“In our language there is a word with enormous power to create shame and guilt. This violent word, which we commonly use to evaluate ourselves, is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that many of us would have trouble imagining how to live without it. It is the word ‘should,’ as in ‘I should have known better’ or ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ Most of the time when we use this word with ourselves, we resist learning because ‘should’ implies that there is no choice. Human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy – our strong need for choice. We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny…”
With these words, in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, Marshall Rosenberg challenges us to imagine what life would be like if we stopped “shoulding” ourselves. For most of us, this is almost impossible to picture because we live with a tyrannical “inner critic” which vigilantly watches every step we take and criticizes us relentlessly if our behavior falls short of its standards. And even when the inner critic makes life miserable for us, most of us can’t imagine living without it because we believe that if it went away all motivation and self-discipline would go, too. We’d stop going to work; we’d never go to the gym again; and we might even give up brushing our teeth! NVC challenges this widespread notion that blame, judgment and guilt are skillful ways to motivate ourselves.
Rosenberg again: “A basic premise of NVC is that whenever we imply that someone is wrong or bad, what we are really saying is the he or she is not acting in harmony with our needs. If the person we are judging happens to be ourselves, what we are saying is ‘I myself am not behaving in harmony with my own needs.’…Our challenge, then, when we are doing something that is not enriching life, is to evaluate ourselves moment by moment in a way that inspires change both:
- in the direction of where we would like to go, and
- out of respect and compassion for ourselves, rather than out of self-hatred, guilt or shame.
How do we do this? An important first step, when we find ourselves judging ourselves, is to ask “What unmet need of mine is being expressed through this moralistic judgment?” Asking this question encourages us to listen empathically to ourselves, and when we do that, we’re more likely to hear the underlying need or layers of needs. Rosenberg finds that when people connect with these needs, a remarkable shift occurs in their bodies. Instead of the deadening shame, guilt, and depression people typically feel when they are criticizing themselves we “experience any number of feelings. Whether it’s sadness, frustration, disappointment, fear, grief, or some other feeling, we have been endowed by nature with these feelings for a purpose: they mobilize us for action in pursuing and fulfilling what we need or value. Their impact on our spirit and bodies is substantially different from the disconnection that is brought on by guilt, shame, and depression.”
What we typically experience first when we do this is mourning, which in NVC is the process of fully connecting with the regret we feel when we see that we haven’t been acting in our own best interests. But when our consciousness is focused on what we need, a deep self-forgiveness follows almost automatically, and we are naturally stimulated to pursue the creative possibilities for meeting our needs. In contrast, the moralistic judgments we use when blaming ourselves tend to obscure such possibilities and to perpetuate a state of self-punishment.
So we cultivate self-compassion “by consciously choosing in daily life to act only in service to our own needs and values rather than out of duty, for extrinsic rewards, or to avoid guilt, shame, and punishment.”
A more psychologically radical approach to life would be hard to imagine. Many will simply dismiss the idea out of hand on the grounds that it is a completely “selfish” way to live. That criticism reminds me of something Alan Watts once said: “Sometimes we owe to others to be selfish.” Every human being on the planet wants to be respected and valued. All of us want our needs met, and none of us want to be dismissed, thwarted, judged, or blamed. But we can never hope to respect others in these ways if we leave ourselves out of the equation, because if we’re harsh and lacking in compassion toward ourselves, we’ll inevitably treat others with the same level of contempt when they exhibit the feelings or behaviors which we’ve learned to judge in ourselves. That’s why the first step in learning to communicate nonviolently with others is to understand that self-compassion is indispensable to the process. We will all treat others better to the degree that we can take to heart these ancient words of the Buddha: “You can search all the realms of existence and you will never find a being more worthy of your love and compassion than yourself.”