Tuesday, March 15, 2011


it's past 6:30 and the sun is still up!!!! The snow is melting and life is stirring.  Spring is my favorite season because it is a time when I feel energized, excited and full of awe at the beauty of nature.

In recent years popular psychology has incited us to be more aware of our emotions. In practice I see that most people who have cut themselves off from their bodies will notice their uncomfortable emotions first. I also notice that when speaking with children parents and caretakers will name emotions such as fatigue or frustration but rarely give words for more pleasant states such as happy or joyful.

I specify "cut off from their bodies" because one of the most powerful ways to tell the difference between an emotion and an interpretation or judgement that we are telling ourselves is to notice if we are basing ourselves on our thoughts or on what is happening in our bodies. I have met people who swear they are happy because their life is going good but their body language creates dissonance and makes me think they are sad.

On the flip side popular psychology also encourages us to be positive. I have met people who take this so seriously that they would never admit to being human and vulnerable enough to feel fatigue or irritation.

The NVC approach asks that we speak about feelings and needs. Since feelings are considered to be a way to detect underlying needs the ability to detect and name  a full range of emotions that are present from moment to moment is important. Moment to moment awareness though is not enough. We also need to cultivate a non-judgmental attitude towards the experience.  

What I love about this approach is that it encourages people to be aware of both comfortable and uncomfortable experiences and to honor them all. When I meet people who are cut off because we are a society that dislikes discomfort and judges it to be bad and something to eradicate, I feel sad because most of the time this also means being cut off from our ability to sense emotions such as joy, tenderness, awe ect...

Honoring it all means being aware of and fully experiencing those wonderful moments in life. Too often when I ask people about their last happy or pleasurable experience they have no idea. Take the time to savor the feeling of expectation of a good meal. Savor the meal, notice the joy a smile brings.

It also means noticing the sadness, the irritation, the feeling that something is not how you want it to be and allow these feelings to be. Listen to what the discomfort is telling you. These feelings are valuable for knowing what our needs are. Honoring them allows you to start inviting possible strategies to meet your needs into your life.

So what are you feeling at this moment: happy, sad, confused, excited, angry, dissonance, torn, joyful, calm? Are you inviting what is or is there a thought that pops up like "I should not be sad look at all those poor people in Japan"

Knowing what is there in every moment and welcoming the full range of experiences is a wonderful way to live life. The first time I experienced this state of presence I remember that what struck me most was a sense of internal space that was just immense.

It reminds me of the following story. (Don't ask me where I heard it) 

A student is experiencing some distress since his studies are not going as well as he wants them too. He goes to see his teacher. The teacher asks the student to take a walk with him down to the lake. Once on the beach he tells the student to pick up two handfuls of sand and invites him to put one in a cup of water and drink it. How does it taste he asks? The student a little bemused replies "terrible". Now put the other handful of sand in the lake and drink some water from the lake the teacher says. The student drinks the water and finds it refreshing and good.

The teacher goes on to explain that in both cases the same problem, a fistful of sand were encountered. In a small container there is no space and the sand mixed with the water is terrible. But mixed in a vessel as big as a lake the sand has almost no impact. If you can have less sand then great but it is better to grow to be as big as a lake or ocean so that no matter what the problems you have you have the internal space to receive them and not be overwhelmed.  

The practice of moment to moment awareness coupled with non-judgement supports the creation of this immense internal space. When I went to see the Dalai Lama speak in Montreal he said that training the mind is like an ocean. Although there are waves on the surface underneath it all their is calm and space.

My daughter is trying to catch my eye and I am going to go savor this moment with her.

Monday, March 7, 2011

what a good girl...

What a good baby!!!

I've heard these words over and over again. My daughter has been travelling with us and involved in social life since she was born five months ago. The other day waiting at a restaurant there was a group we did not know waiting in line. Evelyn got really excited and I could not figure out why. I finally noticed where she was looking and realized she wanted a piece of the action and did not like being excluded from the group. She settled down as soon as I moved closer to the group. She is quite social and is so excited about being out, seeing new things, she generally behaves in a way  that people label as good. I know they mean that they have enjoyed her presence and curious and alert temperament and I've found myself using the term myself sometimes. 

Always with some disquiet and a feeling of dissonance however. It is no longer politically correct to say bad boy or bad girl. We've been told to use praise instead. So good girl, good boy, good baby are okay right?. For me  the term always brings to mind the many "good" people I've had the privilege of meeting who did not dare try anything in life that they might fail at for fear of loosing the label. Chief amongst them Pierre, my husband. He was such a good little boy, so intelligent and got so much praise that he will readily admit today that these labels prevented him from accepting failures in life or trying anything that he did not do 100% well. (until he met me of course!!!!) We do children a disservice by using such polarizing dualistic language as good and bad to label their behavior. I don't want to get into a debate about good and bad or evil but I want to express how much I wish we would not use the terms as a label for normal everyday behavior.

So neither good nor bad right??  Yes. But wait there is hope. What I love about NVC is that once you can get the hang of it, which takes practice, it offers very real very practical alternatives to how we currently talk. I could write a book (there have been several written) about the way positive labels remain labels and cause problems with self-esteem and anxiety as well as life preparedness. If you are a parent with a secret fear of not being a "GOOD" parent please don't have a heart attack if you use these terms but keep reading for some alternatives.

A person who practices NVC will learn to use a celebration or an expression of gratitude when wanting to acknowledge something that they observed that they liked. The idea is to replace the label "good" with the Observation, Feelings and Needs that are alive in us when we see a someone do something we liked. 

A celebration might go something like this: 

"When I see Evelyn smile and full of energy it makes me very happy  I care about children and like to see them develop"  

"I was very astonished by how much she pays attention it makes me think she will have an easy time learning about her world."

"I am glad she was calm, I was a little worried when they told us a baby would be here."  

Gratitude is expressed in the same way. You tell the person what you saw, how much you appreciated or were touched by what you saw and most importantly what need of yours the action meets. This is a way of letting the person know that their behavior has an impact on you and encouraging them to direct themselves according to how their behavior impacts others. This is far more valuable than knowing that the behavior is good or bad. 

Let"s use the example of "good girls don't cry" I hear many variations on this theme. She is such a good girl she hardly cried. ect...

If you hammer home the message that good girls don't cry then crying is labelled and the child who wants to be good learns to not cry. At times and especially as a baby I hope my child would cry when she is  uncomfortable. So instead of saying "You were such a good girl that you did not cry" you might try "I appreciate  and am very happy that you did not cry at the party. You seemed to enjoy yourself. It allowed me some time to talk with my friends." She learns that you value talking to your friends as well as the fact that you value her enjoying the party as well. 

When people use the label good girl I always try to think of what is behind those words. Is the person relieved because they were a little ambivalent about having a baby at an adult function? Is the person touched because it brings up memories of their own children? I enjoy when people take the time to really say what they feel and need because there is a certain authenticity and honesty about it. With my fellow NVC practitioners I can be reasonably sure that I will get authentic feedback about how I am being perceived and the impact I have on others without a truckload of judgement. When I took Evelyn to a training I was very pleased that many people came to us to express how they felt and what they needed in order for Evelyn to be present at the training. Some people found that having her so close to the room we were in was disturbing their concentration. Instead of talking behind my back they came to me and we were able to find a solution. Using the NVC process to express gratitude as well as to give feedback when someone's behavior does not work for us is very valuable to me. I like the level of connection that happens when people dare to be authentic.  

Nap time!