The nature of selfishness and sacrifice
Here’s a key question for ethics: Is one’s own life the standard of value, or are other people’s lives the standard of value, or both? Basically, by what standard do we appraise our actions, i.e., ascertain whether they are helpful or unhelpful? If we choose others as the standard, then who are they, what ideas do they hold, and more importantly, how or by what standard do they determine such things?
Throughout human history, ethics usually has been accompanied by notions of sacrifice, either sacrifice of self to others or sacrifice of others to self. Be it with duty-based ethics or utilitarian ethics, individual choice and flourishing have been largely disfavored. For some unspoken reason, sacrifice seems to be an assumed conclusion in human life. However, when we reflect once again on the need for self-esteem, the reason becomes more apparent.
We can have emotions that are difficult to discern sometimes, in terms of their genesis and what exactly they relate to. This is especially the case when a clear vocabulary of feelings wasn’t part of our upbringing. Moreover, in our culture feelings are seldom related to specific needs. Common emotions and behaviors that can arise from adopting the meme of self-sacrifice typically involve shame, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, humility, conformity, and servility (and corresponding resentment). Those that can arise from adopting the meme of sacrificing others to self typically involve anger, animosity, jealousy, hostility, and disrespect (and corresponding indifference or neglect). These emotions and others arising from the use of sacrifice as an ethical doctrine directly relate to the needs that are thusly sacrificed—autonomy, choice, respect, consideration, appreciation, and of course empathy, among others.
From childhood onward in our culture, likely all of us at one time or another were admonished for being “selfish.” Consequently, we might’ve decided not to be as explicit about our own feelings, thoughts, concerns, and desires, as we otherwise would. This process of hiding or disowning aspects of ourselves in order to placate others exacts costs. Anytime we deny or downplay our interests and what’s alive in us, we pay a painful existential and mental price.
This brings us back to the pervasive societal belief that we can’t be trusted to meet the needs of others. As we carefully examine what the accusation of “selfish” conveys, a more accurate description emerges: One is meeting one’s own needs, while not meeting the needs of others, and another doesn’t like this; another wants some other needs to get met. Now, this is a simple yet observationally insightful way of expressing it, because it says nothing about the “badness” of the allegedly selfish person or how “wrong” he or she is for doing a particular thing (and not doing something else). What we basically have is an individual serving his or her own life, yet not someone else’s life too. In fact, meeting one’s own needs and ensuring others’ needs get met can be equally enriching, which includes the interplay of the two. It doesn’t have to be an either/or dynamic. But when we’re ridiculed for meeting our own needs, an either/or dynamic is thereby promoted and oftentimes believed to be true.
It seems to be a widespread belief that a person is supposed to disregard the needs of self to fulfill supposedly higher goals, such as the needs of other selves. When stated this way, the contradiction becomes apparent. And acceptance of the services of a supposedly “selfless” person is, of course, also being “selfish.” Again, since giving and receiving go hand in hand, why discount personal desires and satisfaction? Not to benefit selfishly from a pleasurable activity is impossible. Clearly, any ethical doctrine that subverts the nature of a human being to experience enjoyment and happiness has strayed from the path of enlightenment.
Selfishness has probably always been a pejorative notion. As noted, it can convey an attitude only concerned with benefits for oneself, disregarding others (or not sharing with them) and not considering or being sensitive to the distress they may feel. However, when we practice rational self-interest, or enlightened selfishness, we naturally tend to take into account the views of others, because we see them as reflections of ourselves with the same set of human needs. Confident and happy individuals want to factor in the interests of others when they’re involved, which also furthers one’s life in social contexts. After all, thoughtlessness, inconsiderateness, neglect, manipulation, deception, and conflict do sacrifice needs, particularly the needs to respect self and to respect others.
Unsurprisingly, on account of the distrust and lack of confidence experienced in the process of needs-fulfillment, sacrifice is mentioned commonly in familial, religious, and political contexts. In order to precisely comprehend this widespread doctrine, defining it in logical terms proves indispensable. If we clearly define sacrifice as giving up or relinquishing a higher value in favor of a lower or lesser value, or even no value at all (as Ayn Rand noted), then any self-esteeming person would want to avoid such an act, which includes not wanting others to perform it either. 
As we might suspect, this definition can conflict with the usual way sacrifice is meant to be interpreted and applied. A common dictionary meaning is “to give up a valued thing for the sake of something more important or worthy.” This suggests that sacrifice is something useful to do. In other words, even though it might entail a loss of something important, we attain something supposedly better.
On account of the various connotations that accompany the common meaning, sacrifice tends to be used quite ambiguously. For example, it can imply merely the abandonment of one value for another value, with no distinction made about which value was more important. It can imply the relinquishment of a great value for an allegedly greater value, for instance a “societal” or “national” value. It can imply a change or rearrangement of one’s hierarchy of values, that is, letting go of past values. It can also imply the acquisition or preservation of genuine values at the expense of time, resources, and effort. Lastly, it can imply “selfless” actions done in the name of family, group, community, or country.
Such lack of coherent meaning basically reflects a struggle with the nature of trade-offs, making decisions, and meeting needs. When used to describe so many types of behavior, the term “sacrifice” confuses rather than clarifies. As noted, a clear definition of sacrifice means giving up some higher value for a lower value or non-value. This essentially entails diminishing or demeaning oneself (or others), in order to get or keep something less important. The relinquishment of any value in favor of a lesser value or non-value tragically sets us against ourselves and our capacity to survive. If left unchecked and not reversed, sacrifice can lead to debilitation and even death, since complete sacrifice means the annihilation of self or other selves for some purportedly higher value (witness persons, predominantly men, sacrificing their lives for a nationalistic conception of their “country”).
Yet sacrifice is typically used in modern rhetoric to imply that we’re performing a glorified duty that transcends any individual values or needs—despite the fact that individual values and needs are what sustain each of us. Preaching sacrifice overlooks the fact that all needs arise from individuals, and sacrifice simply cannot meet our needs for self-respect and respect for others.
That we relinquish formerly important values to pursue newly important ones requires adaptiveness and mental flexibility, a flexibility to meet needs in creative and effective ways. We tend to prioritize what we value, and this is worth reflecting on. Take parenting, for instance. A prevalent idea is that parents sacrifice such things as their time, energy, resources, desires, and even needs for their children. But truly valuing children more than the things relinquished to have them entails gladly accepting the responsibilities of parenthood and focusing on the cultivation of happiness in that new context for both parents and children.
Some parents might say that their goal is to give their children a better life than they themselves had; so, “sacrifices” must be made. But is squelching a part of oneself needed to benefit others, particularly children? One of the most important things that parents (and adults in general) can convey to children is that everybody’s needs matter and can be met in the process of living. Happiness doesn’t have to be placed on a sacrificial alter in homage to the family or any other group.
The tragic effects of the meme of sacrifice in the family tend to be twofold. First, it enables parental life to be experienced as stale, mundane, frustrating, aggravating, disappointing, and even awful. For instance, parents might be working not because they personally desire it, but supposedly only for the benefit of their children. Second, it tends to promote guilt and expectations of further sacrifices. Children might begin to feel guilty about their reliance on parents for sustenance, caregiving, and support. Oftentimes, parents then expect children to make sacrifices in turn, which passes the meme onto the next generation without much reflection on its drastic costs. In addition, parents may have hopes (or demands) of certain achievements of their children, despite their sons’ or daughters’ interests. Such sacrifices are of course age-old, and they can undermine self-esteem, derail true ambitions, and diminish happiness for everyone involved.
Normally, as children we find this whole situation perplexing and frustrating. We may form antagonistic relationships with our parents as a consequence, trying to assert some degree of autonomy, choice, and equality. We may rebel against parental demands placed on our time and labor, and deliberately not live up to parental expectations (which might even overlap with our own). Or, we may spend considerable time trying to be “the perfect child.” The idea of being perfect in this realm might entail making payment on the supposed debt incurred with supposedly selfless parents.
The greatest contradiction here is the belief that sacrifice—either espousing it or indulging in it—truly benefits anyone. In terms of personal evolution, sacrifice takes us on a side-road leading to merely a dead-end. Yet further sacrifices for and by others can become normalized as “the way things are,” which can make the practices of the six self-esteem pillars even more challenging. The quite painful sacrifice of needs can become even more painful when one realizes that sacrifice itself has been unnecessary.
In a culture that tries to keep the doctrine of sacrifice going, our true selves have a hard time fully emerging; “selfless” thoughts and actions for and by others tend to be praised. Not surprisingly, feelings such as resentment, guilt, shame, anger, envy, jealousy, stress, and misery tend to be triggered in the aftermath, which reveal needs for security and self-worth, and ultimately for individual needs-fulfillment itself. So many needs die on the vine of sacrifice.
Instead of exemplifying self-sacrifice and proclaiming its virtue, we can engender respect and admiration by pursuing our highest values. We can obtain what we want most in life via the non-sacrificial process of universal needs-fulfillment, thereby encouraging children to achieve what they most want in life, to pursue their own wonderful dreams. Needless to say, taking care of children economically will be much easier in a society that upholds individual life-enrichment. This will be a society with freedom rather than sacrifice as its central tenet. Thus, it won’t be a society of enslavement. Widespread and earnest understanding of feelings and needs can bring about the dissolution of domination systems.
NVC: Honest, empathetic expression and compassionate connection
As noted throughout this book, nonviolent communication (referred to as NVC) was designed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg in order for human beings to relate to each other in authentic ways that meet needs, essentially to improve connections and enrich lives. As a consequence, conflict becomes something that’s manageable and even growth-inducing, rather than a precursor to violence and the typical processes of blaming, shaming, and shunning.   Here’s a summary of the process from The Center For Nonviolent Communication (http://www.cnvc.org/learn/nvc-foundations):
“Nonviolent Communication offers practical and powerful skills for compassionate giving and receiving. These skills are based in a consciousness of interdependence and the concept of ‘power with’ instead of ‘power over’ others.
“NVC skills include:
“Differentiating observation from evaluation, being able to carefully observe what is happening free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us;
“Differentiating feeling from thinking, being able to identify and express internal feeling states in a way that does not imply judgment, criticism, or blame/punishment;
“Connecting with the universal human needs/values (e.g. sustenance, trust, understanding) in us that are being met or not met in relation to what is happening and how we are feeling; and,
“Requesting what we would like in a way that clearly and specifically states what we do want (rather than what we don’t want), and that is truly a request and not a demand (i.e. attempting to motivate, however subtly, out of fear, guilt, shame, obligation, etc. rather than out of willingness and compassionate giving).
“Nonviolent Communication skills emphasize personal responsibility for our actions and the choices we make when we respond to others, as well as how to contribute to relationships based in cooperation and collaboration.”
NVC enables the authentic expression of what’s alive in ourselves as well as discovering or making an educated guess about what’s alive in others, which is confirmed by empathetically checking in with them. At any given moment, we have the choice to empathize with ourselves and/or provide empathy to others. Essentially, we can express our own feelings and needs, and we can understand the feelings and needs of others. In so doing, we can devise practical, doable strategies to make our lives more wonderful. Clearly, this is the opposite of what domination, or power-over, thoughts and actions offer us. Because nearly all of us have been trained from childhood onward in moralistic judgment of self and others, learning NVC and living with NVC consciousness can be especially challenging at times.
Instead of entering or remaining in the mental space that NVC refers to as life-alienating communication, we can choose to shift our focus and discover what’s really going on, what really matters, and what’s most effective for getting what we really want. The “four Ds” of life-alienating communication are things we’re all too familiar with in our own lives and culture. They consist of the following:
Diagnoses (labels), involving moralistic judgments, criticisms, comparisons with others, etc.
Deserve-oriented thinking, either being deserving or undeserving of good or bad fortune, praise or punishment.
Demands, involving “should” and “should not” (and “must” and “must not”) statements, which curtail our capacity for choice and also come with moralistic judgments of “bad” or “wrong” when demands aren’t obeyed.
Denial of responsibility, making it seem like another choice in the matter is not possible or that one simply is a victim of circumstance (“It’s their fault,” “I have to do it,” “I’m just doing my job,” “It’s the law!”).
Notice that these four mental processes are interrelated, and notice that they all involve fundamental distrust in mentally liberated human functioning, and they question genuine human worthiness. Indeed, these are the main aspects of our domination culture, of the systems and institutions we’ve covered throughout this book that contribute to humanity’s torment, to us living a mere fraction of our peaceful, honorable, and creative potential.
When we stand in the posture of moralistic judge, we’re tragically expressing needs, such as to be heard and understood, to make sense of things, to have respect and consideration, and so on. At such times, feelings of discomfort, upset, or disappointment are probably active in our consciousness as well. NVC enables us to open a mental space of honesty and empathetic awareness for an inner dialogue that facilitates compassionate connection with self and others.
As mentioned, the basic NVC process advocates the following four aspects: making clear observations without evaluation, opinions, or moralistic judgment; identifying feelings without implications of judgment (more on this later); connecting feelings directly and explicitly to various physical and psychological needs instead of, for example, to various things and persons external to oneself; and, making succinct, practical requests to meet those various needs. So, observations, feelings, needs, and requests are the basic elements of nonviolent, or compassionate, communication. (I prefer the name “connected communication,” and my podcast series on NVC was episodes 126-130, 132-136, and 155. ) Rosenberg’s books and audios of course provide a thorough explanation, but let’s explore more facets here.
Each of us has the capacity to generate both self-empathy and empathy for others. The empathetic process came to us naturally as children, especially prior to being subjected to power-over strategies. When we are in an empathetic experience, our minds aren’t prone to such things as explaining, fixing, advising, educating, correcting, analyzing, telling stories, even consoling and sympathizing. We are simply wanting to identify, reflect, and stay attuned to feelings and needs, knowing—trusting—that this will enable connection and beneficial strategies to emerge. We can also experience the nourishment of compassionate giving, via emotions of empowerment and resourcefulness, tenderness and warmth, visibility and love, encouragement and joy.
When we connect our feelings to our needs, rather than to what someone has said or done for instance, we open an empathetic door for authentic understanding and connection to happen. In contrast, when we employ variations of the “four Ds,” this empathetic door tends to remain closed for ourselves and others. Sometimes, in our desire to think well of ourselves, to protect and take care of ourselves (even to consider ourselves “right”), we can lose sight of how costly such strategies tend to be.
For example, when we want others to feel pain of some sort, to pay a price for what they said or did that we didn’t like or want, it’s probable that we haven’t had our own pain understood in a way that’s satisfying. By triggering distress in others, then, pain can become a shared experience. Despite the cost, the need for empathy is emphasized, if only implicitly. Viewing others with “enemy images” is typically a major part of this disconnection process, which prevents fulfillment of desires and needs and, thus, for feeling real satisfaction.
How we view what’s alive in us in relation to what others say and do sets the stage for how we express feelings, needs, and requests, and this process influences whether needs get met. Below are two examples that explain how each of us can deal with what others say and do in four basic ways. They’re excerpted from a succinct overview of NVC on a site featuring services by NVC trainers Gregg Kendrick and Wes Taylor, http://basileia.org/learningresources:
The “4 Ears”: How We Choose to Hear Difficult Messages
Person A, in the midst of conflict, states: “How dare you walk out of the room when I’m talking! You inconsiderate S.O.B.! You just can’t stand to hear the truth.”
1—Person B (blaming A): “Me the S.O.B? How about you! You’re the one who started all this in the first place. You are so self-righteous telling me I’m inconsiderate. You’ve never thought about another human being besides yourself!”
2—Person B (blaming himself): “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. It’s just that I don’t know what to do. I never know what to do, or what to say. I feel so worthless!”
3—Person B (sensing his own feelings/needs): “When I hear you say that, I feel hurt because I’m needing respect and to be seen for who I am. And I really need some space because I’m in a lot of pain right now… Would you be willing to tell me what you heard me just say?…”
4—Person B (sensing A’s feelings/needs): “Are you feeling angry and wanting respect and to be heard?…”
A mother has a 1.5 hour coffee meeting with a friend, which is her first time away from the children in 3 days. Her 6-Year-Old responds: “Mama I don’t want you to go! What could be more important than being with me (tugging at her leg, crying loudly)?!”
1—Mother (blaming child): “Let go of my leg! And be quiet! You’ve got no reason to cry…I’ve been with you all day. You always make this so hard!…when all I want to do is have a few minutes to myself!”
2—Mother (blaming herself): “Oh, my gosh, I’ve really upset you! Why do I always do this?!…Why am I so selfish?…I’m such an awful mother.”
3—Mother (sensing her own feelings/needs): “Honey, I’m really feeling exhausted and needing to just have some personal time to connect with my good friend, Betty. Would you be willing to let Mary (the babysitter) hold you?…”
4—Mother (sensing her child’s feelings/needs): “Are you feeling sad and wanting to be held?…Are you feeling hurt and needing to know that you are precious and loved?…”
These are the basic “four ears” in human interaction. The first and second responses in each of the above examples are ears of blame and self-blame (known in NVC circles as “jackal ears”). The third and fourth responses in each are ears of clarity, self-empathy, and empathy, grounded in explicit acknowledgement and understanding of feelings and needs (known in NVC circles as “giraffe ears,” since giraffes have the biggest heart of any land animal).
Notice also how these two different ways of hearing and responding dramatically affect the nature of the interaction, as well as the quality of the connection. As demonstrated in NVC usage throughout the world, choosing to see and hear things with judgment-free clarity and connection-oriented empathy can transform the interaction into something enriching and helpful for all involved. Since everyone has feelings and needs (they’re universal), this process can foster connection where disconnection has been present, no doubt the result of things learned in the domination culture.
Because of our predominant cultural memes, most people aren’t used to interactions that fully meet their need for respectful understanding. So, NVC consciousness might take some getting used to, in order for the connection process to reveal its full benefits. When our observations are mixed with judgments or opinions, our messages can become more difficult to hear sometimes; enemy images can form, and our connections can become strained or even lost. Since both physical and psychological needs are the foundation of our lives as humans, they get expressed regardless of what we say and how we say it. So, the key is to express our needs in a clear way that greatly increases the likelihood of them getting met, thus enabling our lives to be enriched.
Here’s another set of examples of how moralistic judgments are combined with observations and how they can be separated and transformed (again from the document by Kendrick and Taylor on basileia.org, as well as Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language Of Life) :
Notice that statements in the second column provide a more accurate account of the observation, while statements in the first column either declare or imply some judgment of the other person’s efficacy and worth, tragically expressing a desire for the other person to be different in some way.
The particular statement about “minorities” adds another layer of message difficulty on account of its collectivistic nature, which represents a global evaluation. This puts individuals in an arbitrary category in which their humanness can be devalued. As we covered in chapter two, such dehumanization is one of the processes leading to the injury of others.
Have you ever heard someone say something like “Well, people like you just don’t get it!”? What’s likely triggered upon hearing this categorization is a feeling of upset, not a feeling of appreciation. Appreciation is usually triggered when the specific issue at hand is addressed, and when needs for acceptance, inclusion, and equality are met. In other words, the most accurate observations are those that don’t question the worth and trustworthiness of ourselves and others. This opens the door to further connection.
Ayn Rand, who I think might’ve benefitted immensely from learning NVC and thus helped her readers immensely (including me), nevertheless wrote the following about racism in the book The Virtue Of Selfishness:
“Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry.” (p. 126) 
Indeed, to view persons as parts of any type of collective in order to impugn their worth is to overlook their essential, individual characteristics. Rand also correctly noted that the smallest minority in the world is the individual. Thus, human rights are upheld by preventing the persecution of individuals. When our needs for freedom and equality are sacrificed, suffering and bloodshed ensue. Judging people’s moral worth tends to generate cycles of defensiveness and counterattack, fostering more despair. Contrast this with needs-based judgment, in which the statements and actions of individuals are viewed from the standpoint of met and unmet needs.
In the preceding columns about separating observations from evaluations, you probably noticed that “I think” was used to express something apart from the observation. Since we are conditioned to make observations with judgments of ourselves and others attached to them, separating the two can be challenging yet beneficial. Our thoughts can contain many evaluations, such as “I think you are beautiful” or “I think you are disrespectful.” These statements don’t have quite the same meaning as “You are beautiful” or “You are disrespectful,” because “I think” notes an opinion as a thought, whereas the latter statements offer only evaluative labels. Bringing a heightened awareness to our thoughts can make a big difference in how we deal with our evaluations.
When we stand in judgment of another, we can be eager to issue some final verdict, as if we had a gavel in our hand, concerning a long-standing and significant issue, or even a temporary or superficial one. In such moments, our higher vantage point of consciousness, the realm of objectively noticing what we’re thinking, unfortunately fades into the background. So, a shift in awareness—to mindfulness of what’s truly alive in us—is what NVC seeks to cultivate, in which we’re much less likely to take personally what others say or do, and thus much less likely to defend and counterattack. This enables us to practice self-empathy, to comfort ourselves and gain psychological resourcefulness, in order to connect with feelings and needs, rather than augment our frustration by engaging in more seemingly endless battles of the wills and contests of rightness and wrongness.
This leads us to another very key aspect of nonviolent communication: the process of separating our feelings from our judgments, so that we can connect our feelings to either met or unmet needs, rather than to what another person (or ourselves) is saying or doing. We’ve tragically been trained to include evaluations in our expressions of feelings, and this disempowers us from thinking and speaking a language of life.
Probably all of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves saying and hearing such things as the following:
“I feel manipulated.”
“I feel ignored.”
“I feel neglected.”
“I feel unappreciated.”
“I feel betrayed.”
“I feel taken for granted.”
“I feel used.”
“I feel judged.”
“I feel insulted.”
“I feel disrespected.”
In truth, the above statements convey thoughts in addition to feelings, and they can be separated as follows:
“I feel upset, and I think I’ve been manipulated.”
“I feel displeased, and I think I’m being ignored.”
“I feel lonely, and I think I’m being neglected.”
“I feel depleted, and I think I haven’t been appreciated.”
“I feel distraught, and I think I’ve been betrayed.”
“I feel unsettled, and I think I’m being taken for granted.”
“I feel disgruntled, and I think I’ve been used.”
“I feel uncomfortable and guarded, and I think I’m being judged.”
“I feel livid, and I think I’ve been insulted.”
“I feel appalled, and I think I’m being disrespected.”
Notice that even the thoughts that have been separated don’t exactly reach the transparent truth of the matter, because thoughts, like beliefs and opinions, may or may not be reflections of actual reality. We’re so used to passing judgment by combining feelings with thoughts that this separation can seem awkward, stilted, even lacking in something. This is why connecting feelings to our met and unmet needs is key—because it connects us to vital truths of our and others’ inner-worlds. So, let’s discover the possible needs underlying the above thoughts by translating the evaluations in them:
“I feel upset, because I’m in need of respect and trust with regard to my ability to make informed choices.”
“I feel displeased, because I’m needing some acknowledgment and visibility in relation to my attempts to communicate.”
“I feel lonely, because my needs for closeness, consideration, and affection aren’t getting met.”
“I feel depleted, because I need some recognition and appreciation for the attempts I’ve made to help our relationship thrive.”
“I feel distraught, because I need reassurance and more understanding about what’s happened.”
“I feel unsettled, because my needs for appreciation and equality aren’t met.”
“I feel disgruntled, because my needs for inclusion, honesty, and respect haven’t gotten met.”
“I feel uncomfortable and guarded, and I’m needing acceptance, empathy, trust, and respect.”
“I feel livid, because I’m really needing some mutuality and respect right now.”
“I feel appalled, because I’m in need of respect and understanding right now.”
Notice the phrase “right now” indicates the imperative nature of anger. Anger is an alarm signal indicating that important needs aren’t getting met. Of course, all needs are important in life. It’s just that anger is a feeling that can lead to quite tragic expressions of unmet needs, so it’s crucial to discover the deeper feelings and needs giving rise to it. Typically, other unidentified and unexpressed feelings underlie anger, such as hurt, fear, sadness, despair, confusion, and grief. Frustration is another emotional aspect of anger that’s crying out for needs to get met.
As mentioned, usually we weren’t shown how to convey our feelings and needs in a way that greatly assisted in them being understood and met. This is the ongoing tragedy of domination systems, from the family to politics. Learning NVC summons us to be more of ourselves. It also summons us to heal our trauma, to begin nourishing ourselves with the understanding and compassion that were absent during times of abuse and neglect. Of course, this can be a challenging process, especially when costly ways to convey what’s alive in ourselves and assess what’s alive in others predominate. Sometimes, even disdain is directed at the NVC process itself, at articulating our feelings and needs in an open, honest, and empathetic way—as if clearly stating our needs were another form of violence, thought to be “needy,” “manipulative,” “psychologizing,” or “psychoanalyzing.” When we live in a culture of widespread coercion, nearly everything may be interpreted from that all-too-familiar context.
As we encounter someone with such a perspective, we can see many needs being expressed, such as to be heard and understood in a familiar way, which entails needs for comprehensibility, mutuality, and presence. This includes honoring what’s alive in him or her concerning a nonviolent way of communicating. Ultimately, this kind of reaction points especially to the need for empathy, yet noting this need explicitly can trigger more feelings of upset, perhaps based on needs for equality, meaning, and stability.
As individuals, we want to discover and process things about ourselves with our own volition; this is in line with honoring our needs for autonomy, equality, self-efficacy, and self-understanding. So, guessing the need for autonomy is likely to get a favorable response from nearly anyone, no matter their familiarity with NVC; at times, it’s helpful to start there in disagreement and conflict, and to realize that we all have a need for space as well. Sometimes connections are made little by little, via the gradual building of trust.
Ultimately, NVC is a way of interacting with and describing what’s alive in us and what’s alive in others that most fosters empathetic connection and understanding, yielding solutions to self-conflict and conflict with others. Grounding our experiences in a comprehensible vocabulary of feelings and needs greatly facilitates this. Since we use strategies to meet needs all the time, once we’re clear about the needs we’re seeking to meet, we can get more clear about optimal strategies—ones that are mutually advantageous, win/win for all parties, rather than ones that entail sacrifices and sizable costs.
Strategies that enrich our lives usually emerge when we get our needs for understanding and empathy met. Notice that understanding is a component of empathy as well, and vice versa. Naturally, these needs interrelate, like all the others. Figuring out the various needs that we may have pressing at any given time is part of our inner-learning process too. This isn’t exactly easy at times, given the breadth of our psychological needs and of course given all the social and cultural influences.
Sometimes, we can have the thought that it’s easier to believe that some needs aren’t that important, that they should be sacrificed, or that they don’t even exist! After all, we live in a society that neglects and sacrifices needs on a daily basis, on account of the present domination systems. So, it’s little wonder that some persons might bristle at the proposition that needs are universal—indeed vital—to each person’s flourishing. Just because we’ve been able to survive without many needs being fully met, doesn’t mean that they’re unimportant. We can aim for more than survival or just getting by. Flourishing can become our main objective.
Humans evolved to thrive on this planet in myriad ways. When we relate to each other based on what’s universal in us, we can relate in mutually advantageous ways. When we make requests that consider each other’s feelings and needs, we can avoid the language of demands. As we’ve explored, demands contain threats, a form of coercion trying to “get” us to do something that we might not otherwise do. As NVC instructs, one of the things that can distinguish a request from a demand is whether the person issuing it is okay with hearing a “No, thanks,” being cognizant of the possible needs underlying it.
Indeed, needs are just as much involved when we turn down a request as when we say “Yes” to one. Each kind of response can lead to more understanding of what needs are most pressing. Yet when a person has distrust in the process of getting needs met, demands might be made instead, and everyone suffers. For even when we comply with a demand, the reason is not to freely, enthusiastically, and compassionately give; rather, it’s to avoid harmful consequences, to placate, or even to feign respect.
Feigned respect is the opposite of actual respect, of course, so obviously when demands are made, this need is sacrificed too. In such moments, when the desire is simply compliance, the quality of the relationship significantly deteriorates (perhaps we can issue apologies later, we might think). Let’s use the example of parenting here, because as I typed these words I received the following email from http://nonviolentcommunication.com:
“Compassionate Parenting Tip — Week 46
“Before you ask your child to do something, Marshall Rosenberg suggests asking yourself these two questions…
“The first question is: ‘What do you want your child to do?’ As you answer this first question, it may be clear that using rewards or threats can get your child to do what you want.
“The second question is: ‘What do you want your child’s reasons to be for doing it?’ When you consider this question, you will see that using power over children will not create a safe, trusting and connected relationship, the kind you can build upon for a lifetime.”
Indeed, power-over strategies are manifestations of frustration and distrust, yet we may have learned to find value in them, regardless of their cost. In pondering the second question, we can also think of another answer that many parents might proffer: “I want my child’s reasons to stem from his or her desire to do what one is told, when one is told to do it, signifying compliance with my authority as a parent, because I know best.” While this might not be stated explicitly by parents, it’s obvious from their behavior that many, if not most, parents believe that compliance and obedience are necessary virtues in the family system (and in religious and schooling systems), even though they clash with (normally unacknowledged) needs for autonomy, choice, respect, and respect for others (such as children).
So, domination thinking leaves us caught in an immense contradiction: that needs can be sacrificed without serious harm to self and others, or that harm to self and others doesn’t matter much when it comes to getting what we want by making demands.
Yet, in our more reflective and compassionate moments, we know that being viewed as equals, i.e., as persons with the same needs and freedoms, enables us to flourish and interact in the most enriching ways. Naturally, such ways don’t involve threats and coercion, which harm our independence, including the independence of the administrators of threats and coercion. Because of humans’ equality of worth and universality of needs, anything we do that sacrifices them is destined to fail, if not materially fail, then psychologically fail. Anything that upholds the premise that some humans don’t have the same needs or have needs that don’t matter very much basically reflects the age-old power-over paradigm.
As Rosenberg noted, ultimately we can’t directly make others do what we demand. All we can do is make them wish, via punishment for noncompliance, that they had done what we demanded; and then, they might try to make us wish we hadn’t done that.  This results in seemingly endless cycles of coercion, threats, punishments, resentment, and revenge. Humans have survived on Earth for thousands of generations immersed in varying degrees of this destructive cycle. In the last few hundred generations, institutions to embody it in seeming perpetuity have been crafted, “governments” being the prime example. These are the modern colossal pyramids of distrust.
However, once we determine that the cycle of needs-neglect harms us to the core of our being, we can give it up and let it go. We can begin adopting new ways to interact with children, in both parenting and educational realms. Making sure that everyone’s needs are honored is part of the waking-up process—waking up to our wonderful possibilities on this planet.
Just as others aren’t responsible for our feelings, we aren’t responsible for theirs. To reiterate, feelings stem from met and unmet needs, in addition to the thoughts connected to them. As noted, once we get clear about our feelings and needs, we can formulate requests that can change our interactions for the better, thus meeting needs and changing how we feel. Such a process involves valuing the independence of others, especially little people.
Children typically have a much easier time integrating nonviolent communication, because they haven’t solidified habits of mind that can be life-alienating, such as the “4 Ds.” Being okay with another person not fulfilling our request is part of the process of understanding their perspective, especially what needs would not get met by doing what we want. Because this perspective tends to foster more enriching interactions and a social system that leads to many more needs getting met, people can feel more alive, empowered, joyous, comfortable, and satisfied.
In our present culture, ingrained habits aren’t easy to relinquish. But all of us know the immense difference in our emotional state when our needs for being heard, for understanding, and for respect are met, versus when they’re not. Internally, if we’ve yet to learn a nonviolent way of communicating with ourselves, sometimes our actions may involve feelings of frustration, despair, discouragement, or upset about thoughts of poor self-concept. Thus, we might indulge in, for example, a particular junk food to try to meet our need for choice and to feel pleasure by stimulating our taste buds. Other times it may involve feeling irked or indignant and, consequently, we might assert our autonomy and rebel against rules set forth by various so-called “authorities,” who then follow through with their threats of punishment.
Notice that the main issue in such instances concerns the ways we’ve been trying to get our needs met, not what we’re feeling and needing as such. Indeed, the first step in restructuring habitual patterns of reacting to feelings is to explicitly identify those feelings and determine the need or needs underlying them. As we’ve discussed, our traditional culture doesn’t provide us with the vocabulary and method by which to do this, but thankfully NVC does. The basic framework of needs involves facets such as connection, well-being, honesty (alignment with reality), play and joy, peace, autonomy, and meaning. Various feelings arise when such needs are met, such as affectionate, engaged, hopeful, confident, excited, grateful, inspired, joyful, exhilarated, peaceful, and refreshed.
And of course various feelings arise when our needs are not met, such as afraid, annoyed, angry, aversion, confused, disconnected, disquiet, embarrassed, fatigue, pain, sad, tense, vulnerable, and yearning.
Here are the detailed feelings and needs lists from the Center For Nonviolent Communication, which provide a foundational vocabulary of our functioning:
Feelings and needs are foundational because the process of evaluating what’s beneficial to us (and to others) and what’s not—that is, whether needs get met or do not get met—determines how successful, effective, or optimized we are in the process of living. If we don’t have a solid understanding of our needs-based judgments, then some things are bound to go awry.
For instance, imposing punishments on children when they do things that “aren’t allowed,” or when they do them in an “improper” manner (i.e., in a manner that we don’t like or don’t see as useful) sends the message to them that they aren’t in full charge of their own behavior and its natural consequences; children suffer imposed consequences by “authority figures” instead.
During both childhood and adulthood, prohibition and regulation leave us with a society fraught with conflict, both inner and outer kinds. Basically, we end up with a culture in which human psychologies are at war with themselves and with each other. External control and domination by others in supposed “authority” deny our right to be self-responsible persons who can do what we want. As children, when we are not allowed to figure out what we want and do what we want, we can lose a vital connection to our desires. When our desires are thwarted and can’t be fulfilled according to our own preferences and determinations, our intrinsic motivation and connection to a spectrum of needs suffer much as well. Consequently as adults, we might learn not to care as much about ourselves, which can result in doing things that are not-so-healthy or even self-destructive.
When our wills are thwarted from an early age (supposedly “for your own good”), we might end up believing that others are in charge of important decisions. If not others per se, then various internalized critical voices can take center stage, which also generate immense self-conflict. Because of our need for autonomy, such voices also might be rebelled against.
Again, all these voices, be they external or internalized ones, presume to be “in charge” of you, and they can make you wish you’d done what they demanded; they can punish you too. And you, in turn, may try to make them wish they hadn’t done that, by not following their demands entirely, which can create problematic cycles of rebellion, punishment, and self-punishment. Intertwined processes of compulsion and resentment can loom large.
Tragically, in our efforts to assert our autonomy—i.e., our natural freedom to make our own choices—we can make choices that we might not have made if we had been trusted (and trusted ourselves) in the first place.
Connecting more with feelings and needs
So, how can we solidify the conviction that we are persons who deeply care about ourselves, who have concern for our own well-being? Achieving self-direction in any realm can be facilitated by connecting your feelings to your needs. From there, you can devise life-enriching strategies to nourish yourself joyfully, making healthy choices rather than coerced ones.
As we look within, into our inner-world, we can notice a lot of interesting and fascinating things going on. Most of us look into a mirror on a daily basis, seeing our external, physical selves, but sometimes we’re reluctant to see and understand what’s going on inside our psychological selves. NVC trainer Thomas D’Ansembourg wrote the following in his book Being Genuine: Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real, in the section “Cherishing a Relationship”:
“Each of us regularly gives ourselves body care. We tend our hair, our beards, our clothes, our homes, as well as the whole range of machines and apparatuses that we use, from the coffee machine to the computer, not forgetting the lawnmower or the car. We do maintenance on all of these things for our own well-being and that of our families. And all the logistics are perfectly well-mastered and built into our routines. This is true to such an extent that we can with no difficulty postpone an appointment by claiming that the car is at the garage or that the computer has broken down. Also, without the slightest embarrassment, we can rearrange our entire schedule around a medical appointment (‘Let’s postpone the meeting until next week because this week I’m having medical examinations’) or even an appointment with the hairdresser (‘Oh, honey, we can’t meet this afternoon; I forgot my appointment with the hairdresser’). But how about this? ‘I’ll be absent next week; I’m doing the annual checkup on my relationship with myself’ or ‘We have to postpone tomorrow’s meeting because I’m looking after a relationship that is precious to me’ or ‘Sweetheart, we won’t be able to see each other this afternoon; I need to do some inner beauty work.’
“What’s strange is that relationships, whether with ourselves or with other people, are expected to operate unassisted, without any fuel, with scarcely any maintenance! It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that they so often wear out, burn out, or break down. We don’t take care of them. We get more wrapped up with logistics than with closeness, as if closeness were taken for granted. We don’t go and look, we don’t want to know, for intimacy instills fear. It’s true that if we don’t know each other well, if we aren’t fully grounded, intimacy both with ourselves and others can instill fear—the fear of losing oneself, the fear of dissolving like a drop of water in the sea. Then we run off to do things, while connection is frequently consigned to the scrap heap.” (p. 161-62) 
Self-care and thus care about our connections with others do involve certain insights and certain healing processes, lest elements of our childhood trauma and domination culture get the best of us. Shining the light of empathy into all facets of your mind tends to foster reintegration with your child-self, and this can foster still more inner connection. Fears of intimacy tend to be based on distorted thoughts about oneself, such as “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not worthy of happiness” (and thus of someone’s full love), or even “I’m unfit to exist.” Such emotions indicate our needs for acceptance and love, to matter, genuineness and meaning, self-esteem, and indeed intimacy itself. To recognize needs and meet them in beneficial ways tends to be as much an art as a science, especially since the sciences of psychology and neurology have yet to incorporate the feelings-connected-with-needs language of nonviolent communication in their understanding of human functioning, motivation, and health.
The ways we can go about trying to meet our unmet needs seem vast of course, but certain patterns tend to emerge, typically based on past experiences and behaviors. We tend to do what most other people are doing too, and to err is human. Each of us makes mistakes on a regular basis; it’s part of our nature as fallible beings (notice that the fictitious notion of infallibility is typically granted to ineffable, disembodied “beings”). Yet we don’t want to confuse our fallibility with either of two related things: being victims of our problematic past; or, falling prey to a culture that hasn’t focused on these all-important ideas.
In many ways, as we’ve explored, our mainstream culture has failed to provide us with the necessary information and skills by which to flourish and live optimally—which means being versed in the physical and psychological needs that we possess by virtue of being conceptual creatures.
Because all of us have the same spectrum of feelings and needs, where we may differ is in the process of identifying and expressing them and the strategies we use to fulfill various needs. Conflict happens in the realm of strategies, after all. For instance, sometimes we’re trying to fulfill a need so eagerly that we lose sight of our other needs; we lose sight of the fact that we don’t have to sacrifice some needs for the sake of other needs.
So, the next time you’re engaged in this process of connecting your feelings to your needs, observe what needs you’re trying to fulfill by your present strategies. As you explore what needs you’ve been fulfilling, be it for one day, a week, or even months or years, also reflect on what needs might not have been fully met in the process.
While not easy or simple sometimes, we can let go of past strategies that sacrifice needs. Yet, as we live in a culture that has tended to overlook so many needs, we might wonder how we can finally meet them, which leads to discovering and devising the most life-enriching strategies. By imagining how we can do something differently that can fulfill more of our needs, new realms of living can open up for us.
Think about some specific alternative strategies that can get more of your needs met without the typical costs. Perhaps take some time and write them below in specific terms, because the more specific they are, the easier they’ll be to enact and incorporate on a daily basis (again, feel free to make use of the NVC feelings and needs inventories):
Eventually, new ways to fulfill needs become an integral part of your life. NVC is a process of consciousness that can create a much more integrated view of ourselves and others. The view given in our childhood involved perhaps a lot of disconnection from needs, confusion of strategies with needs, as well as shame, blame, and guilt from moralistic judgment (“should” and “shouldn’t” and “good” and “bad” edicts). Yet, the view we can presently choose and embody involves internal trust and worthiness, reflecting the facets of happiness. An integrated view is also in line with what brain science holds concerning healthy consciousness and living well. Here’s an hour talk about this by Daniel Siegel of the Mindsight Institute, to either watch now or come back to later:
Google Personal Growth Series The New Science of Mindsight
And here’s an exquisitely detailed chart of the developmental process of the aspects of our consciousness, as we become more and more integrated, which was devised by NVC trainers Jim and Jori Mankse:
Learning to function in an integrated, authentic, and compassionate manner is a life-long process, and so much enjoyment can be experienced throughout it. The challenges in our culture beckon us to be more present with ourselves and with others and to cultivate a needs-based consciousness. Every little bit helps, and as Rosenberg noted (addressing our potential fear of failure or making mistakes), “anything that is worth doing is worth doing poorly.”  As a distinct species, we can realize and embrace our full empathetic capacity and thus actualize our magnificent potential on this amazing planet. Let’s explore more of the meaning and implications of this in the last two chapters.