A language of life and self-esteem

The last few months I’ve been studying what seems like a brand new language. I say “seems like” because this language actually isn’t foreign to me or to you, like Chinese or Russian (assuming you’re not bilingual:). Rather it’s what we spoke naturally when we were very young, before we became immersed in the language of our culture (any culture presently), which contains the themes of domination and submission. This “new” language is called nonviolent communication, or compassionate communication, or simply a language of life. The reason for this, as articulated by its main founder and disseminator Marshall Rosenberg, is because it focuses on the feelings and needs of human beings, rather than on thoughts of right and wrong, goodness and badness. Moral judgment of self and others, in the form of condemnation, criticism, blame, shame, guilt, and even anger, as well as praise, is viewed as inauthentic—as tragic expressions of true feelings and needs, tragic ways of saying “please” and “thank you” (in the case of praise).

In order to dispense with the habitual ways of speaking and thinking that we humans have been tragically trained in since we were little people, nonviolent communication (I recommend watching this entire 3-4 hour workshop, btw) urges us to get connected with what’s really alive in us, our true-self feelings and needs. Our feelings ought to be distinguished from evaluations of self and others that lead invariably to the sorts of moral judgment noted above. For example, to say that another person “ignored me, so I feel disrespected!” doesn’t identify the feeling so much as tragically express unmet needs. The genuine feeling may be agitation or sadness or resentment, and the unmet needs likely involve connection, such as for consideration, recognition, and of course respect. The point here is to separate what you’re feeling from what the other person is saying and doing. Nonviolent communication instructs us to not take anything another person says or does personally, but rather as simply expressions of feelings and needs, and it’s our task to figure out—through a process of educated guessing—what those feelings and needs really are. Clearly, the best way to do this is to stay focused on the process of empathetic connection and understanding, sans judgment. Taking things personally, after all, demonstrates that we are doubting that the other person understands or even cares about us, which greatly decreases the likelihood that we will get our needs met by the other person.

What I’ve found most interesting, and most unfortunate, is that even though I’ve studied self-esteem dynamics for nearly two decades, following the helpful works of Nathaniel Branden, nonviolent communication in its pure, consistent form has somewhat escaped me. It has escaped nearly everyone, it seems, on account of the non-life-enriching language we learned early in life. Indeed, our culture (even in secular circles)  is steeped in religious terminology, in moral judgment of self and others, which disconnects us with our feelings and needs and discourages us from taking full responsibility for our emotions and the most life-giving strategies for getting our needs met. Our interactions thus become much less about mutually beneficial and joyful exchanges and more about battles of the wills and a series of subtle or not-so subtle put-downs of self and others. The true-self becomes denigrated, and sacrifice is extolled as virtuous; the false-self pursues myriad short-term pleasures which lead ultimately to self-torment. We are told that we have to do things we don’t want to do, and we are punished if we don’t. Anyone living in a “law and order” or religious society knows exactly how this tragic and unjust game goes.

Nonviolent communication also explains that humans all have the same needs. Differences are definitely found, however, in the ways we go about getting our needs met, or not met (reflecting the above-mentioned denigration of self). Oftentimes, some needs are met at the expense of other needs, and many needs go either unnoticed or denied. Framing human functioning from the standpoint of need-fulfillment and need-unfulfillment simplifies matters significantly. Nonviolent communication is thus a language everyone can understand and speak. It helps us make so much sense of what’s going on in the world.

Self-esteem, the sum of self-confidence and self-respect, of course represents a host of profound needs. It’s really the psychological foundation of need-fulfillment. Without a belief in self, a conviction that one can bring life-enriching things into one’s life and make sense of things, as well as a belief that happiness is one’s birthright, we remain adrift in a sea of oftentimes toxic cultural debris. Absent an explicit focus on self-knowledge and thus working on self-esteem, the things most humans tend to clutch to in this troublesome sea consist of the familiar remnants from their upbringing. How they were treated as children, the subconscious assessments they incorporated into their self-concept, and the particular strategies they employed to try to get their needs met, all tend to be reflected in their language and behavior later in life. Given that most parents pass on what they were shown by their own parents as good and proper, intergenerational transfer is nearly a foregone conclusion.

Operant conditioning, or what Alfie Kohn calls “pop behaviorism” still predominates the culture. Especially in parenting and schooling, we see countless ways that adults don’t fulfill the needs of children, needs for respect, choice, independence, and autonomy—as well as needs for clarity, understanding, honesty and authentic communication. It stands to reason that if you’re trying “to get others to do” certain things (typical among parents and educators), you’re not meeting various needs of the other person. The treatment of others as means to one’s ends, rather than on volitional terms of mutual respect, cooperation and collaboration, is sadly part of the age we live in. This of course leads to win/lose scenarios rather than win/win ones. If individuals stopped making demands on others (supposedly “for their own good”) and instead compassionately connected with them, guessed what they are feeling and needing, and then made kind requests, how different would our world be!

So, it appears that society is suffering from a combination of low self-esteem and disconnection from feelings and needs. This, in and of itself, is a diagnosis, which nonviolent communication correctly contends is not a very useful way to get our needs met. Diagnosing what is wrong with people reflects a lack of authentic connection to what’s truly alive in them. Yet, we do live in a diagnosing culture. People are constantly indicating what they think is wrong with others and with the world.

So, what’s the solution? It’s to first work on giving ourselves considerable empathy—self-empathy—for all the needs that were not met in our childhood, and are not being met presently. Only you can devise functional strategies to get your needs met; it is no one else’s responsibility. How’s that for self-empowerment! Really, it’s all in you to make your life extraordinary. And in order to do that, it’s important to not only work on the six pillars of self-esteem—the practices of self-acceptance, self-assertiveness, self-responsibility, and living consciously, purposefully, and with integrity—for instance via the sentence completion method of subconscious exploration, but to also focus on how you are relating to yourself and to others, in terms of your feelings and needs. In order to get in touch with these fundamentals, it’s vital to free your mind of all the judgments, diagnoses, criticisms, blame, shame, guilt, while taking nothing in yourself and in others personally. Look at these simply as inauthentic processes from days long gone, which lead to quite costly strategies of getting your needs met.

Many people that I’ve recommended sentence completion exercises to have found it difficult to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and actually do them for an extended period. Many never even attempt them, sensing that the voyage into the self is going to be more problematic than they are comfortable with. Here is where self-empathy really comes in handy—acknowledging the particular feelings of fear, anxiety, worry, and even disinterest, and connecting these feelings to the particular needs of comfort, tranquility, safety, and stability. By grasping explicitly what you are feeling and needing, you can then realize that there are more life-enriching strategies to get these needs met, ones that don’t come at the expense of self-awareness and self-knowledge.

In a sense the practice of nonviolent communication provides the fuel for the pillars of self-esteem. Connecting compassionately with what’s really alive in you can kick-start the process of voyaging into the self and reaching new levels of clarity, insight, and wholesomeness. To decipher and implement life-enriching ways to get ALL our needs met is to become grounded in what matters most. And this also will bring about a future world in which this language of life comes naturally for adults as well as children. The more we learn it and speak it to ourselves and to others, the less power the habitual languages of disconnection and inauthenticity will have in our culture—and the more power we’ll have to fulfill our needs and meet the needs of others. It nearly goes without saying that your child-self will thank you for it. :)

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