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The Alarms – Anger, Guilt, & Shame

Anger, guilt, and shame are alarm feelings. They let you know that there may be a threat to one or more of your needs and that you are are engaging in "should" thinking.  While it's important to feel and name anger, guilt, and shame; it's equally important not to take action from them. These alarm feelings are your cue to pause and reflect on your thinking and connect with vulnerable feelings and needs so that you can take wise action.

Guilt & Shame Behind guilt and shame there are thoughts that are some version of "I have behaved badly or been a bad person deserving of punishment". The concept of deserve has paved the way for over 8,000 years of sanctioned violence. Taking action out of guilt and shame can land you in the violent concept of repentance in which someone else decides how bad you are and doles out a punishment or forgiveness. Guilt and shame are only useful when they lead you to connect with unmet needs in someone else and yourself.

Anger Behind anger there are thoughts that things should be different than they are or someone should act different than they are. The word should can lead you quickly to a disconnected state. In the context of recovering from an abusive* relationship anger can also indicate progress. Anger can be an important indicator that the receiver of the abuse is beginning to recognize that they have a right to have their needs met. But even in this context if action is taken from anger, more violence and unmet needs will likely result.

So how can you handle these emotions in a way that leads to connection and honor of all involved?  Below I list steps in a particular order, but of course life isn't this neat.  These four steps are meant to be touchstones that you come back to again and again in the way that works for you.

Acceptance & Space to mourn.
First, there is just to accept the way things are. I don't mean submit or accept in a hopeless way, but rather acknowledge what is or what was without resistance. This may be a long process.  It's common that mourning take up a space of years.  Mourning is often accessed through telling your story to an empathic listener or group.

Name the next layer of more vulnerable feelings
Second, there is to feel the feelings below anger, guilt, and shame. Fear, hurt, and/or sadness or regret for needs unmet is usually there. Feeling these vulnerable feelings requires more courage and responsibility than staying in anger, guilt, & shame.

Name the needs
Third, from sadness or regret you can name the universal needs unmet in yourself and others in that particular situation.  This step of naming needs is also about claiming your right to them.  From the framework of Compassionate Communication it is the birthrite of all living beings to have their needs met and thrive in harmony with others.  Standing confidently in your birthrite to have your needs met creates a simple sense of knowing what's true which replaces the sense of threat so often associated with anger, guilt, and shame.  In other words, the more tenuous your relationship is to claiming your needs, the more anger, guilt, and shame will arise and stick around.

Take action
Fourth, responsible action comes from honoring needs of all involved, including yourself, and acting to meet them.  When you take clear action to meet needs or move into alignment with values, your body and mind can release the sense of threat and alarm and anger, guilt, and shame dissipate.

The next time anger, guilt, or shame arise, set aside reflection time to go through the practice steps given above.

*When I use the word "abusive" I am referring to a relationship in which there is neither awareness nor skill to honor and meet the needs of those involved, but rather consistent behavior that costs needs.

Next Gem
It’s not about NVC

5 Responses

  1. Apr 09, 2012
    Karen Cox

    Dear LaShelle,
    Since being exposed to NVC and in a practice group for a couple of years, the sadness of regret for unmet needs has been very present so I feel reassured that it can take years of mourning before a letting go happens. And I know that empathy is what I have been and am needing, especially self-empathy. I think becoming aware of what some of my unmet needs were throughout my life will take some thought.

  2. Mar 01, 2013

    LaShelle, this is the first time l have ever seen this kind of definition of abuse. I like it a lot. For me l would also add something like--neither the awareness, skill, or *desire to*--because sometimes it seems that my partner has no interest or want to be aware of my needs or help me meet them. Also for me, social status or institutionalized power structures play into consistently abusive behavior. In the easiest example, it's harder for an employee to abuse her or his employer than the other way around. So socially sanctioned power is a component--"l don't have to care about your needs."

    I would really love to read a post on knowing when an intimate relationship can be labelled (for lack of a better word) as consistent behavior that costs needs. Your website is a resource l turn to over & over again, on my long NVC journey--thank you!

  3. Apr 21, 2013

    Thank you Jennifer. I appreciate your offering on the other ways abuse is propagated in our world.

    thanks for your article suggestion too, I will sit with that.

  4. Sep 04, 2015

    In the book "Why Does He Do That", the author defines abuse in terms of an attitude of entitlement--in NVC terms, a belief like, "My needs matter and yours don't". He emphasizes that abuse has little to do with emotions and everything to do with this mindset, which is often reinforced through gender oppression. This attitude or belief would not necessary show up as a lack of skillfulness, and learning more skills wouldn't address it--they would just become more fuel for manipulative behavior. It's one thing to have "jakal" habits that you are trying to change. It's quite another to have jackal *beliefs* that you have no interest in changing. He says (in his treatment experience) abusers do not change through awareness of their impact, only through being forced to by losing something they value (their partner or their freedom). Eventually if they do the work they start developing some empathy and then they may desire change for its own sake, but he says at the beginning it is always an extrinsic motivation (demand). He also points out that the reason so many abusers do not change even in a good program is that they actually benefit (meet their needs) through the abuse and so they do a cost-benefit analysis and decide they want to keep the privileges being abusive affords them.

    It is a good book and I found it an interesting perspective. NVC training doesn't usually focus very much on the underlying beliefs of the people learning it, but it seems like they would matter a great deal to the outcome.

  5. Sep 05, 2015

    thanks for this comment. So important to consider the beliefs and underlying mindset. Yes, this is where people who experience someone who is "practicing NVC" and who hasn't changed the underlying consciousness or mindset and so experiences the same old behaviors under a different fascade.

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