Feeling Understood

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Dali and Oskar can have strong opinions about where they want to go for a walk.  Most of the time I will go the way they want because I want them to be happy and be able to make some choices in their lives (I am well aware that I decide much of what happens in their lives, but that is for another blog post).  Sometimes, though, I am clear within myself that I am not going to go the way Dali and Oskar want and have another direction I want to take.

This happened the other day.  Dali and Oskar wanted to head downtown and I did not.  I said “let’s go” and headed the way I wanted to go, but they stayed put and turned away from me, looking in the direction that they wanted to walk.  Very clear, nonverbal communication.  🙂 Sometimes I will get frustrated and simply go my way.  Typically, Dali will sulk the rest of the walk.  She will walk so slowly it feels like she is walking backwards.  And she will stop to smell every blade of grass.  Oskar is much more flexible and will make the best of the situation.

Instead of going down their route, I said to them, “I know you want to go downtown.  I can see that.  I know it is disappointing for you, but we can’t do that today.  There is going to be a lot of salt and that is going to hurt your paws and we’ll be too far from home for mommy to carry you home and I can’t carry both of you.  So, we need to go this way.”  They intensely looked at me and then turned and willingly headed in the direction I wanted to go.  (Interestingly, research shows that dogs are more capable of understanding things from a human perspective than previously thought (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21411249).)

People – and other animals – need to feel that someone else hears and understands them before change is possible.  As a therapist, I know how true this is.  My experience is that if change is to happen, my client and I need to understand together how much it makes sense where he or she is at presently.   Then we can start to see doors to open for something different. I also see this in my relationship with my husband.  If I feel he understands me, then I can soften to understand him and then we can move forward.  And vice versa.   

In fact, understanding another’s perspective is one of Dale Carnegie’s principles in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People.  He quotes Henry Ford, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” 

When we’re calm and relaxed, it’s easier for all of us to do this.  It can take a lot of practice to be able to see things from another’s perspective in the heat of the moment.  The more I work on slowing myself down, the more fulfilling relationships I have with my husband, my dogs, my friends and family, and my community.  I believe it is worth the effort.    

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Understanding

Dali and I are a lot alike.  We both have difficulty feeling comfortable with others of our own species.  When Dali sees another dog, if she’s the least bit afraid, she barks hysterically.   When I see another person, I don’t bark hysterically, but I’m not comfortable in groups of people and can get a bit aggressive out of my fear.

Dali is unreachable when she gets in this zone.  There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to reassure her.  Out of my helplessness, I have gotten very frustrated with her.  Then I feel bad and apologize to her.  I do believe she knows what “I’m sorry” means because I’ve said it so often to her.

One day, I was talking to a dog trainer about Dali and he explained that Dali was probably bullied when she was very young, before she came to live with us.  Her vulnerability grew from the original antagonizers to other dogs.  She was also bullied after she came to live with us.  Early on, I took her to a dog park.  She was so incredibly fast.  Other dogs would chase her.  One dog started to pick on her and got a group of other dogs to join in.  It was scary for me, so I can only imagine how scary it was for her.  That was the last time we went to the dog park.

Now I have more understanding and empathy for Dali.  I remain calm when she gets triggered and launches into her I-must-tell-the-world-there-is-a-threat-until-I-know-everyone-has-heard-me barking campaign.  With my new empathic response, sometimes I notice that she has a quicker recovery time, sometimes not, but I know I’m not adding to her distress and lack of safety by getting angry with her. 

As my empathy grew for Dali, my compassion grew for myself.  Now when I’m with groups of people and feeling uncomfortable, I am better able to calm myself down.  I talk to myself the way I would talk to Dali, soothingly.  I remind myself how much sense it makes that I get afraid and that I’m not alone in this feeling.  I don’t love groups, but since I’ve learned to exercise self-compassion from being compassionate with Dali, I’ve had more experiences that feel alright rather than shaming. 

A wonderful organization that helps at-risk children heal from trauma uses the idea of self-compassion by learning compassion for animals is The Gentle Barn.  Children, who may not be able to relate to care givers, can identify with the vulnerability of animals and heal some of their own emotional pain by interacting with a pig, cow, chicken, or goat.  This nontraditional form of therapy includes telling the children the stories of individual animals who are survivors of abusive situations and how each animal has learned to love and trust again.  The youths leave with a sense of hope that change is within their reach.   

Here is an inspiring and informative video about The Gentle Barn and the healing that is possible when we recognize how we are all interconnected:

http://www.byutv.org/watch/2494c327-dc7e-412f-9f1a-962b42bd6a5a/turning-point-the-gentle-barn

If you’d like to share, I would welcome to chance to read about how the human-animal bond has helped you heal.

 

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Belonging

In the early days after Dali came to live with us, my husband was sitting on the floor playing and cuddling with her.  I was on the couch, looking on, and longing to be with them.  I had a felt sense that I would be welcomed if I joined them.  I hadn’t had much of a sense of belonging in my life and Dali brought that when she joined our family. 

Years later, before we welcomed Oskar home, a neighbor said to me, “Dali has an air about her that says that she belongs to a family.”  My heart filled with joy.  Dali had given me the gift of belonging and I had been able to return the favor.  

Dali treasures her sense of belonging.   One evening, we had to take Oskar to the emergency animal hospital.  We were going to leave Dali at home, but she ran out the door.  I knew she wasn’t going to run away.  She didn’t want to be left behind.    And as almost always, Dali got her way and we went as a family to take care of Oskar.

Dali has other things she does to try to keep us together as a family.  When we’re getting out of the car or going to the car, Dali will herd me and my husband to make sure we stay together.  If my husband is going to walk Dali and Oskar, Dali will come sit next to me, and look at me mournfully, as a way to get me to go on the walk, as well.  When I do decide to join the outing, Dali literally jumps up and down for joy. 

The desire to belong is a fundamental motivation.  When we have a sense of belonging, we are more confident, better able to handle difficult challenges, and we can manage our emotions in a way that feel less like a roller coaster and more like a rolling brook. 

The desire to belong is found in other animals, as well, and strong bonds benefit other animals in similar ways as humans.  For example, studies have shown that cows are more resilient and less frightened by new situations when they are with their friends.  They also learn more quickly when they are with other cows than when they are alone. 

In The Inner World of Farm Animals, I read about a female cow who gave birth to a stillborn calf.  Although weak from medical complications from the delivery, she traveled a good distance though many fields to find her own mother.  The next day, they were found together, the mother comforting and grooming her distraught daughter.

Belonging is a powerful force.  Belonging sustains us.  Belonging gives us the strength to be ourselves.  Belonging provides a source of acceptance and comfort.  Belonging need not be restricted by boundaries of race, gender or species.

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Everything is OK

Life is easier and more joyful when we know that there is someone who has our back.

Dali, Oskar and I were taking our early Saturday morning walk.  Sometimes we are out before 7 am.  It is one of my favorite times of the day because it is quiet and peaceful.  We had made it to the grounds of a church about a mile from our house.  Dali and Oskar were busy exploring when a woman walked by, headed toward a bus stop on the other side of the property.  She shouted out to someone who had passed by just a bit ago.  (I guess Dali, Oskar and I aren’t the only ones who like to be out early.)  It was quite a jarring sound in the soft, silent air.  Alerted to danger, Dali ran to see what was going on.  She stood next to me, ready to take action if need be, and she turned around to check-in with me.  “It’s okay,” I said.  Reassured, Dali went back to scout out the smells around the bushes.

It is very fulfilling to know that I am a safe haven to Dali and Oskar, meaning they will turn to me when they are feeling threatened.  I also feel deeply appreciative that I am a secure base to them.  In other words, my relationship with them provides them with a foundation to explore the world and solve problems. 

They also are my safe haven and secure base.  I was running a supervision group out of my home and the participants were flexible enough to allow Dali and Oskar to join in on the learning.  During one of the sessions, I was feeling anxious, unsure of myself as a teacher.  Luckily, Dali was by my side and I started petting her.  Here was someone who was happy to be with me even when I was feeling insecure.  My anxiety subsided.  And sometimes, when I’m very afraid like when I’m flying and there is a lot of turbulence, I think of Oskar licking my face and it helps me get through these stressful moments. 

I am lucky to find this security in some of my relationships with people, as well.  When I am feeling at my worse, my husband almost always lets me know that he has had similar feelings about himself.  When I don’t feel so alone with painful feelings, my sadness eases.  I have learned from my husband the power of letting another know how I can relate to their difficult experiences.  I even do that with Dali and Oskar.  When Dali is wants to go one way on a walk and I want to go another, and in the rare times that I don’t acquiesce, I will say to her “I see you Dali.  I see that you’re unhappy.  You didn’t get to go the way you wanted to go.  I understand that disappointment.  It is unfair.”  Just being seen and understood helps her mood.

Life is easier and more joyful when we know that there is someone who has our back.  Couples therapy can help partners find that safety in their relationship.  Individual therapy can help people begin to feel safe about sharing their distress with another and be able to take these experiences to other relationships.   When we feel safe and know that another is happy to see us, even when we’re at our worst, we can go out into the world and explore, the way Dali went back to seeking out adventure when I let her know everything was OK. 

Asking for comfort

When an acorn shell cracks, the pieces form a little cup and can fit right underneath the pads on Dali’s and Oskar’s paws. When I see Dali or Oskar walking funny, I will look under their paws. Frequently, I will find one of these acorn fragments and will remove it with surgical expertise. Oskar is so thankful. He bestows upon me abundant kisses of gratitude. Dali, on the other hand, will walk away with an air about her that says “I really didn’t need your help. I would rather have walked in pain, thank you very much.”

Oskar is generally more at ease with receiving help. And he has ways of asking for help. If there is a piece of leaf or a twig that is bothering him that he can’t remove, he’ll stop walking and just stand there. It’s a signal to me that he would like me to remove this remnant of nature. When he’s been injured or not feeling well and we’re out on a walk, I might ask him, “Do you want me to carry you?” Dali and Oskar both know what this phrase means. If Oskar wants me to carry him, he’ll get in front of me and wiggle his tushy. If not, he’ll walk faster.

I relish what’s pretty much an effortless give-and-take between Oskar and me. Oskar has an easier time being vulnerable and sends clear messages of need. When he wants to cuddle on my lap, his face, body and actions speak volumes. And I love being a source of comfort for him.

Dali does ask for comfort and reassurance, but with a bit more restraint than Oskar. In this way, her life is a little harder than Oskar’s. She faces her discomfort alone more often than Oskar because she doesn’t always know how to send clear signals of need. I remember sensing Dali’s longing for my solace after she got a tooth extracted. I was happy to pay close attention and make my best guess as to what she might need. I carried outside so could go to the bathroom. We sat there together to enjoy the fresh air. I carried her back. I soothed her as best I could. I fell asleep with her on the downstairs couch so I could rush her to the Emergency Vets if need be. By the time my husband got home on Sunday evening from a weekend away, Dali was inseparable from me. She didn’t even get up to greet him.

I believe she will always remember how I was there for her. Not as an explicit memory, but in her being and in the essence of our relationship. I notice as I’m there for her consistently over time, that she feels more and more comfortable asking for her needs to be met. She has earned enough security with me to share her needs – her vulnerability.

People can earn security in their relationships too.

Of course, there will always be times that Dali is stubborn and independent-minded. That is who she is. And we love her for it.

Good morning kisses

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When I wake up, Dali is there to give me gentle, good-morning kisses. It’s like she’s re-establishing our connection after we’ve been apart while sleeping during the night. She reminds me of our in-born need to be securely attached. I coo at her and tell her good morning and how pretty she is. She turns over so I can rub her belly.

I treasure these moments because I know how important I am to her and I believe she knows how important she is to me.

It doesn’t matter if we were mad at each other the day before. Dali certainly has her way of letting me know she is not happy with me. And Dali can be so difficult at times; I get mad at her too. We always come back to the bond between us that trumps all else.

I’ve learned from Dali how important these kinds of rituals are in couple relationships. They help us to honor who we are to one another, particularly during our comings and goings. When I know my husband cares about me and he knows I care about him, we can get through the hardships of the day much easier and indulge more in the joys of life.

Being There

This is Dali (pronounced Dolly).  We adopted her in 2005 when she was about 7 months old. And  this is Oskar.  We adopted Oskar in 2008 when he was about 3 months old.

This is Dali (pronounced Dolly). We adopted her in 2005 when she was about 7 months old. And this is Oskar. We adopted Oskar in 2008 when he was about 3 months old.

Soon after we got Dali, we went to visit my parents. Dali made herself at home there and my parents loved her. One afternoon, my husband and I went out and left Dali with my parents. While we were gone, Dali followed my mom wherever she went. My mom went upstairs, Dali went upstairs. My mom went downstairs, Dali went downstairs. At some point, my mom couldn’t find Dali. She went all over the house, calling out for Dali, but Dali never barked. My mom remembered she had gone downstairs and put something in a walk-in closet and thought to look for Dali there. She checked the closet and sure enough, Dali was there.

Why hadn’t Dali barked to get help and let my mom know where she was?

It’s part of mammals’ and many other species’ instinctive behavior to call out for help. Dogs and people are similar that way. We need to know we will be responded to.

I believe Dali was taken from her mom and litter-mates when she was too young and ended up in a shelter, perhaps after being with a family for a short time. She, luckily, was rescued by a rescue organization and then she became a part of our family. So why would she bark, and call out for help? She hadn’t had the experience of someone responding to her needs.

I remember that something similar happened years later. Somehow, Dali got shut in the basement. This time, when I called out for her, she barked. I was thrilled because it meant that she trusted me to be there for her. Since being a part of our family, she had had enough experiences of us caring for her that she knew she was not alone in this world. She knew she could call for us and we would be there.

We all need that. We all need to know that when we are in need someone who is special to us will come for us when we call.

Simply Being There

“We see you’re hurting, Mommy.  And we care that you’re sad.  We’re here for you.”  That is the message I get when Dali and Oskar rush to lick my tears away whenever I’m crying.  Their concern is very comforting.  I do feel better receiving their caring contact.   They sense my distress even if they are in another room and before you know it, they are there by my side.

There are times when I need to remind my husband not to try to fix things for me when I’m feeling vulnerable about something.  I tell him I just need him to hold me and understand how I’m feeling.

And there are times I have to remind myself not to jump to solution-mode with other people.  It can be difficult sometimes to sit with someone and be with them in their pain.

I’m reminded of the story of the four-year old boy whose next door neighbor, an elderly gentleman, recently lost his wife.  When the young boy saw the man crying, he went over to him, climbed on his lap and sat there.   After he returned home, the little boy’s mother asked him what he had said to their neighbor.  Her son said, “Nothing.  I just helped him cry.”

It doesn’t always take language to soothe.  And in fact, sometimes words get in the way.  I’ve learned from Dali and Oskar the power of presence.  Putting my heart in to being there with someone’s experience is simple and pure and one of the best gifts I can give.

We all need support. Nervous Dogs sometimes just need to hold hands with their owners while riding in cars.