Friday, August 06, 2010

What healthy looks like

I spent the night at a friend's home. I woke up before the married couple who lived there. Their dog was awake and eager to be uncrated. So I opened the latch and then opened the sliding glass door to let him go outside to do his business. This is how it works with my dog and I assumed it would work with him. He panted and yelped a bit, he made circles in his crate but wouldn't leave it. I coaxed him to come out and eventually he put a paw outside the crate, followed by another. Clearly agitated, though, he didn't romp outside the way I expected.

At about that time, the "man of the house" and long term dear friend descended the steps and noticed the dog's confusion (and mine!). He saw that Kapu was hovering near the sliding door. Bill turned to me and said, "You know dogs. They have their habits. Kapu is used to eating in his crate right when he wakes up before we put him outside." Then he turned to his dog and with the kindest, friendliest voice urged Kapu to go outside, "Go on Kapu. I know. You'll get your food after. That's a boy! Go on!" He chuckled lightly. Kapu obeyed and returned to the house ready to eat. Bill scratched him behind the ears.

Unremarkable moment in Bill's life, I'm sure. But for me, it was one of those "Oh wow!" moments. A routine event didn't go the way it was supposed to, and that break in routine was greeted with gentleness, humor and a kind spirit. I recalled listening to other dog owners order their pets about with all the tenderness of a military drill sergeant! Something in me craved that forgiving, reassuring tone in my own life, let alone my dog's.

I've spent too many hours of my life debating intentions, explaining my meanings, reframing my message... only to be told how I should have done it, what my motives really were, why I was not saying what I thought I was saying. I used to believe that I was poor at communicating! I have been told so many times by enough significant people in my life (people I love) that what I think I'm saying is not what I mean, I stopped believing that I was effective at expressing myself.

And then I stood there in Bill's kitchen watching his gentle guidance offered to Kapu and I realized: No one has to get angry just because something isn't going the way it should or because the other party is confused or momentarily off balance. It's possible to bring clarity and support to another with kindness. No sternness required, no assumption of nefarious motives.

So here's my list of healthy—what it looks like to me now:

  • Curiosity over accusation: When you find someone's behavior strange or upsetting or simply different than you expected, ask questions, show interest. Don't make assumptions, accuse or assign intentions/motives.
  • Kindness over force: Kindness means a quiet voice, a gentle tone. Force is coercive—it uses an urgent (sometimes loud) tone to create anxiety in the other person to provoke an action. Kindness assumes that the person can be reached through support rather than control.
  • Trust over suspicion: As a friend says, "I look for reasons to trust people." A disposition that trusts creates open lines of communication and freedom to take risks. It creates a willingness to own up to mistakes or poor choices. Suspicion kills creativity and it drives shame underground. Secrets grow in an atmosphere of suspicion. 
  • Acceptance over control: To truly accept means that you are willing to receive what is offered without judgment or interference. Control means you need to match my expectations of you before I can accept what you offer. (Your five minutes at dinner with me before you head out the door again is enough because you gave it freely; not Because you didn't eat a full dinner with me, I won't be friendly to you during the meal.)
  • Owning personal limits over imposing personal limits: If I need something to be a certain way, I make it happen or take responsibility to make it happen. I don't require others to create the space I need to live in. I create it for myself. I don't blame others for my lack.
  • Expressing my disappointment over calling you a disappointment:  When expectations surface and aren't met, sharing my disappointment as an unmet need rather than assigning you the label "disappointing" is healthy. 
  • Asking for help over requiring it: It's risky to say "Would you help me....?" because the person might say, "No." But to require "help" is to remove the possibility of "gift." A requirement of help can become a source of festering resentment. To share what you need and ask for help means a person has the chance to be good to you. People love to know that what they do is genuinely appreciated as a free gift, not as an obligation.
  • Surprise me over "that's who you are and always will be": I like to find out you are more than I know or thought I knew. Labels limit people and we stop being surprised and amazed by them. In healthy relationships, even long term ones, surprising each other with new facets, new interests, new points of view keeps the love alive. If when you risk sharing a new way of seeing or being with someone you love and you are met with skepticism "You don't like X" or "You're not that kind of person," it shuts down the adventure of living... for both of you.
  • Passion over discipline: Discipline fuels passion, true enough. But you can't get to passion by starting with discipline. Knowing a person's passion and supporting it does more to create a climate of enthusiasm and joy than all the rules, systems, structures and good ideas in the world. Discipline alone is soul-stealing.
  • Yelling never works. Unless your house is on fire or a semi is about to crush your car.
  • Affirm over suggest: Find traits to affirm, look for ways to validate the other person's judgment, thought processes, ideas before offering your own. Only make suggestions when asked.
What others can you think of?

I'm done with drama. I can see how much time is wasted on provoking arguments, righteous self-defense, accusation, assignation of motives and nefarious intentions, labeling, requiring others to meet personal needs, not allowing someone to grow or change (even radically), assuming the worst, forming suspicions, imposing ideas, and ignoring someone's passion because it isn't yours.

If we treated others as intelligent, reasonable, logical human beings, whose insights, practices, yearnings and hopes made good sense (given who they are, where they live, how they got to this phase of life) rather than as dangerous, misguided, self-centered or illogical, we'd discover so much more to love between us. If we listened well and showed interest, if we held back judgment and attempted to see through the eyes of the other, if we kept a cheerful tone (or at minimum, a gentle one) and waited patiently for more understanding before slapping on labels or expecting someone to be who we say they are... we could avert so much emotional punishment... the feeling that you are scorned for being yourself.

The image that comes to my mind is a huge WELCOME mat. I welcome you to my space, as you are, ready to serve you and enjoy you. How about tea?


Bilbo said...

Great entry Julie. The entire list is something that needs to be heard and pondered by us all. I am going to copy and reread this again and again. Thanks for sharing...

Carol said...

Lovely. I would love a cup of PG Tips please. :)

Kansas Bob said...

Loved this post Julie! I sometimes wonder if the black and white thinking that pervades so much of religion trickles (like a flood) into other relational dimensions. Mostly life is gray and expectations are problematic when they are black or white.

debbie p said...

Julie, this is brilliant. So much to think about and all so true! I'd love a cup of tea with you any day.

k123shult said...

Julie - thank you for your insights...isn't it amazing how many moments of clarity are brought about by animal friends? I especially appreciated your comment about disappointment over frustration...I have been dealing with many frustrating issues over the past year or so, and the energy that goes into frustration keeps regenerating itself. However, if I view these circumstances as disappointing, they seem so much easier to handle.

Leonie said...

Julie, sometimes you make me do you know I feel like that?

Dave said...

Thanks for the story. I don't read much that's not news these days and it's nice to have friends with such talent for writing like you.