Expression Over Repression

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC once said, “It’s not easy to teach people to be nonviolent. It is easy to teach people to repress.” There is a difference between actually being nonviolent and the experience of pushing down/away one’s feelings in order to move on and survive. Repressing emotions can have detrimental consequences both physically and otherwise. A study by Pennebaker, et. al. (1997) showed a link between repressing emotions and repressing the body’s immune system, resulting in an increased vulnerability to a variety of illnesses from the common cold to cancer (1). Beyond that, repressing emotions can lead to feelings of anger and resentment later on.

Nonviolent Communication teaches us how to express our thoughts, emotions, and needs while deeply considering and upholding the emotional safety of those around us. I think that many people end up repressing unpleasant emotions because they are afraid of the consequences of expression. This is probably because the people around them react in ways that are difficult to hear and process, usually because they experience blame and judgment, and not emotional safety. I actually wrote another blog post about recognizing feelings versus thoughts, and knowing how to express just feelings. You can read that here.

In other words, I believe most people do not know how to express when things are difficult for them without blaming and judging others, and because the fallout of that is usually disconnection, people end up avoiding expression, and they repress instead.

NVC effectively solves this problem. That is not to say it is easy to express without blaming and judging, but it certainly can be done, and NVC provides a framework to support people in doing so. In NVC, expression is broken down into four parts: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

Observations are things we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. We start with this because it does not leave room for evaluation, but rather just the objective truth. When expressing, if one starts off by saying something that another person could argue (because it is subjective), then they are already starting off on a platform of disconnection. Observations allow everyone to be on the same page from the very start.

Feelings are things we experience in our bodies, like exhaustion, overwhelm, excitement, anxiety, tenderness, warmth, etc. People often mix up feelings with thoughts. For example, “I feel like crap” is actually a judgment, not a feeling. Also, it is not incredibly descriptive, as “crap” can feel different to different people. Similarly, “I feel like I have to do everything around here” is not an actual feeling, but rather a thought that someone might have. Differentiating between feelings and thoughts, especially when expressing, is incredibly important because thoughts tend to carry judgement and blame, whereas feelings are simply things we experience in our bodies, often out of our control.

Needs are universal things we all (humankind) want in order to be content, safe, and happy in the world. There is a difference between needs and strategies, though. Often, people argue at the strategy level, when their needs are what is really important. For example, some needs include compassion, respect, protection from harm, adventure, and relaxation. There are many strategies one could employ to get any one of those needs met, and those strategies are going to be individualized. For example, one might go to the beach to meet their needs for adventure and relaxation, where another person might despise going to the beach and would rather get those needs met by taking a long drive through country roads. In other words, needs are universal; strategies are not. In NVC, we use needs language because every person has needs and can relate to a need not being met. It helps us to understand each other on a more fundamental level.

Requests are things that we ask of other people either as explicit actions they can do (action requests), or as an invitation to keep the conversation going in a particular direction (connecting requests). When someone denies a request or does not fulfill it, that does not change the nature of the relationship between them and the person who made the request, because there is trust that there are other ways to get everyone’s needs met. This last piece is huge, because people often think they are making a request of another, but if that person said “no”, they would be incredibly upset. That means they were really making a demand. Expression often involves a level of advocating for oneself and asking for what one wants. If someone throws out demands instead of requests, emotional safety for other goes out the window and they are back to square one.

Sticking to this formula is one way to keep emotional safety for all while still expressing one’s authentic truth. Repression does not have to happen. Of course, these concepts may be easily digestible intellectually in a blog post, but much more challenging to put into practice. For a deeper dive into these concepts plus opportunities for practice, consider The Bigbie Method’s Intro to NVC course. You can check that out here. Imagine a world in which you didn’t have to bottle it all in, but you could express with authenticity and compassion towards those around you at the same time.