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Feelings are Feedback

In September 2017 I co-led a module of our NVC Training Programme in northern India. A few days’ later, we met with three of the participants who had stayed in the area. After catching up, the conversation turned to the retreat and its impact. One of the participants from Mumbai wanted us to know how powerful it had been for her, “Just that one sentence, about respecting feelings, this was really powerful. I mean really! I can say that this was my learning: that feelings are important because they tell us about what we need.”

I agreed with her, “It’s like a depth charge. It doesn’t make much of a sound when it’s launched, but it sinks down to the depths and then, BOOM! Marshall Rosenberg was a social revolutionary. People don’t realise it at first, because he was so polite. But if you go deeply into his ideas, if you really put them into practice, then it means a social revolution.”

She continued, “Here in India we are taught to ignore our feelings. Just get on with it! Just do it! Particularly as women, we’re taught to serve others and put our own feelings to the side. And if we study, or work, we’re told to overcome our feelings, either by will or reasoning. So your message about respecting feelings has really shaken me up. It’s like I’m making a completely new start.”

On our way back to our homestay room, I started to reflect on the place of feelings in NVC, and my own conditioning in this area. I came from a family and culture where sport and academic success were valued. In neither sphere were feelings also valued. As a boy, I learned that expressing your feelings would be taken as a sign of weakness, and give your opponent another stick to beat you with.

What I learned from Marshall Rosenberg was that feelings come from needs. Feelings are our body’s natural feedback mechanism. Actually, to say that they feed back is inaccurate. There is no evolutionary benefit to feeding information back to the past. Feelings feed information forwards, to ready the body for acting in the next moment. They are the ‘feedforward’ part of our evolutionary programme to survive and thrive.

When we hear a twig snap in a dark forest or feel a hot breath on the back of our neck, we have an instantaneous urge to protect ourselves. The fear that we feel readies our body to flee, or freeze if the danger is overwhelming. A pang of hunger tells us that we need nourishment and prompts the search for food.

Why is it important to say that feelings are feedback? Because connecting with our feelings renews the connection to our bodies and gives us a doorway into our deeper motivations. It also unlocks self-responsibility, empowerment and freedom. I am no longer the passive recipient of other people’s actions. My feelings come from my deeper motivations, my needs. They give me information about what enriches life – mine and others’. The other person is now only the trigger, the stimulus for my feelings, not the cause. I remain in choice about how I receive the other person’s actions.

Becoming aware of our feelings doesn’t mean that we stop there – we can go on to explore the underlying needs. Nor does it mean that we become averse to discomfort and stop what we are doing as soon as we experience it. We are willing to endure deep discomfort, if we’re fully connected to one of these deeper motivations, whether it’s meditating on love, practising athletics, climbing a mountain, or caring for someone we love. Sense the feeling, and explore the underlying need or motivation. The woman from Mumbai began this process and it shook her up. How about you?