December may quite possibly be the most ironic month of the year. It’s filled with a mix of reflection/quietude, and expectation/excitement. We’re looking back across the last year of our life, and looking forward to the next, full of possibilities. But there’s also a third element, wedged between our reflective thoughts and our hope for the future…feelings born specifically from the holiday season: feelings of obligation, pressure, and increased vulnerability.
One thing is certain; the holidays make a big impact on our lives, whether we like it or not.
Maybe it’s all the holiday movies brimming with overwhelming emotions and romance. Maybe it’s the snowflakes, the music, and the warm fuzzy blankets. Maybe we have memories of hopes fulfilled when we were kids. Whatever the reason, we are in a heightened, emotionally vulnerable state. I’d like to call it joy and expectation, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
Like the supposed ‘thinning of the veil’ on Halloween that makes us that much closer to the world of the dead; Christmas, Chanukah, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve come with their own thinning veil, between the inner world of our emotions, and the outer world of family and holiday celebrations. At that first whiff of cinnamon from the grocery store cinnamon brooms, the first sight of the Starbucks holiday drink sign, or the first sound of jingle bells floating to our ears from the TV, something happens to the walls between daily activity and the inner world of the heart: They thin out or disappear. Our formality is replaced by anticipation (for what, we’re not sure). Our feelings of separateness are replaced by a desire for laughter and connection. And thoughts of work are replaced by thoughts of time off. Strangers hold doors open for each other more often and smile more at each other. There is ‘kindness’ in the air, and…impatience. Perhaps this is why there are so many holiday arguments. We’re all wearing our hearts on our sleeves. We’re excited, and maybe in the background, we start to think that we will get everything we want, because…well, it’s the holidays. It’s a time of wishes fulfilled…right?
The complication is that we ALL want our wishes fulfilled. And guess what? Not all of our wishes are the same.
This is the prime time to get mad at your family, and for them to get mad at you. They’re still doing the same things they always do, but now there’s a heightened sense of EXPECTATION behind it. Your mom in NY wants you home for the holidays, even though you now live in Zimbabwe. She expects your new wife to come along…even though your wife’s family hopes you’ll celebrate with them, and they live in England. The alcoholics want to get drunk, and the people dealing with them want a break. The vegan can’t eat the apple pie, but the cook has put a lot of effort into that damn homemade pie, so she’s mad at the vegan for not eating it. I mean, I’m just scratching the surface here. There are dozens of unspoken needs and feelings floating around on the holidays.
Many of us have heard of this, and most of us don’t understand what it is. I wonder if Marshall Rosenberg (the founder of NVC) at some point felt some regret and frustration because the name of NVC has been taken at face value to mean ‘talking without hitting each other’. Although avoiding physical violence is certainly within the goals of NVC, the system has much more depth than that. In reality, it’s a form of communication whose purpose is to create empathy for yourself and others, to clear up misunderstandings, and eventually to keep them from happening in the first place. It’s a system designed to help people get clarity about what needs they have, where and why their needs are unmet, and how to ask for what they need in a kind and loving manner (a non-violent manner). The core intention of this system is to practice:
- Radical self-awareness, in order to understand and communicate your needs more clearly and
- Radical empathy, in order to understand the feelings and needs of the other person (people).
I have to admit, when you get it right, it feels awesome!
Let’s use a simple example to explain this, by taking a closer look at the cook and the vegan I mentioned above: The vegan, Susie, is angry at her mom who cooks all the holiday food because she never makes Susie anything she can eat for the holidays. Her mom even gets upset if Susie brings any vegan food of her own to eat. Susie needs consideration, acceptance, and support. Her mom is mad at Susie because Susie can’t just eat what she makes for once, and appreciate all of the efforts she puts into cooking for 30 people. One of the mom’s main needs in life is to contribute to the joy of others. She also needs consideration of her efforts, and appreciation of her ability to make delicious food. Neither one of them is getting what they need. Ironically, neither one of them are consciously aware of how they feel or how the other person feels, so they’ll need to do some work to figure it out before they talk to each other, if they want to clear the air.
Step 1: Each of the participants in this story first needs to clarify what their feelings and needs are, in their own mind or on paper. Then they get to give themselves what they need, first, before they make realistic requests to get their needs met by others. Here is how the mom can make peace with her daughter: She needs to say to herself “Wow, I’m tired. I’ve worked really hard to get this done over the last two days, and I’m feeling it. I give a lot of myself to make this the best meal of the year. I feel so accomplished. I appreciate myself. I’m going to give myself some much-needed love by taking a hot bath tonight and sleeping in in the morning.” It feels good for her to think about these things, but she still feels angry because no one else is saying it to her. That’s why the next step is crucial:
Step 2: She has to think about what her daughter feels and needs. She has to reach out with her empathy and think “Look at Susie, she’s the only vegan here. She must feel isolated and it must be hard for her to get enough food to eat with all this dairy and meat around. I wonder if she needs some consideration and acknowledgment.” Did you feel that? There was no anger in those observations. And every observation she made is probably closer to the truth than anything she could have thought about her daughter from a place of anger.
Step 3: If the mom wants to truly make peace with her daughter (they fight every year about food during the holidays), then she can begin by voicing her empathetic thoughts from step two to her daughter. This is called expressing empathy. She has already fulfilled her own needs by doing some radical self-empathy and is feeling more fulfilled. It’s much easier to give others empathy when you have given it to yourself, first. You’d be amazed how much easier it is for people to hear what you have to say when your needs for empathy are fulfilled first. It’s like taking the fire out of your words. Once you feel fulfilled, your words will be less charged and will sound much more genuine to the person you’re speaking to.
Here is how the daughter can make peace with her mom:
Step 1: She first gets clarity about her feelings and needs: “It’s always hard during the holidays. I really hope there’s something I can actually eat this Thanksgiving! I need respect from my family. I need them to be considerate of my food choices by providing something vegan or letting me bring my own food. I’m vegan because it makes me feel energized and healthy, and I’m proud that I take good care of myself.” She says this to herself, and then:
Step 2: She thinks about what her mom might be feeling: “Wow, mom really went all out this year. She spent two days in the kitchen, preparing everything. She always makes a beautiful spread, and everyone loves her food. She must be tired. I wonder if she needs some appreciation, and maybe even some help in the kitchen. I’d really like to bring my own food to the gathering, but I know it will hurt mom’s feelings. Maybe if I offer to help her in the kitchen during those two days before the next holiday, we can make a couple of vegan things together.”
Step 3: Stepping into action: Susie goes to her mother, communicates her empathy from step two, and offers to help mom in the kitchen for the next holiday.
When these two talk, it’s going to be a very different conversation than it was in previous years. Mom is going to show empathy, and offer to make a vegan dessert next time. Susie is going to show empathy, tell her mom what a great idea the vegan dessert is, and ask if they can make it together. It sounds easy when it’s on paper. The hard part is going through step one (self-empathy) on your own before you walk into the triggering situation. Having self-empathy is quite powerful, and can take a lot of pressure out of an otherwise messy situation. Once you have listened to yourself, you not only fulfill needs for validation, you also gain a new level of understanding as to what your feelings and needs are. It makes it a lot easier to communicate with others when you know what you feel and need, first.
There are other ways to use NVC, very powerful ways that can bring about deeper healing and understanding. I’ve chosen to focus on empathy in this example because it is the most likely way to increase peace in a potentially uncomfortable situation. The fact that the holidays are a charged and vulnerable time means that we should keep our communication as peaceful as possible, lest we want to open a can of worms. Primarily using the empathy model above can help the person you’re talking with feel loved, supported and understood, which will greatly improve the climate between you. If you choose another route, say, by leading the conversation with a statement of your own feelings and needs, the other person could get defensive, which will make it a lot harder to create peace. There is a time for that, but unless there is a really messy emotional situation that needs attention ASAP, it’s best left for after the holidays.
Every situation is different. This is a very simple example. There are a lot more complex examples out there. Hard-hitting things come up, like families who won’t allow other family members over even for a holiday gathering. If we break each situation down into small, achievable steps, steps that hold each of us responsible for our own part (this is the clincher here), then we will get more of the things we need. We will also be more capable of making clear, healthy boundaries with people who tend to be a toxic presence in our lives. Here are the steps that need to be taken before the holidays hit:
- Take an inventory of the feelings that come up for you around the holidays. Start on your own, by writing your feelings down, for five minutes. It doesn’t have to be pretty, considerate or kind, it just needs to be honest. Then, read what you wrote, and extract from it a simple list of one-word feelings on a piece of paper. No detailed sentences here. This is important because when we express our feelings through complex sentence form, we start to convey our opinions instead of our feelings, or we water our feelings down with thoughts or comparisons. We also tend to point the finger at others, instead of owning our own emotions. For example, if I say “I feel like you don’t like me” then I’m talking about your experience, instead of my own. Instead, I could say “I feel lonely.” Both statements are true, but one has the potential to bring up the other person’s defense system, and one invites connection. You can find a great list of feelings, according to NVC, below. The list includes the emotion of anger, but I suggest that you avoid that word when using NVC. https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/feelings-inventory
- Read the list of feelings to yourself or out loud. For example: “I feel sad. I feel confused. I feel ashamed. I feel anxious. I feel worried.” Notice I didn’t use the word ‘angry’. Anger is an emotion that is usually a culmination of multiple other emotions that are causing your anger. For example sadness, disappointment or frustration are often at the root of anger and are a much clearer representation of what you actually feel. If you say you’re angry, instead of stating the feelings underneath, you’ve missed a poignant healing opportunity, and are not being truly honest.
- Now that you’ve got more clarity about your own emotions, and are hopefully feeling more self-connection, think for a while about what the other person or people in the upsetting situation might be feeling. Your own feelings might get in the way of imagining what the other person is feeling, but remember, this is all in an attempt to get your own needs met and is well worth your time. To get your own needs met, you have to become better at empathizing with others as well as yourself. Write down, in list or bullet form, one-word feelings that you think they might be feeling. Remember that you’re avoiding using complex sentences in this step. Not every guess will be correct. The important part is that you’re starting to think about what they might be feeling, from a place of curiosity. This practice in itself will breed more curiosity and more empathy.
- Now, we move to needs. This is where it gets a little complicated but stick with it. Based on your own list of one-word feelings, write down a list of your needs. Go through each feeling on your list, and notice that there is at least one unmet need underneath every uncomfortable feeling. If you’re feeling sad or lonely, maybe your need is for connection and understanding. Sometimes a feeling of frustration indicates that your need for clarity or for shared reality has not been met. Your unmet needs will become clearer to you the more you practice self-empathy and self-awareness. Needs are also clearest when they’re expressed in one word. It’s much more likely to invite connection when you say “I need consideration,” than it is to say “I need you to consider my feelings.” I know it’s like splitting hairs here, but the business of talking about needs and feelings in uncomfortable situations is quite touchy. It’s important to choose words carefully, to keep the peace, and increase understanding. Avoid pointing fingers at all costs.
- Create a list of needs you think the other person may be experiencing. If you empathetically guess that they feel confused and depleted, maybe their need is for clarity and support, or for recognition. Usually, when we perceive that someone is wronging us, they’re doing so because they’re trying to get their own needs met. This is true even in extreme situations. Humans act to fulfill needs, period. Some of the most ground-breaking work that Marshall Rosenberg did was with inmates in prisons. No matter how horrible the inmates’ crimes, there was always a need buried under their actions. Their unmet needs were often a result of their own childhood trauma, and the crimes they committed were a desperate attempt to get those traumatized parts of themselves fulfilled. No matter how wrong a person’s actions may be on the outside, or how much they hurt others, there is always a subconscious need they are trying to fulfill, whether they know it or not. No matter how hurt you maybe by the other person, know that they might be feeling just as hurt as you are, and are trying to find comfort through their actions. If you take the time to guess what their needs might be, you will be fathomed, closer to actually understanding them, and closer to getting your own needs met as well.
- Come up with ways that you can get your own needs met, without the other person fulfilling those needs for you. This might be in the form of alone time or space. It might be that you need to go on a vacation or spend time with a good friend. It could be a thousand things. It’s your job to figure out what you need. Next, think up some requests or a statement of boundaries for yourself and write them down. This is another aspect of getting your needs met and should come second to, or be accompanied by, you fulfilling some of your needs first. You can stop the process here, or if you think it would be helpful (and not detrimental) to talk to the other people/person about this, then think of some questions to ask them, so you can understand their feelings and needs better. Remember, if you do choose to go this far, you must be grounded and not feeling vulnerable. Doing your self-empathy work first will help the conversation be more successful.
If you’re not prepared and grounded, then it’s best to wait or simply handle your own choices or communicate very simple, open-ended needs. It can help a lot to say “I need more understanding between us. I’ve come up with some things that I need from this relationship. Are you open to hearing them?” Notice you’re not pointing any fingers at them. Finger-pointing often starts arguments. It’s much better to stick to ‘I’ statements. “I feel…I need.” Starting a sentence with ‘you’ is often the first fail when trying to increase understanding between two people. After you ask if they’re open to hearing you, they might say no. This is also a moment to practice self-empathy, and empathy for the other. This is where one of the Four Agreements from Don Miguel Ruiz can be helpful: Take nothing personally. The other person has their own system of tangled feelings, perceptions and needs, and their actions are often a reflection of one or more invisible vulnerable emotions.
Creating peace on the holidays may not be easy or simple. But it is entirely possible to slow down, to journal, and to show respect both to yourself and the others you’ll share your holiday with by practicing self-empathy and empathy for others. And remember, focusing on the positive can go a long way. It’s much easier to focus on the positive when you’ve already gotten in touch with your own feelings, spent time listening to yourself, and thinking about what other people might be feeling. Peace comes after the equal sign in an equation, not before it. Is what you’re doing before the equal sign going to add up to Peace? During the thin veil of the holidays is the perfect time to start asking yourself this question.