Many years ago I had a dramatic experience when I offered someone extremely difficult feedback, the most difficult I believe I have ever given to anyone, and he demonstrated a way of receiving it that inspired me. As I was almost in panic about what I had said to this person, and yet knew that I couldn’t relate to him without saying it, he looked me in the eye and told me that his practice was that whenever anyone said anything to him about himself, he stretched to imagine it being true, and then attempt to digest it from that perspective. What I had shared with him was that I experienced him as having unusual powers, like a magician, and that I didn’t trust that the power he had was all benign. Having said that and gotten the response I got, all the tension about speaking that I had been feeling drained out of me, and was replaced by admiration and appreciation for this man. It’s hard to describe the oddity of sitting with him, still not trusting his power, and nonetheless appreciating him so much. We then proceeded to explore, together, what could possibly be the source of the “darkness” that I had experienced about his power. The details of that exploration have evaporated from my memory; it’s only the flavor of the interaction, and the intensity of his willingness to explore with me that stayed as a model.
I have often wondered about what made it possible for this man to have such extraordinary and exquisite openness. What did he do with his own need to be seen and accepted? Sadly, I have no answer. At the time I lacked the vocabulary to ask about this, as this conversation predated my involvement with Nonviolent Communication and the awareness of needs that comes with it. Subsequently, life took him to other countries and our collaboration ended.
Regardless of what was true for him, the question remains. I have never met anyone else who could take in such difficult comments with such grace. What makes it so difficult, and what can we do about it?
A Conjecture about What Makes Judgments so Challenging
Many of us react to criticism, judgment, or rejection as if they amount to a threat to our survival. I am grateful to my sister Arnina in Israel who has supported my own clarity about why this is so.
There are two parts to it. One is that, as babies, we depend on adults for our basic survival even when they are unable to meet our needs, which makes vulnerability, helplessness, and disappointment inextricably linked to our physical survival.
As toddlers, our attempts to fully experience choice, freedom, and autonomy often appear rebellious to adults. In their desire to protect us and equip us with what they see as crucial skills for life, they often react with anger or criticism. Instead of experiencing the gift of protection, we feel alone in our vulnerability. At such an early age, being alone is still a threat to our very existence. Lack of acceptance, then, registers deeply as the possibility of being left alone and helpless, which at some point was a real threat and persists emotionally even if it is no longer physically accurate.
Even as adults, our nervous system still equates emotional safety with physical safely, even if conceptually we understand the difference. In particular, if we have experienced significant trauma (which unfortunately is true for so many), interpretations of threat are soft-wired into our nervous system, so we experience sensations of not being safe that arise before any thought is conscious.
In other words: unless we engage in specific practices and methods for healing from early trauma, we are likely to be walking around with big wounds around our acceptability, and therefore with fear of being left alone and unable to fend for ourselves. I doubt that any of us consciously carry this fear, and still I believe that we have it, unconsciously, present at every interaction.
It’s the very same thing I have written about before in the context of making requests and hearing “no” – that we walk around wondering if we matter, if we are acceptable, lovable human beings.
If we can do the work of healing, then we can, over time, develop sufficient tenderness towards ourselves that we can open up to learning from what others say, true or false. Without that kind of tenderness towards how we are, exactly, we are not very likely to be able to become who we want to be. Instead, we then respond to judgments with defensiveness, shame, or detachment instead of the kind of openness displayed by the man I spoke of earlier.
Four Ways of Responding to Judgments or Dissatisfaction
Anything other than full openness leaves something to be desired, for one or both people in the interaction. The following stories may illustrate the contrast between that magical openness and how we ordinarily respond when others judge us or express dissatisfaction.
This is by far the most common response in these difficult human interactions. I used to be very prone to responding defensively, and it still is a challenge for me, as I wrote about just last week, because I so want to be seen in the way that I see myself. Nowadays I am able to do the work internally so that I don’t defend myself in the interaction, especially if I can understand what the person is saying about me and see some truth to it. My level of self-acceptance is high enough that I can relax into it fast enough to remain present. The only challenge I have is when what the person is saying doesn’t resonate as true. Those are the moments I can still get caught, inside, in the desire to “prove” my innocence. I am well aware that this can be detrimental to healing and reconciliation, and still my work is incomplete. I remember, in particular, a time when I inadvertently fell right into the trap of wanting to be seen for my intentions and anguish when someone else experienced my actions as racist. It was a tough moment which was pivotal in my path of learning about structural power and privilege. I learned, in particular, how much those with privilege want to be seen for their intentions, while those who are affected by their actions want the effect to be known.
When we act in defense, we are neither open to ourselves nor to the other person, only consumed with the intensity of wanting to be seen, including internally, as the well-meaning people that we believe ourselves to be. Much work is often required to transcend defensiveness. The core antidote, to this as well as shame, is to cultivate deep self-acceptance, a topic about which I have written long ago, and to which I would like to return more fully another day.
Some years ago, I was in a relationship that included a high degree of ongoing conflict, despite immense mutual affection. In particular, we had extreme difficulties connecting whenever she did anything that was in any way challenging for me. She oscillated between defensiveness and shame, both of which were not moving us forward. When she was defensive, I had a sense of just not being heard at all, and was deeply frustrated. Then, sooner or later, or some other time, she would calm down, take in what I was saying, and for a moment I was lulled into thinking that I was being heard and taken seriously. In some way, that was true. The cost, however, was simply too high: she would hear me through the lens of making herself wrong, and as a result being heard meant losing her presence in some significant way.
Years later, totally out of the blue, I received a note from her in which she was able to express true and clean regret for a certain set of actions that were particularly painful for me when we were together. This time, unlike our earlier interactions, she was speaking with tenderness towards herself. She was able to both hear my experience and acknowledge it, more fully than I remember from before, while at the same time showing immense compassion for herself and what was going on for her that led to this action. That she was able to step out of shame and into self-acceptance was exactly what, finally, cleared the remaining mistrust between us about the original incident.
It was only after I managed to cultivate enough self-acceptance to enable me to overcome defensiveness that I discovered one more pitfall on the path to openness. I learned that I could be truly open to myself in a way that was at cost to the other person; as if I were accepting myself at the expense of openness to the effect on the other person. As I was reflecting on this further, I realized that it’s easier for me to receive difficult feedback when I myself am regretting my actions than when I am, despite the outcome, still standing behind my original choice.
An example will probably make it clearer. In 2007, when my sister Inbal was first diagnosed with cancer, and I was just beginning to adjust to the enormity of changes in life that this signified, my performance as a trainer in the BayNVC Leadership Program shortly after the diagnosis was deeply affected. One person in particular was very angry about how it affected him, seeing it as a breach in contract. Our interactions about this did not go well, and it took more than a year for me to grasp that because I had so much tenderness and compassion towards myself and the situation I was challenged in finding compassion for the effect this had on him. Somewhere in me I had an unconscious expectation that he would let go of his upset because of understanding the situation that gave rise to my not providing him the kind of leadership he was looking for. Once I was able to let go of this expectation, I could see, with surprising ease, just how deeply disturbing the entire situation (which included other factors I am leaving out for simplicity) was for him. I called him up all that time later, and we had a satisfying resolution in which he was finally heard by me, because I shifted from tuning out his pain in order to sustain my self-acceptance into complete openness to both of us.
If only we could do it, I am sure all of us would want, at all times, to have our hearts open to ourselves and to the other person at the same time. When we can do that, resolving conflicts and recovering from loss of trust happen almost by magic. I have a few relationships in my life which exemplify this kind of openness in both directions, and I feel blessed to know this possibility as a reality.
Although I know this possibility, it is still rare in my life, and I believe is the exception for most of us. What do we do when we want to reach the open state and are not able to do so in the moment?
No simple answer exists. When someone comes to us with a judgment or an expression of some dissatisfaction, and we are reacting internally, finding it difficult to stay present or loving towards self or other, it is next to impossible to do the meticulous work internally that would support us in opening our hearts again. Most likely, what is needed is being apart from the person who is expressing the judgment, finding people to support us who can help us maintain perspective and nurture care for ourselves. Still, in the moment, we need to respond in some fashion. What can we do then?
My own aim is to be able to remember to let the other person in on the very fact that I am not feeling open. I start by seeing if I can open my heart to the fact that I can’t open my heart. One way that helps at times is to tell the other that my heart is now closed, and that I want to open it – and ask to come back after I do my work when my heart is open. As soon as we are able to do that, the magic can begin, because we have bridged the gap of separation, brought us together, to see, in partnership, the fallibility of one of us. Then, over time, we can find a way to see both of us as human and restore our connection once again. Magic happens.