Enemy images: Ridding ourselves of the negativity
Although we all have enemy images, this political season seems to be stimulating even more. What is an enemy image? Enemy images are thoughts that turn people into things by evaluating them. When I say my co-worker is lazy, that’s an enemy image. When I say my husband is clueless, that’s an enemy image. When I say a politician is another Hitler, that’s an enemy image.
Anytime we evaluate someone negatively, we are developing an enemy image. We tell ourselves, “but they are lazy/clueless/Hitler! If we don’t identify the problem we will never be able to do anything about it!” The real problem however is not them; it’s us. It’s our unmet needs, and as long as we aren’t aware of this, “the problem” will never get solved.
We have been taught since we were little to develop enemy images of people, so it feels “natural.” The problem with enemy images however is they get in the way of really getting issues resolved. Getting rid of the enemy image is probably the hardest part of getting issues resolved.
Perhaps you tell yourself you would never tell that person the negative thoughts you are thinking. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter as long as you don’t say it. But you know it does. You know that once you have those kinds of thoughts about another person, it comes out somehow. It comes out in body language, it slips into verbal language, it comes out in the energy you project.
You know this because you have felt it yourself. We have all known people that never said anything negative to us, but we just knew they didn’t like us. That’s why it is so hard to have the kinds of empathic conversations with people that really get at our needs when we have the underlying enemy images. No amount of “right words” seems to change the conversation.
That’s the reason it’s so important to disarm the enemy image first. Once we can start seeing each other without that image it’s amazing how easily we can then come up with solutions to get everyone’s needs met. Let’s take two of the above examples apart to see how we can get rid of the enemy image.
If you have ever had a job, you have probably experienced the first one. It’s a busy day at work and you are running around doing your best to keep up. You notice you aren’t seeing one of your co-workers very much; they seem to be “missing” when things get really busy. When you do see them, you find yourself having to ask for help, when you really hoped they would just jump in. You find yourself feeling more and more angry, and the “lazy” thought pops into your head. I mean why else would they be acting like this? Not only that, but you find as you get more tense that you when you do ask for help they seem hesitant, or you just decide it’s easier not to even ask. What do you do?
First you need some empathy yourself. To get into the place where you can start to imagine what needs the other person is trying to meet, you need to give yourself empathy. This means observing yourself, identifying your needs and feelings and then getting clear on a request you may have. These are the four steps of empathic communication as developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.
You may be telling yourself, “I can’t get all of this work done. They just keep piling on more and more and nobody seems to care. I certainly shouldn’t have to find my co-worker and ask them to do this, they should know their job.” Now check into what kinds of feelings you are experiencing when you tell yourself this. More than likely it’s frustration and anger. From there you can decide what needs you have that aren’t being met; probably a need for support, consideration and maybe even some ease.
Your request might be to be able to ask for support with a higher chance of getting that met. Getting clearer on this for you leads to having a little more space to start to guess what’s going on for your co-worker.
The goal is to be able to have a conversation in which both of your needs get met, and it’s more likely that will happen if you can change your perception, your energy. First the observation again: what have you actually observed in this situation? The observation has to be just what a camera or video would record, without any evaluation. So you haven’t seen your co-worker, for how long? You decide it’s been the last 10 minutes. When they did return you saw them standing by the desk talking to someone else. That observation is a long way from your evaluation of lazy.
Get creative and start to think what may have been going on for them. One guess could be they have been in the bathroom for the last ten minutes, and are now talking to someone about how ill they feel. That story could be just as valid as the story that they are lazy and trying to get out of any work.
And the benefit to the illness story is you start to feel just a little heart opening to wondering what might be really going on. You don’t have to actually ask them if they are sick, but now you can go to them and make your request without the baggage of the enemy image. It may be this simple, but often we need a bit more time and self-empathy to get to the space where we can imagine something besides an enemy.
There is a political figure at present that is being compared to Hitler. How can we possibly get past this enemy image? We use the same steps: observation, feelings, needs and requests. We observe what we are telling ourselves, “He’s a racist (another enemy image). He will ruin this country. He’s going to alienate our allies around the world. He’s going to take away our free speech.”
This could be just a small sample of our thoughts. When we tell ourselves these things we notice we feel angry, frustrated and perhaps fear. Our needs might be to have someone leading our country who has values in alignment with ours, to feel safe, to trust that our values and concerns will be considered. (I imagine these might be the same needs the people who support this political figure may have.) Your request might simply be to be able to talk with friends and family about this figure in a more empathic way.
So let’s try to guess what might be going on for this figure. Let’s start with observation. Most of our observations are about words he has said. “I think Islam hates us … (He is) calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States …When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people … I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t loose voters.”
Another observation is he says these words standing dressed in a suit speaking before crowds of people. Let’s guess at some feelings he may be having. I think there might be anger, frustration and maybe even some fear. I also think he may be feeling some happiness. It’s possible that he wants to support and give voice to people who are feeling anger and frustration, and he is doing that. Just having the image of this person wanting to contribute to people by being their voice, lessens the enemy image.
There is a difference between determining that something doesn’t meet our needs, and evaluating it as bad. I can decide that my co-worker doesn’t work in a way that gets my needs met for support, and still see them as a human with their own needs.
I can have the opinion that the words this political figure is saying don’t meet my needs for consideration and inclusivity, but I want to stay away from evaluating him as bad. I want to be able to stay open to discussing him with others in a way that allows us to connect at a deeper level. The kind of level that gets all of our needs met.
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.