This blog will be about life and relationships; mostly, from what I’ve learned from my two companion animals, Dali and Oskar. Sometimes I’ll post other types of resources and anecdotes. I hope what I share is helpful or at least fun.
I have written about connection and attachment and love, but what about when that romantic bond is broken. What about heartbreak?
I thought I’d share with you my take away from the TED Talk, How to fix a broken heart, by Guy Winch, shared below.
Whoever came up with the term “heartbreak” was right on. Heartbreak is painful like a heart that is broken.
Heartbreak is an injury. It is complex and psychological in nature. It can cause insomnia, intrusive thoughts, and immune system dysfunction.
When we are recovering from a heartbreak, our brain tries to make the pain go away by figuring out what happened, what went wrong: as if it is a math problem with a solution that will provide a soothing balm to our wound.
But indulging in that craving is actually a way of feeding our love addiction when we can’t get the real thing.
Brain studies show that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same mechanisms in our brain that are activated when addicts go through withdrawal from cocaine or opioids.
We get a hit by thinking of all the good times, hoping our romantic interest will come back to us, trying to figure out why the breakup happened, and/or idealizing our ex or the relationship. To beat the fix, we need to:
accept the reason they gave us, or make up one of our own
refrain from looking our ex up on social media or contacting him/her
keep a list of all the things that were wrong with the relationship and why that person was not the one for us
In addition, we need to rebuild our lives and get back to who we are, what we’re about. We need to make efforts to fill in the missing links of our social lives and invest in activities that interest us. We need to leave ourselves open to connection by learning about ourselves in relationship.
Recovery from a breakup is an arm wrestle we win in a multitude of ways.
The other day I was returning to home after walking with my dogs and I heard someone crying. I looked around and saw the postwoman sitting in the postal truck crying. I went over to her to see what was wrong and if I could offer her help. She explained, through tears, by removing tissues from her mouth, to show me two big gashes on her lips from a dog bite. She was waiting for her supervisor to come get her. I told her that I would wait for her and let her know that it must have been very scary, but that she was going to be alright.
We waited for about 10 minutes and no one came. She tried to call the supervisor again but couldn’t get through and was distraught and in pain. I suggested that I take my dogs home which was about a three-minute walk from her and come back with the car and if her supervisor hadn’t arrived by then, I would take her to the emergency room. She agreed. And that’s what happened. I took her to a local urgent care and afterwards, delivered her keys for the locked postal truck to the post office.
Afterward, I had such a good feeling. Helping someone out really made my day. Here’s a video on how helping others help ourselves:
This surge of well-being is a similar feeling when I’m a source of comfort to either Dali or Oskar.
Recently, Oskar woke me up to go eat grass outside. It seemed as if he had a stomach ache. When we came back in, he wanted to sit on the couch and cuddle. He lifted his paw for me to hold – he likes that – and then, over time, tucked his paw and my hand under him and put his head on my lap. I felt so happy being a source of comfort to him..
And this good feeling is true when I take a spider outside.
Or feed the squirrels and birds and raccoons.
I believe the feeling of positive well-being of caring for others has no boundaries.
Helping others makes you feel good. What are some of your examples of feeling good when you help others?
I joke around that Oskar is my boyfriend (who could resist that face?). If I go upstairs, Oskar goes upstairs. If I go downstairs, Oskar goes downstairs. When he comes in from a walk that I haven’t taken him on, the first thing he does is run to find me. He’s very attached to me and that’s why I was so surprised that he went to bite me when I was wiping his paws after he was out in the snow, ice and salt that they put down to prevent people from falling, but if it is not dog friendly, can really hurt their paws.
Oskar didn’t actually bite me. He just went to bite me, but I scolded him more from being so startled that he would actually try to hurt me. He looked so sheepish afterward. Maybe it was from being misunderstood, I don’t know, but the way he looked got me thinking. I knew he didn’t want to hurt me and I realized that he must have been hurting and wanted me to stop and it was the only way he had to tell me.
Something similar happened on one of our walks. A small rock got in between his paw pads and he couldn’t walk without hurting. So I went to take it out but was only using one hand because it was so cold out I didn’t want to take off my other glove. I didn’t realize at the time that in only using one hand, I was rubbing the rock against his pads while trying to remove it. In a flash, he turned his head around and put his teeth on my hands.
This time, I didn’t scold him. This time, I apologized and said to him he must be hurting and I realized I needed two hands to make sure I didn’t cause him any more pain. He gave me a kiss.
I later thought to myself if I can be so understanding toward Oskar and why he might lash out at me, maybe I could be understanding with myself when I get angry with friends or family when I’m hurting. That happened to me the other idea. I felt rejected and instead of telling my friend I was feeling hurt, I got angry with him. And then I felt terrible for getting angry and putting him on the defensive and feeling rejected.
After the now infamous Oskar incident, I was able to be compassionate with myself and know that I was not a bad person for getting angry, my anger came from a genuine place of feeling hurt. That helped to let go of the shame I was feeling. What a relief! Afterward, I also felt more capable of being vulnerable and telling my friend straight-up the next time I was feeling hurt. It’s a lot easier that way.
Sara Bareilles song, Brave, captures the theme of this post beautifully and with a lot of flare. I hope you enjoy dancing to this as much as I do.
Well, I ended up taking Dali to the vet because I felt like she was walking slower than she should even with aging. Maybe she had arthritis that could be relieved with pain medicine. I noticed her being careful about walking up and down curbs. I watched as she chose to walk down where there was a gentle slope to the street for wheel chairs. The vet said Dali is experiencing some lumbar pain and we’re waiting to get blood test results to see if the discomfort is associated with some other problem.
I decided to make an appointment with the vets after a particularly slow walk. Oskar was pulling me to go faster and Dali was clearly doing the best she could. Oskar turned around a couple of times to see what was going on with Dali. Interestingly, after a bit, Oskar retreated from the lead and chose to walk side-by-side with Dali. I imagine he recognized that Dali was not just being obstinate, as she can be, but picked up on her discomfort. How astute and kind of Oskar. And I sensed Dali took in his support.
I don’t know how much of an active choice Oskar made to give up his desire to go at his pace and instead be compassionate, but we have a choice. Research shows our first instinct, as adults or children, is to help others, not compete with them. Unfortunately, cultural factors get in the way of our innate desire to be compassionate. Research also shows that when we are kind to others, we are mentally and physical healthier.
I know for myself, whenever I choose the Golden Rule, whether it is with nonhuman animals (animals) or people, I always feel better about myself. Just this morning, my husband, Irwin, and I started to get into an argument. I thought he was being ridiculous. And I thought of this quote by a child that I read recently. I can’t remember it exactly, but it is something like: When I’m acting badly I need your compassion the most. So I put my arm around Irwin and said I knew he was tired and had been working so hard and done so much for the family. He hugged me back. Compassion turned a moment of disconnect into a moment of connection. I’d say we both felt better.
What is a time when you acting compassionately and you noticed feeling happier or good about yourself?
I never thought Dali would ever slow down, but she is. She’s nine now and doesn’t have the energy she used to. Some days, we can still go for a 2 hour walk in the morning and other days it’s a slow half-hour walk. Some of it is the heat and humidity, I’m sure, but Oskar could keep going if Dali were willing.
Barring anything unforeseen, I am sure that I have many more years with Dali. Her signs of aging impact me, though. Dali is a willful individual and it’s like I’m being let in on her secret. Her vulnerability and fragility are peeking through her indomitable spirit.
One day, I made the mistake of insisting that I pick her up to help her make the walk. She struggled in my arms until I put her down. Now, I just pretend that I don’t notice that we’re walking slowly or shorter distances. I want to give Dali her dignity.
Oskar has to adjust, too. He doesn’t always have his partner to run with and chase squirrels. When I can, I take him out by himself. Sometimes he’ll go with me and interestingly, sometimes he wants to stay back with Dali. Even though I don’t think they would have picked each other as friends, they have developed a bond and look out for each other.
Recognizing and honoring the losses, as well as remaining flexible in the face of change, helps us all find our way together through this new phase of our lives.
What has helped you get through some of your life transitions?
Walking Dali and Oskar past the man-made lake in our neighborhood, I tip-toe around the annual goose-poop on the side walk. Every year since we moved here about seven years ago, I have enjoyed watching two geese return to their residency here, have their babies, raise their goslings, and then migrate to wherever they go in the fall.
I had to teach Dali and Oskar that we leave the geese alone. We would carefully pass Momma and Papa Goose and their fluffy, little babies who eventually grew until I could not distinguish them from their parents. If Papa Goose felt that we got too close, he would flap his wings, make a sound and come towards us. I learned to give them a wide berth.
One day I saw the goslings go up a boy, who was on his way to Middle School, and pull on his shorts with their beaks. I asked the young student whether they had done that before and he said “Yes.” I was so touched at the connection the boy had made not only with the baby geese, but also Momma and Papa Goose. The parents trusted the boy enough to let their children go and make contact with him.
A few days after I had welcomed the geese’s return, I saw one of the them by him or herself. And a day or two after that, I noted he or she was sitting on the dock, his or her head buried in his or her feathers. I sensed a deep mourning and realized that one of the geese must have died. I shared this news with my husband and cried out of empathy for the goose, as well as grief for my own loss.
I learned that sometimes we don’t realize we are attached to someone until we lose the connection. We can experience loss about many different things: a loved one, a job, moving, loss of our hopes and dreams, the ending of a friendship, finishing a project, and a goose.
I also was reminded of my husband’s kindness. He honored my sadness and comforted me, even though he didn’t share my experience.
The next time I passed by the lake, the goose was again sitting on the dock with his head buried in his feathers (for simplicity, I’ll refer to the surviving goose as male because my sense is it is Papa Goose). I paused and told him that I saw him there, that I knew he was grieving, that I was sad too, that I hoped his companion passed away peacefully, and that I wished him a lessening of his pain over time. I felt better after I shared my sentiments with this other living being and I hoped that my acknowledgement of him helped him feel a little better.
I returned from my walk hours later and saw the goose swimming in the lake. His glides, although solitary, were beautiful and I felt some peace that he was enjoying the water.
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.
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: