“I know you’re trying to give me a new direction,” she said, “but it’s making me feel abandoned.”
I felt a tinge of defense clasp my chest. I’m not abandoning her, I thought to myself.
“Try again. What are you really feeling?” the coach placed her hand on my friend’s shoulder.
She took a deep breath.
“I know you’re trying to give me a new direction,” she said, “but it’s making me feel anxious.”
We locked eyes as the whole room softened. I wanted to hug her, to diminish the distance between us.
“Well, as your mom, I never want you to feel anxious!”
Spoiler alert: I’m not her mom.
I also wasn’t trying to give her a new direction. I was only pretending for the sake of demonstration. How different does it feel to communicate as we normally might, compared to non-violently?
Now, you might be asking yourself: Violent? Really? That seems a bit dramatic.
This is where language becomes an abstraction; a way to transfer meaning regardless of the word. When we say “non-violent,” what we actually mean is, “practicing compassion and empathy to invest in the quality of our connection with others.”
And, if we’re being honest, the most “violence” we express is often toward ourselves — shame, self-criticism, comparison, and whipping ourselves with “shoulds.” I, for one, have been more cruel — no, violent — to myself than I have to anyone in my life. That violence that I carry toward myself, however, manifests in how I relate to others. If I hold myself with anger, resentment, and judgement, it is all the more likely I will hold others that way.
Let’s consider the above example.
Even being detached from the real situation. Even knowing my friend and how she struggles to connect with her parents. Even knowing we were role-playing for the sake of practice. When she said that my words made her feel “abandoned,” the implication (or rather, the emotional interpretation of the event) was that it was my responsibility to stay with her. That I had hurt her by doing something I wasn’t supposed to. That my actions were to blame.
In contrast, when she said my words made her feel “anxious,” I had no responsibility in her anxiety. All I had was an instinctual human need to reduce her suffering, because I loved her. And I felt that. Deep within me, the small shift excited a distinctly different reaction.
I’ve been in therapy for large portions of my life, and my most recent stints have largely been focused on normalizing vulnerability, and finding ways to communicate that involve reaching toward those I speak with, rather than reaching away. The difference might seem subtle, but the effects ripple out with abundance.
The point I have been missing, however, is that it isn’t enough to simply tell someone how you feel. Mostly because our feelings often have a judgement about how someone has treated us embedded in them. Words like, “rejected,” “abandoned,” or “unsupported” carry this implication. Knowing this, we can often find ourselves uncertain or unsafe in expressing our feelings. Lucky for us, there are tons of resources out there crafted to expand our emotional-expression (and vocabulary).
So what benefit does non-violence provide in our communication?
There is a feeling for which I have no words. Words like, “seen,” “understood,” and “accepted,” come to mind, but they don’t quite carry the weight of it. This feeling is accompanied by bodily sensations — a lightness in my joints, a warmth in my chest and tingling on my flesh.
Not only have I experienced this feeling myself, but I’ve witnessed others receive this feeling, whether knowingly or not. The best way I can say it, for now, is this:
The feeling of being nowhere else but here, no one else but yourself, and basked in gratitude for the welcoming of every part of you — heavy, messy, joyful, and connected.
When I act from this place, the world around me responds accordingly. And if my words could consistently grant those around me the experience of this feeling, I would do anything to keep that up.