Preventing Fire

I burnt the battered pine recipe box.  It’d become obsolete for me in the era of online recipes and no longer using those index cards from 30-odd years ago. I added the box to our fire one cold winter afternoon; it crackled, roared and burned bright for a few minutes, then whoosh, it was gone.

So, what’s the point here?  I don’t regret burning the box.  But watching it quickly disintegrate got me thinking about reactive, heated exchanges between people and the regrets that often follow.

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Reactivity is common, it happens all the time in us:  someone says or does something that triggers us, and we react, either mentally, emotionally, physically or verbally.  Or in all those ways.  

A reactive face to face argument, phone, text or Facebook exchange can heat up quickly, combust, and then reduce a relationship to ashes. Or barring that, needing significant repair.

Do you wanna do that?

Recognizing when we’re too heated, upset or triggered to communicate well and need to take time to calm down and think things through is one of the most vital skills we can learn in ourselves and in our relationships. 

Victor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“Respond, Rather Than React”

I didn’t create this phrase but find it a vital little mantra with myself and with clients. Stopping to pause to sort out our reactions and thoughts and then responding in a way that is neither defensive or blaming and keeps communication open is a learnable skill. It is hard but doable.

Here are some steps to consider:

  • Stop when triggered or upset by something someone did or said.
  • Notice what’s happening in your body – where is your body letting you know you are angry, scared or upset?
  • Breathe into those spaces to calm them a little.
  • Notice what you are telling yourself – the storyline that automatically pops up when you feel hurt, misunderstood or blamed.
  • Make an intention not to respond until you can do so with kindness, honesty, and non-reactivity.  That may mean initially saying something like, “I’ve got to sort out my response but I’ll be in touch soon.”
  • Decide if this a battle worth fighting – get in touch with your deepest values and make a decision whether or not this warrants a reaction.  (This is different than avoiding difficult conversations with silence.)
  • Be curious – about your own reactivity – where it might come from –  and also what might be happening for the person who just fueled your fire.  Remember that you are only responsible for your actions and words, not those of others.
  • Think about how you can respond in the form of an “I” statement.  “I” statements are effective, and for more about them click here.  
  • Practice your response out loud.  Run it by someone you trust, if you can. 
  • Then, respond, owning your own thoughts and feelings instead of attacking, blaming or criticizing.  Stick to that script over and over.
  • See what this does for your next interaction with anyone….

This process takes practice (a lot of it!) and can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort you make. And there’s more to developing good communication and relationship skills, like learning to truly listen and reflect back to the other person what you have heard, which can often reduce conflict in the first place.

And, about Digital Communication…..

Social media and digital devices make it effortless to pop someone a message.   And they make it easier than ever to leave a trail of misunderstanding, hurt and relational damage.  Text and email messages are one-dimensional…we don’t have eye contact, body language or sometimes even the context in which something is being said to help us more accurately “read” what someone is saying.  I still think it’s best to save the important stuff for a face-to-face conversation or at the least, a phone call.  I know, I know – some of you are muttering – Brenda, you are SO outdated.

But I say try it, be thoughtful about what messages can be sent digitally and which ones can’t.   Whatever you decide, respond versus react.

I guarantee fewer relationships will get burnt.

Brenda Hartman-Souder
2018

Note:  One of the best blogs I’ve found on learning about and developing relationships and practicing non-violent, thoughtful communication skills is that of LaShelle Lowe-Chardé on her blog at Wise Heart.  If improving relationships is important to you, check it out.

Patience

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“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Gerbera daisy was in full bloom when I bought it at the Farmer’s Market this May.  Nestled, with several other annuals, into the large crock in front of our house, it exuded sunny health.

After a few weeks, it stopped blooming.  All summer I watered and fed it, and the warm sun shone on it, but it did not produce flowers.  Its leaves, however, grew and stayed such a lush green I didn’t uproot it these past weeks as I emptied plant pots for the winter.

But, a few days ago, in November, several daisies emerged through leaves, like shy but happy debutantes at the last hour of the ball!  I’m treasuring this unexpected burst of color just days before a predicted killing frost.

We never know when our hard work in life:  changing our part in a relationship pattern, caring for ourselves differently, working on a life goal, showing up for exercise or deciding to address an addiction may yield a burst of hope and color.

“Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.” Saint Francis de Sales

Just because results aren’t visible right away does not mean nothing is changing or growing or preparing to bloom.  Remember that, and carry on with what you have decided is important for you to attend to.

Brenda Hartman-Souder
November 2018

Some Reading for You…

Brain Pickings is a well-written website authored by Maria Popova, who writes that it’s a “free Sunday digest of the week’s most interesting and inspiring articles across art, science, philosophy, creativity, children’s books, and other strands of our search for truth, beauty, and meaning.”

I’ve enjoyed countless articles and often follow Ms. Popova’s suggestions for thought-provoking books to read. Click here for a sampling of Maria’s writing. If you have time and interest, read each of her core beliefs, collected thoughtfully over more than a decade, and see if any resonate with you.  If not, what core beliefs do guide your life?

Undone

“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”    –Lin Yutang

Life is full this summer.

  • The garden is bursting with kale, tomatoes, herbs and green beans; it needs weeding. 
  • I’m working full-time.  So is my spouse.
  • With our college-aged daughter home, we’re cooking for four adults most nights and making enough extra to pack lunches.  With vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free diets, food planning and preparation is labor intensive.
  • It’s time to shop –  for supplies my daughter needs for her college townhouse and school supplies, and clothes for our high school-aged son.
  • Neighbors stop to visit and we love getting together with friends.
  • Laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, car maintenance, etc. are ongoing tasks.

All of what makes summer so ripe with good things also means that I’ve not blogged like I planned.  For awhile guilt nagged at me, a sense of not meeting my own expectations.

Then I remembered this quote by Lin Yutang and what I often tell harried, overworked, over-busy clients:  You gotta learn to slow down, say no to some things, prioritize and find ways to sit with the unease of not doing everything you previously thought or assumed was so important.

Bere, the owner of Work You Love Coach, has a five-minute meditation for stress relief. She gently reminds listeners to let things be undone, and to ask, “Who do I need to say ‘no’ to?”  Here’s the link: https://www.workyoulovecoach.com/meditation1

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So, if your season of life is full, let it be, take a few minutes to sit quietly and ask yourself:  What is really important?  And what needs to be left undone for now?  See how that resonates with you.   If it’s hard, what makes it hard?   What beliefs might you have about being productive, crossing items off your to-do list or not disappointing others?  See if you can find some ease and energy to enjoy how you do choose to fill your time.

Until I have time for the next post…..

Brenda Hartman-Souder, August 2018

photo credit:  Gemma Evans

Demolition Has Its Day, and Place, in Life

“Don’t despair if your heart has been through a lot of trauma. Sometimes, that’s how beautiful hearts are remade: they are shattered first.”  Yasmin Mogahed

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Last fall I saw a house being demolished. The equipment necessary to bring it down was parked on the road and slowed my journey up Oak Street to my office, so every day I’d glance quickly to see more of the house being knocked to pieces.

I don’t remember what it looked like –  it was probably a modest two-story like other simple colonials that line the street.  And I don’t know anything about the lives of the families that lived there, the story of that particular house or why it was razed.  It might be a sad or tragic story to tell.  I love the old homes in our city and am always disappointed when one has to go.

But I was also curious to see what happens next.

Our family owns an empty lot where a two-family home stood.  Information about what happened is sparse but one short article I found on microfiche reported the house was destroyed in a fire in the 1970’s.  No one was injured and there was speculation about insurance fraud, but by the time we bought our home, it was an empty expanse of crabgrass, languishing perennials (but some very fine peonies), a concrete driveway slab at the curb, and bits of the garage foundation at the back.  It was pretty ugly.

That empty lot played a big factor in our decision to buy this house. We had it graded, fenced and finished out with topsoil and grass seed.  Then we dug a garden and developed, over the next 17 years, perennial and vegetable beds that have provided beauty and sustenance.  Our children played in the yard when they were little, it’s a great space for hosting potlucks and also gives us extra space on a street where homes were sometimes constructed too close together to let the sun in.

My point?  Destruction can lead to something good both in property and in personal experience.  Emptiness can be a fertile space for something new to grow.

In therapy, persons often come knowing that something isn’t working, that reactive or addictive patterns in themselves or relationships are causing stalemate and damage. Or that a relationship or job or stage of life or dream is ending.

Something is being demolished….and this is part of life – it’s predictable.  And waiting alongside sorrow, shock, resistance, and anger is also the possibility of what might be born after an ending.  But the ending has to come first.

People can move from what’s empty, unusable or just plain over to welcome something new, hopeful, meaningful, useful.  It’s not easy, it’s not pretty or elegant – all that demolition and mess and hauling away of what was; but it’s doable, necessary and important all the same.

Therapy should be a safe place for clients:

  • to be listened to and understood,
  • to know, as a foundation under their feet, their strengths, values, connections, and resilience  – what’s going to help them make it through
  • and then to understand what has to change in order for growth to occur; what needs to be deconstructed or demolished or finished so that something healthier and more workable can emerge.

It’s possible to both grieve painful endings AND hold onto the belief that something lovely, strong or meaningful might be built in the space left by ending old habits, surrendering a dream, facing sorrow, or releasing faulty beliefs. 

In just the last week, I noticed that the empty lot I drive by has been leveled, topsoil and straw spread.  I’m waiting to see shoots of grass poke up through. 

You will know a respectful home once stood there, that it’s not there anymore and you will also appreciate the little rectangle of green possibility.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, June 2018

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Some good reading on endings, grief transitions, etc.: 

Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges

Healing Through the Dark Emotions:  The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair by Miriam Greenspan

Kelly Brogan, MD’s website:  https://kellybroganmd.com/   I don’t necessarily agree with all of Dr. Brogan’s expressed views and beliefs, but her writing on facing pain, the transformation possible when leaning into one’s suffering instead of running from it, are powerful.

Grief Recovery Handbook by Russell Friedman & John W. James

The Wild Edge of Sorrow, by Frances Weller