Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Not to Be A Knee-Jerk

"What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart." -Marshall Rosenberg
Knee-jerk: A person who lives reactively and defensively to others and the world around them. As in, when someone hits your knee in just the right spot and your leg kicks out uncontrollably. So often, we live out of this kind of place. We live reactive lives. We feel emotionally powerless against other people's actions, opinion, criticisms. We say things like, "Ahh! He makes me so mad!!!" As if we have no other alternatives to feeling the way we do. Edwin Friedman (Rabbi and Councilor) talks about how another person's or group's emotions have almost a gravitational pull. We find ourselves getting sucked into the drama and reacting in predictable patterns of behavior. It feels like these are forces outside of our control. The flip-side of being held emotionally hostage is called being "self-differentiated." Self-differentiation is the ability to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of an emotionally intense, even hostile environment. The quick definition might be "to take maximum responsibility for one's own emotional well being and destiny."

We have all experience the gravitational pull of an anxious person or system. It's that feeling when you go back to stay with your parents for a week on vacation and suddenly you feel like your are 15 yrs old again. Or it's that person who has a grudge against you and so you are completely incapable of loving him. Or maybe it's a work environment that is turning ugly and you get swept up in the drama and gossip and you never thought of yourself as a gossip. It's the conflict at church that sits heavy in the pit of your stomach and you just can't move on. It is feeling emotionally stuck.

This feeling, that we are held emotionally hostage by how others respond to us, makes having healthy, nurturing relationships really difficult. It makes having peaceful relationships impossible. Sometimes our understanding of Christianity compounds our problems with conflict. We hear Jesus' words about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and blessing those who persecute us and interpret that to mean we should be passive and avoid conflict. The result is that we become a doormat for others to walk all over. Even more dangerous- we become resentful.

So, is there a third way to peacemaking? How do we move from reactive to responsive? From resentment to reconciliation? Marshall Rosenberg in his book Nonviolent Communication outlines an approach and philosophy toward having a mutual flow of compassionate communication. http://www.cnvc.org/  Some of the questions he answers (better than anyone else I have read) are: How do we help others know what we need emotionally and practically? How do we initiate these courageous conversations in a way that will open the other to compassion and not defensiveness?

I realized a while back that there must be a better way to communicate in times of conflict. When my wife would tell me about a conflict she had with someone else, I was a fountain of empathy. When her problem was with something I did or said, I was defensive, incapable of empathy, and more interested in her seeing my side of things. This would result in an attempt at conversation, during which I would make things worst, this would turn into an argument, and then we would both sulk for a few hours. A very predictable pattern. I would say really unhelpful things like, "What do you want me to do, just feel crappy?" I would minimize her feelings (and my part in the conflict) and imply that she should just "get over it."

I realized that if I could somehow take myself (and all my defensiveness) out of the interaction, that I could (in my best moments) offer empathy, suggest what needs might be going unmet, and offer some possible ways to help meet those needs immediately or in the future. This might sound something like, "sounds like you're feeling a little lonely, because I've been going out with friends for the past few nights. Is there something I could do to help?"

On the other side, when we feel sad, mad, glad, etc we can help others now what that feeling is and how they can help meet an unmet need. "I'm feeling, afriad, sad, etc because __________. Would you be willing to _________? This is a scary and vulnerable, but powerful and effective way to open the lines of compassionate communication. And when we become more self-aware about our feelings and needs we become emotionally liberated from the power others hold over us. We have the possibility of increasing our level of self-differentiation. And ultimately we will be able to love others more fully and effectively. We will be able to stay connected with people because we won't fear becoming effected or absorbed into their emotional field.

I think that ultimately Jesus would have us not be so bothered by what other people say or do to us. He would want us to be able to quickly forgive and move on. But pretending like it doesn't bother us in not even close to an acceptable alternative. Jesus offers us some brilliant examples of finding third ways to respond to conflict. Somebody tries to corner him, and he tells a story. Things are escalating, he starts doodling in the sand. People accuse him of breaking the law, he gets to the heart of their motives by asking questions and telling parables. I think Jesus offers us an alternative to being either reactive or resentful. Call it self-differentiation, compassionate communication, or creative love.

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