“We need to talk…”
…are the four least-favorite words you want to hear from someone you care about. Every relationship has them; subjects where you know you disagree, or where the topics touch on painful memories, or trigger deeply-held fears. They may be unresolved decisions; opinions about people or issues; They are the things that we would just about do anything to not have to deal with.
At first a difficult conversation may be “the elephant in the room” but if you can ignore it long enough it becomes “the elephant-shaped hat rack/tapestry holder in the room” and it’s much easier to ignore. Especially when it’s next to the elephant-shaped armoire and the elephant-shaped entertainment center and the whole elephant-themed decor you have going on in your relationship…
Being able to have a difficult conversation constructively is a learned skill; in the age of Outrage it’s even more rare than you’d expect. Why bother talking about the hard stuff when you can send a tweet/text/update in ALL CAPS and make your point and then (really show them!) ignore the response. Or get outragier because they’re ignoring the response.
There’s really only one way to get better at difficult conversations: practice having them. So here’s one big thing, seven steps, and three magic incantations to make practicing the difficult conversations easier.
The One Big Thing
This is the big thing, the most important, so please, say it with me: face to face is best. Preferably in physical space, but if not, then use one of the many video chat apps out there. In some cases, you can get away with a phone call, because you can hear tone and breathing and more.
Don’t. Try. Text.
Simply put: text is the worst way to have a difficult conversation. To continue the driving example, it’s putting me behind the wheel with earmuffs and a blindfold and then wondering why I keep crashing. Text is for what time will you get home and what do you want from the noodle place. Not I don’t understand how you can feel that way. Frankly, if you’re going to stick to text, you might as well not bother, because practicing bad habits is bad practice.
Which is about as useful as the teenager I was laying in bed and thinking about driving.
Seven Steps for Difficult Conversations
Got that? OK. Here are a few more easy, actionable steps. Do these, and your Difficult Conversation Game will get better. Not all at once; difficult is difficult, after all. But these are the skills you can practice and get better at it:
- Get comfortable. Wear comfortable clothes. Grab your beverage of choice. Be in a place where you feel safe – and that includes that you would feel ok disengaging from the conversation if you need to, which leads to…
- Make a Supportive Space. Coercion is a sneaky thing. It’s important that both of you are there for the conversation, not because you have to be. The best place for a difficult conversation is a neutral space – a park, a coffee shop (if you can keep your volume down), a zoo. Bad places are: the bed room. The car. Vacation. Dinner. Places where someone might feel pressured not to “ruin” things by being honest. Make sure you both have an “escape hatch” and can leave if you need to.
- Acknowledge the Purpose. Give each other credit! “I appreciate that you’re willing to try having this conversation with me. It’s difficult for me, and I imagine it is for you, too. So thanks.” It’s establishing a mutual respect on the most basic level: hey, we both showed up. That’s something. Sometimes that’s all you can do, but that’s still valuable practice.
- Set a Simple Goal and Boundary. Something like “I don’t expect us to agree with each other. I am just hoping to understand better why you feel this way.” Or “I’m not sure our experiences of what happened were the same; I’d like to listen to yours, and if you’re willing, have you listen to mine, just so we both feel heard.” If you’re lucky enough to reach that point, stop. Even if things are going well. That’s what practice is, right? Doing things over and over.
- Accept a Partial Victory. Sometimes the conversation is so difficult that the goal is simply “I would like us to talk about this for ten minutes without blowing up at each other.” So you talk, and you get to five minutes before someone throws up their hands and bails (remember, it’s important to have an escape route). GREAT! You managed five minutes. Next time, set the goal for six.
- Don’t Talk for Them. Keep the Difficult Conversation for the Difficult Conversation Place. No imaginary conversations in your head; no pithy rebuttals to things that they may have implied. In fact, that’s one of the key skills to learn: listen to what they say, not what you think they mean. It’s hard, because we tend to hear disagreement as an attack – something along the lines of “I don’t like what happened” as “I don’t like you”. More on that later.
- Stop Before You’re Done. Remember, this is practice! You’re not trying to solve the world’s problems, or even your own. Difficult conversations don’t go away overnight. To go back to the other metaphor, if you want the elephant to leave the room without smashing through the wall, you have to build a nice big sturdy door. And that takes time.
Three Magical Incantations
There phrases are magical tools for practicing difficult conversations. They may seem awkward at first, but that awkwardness is kind of an advantage – by keeping it almost like a ritual, you have a structure you can stay inside of to keep things from running off the rails.
- What I’m hearing you say is… followed by what you think they said. Their answer will either be “yes, exactly!” or “What? No! That’s not what I mean at all.” If it’s the latter, then they get to try again, and you say the phrase again, and it goes on. Then it’s your turn. It’s tiring and frustrating at times, but when you get to the “yes, exactly” point, it’s worth it.
- The story I’m telling myself is… followed by what those imaginary conversations have been like. This is a great way to be able to express your fears without having them come out as accusations. Imagine the difference in the phrase “You’re going to leave me!” both with and without that phrase in front of it.
- What I need to hear from you is… followed by the truth: what do you wish you could hear from them? You can substitute “want” for “need” if you like, but make sure you note the difference. This phrase implies that you trust that the person is not going to simply tell you what you want to hear, and that’s why that “escape hatch” is important – it takes away one of the common motivations for lying. This phrase often will astonish the person who hears it, because they honestly didn’t know. Of course, not every conversation ends with exactly what a person wants to hear…but it’s a great way to figure out where and what the person needs.
It’s worth repeating: these tools won’t automatically solve disagreements. They are not going to persuade people, they are not going to win hearts and minds. They are not supposed to.
What they will do is make the difficult conversations less scary, and give you tools to potentially turn them into paths to growth or, failing that, understanding. They only work, though, if you practice with them, and that means coming back again and again to the hard places.
If you do it, I salute your bravery. And I wish you well.
This is one of those trick titles – click bait, of a sort – that bloggers come up with so they can pull an “ah-ha!” later. The truth is, way back in high school, reading too much Richard Bach and Leo Buscaglia and Alan Watts and late-era Robert Heinlein, I came up with the idea that love is boundless. Love is infinite. Love has no limits.
Nothing I’ve learned since then has disabused me of that notion. I love four (yes, four of my daughters with a compassion and care that is undiluted by the fact that they’ve given me (at last count) two grandsons, both of whom I also love just as much as the daughters. I also love my friends, I love my work, I love this blog, and I love my polyamorous partners in more ways than I can count.
Love? No limits at all.
And yes, I can also go on and talk about how there are other things that do have limits. Money, time, energy, resources, attention — those are all finite things that are often mistaken for love and end up being the subject of any number of dramatic stories, both true and fictional.
This isn’t about that.
No, this is about a particular way you can remember to express love: boundaries. A boundary is exactly that: a place where something is divided by something else. Sometimes these boundaries are simply for matters of preference, such as my boundary of too much broccoli on my plate. Other times they are out of necessity, such as the boundary I have about Indian food.
That latter one is a good example of a boundary that is unfortunate, because I really enjoy the taste, color, and smell of Indian food. Unfortunately, and without exception, every time I eat it my digestive system expresses it’s displeasure in very unpleasant ways.
That’s the thing about boundaries: they are always there for one reason or another. And one of the best ways to let someone know you love them is to treat them with respect.
Sounds easy, right? Sometimes it is, especially when it’s a boundary you share, or one you understand. But what if you don’t? What if the boundary makes no sense to you? What if it seems like no big deal?
Well, you can cross the boundary, and see what happens. Maybe something bad (sorry, I’ll be in the bathroom for the rest of the evening). Maybe nothing at all — except that the person whose boundary you ignored knows that you do not respect it.
That’s the thing about dividers: they are used, sometimes, to create a space that is private. It’s unfortunate that often we have this idea that the word is synonymous with “secret”, but I’d like to suggest that you replace that with the word “sacred”. As in: a boundary is a way that the one you love has set apart a sacred space, and the way you can show your love is by not only respecting it but protecting it — as Pablo Neruda put it, being “the guardians of each other’s solitude”.
Hearing the No
The thing is, we’re used to boundaries being trampled all the time, by everybody around us (the fact that I’m writing this on a crowded plane, trying to keep my elbows in as I type is a visceral example). With most boundaries, we become toughened to the experience; if we don’t, they manifest as a phobia or anxiety (what’s really nifty is when we don’t recognize this consciously, and our subconscious goes to extreme lengths to arrange life so that the boundary is kept).
This gives us all an opportunity to show our love for each other by not being one of the boundary crossers. For that matter, you can not even be one of the boundary pushers. You can be one of the people (all too rare, I’m afraid) who can hear the no.
It’s a difficult thing in a culture where there’s a bestselling sales book called “Getting to Yes”. Where phrases like “playing hard to get” give people the impression that “no” is a malleable thing.
Here’s a thought: how about pretending it’s not? How about, when someone says no, you simply say “OK.” It’s an unusual enough tactic that it may confuse people at first. But you’re giving the gift of love by respecting the boundaries and helping protect the sacred spaces of people you care about.
It’s a simple, but profound thing. Want to give it a try?
We didn’t want to make it the way it was. We wanted to make it the way we remembered it.
– creators of the Netflix series “Voltron”
That quote has stuck with me ever since one of my best friends (and far superior a geek than I will ever be) related it to me. It applies to so much; the reason many Southerners are upset about the removal of Confederate monuments; the whole idea behind “MAGA”; the futile-but-endless arguments about Bernie-vs-Hilary. It has run into my own work, where people compare events I work on now with the way they remember events in the past, conveniently forgetting many of the lessons learned from mistakes made.
It’s not a fault, it’s a survival mechanism. Many brain researchers have come to the conclusion that our memories of all but the most traumatic events are designed to remember the good things, not the bad ones, letting the unpleasantness we’ve lived through fade.
… the fading affect bias (FAB) indicates that the emotional response prompted by positive memories often tends to be stronger than the emotional response prompted by negative memories .. the FAB reflects two trends:
(1) over time, the affect associated with positive memories tends to fade more slowly from event occurrence to event recall than the affect associated with negative memories, and
(2) it is more often the case that events that were negative at their occurrence will ultimately come to prompt positive affect-at-recall than it is the case that events that were positive at their occurrence will come to prompt negative affect-at-recall.
Did you catch that last part? It is more likely that we will remember bad events positively (“Man, can you believe we lived through that?”) than good events negatively (“Sure wish I hadn’t saved that puppy…”). There are all kinds of neat ways to leverage this, it turns out – even some people affected by depression have been helped by creating “memory paths” of good events that they can call upon when needed.
But what if we could do better than that? What if we could pre-load the system?
The Crisis of Compassion
This past weekend I was urging a group of people to have some compassion for a person who had done some bad things. The things don’t matter for this point; what matters is that they found this person to be irredeemably banned from their friendship and their social circles.
That’s fine; sometimes that’s needed in order to protect the herd, whether from predators or from people who simply seem to be hurtful to the group. What’s not fine is to pretend that the person didn’t actually come from the group; that the person was more than simply the harmful actions they’d done. That tendency – to make out some members of your crowd as monsters as opposed to the rest of the “good” people” – is known as “othering” and it’s a real danger:
…an accountability process for the aggressor can be confrontational, even angry, but it should not be de-humanizing….If we separate ourselves from the offenders…we fail to see how we contributed to conditions that allow violence to happen.
–taking risks: implementing grassroots community accountability strategies
The word for this kind of empathy, even for those who have done wrong, is compassion, and it has been recommended by pretty much every spiritual leader in the history of scriptures:
- “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.” – Buddha, the Dhammapada
- “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” – New Testament, John 8:7
- “My mercy takes precedence over my anger” – Hadith on Mercy
- “If a man commits an offense against his fellow, he takes vengeance on him and will not forgive him, and even if he forgives him on the surface he nurses a grudge in his heart. But I am full of forgiveness. And when I forgive, I do so in truth, and no trace of the sin remains” – Torah, Proverbs 28:13
Even the atheists get behind the idea:
- “I find compassion in atheism: It makes me want to help people, because the idea that I stood by and watched someone’s one shot at life go badly in a way I could have prevented makes me enormously sad.” – Michael Meyerside
I know very few people who will say “Nope. Compassion is not something I want to have.” But what I have found – over and over – is that they will say that if you add on three words: “…for that person.”
The Best Time to Plant the Compassion Tree
You know that one, right? “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is today.” I was reminded of that saying by my girlfriend last week, as she contemplated what kind of tree to plant in her backyard (pro tip: she made it even more best by planting two trees).
That’s the thing about compassion. I’m betting that most of us can think back to a time when we wish we’d shown more compassion. Times and places where we can see where we could have acted better – or at least, more in accordance with our Best Self. If you are the individual reading this who can’t imagine a time you could have shown more compassion – well, thanks for reading my blog, Buddha!
For the rest of us, that was the twenty years ago. Now it’s the next best time to show compassion: right this second. And I get it, it’s hard; that person has done, or maybe even is doing, wrong, and possibly causing you or those you love pain.
There is no reason you need to justify that. There is every reason to protect yourself (and those you love) and do everything necessary to remove harm, including ostracizing the hurtful person from your life.
That does not mean that you have to forget that they are a person.
And before someone brings up the “They don’t deserve compassion!” argument, in contradiction of just about every person considered wise enough to be written down, well, I’ll stipulate that. You’re right. They don’t deserve your compassion.
But you do.
You deserve to be able to look back on this moment and remember it as a time when you had compassion. Notice I didn’t say “showed” compassion; that’s not what it’s about. The point is that Hatred does not appease hatred. You saying bad things about this villain to your friends, to yourself, reveling in the righteous wrath that you’re due – that’s not going to be something your future self can look back on with joy.
It’s not easy. I’m certainly not great at it; even when I remember to say “But I have to remember they are people, too” it’s through gritted teeth and after a few punches at the heavy bag.
Like a tree, though, if you plant it now, and take care of it, your compassion will grow. I could take the metaphor further, and say that it might even bear fruit or provide shelter for others…but this blog post is long enough already.
Just try it, ok? See if the next time you’re filled with anger and disgust at someone (and lord knows the news gives us plenty of opportunities) just try to also show a little compassion for them.
See if it can take root. Maybe twenty years from now you can look back on your present self and smile.
If you enjoy this blog, how about clicking below to “love” it or recommend it to someone else who might like it? Every little bit helps, as does the patronage of supporters at my Patreon page – Thanks, all of you!
A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a picture. You can see it up there.
Along with it, she voiced some displeasure over the phenomenon of “manspreading”. This is the perception that men, especially in public spaces, tend to take up more space than is usually allotted to a given seat.
I say “perception” because, thanks to confirmation bias, it’s very easy to discount the phenomenon by looking for examples of women doing the same behavior. That’s not the point. I strongly suspect that in a society where women were treated less as commodities needing to be regulated and more as, well, humans, the occasion of a person putting their feet up wouldn’t trigger such an angry reaction.
See What I Did There?
Let’s try a little thought experiment – creating narratives. We like stories, so see if any of these change your perception of the picture at all:
Since getting his discharge from the Army, George had never been able to sit comfortably in public transport. His knees just didn’t bend that way anymore. It had been a rough shift at the VA Emergency Room, and he was so tired he’d forgotten to take off his name tag. Thankfully, the bus wasn’t so crowded and there was room to stretch out his aching knees.
Albert kept half an eye open as the bus took him to work, but there was plenty of room and no one seemed to need the seat in front of him. Gratefully he stretched out his legs; busses used to have bigger seats, but some bean-counter had figured out that smaller seats meant more passengers meant more money, and unfortunately Albert wasn’t getting any smaller. It had been a long shift as an escort at the local Planned Parenthood, and some of the demonstrators had been downright rude. He would get to his job at the Amazon Disbursement Warehouse in twenty minutes, and it was nice to have a little time to relax.
Jack was tired at the end of his third-shift at Denny’s, and he was grateful the bus wasn’t too crowded. He hated the looks he got from people when they smelled the grease from grill he’d been working over for the past eight hours. He could catch a quick nap before he got home in time to pack his kids’ lunches and send them off to school. It was harder since the divorce, but he was still glad the kids were with him, because his ex wife had taken the job in New York and didn’t have room for them there. He would be able to sleep until about one p.m. before he had to go to his second job at the data-entry center, but that was just a few hours and his kids would still get to see him for supper.
See What I Did There?
Maybe it doesn’t make a difference to you. However, if your objection is those aren’t realistic, I have to reveal that two of the scenarios aren’t made up at all; they are based on actual experiences from my life.
More than that, this whole entry is an example of making up a compassionate narrative. When I talk about that “ friend of mine” I have to admit: she’s not a close friend. In fact, her husband once described us as “frenemies”. So it’s entirely possible I’m completely wrong in my thought processes as to why she was so angry. But since I don’t know, I’d rather try to find an explanation that spins a positive story than a negative one.
I’m not saying this needs to be done all the time. It’s even been proven that, statistically, depressed and pessimistic people have a more accurate assessment of reality than optimists.
However, if you find – as I do – that the world has a whole lot of negative stories to tell you, perhaps the way to find more compassion in it is to begin within your own mind.
Just a thought.
It’s not a light read, but ”The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say it with me: mih-HAY-lee chick-SENT-me-high) has a lot of pretty profound thoughts. This one might seem a little depressing, but bear with me:
A rosy-colored picture of human nature cannot stand up to scrutiny for long. Those who expect priests to be consistently saintly, soldiers brave, mothers always self-sacrificing, and so on, are due for some serious disappointment. To them the entire history of the human race will seem to have been a huge mistake, or as Macbeth said so well, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
While he’s mainly talking about views of others, I see this time and time again in people who take up the challenge of self-work. I’m just no good at this. Why should I bother? The word “fail” creeps up again and again, but in a climactic and ultimate-judgement kind of way instead of simply a part of the process of iteration and progress.
Since it’s notoriously hard to change reality, especially the reality of the selves that we’ve been creating for the last several decades, one of the great tools is to simply change our perception of that reality. I am beautiful. I am perfect! I am successful. But those kinds of affirmation ring hollow pretty quickly, and can even be destructive.
Instead the practice of “reframing” takes a more rational approach. Rather than simply ignoring the negatives it acknowledges them and then includes the positives that may be overlooked. I don’t have a six-pack, but I look great in a suit. I am not a great writer, but I’ve written over 600 articles. I am not wildly successful, but I’ve provided a home and food for myself for almost thirty years. There are even apps for helping this kind of mindset – and if you’re really advanced, change all those “buts” into “and” to really expand your worldview.
Mr. Csikszentmihalyi includes that method as he goes on talking about the view of humanity:
…if one starts from the assumption that humans are basically weak and disoriented creatures thrown by chance into a leading role at the center of the planetary stage, without a script and without rehearsal, then the picture of what we have accomplished is not so bleak. Paraphrasing what the trainer said about his talking dog, the point is not that we sing well, but that we sing at all.
Again, let’s take that from an external view of humanity to the internal view of ourselves. When did you first realize that you wanted to improve something about yourself? How many years had you spent having less-than-optimal habits reinforced by yourself and others, perhaps even people who you entrusted with your development? Teachers. Parents. Society. Culture. I’m not saying they were malicious (though sometimes they are). I’m saying they, also, were “weak and disoriented creatures thrown by chance into a leading role.”
Just like you.
Reaching Beyond the Fence
Basically, before you get hard on yourself for not living up to some arbitrary standard of perfection imposed either by media messages (the ultimate “fake news”) or your own expectations, try remembering that you’re basically a rescue animal, and treat yourself with that measure of compassion. Even when you open the gate of your inner cage, it is hard to trust that there is anything but pain and regret out beyond the fence.
If you’re lucky, you may find someone else to help you do that. A loved one, a friend, a therapist, a coach.
Or maybe you just have to talk to yourself in the mirror, and remind that reflection to “Give me a break, ok? I’m doing the best I can.”Because it’s not going to help if you pile “why don’t you just be better?” on top of everything else. Try a gentle smile, and “I know. I appreciate that.”
That’s not a false affirmation. It’s just gratitude for taking the time to take care of someone who is worth the effort: yourself.
"Shifting from mindful to mindless work gives the brain time to process complex problems in a relaxed state and also restores the energy necessary for the next round of mindful work.
… you need to challenge the worries that keep you reacting compulsively instead of engaging consciously…
- From “Managing Your Day-to-Day”, edited by Jocelyn Glei
Can we just give ourselves a bit of a break, and acknowledge that there is no such thing as wasting time?
In a world focused on productivity, on doing more more more with less less nothing, there is this strange idea that we need to squeeze every moment of every day. A friend of mine during a Mastermind meeting recently talked about his day, where he had taken his children to the doctor, moved furniture, dealt with legal issues – and then felt like he’d “gotten nothing done all day!”
Let’s try a different metaphor:
Sometimes You’re Bubble Wrap; Sometimes You’re Chrome
There is little that satisfies as much as a sheet of bubble wrap. I’m betting that even mentioning it has some of you pressing your index finger and thumb together. It’s a simple and pure action/reaction, and we get a little neurochemical jolt of satisfaction as it goes “pop”.
Sometimes our thoughts are like that – whether it’s playing a game of Dots, or washing the silverware, or knocking our desks. It’s a limited-time engagement, and when we’re done, there’s not a lasting effect – the screen you solved is replaced by a new unsolved one, your son grabs a fork, or you pick up that notebook from the right-angle it’s set at.
Here’s the bit of self-love and compassion to try and wrap your head around: That’s a totally valid use of your time.
In fact, it’s less like bubble wrap and more like chrome – or leather, maybe, if you prefer that metaphor. Those moments you spend enjoying yourself are like rubbing and polishing and making the material of You shiny, supple, beautiful. Now, there is certainly such a thing as polishing chrome or leather too much, and there are some things that work better than others. Dots may work to calm the mind, but maybe a quick yoga routine will work better. Maybe the ultimate way to organize your desk is actually to konmari it and have nothing there.
That’s all matter for a Practice post. This post is about Love, and specifically the self-love that stops berating you about “wasting time.” You’re using time, sure, but if you’re using it to polish the chrome, that’s ok.
Here’s a quick example of how people who spend a good portion of their time working on things like communication styles, relationship dynamics, mindful meditation, and personal development have conversations:
“I’m a little worried about money.”
“Well, stop it.”
“Oh, sure, no problem. Thanks SO much for that help – it’s all better now, haha!”
“You need to stop it, because when you worry about money, then I feel crappy because I worry that I’m a burden on you.”
“Wait, so now along with worrying about money, I get to feel guilty because my inability to stop worrying is making you feel crappy?”
Now, you can hear these voices in your head a couple of ways. They could be mean, biting, confrontational – I’ve certainly had conversations like that.
Or you could hear it in the way they were said, with wry laughter and comforting playful tones, ending in laughter and an affectionate kiss.
See, that’s the thing about mindfulness, or personal development, or any of this work we’re trying to do (and yeah, I’m saying “we” because if you’re reading this, you’re at least partially interested in this). It doesn’t actually take away any of the problems. I still worry about money; my partner still struggles with self-esteem.
But the worries and the struggle are no longer the primary focus. They’re not weapons to use against ourselves or each other, they’re not crushing weights added to the litany of woes that comes with this mortal coil.
They just are. That’s kind of the Hell of it; you get into it thinking you’re somehow going to get “beyond” all that, but in reality it’s all still there; it just doesn’t matter as much. That’s why it’s worth doing the work, to get better at loving each other and learning Jedi-level compassion: because life isn’t going to stop hammering at you. All you can do is get more anti-fragile, and laugh.
Recently I was talking with a conservative acquaintance of mine, and noticed a bumper sticker in Greek on his car. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to place the phrase (especially as a big fan of the Hardcore History podcast, but eventually I worked it out: molon labe, or “Come and take them!”.
It’s the response of King Leonidas (of the 300 Spartans fame) to Emperor Xerxes when the latter requested the Greeks lay down their arms. The phrase has been adopted by those enthusiastic about the defense of the 2nd amendment, the right to bear arms.
It took me a bit to realize: those people are scared too. After an election cycle when I thought that the Republicans basically got everything they wanted – there was still a fear that someone was coming for their guns, and a fierce-yet-covert cry of defiance in that great American tradition: the bumper sticker. “They” still thought they were the underdogs, even with all three branches of government in the control of people who had putatively said they would defend the 2nd amendment.
That’s when it hit me:
We’re All Scared
Many of my friends have talked about how they feel they now are in “the Resistance”, trying to keep the civil liberties and progressive accomplishments of the past few decades from being completely rolled back by the coming kleptokakocracy.
Easy enough to say – but what does that actually look like? How do we manage it?
There are a lot of suggestions, including one really excellent one called “Indivisible”:
The authors of this guide are former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress…Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism — and they won.
We believe that protecting our values and neighbors will require mounting a similar resistance to the Trump agenda — but a resistance built on the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness.
That, however, is on the organizational level. There also is the simple need for us to be vigilant in their everyday life, watching for moments not only when we can stand up against bigotry and hate but also when we can promote tolerance. It means remembering that we are all in this together, though. As the ever-brilliant @FeministaJones put it,
At some point, we’re going to stop giving people permission to treat us as subhuman
At some point, we will fight back
— My Prez Is Still Blk (@FeministaJones) December 21, 2016
We’ve got an organized resistance plan; we also are aware that we are going to have to be willing to step up and not tolerate the mistreatment of our fellow humans. Those are both pretty tempestuous places to be. While we’re “all in it together” (even, or maybe especially, those people who elected Trump with the belief he would help them), I think it’s important that we create our own support systems. That this is a time to circle the wagons – no, that’s a really lousy metaphor (especially as it relates to colonialism and genocide). It’s time to create our lifeboats.
Desperate Times Looking’ to Get Desperater
Let’s be clear: lifeboats are not places you want to be. If you are in a lifeboat, something has gone seriously wrong. No survivor of a shipwreck ever sat in the lifeboat and said Hey, this is pretty cool, we should stay here!
No, a lifeboat is only useful in two ways: one, it has the bare minimum to keep you alive (for a while), and two, it is better than not being in the lifeboat. And the people in a lifeboat share those two characteristics: they all are threatened by whatever is outside of the lifeboat, and they’re all trying to stay alive.
Now, before the analogy runs aground (wait, that would be a good thing – dammit, I’m failing the metaphor game today) let’s not get into the “limited resources” game here. We’re not having to suspiciously eye each other, wondering if someone is taking more than their share, because what sustains us in this particular lifeboat metaphor is empathy. It’s kindness. It’s compassion. And all of those are, if finite, at least renewable resources.
Here’s the challenge: we aren’t in the lifeboat yet. No, right now we’re still standing in line as the deck is tilting, and we’re looking around to see who is getting into the lifeboat with us. Now is the time when we have the choice; when we can look for the people who we want to care for, or who can help care for us. Now’s the time when we can see the person with the skills that might save us, or at least make the time in the lifeboat more bearable. Now is the time to reach out to them, to make the connections and strengthen them.
Because trust me: you’ll end up in the lifeboat with someone, no matter what. And you should do your best to get along with them, and care for them, even if they are consumed by fears that you don’t understand. They probably won’t understand your fears, either, and that means you both have a great opportunity to work on communication! Shipwrecks as a tool for personal growth aren’t much fun, though.
So I ask you again to take a moment and consider: Who’s in your lifeboat?
“You’re writing about love!” he said. “I saw this video from the School of Life about ‘Why Polyamory Won’t Work for You’ ; that might be some good fodder for the blog.”
I groaned. “Oh, yes, I saw that. It was horrible.” My friend is monogamous, I am polyamorous, and he and I have talked about the differences for a couple of decades now.
He looked surprised at my reaction. “Horrible? I thought it brought up some good points about challenges and such that we’ve talked about before.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “But it also played into ridiculous stereotypes and assumptions about polyamory that I’m really tired of hearing.” I tried to keep from getting ranty, but I could hear my voice getting louder. “Starting with the bit about ‘being at an orgy’, which gives the idea that the only reason someone would be poly is because they want to have more sex…”
We should picture how challenging it can be when, at an orgy, our partner gives us a wink as they disappear into a softly lit bedroom with two other people, we make a sign to join them, but are firmly rebuffed by one of the strangers who asks gruffly who the weirdo with the strange underwear might be. – The Book of Life
As we talked, and I brought up all the terrible logical fallacies and assumptions that made me uncomfortable with the video (and transcript, as linked above) – I could see that this was surprising to him. When he’d watched the video, he’d assumed I would agree with and like it. I also saw one of the reasons why I love that man: he was trying hard to understand it, to see it from my point of view.
I don’t think he really reached understanding, though, and that makes sense; he’s not me.
And that’s why, to borrow a title from the School of Life, compassion won’t work for you.
The Compassion Heuristic
Simply put, it’s illogical. Compassion implies a denial of the evidence of our own senses, that goes something like this:
That person seems bothered by that thing. But that thing doesn’t bother me. Why should that person be bothered? They say it is hurting them, but I can’t see any evidence of harm; what I do see is their reaction, which seems very out-of-proportion to the thing which does not bother me.
You see this over and over again, ranging from a parent rolling their eyes at a child’s tantrum to larger societal issues such as Black Lives Matter. If you think that you or I don’t do this at some point in every day life, then you’re not paying attention. Maybe Buddha or Brené Brown manage that; mere mortals can’t manage it.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means you’re human. And even better, there’s a pretty straightforward method for faking it. Well, faking it might not be the best word for it, but let’s just say that there’s a simple way for you to both get better at the action of compassion while at the same time avoiding looking like an insensitive jerk.
Here it is:
If someone NOT YOU tells you that something bothers them,
The “Not You” is kind of the key there. Of course, most people are Not You; but some are more Not You than others. That’s where the second part of the heuristic comes into play:
How much you believe them should be directly proportionate to how NOT YOU they are.
My friend and I are both part of a demographic that often has problems understanding the concerns of Black Lives Matter; we are not Black, we do not have friends or relatives being killed by police, we are not profiled by law enforcement. The easy thing to do would be to say What’s the big deal?
Applying the Compassion Heuristic, however, we can see that since we don’t face those situations, we have no idea what it feels like. Instead, we can ask the experts, and listen to how they feel, and believe them.
But What If They’re Lying?
Of course, there is that particular need people have to fix things, to inform others of how they should feel, how they should react (this blog post could be a version of that, if I were not presenting this as an option rather than a commandment). It’s true that humans are only slightly better at understanding their own feelings as they are at understanding others, and that’s a pretty low bar.
But let’s look at the risks: does your belief in their pain, and any steps you take towards being compassionate – Wow, that does suck – have a downside? I can imagine all the great spiritual leaders of the world advising us: Be compassionate – but not too much, you don’t wanna look like a sucker.
No, that’s not how it works. The great thing about the Compassion Heuristic is that it may or may not help the person feeling the pain – but it will definitely help you, if only through the deliberate practice of trying to make hard times happier.
What have you got to lose? Give it a shot. And let me know how it works for you!
“As a recovering perfectionist and aspiring good-enoughist…” – Brené Brown
I mentioned in my post about the FIP that one of my tragic flaws is that I fail to give myself credit for the things that I accomplish. It’s a lack of self-compassion for the reality that I am actually human, and if (like me) you were raised and enculturated towards unrealistic archetypes, it’s a difficult habit to cultivate.
Thankfully there are people like Brené Brown who are identifying both this issue as well as identifying methods of dealing with it – not just saying “You should be more self-compassionate” but also talking about the things that get in the way. There are a trio of books, starting with The Gifts of Imperfection, that do a great job of talking about the obstacles – both social and self-created – that can keep us from making the allowances that we really require.
Three Tools for Self-Compassion
Dr. Brown references the work of another researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff, in coming up with a few ways to help build self-compassion:
- Self-Kindness: When we suffer, there can be a tendency to criticize the pain as weakness. Pain is a communication; it’s the way our body and mind tell us that something needs attention. Being kind to yourself means listening to the message, instead of just ignoring it.
- Common Humanity: Something that is often forgotten in the world of FOMO and status updates is that everybody suffers. No matter how much you think someone is together, has it all, couldn’t possibly be unhappy – the fact is, they also have pain that is communicating something that is wrong. You are not alone, you are not the bottom of the heap, you are here in this beautiful messed-up world along with the rest of us.
- Mindfulness: This is almost certainly the most powerful skill of self-compassion. Dr. Neff defines it as “balanced experience of emotions without over-identifying.” That means saying Hmm, yes, it hurts and avoiding the followup voices because I’m not tough enough to take it, I failed again, I don’t know why I ever thought I would be able to do this. The first part is true; everything else is a construction that tries to drown out the message the pain is trying to communicate to you.
Now, I’m not telling you to work on all three of these at once – that can lead into the trap of Oh, no, I’m just no good at self-compassion! I’m so awful I can’t even be nice to myself! Instead, how about just looking at one a day – maybe have a list of the words up on the fridge – and every day, in your 5-Minute Journal, trying to find one example of that principle?
This isn’t a project – it’s a life-long skill that can be developed but that needs to be maintained. I’d love to hear the little moments you find that are successes – or, for that matter, the places where you realize you might have done better.
After all…we’re all in this together.