What Do My Feelings Have to Do with Nonviolence?
When people come to Nonviolent Communication (NVC) classes I teach, some students are surprised by how much attention we invite them to put on their own feelings. The sentiment goes something like, “I thought I was here to learn how to communicate better. What do my feelings have to do with it?” If you’ve ever wondered about this, I hope this piece will help draw out the connection for you.
Some background: I was inspired to write about the connection between our inner lives (our thoughts, feelings, and needs) and violence/nonviolence after reading a discussion today on a family member’s Facebook page. It’s a topic I’ve thought about a lot, but the clarity about what I wanted to articulate came after reading her post.
This was her status update:
When people tell me to "lighten up," it doesn't work. It just makes me mad.
When I read this, visceral memories of all the times throughout my life I’ve been told to “lighten up” flooded my body/mind, and within instants I found myself enraged. I was reminded of all the times I’ve been told to have a different response than the one I was authentically having, like the times when I expressed excitement about something and was told to “Chill out;” the times I spoke with enthusiasm and was told to “Shhh;” the times I laughed out loud with abandon in a restaurant or other public space, and was told to “Tone it down;” the times I showed my impassioned anger about something I cared deeply about and was told to “Just relax;” the times I questioned some aspect of the status quo in my friendships, romantic relationships, family, school, community, culture, or world and was told, “Don’t make such a big deal out of it;” the times I expressed my hurt feelings and was told, "Don't be so sensitive;" the times I took seriously something that to me seemed serious and was told to “Lighten up.”
Receiving these messages has been incredibly painful. It hurts to be told to be different from how we are. We all want to be accepted, respected, and celebrated for who we are and how we show up in the world. It’s only recently, after years of NVC practice, that I can see that all along the people who said these things weren’t even talking about me. They were expressing what was going on inside themselves, hiding behind their demands that I be different.
What “Lighten Up” Actually Means
People often say things like “Lighten up” when they themselves are uncomfortable for one reason or another. What they really mean is something like, “I’m embarrassed,” “I feel threatened,” “I’m worried what people will think,” “I feel anxious,” “I feel vulnerable/insecure,” or some other version of “I’m uncomfortable.” And most likely they are wanting something like safety, comfort, ease, peace, calm, connection, or security, all of which are beautiful universal human needs. The thing is, they’re often not aware of their feelings and needs, and so they end up telling you to be different, to “Lighten up,” as if you did something bad. Oh, the folly!
Any time someone else is telling you you should be different, they’re actually expressing their own feelings and needs.
What is Violence?
Here’s the thing: Telling someone to “Lighten up” is violent.
In NVC, we think of violence as much broader than physical violence. Violence, in this view, includes the words that come out of our mouths, like expressing blame, judgment, insults, criticisms, and demands. This means that all of us are violent at times, because we’ve all been conditioned to think and speak in these ways. (If you haven’t, I’d love to talk with you.)
But fear not, because the good news is we’re not stuck with our conditioning. Habits are hard to break, but with practice, we can take back our power to choose how we speak. NVC helps us do this by giving us tools to translate our judgments, insults, criticisms, and demands into feelings and needs.
The feelings and needs are always there in all the humans, even the ones who are in positions of power and the ones who are just starting preschool; they’re just often hidden by judgments, insults, criticisms, and demands. NVC helps us uncover them.
The more we are aware of and tend to our discomfort, the less violent we are. By pausing before we speak or leave a comment on Facebook, we can get in touch with our feelings and needs, and express these, rather than lashing out at one another.
Are you getting how big the ramifications are for this? (Hint: war).
What Would Nonviolence Sound Like?
If the man who told my cousin to “Lighten up,” after she made a comment on his Twitter feed that he didn’t appreciate, was more connected to his inner world in that moment, he might have said something like, “Ouch, that hurt! I was trying to be playful and would love some companionship in this playful space.”
You see the difference? In his version, he was telling my cousin how she should behave differently. In my translated version, he’s taking responsibility for his own feelings and needs.
I hope this clarifies why Nonviolent Communication focuses so much on our own feelings and needs: it's about radical self-responsibility in service of peace. Each time you stop to notice your own discomfort and, instead of lashing out, connect with your own feelings and needs, you are contributing to a world with less violence.
Here's to creating a peaceful world, one uncomfortable
feeling at a time.