Tuesday, November 29, 2011


There is a theme in my life.

I try hard to do something, but I don't do it like everybody else.  This is because I don't always think like everybody else.  I know this.  It has caused problems for years.  Three and a half decades later, those problems still have not been solved.  Therefore, I am resigned to the fact that it's not always apparent to others what I am trying to do.

This didn't usually bother me--until I went to live in Korea.  Suddenly, it wasn't just that I was different than everybody else, it was that this difference was wrong, as in deeply, morally, fundamentally wrong.  And I couldn't seem to get past the barriers to communicate that this wasn't the case.

Like my differing thought process, I started to become resigned to this problem as well.  But accepting this perception of myself also meant accepting anger, resentment, isolation, depression, and sorrow.  And it would have stayed that way if it weren't for NVC.

My husband says that NVC destroyed our marriage.

Truth be told, our marriage is probably stronger than ever, and NVC is the cause of it.  I just went through a very obnoxious period when I was learning to use it.  Alas, I am still learning to use it.

NVC stands for [N]on[V]iolent [C]ommunication, and it is Marshall Rosenberg's brainchild.  It is, in part, an attempt to bring psychology to the masses through a "simple" 4-step process.  I use "simple" loosely because, while the process is conceptually simple, it is emotionally very difficult.

In NVC, everything is boiled down to 4 things: observations, feelings, needs, and requests.

You observe a situation objectively and describe it in clear, objective words.  Then you express your emotional response (feelings) to that observation of the situation, noting that the situation in itself did not cause you to feel that way but that you are responding to it with an emotion, usually tied to a need that you are trying to fill.  Once you have identified these three aspects of your response, then you take it all one step further by formulating a concrete request that will help you move closer to filling that unmet need.

NVC actually entered my life over two years ago at a free meeting that a friend had organized.  I cannot thank either the friend or the trainer enough because I most surely wouldn't have gone if I had needed to pay.  Both time and money were restricted then, and if it had been an expenditure of both, I absolutely couldn't have made it.

I didn't want to answer the question when the trainer asked, "When is a time that made you felt less than wonderful?"  Several others had answered, and I thought that my strategy of keeping my head down and scribbling furiously had exempted me from this exercise.  But when the trainer called on me, I thought of an example from that very morning when I had tried to find something in a local store and had run into someone who had different ideas about what I should buy.  I tried to explain that I wanted what I wanted while the other person explained that what I wanted was inappropriate and generally no good.  Then, with a huff and swearing under his breath, he turned and stalked away.

And even though I was describing the situation at the store, it was actually a recurring situation that occurred at stores, in restaurants, on street corners, on playgrounds, and anywhere else you might imagine.  It usually involved strangers, but not always.  Sometimes it involved parents, students, colleagues, and friends.
And, unluckily for me, the trainer asked me how I felt in this situation.

"Angry," I answered.

"And?" she prompted.

"Disappointed," I continued.


"Ashamed.  Inadequate.  Completely inadequate...," and the floodgates just opened completely.  I had had no idea that I really felt so strongly about these interactions, that they completely felled my self confidence and left me reeling, wondering whether I had any business living in this country, any business being a wife and mother, any business even being human.

I had not expected to sob, not expected to need tissues, not expected to have any emotional response whatsoever.  After all, this was an experience that I usually shared with strangers!  What were they to me?  Apparently more than I had thought.

But what that session opened to me was the very real area of connecting needs to feelings.

Until I had (alas publicly) had such a strong reaction to a memory of an interaction with strangers, I had largely believed that my problems with Korea boiled down to problems with my family.

Now I knew this was not the case.  I needed connection, yes.  And, no, my immediate family could not necessarily fill that need.  But neither were they causing the problem nor trying to stop me from solving it.

I could seek fulfillment of the need elsewhere.  Oh, and I did.  I developed a number of Korean friends who radically altered my perception of the country.  I tried things more.  I turned my back on my German background, which asks me to blame others or swallow all negativity, and actually started to request things I needed.  My life got radically better.

It was a little hard for my husband because at first I didn't know how to request things kindly or to state my feelings without blame.  I had a way of asking him about his feelings that sounded like an accusation.  He said it was like saying, "Well, I'm all calm about it, now what the h*** is wrong with you?"  And he was probably right.

I have learned to internalize a little more and process inside before speaking now--and I get better results.  I have also turned elsewhere for additional help.

But the biggest thing that I learned and experienced is that hiding the negativity doesn't make it go away; it buries the joy.  As I started to face these feelings, find underlying causes, and move toward resolution, I started to recognize the joy I found in other things.  I felt great love for my in-laws, affection for my husband, fierce pride in my children.  These emotions had been completely deadened in the general novacaine of accepting that "it is what it is."

So let me say thank you to those who introduced me to NVC, those who encouraged me to practice it, and my family who suffered through my initial transformation.

And then let me say to everyone else: Yes, it is what it is, but it doesn't need to stay that way.  You, too, can walk out of the darkness, but only if you're willing to fumble a little for the light switch.

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