needs

The gift of a compassionate “no”

Photo by travelnow.or.crylater on Unsplash

Last night when I was talking with a friend, she mentioned the need for us to be careful about our boundaries and not to say “yes” to every request for help that comes our way. I’m writing a book on the practice of self-compassion at the moment, and my first thought was, “Wow! I’ve completely forgotten to include anything in the book about boundaries. I’ll have to add something as soon as possible.” Writing this article is my first step in that direction.

My own bias may be one reason I hadn’t thought to include something about compassionately saying “no” to requests for help. This tends to be a gendered issue, since there are more pressures on women than on men to be helpers and pleasers. I hear from a lot of women who take on doing far too much because have difficulty saying no. They want to be “agreeable,” which is an interesting word since it implies that being likable is the same thing as agreeing with someone. Women have also often been taught that it’s “selfish” to take their own needs into account, although I have to say that this has affected me as well.

In fact, setting boundaries is something I’m still working with. I sometimes take on too many responsibilities, and often that’s to do with bad planning. But bad planning is just another term for “neglecting my needs.” Sometimes when requests come in, I’m excited and don’t want to miss out. And then I don’t sufficiently think through how much I’m likely to have going on, and so I end up overbooked. Other times, though, it’s just that one task takes me longer than I’d anticipated, and so I’m still up to my eyeballs in that work when it’s time for me to start other work I have planned. And unexpected things do happen…

However, I do consciously work at not over-scheduling myself, and quite often do say no to requests. And so I’d like to say a bit about that in case it’s helpful.

Be Mindful of Your Habits

If we don’t protect the boundaries or our time and energy, we’re not practicing self-compassion. The first thing is to become mindful of the habits that surround responding to requests. Do you have a desire to please? Are you worried about what people will think of you if you say no? Are you worried about hurting their feelings? Or are you like me and you’re excited to be doing something new and afraid of missing out on an opportunity? Mindfulness gives us an opportunity to pause before we act, so that we can consider whether it’s wise for us to act on our desires and fears.

Why Are We Concerned About Approval?

Those fears can be strong. If we’re conditioned to think that what another person thinks of us is more important than our own wellbeing, then it can be hard to say no to them. So we need to really ask ourselves, Why is it so damned important that other people approve of us?

Often we want others to offer us approval because we don’t offer it to ourselves. Many years ago, I realized that I was doing too much because I was seeking approval from others. And so I adopted a slogan: “I am my own source of validation.” This was a reminder to me to remember to appreciate myself—not just for the things I was doing but for who I was. Even just a short period spent appreciating my skillful qualities, appreciating the efforts I’d put into doing something, or celebrating what I’d achieved (“Yay! I wrote 2,000 words today!”), changed how I felt about myself. I felt much more secure and more confident in my own worth. I was also much less inclined to be disappointed if I didn’t get appreciation for others when I expected it, and was more careful about making promises I couldn’t keep.

This was important both for myself and for other people. Not only did I become stressed when I took on too much, but I tended to do a bad job with or neglect some of the tasks on my to-do list. I’d start off trying to please people and end up disappointing them.

Be Concerned About the Right Things

And if I am going to be concerned about what other people think about me, maybe I could upgrade those concerns. I think it’s more valid to hope that they value me for my integrity rather than my compliance. Many people will find it inspiring if you offer them an example of how to practice self-compassion. Courage is inspiring, and self-compassion shows courage. Maintaining healthy boundaries by saying “no” can be a courageous act in which we demonstrate both that we care and that we matter. To exemplify this for others is a gift. Ultimately, though, what other people think about us is up to them. Our happiness doesn’t depend on everyone liking us.

How To Say No

Of course we should be kind when we say no. We should be aware that others have feelings and not act in a way that we know will be hurtful. But if a person feels disappointed, it’s up to them to deal with their feelings, not us. I stress that I’m talking about a mindful and compassionate no. I’m not talking about saying no in a harsh or condescending way.

You might want to experiment with not apologizing. You’re under no obligation to do something to help another person. It’s a favor. Now it’s lovely to do favors when we can, but it’s not always possible or advisable. And when that’s the case, you’re not doing anything wrong by saying you’re not able to help. You have nothing to apologize for.

When decline someone’s invitation, we can thank them for the opportunity they’ve offered us. We can express appreciation for their confidence in us. Or, we can tell them we’re honored, and that we’d love them to ask us again when circumstances are different. Or we can say we feel torn, or that we wish we were able to help. But we don’t have to apologize. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying no. Delivered in the right spirit, a “no” can sound like appreciation and feel like gratitude.

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Let your distractions be your teachers

Once, many years ago, I was meditating—or at least I was supposed to be—and I found myself wondering what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” would be.

I had one of these electronic devices in front of me (if you’re not familiar with this ancient technology, think of it as being a very primitive iPod Touch) because I was leading a retreat and had been reading notes from it. I recognized that this train of thought was a hindrance, and as I wondered why it was happening it occurred to me that it was an expression of playfulness. Could it be, I inquired, that my meditation had been lacking in playfulness? Had it been a bit dry and willful? Looking back, I found that this was in fact the case. So for the rest of the sit I allowed myself to to feel playful, regarding the flow of the breathing as being like the movement of a swing on which I was sitting, or the surge of waves on a beach.

The hindrances—our distractions—have a lot to teach us. It’s understandable to think they are “bad” or are our enemies, but this attitude leads to inner tension and mental turbulence. The hindrances are not in fact “bad.” What they are is ineffective strategies for finding happiness. Each hindrance starts with some kind of dissatisfaction, and on some level we assume that the hindrances will help us deal with that dissatisfaction. If we pay attention to what’s driving the hindrances, we can often learn a lot about what our unmet needs are.

Each of the hindrances is trying to do something for us. Each is a strategy, attempting to fulfill a particular need. The principle problem with the hindrances is that they just don’t work. They don’t bring us happiness. Instead, they add to our suffering. The needs underlying our hindrances are perfectly valid and healthy.

Recognizing that each hindrance is trying to fulfill an unmet need can open up the way to finding a healthier and more effective way of fulfilling that need. To do this we need to relax with ourselves, become more aware of the need underlying the hindrance, and then let that need suggest a way of finding fulfillment. Here’s some guidance about how all that can work.

Sense desire…

Sense desire is often triggered by a lack of pleasure or happiness. In an attempt to fill this unmet need, we crave pleasant experiences, but such grasping doesn’t change our underlying sense of emptiness, and when our pleasures end we’re plunged once again into a state of dissatisfaction.

Other times sense desire is a response to fear: we have pleasure and fear losing it, and so we cling tightly to the experience in order to hold onto it. However it’s simply not possible to hold on to pleasure, since it’s in the nature of all experiences to arise and pass away. The hindrance of craving merely creates more suffering, even though its aim is to bring completion and happiness.

…and what you can learn from it

If sense desire is alerting you that your needs for pleasure and happiness are not being met, then in response to those unmet needs, rather than fantasizing, you may be able to relax into your present-moment experience and soften the body. Sense desire teaches us that we are out of touch with ourselves. You may be able to allow pleasure to arise through attending to the natural energy and rhythm of the breathing, and noticing the effect these have on various parts of the body. You may be able to relax your attitude, and allow yourself to be more light, playful, and appreciative.

Ill will…

Ill will is usually sparked off by the presence of an unpleasant feeling. If we’re imagining having an argument with someone, we probably assume that this will stop the other person from behaving in ways that we don’t like, or will make them stay away from us so that we won’t be bothered by them any more. Ill will promises to remove our difficulties from our lives, but of course it merely creates new conflicts.

…and what you can learn from it

Ill will teaches us that there is something painful in us that needs acceptance and reassurance. Ill will is usually defensive, and it may be telling us we have unmet needs for security, reassurance, or self-comfort. Can you find these through acceptance of the painful feelings underlying ill will, and by showing them compassion?

Worry…

Worrying starts with an initial experience of anxiety. Worry is an attempt to “fix” the problem that has led to our anxiety. When we worry, we keep up a stream of thoughts that attempt to anticipate and rehash every detail about the situation that’s making us anxious. But this worry, as we know, merely perpetuates and intensifies our sense of insecurity.

…and what you can learn from it

Worry teaches us that we do not trust ourselves to deal with a difficult situation. I think of it as showing us our unmet needs for confidence and trust. When we’re worrying we don’t trust our fundamental ability to deal with life’s events. So, instead of worrying, can you find confidence from within, by trusting that whatever happens, difficult situations will arise and pass away? Perhaps we can trust that in the end our problems solve themselves. As Julian of Norwich heard in a vision, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Sloth and torpor…

Sloth, or laziness, is often a response to the presence of dread—that sinking feeling we have when faced with some experience we don’t think we can cope with. Sloth is like worry combined with aversion. It’s an avoidance strategy, where we turn away from difficulties because we fear them. We assume that if we just ignore the thing we dread, it’ll go away. Unfortunately, that rarely happens!

…and what you can learn from it

Sloth may likewise show us that we have a need for courage, a need to recognize our own strength, a need for acceptance. We may have resistance to meditating, for example, and find that just by turning toward our resistance we’ll find confidence. If we reflect on how good we’ll feel once we have this unpleasant experience behind us, then we may inspire ourselves to act. As Marianne Williamson observed, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We’re always capable of far more than we think we are.

Tiredness, which is more of a physiological lack of energy, may teaching us that we need to take better care of ourselves. Perhaps we can begin doing this in the moment we become aware we’re tired, by practicing forgiveness, and by accepting our need to rest.

Doubt…

Dread or anxiety may also underlie the hindrance of doubt. If sloth is worry combined with aversion, doubt is worry combined with self-aversion.

Our doubts are thoughts that attempt to validate our desire to turn away from challenging experiences. We tell ourselves that this is something we’re not capable of confronting. We may reinforce a painful and limiting view about ourselves, such as “No one likes me,” because we hope that in being pitiful we’ll get sympathy from others. Doubt doesn’t really protect us from anything. Usually the pain it causes is far worse than the discomfort of facing a challenging situation.

…and what you can learn from it

Doubt may reveal to us that we have an unmet need for clarity. Even getting clear about that need is a start! In fact simply identifying that we’re experiencing doubt can bring enough clarity to help free us from it entirely.

Doubt may also, like sloth, reveal a need for confidence. Being able to step back from our doubt in order to name it can help connect us with our inner strength.

These are just suggestions, though. Our hindrances can point to many forms of unmet need. In order to divine these needs we have to accept the presence of the hindrance without fear or aversion, creating a “sacred pause.” Having created this space, the unexpressed need can come into consciousness directly, rather than appearing wearing the guise of a hindrance. We see the need itself, rather than its expression as a strategy. And then, having met the need face to face, as it were, we can allow it to suggest to us a more effective way that it can be fulfilled. Hindrances, observed mindfully, point us toward our needs.

Our hindrances, if we allow them, will tell us how to find happiness.

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Hug the monkey

Monkey and babyYour brain evolved in three stages (to simplify a complex process):

Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

The first post in this series – pet the lizard – was about how to soothe the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. The next one – feed the mouse – addressed how to help early mammalian neural systems feel rewarded and fulfilled. This JOT is about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

In ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: exile was a death sentence in the Serengeti. Today, feeling understood, valued, and cherished – whether as a child or an adult, and with regard to another person or to a group – may not be a life and death matter (though studies do show that survival rates for cancer and other major illnesses are improved with social support), but it certainly affects one’s happiness and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, many of us have encountered significant shortfalls of incoming empathy, recognition, and nurturance – or experienced wounds of abandonment, rejection, abuse, dismissal, or shaming.

Therefore, both to satisfy an innate human need for connection and to remedy old pain, it’s important to “hug the monkey” (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.

How?

Try to routinely get a basic sense of feeling cared about. Check out this JOT for how to do this. Basically, imagine being in the presence of someone you know wishes you well; it could be a human, pet, or spiritual being, and in your life today or from your past; the relationship doesn’t need to be perfect as long as you matter to this person in some way, such as liking, appreciating, or loving you. Then, based on the fact that this person does care about you, open to feeling cared about in your body, heart, and mind. Savor this experience and really take it in. Help it sink down into you, all the way down into young, tender layers of your psyche . . . and really far down into those ancient primate parts in you and everyone else that desperately need to feel bonded with others, included in the band, recognized, and valued.

Next, get a sense of your own caring nature. Think of someone you naturally care for, and explore what caring feels like in your body, emotions, thoughts, and inclinations toward action. In the same way, explore related experiences, such as being warm, friendly, affectionate, nurturing, encouraging, protective, acknowledging, or loving. Here too, really know and take in the sense of what it is like for you to “hug the monkey” in other people.

Now imagine a “caring committee” inside yourself that is involved with caring both for others – and for yourself. My own committee includes the plump fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty, an internalized sense of my parents and others who’ve loved me, spiritual teachers, Gandalf, and tough-but-kind coaches on my journey through life.

Who (or what?!) is on your own committee? And how powerful is this committee in terms of caring for you compared to other forces inside your own mind? Since the brain is a giant network with many nodes, the psyche has many parts. These parts often coalesce into three well-known clusters: inner child, critical parent, nurturing parent. (Another way of describing these three clusters is: vulnerable self, attacker, protector.)

In most people, the inner nurturer-protector-encourager is much weaker than the inner critic-pusher-attacker. So we need to build up the caring committee by frequently taking in experiences of feeling cared about – and then to call on and listen to this committee!

So – get a sense of parts within you that want to feel seen, included, appreciated, wanted, respected, liked, cherished, and loved. Everyone has these parts. They often feel young, soft, or vulnerable. As you open to hearing from them, notice any dismissal of them, or minimizing of their needs, or even disdain or shaming. Ask your caring committee to stick up for these parts, and to tell them their longings are normal and healthy.

Imagine your caring committee soothing very young parts of yourself . . . praising and delighting in older parts of you . . . offering perspective and wisdom about tough experiences you’ve had . . . reminding you of your truly good qualities . . . pulling for the expression of the best in you . . . hugging you, hugging those soft longing parts inside you, giving them what they need . . . and feeling down to the soft furry little sweet monkey inside you and every human being, holding and loving and hugging it.

And meanwhile, your young, yearning, vulnerable, or bruised parts – and even your inner monkey – can feel that they are receiving what they’ve always needed, what everyone needs: recognition, inclusion, respect, and love.

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Waking up to the positive

Waking up is like the sun rising. At first it’s mostly dark, as glimmers of consciousness begin to light the shadows. Emerging into full wakefulness, the fogs and veils dissolve and the whole plain of your mind comes into view. It’s quiet: a restedness in the body, sleepy still, not yet much internal verbal chatter. There’s an intimacy with yourself, abiding as the core of your be-ing.

During these first few minutes, your mind and brain are very receptive to influence. If, hypothetically, a loud alarm suddenly began clanging, you’d probably feel rattled for hours; on the other hand, if someone you love suddenly began telling you how much he or she cared about you, you’d probably feel good for hours.

So, at this delicate and lovely time in the morning, why not influence your mind and brain yourself?

There is a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from whatever it rests upon. For better or worse. Instead of resting it upon planning, worrying, or stressing about your day, how about taking a little time to receive and embrace something more positive? Which would set up your whole day for the better – especially if you are prone, as many are, to anxiety or the blues in the morning.

Then as your day unfolds, from time to time, you could return to the feelings and intentions you established when you first awoke – to replenish yourself in a quick pit stop on the road of life.

How?

This practice is really natural and simple: on first waking, rest your mind upon one or more things that are good for you.

For example, you could relax into your body, feeling the truth that you are actually alright right now. Or you could open to gratitude. Or bring to mind someone you care about – perhaps sleeping beside you – and soften into love.

You could be aware of a deep purpose, or aspiration, or guiding light. Give yourself over to this calling, letting it carry you along. This is a personally important practice for me. Another one I do is to find refuge in things that support me. For example, classic refuges are a teacher, a body of teachings, or the community of the taught; people also take refuge in mindfulness, the power of reason, practice, inner light, the fact of connection, or their sense of something Divine. Take a moment to get a feeling for each refuge and let it sink in.

Or consider our three fundamental needs, loosely linked to the three-stage evolution (to simplify: reptile, mammal, primate/human) of the brain: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. When we experience that these needs are met, the brain naturally defaults to its home base, its Responsive mode, in which the body refuels and repairs itself, and the mind dwells in a basic sense of peace, happiness, and love (in terms of our needs to avoid, approach, and attach).

Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” time spent in the Responsive mode gradually strengthens its neural substrates – like deepening the keel of a boat so you can sail through life without its winds knocking you over. And what better time when the mind/brain is like a sponge, during the first minutes after waking? So I’ll often try to find a sense of peace (relaxed, safe, not at war with anything or anyone), happiness (there is enough, fortunate, contented), and love (feeling cared about, compassionate, and kind) – and once found, let these sink in.

These early moments are precious, open with possibility, graced by stillness, sacred. They are a gift. May we receive them.

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The quintessential leanings of the heart

I did my Ph.D. dissertation by videotaping 20 mother-toddler pairs and analyzing what happened when the mom offered an alternative to a problematic want (“not the chainsaw, sweetie, how about this red truck”). Hundreds of bleary eyed hours later, I found that offering alternatives reduced child negative emotion and increased cooperation with the parent.

Pretty interesting (at least to me, both as a new parent and as someone desperate to finish grad school). And there’s an even deeper lesson. Kids – and adults, too – obviously want to get what they want from others. But more fundamentally, we want to know that others understand our wants – and even more fundamentally, that they want to.

Consider any significant relationship: someone at work, or a friend, or a family member. How does it feel when they misinterpret what you want? Or worse, when they could care less about understanding what you want?

Ouch.

When you recognize the deeper wants of others, they feel seen and are less likely to be reactive. Plus you’ve gained lots of valuable information. And it becomes easier to ask them to do the same for you.

This approach also gradually reveals the profound desires at the center of being. Each person must come to know these in his or her own way. These quintessential leanings of the heart are beyond language. Diffidently and with respect, I could offer three words – fingers pointing at the moon but the not moon itself – that are suggestive: to be conscious, free, and loving.

For you, what are the deepest wants of all?

How?

With a friend or a stranger, look deeper, behind the eyes, beneath the surface. You might sense a wish for pleasure, a commitment to others, a priority on security, a delight in life, a valuing of autonomy, or a need for love.

Look down into your own core of being and into its longings, and you’ll find many of the same wishes. They’re just as powerful and precious to the other person as they are to you.

Deep down, most wants are positive. The means to these ends may be misguided, but the fundamental ends themselves are usually good ones. Typically, even horrible behaviors are misguided efforts to gain positive things like pleasure, independence, recognition, control, or justice. Of course, this is not to justify these actions in any way. But grounding oneself in the truth, the whole truth, means seeing the whole picture, including the good intentions poignantly producing bad behavior.

Try applying this truth to yourself, regarding some act you regret. What positive aims did the act serve? What’s it like to recognize this? For me, opening to see the good aims underlying bad acts actually softens my defensiveness and helps move me to appropriate remorse, and to greater resolve to find better ways to pursue those aims. It also cuts through harsh self-criticism and encourages self-compassion.

Then, during an interaction with someone who is difficult for you – or while reflecting about the relationship as a whole – try to see the deeper wants in the other person, behind the acts of thought, word, or deed that have bothered or hurt you. (I suggest you don’t do this if you tend to blame yourself when others mistreat you.) You may not like how the other person is pursuing the deep want, but at least you can align with that want – all deep wants are positive – and if you like, try to figure out less harmful ways to fulfill it.

Last, on the fly or at particularly quiet moments, open to listen to the soft murmurs of your own most fundamental wants. In what ways are you sincerely trying to fulfill them?

Also: are there any of your deepest wants that it feels right to do more for? What would that look like, concretely, in everyday life?

Imagine your deepest wants like a soft warm current at your back, gently and powerfully carrying you forward along the long road ahead. How would this feel?

Where would this road lead?

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