Updated: May 11, 2022
Owning my feelings is empowering
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” Viktor Frankl
I grew up in a culture that taught me the following lesson: Other peoples' feelings are the result of my actions. Do you recognise the following sentence? "You've made mommy very unhappy because of what you have just done."
If I behaved well, then mommy and daddy would be happy, and if I misbehaved, then mommy and daddy would be unhappy. The use of this type of language is common and yet it is suggesting something that is not necessarily true.
Growing up, I learnt that I was responsible for other people's feelings and that other people were responsible for my feelings. For clarity, my intention in writing this is not to blame our caregivers, because they were doing the best that they knew how with the resources that they had available to them. Rather, my intention is to point out the effect that such actions can have on the way that we perceive the world as adults. With this awareness, we can make the shift from a culture of judgement and blame towards one of connection and collaboration.
Being responsible for other people's feelings is a heavy burden to carry, and as I later learnt, an illusion. Making other people responsible for my feelings has me playing the blame game and disempowers me from taking any action.
Take a look at the following model
When something happens in the outside world that stimulates an emotional feeling, then the tendency is to look outward rather than inward to find the cause.
In fact, we are constantly reacting to the outside world through the feelings in our body. We are just not always sensitive enough to be aware of it. We often only notice the moments when a strong feeling or emotion comes up.
For example, imagine that you have arranged to meet a friend for a coffee and for the sixth time in a row they are 30 minutes late. This could stimulate feelings of frustration, irritation, despair, anger, hopelessness in you. I grew up learning that these feelings come up because my friend is late for the sixth time in a row, and if my friend would just change her behaviour, I would feel better. When I do this, as in the above model, I am placing my 'because' between my feeling and the action. "I am feeling ... because you did or said ...." When I think in this way, I make the other person responsible for my feelings and in effect I am giving away my power. My power to choose and to influence any sustainable change.
The moment that I place the reason for what I am feeling outside of myself, is the moment that I give my power away. At that exact moment, I am subconsciously saying: "You have the power to determine my inner experience”.
There is another perspective that is far more empowering and supports me in taking responsibility for my feelings and therefore also empowers me to choose.
It was a revelation for me to see that the cause of my feelings is my met or unmet needs. Linking my feeling to the need or value that is causing the feeling frees up so much energy that would have previously been used to judge and blame others and is now available for creative solutions that are in service of life. By becoming aware of needs/values I empower myself to make different choices that are in service of these needs/values.
The above diagram illustrates this perspective. It points to my met or unmet needs being the reason for my feelings. The actions and words of others are simply the stimuli and not the cause of my feelings.
Take the previous situation as an example. If my friend is late for our meeting and I only have a limited amount of time available, then I may feel pissed off and disappointed because I was really hoping for some time to connect with her which will be cut short because of time constraints. In this case, my unmet need is connection.
The situation could have looked very different on another day.
Say, for example, that my day had been full of meetings, and I was actually needing some quiet before engaging in a conversation with my friend. I might feel quite happy and grateful that she was running late as I was needing space and quiet. In this situation I would probably be less inclined to blame her for my feelings and yet there were still some perceivable emotions arising that were stimulated by her actions.
The above examples illustrate how the cause of my feelings in both situations were my met or unmet needs rather than my friend's late arrival. If in the first example I was to stay aware of my need for connection whilst listening to the needs that were behind her late arrival, we could then hold those needs beside one another and search for other strategies that would be more likely to serve both of our needs in the future.
Because of the depth of our social conditioning, this concept is often very difficult to fully accept and grasp, and even more difficult to consciously live in every moment. In our foundations and intermediate workshops, we offer you the opportunity to learn, practice and begin to embody living a life of self-responsibility and standing in your true power.
Are you interested to find out more?
Join one of our upcoming courses to learn the basics of NVC with a foundations course, or deepen your NVC with an intermediate course.
Nic Burnand and Sarah Dekker are CNVC certified trainers in Nonviolent Communication.