Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Deficit of Life-Enrichment

A while back I was co-teaching a Nonviolent Communication Foundations class, and I drew a diagram on the board of "positive feelings" and "negative feelings." A participant said that she didn't like to think of some feelings as negative because she wants to embrace all her feelings. This statement was challenging for me to respond to because I found myself in complete and joyful agreement with her in principle, but not in application.

Using the term "negative feelings" seems clear to me, and doesn't have the connotation of something bad. How I understand it myself is mathematical. Unfortunately the participant didn't connect with this explanation--maybe I didn't fully give her a sense of being understood for how much she wants to value and honor all feelings first. Maybe you will connect to it though and find some use for it outside of the traditional "negative=bad' framework of thinking.

In math, a positive number means you have something, while a negative number means you "owe" something. If my bank account statement says $64, than I can celebrate that I have enough to pay my utilities and internet this month! Similarly in NVC, "positive" feelings indicate the presence of something--a need, such as love. We then say that we can celebrate that need being met.

On the other hand, if my bank account says -$8.64, the bank wants that amount from me. Although I might not be happy to see that number on the screen of my online banking, it does tell me important information. It tells me where there is an emptiness of something. With the bank account, the emptiness is money, but when it comes to feelings, they tell us about other kinds of emptiness. Hunger tells us about our empty bellies, while depression may tell us that about an emptiness related to belonging or meaning.

Another way to look at this is that of the photographic negative. When we are full, we experience one aspect of food. When we hunger, we experience the shadow side--food inverted. When we are connected, we experience one side of relationships, while when we are lonely, we experience the shadow of friendship.

Emptiness is not always bad. There can be a sweetness to the sorrow of being with emptiness. Sometimes when I have been lonely (the emptiness of companionship), I have simultaneously felt sad and also more attuned to the cosmos, more present to my experience because of this emptiness. I think this is an example of what that participant was referring to when she said she didn't think of any feelings as negative--she was thinking of negative as bad.

For me negative in the context of feelings means emptiness of needs. It is neither good nor bad. It may be painful, and it may be bittersweet. It is always informative. At times it is inspiring, as many of us go to artistic or literary expression when we encounter this emptiness.

If you would like to have more understanding and compassion for people, here is an exercise you can try. The next time you are around someone and think that they are being negative, imagine what the emptiness is inside them. What are they calling out for to fill that negative space? You can also do this for yourself, asking the same question about your own "negativity." This is embodied compassion and equanimity, moving past good and bad and into honoring of all aspects of life. With this type of compassion, perhaps all of our deficits--of love, community, food, meaning, connection, respect, and much, much more--will be a little more bearable. And when we are in the positive, together, we can celebrate!


  1. This is really helpful, thank you. I've been struggling with some of these ideas for awhile and you offer good insight into them. :)

    1. Thanks Michelle! I am glad you found it helpful :)

  2. I love this! It is really supportive for me to read. It resonates with my own understanding and helps me deepen it. I especially like the metaphor of the photographic negative.

  3. Thank you for reading, Estrella! I'm curious how you stumbled on this last month--maybe through me posting a newer blog? I enjoy getting feedback from you because I value our shared understanding of NVC, especially knowing which image/concept is appealing to you.