Let’s return to a question we began this book with: what is communication, anyway? Really, what is the point?
People reach out to one another because, in the nonviolent communication framework, they’re attempting to get their needs met. Whether that need is for validation, affection, respect, security, or attention, people communicate because they’re trying to cope and survive in the world and establish a degree of control over their surroundings. Even a tiny baby knows how to do this—they will scream and cry to get others to satisfy their needs for care and attention.
Behind every attempt at communication is an expression of need:
Posting several selfies and updates on social media daily—“I need to feel important. I need validation.”
Sending a nit-picky, micromanaging email to a colleague—“I need to feel in control of this process.”
Making a hurtful remark to a friend who is celebrating an achievement—“I need to feel like I’m good enough, too.”
Beneath even the less flattering needs that people have to feel superior, dominate, control, or possess, there is usually a simpler need to feel safe and loved. The person who is trying to blame you for something that’s not your fault has a need to make you the bad guy . . . but this in turn comes from a deeper need to just feel better about themselves.
Relationship problems stem not from the fact that we have needs, or that other people may need us to address their needs, but from our imperfect communication of those needs. If we deeply crave reassurance and safety, for example, but in our fear, we lash out and push people away, our communication approach is not working. In this sense our communication is “bad”—but our need itself is never wrong.
Relationship issues and poor communication often feature a misunderstanding of what communication is for—we instead use it as a way to control people, to try to force them to behave in the way we think they should, to pull them closer or keep them away, to elicit from them the things we want. But we don’t need to do this. It can be a complete revelation when you understand that you are totally able to meet your own needs.
Yes, sometimes you need others to help you or comply with requests, but then again, this won’t happen unless you understand your own needs, proactively communicate them and ask for the support you need. Self-knowledge, proper boundaries, and the ability to accurately convey your state of mind to others—these are things that you are in charge of.
So, in a paradoxical way, the path to connecting with others is through deeper connection with yourself. The best way to live interdependently and cooperatively with others is to dig deep and find your own inner autonomy and self-differentiation. This way, you navigate the changing flow of self and other, and of intimacy and distance, but without conflict or drama.
Here’s a liberating idea: you possess everything you need to be a happy, well-balanced person who can form meaningful and satisfying relationships with others. In other words, nobody needs to give this feeling to you from the outside. However, it is your responsibility to develop this power within yourself, and if you don’t actively strive to remove obstacles and impediments, then you are doomed to keep living with them.
In this chapter, we’ll look at the four reasons people fail to “own their shit” (forgive the crudeness, but this phrase really gets to the heart of the matter!). Instead of taking ownership of their own strengths and weaknesses, of their own agency, of their feelings and desires, they get entangled with others in confusing and unhealthy ways:
Obstacle 1: You have no idea what your stuff even is (and so can’t own it).
Obstacle 2: You know what your stuff is, but because of low self-worth, passivity, a victim mentality, or an unconscious need to be rescued, you don’t feel entitled to claim your feelings . . . or take responsibility for yourself.
Obstacle 3: You’re confused about what is your stuff and what is others’, i.e., you are poorly self-differentiated and need others to tell you what to think or feel. Or you go the other way and tell others what they think and feel.
Obstacle 4: You know what your stuff is but can’t stop doing it—you’re trapped in maladaptive habits stemming from childhood and seem to go round and round in the same loops and patterns.
Truthfully, all of these could be an issue for you! But have no fear, there are concrete, effective ways to get a handle on even the most stubborn obstacles to being the communicative, happy, and well-connected person you were always meant to be. In previous chapters, we looked at the communication process itself, but here we’ll be diving into some potentially tender and difficult material that is all about who we are deep down.
You’ll know that “relationship problems” are really “me problems” if your life is dominated by VERB feelings: acting like a Victim, Acting entitled, awaiting Rescue and Blaming. If your relationships abound with feelings of neediness, passivity, and being “clingy,” then this is also a clue. Do you constantly find yourself looking to others to give you permission on what to feel . . . or whether to feel at all? Do you seek reassurance and feedback, or constantly check in to confirm your own feelings or opinions? Finally, do you have trouble with perfectionism and being overly critical of yourself? All of this might hint at a deeper problem: it’s not in your relationships with others, but your relationship with yourself.
Getting off the Projection Carousel
Let’s look at obstacle 1—not knowing yourself. Becoming good in relationships and a better communicator is the same thing as becoming a more self-aware, more evolved, and more self-actualized individual. Imagine that your relationships with others are a mirror held up to your relationship with yourself.
If you don’t own your emotions, they’re still there and they still have all the same influence over you—you’re just completely unaware of it! And what you’re unaware of is outside your control. Psychotherapist Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will control your life and you will call it fate.”
For example, you make a choice but believe someone else “made” you do it. You assume they are in control of your life, and get to work arguing with them, never realizing that your state of mind was never their responsibility in the first place.
One way to bring the unconscious out into the conscious (where you can actually do something about it) is to work with your shadow and commit to cutting down on projection. Carl Jung was the first to talk about the “shadow,” i.e., the part of your psyche that you’ve disowned and disinherited, pushing it out of conscious awareness. The shadow contains things that we are ashamed or fearful of and things that we haven’t yet processed. Healthy, mature people realize that they are a mix of both good and bad and can accept that they are flawed and have a dark side. But if there is a fact about ourselves we can’t handle, it gets pushed out of awareness and into our shadow where we no longer see it.
Yet, it is still there and makes its presence known in dreams or when we project it onto others. A simple example is someone who has difficulty accepting their own sexual orientation, and from a sense of shame cuts it off of their identity. This part of themselves goes into the dark and into the shadow. They then find themselves extremely judgmental and hostile toward gay people, heaping scorn that seems disproportionate. Why? Because to protect their ego they have disowned their own unacceptable desires and projected them out into the world onto someone else, where it’s safe. Their homophobia in the outside world reflects the intolerance they feel for an aspect of themselves.
Effective communication and self-differentiation means being willing to work on your own shadow and own up to what is truly yours. It would be useless to have endless heated “conversations” with those you have projected onto—they are not even really conversations but a rehearsal of our own inner dialogue with our shadow. Listen to the above person arguing about the subject of homosexuality and imagine that they are not arguing with the other person but with a disowned part of themselves.
If your shadow is out of conscious awareness, though, how could you ever identify it?
It’s tricky. But try to look for disproportionate, intense, and automatic responses to stimuli that feel almost irrational. Look for defensiveness and resistance in yourself—as though your unconscious mind is saying, “Don’t look over here!” Commit to pausing and refusing to assume that the source of the defensiveness is in the external environment or another person. “Hang on . . . why am I getting so upset about this?”
For example, someone may be feeling guilty and assume that everyone is accusing them, and react angrily to every imagined slight. This is a clue that a nerve has been struck and that they are close to becoming aware of something that their mind would prefer to remain oblivious to (i.e., their uncomfortable feelings of guilt). Here, they have a choice:
1. continue to try to solve the problem by going into conflict with all the people they believe are accusing them
2. go within and explore where this feeling of being accused really comes from
The first approach will escalate and maintain conflict; the second will diffuse it.
Doing “shadow work” is a technique beyond the scope of this book but is a powerful way to take ownership of those most irrational, most stubborn biases, blind spots, and denials. For the time being, you can become curious about your shadow by simply noticing whenever you feel triggered and defensive.
At first you may have to keep reminding yourself, “Is this my stuff? Or their stuff?” In time, you’ll get better at recognizing what role you’re playing in any interaction, and this will lead to deeper self-knowledge. Imagine the process as one of recalling and owning all the fractured, disinherited parts of your personality. We dissolve the shadow not by vanquishing it, but by shining the light of consciousness on it and accepting it as part of ourselves.
Doing so means you stop projecting this material onto others but also that you become better at recognizing when others are projecting onto you. You can be like the person who is yelled at by a complete stranger in the street but can genuinely stay calm, shrug, and say, “I am not the cause of or the source of that person’s anger. His reaction has nothing to do with me.” You are not hooked into their drama; you pass by unaffected, knowing that it is theirs.