Nonviolent Communication with Ourselves

Posted by Healthful Elements Staff

When was the last time you said something nasty to yourself? This week? Yesterday? Moments ago? For the tenth time today?

Oh yes. We all do it. We send ourselves some rotten messages – either out loud or silently. I’m not referring to just your run-of-the-mill comments we utter when we find someone annoying or frustrating. We say things to ourselves most of us wouldn’t dream of saying (out loud, at least) to another human being except in our darkest, most desperate moments (or fantasies).

Are you resonating with what I’m saying? I’m guessing you are because we all do it.

Confession: I have an extensive history of nasty self-talk. I half-heartedly joke with people that my soul arrived in this world already a perfectionist from a past life, and my job in this lifetime is to unravel those perfectionistic tendencies.

Perfectionists are known to be both high achievers and highly critical. This was undoubtedly the case with me, and it was the perfect recipe for unrelenting self-criticism.

One of the hardwired phrases I used often to beat-up on myself was, “How could you be so stupid?!”

How sad is that? I’m not proud of some of the mean and degrading things I’ve said to myself throughout my life, but I am proud that I’m doing it much less. Until recently, it had been a long time since I had mentally/emotionally attacked myself.

But as happens with all of us, I recently slipped back into my old pattern during a pressure cooker moment and wound up regressing. Sigh.

I felt frustrated to find myself back at the starting line after spending years working to unravel this unhealthy habit, but the cool news is that this time I was able to use my newfound awareness around “nonviolent communication” to stop myself dead in my tracks as soon as those nasty words had left my mouth.

I was then able to handle the situation differently.

This shift was because of a class I had taken in Nonviolent Communication, also called Compassionate Communication. When I was introduced to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I fell in love with the process.

At its core, NVC inspires compassionate, heartfelt conversations so that the needs of everyone involved are not only considered, but also valued. The goal is to create an environment of understanding and respect, where we’re giving and receiving from the heart.

Workshops and written materials are usually focused on creating healthier relationships for couples, family members, and friends. 

Developed by Marshall Rosenberg, NVC guides us to reframe how we hear others, how we express ourselves, and how we resolve conflicts. It’s a potent and simple tool to use for moving out of “power-over, domination-based systems” that are based on control and conformity. (All domination-based relationships and systems are considered violent.)

One day it struck me that the beautiful process of NVC isn’t just for couples or friendships; what if we had the wherewithal to apply it to improving the relationship we have with ourselves? 

And as a health coach, I also couldn’t help wondering what would happen if our clients applied NVC to health concerns or efforts toward a goal.

Throughout my many years coaching, I’ve witnessed repeatedly how often clients approach a health concern or goal in a manner that could – as dramatic as this sounds – be described as violent and completely lacking compassion for oneself.

It’s as if they think that the more they beat themselves up, the faster they will resolve their concern or achieve their goal.

Let’s back up for a second and explore the question of what violence toward oneself might look like.

Most of us would agree that practices like extreme dieting or excessive eating would both be considered violent. So could smoking cigarettes, drinking excessive alcohol, eating too much sugar, consuming fake foods like trans fats, or depriving oneself of adequate sleep.

These practices take an undeniable toll. This toll is proven both with scientific data and how we feel when we find ourselves repeating these behaviors.

Science has also shown us how thinking and repeating mean, negative, or self-defeating thoughts keeps us stuck in the stress response, which has a laundry list of negative consequences ranging from high blood pressure to hormone imbalances to an increased likelihood of autoimmune diseases, including Hashimoto’s.

You’ve likely heard of the mind-body connection. With autoimmune diseases, the body is in “attack” mode. If we’re attacking ourselves with negative self-talk and demeaning put-downs, it only makes sense that the immune system would fall in line. In fact, some in the functional medicine community say that longstanding emotional stressors, of which negative self-talk is one of the biggest, are one of the factors in the onset of autoimmunity.

Marshall Rosenberg has an expanded definition of violence that really stops and makes you think. He says violence is present, “Any time we try to get somebody to do something based on guilt, shame, fear of punishment, or promise of reward.”

Let’s read that again, “Any time we try to get somebody to do something based on guilt, shame, fear of punishment, or promise of reward,” it’s a violent act. 

This means that when we tell ourselves we’re fat and decide to restrict our caloric intake as a result, it’s an act of violence.

This means that when we tell ourselves we’re lazy and that’s why we’re overweight or can’t stick to a gluten-free diet, we’re perpetuating violence on ourselves.

It also means that when we choose to drink a bottle of wine, eat half a cake, or overwork in order to avoid or numb a difficult feeling or situation, it’s an act of violence. 

As a health coach, I often hear clients say things like, “I was really bad this week,” or “I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I can’t follow through.”

I feel sad when I hear these comments.

In order to have a nonviolent relationship with ourselves and others, we must be operating from a place of understanding, compassion, and love – not fear, guilt, or shame.

In my opinion, stepping into that place of love is easier when we approach it with curiosity.

When curiosity is present, we can gather information about ourselves without attaching judgment by asking questions like:

What’s really happening?

What am I feeling in this moment?

This is our starting place. Marshall Rosenberg then goes on to say, “Judgments and violence are tragic expressions of unmet needs.”

And this is wherein the golden nugget lies.

When we find ourselves engaging in unhealthy self-talk or practices that do not serve our wellbeing, rather than continuing to beat up on ourselves, our job is to recognize and acknowledge our feelings and then uncover the unmet need underneath it all.

Keeping in mind that I’m not a therapist, here is the basic process of NVC and a couple of suggestions/techniques to get you started unraveling any unhealthy hardwiring you have toward yourself:

  1. First and foremost, learn to recognize your favorite self-defeating phrases. We all have them. Common ones include, “How could you be so stupid?!” and, “You know better than that!” and, “You’re never going to get better if you keep doing ________.” Awareness is the first step to changing anything. Learn to recognize your go-to phrases.
  2. Become aware that these phrases are not Truth. They’re likely a default setting you fell into unconsciously. It’s possible that someone actually said this to you in the past, but more likely, this is an idea you manufactured that became your default setting.
  3. Learn to identify what you‘re feeling. NVC says that there are pleasant feelings (joy, gratitude, love, etc.) and difficult feelings (anger, sadness, grief). There are no good or bad feelings. When we are experiencing a pleasant feeling, it means that our needs are being met. When we’re experiencing a more difficult feeling, it means that a need is not being met. Learn to name the feeling, which is easier for some people than others. It might be helpful to get your hands on a copy of Marshall’s book so you have access to his lists of feelings. Like anything, learning to identify feelings takes practice.
  4. After identifying the feeling present, learn to pause and gently ask yourself, “What need is not being met that’s causing me to feel this way?” If you’re anything like me, I had no idea what my needs were beyond food, shelter, water, clothing, and love. This was one of the most valuable parts of the NVC course for me – learning to identify needs, such as security, fulfillment, affection, peace, affirmation, rest, quiet, hope, creativity, respect, support, etc. 
  5. With compassion, fully recognize that need; for instance, quiet, restful downtime.
  6. Brainstorm ways to fill that need for yourself or ask somebody close to you to help you. For example, when I feel that I’ve failed at something or not “performed” as highly as I had hoped, I will call up a close friend, explain what happened, and then ask them if they can tell me three things they like about me. It helps because it fills my needs for support and love.
  7. If you get really stuck, simply ask yourself, what would it look like to be coming from a place of love and understanding right now?

Circling back to the pressure cooker moment I mentioned when I snapped and told myself that I was stupid, my hardwiring was saying, “You’re so stupid. If you had stayed up longer last night and worked harder, you would’ve been prepared for those questions from the audience instead of not knowing the answers.”

You can see how this response clearly comes from a place of guilt and shame. 

When I was able to pause and step into compassionate communication with myself, the dialogue went something like this instead, “Wait a second, Claudine. You’re not stupid. Nobody can know everything, and you did the best you could. You’re feeling disappointed that you weren’t able to answer everyone’s questions because you have a great need to be competent, have integrity, and be of service to others.”

Can you feel the difference?

Then I can dig deeper and explore (compassionately) why I snapped at myself. When I do I’ll most likely recognize that I’m feeling tired and depleted from getting ready for the big presentation; therefore, I have a need for more rest and quiet time at home.

In order to fill this need I’ll have to block out some time on my calendar and make sure nothing gets in the way of me getting the restoration time I need.

Nonviolent communication is a powerful, transformative process, and my hope is that we can all learn ways to be more gentle and loving with ourselves, especially when we are working to change our health. Facilitating change for ourselves is challenging work, and it is only made harder if we are hard on ourselves.

I’ll end by saying that I feel optimistic that all of you will explore Compassionate Communication with yourselves. When this happens, it will fill my needs for contribution to the world, healing, and hope. 

Posted by Healthful Elements Staff


Thanks so much for writing this article. I found it very pertinent and very helpful and am motivated to explore this issue further through Marshall Rosenbergs books. Warm Regards Sherrill

You are very welcome, Sherrill! Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, I know you’ll enjoy Marshall Rosenberg’s materials. Nonviolent communication is a whole new way of embracing relationships. Enjoy!


That WAS awesme, Claudine!  I am going to share your post with my daughter, my BFF and my therapist.  Many of the concepts you wrote about resonated with me because of the things I have learned about myself over the past couple of years.  Just think about what a better world we would live in if more people spoke to themselves kindly (had Compassionate Communicatioons with themsselves)???

Wonderful! I am so glad this post resonated with you, and thank you for passing it along to others you know and love. I agree - what kind of world would this be if we all accepted, loved, and understood ourselves more fully??

Claudine, that was one of the best posts I've read in awhile (and I read alot of them lately!).  Thank you so much for opening my eyes to this concept.  Fortunately, I don't do alot of negative self talk anymore; but like you, I was once horrible to myself internally.  Here's to acceptance of ourselves first, because we can't accept others if we can't accept ourselves.

Cheers Mallory! Yes, here’s to acceptance of ourselves FIRST. You are so right - we can’t accept others if we can’t accept ourselves. Congratulations on turning around your own self-talk and having compassion for yourself. Thanks for reading and responding. It’s affirming to know others are resonating with this message!

Hey there! Do you have a source for the marshall rosenberg quote?  I'm trying to find his exact definitnion of violence.  Thanks!

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