When Positivity is Privilege: Nonviolent Communication for Emotional Intelligence


Who among us hasn’t felt—in a moment of heartache or sorrow or rage or any other or so-called “negative” emotion—that if we just could change X about ourselves (or someone else) we could achieve Y, Z, or maybe the entire rest of the alphabet?

The allure of this sort of magical thinking compells me to write frequently about the perils of positive psychology and for good reason: the more obsessed mainstream America becomes obsessed with “good vibes only” the less tolerant and inclusive we become. In fact, in many ways, positive psychology is like a new form of evangelism, one in which its adherants worship a smiling and beaming countenance over whole, complex, authentic beings.

Even before positive psychology began to take the psychotherapeutic and pop psychology culture by storm, unpleasant feelings have been labelled as negative emotions, perhaps unfairly. When they arise, people almost reflexively want to avoid them, sweep them aside, or quiet them as quickly as possible.

Anger, resentment, jealousy, sorrow—these and so many more feelings get labelled negatively which does a disservice to  complex emotional states which are, essentially, messengers to pay attention to unmet needs or desires.

After a slew of books and TED Talks promoting positive psychology as an antidote for, well, almost everything, there finally is an antidote to the movement itself. In The Upside of Your Dark Side, authors Todd Kashdan, Ph.D. and Robert Biswas-Diener argue that there is no such thing as a negative emotion, since every emotion plays a role in informing our lives.

The authors state that in order to attain true happiness, one should welcome every emotion—whether pleasant or unpleasant—and learn to manage them effectively. It is not our emotions which are problematic, they point out, but rather the way we handle our emotions that creates difficulty for us. Essentially, the idea is to allow all of our emotions to communicate important information to us.

Learning to tolerate our own discomfort is critical in tolerating others’ difficult emotions.

Learning to tolerate our own uncomfortable feelings is absolutely critical if we are to become genuinely more supportive and tolerant of others. No one wants to be stuck in a small confined space with a chronically complaining Debbie Downer or Negative Ned, but understanding our own tendency to crave joy and avoid discomfort goes a long way towards being able to be compassionate toward them.

This is especially critical for anyone concerned with and working to create more equitable business and social environments where people of differing backgrounds come together. Without a grounded, well-rounded understanding of the value of all our emotional states, the pro-positivity mindset becomes more a tool of oppression wielded by privilege than a means of effecting genuinely positive change.

To deny that there are systemic injustices and prejudices at work in every level of our society is not only ignorant, but cruel. Telling the yound man who is hunted by police simply for existing while black or the middle-aged woman with mad creative skills who can’t get past the HR guard dogs for an interview with a creative director that their experience is invalid or that their understandably frustrated attitude is to blame for their woes is Gaslighting Extreme.

When Compassion is Cruel

Nonviolent Communication (NVC)  is a technique used to compassionately listen and respond in tense situations and conflict. When it’s used skillfully, it’s an effective way of resolving or de-escalating conflict. But in the wrong hands—that is, in the hands of someone who is intolerant of their own unpleasant emotions—NVC can become a subtle (or not-so-subtle) form of gaslighting. Another term for NVC is Compassionate Communication, and ironically, once someone adopts the technique as a way of elevating their own position while minimizing another, it becomes more cruel than compassionate.

In my own attempts to communicate better and develop my own emotional intelligence, I’ve taken NVC courses here and there over the years. The experience is usually illuminating, sometimes unintentionally comedic, and always has value. The method is a fairly simple 4-step method to stating what you feel and attempting to resolve a conflict or get a need met. I really can’t imagine a situation where NVC isn’t potentially useful, and I also know that sometimes you just need to say things plainly.

Applying NVC to Our Own Emotions

Perhaps before we start employing NVC techniques to address conflicts with others, we might first apply them to ourselves in order to gain greater clarity and resolve within.

The next time you’re faced with a difficult or uncomfortable emotion, rather than trying to push it away, sublimate it, or force-feed yourself feel-good aphorisms, do the following exercise:

  1. Simply observe what’s happening. Write it down without judgement or analysis.
  2. Notice your feelings and label them. Be curious about them. And again, no judgement.
  3. Identify what that feeling is pointing out. Is there some unmet need or desire? Write it down.
  4. Ask yourself…what can you do to meet that need or desire?

When we take the time to feel and understand our emotions—even the unpleasant ones—we take a giant step toward emotional intelligence and can be guided to make more informed decisions and take action with greater resolve and conviction.

By taking the time to cultivate emotional intelligence we create a kinder, more inclusive internal atmosphere for ourselves. From there, we are better positioned to hold the same space for others.

Emotional intelligence is a lively connection between our head, our heart, and our gut. One where we tap into a holistic wisdom that is more powerful than mere intellect. It is an evolved understanding of ourselves that is necessary in order to hold others in the same regard—an understanding that is more integrated and less binary, and that transcends an overly simplistic light-versus-dark, good-versus-bad dichotomy. And perhaps best of all, we will truly begin to appreciate #allthefeels.

Artwork © Lara Knutson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *