The Value And Limitations Of NVC Empathy When Doing Deep Inner Work

NVC as a Highly Effective Self-Referencing Tool for Doing Deep Inner Work

In 2004, as I practiced and taught groups NVC, I began to see how the NVC model was more than just a communication model. I saw how using the model in interpersonal contexts was also a self-referencing tool, disclosing to me or others I coached the important areas where further personal growth work was needed.

NVC learners are asked to express an observation, a feeling, a need, and a request. This sounds easy enough, but, most people experienced struggles and challenges with applying any one or all these four components. Here are some common struggles:

  • One person might connect with how judgmental they are of others or themselves when struggling to make pure observations.
  • Another person might realize just how disconnected they are from their feelings or how they express feelings using judgmental thought-words as they struggle to express an authentic feeling.
  • Another person might see how they were not in touch with their needs or lacked a language and struggle to express their needs/wants/values. Maybe opening up to certain needs not being met in life comes with a wave of grief.
  • Yet, another person might connect with their fear of rejection at the prospect of making a request or realize how much they assumed someone should divine what they want and fulfill it without having to ask.
  • Still, another person may connect with the understanding that their habitual form of making requests is really a demand that may invite defensiveness or reluctance.

An important aspect of these revelations is that they are all self-generated. That is, there is no external authority telling them they are making judgments or pointing out how they are disconnecting from our feelings/needs. The information comes from their attempts to use the NVC model. They are forming their own conclusions and insights. I see this self-disclosing approach to gaining awareness as more valuable than someone telling us them they are disconnected from their feelings and needs.

Arriving at our own conclusions is a powerful formula for inspiring self-motivation for learning. It eliminates the conceptual “middle man,” which can complicate, confuse, and contaminate the self-motivation and self-learning process. Often, we want to learn or change because an external authority says that is what is best instead of us coming to that conclusion on our own. The authority-inspired learning tends to subtly create dependency upon an external authority or their one-size-fits-all concepts. This can cut us off from our own resources and awareness. Coming to our own conclusion about what is useful in our lives is exercising the muscle of relying on our own innate wisdom.

I see NVC as the ultimate constructivist learning tool, a heuristic device for assisting us in moving inward and relating to what emerges. Indeed, it is more than just an interpersonal communication model; it is a powerful neutral navigation tool that can help us travel deep within ourselves without getting derailed! Let me explain further.

When The NVC Consciousness and All The Skills Go Flying Out The Door

As I deepened my practice of NVC both personally and professionally, I began to notice a pattern that arose in myself and in my students. We would bump up against certain individuals or areas of our life where it seemed almost impossible to stay compassionate connected to myself or others. No matter how fluent or skilled a person was with using NVC, there seemed to be a point where core needs were intensely triggered, and all the skills would be abandoned or be rendered inaccessible. This was especially true for core self-judgments that were triggered by intense pain representing core needs not being met.

For example, I experienced a core need to be heard. So anytime this issue came up with loved ones; I would feel a deep pain coming to the surface, which commandeered my NVC “intention of mutually connecting” and rendered my accumulated skills useless. I compounded this frustration by “beating myself up” for not using NVC. Although it was frustrating, I began to see how this inability was actually an opportunity to give me information about unconscious core needs. Not being able to use the NVC model disclosed areas that needed empathetic connection. Berating reactions to not having the capacity to use the NVC model was also a rich source of information for what needed empathetic presence.

For me, the core need that was disclosed was connected to not being heard. I found value in such self-disclosure of areas that need attention and presence because, often, what we think we need to work on comes from idealistic notions that are different from what is actually alive in us. Our difficulty in connecting with others or ourselves precisely tells us what needs our attention.

Again, I can’t underscore enough the value of these insights being intrinsically generated; they are not the product of some external authority or personal growth system telling us what we need to work on to conform to some assumed ideal of health or whatever is beyond ego transcendence. If an unconscious pain is organically surfacing in difficult interactions or situations, that is something to move towards, explore, and connect with and hold in presence. Surprisingly, just trying to use the NVC model, and failing, can penetrate through our defensive structures to connect with unconscious material rather quickly.

Difficulties Holding NVC Consciousness Provide A Map Of Core Needs Wanting Our Attention

Our capacity to experience the qualities of the NVC consciousness is another means by which we can disclose important unconscious material. What often happens is that when some form of unconscious pain is being stimulated (unresolved hurt, shame, fear, loneliness, hopelessness, powerlessness, anger, grief, or depression), our core needs around this pain will contain “have-to-have” energy and our self-requests and requests or others will become demands.

We regress back to the right/wrong paradigm of blaming and experiencing strong urges to make us, or the other person wrong as a means to stop our pain or feel empowered. The last thing we are ready to do when intensely feeling our pain is to connect heart-to-heart and empathize with the other person’s needs since our own needs are far too important at that point. Therefore, our responses are often mandated to stop the pain. Unfortunately, this might even include verbally attacking or blaming ourselves or the other person.

Sometimes, we can take this blaming energy and put it into NVC form, fooling ourselves into thinking we are connecting (a jackal in giraffe’s clothing or a wolf in sheep’s clothing). Have you ever used the NVC form with a blaming attitude? I have. It is quite easy.

When finding ourselves in highly triggered situations, the NVC model suggests that we preserve the connection by temporarily and gracefully disengaging from the connection. Thus, we take the time to work through our pain before attempting to reconnect with the other person. This is a fine strategy, but what about people who are triggered a lot? We could get triggered by the same core need over and over again, needing to give ourselves empathy or seeking empathy from another person to work through an issue. Does this mean we are sentenced to be a slave to receiving empathy every time we are highly triggered by the same core need?

As powerful as these empathetic moments are with their sense of release and connection it is also true that, with deep triggering, these benefits are often temporary because the underlying unmetabolized core feelings and unmet needs remain untouched. Sometimes empathy can penetrate this deeper psychological structure and sometimes not.

Using my earlier example, any hurt feelings that came up in the current-time expression around not being heard could be given empathy and temporarily soothed. However, such empathy did little to heal the trapped pain associated with not being heard as a child, nor alter the associated belief that people did not value what I had to say. On a deeper level, the empathy did not touch the long-held interpretation that not valuing what I had to say meant they did not value me. I noticed that although I gave myself empathy in a current situation, my pattern of being stimulated by the pain of not being heard would continue. This informed me that deeper needs were at stake, and deeper experiential work needed to be done to directly connect with those aspects of myself (parts) that need empathetic attention.

Using NVC To Focus On External Solutions To Triggers Can Be A Subtle Way Of Blaming

Another limitation I discovered is the tendency of using NVC to exclusively focus on external triggers at the expense of connecting to our internal triggers. As my understanding and experience with NVC deepened, I began to realize how much the external triggers in my life were really about my own internal triggers being activated. For example, if a loved one called me selfish, I could have a big reaction. I could express how I felt hurt and shame, wanting respect, or a different quality of communication, or to be seen differently. I would even make a request to the person to use different language to express his or her frustrations. This was effective in the sense that I was connecting with my feelings/needs and giving the other person an opportunity to make my life wonderful.

It was ineffective on another level when I didn’t connect with the part of myself who is all too willing to believe I was selfish!

I began to realize that this critical voice or part of me that calls me selfish is the part that stings me the most. If my focus is on getting needs met externally by making a request of the other person without tending to my own critical voice that is calling me selfish, then I have only solved this problem for the short-term for this particular context!

The part of me that holds shame and hurt that chimes in with external judgments coming at me remain untouched, waiting to be stimulated either by the same or another person. By not addressing my own part, I fear that I will be using NVC in a way that subtly fosters a disempowering dependence on others for my sense of well-being. I may be putting undue pressure and demands on the other person to meet a need, or I could be subtly blaming the other person while using the NVC form.

Sometimes people have a difficult time with this concept, so I’d like to expand the example above. It is only because there is some already existing part of me who believes I was selfish and would agree with the other person’s calling me selfish that would stimulate a big reaction. Otherwise, the other person’s words would not have stimulated deep hurt and shame! There is a self-judgment within me to support their judgment. Without such inner “chiming in,” I am less reactive and can have the inner space to hold compassion for the loved one who is expressing their needs in a tragic way. I might get mildly annoyed or sad with their name calling, but it would not be an intense trigger.

In coming to this understanding, I saw how valuable it was to work directly with my self-judgments first before asking another person to meet my needs in these high-trigger situations. That way, I would have the assurance that when I did ask someone to meet my need, I would do so in a way that was more likely a true request instead of demand. I realized that by not doing this inner prep work, I risked covertly blaming the other person for my deep pain and making them responsible for ending the pain of unmet core needs.

Another limiting possibility is that I would come to people expecting them to fulfill a need I was unwilling or unable to fulfill myself. For example, I wanted others to accept me, yet I was not really connected to all the ways I was not accepting myself. Or wanting others to give me the respect I was not giving myself. And so on.

So I began to understand how empowering it is to be able to tend to my own self-judgments as a means of holding compassion for myself. This internal empathetic awareness and presence, then, naturally gets extended to others. It’s an inside-out job.

Becoming Aware Of Competing Strategies Of Conscious and Unconscious Needs Can Unlock Unconscious Limitations

As I became more adept at using NVC internally, I also began to discover that many of my self-requests were not enacted. For example, suppose I’m upset over judging myself for having poor parenting skills. I can empathetically connect with feeling frustrated or hopeless, wanting more effectiveness in contributing to my children in a different way. I would then make requests of myself to specifically meet my need for effectiveness, only to end up sabotaging this self-request in some way (inaction, procrastination, partial follow-through, undoing what I did, revert to reactive patterns). I then would begin to feel hopeless and helpless to make a change. I think we all relate to wanting to make a change, yet the change doesn’t happen. There is something strong in us that pull us back from making the change we want when making self-requests.

Here’s another example: we might be consciously aware of a part of us that longs for intimacy and companionship in a romantic relationship and makes a self-request to meet someone new to fulfill all the needs that come with being in a relationship. Upon finding this new relationship, there is a hesitancy to move forward in the relationship because another unconscious need is also occurring: there is a deeper part that holds an unconscious need for safety and experiences fear of moving into the vulnerability of intimacy. Unconscious hurt is equated with intimacy and protection needs are stimulated. If this unconscious protection/safety need is stronger, more urgent, and remains unconscious, this person will more than likely enact the unconscious strategies to meet the unconscious need for emotional safety (sabotage the relationship, become hypercritical of the partner, be attracted to someone else, shut down emotionally, etc.). In other words, the part that holds the intense fear of being vulnerable has a stronger, more potent unconscious strategy than the part that longs for intimacy and companionship and all the other needs that accompany a relationship.

When I noticed this reluctance to follow through with requests in myself in many areas of my life, I began to suspect that there could be a deeper unconscious need strategy in play, which is in conflict with the strategy to fulfill the surface need. Deeper experiential inquiry work was indicated to disclose these unconscious needs and their strategies. When I did access the deeper unconscious need and brought it into my awareness, what was holding me back made perfect sense. I was simply utilizing a strategy and meeting a need that was more important or urgent than the strategies of the conscious need I held!  I began to develop the Inner Presence Coaching work which found efficient ways to access and connect with these deeper unconscious needs in order to discern the sets of need strategies that were competing with each other. I found this to be an exceedingly powerful extension of the NVC work.

The Inherent Limitations Of Self-Empathy

Self-empathy, as emphasized in the NVC community, is a powerful way to connect with what is alive in us. I’ve experienced both the power of self-empathy and some of its inherent limitations when wanting to connect deeply. When highly triggered, I experience difficulty in giving myself empathy because a part of myself who is berating me is consuming my experience. My inner critic takes over, and I believe and buy into whatever it is claiming as truth. There is no compassionate voice; no presence or part of me left to enact empathy! Because of this, I began to devise practices to get some separation from these high-trigger experiences.

Another challenge I encountered is that I could have one part of me who is afraid and want safety and then another part of me that is berating that scared part of being afraid. This told me it was useful to consider how these voices interact with each other. It wasn’t until I made a concerted effort to listen to these internal judgments that I began to hear how voices, or parts of me, were constantly interacting with each other inside me. Each of these parts had their unique set of feelings/needs. I was generally unaware they existed! That was shocking, to say the least. These inner arguments and interactions created an inner environment where endless polarizing loops were in operation that mirrors intractable arguments between two people. What to do?

Based on these experiences, I became very curious about how to look inside when I’m in a trigger or activated state. Here are some of the questions that arose in me that stimulated my inquiry:

  1. How can I know when I’m connecting to myself empathetically instead of analyzing or diagnosing myself? It is often an automatic response to begin to analyze and diagnose ourselves with personal growth labels. Inner Presence Coaching program shows, how, when, and the many ways that we unconsciously connect with something other than empathy we think are empathy.
  2. What part of me holds the space or capacity to empathize with parts that are in pain or are terrified? Does a part of you dissociate or become upset and react when intense pain is present or is an empathetic presence active? In the Inner Presence Coaching program, we learn to cultivate empathetic presence to make sure it is empathy that is engaging the pain.
  3. How can I get the separation I need to empathize with myself when I am overwhelmed with pain/terror caused by some internal part/voice hounding me? Inner Presence work explores what it means to be identified with some aspect/part of yourself and learn how to dis-identify while maintaining connection and feeling the feelings. 
  4. What about the parts that want to protect me from feeling the pain from the unmet core needs and try to disrupt efforts to give these vulnerable parts empathy? Any inquiry process that wants to go deep inevitably will emerge against aspects of ourselves that don’t want us to connect to our depths. With Inner Presence work, we learn to connect and honor the wisdom and needs of these parts, turning them into valuable allies in our intention to deeply connect.
  5. How can I empathize with core self-judgments representing core needs if they are unconscious or actively disowned? This has been a particularly powerful question for me. In the Inner Presence Coaching program, we develop skills to organically disclose and hold presence for unconscious core unfulfilled needs, the intense, survival-based feelings they hold, and their associated beliefs. These are the most powerful life-changing connections we can make.
  6. Who is the “I” that holds space for these internal critical voices/parts? Is it another critical voice/part or a personal growth part How do I know? My response to this question has been to develop a gentle inquiry methodology and set of skills to navigate the inner Rapids and to end up in the deep waters. I call it “Inner Presence Coaching.”

I hope you’re starting to get a picture of some of the challenges we all have in giving ourselves empathy or others giving us empathy when highly triggered. This Inner Presence work will help us learn to create a quality of empathetic connection with these voices/parts of ourselves and to begin to form a relationship with them.

A Balanced Approach To Doing Inquiry Work

Many years ago, as I began to develop this work of using NVC internally, I had a bias towards helping myself and others disclose and connect with their shadow material (painful unconscious feelings and unmet core needs). My focus was on writing about and doing exercises that created opportunities for participants to connect with this shadow material. I became adept at helping people to access the deeper feelings and needs efficiently while negotiating with the protective parts that stood guard. This emphasis on connecting to deep disowned needs was at the expense of supporting the cultivation of the person’s presence. However, I began to see that if I did not help people cultivate their inner resources to engage their deep disowned needs, that the depth which the inquiry work could go was limited. The same was true for my own inquiry work. So a principle emerged out of these experiences that I express rather crudely:

The more we develop our capacity to hold a high degree of presence and compassion for every aspect of ourselves, the more ability we have to touch on these deeper parts of ourselves that remain hidden.

Building up the capacity for unconditioned awareness to be present to self-disclosing core feelings/needs and beliefs was a huge advance in developing my work and my own inquiries. I experienced firsthand that the more we cultivate empathetic presence with our inner world, the more we naturally disidentify (get separation from) whatever deeper core feelings/needs emerge. So a big part of the Inner Presence work is learning to cultivate empathetic awareness as we simultaneously learn to disclose deeper feelings/needs and exploring what I called disowned needs.

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