(Note: NVC is an abbreviation for Nonviolent Communication, a fluid, ever-evolving language process created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It is also sometimes referred to as Compassionate Communication, and is based on universal human feelings and needs, the giving of empathy and making humble requests rather than demands.)
In past articles, I’ve referred to “hitting a nerve” as an experience where we believe we are being triggered by something someone says or does, or doesn’t say or do. When we take someone’s comment or action personally (or take their silence or inaction personally), in a sense we are really triggering our own pain/judgment/anger response. Instead of someone else pushing our hot buttons, ultimately, we are the ones pushing those buttons, even if we learned unconsciously to do that in childhood by observing similar behaviors as we were growing up, from parents, siblings, teachers, etc.
Nonetheless, it does appear to our egoic mind as if the other person has hit a nerve in our psyche or emotional body. We feel intense pain from unmet needs for kindness, respect, consideration, care, fairness, or any number of other universal human needs. In a flash, we create a story that this person is wrong and he should have known how to meet our needs. In judging him as wrong, we give ourselves license to indulge in a self-righteous rage, making the other person entirely responsible for our pain. While rage can give a sort of “high” and a false sense of empowerment, it can also be quite stressful and toxic to our emotional well-being. Rage deadens our deeper feelings of hurt by pulling all our attention away from the hurt and focusing angry energy on someone else. As one of my teachers has said, “Anger most hurts the sender.”
This has happened so much within our egoic minds–we have practiced this sequence of pain/judgment/anger so many times–that the neuronal pathways in the brain are well paved, like a six-lane interstate expressway. This sequence can now happen automatically, instantaneously and unconsciously. In our anger or rage, we hurl judgmental thoughts, words or acts toward the one we’ve judged as wrong for hurting us. When angry, we may also hurl some harsh judgments at ourselves too.
This response is very much like what happens in our physical body when some body part is injured seriously, when nerves are in fact “hit” or inflamed. The nerves send intense, fiery signals to the brain constantly. The nerves almost seem to be punishing us for wrongly or carelessly letting this damage occur to our physical body. They demand that we take care of the bleeding or pain immediately. Severe physical injuries cause the nerves to scream in pain to our brain, demanding care and attention.
Did you ever say or do something well-meaning that somehow hit a nerve and triggered a furious response from someone who yelled or screamed jackal words at you, demanding your immediate apology or some other course of action?
If this happens, it is possible to remember the analogy of the physical nerves in the body. The angry person is responding like a nerve in the body that has been irritated and inflamed. In a quantum physics view of the world, everyone and everything is connected energetically or spiritually–you’re connected to them, and they to you. So the angry “stranger” yelling at you is, in a sense, like your finger or toe which has been stubbed. Or if it’s someone much closer to you, the angry person could be compared to your own physical head or your heart. It’s almost as if they think you are connected somehow to them…and they are correct in a metaphysical way.
Though we may tend to cower in fear or defend ourselves, it is possible to take it more compassionately. One could conceivably adopt the high road here and take it as a great compliment that the angry person is trying to connect with you, even if in a harsh way.
When we judge others as wrong and hurl furious “jackal” words and actions toward them…we are behaving in a very raw and primal way, much like an aggravated nerve in our body. We react blindly to our pain, blaming someone else and demanding that they take the blame or responsibility for it. We act as if they were a part of our emotional or physical body…that they must treat our wound, undo it or fix it, immediately.
When someone yells or screams at you in anger or fear, and you retaliate by yelling back, the pain is being compounded exponentially, and the wounds are being deepened. The painful memories are being burnt more deeply into everyone’s memory cells. Fighting back in anger or fear could be compared to treating a new wound on your body with more violence, making it worse. Actually, a new wound needs some gentle, caring attention. The same holds true for emotional wounds we feel during conflicts.
We’re less likely to get what we want from others if we scream bloody murder at them. We can, however, learn how to give ourselves emergency self-empathy as a sort of “emotional triage” or first aid. We can learn how to ask for empathy and compassion from the person we felt angry with. Even a nonviolent scream, as described by Marshall Rosenberg, has no judgment or demand in it. It is just a pure cry of pain, which may inspire compassion from those who hear it, no matter how loud it may be.
We all have old emotional wounds that we may not even be aware of or understand fully, let alone know how to heal. So when someone inadvertently hits one of those raw nerves, it’s usually just that, an accident.
If you’ve ever had sharp pain in a joint (e.g. bursitis or arthritis) you learn quickly to protect that joint until it heals. But if you accidentally move the joint in a way that brings a deep, sharp pain, would you hit the sore joint angrily with a hammer? You’re already sizzling in pain, so it would be more compassionate to let yourself feel the depth of that pain as a serious reminder that the wound is not healed yet and desperately needs your care and protection. Moving that inflamed joint too far too soon would do more harm than good.
Likewise, when someone says or does something and you take it in a way that triggers pain, that wound, whether old or new, is needing some empathetic care and protection. It sorely needs your sustained loving attention, as does the person who triggered it.