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  • Writer's pictureLisa Gottlieb

Working with big emotions through the lens of NVC

These last months have been disturbing for many who hold peace, human rights, and freedoms as important. With the brutal attacks by Putin against the people of Ukraine, the continued horrific gun violence and the increase in relaxed gun laws, violence targeted against people of color, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the general hostility of those in power towards the poor and disenfranchised leave us reeling. Infuriated and heartbroken in equal measure, I find myself struggling to manage my reactivity that shows up in my body, mind, and emotions.

Anger, frustration and overwhelm are usually experienced as intense emotions. Sometimes they can motivate us to work harder, and sometimes they prevent us from engaging. Research shows that finding a balance between shutting down and giving up, and mobilizing to contribute to action that supports your values can be challenging!

In Love, Anger and Social Change, author Deborah J. Cantrell writes that it is both anger and love that drive successful actions toward social change. This is no surprise from an NVC perspective since it is normal and healthy (albeit difficult at times) to hold more than one feeling at the same time. When we are anxious, upset, or triggered, we lean towards all-or-nothing feelings, often losing the ability to hold our complex experiences with nuance.

She writes: we oversubscribe to love and anger in their reflexive, hot forms—the raised voice and rough gesticulations of anger, or the ardent loyalty of love that stridently demarcates “us” from “them.” Because we oversubscribe to the hot forms of emotion, when we intend to express emotion in its moral form we mistakenly believe that form of emotion must also be expressed in a hot way. In other words, we discredit an activist, and activists discredit each other and themselves, as not really believing in the justness of the cause unless it is shown with hot emotions.

In other words, from an NVC perspective, we can give ourselves permission to feel all of our feelings, connect emphatically with ourselves and normalize our experience, and then choose what we decide to do next. Normalizing and empathizing with our experiences can sound like this: ”Of course, I am angry and frustrated. I also feel afraid and concerned for our future. This feels awful! I care deeply about this issue, and want peace, freedom, safety and choice for all people”.

A next step can be mourning over not having our needs met about what we value. Staying with the feelings long enough to mourn, to connect with our unmet needs, and notice what we want more of is the beginning of considering all the possible strategies to move forward.

Another important aspect of this experience is to notice if you are leaning towards isolating, or some pressure to step up on your own, or a distorted belief that you have to figure out next steps with no support. The belief that we must over-function, strive for perfection, or measure our self-worth and value by our tasks and actions can sometimes be a trauma response. Remember, none of us is meant to navigate these turbulent and scary times by ourselves!

When anger towards inequity and power-over is combined with the love of what we long for, we empower ourselves and other people to come up with creative and collaborative actions that can contribute in measurable ways to positive social change.

Finally, big emotions can be exhausting and hard to sustain. Reach out to those who can hold your feelings with care, empathy and grace. Find an empathy buddy, or share what’s happening for you with friends and family, with the direct request that you are not looking for advice, suggestions, or strategies, but simply to be listened to with some reflection and empathy. As much as possible, prioritize your physical, mental and emotional health by managing your intake of news, and get out into nature to boost your mood and immune system. Find a few minutes each day for quiet meditation and use breath for self-regulation and calming.

We can each make a difference when we care well for ourselves to sustain caring for our families, communities, and the world.

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