Managing the beast within

On the subject of questions we Shedders are often asked (last week’s post was about food), here’s another one: people wonder how we are able to live amicably in close quarters, and how we resolve the issues that must come up among us.

It’s a question at the heart of everyone’s concerns about co-housing – really, about living in close relationship with anyone. Most of us enjoy people and are enlivened by having them around, but are wary of our ability to handle discord when it arises. And we all know from experience that there will be discord whenever we let peSuess conflictople get close to us. Broken friendships, acrimonious divorces, bitter family Christmases, disgruntled co-workers, long-held grudges – these are the everyday things that haunt our lives and try to teach us not to be too generous with our intimacy.

So it’s no wonder that people look at what the Shedders have done, supposedly with our eyes wide open, and wonder how on earth we make it work. How did we get to a point where we were confident enough in our ability to manage conflict that we would consider living together?

Case in point: a while ago, there was a sizeable upset in our household. Like all upsets, it was complicated and simple at the same time: simple because it wasn’t about much, complicated because so many tendrils from the neglected past came along as well. I’ll spare you the details, other than to say the context was housecleaning (wouldn’t you guess?) and the argument was about not being included in decision-making.

At any rate, there I was, running the mop across our hardwood floors, when Michael and Eve fell into a rather strong shouting match in the kitchen nearby. Or more accurately, Michael was shouting and Eve was raising her voice to un-Eve-like levels while trying not to dissolve into tears.

I don’t think anybody actually said, “Your mother wears army boots”, but that was the tenor of the conversation. I won’t deprive you of all the juice: they did say nasty things like, “You’re acting like a petulant child,” and “You’re quite the princess.”

As for myself, my chest tightened as it does whenever disagreement threatens, and I and my mop backed off to safer territory. I knew I should be in there helping to resolve the issue, but I settled for feeling guilty about being helpless in the face of conflict.

It’s safe to say the Shedders were role-modelling absolutely nothing of value.

Here I want to interrupt the story and go back over a number of years.

Since Rick and I arrived in Australia thirty years ago, we’ve done a string of personal development courses, in particular programs relating to The Landmark Forum and to the Human Awareness Institute. What did I get out of all that learning? Well – more than I could document in a year of blogging, but a couple of things stand out front: I gained a tolerance for other people’s differences AND I learned a lot about communication. Tolerance and improved communication. Not a bad result.

This is where the rest of the Shedders come in. They too were doing the same kind of programs. Over the years, as we started to learn about each other, become friends, and spend time together – and especially when we took on this mad co-housing project – we discovered that we had learned a lot of useful shorthand through all that study that could bail us out when trouble arose.

Let’s go back to the dust-up in the kitchen, with all these well-trained people. For a few minutes there you wouldn’t have guessed anybody had ever done courses in anything. Eve fled to her bedroom, Michael slammed cupboard doors and I mopped back and forth in my safety zone.

However, the power of our background training kicked in a few minutes later. I cautiously approached Michael and spoke with him for awhile, hearing him out and watching the adrenalin ebb. I went down the hall and found Eve, cocooned in her bedroom with her husband Daniel; that ended with the three of us having a good laugh at ourselves. Within an hour Eve and Michael had caught a few minutes together out on the balcony. I don’t know what happened there but they emerged smiling and more deeply connected than ever.

Just as important, we all learned something about ourselves and each other.

Here’s what Eve said when I spoke with her about it several days later: “It was okay that I expressed my anger: that allowed me to get to the hurt underneath. My upset wasn’t about Michael; it was never about Michael; it was just me feeling like I wasn’t doing a good enough job and wasn’t being acknowledged. The tears washed everything away. I was ready for healing with Michael and I know he was with me. It’s just too painful to be out of relationship with people…and now paradoxically I feel closer to him than ever before.

One thing is obvious: in spite of all the courses we’ve done, we Shedders are as susceptible to being hurt, to getting irritated, to flaring anger as anyone else on the planet.

Less obvious is that, for all of the ten years we’ve been involved in this co-housing project, we’ve been able to use the principles of our training to get us out of hot water when the upsets occur, as they have many, many times.

What principles did we bring into play on this occasion?

I’ll pick three:

  1. I’ve learned to forgive myself, quick. It bothers me no end that I’m such a faint-hearted fighter. But I reminded myself that I’m only human, doing the best I can, and forgave myself. That left me free to help Michael and then Eve forgive themselves.
  2. I try to remind myself that my version of what’s happened is most definitely not The Truth. Each of us has a story about what went on that comes more from our own complex past than from what really occurred. Once we all began to realise that we’d been deeply plugged into the beat of some long-past drummer, we could forgive each other.
  3. I refocus on the Main Game. There is a profound moment during a conflict when I can breathe deeply enough to ask myself, “What is my Main Game here?” In this case, it was a question of reminding myself that I want to build a life with these housemates; I want to be sharing enthusiasm with them when I’m 80. As soon as I remembered this, my perspective shifted.

So, considering that conflict is inevitable when people live in proximity, you might have another question in mind: Is it all worth it? Why not just keep a safe distance and avoid the pain? As someone who has a deep-seated aversion to roiling the waters, I ask the question myself. Why choose to live in a situation where I will regularly have to deal with differences of opinion, confront my wimpiness and make myself heard?

Well, the truth is that this is the stuff that keeps me young: living a safe life may be more comfortable but research on ageing suggests that having to deal with change and minor conflict makes for a more active brain. Even more important: I have the benefit of these vibrant, lively, energetic people close by in my life. I get to learn from them and I get to live life more fully.

No contest. Count me in.


3 thoughts on “Managing the beast within

  1. Most of us were raised in not a particularly good communication millieu so struggle in our later relationships – hence high rate of divorce! Consequently when living with several others communication becomes even more of an issue.

    I was offered Non Violent Communication :
    through the Sydney Coastal Eco Village :
    which I found to be the most valuable training in communication I’ve ever done!! (I have done Landmark & Conflict Resolution )
    It is an extremely practical programme which gives you essential skills and insights into balancing both your needs and the needs of others.
    I heartily recommend it!

  2. Yes Friend Heather, as usual you put things very well … Loving the post Shedders Blog and I sure there are many such rich veins of human learning to be mined in your household. I say never underestimate a Shedder heh..

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