”) is objectively true.  What allows me to discover the more nuanced story is an awareness that the initial story is just something I am thinking in my head; it’s not necessarily objectively true.

The second way our stories get us into trouble is when we don’t tell them to other people.  The stories we tell ourselves shape how we act in the world.  If I am telling myself this story about my co-worker: “he doesn’t care about getting this project done” then that is going to shape how I act in the world.  I’m probably going to work on the project alone, come into meetings with my co-worker and lay out my ideas without soliciting his feedback; I may even actively ignore his feedback labeling it as “unconstructive.”  And if I never tell my co-worker that I think he doesn’t really care about this project, he may be confused and hurt by my actions.  Again, my story might be true, but if I assume it is true without actually talking to my co-worker about it then I run the risk of behaving in a way that only further confirms my story.

So we need to be aware that our stores are just that…our stories.  We write them in our own brain, and we seek evidence that supports those stories and we discount evidence which undermines our story.  And if we can be aware that our stories are our own creation, we can be more willing to share them with others and work to figure out whether they are really true or not.

October 11, 2017Permalink

Dangers of Digital Communication

Technology makes communication harder.  I know in a lot of ways technology helps us stay in touch with old friends, or stay connected to family that live elsewhere, or it gives us time to reflect and edit how we communicate.  But in terms of talking about difficult topics, in terms of talking about the stuff that is really hard, technology actually makes those conversations worse.

Regularly I see clients who are struggling with their romantic partner or with friends because they try to process big issues, areas of deep conflict, over text message or e-mail.  And there’s usual a justifying story of how using that medium gives them the space and the time they need to really think through what they want to say.  However, I find that often that is simply a story.  That with the anonymity of writing on a screen they don’t have to look into the eyes of the other person, and see how the words they are saying are in real time impacting the listener.  And when we get an e-mail or text message that is hard to read, I hear from many clients how their first inclination isn’t to breathe and process but fire a message back as quickly as possible.

And yet, even with the inherent delay in communication through technology, which could give us time to process and reflect, instead we often dwell.  Dwelling is when we fixate on what someone says, and as we fixate we construct narratives about what it means about them, what it means about us, and how it brings up all our past wounds.  Dwelling is not the same as self-reflection.  Self-reflection involves calming ourselves down rather than getting more amped up. Self-reflection involves trying to understand where the other person’s intentions end and my own stuff begins.  Self-reflection involves owning what is my stuff and not putting it on the other person.  This is the opposite of dwelling.

And even in writing these blog posts, there is a way in which I don’t get to see how my words impact you the reader in real time.  I don’t get to self-edit as I go, rather you as the read have the reaction and thoughts that you have, and if you choose to share them with me I may be able to change what I typed after the fact, or apologize, but I can’t change the fact of that what I wrote impacted you in the way that it did.  It’s a risk I take every time I write a blog post.

So please, next time you’re thinking about sending that text message or e-mail consider if this conversation would be better had over the phone or even better, in person.

September 28, 2017Permalink

Control: The Self-Defeating Myth

Many of us wish we could have more control over our lives.  I know I do.  I do all sorts of things that help me maintain the illusion that I am in control.

And then something happens that shatters that illusion.  A hurricane hits.  We get laid off.  We get into a car accident through no fault of our own.  Or we simply have one of those crappy days where nothing seems to “go the way it was supposed to.”

And if you are like me, when those moments come, whether big or small, that make it clear that we can’t really control what’s going on in our lives, then we feel scared, alone, and deeply uncomfortable.  To really face how much of our lives is determined by chance, chaos, and unpredictability is unsettling.  And the real test comes in how we respond to that awareness.

Many of us, myself included, have the initial response of trying to clamp down with more control.  If my first two clients of the day both spontaneously cancel their appointments, my first reaction is a desire to text all my other clients that day to make sure they are coming.  Or when I’m trying to get something done and there’s a constant barrage of interruptions, I might try to just clamp down inside of myself, clenching all my muscles, and try to just barrel through and ignore everything going on around me.  Or when I try to roll out a new program that isn’t being received the way I expected it to, I might try to ignore the feedback I’m getting and just focus on what’s positive about this new program.

These are all ways we respond to our lack of control by trying to impose more control.  And while some of this, in moderation, can be helpful, ultimately it just makes us more infatuated with the myth of control.  I think some of us, again myself included, truly believe that if we could just get better control over our lives then all the problems would go away.

The seductive myth of control, put simply, is: that if we could just have more control over situations then things would go better.      

However, the dark side of that myth is that then when things don’t go well it’s our fault.  If only we had done better, this wouldn’t have happened.  We are to blame for things going wrong in our lives.  And that brings a lot of shame.

But the other way we can respond to those moments where the illusion of control is dashed is to surrender.  When tragedy strikes, or when things are simply not going the way we had planned, instead of trying to impose more control, we can choose to surrender to what is.

Surrender is not the same thing as giving up.  Surrender is simply accepting the truth that I am not in control of other people, the world I find myself in, or in the events that happen in my life.    

Now of course we can make choices that increase the probability of “success.”  Having a weekly habit of exercise, good diet, and good sleep greatly increases the probability of good health.  But it only increases the probability; it does not make a guarantee.  There’s not only genetic diseases that may not be avoidable, but we also live in environments that have become so polluted that toxins and carcinogens can be found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink.

And what surrendering offers you, is it frees you up to make the best choices you can and then to enjoy life no matter what happens.  So when the hurricane hits, or the job gets terminated, or you simply can’t get your to-do list done, you aren’t stuck beating yourself up over it.  You are blaming yourself and shaming yourself.  You aren’t squandering your own joy to feed this myth that if you simply had more control things would be better.  Surrender is not apathy.  Surrender is freedom to enjoy life in the midst of chaos, unpredictability, and chance.

September 11, 2017Permalink

Responding to Hate with Love

I am seeing a lot of hatred of the other in the world right now.  The events in Charlottesville and Barcelona are clear examples of people exposing hatred towards others, so much hatred of the other that it even leads to violence and murder.  And, like a chain reaction, spilling out of both events are well-intentioned people espousing hatred themselves.  People blaming and demonizing Muslims.  People blaming and demonizing people who are Islamophobic.  People bragging about how many “white racists” they’ve defriended or blocked on social media after Charlottesville.

And it’s understandable; everything in our culture teaches us that you fight hatred with more hatred.  We’ve seen the media pictures of two groups of protestors screaming at each other.  Faces on both sides are so screwed up into rage and contempt.  We’re taught to fight intimidation and violence with more intimidation and violence.  “Don’t let them push you around…you have to show them whose boss!”   “Don’t let them know you’re scared…when they get mean, get meaner.”

But fighting hatred with more hatred only perpetuates the cycle of violence, antagonism, and alienation which fuels more hatred.  If our response to a KKK member is to say “what a scum of the Earth…how repugnant….he/she should be locked up for life.”  Then is it any wonder that this KKK member feels disconnected, “oppressed”, and alienated from society?  And do these feelings lead anywhere except for fear and hatred?

I know this is hard.  We want to denounce ideologies and belief systems that cause real pain and death to people simply because of the color of their skin or the religion they follow.  Absolutely.  But treating people who adopt those belief systems with contempt doesn’t end those ideologies, it fuels them.

Last week I watched this PBS documentary “Accidental Courtesy” (which you can currently find on Netflix):

To be clear, it is not Daryl Davis’ responsibility, nor is it any minority’s responsibility, to befriend those who would directly oppress them.  The oppressed do not have an obligation to educate the oppressor.  But that makes what Daryl is doing all the more impressive and admirable.  Daryl is doing the hard, long work of responding to hatred with love.  Daryl doesn’t demonize those who hold violent belief systems; instead he offers friendship and love to the person so that they can one day be free of those belief systems.

I know trying to wrap one’s mind around befriending KKK member is a lot.  And rather than try to grapple with that very difficult task first, start with who it is in your life that you label as “hateful.”  Maybe it is a co-worker who supports the opposite political party from you.  Maybe it is a family member who makes comments about other races which leaves you feeling uneasy and uncomfortable.  Maybe it is simply a friend, acquaintance, or co-worker who merely uses loaded language, who moves through the world by making a lot of negative judgments of other people.

Start with that person.  Imagine what it would look like to offer this person friendship and love.  I know it’ll be uncomfortable, but the state of the world right now is clear evidence that we can’t heal our brokenness by staying in our comfort zones.

Next time you see that person, take a breath.  Notice your impulse to judge them, to move away from them, to ignore them, or whatever that first impulse is.  Relax that muscle, and find a way to connect.  See if you can empathize with their feelings and values.  See if you can connect over a shared love of music, books, TV, sports, etc.  Don’t expect them to change quickly; don’t even make that your goal.  Your goal is to simply love this person, and that is enough.

August 23, 2017Permalink

Soothing Our Fear

Fear comes in all kinds of forms.  There’s anxiety, dread, scared, panicked, worried, suspicious, and mistrustful.  All of these are different nuances to the one core experience of fear.  Fear is so powerful that subtly it drives a lot of our culture, our social behavior, and our personal decisions about how we live our lives.  Fear can even shape how we see the world if we are unfortunate enough to spend long, regular intervals of feeling fear.  And as you know, fear can at times be really grounded in reality and at other times be completely based in fantasy and projection.

So what are we to do about this multi-faceted, complex, powerful emotion?

First, ask yourself “what is the threat?”  Evolutionarily fear developed to protect us from real tangible threats to our lives.  Now, those threats have become much more amorphous.  So at times we need to really ask ourselves “what is the threat?”  And the answer isn’t always the most obvious answer.  For example, when I feel anxiety because I realized I said something insensitive to a friend, I’ll ask myself “what is the threat?”  The first, obvious answer is “my friend will be mad at me.”  And while that may be true, that isn’t enough of a threat to justify how much anxiety I’m feeling.  So I want to probe deeper.  “And why is that a threat?”  “Well they might say some really hurtful things to me.”  “And why is that a threat?”  “Well…cause maybe then I’ll lose that friend.”

Second, don’t belittle, dismiss, or ignore your fear.  Continuing with my example I started above, if I recognize that the deep threat is that I’ll lose this friend, I may be tempted to then say “well…that’s a pretty small chance.  I should just forget about that.”  And while this approach can produce quick, immediate peace to my anxiety, over time it is this kind of response which makes anxiety bigger.

Remember, fear is our body alerting to us that there’s a potential threat.  If we dismiss that threat, our nervous system doesn’t go “oh, okay, that’s not a threat.”  Instead what it says is “oh shit, he didn’t get the memo!!”  And so either later, or the next time a similar situation arises, my anxiety is going to be even louder and more overwhelming.  Because my nervous system wants me to be safe, and the only way it can ensure that is to make sure I get its messages.

So instead of dismissing your fears, you’ll need to soothe them.  Soothing my fear about losing a friend might look like saying to myself “this is a really important friendship.  And having love and support in my life is really crucial to my survival.  I’m so glad I know how important friendship, and this friend in particular, is to me, and for now I am going to trust that this friend still loves and cares for me.”  Notice how this is different from saying to myself “oh, that’ll never happen.”  When I soothe my fear I acknowledge that the threat is legitimate, and I state what I am going to do about that threat.

So for an example where the threat is more real, let’s say one were scared that they weren’t going to make their mortgage payment.  There can be a real serious threat involved “I might lose the house, and be homeless.”  A soothing statement might be “Being homeless would be really scary.  There is a lot of real danger in living on the streets, and there is a lot of danger in becoming alienated from a most of society.  And while I still have my house, I am going to figure out how to make my mortgage payment.”  The soothing statement treats the threat as real and legitimate, and it states what I am going to do to address that threat.

July 25, 2017Permalink

Boundaries: Essential to Happy Relationships

Boundaries are essential to happy relationships.  That may seem counter-intuitive.  “Aren’t happy couples always spending time together and sharing everything, and doing whatever will make their partner happy?”  No.  In fact, that previous sentence ought to send you screaming to the hills!  For two people to really be happy in a relationship both persons need to know what their boundaries are and be able to clearly communicate them to one another.

The first tricky step is knowing what our boundaries are.  Reflect on your history with someone.  When were you feeling resentful and put out, even though you said yes?  When were you angry with the other person for seemingly “no reason”?  Chances are those were moments where your boundaries were being crossed but in the moment at least you weren’t fully aware of what your boundary was.  And while it may be easy to look back and notice where we weren’t fully aware of our boundaries, the more important skill is to be aware of where our boundaries are in the present.  To do that, I suggest doing two things.

First, before you say yes to a request check in with your body.  Do you feel tight, tense, heavy, or tired?  Then there’s probably some boundary there you need to articulate.  Continue investigating your body.  Are you tense because you’re always saying yes to this particular request, and you just wish this other person would do it themselves for a change?  Are you feeling heavy because you have absolutely no desire to do this favor at all?

Second, really investigate why you want to say yes.  Are you saying yes because you think you should?  Are you telling yourself that a “good/understanding/compassionate/loving partner” would say yes?  If that’s why you’re saying yes, then there’s probably some boundary that’s being crossed and your mind is talking you out of respecting your own boundary.  So what is that boundary?  Are you wanting more consideration and respect?  Are you wanting more rest and ease?

In short, to know what your boundary is, you need to know what it is you want in this particular situation.  It’s both that simple, and that hard.  Often our families of origins or various cultural messages have taught us to devalue what it is that we want.  But that is a recipe for ignoring and even not being aware of what our boundaries are.  And without knowing what our boundaries are we will automatically sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice until we’re so resentful we explode.

Now, once you become aware of what your boundaries are, the next tricky step is communicating them clearly and healthfully.  Here’s an unhealthy way to express your boundaries: “God!  You are such an inconsiderate jerk!  You never thank me for helping you out, and you certainly don’t ever ask if I need help!!”  Blaming the other person, labeling them as bad or “a jerk” is not going to help your partner hear the boundary you are trying to establish.  Instead they are going to feel hurt and alienated from you.  And in that condition, they aren’t going to be all that interested in respecting your boundaries.

So to communicate your boundaries in a healthy and direct way you’ll need to share vulnerably.  You’ll need to open up about what emotions you’re feeling and what precious values or needs this boundary is protecting for you.  Something closer to: “I don’t want to clean the kitchen again this week because I feel really sad and invisible when my hard work isn’t acknowledged and appreciated.”

Could that sentence start a fight?  Absolutely.  But communicating our boundaries in a direct and healthy way isn’t about avoiding conflict.  In fact doing this often brings latent conflict up into conscious awareness.  In that example, the conflict over the kitchen and being appreciated for doing that is already present…it just wasn’t being talked about.  Communicating that boundary doesn’t create the conflict; it merely draws the conflict into conscious awareness.  And it’s only when both persons are actively aware of the conflict that a real solution can be found.

 

July 10, 2017Permalink

Forgiving

There is no way to move through the world, in a healthy way, that can completely avoid hurting others or being hurt by others.  Anything short of becoming a hermit or being completely co-dependent means that we will do or say something which will hurt other people’s feelings, and vice versa.  This isn’t permission to go out and just be nasty with people because huts are going to happen anyways.  This is merely a statement of reality.  Despite your best efforts, you already have and will continue to hurt and offend other people.  And despite your best efforts, you already have been and will continue to be hurt and offended by other people.

That’s why, recently when I attended a conference on forgiveness, I thought of this analogy.  Forgiveness is like our body’s capacity to heal.  For people whose bodies don’t naturally heal, for example people with hemophilia, every little cut and scrape is life threatening.  People with such diseases experiences “minor” hurts as, at worst, life threatening, and at best as ongoing, long-term sources of pain and suffering.  Similarly, if you can’t or won’t forgive others then every “minor” hurt lingers in you as a constant sore.  And these “minor” hurts could even become life threatening to the relationship.  Have you ever been just fuming all day because your boss made one critical comment?  Have you ever given your partner the cold shoulder because they forgot to do some favor you asked of them?  Have you ever tried to “get even” with a friend or a partner in a fight?

And what about “major” hurts?  When a partner lies, or a close friend says something hurtful out of spite, or even someone violates your sense of trust in them?  Without a healthy system of forgiveness, your relationship has no chance of survival.

So we need healthy forgiveness to survive.  Our relationships need healthy forgiveness to survive.  So let me be clear what healthy forgiveness is; it is the replacement of negative emotions like resentment, bitterness, defensiveness, contempt, etc with compassionate emotions like sympathy, empathy, or compassion.  Notice that healthy forgiveness does NOT make the hurt okay, it does not absolve you or the other person for responsibility for serious harm done, and it doesn’t suddenly make you okay with the painful action.  Because forgiveness isn’t actually about an action, it is about a relationship.  You don’t forgive a behavior, you forgive a person.

Now, forgiveness can be simple and sometimes it can be very complicated.  Sometimes it can happen very quickly and sometimes it can take a lifetime of work.  There is no simple, easy solution to forgiveness.  But I want to offer you one key tool to help you work on forgiveness: empathy.  For forgiveness to happen you have to empathize with both yourself and the other person.  And this is true no matter whether you are the one who hurt someone or if someone hurt you.

The place to start is to empathize with whoever is hurt, whether that is you or the other person.  Remember, empathy is not about beefing up our inner judgmental, critical narratives of ourselves or others.  Empathy is about genuinely connecting with the feelings underneath our narratives.  Feelings have no judgment or blame.  If you find yourself rehearsing a script of who’s at fault, then you haven’t started self-empathizing yet.

After you have empathized with the one who is hurting, then you have to empathize with the one who committed the hurt.  Remember, every action someone does is in the pursuit of some vital need.  Underneath every hurtful action is some desire that you can empathize with because we all need the same things.

So begin with this exercise.  Write down a moment when you were hurt, or you hurt someone else.  Write it as objectively as you can, just what a video camera would capture, leave out any projection of motive or blame.  Then empathize with the feelings of the one that was hurt, write down the feelings, and connect with that pain.  Then empathize with the person who committed the harm, write down what their needs might have been, and what they were feeling, and emotionally connect with that.  And notice what has shifted in you.

June 26, 2017Permalink
Free Practice Group

Twice a month I lead a free Compassionate Communication Practice Group. Open to those new and advanced students. We meet on the First and Third Monday of the month at 6 pm. We gather at 640 Hawthorn Lane in classroom 8. Classrooms are behind the church and to the left, next to the parking lot. Practice Group sessions usually run for 2 hours.

The next one will be on July 6th at 6 pm.