April 21, 2010

Non-Violent Communication: Eisler and Rosenberg

The daughters of Sir Matthew Decker by Jan Van Meyer, 1718

It’s taken a solid week for my bruises to fade after falling face first on my Birkenstocks. I get these huge ideals in my head about how to communicate effectively, how to see things from the other person’s perspective, how to state my own opinion without diminishing anybody else’s right to have a differing point of view. I learn and I study and I read and I talk with people and I try to put my principles into action. But I fail. A lot.

That means that I’m consistently going back to the drawing board, so to speak, to figure out how to handle relationships in a way that meets both people’s needs. It’s a balance and it’s tricky. Especially when you’re still adjusting to the reality that some people do not have your best interests at heart; that they appear to be empathizing but are, in fact, manipulating your emotional connection to them. It’s hard to get used to the idea that some people are more focused on dominating and controlling a relationship than mutual respect and collaboration.

Trust is a painful loss when it was given without warrant.

I mean, pre-pathological awareness, I assumed everyone had similar needs as my own and when an argument ensued, it was a misunderstanding, a lack of communication. If I could leap out of my Birkenstocks and stand in their shoes, even for a few minutes, my empathy would allow me to see things from their point of view, even acknowledge their needs as similar to my own. By recognizing and validating their needs, they reciprocated by recognizing and validating mine and from there, we could find a ‘connection’. Like a partnership. A partnership between two people with the same goals and intentions: to love and be loved. This was my worldview prior to learning about people who used people’s trust as an opportunity, not a sacred responsibility.

Once you find out, much to your dismay, that some people manage relationships through power and control tactics, it’s hard to let your guards down. You start acting as if everyone is out to get ya, as though everyone is focused on getting his or her needs met, not yours. As if everyone is a narcissistic bully who will do whatever it takes to gain and maintain the upper hand. The shock of discovering there are people, who for all intents and purposes, appear to be fully functioning emotional beings yet aren’t, can increase our sensitivity. We’ll see invalidation when it isn’t there because this is how we defended ourselves against people with mal intent.

So from being a naïve person to a hypersensitive person, I struggle finding balance. 

Working though our defensive tactics towards people who are not trying to control or power over us, is the next challenge in a healing process. How do we discern whether someone is intentionally invalidating us so they can maintain the superior position, from those who struggle, as we all do, asserting themselves without using aggression or coercive tactics?

I made one big mistake last week when voicing my opinions. Even with sisters, our life experience is unique to ourselves. I don't see things the way she does, nor she I, because the accumulation of our experiences made us who we are today. We may have started out with the same assumptions about life and politics and religion, but the situations in our lives modified our perspectives, creating ‘differences of opinion’ about almost everything.

The mistake I made during a ‘heated’ conversation was not checking in with my feelings so I could validate them myself. Instead of saying to myself, “Hello, little fear-of-rejection, this is kinda scary, isn't it?,” I wanted my sister to reaffirm my connection to her by seeing things MY way. I leapt from ignoring my feelings to ignoring hers and from there, the whole thing spiraled out of control.

I felt terrible, just terrible about REACTING instead of acting with integrity---putting my values into practice. And one of my greatest values is respect for other people’s individuality and dignity. There’s nothing very dignified about calling your sister an idiot because she doesn't agree with your point of view.

Giving myself a time-out for bad behavior this past week allowed me to understand why my sis and I have differing perspectives on social responsibility. I’m a displaced homemaker, falling through the cracks in the sidewalk. She’s a happy homemaker who’s never been marginalized or separated from her identity as a upper-scale woman with four boys and a loving husband and father. How could she see things my way? I couldn't even see things my way until reality forced me to confront unquestioned assumptions and beliefs!

“What others do may be a stimulus of our feelings, but not the cause.”

I’ve been a huge fan of Marshall Rosenberg who created Non-Violent Communication and from whom, I have learned better ways to talk with people. Being naturally empathetic, it wasn't hard implementing his three-step process to peaceful communication. Leaping from my shoes to the other person’s shoes is easy after years of strenuous practice empathizing with someone who was an enigma to me. Those three steps to non-violent communication are:

1-getting in touch with our needs
2-guessing at the other person’s needs
3-finding strategies to meet both people’s needs

Letting empathy lead the way after a heart-breaking relationship, triggers fear and anxiety. Fear of being foolish again creeps into my Birkenstocks when I’m not even looking. Nobody likes being a fool, but being fooled twice? As President Bush succinctly quoted: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me---you can’t get fooled again.”

Risking being fooled the second time is nerve-wracking. Letting defenses mellow in a relationship enhanced by difference, is the next task to master in life post-narc. An effective way to start is checking in with feelings being triggered during a conversation. Some of those feelings are appropriate and some are residuals of the narcissistic relationship. One thing for sure though, if we don’t acknowledge our feelings, they’ll demand our attention and not in a pleasing manner. My fear of rejection was shouting loud enough to get everyone’s attention!

Healthy Progress?

There’s been a change in how I’ve reacted to my outburst last week. Maybe there’s some progress on self-blame and the endless ‘shoulda-woulda-couldas” occupying our minds with obsessive looping. If only I had, or I shoulda done, or I woulda done this had she done that, on and on and on the endless looping goes trying to change the ending rooted in the past. We waste so much time looping around an unsolvable problem, blaming ourselves for what we did or didn't do, that we never release ourselves from the obsession by accepting what actually happened. We might even blame ourselves or the other person, feeling like victims because SOMEBODY refused to hear our voice.

Yea, that someone was me. Well, how can someone else hear my voice when fear is shouting louder anyone else?

The sound of fear is deafening. I figured that out this week because my sister is as loyal and loving towards me as I am towards her. She doesn't want me to reject her for being a Republican anymore than I want her to reject me for being a…hummm…non-partisan fence sitter? When I do not recognize and validate my own feelings and needs, I cannot recognize and validate hers. Those feelings and needs are desperate to be heard and the only person who can do that is the ‘self’. We can silence our feelings so we act like really nice dead people, we can insist on domination and act like bullies, or we can be aware of our feelings and act with compassion for both people’s need to be connected, respected, and loved.

As Riane Eisler says (she’s another role model in my life): “Peace is putting love into action” by thinking outside the paradigm of domination systems towards partnership systems.

I started reading Eisler’s work way back in 1990. Even so, I still get caught up in viewing any confrontation as a win-lose polarity. Fearing my empathy will be used against me and that the other person is headset on proving me wrong and themselves as right. I still, despite my intellectual awareness of partnership versus domination systems, resort to old patterns of behavior. Either silencing myself so as to not cause trouble, or insisting on my rightness and their wrongness. It’s hard to break out of patterns that although dysfunctional, are set on default whenever we’re anxious or unaware of what we are feeling at the time.

Fear makes us do the dumbest things, so self-destructive and out of proportion to the actual threat at hand. It’s impossible to achieve communion if you believe the only options are to dominate others or be dominated by them. In review of my contrary behavior over Easter weekend, I found this very useful PDF about our needs and feelings and would like to share it with other people who might be facing similar struggles as myself: Feelings and Needs Chart. After a narcissistic relationship, you might not even know what your needs are. You might also have numbed your feelings to such a degree that you can’t even determine what you’re feeling! A chart like this can get you started saying “Hello” to your emotional self so YOU can validate your feelings without expecting other people to do that for you.

This link is for Marshal Rosenberg’s website called The Center for Non-Violent Communication. For relationships that are mutually respectful, we can never learn too much about communicating our thoughts and feelings in a manner that encourages trustworthy connections. Most people have similar needs for attachment that lead towards celebration of mutuality. Most people have similar needs for authenticity, self-awareness and self-respect.

Most people are not narcissists.

Our empathy will be reciprocated. Our need for attachment and connection will be honored. Our vulnerability will be nurtured and respected. Our attempt to see the other person’s point of view will not require a distortion of reality. Our willingness to hold ourselves accountable will not result in illegitimate blame.

Our love, imperfectly offered as it may be, will be received and returned and most of all, appreciated and valued. Our apologies will be accepted, our foibles forgiven as we forgive and accept others.

Most people are not narcissists.

I'll be adding that affirmation to my Crib Notes.




Crib Notes in my Birkenstocks on the Narcissistic Continuum

Needs and Wants on SuccessWaves.com


  1. Hi CZ!
    I've now decided after reading this post, which I think I read some of it before but I have a bit more of my brain with me today, that you and I are sisters in this great wide universe! I mean every time I think of a subject I want to write on, well, you either just wrote it that day or already wrote it!!! Amazing!
    So, I was going to tell you about this medicine poetry show my son and I went to on Sat. night. It was sooo awesome.
    The performance, titled, "Fertile Edges," consisted of about eight women, one of whom has become my friend. The leader of this group is a woman who for over twenty years has been teaching Non-violent communication.
    They told their stories through song, poetry and dance. I was amazed the entire time, but I was also happy that my son felt comfortable in the audience. We both sensed the peace in the room before the show even started. It felt like we belonged. Everyone there belonged, no matter how different we were, though I would guess most of us are considered to be liberals. And I, I am the Fence-Sitter (did you see my picture that Leslie from IconDoIt made for me titled The Fence-Sitter?
    Well, I got off subject.
    I could just copy and paste, lol, giving you credit of course, and not have to write anything, cause you wrote it already.
    One of the pieces they performed was titled, "Can you do your work here?" I wondered to myself, can I do my work around my family? Can I be at peace around them? Can I do my work -- which is not unloading on people, but being genuinely honest about me and my life, so that they can learn that I am still an equal and a full human being, even though I've lost everything they identify with in life.
    I love my sisters, my mother, and all my relatives. I haven't been able to be around them b/c I am so hurt that this past year, while I've been nearly dead, they say, get over it, get on, move on, and I want them to say, Wow, that was a horrible horrible thing you went through and it is amazing how you are still carrying on. I want them to stop destroying the planet. I want them to see the other side to life -- the other side of being able bodied, with fine jobs and functioning families. I want them to see things MY WAY!!!
    But they cannot. Like you say, how could they when I myself had no clue until I walked in these shoes.
    I will check out the links from this article. Thanks for writing my thoughts so well.
    dogkisses and hugs to you.

  2. "Can you do your work here?"

    Wow, that's a powerful question! It takes the edge off the 'guilties' for needing to separate from family! Puts a very different picture in your mind, doesn't it?

    We aren't separating because we're unwilling to do the work but because we NEED to do the work. What an interesting way to frame a 'withdrawal' period...thanks for that!

    I remember seeing the icon your friend created of the 'fence sitter' and had to laugh because that's what people call me sometimes. Don't they realize what a finely tuned balancing act it is to SIT on the fence without falling off??


    Thanks for reading and appreciating and understanding and most of all, thanks for being my cyber-Sis.

    Love and hugs,

  3. This was an incredible , and insightful piece of writing thank you.

    Now comes the tricky part of putting it into practice----easier said than done...

    It's not easy to override years of being programmed to react.........

  4. Hi anonymous,

    Thanks for reading my long-ish article and finding something beneficial. Some of us (talking about me now) will be practicing our non-violent communication skills for the rest of our lives. That's okay, right? I am so very grateful for the guidance offered by Rosenberg and other teachers.

    Another good book about today's Email Communication is written by Dr. Bill Eddy, titled BIFF. I may be writing another post about this book which oughta be required reading for anyone dealing with a narcissist!

    Link: http://billeddyhighconflictinstitute.blogspot.com/2011/05/about-to-hit-book-stores-biff.html

    Hugs...thanks for visiting!

  5. Hi CZ,
    This post is so timely to what I'm going through this past year. I have been coming more in tune with my emotions and more so with anger and I am struggling in communicating it. And this really helps puts into perspective. And realizing that I am not heard in many relationships, I realize now I am on the defensive. Like you "So from being a naïve person to a hypersensitive person, I struggle finding balance." I find myself in this situation. I am hypersensitive at the moment and trying to gain some perspective while trying to deal with a lot of my anger. Because most people are not narcissists.

    This is a great post. xxTR

    1. PS Definitely going to check out Rosenberg's books. Thank you!

    2. Please let me know what you think since you've also studied Suzette Elgin. It would be interesting to see how they differed and agreed on "non-violent" language.

  6. Thank you. I am just 6 weeks after filing for divorce after 15 years married to a narcissist, which I did not understand until just last fall. So much that was upsetting and confusing has fallen into place. Right now I need to figure out how to heal and help my two young daughters emerge and heal as well. They have a therapist. Your words also help.

    1. Good morning, SK!

      Like yourself, I didn't know a single thing about narcissism when my ex and I first separated. Not having a basic understanding of psychology put me in a bad place--like seriously bad. Why? Because I accepted his version of reality as plausible; I didn't know about projection and unfortunately "identified" with his hate missiles; cognitive dissonance kept off-balance because I did not know what was happening to my brain. The list goes on. It is crucial for partners of Ns to understand the rudimentary facts about narcissism so they can stay BALANCED and protect themselves, their children, (and their assets!!)

      Therapists can be miracle workers. Even training their clients in cognitive-behavior-therapy can alleviate a lot of the craziness. I am pro-therapy, realizing of course, that some people aren't. For those who aren't inclined to see psychologists, there are plenty of "recovery bloggers" who have.

      Be cautious seeking advice on the Internet. Any advice that justifies "reciprocal harm" may feel awesome (who doesn't love some revenge!) but ultimately, the goal is to act like the person you want to become. I hope my blog will help you get through an inevitably terrible divorce without losing too much of yourself. It's so hard...my heart goes out to everyone divorcing (or loving) someone who cannot reciprocate such a gift.



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