The other day I was helping my husband lift a piano. Yes, you read that right. But don’t worry – it’s only a SEVEN HUNDRED + POUND BABY GRAND(!!!). Apparently, it’s all about leverage (and yet, I still don’t recommend it). I must have appeared nervous. I was nervous so I said something like, “Maybe don’t do this. Wait until you have people [other than me] to help,” to which he replied in a stern voice, “Don’t say things like that. I don’t need to hear that.” I momentarily held my tongue but man, oh, man, I was itching to pounce. I had so many “powerful” comebacks bouncing off the walls of my skull and they all ended with me walking away in a huff and leaving him to deal with the weight of his behemoth and the consequences of crossing me. Eventually, I did say out loud my most tame statement (which was still super aggressive). I said, “Oh, it must really suck to have someone who cares about your well-being!” Yeah. It’s kind of embarrassing – now. But, at the time, it felt okay, good even. If I can ignore the fact that my response did nothing to improve the situation or bring about any sense of joy or connection to my marriage – then, sure, if I can ignore all that, I have to admit that when I’m passive-aggressive (or just plain, old aggressive), I momentarily feel more powerful. I feel righteous. “How dare he talk to me that way! He can’t just dismiss my concerns like that! Who does he think he is? I am woman! Hear me ROAR!” This is what I learned it means to be a strong woman. Don’t take any shit. Don’t let anyone walk all over you or you’re just a sucker. Stand up for yourself. You’re not a wilting flower! You’re a powerhouse, dammit! I know these ideas don’t serve me or my relationships anymore. Maybe they never really did. They don’t work because those statements are a response to an imaginary threat. Focusing on this imagined threat keeps me in the mindset of, “Look what is being done to me.” In the words of Marshall B. Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, it keeps my inner jackal alive.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a practice that emphasizes deep listening and focuses on an awareness that we’re all just trying to meet our universal needs*, even if many of us go about it in somewhat clumsy ways. Rosenberg used the metaphor of the giraffe and the jackal** to represent heart-centered communication (the giraffe) and binary, or right/wrong thinking (the jackal)***. It sounds goofy (and I haven’t even told you yet that he used puppets! PUPPETS! with an ADULT audience!) but, trust me and watch him on YouTube. It’s great stuff.
I’ve studied NVC on and off for the past 20 + years ever since I discovered it in graduate school. Just like yoga and meditation, NVC has had this intermittent hold on me much of my adult life. Most recently, I’ve integrated NVC into Conversations with a Friendly Vegan because I believe the best advocacy grows from greater understanding and connection. It’s an amazing, beautiful practice but here’s the problem I bump up against over and over again: I’ve grown super attached to my inner jackal. I’m fairly sure she resides in my backbone and, for all her flaws, I believe (possibly mistakenly) that she’s kept me safe. She’s helped me feel strong, even as she’s damaged my most important relationships. She’s my own, personal, charismatic cult leader and I’m enthusiastically drinking the kool-aid. At the same time, over the years, it has gotten harder and harder to ignore the devastating impact of the jackal. It may be time to let her go, once and for all. Here’s how my conversation with hubby could have gone if I’d harnessed some giraffe energy:
Me: “Maybe don’t do this. Wait until you have people [other than me] to help.”
Hubby: “Don’t say things like that. I don’t need to hear that.”
Me: “Are you feeling irritated and you need trust, encouragement, and support to get this job done?”
Me: “Understood. I’m feeling scared because I need to feel safe and I’m worried one or both of us will get hurt. Are you willing to call our neighbor to help you out with this?”
In reality, hubby would have said, “Stop talking like you’re reading out of one of your psych books,” but, I can live with that. New ways of communicating naturally feel awkward. That’s fine. The important part is that instead of listening in a way that puts us at odds, I heard his underlying needs. We still may not come to an agreement but this points us in a more constructive direction where we can honor our feelings and needs while we adjust the strategies we use to get those needs met.
And yet …
When I thought about giving up on my inner jackal, I didn’t feel free the way I thought I would. I felt a smidge bereft. The longer I sat with this feeling, I found myself moving from rejecting her to communing with her. I tried to understand the role she’s played in my life in the past (the overprotector) and toyed with the idea that there may be a role she can still play now. If instead of attacking presumed (mostly imaginary) enemies, my jackal can act as a sentinel, helping me to notice what triggers me, then maybe my relationship doesn’t need to end. It just needs to transform. I can channel my inner giraffe in my dealings with my own inner jackal. When I sense that defensive fighter in me, I can wonder what feelings and needs are just under the surface of my response. I can say to myself, “Are you feeling afraid and you’re needing safety?” It beats my typical response which might be closer to, “Why are you being so dramatic? Stop overreacting!” In my experience, one of these responses soothes me and helps me better cope while the other results in greater agitation and a little self-loathing.
Thanks for reading about the lessons I’ve learned about how I treat myself and others, how I cope with triggers and how I use the tools of nonviolent communication and self-compassion. I hope it helps you, or was at least an interesting way to pass the time. If you’d like to share your experiences with me, I’d love that! Please use the “Contact” page.
In my next newsletter I plan to go into detail about Nonviolent Communication, Self-Compassion and how to make meaningful resolutions. Don’t forget to subscribe!
* for more information on NVC, go to: https://www.cnvc.org/learn-nvc/what-is-nvc
**I’m using NVC language in this blog post but since going vegan I’ve become super conscious of how animals get lousy reputations because of the way we humans present them. Here are some jackal facts for your enjoyment. Sure, jackals are predators but they are not poor communicators. They are generally monogamous. The pups are adorable and help each other out when the parents are out and about.
***find an explanation of these metaphors here: https://communicatewithintent.org/whats-with-all-the-giraffes-and-jackals/
Thank you to Mair and Gustavo, my current NVC teachers, for helping to illuminate these concepts.