There are two levels on which you can meet or fulfill your needs: an inner level and an outer level. With the inner level, you meet your needs by giving your full attention to your body as you connect to the needs to which your thoughts, sensations, and feelings are pointing. This is the Self-Connection part of NVC, which, when done well, is so helpful for regulating emotions. In the story about Bob and Sue, Bob uncovered a need to matter underneath his judgments about Sue and the sensations and feelings he noticed in his body. Bob met his need to matter on the inner level by giving his full presence to himself, embracing his sadness and the sensations in his body as he connected with his need to matter. Meeting his own need on the inner level freed Sue from receiving blame and judgment from Bob and allowed Bob to give Sue empathy when she arrived at the restaurant.
With the inner level of meeting needs, the goal is not to solve anything or change anything or be happy or make things better; the goal is simply to connect as deeply as possible to feelings, sensations and needs, to embrace them like a big-hearted, nurturing grandmother taking her grandchildren into her arms. The inner level of meeting needs allows for emotional regulation, for widening the window of tolerance for emotions, and for integration of the different parts of the brain and body, which gives us a felt sense of wholeness. It’s very difficult to connect to a sense of wholeness when your lid is flipped, the amygadala is taking over, you’re in fight/flight/freeze or faint, and the hemispheres of your brain are not communicating.
Moreover, with the right processes and support, the inner level of meeting needs can result in the integration of unintegrated implicit memories, which adds even more to a sense of wholeness. Sometimes, the inner level of meeting needs is enough to resolve a conflict and nothing needs to change externally. Other times, there is a desire to make a request of yourself or someone else so that your needs can also be met externally.
One powerful experience I’ve had of meeting my needs on the inner and outer level happened while at a seminar with a friend. We arrived early and sat in the center near the front. Two men in the front row were setting up to film the seminar, and both were affiliated with the organization offering the seminar. Not long into the seminar the cameraman closest to me turned the camera around and began filming me, and those around me. Instantly I noticed my chest constricting, my eyes tightening, and my mouth pinching at the corners (not a good face for video promotion). Had I been linked to a brain-imaging machine, I’m sure it would have indicated lots of activation of my amygdala. We hadn’t been told that the audience would be filmed and I had not given my consent. I had an impulse to hold my hand up in front of me to block the camera or go up to the cameraman and ask him to stop filming me.
Had it not been for the fact that I appreciated the message in the talk and the work the organization was doing in the world, I likely would have acted on my impulses. Instead, I chose to give my attention to the sensations in my jaw and my chest, along with the emotion of anger that I was feeling. I welcomed the sensation and feelings as best I could, breathing into them, and then asked myself, “what needs are alive for me?” Respect, autonomy, and consideration were the needs I found. I continued to embrace the feelings and sensations alive in my body as I connected to my needs and, sure enough, old, unresolved implicit memories related to loss of choice and autonomy surfaced. I gave empathy directly to the young me in those memories until my chest relaxed and my anger subsided. I was still not thrilled about being filmed, but I was grateful for the opportunity to give myself some deep empathy.
Instead of embracing my feelings and needs or doing anything else, I could have told myself, like I sometimes do, not to make a big a deal of it, to let it go and be more generous and forgiving. That kind of thinking is one way the left hemisphere tries to override or escape the feelings coming alive in the right hemisphere and the body. Had I overridden my right hemisphere by being a “nice” person, I would have missed an opportunity to widen my window of tolerance for my anger and connect to some un-integrated implicit memories. And, I would have missed an opportunity to have a meaningful and connecting dialogue with the gentleman who filmed me.
I decided I wanted to meet my needs externally too. So, after the seminar, my friend introduced me to the cameraman, and I spoke about my experience of being filmed in a way that he could hear and understand. After explaining more about his intentions for filming the audience, he apologized and we shook hands. In fact, he came to me later in the lobby to apologize again and acknowledge my needs. Yes, when I spoke to him, I used some NVC language to support our connection, but what I believed helped our connection the most was my calming my amygdala first. I’m not suggesting that NVC works only when you’ve first calmed your amygdala. The beauty of NVC is that it provides a structure that allows for the possibility of turning conflict into connection, even if you don’t first calm your amygdala. However, resolving conflict is often easier if the amygdala is first calmed and needs are met internally.