Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Does It Take?

It is a given that every human being wants to be loved. Babies are born seeking the warmth and comfort of their mothers, and infants will die of neglect if deprived of human contact. Some people reach a place in their lives where they feel unworthy of love, and they stop seeking it. I guess all of us feel that way once in a while, but some unfortunate people seem to get stuck there. Perhaps they give up and withdraw from human contact. Perhaps they decide that even negative attention is better than no attention at all, and they begin to cause problems for others so they can feel like they are at least somebody who matters.

What does it take to reach people who are angry or controlling, those who choose their actions mainly to make themselves feel important, and to help them to see that there's a better way?

What does it take to be the sort of person who is capable of looking past the annoying exterior of such people and speaking directly to the lonely hearts inside that have given up on being loved?

What does it take to remain steady in our faith that we are deserving of love even when we fall far short of being the good people we would always like to be

These are the things that I desperately want to know.

Monday, March 30, 2009

What You Are Is What You Get

There is a bible verse that people like to paraphrase that basically says whatever you sow, you also reap. The concept here is that your actions have consequences, and you will have to face those consequences in the future. It seems somewhat similar to idea of karma, which appears in various Eastern religious and spiritual practices.

Over time, I've come to take the fundamental principle of this as "what you are is what you get". I understand it to mean that whatever thinking is going inside you also becomes your way of being affected by things outside you, and in actuality, it's all an extension of you. In my last post, I wrote about learning not to judge, and how if we can learn to accept our own feelings without resistance, then we are also learning to accept the feelings of others without judgment. Therefore, our relationships with others will become different, just because we've changed something inside ourselves.

Another example linked with judging is that being judgmental creates self-consciousness. Why is this so? Because if you are constantly judging other people, you will assume that they too are constantly judging you, and you will try to imagine what their judgments of you are like. Then, you react to those imagined judgments by trying to manage your "image", that is to say, by worrying about how others see you. And if you stop judging others, what happens? You forget to worry that they might be judging you. In fact, the whole concept of judging begins to disappear from your mind, and the result is that you will have much less self-consciousness about how others perceive you.

All of the "insides" and "outsides" have similar linkages. If you're a deceitful person, you will start to wonder if others are deceiving you too, and you will grow suspicious and have trouble trusting anyone. So, if you want to build trust with others and feel like you can rely on them, work on becoming a completely honest person. If you never really listen to anyone else at work, but just look for opportunities to promote your own ideas and plans, you will begin to feel like no one is taking you seriously. Why? Because to convince other people of the merit of your ideas, you need to form ideas that fit with their understanding of what's going on. If you don't listen to them talk about what they think is happening and why, you can't refine your ideas in appropriate ways nor be persuasive in explaining why your ideas will succeed. In other words, if you want to be listened to and taken seriously, you will want to learn to listen to and take others seriously.

Really everything that irritates or frustrates us about others or about our situation is a clue to something we need to pay attention to inside ourselves. Once we figure out how to address our own thoughts and actions from the inside, then the outside problems will heal themselves.

Have you ever changed something in yourself and found that your reality changed as well?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Learning Not to Judge

For me, these past couple of weeks have been dominated by the theme of judgment. It just seems to be coming up everywhere in my life. Because of the economic situation, we have an environment of uncertainty and absolutely unavoidable budget-cutting at work, and this week I listened to one of the leaders of our institution telling me, almost tearfully, how very hard it is for them to make those tough decisions and be considered "incompetent" because of it (it's a college, not a financial firm, in case you're curious). I also was quite a bit annoyed with my husband yesterday, an annoyance primarily caused by my strong belief that he shouldn't be the way he is--in other words, an annoyance caused by my judgment of him.

One thing that's becoming much clearer to me is that people, including me, use judgment as a way of reducing anxiety. When you're in a situation where something unpleasant or painful is happening to others, it's very natural for your sense of empathy to kick in, and you start to feel their emotions. If you don't want to go down this path, you can stop it with a thought that separates you from the other person. Typically, such a thought is like, "This (bad) thing is happening to them because of something they did, and since they essentially brought this onto themselves, they don't deserve my sympathy. I'm not like that. I don't do those kinds of things, so the bad thing won't happen to me too." In other words, when you judge, you categorize someone else as "not like me", and you make yourself feel protected. Then, having created this sense of separation to protect yourself from the discomfort of really understanding their feelings, you turn around the next day and wonder why you feel so lonely and isolated.

So, the impulse to judge really arises from the desire to avoid pain. This is one of the things that make close personal relationships really challenging. When you're intimate with others, and you expand your self-identity to include them, you get an emotional stake in the events of their lives. Then, when they become involved in a difficult situation, the desire to pass judgment may intensify for you because their pain is your pain. The intimate relationship prevents you from disengaging from the emotional connection, so you try to reduce the pain with the limited tools that are available to you, including judgment. It's often easier for us to listen to acquaintances vent about their problems than it is to listen to our most beloved friends and family. With a casual acquaintance, you know that at the end of the conversation, you can get up, go home, and be comfortable again. It's much easier to willingly let yourself experience someone else's pain if you know it's for a limited time, and you feel like you're free to break away when it starts to get rough.

But, here's the good news. If you commit to the practice of accepting, allowing, and fully feeling your own emotions, even the unpleasant ones, without resistance, then you are also practicing the skills needed for a fulfilling intimate relationship. When you can allow yourself to experience your own discomfort without turning away from it, then you also have what it takes to allow yourself to fully empathize with the pain of others without passing judgment. When we refrain from judgment, as John-Michael so eloquently wrote just a couple of days ago, we create "an open and receptive Space that welcomes" others. Being able to offer that kind of precious space, where people feel free to reveal their vulnerabilities and imperfections without fear of being judged or labeled, will deepen your relationships in ways that are amazing and beautiful.

As you make judgments today, can you go deeper and see what emotions you're trying to protect yourself against? Can you be courageous enough to experience those emotions just as they are?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Goodbye Self-Pity

I’ve been caught up for the past few days in the emotion of self-pity. Both my husband and my daughter have had the flu over the past couple of weeks, and thanks to being spared from the affliction myself, I became their designated caretaker. This means that I did a lot more work than I normally do, I endured two cranky people while I did it, and I gave up other activities that I wanted to be doing. So, as the whole episode finally wound down, I found myself feeling kind of resentful—poor little me, working so hard, giving up so much, and getting nothing for it.

At the same time, I’ve also become more aware of how my thoughts sometimes function as a means of distracting myself from uncomfortable feelings that I don’t want to deal with directly. Often, instead of allowing myself to fully experience a bad feeling, I would focus my attention on the future, making some plan for a new activity, getting excited about it, and mentally preparing for it, as a way of avoiding having the very unpleasant experience of really processing the emotion. However, I purposefully didn’t allow myself to redirect in this way, and I tried allowing the feeling of self-pity to just be as it was. This created another kind of dilemma though, because the feeling really wanted to express itself. Resentment always seems to want to be compensated for its suffering. In my case, the impulse was to say something to my husband that would make him aware of how inconvenienced I had been by his illness, and would motivated him to do something nice to make it up to me. But, I did not permit myself to do this.

Coincidentally, I have been reading Gina Lake’s fantastic blog this past week, and her post on Getting and Giving in particular resonated with me. Because of it, I’ve developed this solid determination that I’m not going to allow this “I’m lacking something and I need to get it to feel better” way of thinking hijack my own ability to create happiness for myself. So here was a perfect test case, and I drew the line. I would feel the emotion, I would allow the emotion, I would accept the emotion, but I would refuse to be controlled by the emotion. If you’ve tried this, you probably learned what I did, which is that emotions that don’t get their way tend to grow stronger and more obnoxious, at least for a while.

I ended up doing a fairly lengthy meditation on the emotion yesterday, because I know from experience that if I meditate on a bad feeling long enough and with enough focus, it will eventually become (in a paradoxical way) pleasant to experience. So, I held my attention on the feeling itself, and on my desire to find a way to live peacefully with this emotion, but still not let my actions be controlled by it. I probably meditated about an hour and a half in the afternoon, then again at bedtime, until I fell asleep.

The weird thing was that when my husband came to bed in the middle of the night, he inadvertently woke me up, and even though I’d been asleep for a few hours, I felt as if I’d been meditating the whole time. I had this intense feeling of being totally aware of my body and its energy, as if for the first time. I could feel both its heaviness and its insubstantiality. I felt my own insignificance, like I was nothing but a speck of dust in an infinite universe, and yet I felt every bodily sensation as if I were the only thing in existence. It seemed a lot like being born anew and having a very primal self-awareness. Then, I began to worry that it might not go away, and I would remain in this kind of consciousness for the rest of my life, making it very hard to get anything done. But it did pass, both the self-pity and the hyperawareness, and I am feeling just fine now.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Taking Risks and Listening Deeply

This post kicks off what will be a several part series on the basics of creating and nurturing close relationships. I have found that The Talk Book by Gerald Goodman is a terrific resource for learning to initiate and improve relationships. It was written in 1988 and is out of print now, but believe me, it is well worth the effort to track down a used copy. Far more than inspirational, it is a practical guide to mastering the basic techniques of personal communication, explained in detail, and it includes specific exercises for increasing your skills. It absolutely demystifies the process of developing close, personal relationships. There are six components that Goodman identifies as important for communicating in close relationships. Two of these are personal disclosure, and the use of reflection.

Personal disclosure is the first key to intimacy, and is defined as “… taking risks…by disclosing an unvarnished truth, a private thought, an embarrassing impulse, a romantic feeling, an undignified desire, the first rush of love, or any confession of classified information that might make someone think less of us or put us in emotional jeopardy.” Goodman masterfully guides us through the art of disclosure by examining some film and real life dialog that illustrates how disclosures affect feelings. By disclosing our private thoughts, we demonstrate that we trust the person we’re talking to, and that we’re willing to take the risk of allowing ourselves to be known, just as we are. These kinds of personal self-revelations make our acquaintances feel comfortable in revealing similarly private feelings, and can sometimes lead us into a deepening spiral of disclosure matching. Goodman provides examples that clearly show the links between what we’re saying, what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, what we’re holding back, and how the relationship evolves as a consequence of these choices. He warns us against the pitfalls of the premature disclosure, in other words, talking about something very private too soon in a budding relationship. Premature disclosure puts pressure on the listener, and can cause discomfort when it happens too early in the “getting to know you” stage of a relationship. Another warning is about flooded disclosure, that is when our urgent need to talk about our private concerns overwhelms our consideration for our listener. While this may be deadly to a newly forming relationship, Goodman also draws our attention to the inherent beauty and usefulness of flooding as an emotional release, and shows how lending a willing ear to someone’s flooding can be a deep act of caring.

Reflections are defined as mirroring back what someone is saying without adding interpretation, judgment or analysis. Reflections give people the feeling of being understood, and encourage them to further open up about themselves. Being able to meaningfully reflect the thoughts and feelings of another person is closely linked with empathy. A good way to increase our empathy for others is to take the time to imagine in detail what it’s like to be them. Goodman also illustrates how distortive reflections arise when we, as listeners, want things to be different than they are, and we want to project our own views onto what is being said. This denial of reality results in a feeling of separation for both the listener and speaker. By working to accurately summarize what someone is saying, we give them the opportunity to correct any misperceptions we have about them or their feelings.

As I read this book, I remembered some moments where I felt deeply connected with another person, and I was able to see how these moments were created through disclosure and reflection. By disclosing our private thoughts and feelings, we allow ourselves to be known by another in all our imperfect humanness, we communicate that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to show our flaws, and we give others permission to do the same. By providing reflecting statements, we say, “I hear you. I understand your experience. It’s okay to tell me how you’re really feeling.” One of my favorite quotes from The Talk Book is Goodman’s observation that “What we do know is that the disclosure of empathy and the reflections of empathy can blend giving and taking to a point where the become the same. And that’s where love starts.” By becoming aware of how the basic mechanics of disclosure and reflection work in building emotional intimacy, we can confidently create the conditions that make it possible.