A Wish Come Clear

Choosing Love, Losing Fear, & Finding Home

When a People-Pleaser Decides to (Gasp) Tell the Truth

The note reads, “Caroline possesses a respectably expansive vocabulary.”

Intellectual assent is easy.

Being people of peace? Shifting from self-blame and people-pleasing to compassion and honesty? Sure thing.

But putting these things into practice when we’re angry and upset? That’s another story.

Luckily, life continually offers us opportunities to learn … which are often disguised as conflicts.

***

My dear friend Tam recently lent me a copy of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is, to quote author Marshall Rosenberg, “a way of communicating that leads us to give from the heart.” As I read, one section stood out for me. In it, Rosenberg posits that we have four options when it comes to receiving negative messages. We can:

A) Blame ourselves

B) Blame others

C) Sense our own feelings and needs

D) Sense others’ feelings and needs

This may sound simple, and it is … but how many of us actually choose C or D? I’ve chosen (mostly) A or B, with an emphasis on A. Shifting away from self-blame is something I’ve longed to do … but until recently, I didn’t have an alternate behavior to shift to. And perhaps that’s the most powerful thing that NVC — or any system for loving communication– has to offer: a viable alternative to blame.

So I decided that I’d try for C and D. And Life gave me the perfect ‘road test.’

***

One day, an older friend and trusted mentor — we’ll call her Trudy — was giving me a ride. She was telling me about her devotions and Bible reading. I was listening, and thinking, This seems a little … random.

Then she paused. Uh-oh, I thought, without knowing why.

Then Trudy said, “Do you read your Bible?”

Ahh. Not random after all.

I must pause the story here and say that the question was meant as a loving check-in. Trudy is an amazing woman of faith, and I respect her tremendously. Yet this question was a ‘negative message’ for me.

You see, I grew up in a very strict church. (That’s a whole post series waiting to happen.) That church gave me so many beautiful gifts — like best friends and summer camps and diverse congregations and surrogate family members — and a lot of legalistic hang-ups, too.

Over the years, I’ve read the Bible with love and attention and devotion … and I’ve read the Bible for all the wrong reasons, like guilt and fear of punishment.

In times past, if I skipped my morning reading, I used to walk around jittery, because I had the sense that — any second now — an angry God would start throwing lightening bolts at me. I’ve filled out entire devotional books — 365 days of written exercises — that I didn’t even like. Books that weren’t well-written or interesting. I did these things because I thought I had to, because I couldn’t imagine another way of living out my faith. 

Nowadays, I do meditate on Biblical scriptures … and I read Sue Monk Kidd and Charlotte Bronte and Madeleine L’Engle and Glennon Melton. And I write and pray and laugh with friends and rest and do yoga and apologize and forgive and walk hand in hand with my husband into a cold creek on a hot day. These things are all a part of my spiritual practice. My spiritual practice is, well, my life: a work in progress. 

***

Given all this, the question, “Do you read your Bible?” seemed like code for: “Is Caroline jumping through the ‘right’ spiritual hoops? Or do I need to worry about her?”

As such, my initial (internal) reaction was to get angry and defensive and fearful, as though Trudy’s love and approval hinged on my answer. I considered quoting Biblical passages to justify myself in her eyes.

Miraculously, though, I didn’t give voice to any of that. Instead, I thought, What am I feeling and needing? And what about her?

A happy reunion. Photo Credit: Tanya Jendrek

With those questions in mind, I took a breath and said, “When you ask me that, I feel uncomfortable, because I’m thinking that you’re trying to ‘score’ me spiritually. That said, it sounds like you’re feeling concerned, needing reassurance that I prioritize quiet time with God. If so, I assure you that I do.”

Later, I expanded on the reply in my journal: “I felt defensive because I needed to be respected as an adult, with my own spiritual practice, even if it sometimes differs from Trudy’s. I felt afraid because I don’t want to fall back into the people-pleasing from which I’ve worked so hard to break free.”

In our actual conversation, however, I just stated my feeling and her (possible) need. When I mentioned reassurance, Trudy nodded. Yes, she needed that.

Suddenly, I felt less defensive. I saw Trudy not as a judge, but as a person in need. And that was revolutionary. That was a game-changer.

Once I saw Trudy that way, I felt free. So much so that I did end up sharing some verses with her, verses about radical love and acceptance and the divine feminine. And what could have devolved into an argument became a positive interaction.

 ***

I have a long way to go when it comes to communicating in this way. But so far, I’ve found it exhilarating. For so long, I’ve wanted a way to express my own truth and simultaneously empathize with others. And as I hugged Trudy goodbye, I knew I’d taken a step in the right direction.

And I thanked Life for giving me the chance to try.

***

How do you diffuse difficult situations? Join the conversation in the comments!

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8 Replies

  1. Thanks for this sweet Caroline… especially the thought that we sometimes we can’t imagine another way of living out our faith!
    That insight will carry me through the week my friend. It is amazing how my lack of imagination can limit me….
    as for the blame thing.. one of the reasons that i love Christianity is that it puts BLAME front and center for us to see how incredibly harmful it is… Jesus was a scapegoat.. and he did not blame in return… Returning to our feelings of suffering (since blame is often just a way of avoiding that) and letting them be and to also turn to empathy… powerful stuff.

    1. You’re most welcome, Carolyn — so glad it spoke out to you. And I appreciate you sharing your reflections as well — I hadn’t made that connection before, and I agree, it is powerful stuff. Namaste!

  2. jean.t.levandowski@facebook.com

    Found this on my Facebook feed today. Thank you for sharing your insights. You’re right, easier said than done, but definitely worth the reward when attempted. I think its important to recognize partial victories too. Perhaps there are times we do speak the truth, but it is not received well. We must still recognize or good intention and attempt as steps in the right direction.

    1. Jean, so glad you found us! And yes, I couldn’t agree more — partial victories are to be celebrated. A step in the right direction, however small, is significant. :)

  3. julie

    Yay!!!! Marshall Rosenberg and NVC ROCK!!!

  4. Monica

    I am so glad I read this! Choosing C and D really is a game a game changer and you have given a great example. I am going to pay attention to how I respond in these types of situations as well. Thanks!
    Monica

    1. Thrilled to hear that – thank you, Monica! :)