Powerful tools for wellbeing and compassionate connection when your son or daughter has an eating disorder

This is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of ‘Anorexia and other eating disorders – how to help your child eat well and be well’

[My book has a more recent version – the content is the same but I keep improving how I put the message across. Note that I can coach you to learn this a lot more effectively with individual support.]

It’s one thing knowing what to do, and another managing to do it when you’re overwhelmed or when your child puts up strong resistance. How do you keep calm and remain supportive? How do you listen and talk to your child so he feels that you’re by his side and that you understand? How do you take care of your child’s needs and also ask for what matters to you? This chapter addresses your emotional well-being as well as your child’s.

It uses, among other things, principles of Compassionate (Nonviolent) Communication (NVC)

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So far I’ve concentrated on practical aspects of the illness and how we manage it. But many of us already know what we’re supposed to do. The problem is we can’t manage it because our emotions are rawer than ever. So we keep messing up. It can make it even worse when we hear that we should be calm, we should be compassionate, and we should be confident. We’re already trying our best.

And then there’s the question of how we talk to our children at a time when they are highly distressed and tend to react strongly to what we do or say.

“I managed to move on this afternoon from feeling incredibly upset and angry to a state of self-compassion and compassion towards my daughter. And she responded positively and moved on from her anger to a better place. She felt my compassion. It works!”

In the next three chapters I share the emotional tools I’ve gathered along my journey. I hope what follows will be of great practical use even to those of you who don’t generally appreciate touchy-feely topics.

My aim in this chapter is to offer you principles and examples that you could use right away. If you’re struggling, even just one of them may make all the difference. They may help you to:

  • keep sane (for your own sake and so that you can keep supporting your child)
  • avoid blowing a fuse or bursting into tears at all the wrong moments
  • access your calm, courageous, compassionate self

You can use these tools if you’re in the refeeding phase, or any time you’re finding anything difficult. There’ll be more relating to your child’s emotions in Chapter 14, and to your own resilience in Chapter 15. But I recommend you start with this chapter because this is where I introduce you to the most powerful tools.

The principles I explain here come from the field of Nonviolent Communication and from research on compassion.[i] If you’re versed in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) you may be pleased to see how familiar elements can give you a bigger bang for your buck. If you’re used to mindfulness and meditation, what follows may help you apply your skills to your demanding everyday world.

In this chapter I will illustrate principles by discussing your connection with your child, but they are applicable to interactions with a spouse, a therapist, a friend, a boss – anyone you wish to communicate with fruitfully. The principles also apply to your connection with yourself, and therefore, to your own well-being.

Needs: what really matters to you and to your child?

If you want to connect with your child, verbally or non-verbally, bring your presence to what’s really important to you and to him. You can bring your attention to facts, to thoughts and to feelings, but none of these are as powerful as being present to what’s important. This is, as we shall see, the basis of empathy and connection. It’s also how you find effective solutions that work for everyone.

Our aim is to move from this kind of situation …

Criticizing me - anorexia child & parent

… to this one:

Connection & Self-connection by parent

So what kind of important thing might you bring your presence to?

  • something that really matters, that you care about deeply, that is really important
  • something you really want, you long for, you yearn for, you hope for, you’d like to have
  • a wish, longing, dream, love, passion, desire, value or aspiration (‘I want to live in a world where …’)
  • a value, a beautiful concept
  • something life-enhancing, juicy, rich, nourishing, that you’re really into, that is about living life to the full, being fully alive, being in the flow of life, flourishing, thriving
  • something that excites you, that gives you a buzz, that is fun, that you really want in your life (‘I really love it when …’), that makes your life feel worthwhile, that helps you feel well, good, whole or happy
  • something that is at the heart of the matter, that touches the soul, that is at the core
  • the truth that lives in you, your spirit, the divine

Everything on the list above applies to you, your child, and any other human being. Of course the words above will be totally unsuitable to some situations. You will not ask your ten-year-old, or your colleague at the bank, ‘I wonder, my dear, what touches your soul?’ But it’s easy to say, ‘Is that something you really, really want?’ or ‘Does that make you feel good?’

So far I’ve used a lot of words to give you a flavour for the riches you’re aiming to connect with in yourself and in your child, but I would like to use a shortcut. I’ll use the word ‘needs’ because it’s the term used in writings on Nonviolent Communication. It’s a very imperfect word that I recommend you don’t use with people around you, because it has a whole lot of other possible meanings. It can be associated with being needy, weak, lacking or demanding.

“Are you even supposed to have needs? Does that make me needy? I was brought up to consider other people’s needs and be ‘capable’ and ‘fine’ myself.”

Needs defy words and categories, but here are some pointers:[ii]

  • subsistence and security: water, food, shelter, sleep, security
  • connection, love, empathy, acceptance, belonging, caring
  • contribution, stimulation, creativity, play
  • freedom, autonomy, choice, empowerment, peace of mind
  • meaning, purpose, spirituality, beauty, aliveness, mourning, gratitude

This might look like quite a diverse bunch of things, and what links them all is that they’re about life. Everything I’ve listed is positive and life-enhancing. There is abundance, not scarcity, around being in touch with needs.

And needs are universal. Every human being has the same needs, whatever their age, sex or nationality. This is a great basis for compassion. For instance I can be irritated that my neighbour is fishing for compliments, but I can be touched and feel a connection with him if I guess that he yearns for acceptance. I can be furious that my kid is refusing food and shouting at me, but the picture changes if I imagine that she’s doing what she can to deal with her terror and find some peace.

One premise of Nonviolent Communication is that everything about us – including all the terrible things we do that cause harm – is driven by the life force within needs.[iii] The tragedy is how often, in an attempt to meet needs, we stumble into harmful and ineffective strategies. The tools in this chapter are designed to move us towards effectiveness and a rich life.

Needs that might be particularly acute for your child

Children thrive on close connections with peers and adults, and the unconditional love and support of their parents. They need to be valued, to matter. In order to grow they also strive for autonomy, choice and independence. And they seek a sense of identity: ‘Who am I?’, ‘What kind of a person am I?’

Adolescents’ brains are very different from those of adults or small children. From the ages of 10 to 23 or older, their neurons go through phases of growing, pruning, and creating more connections.[iv] Even without an eating disorder, their minds can give them an extremely hard time, and adults can fail to give compassion where compassion is due.

On top of that, an eating disorder brings on a whole lot of unmet needs. I am guessing that much of the time people with an eating disorder are hungry, tired, terrified, stressed, lonely or hopeless. So in addition to a whole lot of physical needs, they long for peace, hope, closeness, support and understanding.

Eating disorders also seem to fill people with a terrible loathing for themselves. They struggle with shame (‘I’m not OK’, ‘I’m a bad person’) because they can’t help lying, cheating, hiding food and in some cases, overeating. On top of shame, there’s also guilt (‘I’ve done a bad thing’) and fear (‘Will my parents give up on me?’) whenever they hurl abuse at their loved ones. And then they have the shame created by their distorted body image, which causes them to believe they are a revolting and unworthy person.

“When she was really ill, she often yelled at us to leave her alone because she wasn’t worth it.”

This is why someone with an eating disorder is so in need of acceptance and unconditional love.

The quest for identity (‘Who am I?’) seems to be particularly strong in adolescence. As is the need to belong, to have a place on this earth, within our family and community. With an eating disorder in the equation, these issues are particularly painful, especially for youngsters who have been in and out of hospital and lost touch with friends and normal life. It’s good for us parents to remember that everyone has a need to matter.

Needs that might be particularly alive for you

In Chapter 2 I considered what might be going on for you as the parent of a child with an eating disorder. What I was attempting to do there was to put you in touch with needs. I wonder if something in that list struck a chord with you and if it felt good? If so, I hope it gives you an idea of how empathy works for you and how it can work for your child.

When my daughter was ill and I got in touch with my needs, here’s what I often came up with. I had a massive need for her well-being. I wanted her safe and I wanted to care for her. I also longed for closeness and peace, because interactions with her were so highly charged. When she started getting better, fun, laughter and connection with others moved up the list of things I valued.

How to enquire about someone else’s needs

I have already urged you not to use the word ‘needs’ in ordinary life, but you might find that some of the following work in various contexts:

  • Why does this matter to you?
  • What is it about X that is important to you?
  • If you had X (or if you didn’t have Y) what would that give you?
  • What comes up for you when …?

How to reflect back needs without sounding weird

Sometimes open questions are just too hard to take in. Instead of asking your child what matters to him, you could make a guess and ask him if that is correct: ‘Do you really want [describe a need]?’ (e.g. ‘Do you really want to have some freedom?’)

Needs - Nonviolent Communication example

It’s absolutely fine to guess wrong. All that will happen is your child will say, ‘No, it’s more about this.’ Either way you’re giving your child space to reflect and self-connect and feel understood.

Here is a guide to common needs, and ordinary words to express them and help you connect.[v]

  • Mattering/value/unconditional love/acceptance: Do you want to know that you matter? You want to be absolutely sure we love you no matter what? Do you need to know we want to take care of your needs, that your needs matter to us?
  • Identity: Would you like to be in touch with the real you? You want to know you can be who you really are? You want to know you’re an OK person and you have a place on this earth?
  • Compassion/connection: You want to know that we care? You wish we really understood what it’s like for you?
  • Autonomy/freedom/independence: You’d like to make your own choices/decisions about what works for you?
  • Participation: You’d like to have a say in this?
  • Competence: You want to be able to do what you set out to do?
  • Consistency: Would you like to be able to count on people doing what they say they’ll do?
  • Stability/predictability: Would you like to know what’s happening and when?
  • Safety/security: You need to know that you’re going to be OK? You’d like us to stick by you and keep you safe?
  • Mourning: Are you terribly sad? Do you want me to get how sad you feel?
  • Peace: Do you wish you could be calm and feel OK?
  • Purpose: You want to know what this is for?
  • Fun/stimulation: You want to have fun?

This is the basis of empathy. If you are attuned to your child’s needs, and if you can do the same with your own, everything else falls into place. But things are not always that simple, so I will now introduce you to other elements that usually come up in communication and show you how you can use them to connect better and feel better.

Chatterbox thoughts and what to do with them

Chatterbox (or jackal) in NVCWhen I tried to have compassion for my daughter and keep my own emotions under control, I realised that my thoughts were all over the place: ‘She’s pushing her plate away just to annoy me. Look at her face; she hates me. I messed up by shouting at her last time. She’ll end up in hospital. I’m living a nightmare. Other parents manage to feed their child and I constantly fail.’

We all have thoughts that take over our headspace. They zap our confidence, keep us awake at night, and leak a message to our children that we judge them, and that we’re helpless and unreliable. Your child too will have unhelpful thoughts which come out in the way she behaves and talks to you.

I’m going to call these types of thoughts ‘chatterbox thoughts’ for short.[vi] And I’m going to suggest you use them as signposts to needs. This turns them into helpful friends – all that’s needed is the ability to translate the words.

Chatterbox (jackal) as signpost to needs (NVC)

Recognise chatterbox thoughts

What I’m calling chatterbox thoughts are the thoughts you might normally fight, that make you suffer, that make you lose your cool and lead you to say things you later regret. These are the words in your head that evaluate, judge, analyse, project into the past or the future, and catastrophise. For example, ‘He’s useless’ or ‘She’s clever’ or ‘It’s his fault’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘Yesterday was awful. I can’t bear it ever happening again.’ Thoughts like this are annoyingly persistent and they demand to be believed even though they are not factual. Sometimes they don’t come up as words but as images or movie clips.

Coping strategies that amplify the chatterbox

There’s conflicting advice on dealing with thoughts. Cognitive-behavioural approaches teach you to reason with them. I find this only works if I’ve already moved out of my reactive state. Mindfulness practitioners may teach you to notice your mental chatter as it comes up, then let it go, returning your attention to whatever you have chosen to focus on. My experience is that this is great training, but if you’re suffering you could be missing an element of healing compassion.

To illustrate a variety of approaches, let’s say I’ve just got home after a session with a therapist and I’m very agitated.

Chatterbox: That was awful! If I have to endure another session with this dumb therapist I will surely whack her!

I try distraction.

Me: OK, before I spend ages mulling over this, I’m going to play some music, because distraction usually helps shift most of my frustration. Then I’ll take it from there.

The chatterbox, in this instance, is not to be distracted. So what’s next?

I try denial.

Me: I’m a peace-loving kind of person. You are not part of me.

Chatterbox: Liar. You’re bristling with aggression.

I try another kind of denial.

Me: Cheer up. It could be worse.

Chatterbox: What can be worse than that stupid therapist?

I add some mindfulness.

Me: I’m not listening! See, I’m concentrating on my breathing. Whenever you distract me, I just let you drift by and return my attention to my breath.

Chatterbox: No you’re not. I’m far more interesting than your breath. You’ve always been utter pants at meditation.

I attempt to use reason.

Me: Look, this therapist is trying her best. I’m sure she means well. Perhaps she’s got toothache or she’s just lost money on the stock market.

Chatterbox: She’s been rubbish since Day One.

Me: Well, maybe we’re just not on the same wavelength.

Chatterbox: That’s for sure. What with you sitting there with your arms crossed, judging everything she says.

Me: Oh, so now it’s all my fault?

Chatterbox: Everything is your fault. Hey, look at the harm you’ve done to your kid!

I remember the positive affirmations I found in a book on positive thinking.

Me: I am a good and loving mother. I am a good and loving mother. I am a good and loving mother. Will you stop cackling?!’

Chatterbox: Sorry, it’s just too funny. All those Post-it notes on your mirrors. You try so hard to convince yourself of what is patently not true. Loving? After the way you handled yesterday’s dinner?’

Me: Excuse me, but apart from yesterday’s dinner, I’ve done really well all week. I’m a great mum.

Chatterbox: Except when you totally and spectacularly screw up.

This could go on a long time. I’ve turned my mind into a debating chamber and the chatterbox never runs out of arguments.

What if I agreed with the chatterbox?

Chatterbox: That was awful! If I have to endure another session with this dumb therapist I will surely whack her!

Me: I’m fed up! Week after week, it’s torture.

Chatterbox: Precisely. Why, oh why do parents have to endure sessions with people who are so dumb?

I don’t even notice this is the chatterbox speaking. I totally believe this. To me, this is reality. I embroider, add, amplify. I am feeding the chatterbox:

Me/chatterbox: The health services shouldn’t allow such people to be in charge of vulnerable lives.

Chatterbox (now quite bloated): The world is a terrible place and everybody is either stupid or evil. Except you: you’re always right.

By now, the chatterbox and I are indistinguishable, my head is exploding, and I am extremely unlikely to make wise decisions.

Defusion from thoughts: ‘I’m telling myself that …’

So what might help? I like to attend to the chatterbox using principles of Nonviolent Communication and self-compassion.

First you become an observer of your thoughts rather than ‘being’ your thoughts. This achieves defusion, a term that means the opposite of fusion, and also, most appropriately, means removing the fuse from an explosive.

Being an observer of your thoughts is like flying a plane above the clouds rather than inside them. Who wants to stay in the fog when there’s radiance and clarity close by?

One way to disentangle yourself from thoughts is to label them as they come along: ‘This is a worry thought’ or ‘Here is a ‘I’m no good’ thought.’

Another tool I like is to preface chatterbox statements with ‘I’m telling myself that …’ For example, ‘I’m telling myself that I’m a terrible person for being so horribly judgemental’, ‘I’m telling myself that this guy is an idiot.’

I'm telling myself that (NVC)

Use the chatterbox as a signpost to deep needs

Once you’re in an observer position, what do you do? I propose that you enquire with kindness about what the chatterbox really wants for you. When the chatterbox shouts, it’s a call for empathy. It’s a call to become attuned to needs. You can do this for yourself at quiet times or in the heat of the moment.

My chatterbox to my needs (Nonviolent Communication)

Likewise, wonder what needs your child’s words are pointing to. This brings you closer to him, and as a bonus, you’re not getting hurt by the abusive talk.

His chatterbox to his needs (NVC)

For instance, your child says, ‘I hate you!’ Flip the message around, and it might be a signpost to ‘I want love! I want connection, acceptance. Please love me. Help me love myself.’ Perhaps none of these needs is quite right, but they provide a way into empathy.

Tune into your body

Body symbol- with labelI’ve taken me while to value what my body is experiencing. As a lover of the intellect, I have spent a lifetime considering that a body’s job is to carry one’s head to interesting places.

Thoughts tend to create emotions and vice-versa. This involves your whole body (brain included) in a vicious or virtual cycle. Your body systems can maintain a state of fight-or-flight, and they can shift you to a state of compassion and power. So when you’re dealing with thoughts and feelings it’s helpful to tune into your body, and respond to what you notice with kindness and acceptance.

What to do with chatterbox thoughts

We now have the main steps for dealing with chatterbox thoughts.

  • Notice a thought or a belief.
  • Give it a label or you reframe it as ‘I’m telling myself that…’
  • Give it kindness and acceptance. If it points to an emotion, give that kindness too.
  • Tune into your body. What physical sensations are related to your thoughts and feelings?
  • Wonder what needs the thought – or the corresponding physical sensation – is pointing to.
  • When you’ve touched upon a need, check inside yourself. Do you get a sense of softening? Has the volume on the chatterbox reduced?
  • If the chatterbox protests and puts up new arguments, repeat the process until you finally find a peaceful place where you are truly in touch with your needs.

How would this work in my example with the therapist?

I start by rephrasing: ‘I’m telling myself that this therapist is useless.’ I tune into my body and notice that my mouth and hands are tense. I ask myself what’s coming up for me. What is it that really matters to me here? What does this thought really want me to know? Turning the thought around, what would it give me if I loved this therapist? I also look for clues in the words the chatterbox uses. It keeps saying the therapist is dumb. Might that translate into a wish to have the support of someone who’s intellectually or emotionally intelligent?

I notice that my chatterbox has receded and the tension in my body reduced – an indication that I have indeed touched a need. The need I’ve become conscious of is really worth engaging with. It’s life-enhancing. It leads to action. And if action is not possible, if the need can’t be met, it leads to acceptance.

Sometimes, as I empathise with one chatterbox thought, another pops up. It’s worth following the trail all the way to compassion and peace. Staying with the example of the therapist, imagine that as soon as I touch on the need for support, the chatterbox bristles: ‘Yeah, well, good luck in finding anyone else! You’re stuck with this one!’

This is good! Now I know there’s another important need I must attend to, possibly even more important than the need for support. Again, I listen, I enquire, and see what bubbles up.

This self-enquiry takes longer, but the word ‘stuck’ gives me a clue. Maybe what I’m longing for, really, is to have the ability to make choices and govern my life so I can effectively care for my family. Maybe it’s about empowerment. This deep realisation of what matters to me may lead to action, to an acceptance of what is, or to a bit of both.

Common chatterbox messages and translations

Here are some pointers to help you recognise chatterbox thoughts and the needs they may relate to.

  • The chatterbox doesn’t do observations of reality or facts. What it does is interpret facts. It judges (‘This weather is awful’). Notice that this is different from an ‘observation’ that could be recorded on video (‘It’s been raining for the last hour’).
  • The chatterbox likes to use words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’. ‘You shouldn’t be wasting time on this internet support group’, ‘You should cope better’, ‘You shouldn’t be thinking distressing thoughts’, ‘My kid ought to eat’, ‘She should try harder.’ Usually it points to how important something is to me. Often it reminds me of a need to accept and grieve. My child is doing what she’s doing for various psychological or biological reasons, most of which are not well understood. What’s going on for me is it’s breaking my heart, because I so dearly want her to be safe.
  • The chatterbox judges you, shames you and blames you. It judges and blames others. It compares you to others, or compares the present you with a better you from the past. This might be about a need for acceptance and compassion.
  • The chatterbox creates enemy images of people, and places others on a pedestal. It sticks labels on people (including you) and defines them as one thing (stupid, ignorant, sick, perfect, brilliant). It may mean you long for the corresponding or the opposite quality in yourself and in others.
  • The chatterbox analyses and diagnoses. ‘You didn’t phone because you’re avoiding me’, ‘The problem with you is …’, ‘She has attachment issues with her child.’ I imagine the human brain needs to make sense of things, needs clarity.
  • The chatterbox tells you that the world ought to be a certain way. It judges and blames the world. It says things like ‘If only this happened’, and ‘It’s not fair.’ It does not do acceptance. It says, ‘Why me?’, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’, ‘How could my kid get such a terrible illness?’, ‘Why is this happening to us?’ This might point to a desire to understand or to a yearning for acceptance, for grieving.
  • The chatterbox often speaks angry or resentful words: ‘Damn you’, ‘How dare my friend treat me like this’, ‘She’ll pay for what she did to me.’ Anger is a feeling that therapists seem to respect highly, but I find that anger is just a starting point. When I pinpoint the chatterbox talk that fuels the anger, I usually unearth fear and then sadness. This provides a clue about deeper issues around longing for friendship or kindness or safety.
  • The chatterbox tends to talk in black-and-white terms. People are either great or awful. They are either right or wrong. They’re either for us or against us. There is only one correct way of doing things. The chatterbox doesn’t understand the concept of ‘good enough’. For me, these thoughts are often about wanting competence or effectiveness.
  • The chatterbox uses words like ‘can’t’ or ‘have to’. It is often ‘stuck’ and powerless. It lives in a land of no choice. It is interesting to notice how in each moment you are in a position of choice. You choose to stay in your car while stuck in traffic. You choose to believe your thoughts that tell you that the other drivers ought not clog up your road. What you really need is mourning (more on this in Chapter 15).
  • The chatterbox likes to exaggerate and generalise. It uses words like ‘always’ or ‘never’ or ‘everybody’ or ‘no one’.
  • The chatterbox likes doom and gloom. It engages with scarcity, with ‘not good enough’ and it zooms in on disaster. The chatterbox wants you to know of every way in which something could go very wrong and it weaves elaborate stories. When a kid has an eating disorder, there are many reasons to worry terribly. I learned to label such thoughts as soon as they popped up: ‘That’s the worry thought.’ This created the shortcut in my mind to compassion and acceptance: ‘I am sad. I am frightened. I so want my kid to be well.’
  • The chatterbox projects into the past and into the future. It plays endless movies, telling bitter or fearful stories about what happened or will happen. In other words, the chatterbox is not rooted in the reality of the present moment. Attention to the present, or mindfulness, will halt the thoughts while you get yourself in another mind state.
  • Whenever you notice tension or suffering, look for the chatterbox. Tightening, constriction, discomfort somewhere in your mind or body may indicate that the chatterbox is busy.
  • The chatterbox judges the chatterbox. It would be surprising if you didn’t have chatterbox thoughts about your chatterbox thoughts: ‘I’m a terrible person for being so horribly judgemental! I should have accepted my chatterbox by now!’ Listen, and wonder what needs these new thoughts point to. Remember that the chatterbox is your friend and welcome how it’s looking out for your well-being.

Jackalling the jackals

The thoughts that prop up other chatterbox thoughts

Core beliefs (NVC)

When we follow the trail of our chatterbox thoughts to tune into one need after another, we sometimes go right back to tragic core beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world. ‘I am a harmful person’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I am unlovable’, ‘The world is a hostile place.’

A belief of this kind can hold up a whole edifice built onto other painful thoughts that have dominated our life for years. Self-compassion around a major belief can cause a whole lot of other beliefs to topple over, making space for life.

When you are present to your child, be aware that he may be grappling with beliefs of this kind.

Love your chatterbox

You may decide your chatterbox is far too negative for your liking, but be kind to it. Judging your thoughts is natural. Self-compassion will bring you to a more empowered state, so how can you be kind to your chatterbox? Perhaps you can remember this is how the human brain is wired up. There are theories we have evolved with a negativity bias because being alert to potential dangers increased our ancestors’ chances of survival.[vii]

The chatterbox protects us from intense and complex feelings when we are not ready for them. On a short-term basis, you may cope a lot better blaming your sister-in-law for all the insensitive things she said to you, rather than grieving for the understanding you wish you could have. In the middle of a business meeting, when you don’t want to burst into tears, your chatterbox may help you hang in there. Still, self-justification and righteous indignation tend to eat away at you, and after a while it’s good to let go of the chatterbox’s beliefs, use the clues they offer about what is really going on and tune into our truer, kinder self.

Observations: differentiate facts from chatterbox fiction

Observations (Nonviolent Communication)When we notice the chatterbox, we are doing one important task: differentiating facts from beliefs. In Nonviolent Communication, facts are called ‘observations’. They are data you could record, say, with a video camera.

Observations (NVC)

Let’s say your child says, ‘Piss off. I hate you!’ in a voice louder than normal, and walks out of the room. That is an observation you could both agree on. Whereas ‘Oh dear, he hates me!’ is an interpretation from your chatterbox. It may or may not be true, so why automatically believe it?

There are so many possible interpretations for this one observation. For instance: ‘He loves me and wishes he could get close’, ‘He’s hungry and short of sleep’, ‘He hates himself’, ‘He’s just received an unusually low mark in geography’, ‘He’s scared of the next meal’, ‘He wants love.’

You may never know which one is true. All you can do is wonder what is going on for him, which leads you to empathy.

If you’re in conflict with someone, observations are a great starting point because there’s nothing to disagree with. Whereas if you voice your opinions or interpretations you can quickly get derailed:

‘I will not have you walk out on me [Chatterbox interpretation] like that!’

‘I wasn’t walking out! I was just going to my room!’

‘You were yelling [Chatterbox interpretation] and you said ‘Piss off!’ [Observation] and you were being abusive [Chatterbox interpretation]!’

‘I wasn’t yelling!’

On and on it goes. Just as the chatterbox can keep a debate going on for ever in your head, it can fuel pointless exchanges between you and your loved ones. If you can get into the habit of differentiating between observations and the chatterbox, you can move more quickly to real connection.

Feelings and how to make good use of them

Feelings and emotions (NVC)In the run-up to a meal in the early days, I could feel so anxious about the likely fight ahead that I was close to useless before I’d even started. I feared the consequences of my child not managing this meal or the next. I was also hugely distressed about her suffering, her anxiety, hunger and weakness. On top of that I feared her hostile reactions. All this left little space for me to be truly present to her. Meanwhile my daughter, presumably, was unable to eat because her own anxiety was sky high.

So what can we do about our own feelings in order to suffer less and make space for compassion? And how can we help our children with their overwhelming feelings?

The approach I propose goes like this: we can recognise feelings, accept them with kindness – freeing them from the complications of the chatterbox – then focus our compassionate attention on the feelings’ physical manifestations in our body. The intensity of the feelings usually fades and this makes space for us to connect with our needs, which is where we are at our most resourceful.

How feelings make you reactive

First, it helps to know what we’re dealing with. Uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, fear, sadness, distress, shame, anger or hate are truly horrible. Our limbic brain believes we’re in danger and takes the driving seat. It activates knee-jerk reactions, puts us in a reactive state and makes us do things we’ll regret later. We’re in fight, flight or freeze mode. Our body is affected. Our chatterbox goes wild. More horrible feelings get generated. Thoughts and feelings run the show and there isn’t much room for wisdom or any kind of presence to anybody.

To make things worse, our feelings tend to rub off on other people. When your child is anxious, your brain interprets this as a danger signal, you get anxious, which makes your child more anxious, and you’re in a vicious circle. On the other hand, when you project calm and confidence, your child is more likely to get signals that she is safe.

Recognise feelings

In order to recognise feelings, you can notice your chatterbox thoughts, or you can check our body from head to toe.

Emotions are feelings like sad, joyful, excited, scared, confident, anxious, calm, frustrated, angry, furious, disgusted, distressed and so on (sometimes summarised as ‘sad, mad, bad and glad’).[viii]

Feelings are also sensations in your body. When you’re looking for relief from suffering, recognising sensations and being able to describe them to yourself is a useful skill. There may be a tightness here, an ache there, tension, heaviness, shuddering, or on the positive side, a burst of excitement or aliveness. There’s also heat, tingling, nausea, headaches, belly aches, breathlessness and a pounding heart.

The reason I lump emotions and bodily sensations together is that emotions express themselves in the body. This is part of a self-reinforcing loop: feelings give rise to chatterbox thoughts, which in turn amplify emotions and constrictions in the body.

When you’re trying to spot feelings in yourself or guess the feelings in your child, don’t get derailed by expressions like ‘I feel that’ or ‘I feel like I’. For example, ‘I feel that you are ignoring me’, ‘I feel like she’s going to refuse lunch.’ Notice that these are actually thoughts (usually from the chatterbox): ‘I’m telling myself that you are ignoring me’, ‘My guess is that she’s going to refuse lunch.’ It is worth digging deeper to find feelings: ‘I feel frustration when I tell myself you’re ignoring me’, ‘I feel anxiety when I think she may go without lunch.’

Some situations regularly push our buttons and trigger strong reactions. We can get good at recognising them and quickly noticing our feelings. For instance hearing our child say ‘I’m not hungry’, triggers fear in many of us.

Feelings are not dangerous and they pass

Some emotions and bodily sensations are horrible. But I’ve found it incredibly helpful to realise that they do no harm. I don’t need to be afraid of sadness, and I don’t need to be afraid of fear. Neither my own, nor my child’s.

An emotion is like a wave. It rises and then subsides. The trick is to relax into the physical sensation associated with the emotion. We tend to ignore or distract ourselves from the tightness in our throat, the butterflies in our tummy, but if we can pause to give these sensations our kindness and acceptance, they usually melt away. At the very least, they do not get whipped up into bigger waves by the howling of our chatterbox thoughts.

You are not your feelings

When feelings overpower us, we tend to merge with them. We are the angry person, the anxious person. We are trapped in a restricted version of ourselves.

Yet you are not the wave. You are the whole, vast, peaceful, stable ocean. The choppiness at the surface is part of life – your limbic brain is designed to react to events, and life is full of events. The waves at the surface of the sea are perfectly normal and harmless, even if for a while they are horrible to experience. When you connect to your body, you connect to the bigger you, to the whole ocean. Your limbic brain gets the message that it’s safe to let go. You can move from a state of anger, hate or fear into a state of compassion, well-being and empowerment, a state where you are in tune with your needs. Uncomfortable feelings lose their grip and perhaps even vanish.

If you’re not into water, you might prefer using the sky as a metaphor. You are the vastness of the sky. You have light, warmth, clarity, perspective. Clouds or flocks of birds create agitation, then they pass. Or back to the image of the airplane ride, you can experience the world from above the foggy band of cloud.

It’s lovely to experience the spaciousness of the ocean, but it may not be possible to access a peaceful state when you are receiving constant danger signals. You can withstand our child’s resistance at mealtimes even if it gives rise to a whole lot of unpleasant emotions. And likewise, a child can eat even though his eating disorder makes it incredibly scary. We don’t need to make the feelings go away, and we can act in spite of the feelings because they’re not dangerous. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Disentangle your chatterbox from your feelings

Your chatterbox is likely to resist your feelings, judging them as bad or dangerous, and this adds suffering to your original pain. Feelings lose their sting when you uncouple them from the chatterbox.

Feelings & Chatterbox - Pain & Suffering- NVC

Say, for example, that you are scared because your child is shouting at you. You may experience this as thoughts (‘I can’t bear this; she shouldn’t be doing this; I should be calm’). But there will also be physical sensations like a pounding heart, breathlessness, or contractions in your belly. The trick is to notice and kindly accept your chatterbox. Then you only have a set of physical sensations to deal with. That may put you in touch with pain, but that’s more manageable than being scared.

If you’re experiencing sadness or grief, chatterbox thoughts can lock you in depression. Likewise, anger can come from thoughts that ‘things shouldn’t be like this’. Shame comes from self-judgement. Fear comes from thoughts that transport you from the present instant – which you can deal with – into a horror-filled future. As soon as you disentangle yourself from your chatterbox, your feelings become simpler and you suffer less.

Kindness and acceptance towards feelings

To move on from suffering we need acceptance, kindness and a sense of safety. Knowing that feelings always pass helps us feel safer. How about the acceptance and kindness element?

Kindness means recognising how horrible it is to have the feeling in question. A feeling can pass just because we’ve received understanding and care.

Acceptance means recognising that feelings just happen. Why shouldn’t you have these feelings? Why shouldn’t you be reacting to what’s going on in your life? This is part of being human. It’s normal.

Many feelings are driven by our biochemistry, as you’ll have noticed if you’re ever short of sleep or if your blood sugar levels have dropped. Attend to your physical needs before hunting for complex psychological causes.

Likewise your child doesn’t choose his feelings. The biochemical aspect, with an eating disorder, is huge. He isn’t responsible for how angry, scared or depressed he is. Your child will assume that you judge his feelings, so stay clear of phrases like ‘don’t worry’, ‘don’t be sad’, ‘don’t be angry’ or ‘don’t be scared’. There are other ways of showing your empathy, as we’ll see later in this chapter.

Meanwhile, validate, normalise and take the drama out of feelings. The message is: it’s perfectly fine and normal to have them. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t put you in any danger either. Feelings just visit for a while, and then they move on.

What to do with feelings

As I researched approaches to dealing with difficult feelings, I found contradictory instructions. There were encouragements to ‘feel the feeling’, though it wasn’t often clear whether this refers to the whole thought-entangled emotion or just the physical sensations. Some therapies are very clear that emotions must be expressed: cry, scream, thump some pillows – anything less is repression. With some Buddhist approaches I found the opposite – an injunction to detachment: notice the feeling and bring your attention back to, say, your breath. Some mindfulness approaches invite you to feel feelings in your body, at which stage some tell you to do nothing, while others suggest you visualise a healing breath, light or warmth going into the affected area. Then there’s cognitive-behavioural approaches instruct you to change your feelings by changing your thoughts and behaviours.

Here is the process I’ve ended up with. It is similar to the one for chatterbox thoughts.

  • You start by recognising your feeling. As soon as you’ve noticed a feeling, you’re less of a puppet on a string.
  • Give it a label (‘Here is some fear’, or ‘This is a moment of suffering’). This helps you further defuse from the feeling. You are more of an observer.
  • The next step is to accept the feeling, to allow it to be there. This means noticing and accepting any chatterbox thoughts that put up resistance.
  • Give yourself kindness and understanding for what you are experiencing.
  • To help you be less overwhelmed by the feeling, look upon it as a passing wave in the ocean of your being. Suffering is part of the human experience, and it passes.
  • As soon as you can, move on to where the feeling manifests itself in your body: this is where you’ll get the greatest relief.
  • Keep your attention on the physical sensations. Describe them to yourself (pounding, tight, tingling, heavy, cold etc). Allow them to do what they’re doing (they might intensify for a short while), and allow them to keep changing (e.g. tears might come). Stay present to your physical sensations and respond with kindness and care. You could place your hand on your body and send tenderness to the affected part. It can help to ask yourself, ‘What does this physical sensation really want me for me?’
  • What then tends to happen is that the intensity of the physical sensation diminishes, and so do thoughts and emotions. You get space to be who you truly are, in touch with life-enhancing needs.

 

Feelings leading to needs- NVC

Overwhelming feelings

It is normal to find some uncomfortable feelings when you go inwards. Our normal way of functioning is to get on with things, not dwell on discomfort. That way we can get things done, and maybe not explode in anger or grief at awkward moments. As you self-connect, you may come across some of the painful things you had guarded against. It’s your choice how much you want to be present to distressing feelings. If you’re feeling reasonably safe you can stay with the discomfort. Tears may come, or some shuddering as old tensions get released. It shouldn’t go on for ever because you’re focusing on physical sensations (not on the chatterbox) and you’re giving yourself kindness. On the other side of it is peace.

But if going inside brings on more suffering than you’re OK with, don’t be a masochist. If you persevere, all that will happen is your defences will spring into action. They will protect you by disconnecting you from reality, from yourself. You’ll either go blank (unable to feel anything) or you’ll get an outpouring of emotions fuelled by a hyperactive chatterbox. It’s pointless. Just open your eyes and reconnect with the outside world. In Chapter 15 I offer more pointers regarding fear and trauma. In Chapter 14 I offer suggestions for supporting your child through fear.

Distraction while feelings pass

With feelings like fear, which tend to be amplified by the chatterbox, distraction can be an excellent strategy – one you may have found works well with your child at the dinner table. If you accept the first arrow, if you know there is no reason to fear fear and no benefit in fighting in, why not occupy yourself pleasantly while the wave of fear subsides? Even better, engage your mind with something that tends to create a different emotion. What did the world do before YouTube cat videos?

Nobody causes feelings in anybody else

“My D often says ‘You make me feel guilty!’ and then acts up. Later, when she’s calmer, she may say, ‘This didn’t happen because of what you said, Mum. It would have happened anyway.’”

We tend to attribute our feelings of joy, sadness or anger to events and people. How often do we say ‘I feel X because Y happened’ or ‘I feel X because you/he/she did or said Y’?

Isn’t it wonderful when someone can be blamed? Oh, the blessed relief I can get by venting: ‘See the distress you’re causing me? It’s all your fault!’ In the moment, it is so natural to give my limbic brain free rein. I do not want to take deep breaths and be so bloody mature about everything. Annoyingly, relief is short-lived, while the consequences of escalating violence last for ages.

Attributing my feelings to external causes is not helpful in the hours, weeks or years following an event, because if agents outside my control are able to make me feel rotten, my well-being is constantly under threat. I have given away my power. I am a victim.

The Feelings fallacy: You make me...

I’d like to offer you a view that keeps you in your power. Feelings are generated internally.[ix] Your feelings come from what’s going on inside you, and other people’s feelings come from what’s going on inside them. Nobody is responsible for other people’s feelings. Nobody has cause to blame anyone else for how lonely or cross or frustrated they feel.

Strip-Feelings-Chatterbox-Jackals-NVC-Eva-Musby

Feelings are generated by the meaning we give to events. In other words, our thoughts, beliefs, interpretations, and the stories we tell ourselves turn neutral reality into emotions. And as we’ve seen, our chatterbox thoughts are alive and kicking when there are needs to attend to. So a simple recipe for well-being is to be in touch with our needs. When we ignore or deny the things that feed our deepest being, we are wide open to stimuli or triggers that remind us how very undernourished we are.

Here’s an example I can totally relate to. What do the words ‘I’m hungry’ mean to you these days? In your old life, they might have meant ‘Damn, now I have to go and cook.’ Now I bet your reaction is quite different.

“Last night, when I picked up my girl, I had forgotten to bring the snack for the ride home. She said, ‘But Dad, I’m hungry.’ Just matter-of-fact. So matter-of-fact that I didn’t realize she had said them until a few minutes ago, nearly 12 hours later.

I have waited for those two words, ‘I’m hungry.’ I have not heard them since I don’t know when.

ED took another hit last night. And my girl took another step. I am joyful.”

Our feelings often come from our thoughts about ourselves. If you are used to blaming yourself for other people’s anger or distress, you are at the mercy of their reactions.

“We were shopping together and she said, ‘See, it’s happening again! I want to be alone and now you’re making me feel guilty because you’re still here with me!’ I used to defend myself or feel bad or annoyed with myself, but self-compassion is the best thing ever! I just said ‘Oh’ (like I was attentive to her), gave a little nod of acknowledgement and said, ‘Shall we meet in half an hour?’”

It is completely possible to care deeply for someone and disentangle yourself from their feelings. You can have empathy for people when they suffer as a result of something you triggered in them, but remember it’s about their interpretation, not your actions. Don’t make people’s internal life all about you.

The common belief that we cause each other’s feelings is not surprising when you notice that as we interact, we are constantly providing stimuli for thoughts. It is impossible to know all the internal stories another person holds. It is impossible to guarantee that someone will not react with a painful emotion when you open your mouth.

It is your choice how much you want to adapt what you say or do because of a concern that it may or may not stimulate someone’s chatterbox. I’ll return to this when I discuss ways to express yourself.

Accept the reality of this present moment

If you are suffering, where feelings come from might seem pretty academic. You might argue that if your child behaved differently, your needs would be met, and you wouldn’t be feeling so rotten. The devil is in the ‘if’. The fact is, she is behaving the way she is behaving. This is reality. You will try and change her behaviour over time, but you are dealing with your emotions in the present.

For me, when I’d fully accepted the needs that could not be met, my distress lifted. The chatterbox gave me a break. I even started feeling really well, even if I still cried and felt deep sadness every now and again. And yet, for quite a while, my daughter’s behaviours were just as challenging. With the energy I gained from not fighting my feelings, I was able to put everything into her recovery.

Action: Make requests and find strategies that work

Requests - NVCSo far we’ve discussed needs, how to deal with feelings and with chatterbox thoughts, and how to use these to become more present to the things that deeply matter to us. And we’ve seen how this works for ourselves and also for our child.

If this was all there was to it, it would already be plenty. For your child to feel understood at the deepest level is a precious thing. For you to have the ability to self-connect and be in touch with your truth is incredibly healing.

But there’s more. There’s finding solutions, decision-making and getting things done. There’s resolving dilemmas in your own mind. There’s resolving conflicts and making agreements with another person. When you know what needs are on the table – your needs and the other person’s needs – you can envision strategies that meet those needs. Once you have everyone’s willing agreement, you end up with a course of action that will work because it corresponds to what matters to all parties. And maybe just as importantly, even if the agreement isn’t perfect, connections are nurtured because everyone knows their needs matter.

In the Nonviolent Communication framework, the word for this component of communication is ‘requests’.

How to make a request that works

Here’s a request that is likely to work for both me and my daughter: ‘I really want some peace of mind when you’re out tonight. Would it work for you to text me as soon as you arrive at your friend’s house?’ I’m starting with a need of mine, I’m making a specific, do-able, positive proposal, and putting in a question mark because I want to check if it would meet her needs.

Here’s another way of forming my requests: ‘I want to be able to relax tonight and I know I’ll worry if I don’t know where you are. And I also imagine you want to feel free and have fun with your friends. What could we do?’ I’m outlining my needs and my child’s needs, and the request is for us to come up with possible strategies together.

How about ‘Please don’t take any risks!’? This is unlikely to work because it’s not specific, not do-able and doesn’t include a question. And, because it’s about what I don’t want rather than what I do want, it’s unlikely to give me any peace of mind. My child has no idea what I’m talking about (this leaves her in utter confusion about my needs) and is likely to interpret my motives in all kinds of ways, some of which might do nothing for our connection.

Requests work best when you’re fully, whole-heartedly living and breathing your needs. Voicing your needs within your requests is honest, it communicates passion, it is free of blame, it doesn’t have a whiff of victimhood, and it’s the best form of assertiveness. If you think of requests in this way, you can let go of rules or formulae and speak naturally.

Illustration by Eva Musby

But I imagine you might still want further guidance, so I’ll give you some more pointers.

The idea of including a question in requests is that we want to consider the other person’s needs. For example:

  • ‘Would you be willing to …?’
  • ‘Are you up for …?’
  • Are you open to …?’
  • ‘How about …?’
  • ‘Would this work for you?’

These are real questions, not manipulation to get what we want. We are genuinely looking for an outcome – a strategy – that will work for both of us.

Illustration by Eva Musby

We really want the other person to have no difficulty saying no if our request doesn’t work for them.

A ‘no’ isn’t a problem because there are usually many possible strategies to meet needs. With a no or a half-hearted ‘yes’ you simply continue the dialogue.

Requests: receiving a No (NVC)

Your needs matter, whereas the solution you’ve come up with is just one of many ways to meet needs. So while you should voice your needs with conviction, you should be ready to change your mind about the strategy.

Requests don’t have to be perfect

Sometimes, searching for a solution that perfectly meets everyone’s needs is just too time consuming. Everyone wants to get on with their life, so someone please decide! Others may be perfectly willing to go along with something that is going to meet your needs. Human nature is naturally giving, rather than sinful, grabbing, or selfish. We all have within us pleasure in giving, in contributing to others. Watch the delight with which a child feeds a hungry duck.[x]

The key is the other person’s willingness. Are they willing to stretch a little?[xi] A particular proposal may not fill them with delight, but are they willing to go for it? Can they live with it? That may be quite good enough.

When you yourself are wondering whether to say yes to a proposal, check if you are genuinely willing to stretch, or if it is a case of, ‘You leave me no choice, but I am so going to make you pay for this later. Passive-aggressive, moi?’ Acting from a place of ‘no choice’ is not authentic, and it’s depleting. The smell of burning martyr is unpleasant for everyone.

A practical tip if you are finding it hard to settle on a solution: people may find it hard to agree to something for ever, but they are often quite willing to try it for a limited period of time.

You may think of plenty of situations where you are simply not ready to make a request. You don’t have the time to engage in dialogue. You’re stressed and overwhelmed and tired, and right now you only care about your needs and have limited capacity for empathy. The trick then is to be really honest about it. A demand made in the most connecting way you can manage might look like this: ‘I want you to go to bed now. I’m sorry if this doesn’t suit you but right now I have no spare capacity for anything and I can’t imagine discussing it in a constructive way, so please, go now, and if it’s a problem please let’s talk about it in the morning.’

When you ask your child, ‘Please pick up your fork; now have a bite,’ clearly you are not giving her a chance to enter into dialogue. What you’re doing there is a kind of request, though, because you’re clearing your mind of judgements, and you’re making your best possible guess about her needs because you don’t trust that she can communicate them either to herself or to you.

What to do with demands from other people

Most people do not make nicely formulated requests, and you may be irked by the way they make demands and seem to take away your choices. People ‘want’ you to do things for them. Your child might ‘want’ stuff. If you are in disagreement, you can turn the conflict into a dilemma by going to the level of needs.

You’ve already learned to hear your child’s chatterbox and translate its messages. Do the same with his ‘wants’. Hear them as just one of many possible strategies to meet needs. Guess what needs your child may be wanting to meet, share your own needs, and try to problem-solve together. Even if you end up saying no, your child will have heard that his needs matter, and that makes all the difference.

[End of this excerpt…]

In this chapter:

  • Needs: what really matters to you and to your child?
  • Chatterbox thoughts and what to do with them
  • Observations: differentiate facts from chatterbox fiction
  • Feelings and how to make good use of them
  • Action: Make requests and find strategies that work
  • Four zones for compassionate communication
  • Self-compassion, self-empathy, self-connection
  • Silent empathy: Opening your heart to your child
  • Empathy for your child
  • Expressing yourself
  • Wrap-up: dialogue using all the tools

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* Go to: Table of contents *

* Next  chapter: Connecting with your child *

If you’d rather build up your own emotional wellbeing right now, you can jump to the chapter on Resilience.


Endnotes

[i] The principles around observations, thoughts, feelings, needs, and empathy come mainly from Compassion Communication, also called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). To find out more, visit The Center for Nonviolent Communication at www.cnvc.org.

As I have learned more about self-compassion from the work of Kristin Neff, I have decided that NVC could do with making the ‘kindness’ element more explicit, while therapies that emphathise compassion could do with more emphasis on ‘needs’ or core values. So in this book I am blending approaches in a way that works for me.

If you’re hungry for more, see Kristin Neff’s website on http://www.self-compassion.org or her book Self-compassion: the proven power of being  kind to yourself  http://amzn.to/1IxVIUY . Watch Paul Gilbert’s lectures, starting from http://youtu.be/qnHuECDlSvE or read his books, e.g. Mindful compassion http://amzn.to/1MPfzFL. Putting it all together, is a fantastic book by Tara Brach, True refuge http://amzn.to/1NPaWbG. I also have benefitted from the many free videos on her website www.tarabrach.com and on YouTube.

[ii] You can find (non-exhaustive) lists of needs in NVC literature, for instance here: http://www.cnvc.org/Training/needs-inventory. But I’m going to go out on a limb and tell you not to worry about the exact words, because most of the time you’re not going to use the words on these lists. Words only engage part of your brain, and you’ll benefit from your whole being becoming aware of, and savouring, needs. Also, as we’ll see later, if you use words like this when talking to others, they’ll think you’re weird and your desire to connect will be doomed.

[iii] The Nonviolent Communication (NVC) premise that we are all just striving to meet beautiful, life-enhancing needs is challenging because our society is built on the model of The Fall: we are born sinful, and unless we make terrific efforts to be good we’re constantly bad; unless we shame or bully people into behaving decently, they will steal the shirt off our backs. I find NVC works better.

[iv] For more about the brain in adolescence you might enjoy Why Do They Act That Way? by David Walsh (although I would throw out any parental advice about rewards and ‘consequences’). Nicola Morgan’s Blame My Brain is readable by both teens and their parents. And there’s a powerful TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor: The neuronatomical transformation of the teenage brain on http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Nearanatomical-Transformati

[v] Quoted or adapted from NVC trainer Inbal Kashtan, who’s a precious source of wisdom on children and all relationships. Check her out via the BayNVC’s website (http://www.baynvc.org/).

[vi] In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), what I’m calling ‘chatterbox’ thoughts are affectionately called ‘jackals’. NVC trainers often use jackal puppets to role play judgemental or blaming thoughts, but most importantly, these puppets have a heart on their chests: this is to remind us that jackals are looking out for our needs. The other animal used in NVC is the giraffe, chosen as the symbol of Nonviolent Communication because it has a big heart and, being far above the ground, it can see the bigger picture.

[vii] Negativity bias. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias

[viii] There’s a (non-exhaustive) list of feelings here: http://www.cnvc.org/Training/feelings-inventory

[ix] The notion that we create our own feelings is a view shared by practitioners of mindfulness, of Nonviolent Communication, and of therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

[x] A point made by Marshall Rosenberg, creator of NVC. You can choose where you want to set the bar when you make a request.

[xi] NVC trainer Miki Kashtan explains that in a business meeting, you might choose to ask ‘Is there anyone here who absolutely couldn’t live with this proposal?’. At the opposite end of the continuum, you would enquire how this proposal might not fill someone with joy. It depends if you’ve already done a lot of consultation, and if it’s time to move on because seeking consensus may have you going round and round in circles. But the further you get from the ‘joy of feeding a hungry duck’, the greater the risk that people won’t buy in and the proposal will come back to bite you.

[xii] Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist, in My stroke of insight, a massively popular TED video on http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight?language=en

[xiii] Note that the state of compassion requires kindness and connection to others, so it’s a lot easier when you’re accompanied by a caring soul. If you’re extremely depleted, self-compassion can only go so far, and you should seek out a companion or therapist.

[xiv] My intention is to produce some audio or video resources for this process.

[xv] If your internal world is too much to bear (which may happen if you’re suffering from trauma), you can open your eyes, distract yourself, engage your senses (list what you see, hear and touch, count things, hum a song), and resolve to get support.

[xvi] This is borrowed from the Buddhist practice of Metta Meditation, also called ‘lovingkindness’. There are some lovely audio recordings on the internet to guide you through this.

[xvii] What I write may just be a bunch of words until you’ve at least seen empathy in action. I recommend a recording of an in-depth telecourse by NVC trainer Robert Gonzales on the subject of self-empathy and of mourning unmet needs: ‘The Living Energy of Needs: Inner Work and Empathy from the Beauty of Needs’. You can buy it from NVC Marketplace http://nonviolentcommunication.net or NVC Academy.

[xviii] This suggestion is part of ‘The Work’ of Byron Katie.

[xix] Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor vividly describes the effects she observed when a stroke incapacitated her left brain. Watch her TED talk, ‘My stroke of insight’, http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight

[xx] Pictures and quotes I have specially chosen with you in mind are on my Pinterest boards: http://www.pinterest.com/evamusby.

[xxi] This process is also called ‘dissolving enemy images’ in Nonviolent Communication.

[xxii] From SamHeinous, a mother on the Around the Dinner Table forum.

[xxiii] For some great demonstrations of these empathy tools in action, listen to NVC trainer John Kinyon in his teleclass recording ‘The Tao of Empathy’, which you can get from on NVC Academy or NVC Marketplace.

[xxiv] This isn’t a standard step in the Nonviolent Communication framework but I include it because our children tend to be big on shame (‘I’m not OK. I’m not a good/normal person’). I recommend Bon Dobbs’s book When Hope Is Not Enough (http://amzn.to/1qNGTTs) on supporting loved ones with borderline personality disorder, for more examples of validating reflections. More on: http://www.anythingtostopthepain.com/

[xxv] From a report by Janet Treasure, speaking at a F.E.A.S.T symposium in Nottingham (November 2012), http://www.ustream.tv/channel/feast2012-nottingham

[xxvi] In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the technical term for when I tell you about my feelings and needs is ‘honesty’, ‘honest expression’ or ‘self-expression’.

[xxvii] The map I offer in this book with four zones, is inspired by the ‘NVC Dance Floors’ developed by NVC trainers Gina Lawrie and Bridget Belgrave: http://nvcdancefloors.com. You may hear of three zones, not four: I chose to split ‘empathy’ into a zone for verbal reflection, and a zone for silent heart-opening.

3 Replies to “Powerful tools for wellbeing and compassionate connection when your son or daughter has an eating disorder”

  1. I loved how you introduced NVC through the chatterbox and brought in the other components one by one, taking care to give each of them attention grounded in your own experience. To me this gives depth and authenticity that resonates deeply with my own experience and I feel grateful that you have given voice to experiences where words have often failed me. I felt particularly touched by the descriptions of ‘Savouring the Need’ and ‘Mourning the unmet Need’ as I find those the most transformative processes in my own practice.

    I really wish your book had been available a year ago when I was so longing for support that embodied the values of NVC and compassion for my daughter and our family ! I have become better resourced and adept at using the NVC tools you outline and I have recommended this chapter to my husband in the hope that it may contribute to his resilience (if that’s ok?).

  2. Thanks for that. It’s great to know that this chapter works for someone who already works with NVC, and who’s been on a similar journey with their daughter. I hope this chapter works for your husband. If it doesn’t, do ask him to send feedback and I’ll see how I can improve it.

  3. This is so strange ..as I am lying in bed two hours now with music from daughters room not so loud as normal but two hours now I cant sleep I go to get a drink she hears and says what Im turning it down ..I say no its ok no problem and go back to bed then I get up again and open laptop and email and their is your letter with just the same story that is happening every night and seems like it depends on how the day went or how hungry she is many reasons …but an other time..good night

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