From a Language of Criticism to one of Compassion and Connection
I was raised by loving parents. Of course they weren’t perfect, but I just can’t blame my problems on them. They did well and now as a parent I actually strive to be like them in most aspects. But I grew up in a broader culture of: “Want to be a good person? Be hard on yourself.” So I had a lot to unlearn and learn, and that’s just what I’ve set out to do the past several years. Read on to learn about how I transformed my language of criticism to one of compassion and connection.
How it sounded
I recall being in a near constant state of feeling bad, or guilty about my behavior. No matter that I received mostly positive feedback from friends and colleagues. I didn’t believe most of it and lacked self-compassion. Instead I was completely sabotaged by my own prison of thoughts. If I hadn’t reached out for help, learned how to change my inner dialogue, I would likely still be trapped there, not capable of fulfilling any of my dreams.
State of loneliness
Once I became a parent, my harsh, demanding inner dialogue became more prevalent and louder. I wanted so badly to be a “good mother,” and I beat myself up on a regular basis to help myself along. But not surprisingly, it didn’t help. I heard myself speak to my children in some of the same ways I spoke to myself, and this was a big red flag. I was feeling terrible most of the time and too scared to share my inner world with hardly anyone. I was of course believing most of what my inner critic had to say about me, and didn’t want anyone else to have those same thoughts! Despite having plenty of friends and colleagues, my life felt pretty lonely, which wasn’t something I could explain.
Hitting a wall
As with most change, my first step was awareness. It took some pretty big events, like moving abroad (from the U.S. to the Netherlands), having a hard time finding work I cared about (it was during a recession) and struggling to make meaningful contact with the Dutch. I had gone several years surviving behind a mask of smiles and “everything is fine!” Yet that first year living abroad, it was clear . . . I had hit a wall of despair and knew I needed help beyond that which my family could give me.
How I dropped my “should” language
I went for coaching, to help me identify patterns of behavior, how to change them and determine my own next steps. Along the way I found Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a model for dialogue that helped me change much of my old habits. It helped me understand that my learned language was a tragic strategy to help me reach my full potential. I learned how listen beyond the thoughts . . to identify my underlying personal longings, including being honest with myself and with others WHILE experiencing more meaningful connection. NVC also taught me skills I use every day, like how to:
- identify my self-talk, and hear it as thoughts/beliefs as opposed to truth;
- make clear observations, see the facts as opposed to my interpretations, or stories;
- embrace my emotions as informers, not something to be fixed;
- transform my inner critic, judgments, comparisons and blame into my personal needs, or longings;
- make clear requests to come up for my personal needs; and
- connect during conflict (as opposed to fight/flight/freeze modes).
A recent personal example
This past December, a very loud “should thought” came alive in my head: “You should be normal and send out cards to loved ones.” Using my NVC skills, I went through the following steps:
- Is my thought true? Well, no, I haven’t sent out holiday cards the past few years.
- What are the facts? I haven’t lost any relationships as a result.
- How do I feel about it? I’m sad that I haven’t found the time to make the kind of creative cards I used to make. It was fun and expressive for me. I’m also relieved that I don’t force myself to do it anymore – the stress of it was sometimes too high.
- So what’s really important for me in all of this? Fun and expression are needs I fulfill in other ways this time of year. What I really care about is that my loved ones know I care about them and that our connection is strong especially when we are together.
- So what do I want to ask of myself? Drop the “should thought.” Help my loved ones know how much I care about them in other moments throughout this year. It doesn’t have to be with a holiday card.
My life without the harsh thoughts
Above all, NVC has brought me the ability to see clear choices. And I make them daily based on what’s really important for me, my needs, longings, values, motivators, intentions (choose the word you like best). These skills give me space to think things out calmly, be flexible and creative. . . not stuck in stressful reactive modes where I don’t experience much choice. And now that I have these skills, I am so much more comfortable in my own head/body, relaxed in my interactions with others, driven by trust instead of fear. I feel confident that I can handle conflict, can even connect in it. No more running away or avoiding it all together. I wish this for everyone!
Since moving to Haarlem in 2010, Cara has become an NVC-based coach (accredited), mediator and trainer, helping all kinds of people in different relationships learn how to change their language from criticism to compassion via self-connection, honest expression and empathic listening. If you’d like a taste of NVC, join Cara on Wednesday 23 May, 8.45-10.45 for the first (free) session of “Connecting Communication with Children,” a 9-week (paid) course at International School Haarlem. (Check out the Facebook event page.)