Friday was a crazy day at work. The most involved, complicated children seemed to be on my schedule. I seemed to be getting more behind as the day went on and in the middle of the afternoon I had to take some time to call Social Work about one of the children. I definitely didn’t have time to do this, but it had to happen then because their offices were soon to close.
As I stepped into my office to have that private phone conversation I realized I wanted my assistant to let the patients that were already in rooms waiting for me to know that I was running even later. I yelled her name down the hall, and she responded, as she was just a door down. In the next minute the clinic manager came running wondering what was wrong since she had heard me yell the name. I could hear her reprimand my assistant for yelling in the office. I felt such anger at her. I couldn’t stop to talk with her, and to be honest I didn’t want to talk to her, I wanted to yell at her. I thought, “Just come in here and say that, we will see who gets reprimanded!” “How dare she! Doesn’t she appreciate how busy we are?!” I was feeling righteous indignation.
It took me a few days to realize I was in a reactive pattern. Reactivity, as described by LaShelle Lowe-Charde, occurs when we misperceive a threat to one or more of our needs. I think one of the most difficult things to come to terms with in our lives is that we are responsible for our own state of emotions. Nobody makes us feel anything. We have feelings in response to how we perceive both our external and internal worlds. We respond depending on the thoughts we have about what we perceive.
What I was thinking, for just a brief moment, when I heard the manager down the hall was, “I’ve done something wrong. I don’t know how to act in a professional way.” That thought and the pain I felt at not having my need for competence met was so painful, that it left my consciousness before I could even see it and was immediately replaced by a reactive pattern.
Over a lifetime I have developed a very effective reactive pattern to protect myself from the pain of thinking I’m incompetent. That reactive pattern involves blaming someone else, and lately anger. Earlier in my life it would have been shame. I think many people have a similar pattern. Although the pattern does a great job at protecting us from feeling that uncomfortable feeling, it’s not so great at getting our real needs met. My need at that moment was to be seen as competent. If I had yelled at the clinic manager, that’s the last thing I would have been seen as.
According to Dr. Marshall Rosenberg we all share the same needs. These needs ebb and flow on a daily basis depending on what life brings us. LaShelle Loew-Charde talks about “tender relationships” with some needs. We have a comfortable relationship with most of our needs, we accept offered help easily in getting those needs met. However, most of us have at least one or two needs with which we have a tender relationship. In other words, we have built up a lifetime of stories about those needs. We may have some hopelessness that those needs can get met, or those particular needs have become attached somehow to the core of how we see ourselves and have become extremely important.
I would say that for me the needs of autonomy and competence are two with which I have a tender relationships. When I find myself reacting, having very strong emotions such as anger, shame or hopelessness; it is very likely that I see one of those needs in peril. This is when I’m going to fall back on my reactive pattern that I’ve developed over my lifetime. That reactive pattern is very seductive because it does protect me from the discomfort of realizing I am responsible for the feeling. And this is a very tricky pattern to get out of because if I start to realize I’m responsible for my own pain, that’s just one more thing I’m incompetent with, and I keep getting sucked further in. It can be a viscous little spiral that gets you nowhere. The way out is to recognize it’s a reaction, a reactive pattern, and figure out what was at the base of it.
According to Ike Lasatar and Julie Stiles there are steps involved in learning how to break the reactive patterns.
- The first step is becoming aware you want to change. This is a big step. It takes a real change in self-awareness to see that the choices you have been making are entirely your responsibility and aren’t helping the situation. They may be helping you feel better in the short term, but they aren’t getting what you really want done in the long term.
- Once you have developed the awareness that your response to a situation wasn’t helpful, and that your response was part of the problem, you can start to think about what was really going on. This is where the process of empathic communication is so helpful; it gives you another lens with which to view the situation. By observing what you were telling yourself, how you were feeling and discovering what you were needing, you can bypass your trained thought process to see something new. This will involve some mourning about how your response didn’t get your needs met. It may also involve some self-discovery of very painful beliefs you have about yourself, those tender relationships with yourself. It may be helpful to have someone who can help support you in this reflection, in a gentle, healing way. This reflection although requiring honesty isn’t meant to further any negative beliefs you may have about yourself or others.
- Alternative Options. Now that you have a clearer idea of what your needs are in these situations you can develop other choices that you can make in those moments. Actually following through with these new choices may take some time, maybe even years, particularly with those needs you believe to be in the most peril. You are more likely to be able to make the new choice if you have really felt the mourning of using the reactive pattern, if you have developed the trust that your needs can be met with new choices and you are safe. By safety I mean you have come to understand your self-attacking beliefs, and can see they are not the true reflection of the whole person that you are in community with every other whole person on this planet. It is also helpful to practice these alternatives with others you trust when not in the situation.
- Choosing the Alternative. Finally you are actually able to choose the alternative action in the midst of the situation. You may not do it exactly as you practiced. You may do a mix of your old pattern, and the new you have developed. The point is you try. And then when you reflect you hold a space for some empathy for yourself where you can celebrate your awareness and attempt. You may develop more awareness about your own beliefs in the situation. You may decide to change the strategy a little for the next time. You keep on trying. Over time, the new neural groove you are developing becomes deeper and deeper and it becomes easier and easier.
“You are born with the call to thrive.” — LaShelle Loew-Charde
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.