The NVC model: step 2, Feelings

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point      (Blaise Pascal)

What happened on the inside

As soon as we try to talk about feelings we are driven to metaphors: feelings are what is alive in us , what happens in the privacy of our own hearts, what stirs ‘inside’ us (rather than in the world outside). We know that feelings are somehow different from thoughts, but where exactly do we draw the line? In NVC circles, feelings are often referred to as something that arises ‘in the body’, whereas thoughts are ‘in the head’. This is a simplification which doesn’t work for me, and I prefer to keep the word ‘sensations’ for strictly bodily feelings, such as tense, sweaty, shaky etc. That leaves a whole load of ‘feelings’ that are not about physical sensations – ones which are purely emotional, like being happy, or upset, but also ones which are rather intellectual feelings, such as intrigued, amazed or wary. And there are many feeling states we don’t have precise and unambiguous words for. A key practice in NVC is to distinguish any words we do use for feelings as clearly as we can manage from mental processes involving thoughts, ideas and judgments. This fascinating study is explored in more depth on my ‘false feelings’ page.
Another tremendously powerful insight of Marshall Rosenberg’s concerns the connection between feelings and needs: we generally consider feelings to be pleasant when a need of ours is being met or satisfied, and unpleasant when a need is frustrated or ignored.

Everyday language can contribute to a lot of confusion when we want to talk about our feelings. It is, unfortunately, quite normal in English to begin a sentence with the words “I feel...” and to continue it with something which is clearly not any kind of a feeling. For example, any sentence which begins “I feel that...” or “I feel like” is almost certain to end up with a thought, opinion or assumption about ourselves or others. More on this subject here.

Certain adjectives are also very commonly used after the words “I feel..” to express judgments rather than actual feelings. For example, ‘used‘, ‘let down‘ and ‘rejected‘, regularly offered as ‘feelings’ in everyday parlance, all betray a thought pattern of blaming someone else for our situation, without ever saying how we actually feel as a result of their actions: when I believe I have been ‘used‘, I may feel shocked, while when you believe the same thing, you may feel sad. It makes a big difference: I may be looking for understanding, whereas you may be wanting support or comfort, for example. More about such ‘false feelings‘ here.

And here are two more lists, this time of what I would call ‘real’ feelings!

Feelings are important. They are what remind us of our needs – whether fulfilled or not – and motivate us to meet them. So let’s take care to say what we really feel!

Go back to the previous step in the model:   Observations
Go on to the next step in the model:               Needs

Go to NVC model overview