Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– Mary Oliver

Photo credit: Soul Artist Journal



Manipulation and power games

While some manipulators are relatively harmless (think Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice), others can inflict wounds that take a long time to heal.

After leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, I found myself needing to understand what had happened. Like most people who leave a volatile situation I was, quite simply, unable to process and articulate what was wrong. Apart from being incredibly vulnerable, I was also just too close to my own situation to see it objectively.

So I decided to read Power Games: Confronting Others’ Hurtful Behaviour and Transforming Our Own by Kay Douglas and Dr Kim McGregor. What I found was a wealth of information confirming what I couldn’t express or even see for myself. Here are some choice insights from the book, as well as some of my own thoughts*:

  1. Control is always at the heart of a power game. The need to assert control will usually involve undermining and/or discrediting another to achieve our own ends. For example, we are using power games when we:
    • evoke and play on another’s feelings of compassion, obligation, insecurity, guilt, shame or anxiety in order to get our own way;
    • refuse to listen to their point of view, speak down to or ridicule them;
    • bully or intimidate someone into agreeing with our demands;
    • withhold attention and affection as a punishment;
    • deliberately confuse the situation by distorting the facts, denying the truth or lying;
    • discriminate against someone, based on any number of factors;
    • bait and provoke others through disturbing statements or actions and then claim they’re being over-sensitive/emotional, crazy or irrational (known as gaslighting); and
    • engage in name calling, put-downs, harsh criticism or threats.
  2. Manipulators often feel they have no control over their own lives. They may be unable to process rejection or disappointment and they likely struggle with insecurities, an exaggerated sense of entitlement or need for control, neediness and a fear of abandonment. Because of this, it’s incredibly easy to let reasonable emotional responses give way to irrational perceptions and behaviour. Manipulators are very skilled at telling themselves (and anyone else who will listen for that matter) a story where they are the victim and everyone else is to blame for their misery and must be punished. As a result, manipulators find themselves pushing away what they most want to hold onto.
  3. Manipulators are not concerned with taking responsibility for their decisions/behaviours/feelings. Instead, they create a smokescreen by shifting the focus or blame to others. And consequently, the other party must assume the responsibility for making the situation ‘better’. If the other party is a ‘good’ person, they will comply with whatever demands are issued (peace at any price). As soon as they resist, however, the manipulator is likely to go on the attack.
  4. Unprovoked (and therefore unanticipated) attacks cut the deepest. These are designed to bewilder, but also to elicit anger in the other party. This anger can then be used as evidence when gaslighting (‘See how sensitive you are? You’re crazy!’). It is the emotional equivalent of detonating a bomb and then blaming the other party for the explosion. Essentially, the person on the receiving end is set up to fail; it doesn’t matter whether they challenge, capitulate or strive to avoid conflict altogether, it will never be enough to stop that bewildered feeling or help them or get the relationship on an equal playing field.
  5. Losing personal power, such as the right to speak up, assert boundaries and be respected, often happens incrementally, so that you’re not even aware of it. Little by little though, it becomes much harder to negotiate from within the relationship without offending, displeasing or inviting further confrontation and abuse.
  6. Manipulators often seem to be in a hurry. Urgency is a theme of manipulative interactions. A rush to make a decision, a relationship that develops a bit too quickly, an insistence that you give up your right to feel whatever it is you feel. This is the manipulator’s way of gaining control over the situation.
  7. Once de-coded, power games are quite simple. On the surface, it may seem that power games consist of a confusing barrage of activities and accusations that defy logic. Looking closer, manipulators select peace-keepers, problem-solvers, care-takers to bear the brunt of their abuse because they are easy targets. Their natural disposition (and possible social conditioning) means they will try even harder to compromise, sacrifice, take responsibility and make things right. And with each instance of abuse, the less likely they will be to fight back.
  8. Not all abuse is ugly on the surface. In fact, manipulators will often argue in the negative, revealing their insecurities. Consider the character of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. Knowing he needs to create just the right situation to allow him to marry Jane, he says:

    “I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, you’d forget me.”

    Right on cue, Jane is moved to protest and re-assure. And, as we know, she falls into Rochester’s dexterously-laid trap. Later, after his deception is discovered, Rochester attempts to sweet-talk Jane into running away with him. And so, just as manipulators are skilled at inflicting damage, they also skilled at restoring people’s trust with remorse and charm. Highly charged emotions, stormy bust-ups and passionate reconciliations can bind us closely together, but desperation and fear are usually behind this and as such, roller-coasters of emotion are misleading.

  9. For the receiver, cumulative exposure to such tumult may reduce self-esteem and increase anxiety, resentment and fear. Receivers will experience intense emotional reactions and may end up interpreting these as proof they are selfish, unbalanced, over-sensitive and unreasonable. They may lose their sense of self; either over-compensating to ‘get it right’ and ‘be better’ or even adopting manipulative tactics against others.
  10. For the receiver, regaining personal power starts with a shift in one’s thinking. More specifically, an acknowledgement that the manipulator must take responsibility for their feelings and behaviours and any future change. It is accepting that the dynamic needs to change and learning to distinguish between real and manufactured guilt. It is constructing and defending boundaries and a willingness to listen to what anger is trying to say. It is the ability to cut through the smokescreen tactics and see the situation clearly. It is the ability to speak one’s truth and articulate one’s feelings. It is honouring the self. And, sometimes, this will mean leaving.

What I learned is that while not everyone who feels inadequate is a manipulator, every manipulator feels inadequate. So do we all, I know. But, what sets manipulators apart is the way they consistently and systematically re-distribute this inadequacy onto others.  What I also learned is that by disengaging I was not giving up, but that I was actively saying ‘I am worth more than this’.

* While there is some overlap between these insights and those expressed in part two of de-mystifying narcissism, this article aims to address manipulation and power games on a broader scale and, in so doing, acknowledges that these behaviours are not exclusive to narcissism.

Photo credit: Viral Novelty

Cultivating equanimity

Equanimity is one of four divine qualities of the heart (traditionally known as brahma-viharas) taught in Buddhist practice, along with loving kindness, compassion and appreciative joy.

The four brahma-viharas represent the most beautiful and hopeful aspects of our human nature. They are mindfulness practices that protect the mind from falling into habitual patterns of reactivity which belie our best intentions.

Also referred to as mind liberating practices, they…transform the turbulent heart into a refuge of calm, focused awareness.

~ http://www.brahmaviharas.org/

I was first introduced to equanimity (which means calmness or composure) during a week-long silent retreat which focussed on cultivating the four heart qualities.

In Buddhist practice, calmness is found by freeing ourselves from the difficulties associated with both attachment and avoidance. Therefore, equanimity means accepting things as they are, not as we wish them to be (in other words, letting go of our attachment to control) as well as releasing those resentments and fears which keep us separate from others (being present instead of avoiding genuine connection).

As someone who oscillates between attachment and avoidance (and is possibly attached to avoidance!), letting go of emotional reactions and expectations to find that calm middle-ground sounds about as easy as flying to the moon. But, despite grappling with this concept during the retreat, I found myself deeply wishing I could cultivate it for myself. So I decided to make equanimity the focal point of my meditations.

From here I learned several things:

  1. When I think of equanimity, I think of Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda. Yes, really. His ability to accept and respond to life’s difficulties without losing his peace of mind really is something to aspire to. He sees the world for its potential, but is not blinded by his own desires. Nor does he fool himself into thinking he can avoid difficulty altogether.
  2. I already have the capacity for equanimity. I found that taking the time to recognise the ways I have been equanimous in the past was really heartening. Whether shallow or profound, remembering each occurrence helped me to form a concrete idea of what equanimity looks like for me.
  3. Equanimity will come and go – and this is ok. I reminded myself that sometimes I will find a peaceful acceptance of, and response to, my reality and sometimes I won’t. When equanimity is difficult, self-compassion is always there.
  4. Equanimity is found in the space between oneself and one’s state of mind. In a similar way to mindfulness, equanimity involves noticing and accepting an emotion or thought, but resisting the urge to become it.
  5. Equanimity often comes after digesting a lived experience with mindful (and non-judgemental) awareness. During the retreat, I took the time to explore some of my own experiences using a combination of all four heart qualities. I don’t think this would have been possible however, if I hadn’t already allowed myself the time to openly feel and express my emotions. Subjective reaction often paves the way for objective reflection.
  6. Equanimity often comes as a result of engaging the other heart qualities. For this particular experience, I believe it was the combination of loving-kindness (universal good-will) and compassion (a deep wish to relieve pain) that produced equanimity in the form of an incredibly sweet healing sensation. This was the first time I had experienced something stronger than a sense of calm when meditating, but I don’t think it would have been as strong if I had simply tried to think equanimously. For me, it was about opening my heart as well as my mind.

While the retreat was a profound experience, there are times I forget to be equanimous and fall into my natural state of reactivity.  See point 3. But I am getting a little better at honouring my thoughts, identifying where the limits of my responsibility lay and then making the conscious decision to let things unfold the way they need to. After all, a wise old tortoise once said: ‘there are no accidents.’



Photo credit: DreamWorks Animation

Re-writing the rules

A few months back, I took an online course which encouraged me to own my story. Because it’s easy to feel powerless under the weight of expectation, failure and the wear-and-tear of (sometimes traumatic) life events, the workshop aimed to help participants:

  • identify the beautiful and brutal (bru-tiful) journey they are currently on;
  • identify the various ‘rules’ imposed by family, community or culture which shape behaviour and identity;
  • understand the connection between thoughts, expectations, emotions and behaviours;
  • feel empowered to take control of one’s own struggle, re-writing rules where possible;
  • dare to write an ending (or even the next chapter) which reflects their values, priorities and needs; and
  • see how such changes can be applied to the world’s stage.

With respect to my story, the concept of ‘rules’ was particularly important, as these have shaped my worldview (moral code and understanding of justice), my sense of self (under what circumstances I feel proud or ashamed) and my behaviours, (in both adherence to, and defiance of, said rules).

Most of the time, we operate within these rules with very little awareness that they even exist. This isn’t always a bad thing; rules provide order amongst the chaos and help us navigate our place in our relationships, our workplace and the wider world. However, rules can also restrict growth and fuel shame, especially when they’re contradictory.

Here is a list of some contradictory and restrictive rules that I have experienced and, no doubt, projected onto others:

  • don’t expect too much from others, but be sure not to let them down. Expect a lot from yourself, because others will;
  • others have the right to judge, shame and fix you, based on these expectations. Let them, because this is done with good intentions;
  • mistakes are an important way to learn and grow. Even so, only certain mistakes are acceptable. See above;
  • make sure to find another perspective to every situation. Even if this means invalidating your own perspective in favour of others’;
  • don’t be too sensitive, but don’t be too hard and cynical either;
  • don’t be a push-over, but be prepared to be shut-down if you stand up for yourself;
  • always be grateful. Even if this means minimising your own natural emotional reaction; and finally
  • give, even when you don’t feel you can. It’s better to absorb a bit of discomfort than let others down.

Articulating these was difficult, but also quite liberating. I came away from the course feeling that, after naming the ways in which I felt trapped, I might do better at shedding some of these restrictions and expectations. Likewise, I might do better at not enforcing these onto others. Taken together, these are the ways I can start to take control of my story, rather than constantly reacting.

As 2016 draws to a close, I encourage you to think about what rules have you experienced (or perpetuated). How might changing these help you to write the next chapter of your own story that’s more in line with your values?

Photo credit: UA Business Cloud.

Sympathy, empathy, compassion (oh my!)

Sympathy. Empathy. Compassion. While difficult to untangle at first, these concepts are actually quite different to each other, if one is willing to examine them a little more closely.

Shame and connection researcher Brené Brown  discusses the difference between sympathy and empathy in this short animated video.

In short, sympathy is acknowledging and/or feeling sorry about another’s difficult experience, but with some detachment. Sympathy sees the difficulty in the situation, but draws the line at understanding how that situation might actually feel. Because there is no emotional investment, it is very easy for sympathy to minimise the situation by pointing out a silver lining or another perspective to the situation.

In my experience this can happen in two stages. Stage one involves sharing a difficult experience with someone. In the video, one example is ‘I’ve just had a miscarriage’. A silver lining is offered: ‘At least you know you can get pregnant’. Stage two involves sharing to a third party how this invalidating experience felt: ‘I told my friend I’d had a miscarriage and all they said was at least I know I can get pregnant!’. Here, sympathy tries to find another perspective: ‘Yeah…but maybe they didn’t know what to say/were having a bad day/can’t even get pregnant themselves’.

While perspective taking is vital, I think it’s important to note the accumulating layers of invalidation in this example. If a silver lining or different perspective is offered before acknowledging the original source of pain or any subsequent invalidation, sympathy can often do more harm than good.

Empathy, on the other hand, is getting in touch with that part of ourselves which also knows pain, in order to understand what another person might be feeling. An empathic response is the difference between knowing something and feeling something. In this situation, an empathetic listener would feel that sense of loss and grief alongside their friend.

Compassion – the deep wish to relieve pain – takes this one step further. Often, it is more than mere intention, it is loving action. It is the comfort which a parent would offer a crying child, rather than activating their potential for feeling pain in order to understand it in their child (empathy) or simply feeling sorry that the child is in pain (sympathy). Compassion doesn’t try and absorb the pain. Nor does it try and solve the original source of the pain or find a silver lining. Compassion simply creates a tender space with which to validates another’s experience of pain.

Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences characterises empathy as a precursor to compassion. However, in the course of her work, she has concluded that too much empathy can lead to burnout.

This is best illustrated during her study of individuals’ brain function after watching video footage of violent suffering. It was only through a compassionate – rather than empathic – response that they felt capable of witnessing severe such distress without feeling overwhelmed by it. One of the participants, Matthieu Ricard has written this account* of his experiences during the study:

The word empathy means an affective resonance with someone else. If you are moved by the suffering of someone, even though you make a clear distinction between yourself and that person, you suffer because she suffers. You may also feel joy when she feels joy. Researchers found that a part of their brain network associated with pain is activated in subjects who watch someone being hurt.

When repeated over time, empathic resonance with others’ pain can lead to empathic distress and emotional exhaustion, or burnout. According to a study carried out in North America, 60% of all nurses, doctors, and caregivers who are in constant contact with patients experiencing suffering have suffered, or will suffer, burnout at some point in their professional life.

Compassion and selfless love are associated with positive emotions. Based on this, in the course of my collaboration with Tania Singer, we realized that burnout was actually a due to ‟empathy fatigue” and not to ‟compassion fatigue”. Compassion, far from leading to distress and discouragement, strengthens our fortitude, our inner balance and our courageous determination to help those who suffer. In essence, from our point of view, love and compassion do not wear out. Rather they help to overcome empathic distress.

These three dimensions — altruistic love, empathy and compassion — are naturally connected. Within altruistic love, or benevolence, empathy alerts us that the other person might be suffering. Compassion — the desire to dispel these sufferings and their causes — follows. Thus, when confronted with suffering, altruistic love, catalyzed by empathy, becomes compassion.

Compassion, by its very nature, is boundless. And because of this, it allows us to sustain a deep connection with others that sympathy and empathy can never hope to cultivate.

* edited for brevity. Additional references can be found here.
Photo credit: Pinterest

In praise of ordinary

While celebrity culture endures, there is a noticeable rise in people who celebrate the ordinary life. The popularity of ‘warts and all’ bloggers, illustrators and comedians such as Constance Hall, Matthew Inman, Em Rusciano and Amy Schumer demonsrates that we are increasingly embracing those we can relate to.

Add in the work of those who teach acceptance, shame-resilience and self-compassion, and we have the message that a messy, challenging, vulnerable life is not just an average life, it’s a worthy life.

It’s refreshing to hear that others struggle, make poor choices, have ‘bad’ habits, often don’t know what they’re doing, fail and feel lonely. But more than that, it’s validating. It strips away the veneer that comes from striving and instead fosters connection, empathy and acceptance.

I was reminded of the latter this week, while listening to music as I worked. The song Bein’ Green began and, for the first time ever, I paused and really listened to the lyrics:

It’s not that easy bein’ green; having to spend each day the colour of the leaves. When I think it could be nicer bein’ red, or yellow or gold or something much more colourful like that.

It’s not that easy bein’ green; it seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things. And people tend to pass you over, ’cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky.

But green’s the colour of spring. And green can be cool and friendly-like. And green can be big like the ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree.

When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why, but why wonder? Why wonder?  I’m green and it’ll do fine- it’s beautiful. And I think it’s what I want to be.

How often do we catch ourselves wishing we were something different to what we are – more talented, eloquent, confident or less prone to awkwardness, failure and mistakes – because these are the qualities we think might lift us beyond ordinary?

And how often do we take stock and identify how our existing qualities already benefit us and others? My guess is not often enough. But a talent which brings joy to the local community instead of making international headlines is not a second-rate talent, nor does its owner lead a second-rate life.

So the next time you find yourself dreaming of a more exciting life, take a moment to really validate the average one you’re already living. After all, you just might find, like Kermit did, that the things which make you ordinary in some ways make you extraordinary in others.



Photo credit: The Muppets
Bein’ Green written by Joe Raposo

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, 13th century Persian scholar and theologian