We Can Get Better Because We’re Not Dead Yet: Part 1

I consider myself an engaged person who strives toward consciousness, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I always embody my ideals. Fortunately, I live by the quote of one of my favorite Frank Turner songs: “We can get better because we’re not dead yet!” 

Reorienting my inner compass to my values (with Love as a Polaris) is my life’s work. Gleaning from my studies of nonviolence, mindfulness, Buddhism, and peace literacy, I have developed a three-step process for my mind and heart that has been especially helpful in the wake of interpersonal conflict: 1) I explore my feelings and my actions with curiosity and compassion 2) I take responsibility for the feelings that arose within me 3) I admit that I’ve fallen short of my ideals

To illustrate this process, I am going to narrate a true story of a recent conflict between Collin and me and how I found my way out of the quagmire of sensory overload even with an injured ego. Along the way, we will touch upon sensitivity and intensity as traits. 

**Disclaimer: I don’t consider myself an expert in any sense, but I write and share my heart in hopes that occasionally I write about “truths beyond my own” as my good friend put it. Take what I say with a glass rim of salt, though, as my mindfulness journey is equally peppered with mistakes, learning, meditation, and the occasional, mild hangover. 

The Story
Setting: Family Movie Night—Holiday Edition—featuring Jingle Jangle

“I can hear you breathing. Can you stop?” I whisper to Collin.

“Like, stop breathing?” He asks in earnest. 

“No, like stop being so loud about it.” I clarify. 

Five minutes later, I hear a slight wheeze again, and instead of vocalizing my request (which at this point has emotionally accelerated to a demand) I wave my left hand sort of like a magician in front of his face. In the moment, I truly thought this was a gentle reminder of my former request because–compared to how overwhelmed I feel inside–it is. 

Hours later, I come out of Juniper’s room from tucking her down, and Collin asks me how I’m doing. I share my concerns with him about some things Juniper said to me about how she’s processing the social limitations of our current life. I even start tearing up, my voice cracks, and my voice goes Sally Struthers-like for a minute. 

I look to Collin expecting to see and hear the trademark empathy and kindness that I love about him, and I am met with a neutral affect and a very practical response. I feel irate inside when I sense that he’s not viscerally, emotionally moved by my clearly bleeding heart. I feel angry, and we both engage in old, immature patterns of trying to get the other to care about our own feelings, understand from our own perspective first and foremost, and make the other mad just to see our effect (and by “we both” I mean just me). 

By this point, there’s no way out of the pit I’ve dug except to spend a moment by myself and engage in my process. Until I do this, I’m going to just keep trying to pull him down with me every time he extends his arm to help me out. 

So, I take a moment to myself and find a quiet place alone. I look within, and I just feel my ego reeling. *I* was the one who was struggling, how did I end up here now needing to apologize on top of everything? The creeping awareness that I have acted outside of my values feels awful. Saying sorry is not my favorite. It used to be even harder. I even once tried to evade a sincere, humble apology to Collin with the statement, “I offer my most sincere condolences for your hurt feelings.” It’s equal parts genius and jerk to say that. Fortunately, that has become a joke between us now. It’s one that serves as a reminder to embody love rather than to protect my ego. But still, when I’m emotionally activated, I can’t dive right into saying sorry. That’s got to come after the process. 

Step 1: Explore with Compassionate Curiosity 

Apologizing is vulnerable. It takes courage, trust, and hope just to admit to ourselves that we fell short of our ideals and values. That’s why my step one is to explore my feelings and actions with curiosity and compassion. If we can sit down beside ourselves as a kind, older sibling would do (fortunately, I have two of these in real life as a template) and ask ourselves “hey, pal, what happened?” we can start to untangle the problem. As we explore our human shortcomings with compassionate curiosity, we acknowledge that our behaviors are expressions of our psychological needs. As Peace Literacy author and advocate Paul Chappell explains, sometimes those needs get tangled in trauma or pain, and we express them inappropriately, harming others in our path. 

Deconstructing the moralism around our feelings and actions can help us to understand our behaviors in different terms than dualistic categories like “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, and “mean” or “nice.” These evaluative terms assign judgment and can cause shame which is seldom helpful during Step 1 when we are trying to understand with and open and compassionate mind. 

Step 2: Mindful Responsibility

Once we have a secure base of self-compassion, we can move on to taking responsibility for our own feelings while remaining mindful about them. So we take responsibility by accurately naming and identifying the feelings that arose, “I felt anger, frustration, overwhelm, powerlessness, etc” and we recognize that these feelings arose within us. They arose within us, meaning no one else caused them. Feelings happen when others do and say things in a correlational way, but to blame others for your feelings is not helpful or accurate. It’s a correlation not a causal order, in research terms. 

Feelings originate within us, and they can arise for many different reasons. The reasons can be due to our own needs, past experiences, worldviews, and personalities. When we take responsibility for our feelings, we gain access to information about ourselves that can help us toward infinite self growth. When we blame others for our feelings, we do ourselves (and the other person) a disservice. 

Pay attention to the language you use when you think and speak about your feelings. The language you use will reveal where you assign responsibility and whether you’re discussing an emotion or accusing someone of an action. As NonViolent Communication theory explains, language like “I felt provoked” reveals that you hold the other person responsible for your anger. It also indicates that you think they did something to you. A clearer way to state this would be, “I felt angry when you [insert observed behavior here] because I thought you were trying to provoke me.” “Anger” is an emotion. “Provoked” is not. Therefore, you can not feel “provoked” but you can feel anger because you believe someone provoked you. When you realize that you believe someone provoked you, you also realize that you’re judging their motives and making an accusation.

Using clear language, at least in this phase of the process, helps to clarify feelings and refrain from subconsciously blaming others and judging their motives. When we make our feelings someone else’s responsibility, we take the locus of control for transformation and assign it elsewhere, outside of ourselves. When we take responsibility for our feelings, we also empower ourselves to respond mindfully. 

Exploring your feelings with mindfulness means that you don’t over-identify with the feeling. So while you’re taking responsibility that the feeling arose within you, you create some space between yourself and the emotion you’re experiencing. As Sumi Loundon Kim explains, you acknowledge the feeling of anger the way you’d acknowledge an itch on your foot. You HAVE an itch, but you aren’t an itch. The itch doesn’t define you. With feelings, responsibility is key but so also is giving mindful space to those feelings. We are accustomed to saying “I am angry” out of convenience, but a more accurate way to explore the feelings in this step would be to use language like “I feel anger arising” or “I am experiencing a lot of anger right now.” We can choose which feelings to indulge, which to observe and acknowledge, and which to let float on by. No feelings are ethically bad to have and acknowledge, but not all feelings are healthy to embrace or make the focus of our internal world.

At this point, if we have explored our feelings with compassionate curiosity, and we have taken responsibility for those feelings with a mindfulness approach, we are now ready for step 3. 

Step 3: Admit that You’ve Fallen Short of Your Ideals

Step 3 is about repairing the damage you have done. So first, you need to admit to yourself that you have fallen short of your values and ideals. This is when you can consider using those evaluative terms about your own actions if that’s meaningful and helpful to you. This is when you prepare your heart and mind for the hard task of humbly listening to the other person and reengaging in the conflict resolution. 

This is the stage when you may want to prepare to use the CLARA method in your conflict resolution. CLARA stands for Center, Listen, Affirm, Repeat, Add. I’ll add a link at the end for more information on this.

So, back to my story about movie night and the breathing incident—I did my 3 step process during a self-imposed reflection time after our initial confrontation. Then the next morning, Collin and I went for a walk to figure it out together. 

As it turns out, I’m still learning about myself and about Collin after 24 years. Wow, I am officially feeling like I need a Life Alert after typing that.

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