#23 Compassion

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Paul McAleer: Hi. Welcome back to Designing Yourself. I’m Paul McAleer.

Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.

Paul: And, today did not start very well for me. I’m going to tell you this right now, it did not. It is a Monday. It is Monday the 13th, which means something, yeah. And, you know, my day started rolling out of a weekend where I felt - you know, it was one of those where I got a lot done, which was great and very rewarding in some ways.

But then I did not have the best ending to the weekend with my son. He was a little scared about a movie we watched over the weekend. And then he was also having some difficulty kind of listening and following instruction. And I just kind of - I lost it at a couple of points. And at one point we were kind of yelling at each other, and it was really bad.

And he was saying things back to me that were very much of the same things that I would say to him, like we don’t yell in this family. It’s like, oh, I say that to him all the time, and here I am on the other end. It’s like in those moments this smart five-year-old in front of me is using that same thing with me but really looking from a place of not only mimicking but also saying, yeah, you’re breaking the rules, too, Dad.

So, the weekend kind of ended that way. And then the day, today, started in a weird place where I kind of got ready for work and everything and walked out to the bus stop, and it was raining this morning. And my bus was cancelled for some reason, which is a bug in the bus tracker system we have here. It just didn’t show up. And then the next bus wouldn’t get me to work on time.

So, I called my wife, and she was nice enough to be able to give me a ride over to the train station with my son. But he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to stay home in the morning. So, he was frustrated with that. And I was frustrated with that as well in turn. And also, before I left the house, I put on a pair of pants, as you do.

Whitney: That’s good for everyone.

Paul: That’s how I start my day almost every day. So, I put on a pair of pants, as you do, and there’s a stain on them. And I didn’t see it until I was all ready to get out the door. And I was just frustrated by that. I was like, oh, gosh, come on, you know? Really?

Whitney: So, it’s - a long time ago I said that I wanted to avoid having one of those days, right, because those are the days where it feels like lots of things are going wrong. You get attached to this idea of this is how it’s going to be today. I’m going to walk out to the bus. Everything is going to be fine. I’ll get a little wet because of the rain. But then I’ll walk on and I’ll get to the train on time. I’ll walk to the train. I’ll go on there, listen to some podcasts or something, and then get to work and everything. I can dive into my work and everything will be fine.

And it didn’t turn out that way at all. And, you know, the thing is, though, is that I went through this, and this was over the period of, you know, like, a couple of hours this morning only, really. And by the time I did get to the train everything was fine. I got there just fine, safe and sound. Everybody was fine. I waited on the platform for my train, which was a little late because I was like, of course it’s going to be late on this day.

But, you know, I looked up and the clouds had broken a little bit, and the sun was starting to come out, and I was still there. Like, everything was OK. And it was just a moment of clarity for me. I had those moments where I started really spinning recklessly out of control in my mind where everything that was going on I was just questioning it and frustrated. And I just felt all these things of like, oh, gosh, isn’t this day going to get any better?

And then it seemed to get slowly, little by little, worse and worse. And then it was just a moment of clarity to say, well, I’m still here through all this stuff. I’ve still got myself, and my family is still here, and they’re all happy and healthy, and so am I, and I’m fortunate for that. And things seem cool. And it’s just a Monday that passed.

And as I said to you before we started recording, because we do all of our good talking before we record, that’s not now. That was stuff that happened, and yeah, it’s going to impact me. And, yeah, I want to, and need to, really, explore how I was interacting with my son and even with myself and look at that from an angle of compassion. But I’m fine. I’m here. I’ve got everything I need in this moment right now.

Whitney: What’s so interesting about your story was that you had an experience that made you feel low. And then as a result of feeling low everything in the world seemed to not be working out right. And then it sounds like you had a moment of remembering, even if it was subconscious, that you don’t want to believe that there could ever be one of those days because every day can be saved.

And even if it was just a passing thought, suddenly you started to turn the day around because everything seemed like actually it’s all going to be just fine. And so, it seemed to me that you have a lot more control, maybe, than you realize and that any of us realize we have on how you perceived the day to be.

I mean, maybe you perceived the stain with upset feelings because you were upset about your interaction with your son last night. And maybe you perceived the late train with upset feelings because you were just in an upset place.

But then suddenly it sounds like something turned around. And I wonder, was it just the universe turning around? Did something in the universe change? Or did something in your perspective change that made it feel like it was changing?

Paul: I think it was a little of both. The very direct thing that I noticed, of course, was that it wasn’t raining anymore. So, that was noticeable, right? But from the time that I walked into the station and up to the platform it stopped raining. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with rain, but today I also decided to go without an umbrella because I was like, I’ll get a little wet. I don’t have any hair to worry about. I’m fine.

It was one of those, like, very - it was weird because even by saying that it’s like I was feeling oddly confident about today and how it was going to go. But I also think that was predicated on a certain plan, right? This is what I’m thinking it’s going to go like, and it didn’t go like that, and how do you handle that type of thing, right?

So, nevertheless, it was - I think it was combination of that weather. And an internal feeling shift, yeah, I think it was that, too, because it really was a reminder that, again, the things that I was feeling were not myself. They were me, and I was definitely feeling them. It was strong stuff at times. And other times it was just my mind reeling, which is still me.

But it wasn’t myself really expressing all that stuff. It was a state that I was in for a while, and it passed. Basically, I got all of that out, in a sense. And I was able - I don’t think I can say I was able to process all of it because I certainly haven’t yet. But just having that state go through me seemed to be it. That’s all I needed today was just this down, bad period. And now, now it’s passed. And now it’s passed.

Whitney: Yeah. It’s almost like sometimes we need that in order to recognize how good we have it all the time for contrast. But it also sounds like to some extent you’re saying that there is a distinction to be drawn between feeling like I am this person, like this action defines me, versus I did this thing. This is a part of who I am. This is something that I experienced. But it’s not all of who I am and I can learn from it.

I mean, I’m almost wondering if, in the argument with your son last night, you have defined the home as a place where people don’t yell. And you found yourself yelling. And so, I wonder to what extent in your mind you were like, I’m not a guy who yells? I mean, while you were yelling.

So, what happens when this core value that you have like no yelling in the house or yelling is not a successful way of communicating with the people you love, or with anyone, for that matter - let’s say that’s a core value. I don’t want to define that for you, but it kind of sounds like it. And now you find yourself behaving in a way that’s not in accordance with your core values. What happens?

Paul: That’s a good - so, that’s a really good point. So, the main thing that I try to remember, even in that moment when that’s happening, is that it’s not me. But it is an action I am fully taking and fully in control of, right?

So, it’s not to disown it because that feels like it’s kind of a copout, but more to say that, yeah, in those moments I don’t want to be the guy who’s yelling at his five-year-old or overly correcting him or anything of the sort. I don’t want that, no. And I don’t think he wants that either. And I don’t think it works well for either of us, right? It puts both of us kind of in a bad way.

And, shoot, it’s a fine line between discipline for a child and then encouragement as well. It’s a very fine line there. And I was just over it yesterday. But, in those moments when I’m doing that kind of yelling, which I try not to do because, again, that is not how I choose to really represent myself and I don’t feel it’s the most effective way of doing it either - that’s not me, in other words - I really take a moment to listen to what’s going on. Like, if I’m yelling at him I listen to that.

And I’m like, wow, this is a lot of yelling. That’s the thing I notice the most when I’m doing that at the same time. It’s like, wow. That’s a lot. Why is that? Why are you doing that? Really, what are you trying to do?

And, as I said, it’s something I still want to and need to sit with a little more to figure out what the hell’s going on. And it’s not necessarily a matter of correcting it either but just getting to that place of understanding, because I think this expands on some of the talk that we’ve had before about identity and who we are and actions and all these great things that go together and blend into this existence that we call our own.

But in those moments, I mean, that’s not the best representation of who I truly am. But it’s something that a part of me felt like it really needed to do and get out and talk about and say something to him in this really strong, parental tone. And so, there’s that thing there. So, something happened. Something triggered that. What triggered that? And why did I really have to react that way? I’m not sure.

Whitney: So, I cannot help but think of a book that I’m reading right now. So, forgive me if I’m drawing a parallel that doesn’t exist, but we’ll see if it does. I’m one of those people that, when I’m in the middle of a book, everything that’s going on in the world is relevant to what I’m reading in that moment.

So, I’m reading this book, Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg. Have you heard of it?

Paul: No. I’ve heard of the title, I think, but that’s about all.

Whitney: Yeah. Well, I am completely fascinated by it. It has been on my list for a very long time. And I must admit that I have skimmed it before but never actually read it because it was one of the books on the so-called coach’s bookshelf. For my coaching training we were given a long list that we were supposed to read over the course of the year. We had to read 10 of like the 50 books assigned. And this was one of the ones that I had intended to read but ended up reading another instead, kind of flipped through this one.

And, a lot of different signs were pointing towards me needing to read this now. It had come up in conversation several times. What I had been able to absorb from my quick skim of it in the past I had lost. So it was really time to go back to it. And so, in the last week or so I’ve been reading this.

And, what’s so fascinating about it - first of all, nonviolent communication, I think most of us think of violence, or at least I know I think of violence, as a physical act. Like, everything that we see in the news, all of the injustices, these are physical acts. And I don’t think in the past I’ve considered spoken acts or words as necessarily being violent.

I can think of them as being harmful, perhaps. But violence just like - it raises a lot of emotion in me. And it also - I guess violence feels premeditated in some way. In any case, I’m going off topic.

So, long story short, the Nonviolent Communication book is about a method for communicating with compassion at the core of everything we do and in fact is really about not conflating how we feel with the other person’s behavior.

So, one thing I am deeply guilty of, and I feel like I have been my whole life, is being convinced that other people affect my mood. So, if someone says something mean to me, they hurt me. If someone that I send a proposal to, a prospective client, decides to go with someone else, they rejected me. Whatever - there are thousands of examples, I’m sure.

And, my emotions are often dictated by other people’s actions. And when I’m in a situation where I’m able to communicate that back to them, someone that I’m comfortable enough to do that with which, to be perfectly honest, very few people. I have a lot of friends. I have a lot of acquaintances, a lot of colleagues. But I would say there are fewer than a handful of people that I would actually honestly tell them when they hurt me.

But I don’t do so very kindly. You have a rule of no yelling in the house. I did not grow up that way. There was a lot of yelling in my house, and there remains a lot of yelling between me and my parents. My parents yell at each other. My parents yell at me. I yell at them. It sounds sad. Maybe it is. Not really for anyone else to judge, I suppose. But that’s the mode of communication. When you have something really important to say, it seems to come out through yelling.

Well, the Nonviolent Communication model tries to separate the expression of how I’m feeling from a judgment of the other person. So, any statement that says, “I feel this because you,” that is already violent or harmful communication because now, rather than staying and expressing how you're feeling in a way that allows the other person to empathize with you, you have cut off that possibility by judging or blaming or criticizing them and put them on the defensive.

So, in a way you’re communicating so that, almost with the intention that the other person feels hurt themselves, feels the pain that you feel, rather than comes to better understand how you feel and make their own judgments of their behavior. Does that make sense?

Paul: It does. It does. It does.

Whitney: Now, hard to say with a five-year-old what the appropriate approach is. Look, I don’t have kids. So maybe there are times when you just have to be straightforward and say, “You did this, and that’s unacceptable.”

But it sounds like at some point it didn’t make you feel any better when you disciplined him or when you expressed to him how he was making you feel. And so, I guess I’m wondering, what was it about the way that you communicated, whether it was just tone of voice or volume, or was it the word choice? What was it that made you feel what sounds like pretty awful at the other side of it?

Paul: I mean, a lot of it was both tone and word choice, to a degree, but mostly tone because I took a very stern tone and I upped my volume a little bit. But I think the thing that - but that’s one part of it. I think the thing that really helped me in that moment just to kind of see what was going on was his reaction because he didn’t - the things that you mentioned are things that I subscribe to as well, generally speaking, right?

Without having read the book or skimmed it, for that matter, just the idea of the way that we are and the way that we feel, yes, other people influence it. But the way we can discuss that back also has an impact on it, right, because the way you said it with that statement that you pulled out, that felt like a blame to me. It’s “I feel this way because...”

And when it came to talking with my son - having our argument, really - it was very much of that nature. It was very much of, well, you’re not getting this or you’re not going to do this because you did this. And then he would say, well, I’m never going to do that or anything like that. Like, we went for a tit for tat.

So, obviously he wasn’t - he’s 5. I love him. He wasn’t really able to say anything of the sort of that kind of emotional height. But he was still getting across this very clear point of, hey, looking at it from a rules perspective it’s like you’re breaking your own rules that you and Mom set. And that’s not cool. And I don’t like it, and here’s how I’m going to react in turn, like if you're going to break the rules I can break them in the same way. So, some of it is just leading by example.

Whitney: No, but what’s so interesting, not to psychoanalyze your son because who am I? But what’s interesting is it sounds like he’s saying, “Hey, Dad. You set these rules that it seems like you’re breaking. You want to know how it feels when someone breaks your rules? Let me show you. It doesn’t feel good.”

And that’s kind of what I was talking about with most of us. And this is - I am more guilty of this than anyone I know - that when someone has hurt me, even in my expressing how they hurt me back to me, there is a part of me deep down that wants them to feel the same pain.

And that’s awful. It’s an awful thing to admit because it doesn’t feel like it coincides with my values at all. I love these people. If I could wave a magic wand, or if I had three wishes on the genie lamp or whatever, one of those wishes would be that the people I love - and, quite frankly, everyone in the world because I have a big heart - but really the specific people that I get into it with, that they would never feel pain or suffering of any kind.

And then to be the person that does that almost out of spite - not almost, definitely out of spite because they’ve hurt me - oh, you want to get a taste of that? This is how badly you hurt me. I want you to experience it so that you’ll know how much your actions impact me and don’t do it again.

But the reality is that it wasn’t them who did it. They expressed themselves. Did they express themselves well? No. Your son is 5. He probably doesn’t have, you know, models of communication to be drawing on. But he was doing something that was trying to express something he was experiencing. Like, he’s not ready to move. He’s confused about what this all means and whatever, whatever it was.

I am sometimes feeling vulnerable in my relationship. And so, when Frederick says something that is really just meant for me to understand what he’s going through, I take it as an affront. Like, if he says that he needs alone time, then depending on my mood, if I’m in a mood I’ll automatically take that to mean that he doesn’t want to be around me or that I’m bothering him when in actuality all he’s saying is that he needs time to think, that he goes to work all day every day, and he’s surrounded by people in a hectic environment.

And then he comes home and I’m there, and he doesn’t have a minute to himself to just have space and breathe and not be influenced by someone else’s mood or behavior or talking or whatever.

So, I then take his statement personally. And maybe you’re taking your son’s reaction to whatever was going on last night personally and getting upset by it. But what I’m finding so interesting about this Nonviolent Communication model is that the idea behind it, I guess the underpinnings of it, is that - well, there’s two sides of it, that all communication is basically about expressing an emotion or expressing someone’s current state of being.

And we need to find ways to express ourselves without blaming or criticizing the person that we’re expressing it to. But we also have to be able to receive someone else’s expression of themselves with empathy and not taking it personally, not taking it as blame or criticism. And I need a lot of help in both areas most definitely because I am totally a “You said this and you did that and it made me feel like this.”

And so, this model is really to help you tease apart all that stuff and to stay in a place of what I might call self-compassion where you’re allowing yourself the space to truly express without interruption what you are experiencing. And it’s this four-step process. First, the observation is when I see you do this or when I see this happening, when I see you upset, when I see, Frederick, that you are in need of your own personal space, I feel disconnected. I feel sad that you’ve got so much going on. I feel desperate to help you.

And then the third is needs - because I need to be that person for you. I need to be your everything. I need to be the person that makes you feel safe. Request is the fourth one - would you be willing to talk to me about what you’re going through even when you don’t have time alone or even when I have to be here? Or would you be willing to come up with times when we could both be out of the house or when you want me to be out of the house so that you can have your alone time or whatever. Come up with whatever that request is.

And so, it’s a way of keeping it less about, well, why do you need alone time and why do you need this and why are you getting so upset? It feels very foreign to me to even communicate in this way.

Paul: Well, so a lot of what you say resonates with me. And I think part of it is that idea of wanting to be everything to somebody. And that can even be - obviously it can be a partner or someone you’re with. It can also be a family member. It can also be a colleague. Whatever the situation is, whatever’s happening in that moment, we often - I feel this way, too. I’m not going to put a blanket on it. I’d just commiserate with you.

I often feel like, wow, I can’t provide for this person right now, like shit, I don’t know what to do about that. Oh, man. What’s wrong with me? And as I said earlier, I used to go down kind of that path, too, of feeling like, wow, what’s wrong with me? This person doesn’t want to spend time with me right now or needs some space. Holy shit. What did I do?

But it ultimately isn’t that at all. And my thinking on that’s changed just over the course of time. And I think part of that, frankly, is due to my marriage. I’ve been married for almost 12 years.

Whitney: Wowza.

Paul: Thank you. It’s been great. But the idea of, you know, that when - gosh, when people need space they just need space sometimes. And that’s all it means. There’s nothing behind it. Now, sometimes there might be, of course. But in my experience, when I used to hear that from my wife I would get a little upset, too. I’d be like, oh wow, well, what did I do? But it wasn’t anything about me at all. It’s just she needed space.

And the nice thing about that is that that gave me - that set a model for me. And it said, oh, OK. Well, if we simply need space from each other for a little bit, that’s not a problem. Nothing bad’s going to happen. We just need that space. And that’s been very, very good.

And, you know, sometimes it’s gotten to the point where she can just send me a text during the day and be like, hey, I’m going to need some time tonight. I’ll be like, yep, that’s cool. I got it. Everything’s covered. Or if I need space I can just say, you know what? I need just a little time on my own or I need to thank her or whatever. And that can happen.

So, I think it boils down to just, first of all, being in that place where we want to connect with people, right? It comes from a place of love, ultimately. It’s like we want to be there for other people in whatever way we can. And if we can’t give our full capacity to something we might start to judge ourselves on it and think, wow. What’s going on?

But the reality of the situation is probably a lot different than what we’re feeling in that moment. And so it’s important for us to look at both and say this is what, in that case, Frederick said. And this is how I’m feeling about it. And, wow, that’s really different, like they don’t line up. Or they do line up. And then unpacking it and saying like, OK, well, why did it make me feel this way? Why did I go down this path? And is everything cool or not for real?

Whitney: Right. And it’s totally about how I feel about myself or was feeling about myself in that moment probably having absolutely nothing to do with Frederick. It’s very likely that I had a session with a client where I felt like I wasn’t able to help them and I was feeling like I’m - they were probably in some other context where I was already feeling badly about an inadequacy because the reality is if the tables were turned and I never had my alone time, which I happen to have a lot of because I work for myself - but if I didn’t, I’d be asking for it ten times as much as he is.

And so, it isn’t that there’s something wrong with it. It’s taking the other person’s needs and tying it in to your own inadequacy. And that’s the second half of that, not only being able to express yourself without judging or criticizing the other person but being able to hear what someone else is expressing without judging or criticizing yourself.

And that is all about self-compassion which I lack definitely, I mean, without doubt, which is why I’m taking a course on self-compassion right now because I’m desperate to get some. But also something that most of my clients lack, and it is often at the root of a lot of the things that are getting in their way because they just don’t see themselves with kindness. And they don’t care for themselves in a way that’s truly uplifting and in line with even how the rest of the world sees them.

So, that ability to take time for yourself, to recognize, all right, this is coming from a place where I’m hurting, I’m suffering, it has nothing to do with what the other person said, it has nothing to do with what they’re experiencing. They’re going through their own thing. I’m going through my own thing. Let’s not conflate the two, and let’s not pretend that they are the cause of my suffering because they’re not.

I am the cause of my suffering. And if I was caring for myself adequately, then I would respect and admire someone else who’s trying to care for themselves as, you know, oh, that’s an act that I do, too. So, so glad that we’re both in that together.

So, I wonder if to some extent there was some kind of negative emotion that you were experiencing a lack of compassion over what your son was going through and being shook by that it resulting in the argument that you had, because I know that when I look back on the arguments that I have, the source of it is always some negative way in which I was treating to myself, some negative self-talk, lack of confidence, insecurity that was triggered by that circumstance.

Paul: Yeah, I think you’re right. I mean, really the funny thing that’s true is that even when we’re interacting with other people, which we do on a pretty regular basis, it all comes back to the way that we are interacting with ourselves and how we’re relating to ourselves in that very moment. And that kind of drives everything. For better or for worse, that really drives everything for us.

Whitney: I appreciate you sharing that story, and I’m very glad to hear that once you kind of recognized the path that you were going down it all seemed to turn around. And it’s a reminder that that’s possible for us, that that’s there, that we don’t have to just give in to the shitty day and it’s just going to be the whole day and everything’s going to go wrong and we’re powerless to it, but that really it’s all about our own perspective on ourselves and what’s possible for us that ultimately colors the way that we perceive everything around us.

I can’t help but think of an exercise in the self-compassion class that I’m taking where we are meant to come up with a vow that we state every morning right when we wake up. And it was recommended or encouraged that we do something like put our hand on our heart, get in touch with ourselves and repeat this vow.

And the vow that I came up with because it is something that I struggle with but I need to start every day with this reminder, especially lately, is “May I trust that the universe is out to support me?”

Paul: Mm-hmm. I love it. I love it.

Whitney: I really need that because I don’t always think that. If I were in your situation where it was raining, there was a stain on my pants, the bus was late, I was going to miss the train, I would tell myself the universe is out to get me. And so, having that reminder every morning - May I trust that the universe is out to support me? - it does change things. It makes you see all the ways in which the universe does support you rather than seeing all the ways that it doesn’t.

Paul: That’s right. And, you know, sometimes that’s all we need, just that idea that it’s not always out to get us. Well, Whitney, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for listening and sharing your stories.

Whitney: Thank you, Paul. I look forward to our next chat.

Paul: I do, too. Take care.

Whitney: Bye.

Paul: Bye.