Saturday, January 7, 2012

Learning to love the shadows

A friend of mine sent this conference and I enjoyed this talk because it really underscores a key aspect of what I have been doing for the last couple of years. Non violent communication is essentially the study of human connection and how to increase our chances of having connection in our lives. Connection is fundamental to having a life of joy, happiness, health. We are hard wired to seek connection and yet it eludes so many in our society. Connection is lost when we use shame to control peoples behavior.

We live in a shaming society. We use punishment and reward as a primary way of socializing people to accept the norms of our society. I am not saying that punishment and reward are not powerful ways to get people to act in certain ways. They are effective, but a what price?

I am also not saying that we don't need tools to stop someone who is harming others from doing so. We need to at times use forceful interventions to change behavior but the philosophy I come from sees these types of interventions as last resort not the primary way we get people to accept the norms of society.

As the speaker in the above video says shaming and punishment leads to fear which leads to people who are afraid to show vulnerability and who then have difficulty experiencing genuine connection. Discomfort with vulnerability is rampant in our society and is why we see so much numbness, rigidity, perfection seeking and the costs of these ways of living. We are so scared of the parts of ourselves that are imperfect, our shadowy side, the part of ourselves that is messy, uncomfortable, intense, in  pain, not pretty, not as we should be. We are scared that if we recognize and show these parts of ourselves we will live one of the most painful experiences a human being can experience: rejection.

The catch 22 in all of this is that in order to never experience rejection we settle for relationships where the nectar of true connection is never experienced. You can't protect yourself from rejection all the time and experience true connection. Every human being has shadows, flaws, imperfections. It's normal and part of being human. Non violent communication offers concrete ways to become more comfortable with authenticity and vulnerability:

Central to NVC is the ability to empathize with ourselves and with the other. Empathy is the ability to capture without judgement, feelings and needs in the present moment. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy means you get the others emotions and needs and you experience it with them. Empathy is the ability to be aware, be touched but not be caught up in the experience. Empathy is offering yourself or another a calm, neutral presence. A space to let the emotion happen so that you can discover the underlying needs.

Needs are like a temple lost in the rainforest. The signs (the feelings) to get to the temple are all there but without a calm neutral, stable guide no one dares search for the temple. But the guide offers nothing but a map. They are not caught up in wanting you to get to the temple. If you do then great! If you don't that is okay too. Most people without a guide and a map will deny even having seen the signs. Practicing empathy is about letting yourself or encouraging someone else to discover and create a map that could lead to hidden needs.

A little more clarity: When I offer myself empathy I use the four elements of NVC (observation, feelings, needs, requests) to guide me and help me create a map of what is going on inside me and what I want. What allows me to do this is a collection of attitudes, a way of receiving what I am discovering: non-judgement, acceptance, seeing the beauty of the needs, curiosity, adventure, abundance is the best I can do for now to describe this state of presence.

Regularly practicing self empathy is not pity it is a necessary pre-requisite to authenticity and connection. If you do not have self-knowledge how can you live an authentic life? You don't know what is really happening inside you. Learning to identify your needs and guessing the others needs before speaking is key to connecting with others.

Connection happens when people feel that they are seen, they exist and who they are is valued and taken into consideration. The tools I have been learning have helped me to first (as much as possible) offer myself this gift and then extend it to others.
I am not sure if I have told this story but it is worth repeating: Two families were in the pool at my grand-parents place in Florida. Both parents wanted their child to come out of the pool.

One parent chose to use shame and punishment: Get out of the pool now or you will not be allowed back this afternoon. The young boy visibly angry (and plotting revenge) got out of the pool.

The other parent upon hearing the child's refusal asked the following question: When you say no to getting out of the pool is it because you are playing a game and are having fun? The child at this point explained that she was playing tag and was on the safe base. Everyone then agreed that she could get out, put on her sunscreen and have her place back afterwards. I was amazed at how joyful this child was the whole time I had the pleasure of being around her.

The parents decision to treat her child with consideration and respect humbled me. I was amazed to see that it  took a little more time to dialog with the child but that the results were a cooperative, happy child compared to a sullen unhappy one. I could see that this child felt the nectar of true connection and to this day am grateful that there are people around who won't settle for anything less.

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