Thursday, August 29, 2013

Personal Liberation and Personal Growth

by Miki Kashtan

For a long time now I have been troubled by the way Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is often presented and perceived. In our culture, and in several other industrialized, modernized countries I have been to, it is typically seen as a path to personal growth, such as an alternative to therapy, or a way to resolve relationship issues. For me, this focus has been limited. Instead, more and more I think of NVC as a path to personal liberation, and of the two paths as distinct from each other. The former is about enabling us to function, even live well individually in society as it exists, while the latter is about freeing ourselves from the ideas, norms, and roles we have internalized from living in this society. The more free we become, the more we can find a ground to stand on to challenge the system to be much more responsive to all people’s needs, not only some needs of the few.

I often heard from Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, that a similar concern led to his own decision as a psychologist to leave behind clinical work and private practice in his search for the largest contribution he could make. The issue hinges on the question of what is being served when we attend to the individual effects of a system that fundamentally doesn’t support human needs and life as a whole. I’ve been haunted by this question in multiple ways. 

Here is but one example: when an individual human being suffers a debilitating depression and a pill exists that can provide relief, what are the effects of administering this pill? There is no question that many people experience the difference between being able to function at all when they take the pill, and levels of agony that are extreme, even life-threatening. The issue for me is the effect on a larger scale: as I wrote about in an earlier post, medicating problems that are arguably caused by systemic conditions prevents us, collectively, from knowing that we have created conditions in which humans cannot thrive. Is it always a benefit to allow people to continue to function if the system as a whole is riddled with difficulties?

Freud and the Reality Principle

I trace the origin of this difficulty to none other than Freud, the father of modern psychotherapy. Although I studied sociology, not psychology, my dissertation focus when in school led me to delve into his writings at some depth. Given his level of influence on the lives of many millions of us, specifically in the form of going to therapists as a primary approach to attend to our woes, I found it exceptionally striking that his understanding of human nature and of human life was fundamentally pessimistic. Without getting into the intricate complexities of his worldview, suffice it to say that he believed that a fundamental tension existed between individual and society, our makeup and life around us, our innate drive for pleasure and what he called the reality principle.

A successful negotiation of the intense dramas of childhood, according to some of his writings, involves a renunciation of our untamed wishes, which would allow us to emerge into adulthood ready to align ourselves with the reality principle. Since, as he suggested, this outcome is rarely achieved, what happens instead is repression of our wishes – an unconscious process rather than a consciously negotiated one. Under conditions of repression, we are still slaves to our unconscious drives and wishes. This is why we would need to seek support from a trained professional: so we can surface the unconscious parts of ourselves and, with the help of the therapist, find a way to accept the impossibility of fulfilling our desires, leading to a conscious renunciation and adaptation to the reality principle. Freud actively showed disdain for what we want, for our vulnerable needs. In that sense I see him as having sided with the structures of oppression in the world even as he called attention to the extremes of human suffering. The ultimate goal is acceptance of the impossibility of satisfaction, a sober kind of strength to face the reality of life.

In terms of specific instructions for therapists, Freud didn’t leave much behind him. What little I was able to find highlights the role of the therapist (or analyst, in his terms) in supporting the “patient” to adapt to the reality principle. For example, Freud specifically and repeatedly admonished therapists to refrain from offering affection to their patients. I still remember my heart cringing as I read his words, insisting that the patient must experience the absence of satisfaction as part of the process of therapy.

Adjusting to a World that Doesn’t Work

Why does it matter what Freud thought, you may wonder as you read this. Indeed, the proportion of practicing therapists who literally follow Freud’s path is vanishingly small. Even “classical” psychoanalysts are no longer, for the most part, doing their work in the way that Freud instructed, certainly not psychotherapists of other kinds. So why am I talking about Freud? The reason is that I believe that Freud shaped the future of the field he spawned, making it adaptive rather than revolutionary.

The very concept of a “well-adjusted” adult – the ideal of “normalcy” – is someone who is able to function within the constraints of the world as it is. None of the people who have dedicated their lives to transforming the conditions of living, ranging from Biblical prophets to abolitionists, suffragists, and the people who stand up to corporations the world over, could possibly be considered “well-adjusted.” 

The very focus on individual therapy, and the larger frame of personal growth, are strictly limited to individuals changing their internal ways of being rather than joining others to change the conditions that make so many people’s lives unbearable, materially and/or spiritually.

To be sure, some schools of psychotherapy, such as feminist psychology, are specifically designed to empower people to rise up from their atomized existence to examine the conditions of their lives, to find the larger social context within which their suffering could make sense. Consciousness raising groups, for example, supported masses of women in reaching an understanding that what seemed to them to be their own personal troubles or deficiencies were shared by many other women. So many, in fact, that more and more women were no longer willing to find ways of adapting to the demands of their lives. Collectively, this shift in understanding and growing lack of willingness on the part of large numbers of women at once lent huge support to the possibility of transforming the societal structures that upheld the privilege of men over women. 

Similarly, the young men and women of the Civil Rights Movement certainly refused to adapt and adjust to a world in which they had differential rights and reduced access to public resources. Most certainly, stepping  up to lunch counters where they are barred from entering, or engaging in a bus boycott, are maladaptive behaviors. From the point of view of the forces in power at that time, the only logical response was to oppose the requested changes. It is only the willingness of the activists to endure sometimes extreme consequences that paved the way for changes on the structural level. It was, precisely, each person stepping outside of the individual calculus of safety and adaptation and embracing the hope that together with others they could be powerful enough to create change, that made mobilization possible.

The Journey from Growth to Liberation 

We live in a world in which growth is the fundamental imperative. For almost any business, it’s grow or perish. For as long as we, as a species, could pretend to ourselves that we essentially had unlimited resources and that nature was an inert “substance” from which we could extract resources indefinitely, the growth imperative could be absorbed. In recent decades, and more and more so in the recent past, we know that there is no such thing as sustainable growth. We are already consuming about 50% more resources than the earth can regenerate every year, without any significant plans for changing course, only an increased pace of consumption. 

Within this context, the idea of personal growth troubles me even more, because to me language is rarely neutral. Our choice of words tends to support this or that worldview or set of practices. Whenever I shift the language in my mind from personal growth to personal liberation I feel a difference, the very language freeing me from complicity with a system I believe to be ultimately destructive to all.

This is precisely what I mean when I speak of personal liberation: it is, in essence, the freedom from complicity, adjustment, and adaptation, however subtle they may be. It’s the freedom to examine every last one of my thoughts and actions, to trace its origins to the larger systems that have contributed to me being me. These are many, and I will only name a few examples: the culture into which I was born, which was the secular Jewish context in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s; the social structures that constrain what I can do or be as a woman; the choices available to me within a capitalist order for pursuing my goals in life; and others. In effect, all of my and everyone else’s most personal experiences take place within a social context that shapes what’s possible for us to see, hear, interpret, feel, and even, in the end, desire.

Personal liberation, to me, brings me to growing willingness to speak truth, to show love, to question authority – when such practices are uncomfortable or censured. Taken far enough, personal liberation will allow me to stand up to the social order, to work with others to transform it, and to make choices that may entail personal consequences in support of all life.  

All of this brings me back to Marshall Rosenberg’s concern. From the perspective of someone with the skills to offer people relief with their personal suffering, how do I best serve them? Most pointedly, how do I find a way that doesn’t pit individual relief against the possibility of creating change on a larger scale that would benefit and relieve many more people? Put differently: what can I do to support personal liberation rather than simply contributing to personal growth when I work with individuals or groups?

These questions are ones I am continually asking, and have been, for years. In one way I can say that my writing, this blog in particular, have been part of my attempt to contribute in exactly that kind of way. I will make it no secret – I want to inspire as many people as possible to liberate themselves from notions of what’s appropriate, normal, or even acceptable, and embrace a radical freedom that remains both caring towards others and uncompromising in its vision of what’s possible for all. I want enough of us to emerge from our modern, Western isolation, into a free, interdependent way of living. As individuals, we may not amount to much. As participants in communities of struggle, our very existence might contribute to social transformation.

Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call next Tuesday, September 3, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. 


  1. Another brilliant and challenging essay, Miki.

    "It’s the freedom to examine every last one of my thoughts and actions, to trace its origins to the larger systems that have contributed to me being me." This statement in particular, but really the whole essay, had me thinking of a song I composed years ago:

    Freud's observations contributed toward a good starting point. In a world culture becoming dominated by science, his pointing out the inner conflicts dwelling in the unconscious mind is basic to what you refer to as personal liberation, which can be thought of as self-fulfillment, Truth-realization, spiritual freedom, purification of the heart, peace and happiness. This enterprise of critical thoughtfulness allied with unfailing faith in Truth-Love-Beauty-Oneness is a fulfillment of the recognition that "life is happening in me not to me."

    Liberation from limitations...

  2. I particularly appreciate what you say about how the people who have changed the world are not "well-adjusted." I have noticed this in my work in the corporate world as well. The people who are in positions of leadership are rarely "well-adjusted" either. I think what they all have in common is a high tolerance for the discomfort that comes with disruption and radical change. The question I ponder is how to cultivate that tolerance in myself when I've lived 41 years in a society that's indoctrinated me in the belief that being "well-adjusted" is the worthy goal of existence.

  3. In Eastern thought the world is experienced on both the gross and subtle levels through the three gunas,or qualities of the universe, inertia, (tamas), activity (rajas) and joy/clarity/knowledge (sattva). For me this a balanced and useful way to understand our world and the forces that create and destroy. David Frawley, and American Hindu teacher and scholar gives a wonderful account these forces that work both outside and within us:

    Janet Rock

  4. Excellent essay. To Lisa's question, about cultivating tolerance for discomfort, I think it happens in stages, with deliberate practice, or conducting small personal experiments by challenging the ideas one has about one's own comfort, be it physical, social or emotional, and noticing what happens. And I don't say this as someone who can tolerate the level of discomfort needed to change society, but I have learned to tolerate more and more of it. -ilona

  5. Beautiful insights, Miki!!! You make the distinction between personal growth and personal liberation (i.e. inner freedom) crystal clear. Thank you so much for spelling it out.

  6. As just about always - I am fundamentally in alignment with all of your thoughts. I want to raise an issue however that feels directly relevant.

    While Freud himself is perhaps no longer practiced as is - neo-freudianism and in paricular Lacanianism is extremely popular right now, not so much in America, but in other places around the world - yes.

    The challenge here that Lacan too would agree with the problems you see with Freud but in Lacan the social-personal antagonism still exists. Because of this, I am not fundamentally aligned with it - however, many Lacanians shed insights that I never would have thought of and find true. (Their notion of the constituitive exception is one of the most beautiful concepts I have ever encountered - its the idea that universal statements tend to "Exempt" themself from their own universality - which leads to contradictions and paradoxes, etc.)

    What I am saying is that any confrontation with Freudianism today need no longer confront just Freud himself, but also Lacan, who radically re-interpreted him through the lens of French Structuralism.

    Lacan is a much more difficult contender, because he would agree that adaptation is not at all the point (and would also say that this was never Freud's intention), that personal growth is itself probably still a form of overcompensation and hence repression, and that anything short of psychoanalysis is still not revolutionary enough to assume a new subjective position vis a vis the socio-cultural situation the individual was born into.

    Anyway - I'm guessing Lacan's position is too different from your to warrant a meaningful engagement with the work - which would take a long time, and I know you have other priorities. I just wanted to put this out there and see what arose & came back!


  7. While I was reading this poem this morning, I thought: Well here is the theme of personal liberation , even though it mat be taken to the extent of stretching even further what is considered normal, conventional and acceptable to the point of blasphemy. It might be a bit if a shock to the core but I'll wager, in many cases it will ring true.

    It is amazing how much misery we cause ourselves and others in our desperate attempt to be happy.
    Give it up, give it up. It's never going to work. The fact that you've tried it for lifetimes in the past without success should tip you off to the fact that it's not going to work in the future either.
    Just let it go. Be a warrior like Alexander--don't waste time trying to pick apart the knotted threads of your life's problems, take your sword and slash through the whole mess, once and for all.
    Nothing can frighten one who is dead to the world. How blissful life becomes when we give up all attempts at making ourselves happy.
    --Steve Klein, from "Fire and Smoke"

  8. ROCK ON, Miki!!! Way to name it!!! The way you frame it here it sounds like personal growth and personal liberation are, in a way, polar opposites. Personal growth gives us the tools to find more peace and comfort and functionality in the the frameworks in which we find ourselves. Personal liberation allows us the freedom to question and challenge those frameworks and create our own set of criteria by which to live. The first is adaptive. The second is radical and subversive. Though I tend to favor the latter I can see a place for both.

    In reading this I was reminded, in addition to your examples, of Paulo Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In the 1980's he was teaching peasants of Brazil to read so that they could read the bible and interpret it for themselves. When he was simply teaching to read, it was somewhat benign, but when it became about helping peasants to understanding the structures that they lived in, and how they were being oppressed through the pacifying effects of religion, he became a danger to the social order and was targeted by the elite of that country, from what I remember.

    His focus was on liberation, just as you suggest here, to stand up to the social order of repression and transform it, with a collective voice. The freedom to be able to examine the whole context in which we live, and to take action to change the structures, not simply adapt to the environment, is what constitutes personal liberation that translates into something real and practical.

    And what does it take for us, as Americans, to be willing to be liberated from the brainwashing we grew up with? We are being pacified, not by religion so much as material comfort. And we are imprisoned by our collective lack of self worth-- and the mantra that says we are never good enough and we have to keep growing until we are perfect before we are worth anything. Do we have to come to a deep personal crisis or can we break out of our material comfort and self-imposed inadequacy willingly? I myself feel a growing unrest, from deep within me, a craziness, it seems, as the people around me seem to be content to make life a little better here and there but do not question the foundations that our society is built on or what we can do to overhaul the system so that we can all flourish, not just those who have figured out the game. Or, is it simply too big to do anything about it and we just do our best within the system as it is? If we wait till we are on the brink of annihilation, I'm afraid it will be too late. How to break out of our comfort zones to take action while we are in a place of having the material resources to do so? That is my question.

    If, as you say, we examine every last one of our thoughts and actions, and their origins, will that do it? It's a start. But what is the motivation? What do you think is the motivation that can be tapped into to move and take action, take risks?

    Thank you as always for you deeply insightful and provocative thinking and writing. Hope this isn't too much rambling for you. You got me thinking about so many things...

    1. THANK YOU, Sarah, for the deepening and clarifying that you so often bring to your comments.

      I wanted to add that personal liberation, as I understand it, is, among other things, also a path to personal growth. The necessity to become brave, open-hearted, and powerful pretty much requires us to transcend and grow beyond our personal hurts and traumas to be our full selves. This is, also, personal growth at its most glorious.

      As to the motivation, that's an amazing question you ask. I respond to it, internally, by tapping into mystery. I don't "know" the answer. I can say it's "life" itself, and that is not really an answer. I can only say that for me it's about truth, wanting to know the truth, to understand as deeply as I can, and about choice. The element of choice is critical. I have, since early childhood, been so motivated to choose for myself. I have no idea if this helps answer your question. I can only tell you that hearing your question is helping me in my quest for how to bring this transformation about in the world.


    2. I have, as long as I can remember, been someone who questioned everything I saw and experienced. I never wanted to adapt. I still don't. I am repelled at the idea that I should shut off my brain and heart and go along with the program. And I never understood those who didn't question. It's still hard for me to get it. It's so foreign. I see the natural world in all its splendor and then I see the disgusting ways that human beings can treat each other and their mother earth and I think this can't possibly be how its meant to be. I feel certain that there is a much higher order for humans that we could align with and in so doing, really flourish and thrive. My motivation to examine my thinking and examine the context in which I live and the stories I've been handed and know the truth of things comes from a hope to find all the ways to tap into alignment with that higher order, the greater and more holistic possibilities of how we can be as humans. I feel both safer and more alive in that alignment, to the extent that I'm able to find it.

      I ask the question because I have come to understand that most people do not think like me and what motivates me will not have meaning to most others. So I wonder if there is anything that can wake people up and help them WANT to create change before it gets to a point where the tsunami is in your living room and washing your kids away, so to speak. Or the bombs are falling on your house. I think I am seeing an answer to my own question even as I ask it, which is that as I get more and more clear and proactive about consciously living my own purpose and giving my gifts, I give others permission to do the same and I can do that in as small or big a way as I choose. And I'm sure there is much much more that could be discovered about to tap into motivations that can bring about change. I'm interested in finding those out and working with that leverage in my own unique way.

  9. Thank you so much Miki. I cried as I read this, it added so much clarity to a problem I'm currently experiencing. Here in Australia we're about to go to Election, and both parties are using the "boat people" issue (i.e. refugees) as a political football, including calling them "illegals", with policies of locking them up offshore, indefinitely, with no access to legal resources. My daily news feed alternates between "spiritual" (i.e. personal growth), implying it's all just me, I have to learn to see it right ... and stories about what's going on politically, that I feel so desperately powerless about. Your post reminds me that NVC (a) can help me get brave (and powerful!) enough to take the kinds of actions that need to be taken, and (b) isn't a substitute for political action! Thank you, from the bottom of my aching heart. You inspire me constantly. With great love, Julie

  10. I hope many readers of Fearless Heart Blog have seen this program on PBS, which focusses on this theme of self-improvement verse self-acceptance--growth versus liberation--authentic self versus the self that is a story:

  11. This is the most exhilarating thing I've read in a long time.

    a comment re:
    “The issue for me is the effect on a larger scale: as I wrote about in an earlier post, medicating problems that are arguably caused by systemic conditions prevents us, collectively, from knowing that we have created conditions in which humans cannot thrive. Is it always a benefit to allow people to continue to function if the system as a whole is riddled with difficulties?”

    They’re not conditions in which human cannot thrive …
    they are conditions in which humans cannot thrive without abbreviating, truncating, demeaning or all-together denying connection to self and to others, the quality of being interdependent, the actual experience of the consequences of our presence and actions on others and of being affected by the presence, actions of others. They are conditions that discourage, punish, and deaden the impulse to express and to be responsive to life.
    so, the question for me is not about whether the degree of benefit is great enough, but whether we see fully and are consciously choosing to accept and bear the cost... and for how much longer.

  12. I share the concern that the phrase "personal growth" contains with in it our cultural story of always striving for an unreachable "perfection" and hear that as we write the phrase "personal liberation" does not have a cultural story and so is a blank slate on which we have no preconditioning that says not to pin great dreams onto it such as the dream of living in a healthy culture that supports us in being fully human.

    I wonder however if the problems with our words we speak with and even more significantly with our notions we understand ideas with is not much more systemic than that.

    I see in the American culture a systemic creation of notions that deride people who are not rich white males and a simultaneous creation of notions that put on a pedestal wealth and greed and the violence required to amass such a fortune. The way I step out of this mind numbing cultural dogma is by using a basic concept in NVC: that we all have the same needs. Through this lens the hierarchy is dissolved. And with some understanding of the price we all pay for a few of us to be able to have enormous fortunes the pedestal becomes defamed in my mind.

    It seems to me that the most effective way to take back control over my language is to change what it means to me. Personal growth within the context of an unhealthy culture demands some personal liberation from that culture. AND one key part of that liberation is to discard any preformed ideal of what I seek to become and replace it with a willingness to listen to what is alive in me and around me. Within this shift I see a transformation from seeing myself as an omniscient dictatorial god (as often gets worshipped in Christianity) to a dynamic human being atuning myself to Life's circumstances. AND having made that shift I tend to suspect that a key part of my culture's disease is the sort of god it chooses not only to worship but also sets up as an ideal for its people to emulate.

    I think to really be able to heal this culture that that god and the ideas around him need to change.

  13. After reading this essay, I then happened to find this other essay that is about using NVC in relation to communities and organizations
    This is a somewhat diffenent approach to the subject but heading in the same direction. In particular I find the last section of the article is provocative.

    Thanks for the good food for thought.


  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.