One of the most basic tasks of a therapist is to help people sort through a myriad of uncomfortable, difficult and often confusing feelings. This task varies in complexity and the process can be as unique as each individual that enters the room. However, in a culture that is drowning in information, where answers are accessible in seconds, we are infantile in our ability to deal with our own emotional landscape. As a culture, we aren’t very good at sitting with pain and suffering. We are used to quick answers and expect quick “fixes” when we are uncomfortable. Or we are used to fighting it. We fight and beat ourselves up, trying to force a return to happiness and bliss.

While nothing can replace the healing comfort of connection with another person when our emotions run ragged, our ability to cope really can move beyond passive endurance or the all-American “fake it till you make it” mentality.

We need to learn some new tools, to flex some new muscles in order to learn how to treat ourselves well when feelings start pulling us under. One tool was developed Dr. Marshall Rosenberg called Nonviolent Communication. This form of communication has been used in conflict resolution, peacemaking and enhancing overall joy all over the world. One of the foundational principles is that our feelings are a reflection of how well our basic, universal human needs are met or not met. We approach meeting those needs with empathy and compassion, both for ourselves and toward others. This process begins with gentle, nonjudgmental observation of what you are experiencing. Try not to evaluate what has happened, but simply pause for a moment and observe what you are experiencing. Did someone speak to you and your body became tense or stomach upset? Do you find yourself exhausted and ruminating over a concern you have? Allow that observation to form itself into a word identifying the feeling you are experiencing. A feelings list can often be useful to help you narrow it down. You may even find some relief in just being able to name your experience.  

Follow-up by taking an inventory of your needs, keeping in mind that feelings are the expression of met and unmet needs. The Center for Nonviolent Communication offers a universal list of needs to help identify what may be lacking in your life. While the list is not exhaustive, it is a useful look at basic human needs that we all share. Things like Acceptance, Empathy, Respect, Inspiration, Harmony, Discovery and Purpose are not categorized by any demographic, creed or background. Rather they are the unifying forces that keep us humble and keep us human. So next time you are stuck trying to fight against your feelings, take a moment to rejoin the human race and allow yourself to receive the gift of knowing what you need in that moment. Be kind to yourself.

Stephanie Wendland, MA, LCPC