by Amanda Blaine
My best advertisement for the Leadership Program (LP) is the amazing experience I had breaking up with my sweetheart.
That’s not to say it wasn’t one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had. I hadn’t talked to him — I’ll call him C. — in a few days. He told me he had had sex with someone else.
(Side note: I want to acknowledge that in many relationships it is agreed that physical intimacy with others is okay. We didn’t have that agreement).
I wished I hadn’t been practicing tuning into my feelings all those months in the LP. Now I was acutely sensitized to the extremely physical pain I was experiencing after hearing those words. I felt it all over my body, as if I had been run over by a truck. Whereas in the past, when I went through a break-up, I had immediately shut down the reaction I was having, this time I had inadvertently been preparing myself to feel every agonizing twinge.
The first thing I did was tell him I had to get off the phone. Thank you, all the NVC teachers I’ve ever had, for training me to pause in moments of intensity. I told him, once I could speak, to call me back in 15 minutes.
The next thing I did I also attribute to my NVC training: I did nothing. I just sat there and whimpered for a while, really feeling the awfulness of it. It was the first time I can ever remember crying over a breakup. I know that most people cry in that situation but my habit, pre-NVC, was to tell myself and everyone else that I was fine before I had a chance to feel what was happening.
And finally the next thing I did was send out a text to my LP empathy buddies. My habit, when I’m triggered, is to tell myself that there’s no one in the entire world who would possibly want to support someone as needy as me. Several months of LP training under my belt, I recognized those familiar thoughts and reached out anyway. An LP friend responded immediately. After a bit of empathy, I was ready to talk to C. again and hear what the hell had happened.
You might be wondering what my breakup story has to do with NVC leadership. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for me to tell you about a break-through teaching experience I had as a result of LP? Shouldn’t I tell you about glowing feedback I’ve gotten from folks in my trainings, amazing collaborations I’m now part of, or how I’ve brought groups to new levels of transformation?
I’m asking myself the same thing, and the best answer I can find is this: my break-up story is a leadership story. It’s the most significant jump I’ve made in leadership in a very long time.
The day of that awful phone call was less than ten days before I would get on a plane to head to California for the second of the LP’s three in-person retreats. I knew that if I didn’t take care of this now, if I didn’t give it all the attention it was asking for, I wouldn’t be able to be present for the learning during that retreat. The structure of LP is different from any other learning experience I’ve had: yes, there is a carefully sequenced curriculum of workshops and presentations that build on each other. But there is also a fleet of assistants on call at all times to support any one of us participants with whatever is actually happening for us in the moment. This is an acknowledgment that if we are triggered and are simply sitting through the session because it’s what’s scheduled, we aren’t actually going to learn. The first retreat I’d spent almost the entire first two days just getting empathy and coaching on a personal situation I was experiencing right before I got there. That one-on-one learning was rich and having an abundance of support built up a sense of trust that I could get what I needed in a way I’d never experienced before. But this time, for the June retreat, I knew I wanted to take care of that before I got there. I wanted to be in the sessions with the rest of the group. I didn’t want to arrive gasping for breath, so to speak, dying for support that I could only get there. I wanted to get the support I needed now, when I needed it.
That’s what I’ve learned from LP: I have to take care of myself. I get to take care of myself. And for me, the hardest part of doing that is asking. For me, stepping into greater leadership is asking for the help I need rather than stoically pushing my needs aside or waiting for someone else to offer to help me.
That week that my sweetheart and I broke up, I canceled my plans. Before, I would have kept up a commitment at all costs, gritting my teeth and forcing myself to interact. Instead, I spent many hours each day on the phone with empathy buddies from around the world. I didn’t want help from my friends at home because I knew, in my vulnerable state, that I couldn’t bear to hear anything other than empathy, and I didn’t have the capacity to teach them what I meant by that.
Basically, I didn’t want them to call C. an asshole. I didn’t want to have to defend him to them or hear their incredulous reactions when I explained that my goal was to hold both us — him as well as me — in my heart with compassion. I remember having an “aha” moment when I realized why all my past breakups had been so terribly lonely: I chose just to be alone rather than be re-triggered by something my friends or family would say in their effort to care for me. (“I will kill him!” is usually my sister’s response).
This breakup was the opposite. LP community members spent many hours with me. Many times I had to force myself to call and then the first thing we would talk about was how worried I was that they would get sick of hearing me say the same thing over and over again. Over time, I came to trust that when they said they were available, they were fully available, and when they weren’t, they would say so. It was a relief to be practicing NVC together in this way — I didn’t have to even pretend to want hear what was happening in their lives and they would let me know the moment they were no longer available.
All this empathy prepared me to go back to C. The overpowering emotions I was feeling —the rage, sadness, and disbelief — pointed to beautiful needs. F***! I had never felt so acutely aware of those needs! And now that I was connected to the needs in myself I longed to understand what possibly could have motivated him to make choices that so clearly would be at such a high cost to me.
So we talked again. And again. Each time, we built in lots of pauses. “I’m going to stop you,” I told him, “when it’s painful.” The conversation would move haltingly along, him saying something, me asking him to stop while I just breathed with what I had heard. We built in reflections: rather than responding to each other immediately, as in a normal conversation, we first would each say back what the other had said. The sense of being understood and understanding the other — truly mutual understanding — built up slowly and tenuously. And the more I understood, the more I softened. The pain turned.
In this way, I was confronted with what a profound effect I had had on his life: how much healing he had experienced with me. And, incredibly, we both came to be grateful for what had happened. Before, neither of us had had clarity about whether to commit to each other. Our timing with each other was always off. We so enjoyed each other’s company and yet something wasn’t right. Hearing him talk about his new partner, I found myself smiling, enjoying even. In all the years I had known him, I had never heard him talk about anyone with such energy and clarity. Of course I wanted that for him. I wanted that for both of us. We hadn’t had it for each other. Now we were both free. And in the end, there was literally nothing left unsaid. Every question I had been ashamed to ask about why, I had asked. Every painful thing had been aired and examined and transformed. I had never felt closer to him and yet there was no part of me that wanted things to be different, only a sweet sadness at the loss.
And a tremendous excitement. We finished our last conversation of “unfinished business” just as my LP friends rolled up to drive me the last leg of my journey to our retreat. I was thrilled. I had never felt stronger, I had never felt more confident in the power of NVC. I had taken care of myself, and I was ready, this time, when I arrived.
Read more by Amanda Blaine:
The Maine NVC Newsletter, Phases of the Moon