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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Clark

Talking to Yourself Using NVC

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

We communicate with ourselves more than anyone else. For most people, self-talk is an almost constant event going on in their heads all day. So, Nonviolent Communication (NVC) really becomes a part of our lives when we integrate it into the way we talk to ourselves.

talking to yourself in NVC

How to Avoid “I Have To”

The phrase “I have to” is one of the most destructive in all of self-talk. The moment we frame what we are doing as something we are coerced into, we begin to resent whatever it is we are doing.

Some examples:

  • “I have to go to work.”

  • “I have to wash the dishes.”

  • “I have to call my mother.”

These don’t sound fun, do they? That’s because you “have” to do them. And so if you don’t do them, there is a risk of shame or guilt or punishment.

But we always have some kind of choice. And so, really, we are choosing to do these things. So, let’s use our NVC skills to get that clear in our minds. We can do this by connecting to the need that is met by our choice.

Translating to “I Choose To”

Once we’ve discovered the need underneath what we are doing, we can begin to piece together the choices we are making.

So now we might have:

  • “I choose to go to work because I want to support my family.”

  • “I choose to wash the dishes because I much prefer a clean kitchen.”

  • “I choose to call my mother because our relationship makes me happy.”

As you connect to the need being met, you’ll also notice something else, something equally as important. There are almost always multiple ways to meet a need. If the work you are doing is overly burdensome, maybe you can find another way to support your family. If you really can’t bear to do the dishes, maybe you can get your roommates to pitch in. If phone calls cause a lot of anxiety for you, maybe you can start writing letters to your mother.

When we are clear on the need we are trying to meet, we see that the action we are taking is a true choice. And like all choices, we can make a different one if we want.

Framing things this way, we find a lot of power in ourselves that we hadn’t noticed before. We also begin to open things up to be much more life-serving.

Expressing Your Anger

The principles under NVC’s steps for expressing anger work well in interpersonal contexts, but they also work really well when talking to ourselves. The reason it sits in this section is because, in many ways, it’s easier to start this process with self-talk. When we feel real rage with others, it takes a lot of discipline to engage your skills and tools rather than to engage your curse words.

So, you can totally start using this with others, but if you make sure that you’re using this when dealing with anger inside yourself, it gives you a lot of reps that can be transformational to your ability to use this tool when you are angry with someone else.

NVC sets out four steps for expressing your anger:

  1. Breathe

  2. Identify your judgmental thoughts

  3. Connect with your unmet needs

  4. Express your feelings and unmet needs

Let’s take these out for a spin.

Say that someone makes fun of you in front of your shared friends. This might start revving up anger in you — your heart beats faster, your hands sweat, your jaw tightens.

At this moment, you are dealing with the biological side of anger. That’s only going to make the next steps more difficult, so you start with taking breaths. These are long, intentional breaths designed to distance your thinking and feeling from the symptoms of anger in your body.

The next step is to simply state the thoughts, with all their judgments, clearly in your mind. “What you said is really shitty. How dare you ridicule me!”

Okay, there it is. That’s something we could say. But instead, we’re going to look for the unmet needs hiding behind this angry talk. It’s probably a desire for connection and respect — needs that you feel are harder to meet after such teasing.

Now, it’s time to communicate. It’s going to take a lot more courage than throwing a punch because you’re going to talk about your feelings and needs. Maybe you’ll say something like, “I feel really angry after you called me that because I want connection and respect.”

In reality, this might not pan out. Depending on the situation, you might need to spend a lot of time connecting to where the other person is coming from — getting a grasp of their emotions instead of their thoughts.

But it’s also true that you might also simply need to leave.

Sometimes, You Need to Leave

If your anger is overwhelming, it might be time to leave the situation and seek a little empathy for yourself before returning. Of course, that’s not available to everyone all the time, but if it is and you feel like you need it, excuse yourself.

Using the Process On Yourself

We’ve found that turning this process on yourself can be pretty revolutionary for your self-talk. Whether you are ranting in your head about how stupid you were for forgetting your keys or about how unreliable your roommate is for paying rent late, this process can begin inside you.

If you can make a practice of using this simple four-step process on your anger, then every time you get angry, you’ll get a chance to improve.

Don’t Change Due to Shame

Regrets are a great place to find the insight and urgency to make positive changes in your life. Unfortunately, we often lose the power of these mistakes we made in the past because we react to them with shame and self-hatred.

We say to ourselves things like:

  • “I’m always saying stupid things like that.”

  • “I’m an idiot.”

  • “Look out how ridiculous I am.”

NVC frames these issues in a much more beneficial way. In short: I am not wrong or bad, I’ve simply acted in ways that don’t align with my needs. But we also know that when we make mistakes, we are acting to pursue a need as well.

So powerful transformation takes place when we connect with the need that caused the behavior we’d like to change and the need that is causing the regret now.

NVC Mourning

In NVC, instead of bad-mouthing ourselves or feeling terrible about who we are, we simply take the time to mourn our past actions. We connect to the need that wasn’t met by them, and we feel the emotions that come up around our mistakes. Maybe we clarify the feeling, expressing it fully. At some point, we are then ready to move on.

That’s possible when we stop replaying the events and judging ourselves for how we acted and start letting the needs that weren’t met have their time to mourn.

Forgiving Yourself

Once we’ve really tapped into the need we didn’t meet due to our actions, we have the space to reconnect to the need we were trying to meet. This is the part where we forgive ourselves.

Let’s say you are replaying an event from the past where you lied to get approval. Maybe you shudder with shame every time that memory comes back to you unbidden. Once you’ve given yourself space to mourn your need to be authentic (which the lie violated), you can check in on the need you were trying to meet: to be accepted and loved by others.

That need to be loved is not bad or shameful. So really sit with it and let it know that you didn’t make your mistake out of something wrong in you. It arose out of a need, and next time you feel that need, maybe you can meet it in a way that also meets your need for authenticity.

There’s just so much to learn about life!

Changing Self-Talk

NVC is not a silver bullet for fixing self-talk, but many of its tools are effective when you use it this way.

The amount of self-talk that goes on in your head all day has a major influence on your moment-to-moment moods and your overall worldview. So why not make it as nonviolent as possible? After all, with violent self-talk, you’re only hurting yourself.

Read More About NVC

Check out our entire series on NVC:

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