Lacking Skills in Emotional Awareness Can Cause Harm to Those Around You

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, at least 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives (1). I think the number is probably higher than that, depending on how one would define “trauma”. Many people understand trauma to be born from an intense, life-altering event; but trauma can also arise from repeated exposures to instances of basic needs consistently not being met, especially needs around safety, emotional safety, care, and mattering, and especially when these needs are consistently not met at a young age.

Here is one working definition of trauma that I like: “the experience of very stressful, frightening, or distressing events that are difficult to cope with or out of our control.” (2)

Just as being in a car accident can be traumatic, so can having an emotionally dysregulated parent who hugs you and tells you they love you one minute, and yells, curses, and throws furniture the next. Trauma is complex, varied, vast, and pervasive in that people who cause harm and inflict trauma onto others are almost always survivors of trauma themselves, often even the same type of trauma.

The CDC’s famous Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study has helped in bringing this to light. The majority of American adults have experienced at least one ACE, while many have experienced more (3). These experiences range from sexual abuse to witnessing violence in the home or community to having someone in the home abuse substances (there are many more ACEs beyond these). Adults with ACE scores of 4 or higher are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives compared to the general population; and almost all incarcerated women have experienced some form of trauma if not many (4). In other words: hurt people hurt people.

But here is the thing – we all have been hurt. In one form or another. Having emotional awareness around how our traumas, our histories, and our triggers show up in our lives is incredibly useful in stopping this cycle of hurt. Hence the title of this blog. All that trauma talk is to say that not having an awareness that you might be having a trauma response in a moment could potentially cause harm to those around you. Maybe that response is to fight, in which you lash out verbally or physically. Maybe that response is to flee, which could leave loved ones with feelings of confusion and hurt, and needs unmet around support, clarity, partnership, etc. Maybe that response is to freeze, which could translate to neglect of responsibilities or lack of communication.

In any case, recognizing how you respond emotionally to the world around you – and having granularity and an ability to describe those emotions – can give you greater agency in how you choose to act upon those emotions. This is one of the first lessons we teach at The Bigbie Method in the Intro to Nonviolent Communication course. We teach about universal feelings and needs, and then we teach something called self-connection practice, which is basically a practice that allows one to get present with themselves and notice what they are feeling and needing in any given moment.

Often, the mere act of naming the feeling and need, sans all of the thoughts and stories that go along with them, is enough to calm a person down and turn on their prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain that taps into logic, basically. So instead of reacting to emotions immediately (an effect of the amygdala, or “lizard” brain that is wired to protect us with fight, flight, and freeze responses), one can slow down, notice what is really going on for them, and think about how they actually want to respond.

Sounds pretty great, right? Well, I certainly think it is. I will say that this is called self-connection practice for a reason. It is an ongoing practice. And it doesn’t always come easy. It takes work to be able to do this in those moments when it is really needed, which is why we teach it and practice it regularly in moments that are generally safe and free of emotional triggers.

Self-connection practice is just one of the many tools taught in the Intro to NVC course, but it is an integral one that I believe plays an incredible role in emotional regulation. To be clear, I am not saying that this practice alone will heal one’s trauma or prevent further trauma from happening, but I do think it can help. Like I said, trauma is complex, varied, and vast, and there are complex, varied, and vast approaches to healing and prevention that I am not going to dive into in this blog. I do, however, think that learning NVC and having greater emotional awareness is an incredible first step to both healing and prevention.