Publisher’s and Author’s Note:
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to replace support from family and community — nor advice, support, or treatment from a qualified professional.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, please avail yourself of existing support.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide:
In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Get help and support for suicide, by country:
Treating Depression with Nonviolent Communication (NVC)
How does NVC help in treating depression?
NVC is a powerful ally in working with some of the root causes of depression.
That said, depression can have many contributing causes including genetics, brain chemistry, negative self-talk, and life circumstances.
So first, let us break down some basics about Nonviolent Communication — and then we’ll look at how it addresses depression.
The heart of NVC is feelings and needs — the latter referring specifically to Universal Human Needs.
You can think of needs as core human motivators, energies which impel us to speak or act. You can also think of needs as the conditions necessary for life to thrive, in any human being, regardless of culture or geographic location.
Needs are how Life is showing up in someone in this moment and, as such, are energies that want to flow, not holes to be filled!
When your needs are met or satisfied you have certain feelings, and when not, you have other feelings. When your need for safety is met or satisfied you feel a certain way. And when that need is not met or satisfied different feelings will come up. The same can be said about needs like belonging, autonomy, and so forth.
Feelings are considered “life-connected” when they are connected to a need, whether or not that need is satisfied. For example if your need for contribution is met, you might experience a sense of fulfillment. When your need for contribution is not satisfied, you could experience disappointment, sadness, or frustration. But even these last three are considered life-connected feelings because they are coming from this life-impulse for contribution.
So even while most feelings are considered life-connected, there are four that NVC puts in a separate category. They serve as a warning, like an alarm bell that lets you know that you are disconnected from your needs! Therefore, in NVC we work with these a little differently than all the others.
These four are: anger, shame, guilt, and depression.
Sometimes people refer to irritation or frustration as anger, but NVC defines anger in a specific way. Anger, as Marshall Rosenberg talked about it, involves “should” language and very often some form of moralistic judgment about someone else’s badness or wrongness. If you find yourself having punitive intentions — wanting to punish someone else — it might very well be anger in the NVC sense!
Shame comes from a form of self-talk in which you are telling yourself that you were bad or wrong in some way (including words like inappropriate or unacceptable) — and this leads to feeling ashamed. (Sometimes this self-talk starts with somebody else’s story about us or our actions which we subsequently internalized.)
Guilt is similar to shame but involves how you have impacted others. It is quite common to tell ourselves that through our “bad-ness” or “wrong-ness” (in whatever form) we are responsible for others’ negative experience — leading to feelings of guilt.
And Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC, described depression as “anger turned inward.”
With these four feelings — anger, shame, guilt, and depression — we look at what we are telling ourselves as both the source of disconnection from our needs, and something that gives us clues as to what our deeper needs are in those moments, so that we can get reconnected to Life and to begin to move out of the depression.
Treatment for depression and anxiety does not have to be through medication
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and that’s where Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has its roots. He was a student of famous psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, also known as client-centered psychology.
Because depression can have multiple causes, as well as many factors that influence it, someone experiencing depression can make use of approaches including but also beyond a pathology-based pharmaceutical approach.
NVC gives us access to some of these other avenues.
Relieving the stigma associated with mental illness can be done by communicating about depression and anxiety
Dr. Rosenberg spoke of presenting to an auditorium full of psychologists and psychiatrists and declaring that “mental illness” did not exist!
Because he had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, he was prepared to defend that claim!
He tried to explain that what is often perceived or described as mental illness is an internal struggle people go through, characterized by an inability to connect with their own needs, and by extension the needs of others. This is often followed by a challenge in knowing how to act in a way that attends to one’s own needs in a way that is also in harmony with the needs of others.
Beyond the scope of this article is the fact that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — is not without its many criticisms. You can read about criticisms of the DSM here.
For the sake of this article, let us assume that mental illness is real, and that we know what is and isn’t mental illness.
Then how can communicating about depression and anxiety relieve the stigma associated with mental illness? Because it normalizes it. After all, what is stigma? Stigma is another word for shame — something considered disgraceful, dishonorable, or unacceptable.
If you live in a culture in which talking about your depression is unacceptable, the shame piled on top of the depression will make healing more difficult. On the other hand, if you live in a culture in which it’s ok to talk about it — or where you can find a support group — that in itself will affect your experience of depression in a positive way. Without the shame you are more likely to be able to explore the depth of your experience of depression and be more open to treating it. With shame on top of the depression, you are more likely to get stuck, and less likely to learn the deep lessons your depression might have in store for you.
So being able to talk about anything in the category of “mental illness” — including depression — can be extremely valuable as a way of de-stigmatizing it, facilitating forward movement toward healing.
Nonviolent Communication as a treatment for depression and anxiety
NVC can be a powerful ally in your ‘toolbox’ for treating depression, anxiety, and anything else in the category of “mental illness.”
NVC does not directly address physiological causes of depression when and if these relate to, for example, neurotransmitters in the brain.
With regard to depression, NVC addresses the negative self-talk that can lead to depressive episodes, which would certainly have its neurological correlates. The entire science of neuroplasticity teaches us that our brain and its neurons are not static.
So when you transform depression-inducing negative self-talk you are certainly affecting neuronal pathways. These things are not entirely separate.
However, because depression can be so complex, it’s risky to try to reduce it to a single cause, be it physiological, psychological, or circumstantial.
If you suffer from depression, understanding the cause will help your strategies and tactics more effectively address your particular situation. You might do well to consider every approach that makes sense to you — whether or not you decide to implement it.
From a medical stand-point, the hippocratic oath — summarized as first do no harm — would encourage you to consider less invasive, less expensive approaches first. NVC is one such approach.
Again, this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to replace support from family and community, nor advice, support, or treatment from a qualified professional. If depression is something you struggle with, please seek qualified help.
NVC is a powerful way of healing through words
There are many ways in which people heal through NVC. One of the most powerful happens through the Healing and Reconciliation Role-Plays (also known as Transformational Role-Plays) that some CNVC Certified Trainers conduct. (CNVC stands for Center for Nonviolent Communication, the certifying organization founded by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg.) Additionally, there are exercises for advanced practitioners on resolving inner conflicts using NVC.
With regard to depression, most of the healing experienced comes from transforming intra-personal communication — how you communicate with yourself — though some of the healing could come from healing interpersonal rifts.
Sometimes we can feel depressed because of the state of our relationships. If your relationships are unhealthy this can also affect your self-talk.
If one of the causes of depression is life-circumstances, a high skill level in NVC can also contribute to seeing and creating possibilities for transforming those circumstances. NVC teaches you to differentiate between needs and strategies. By first clarifying all the needs and values, you can then explore all the strategies and tactics available that could meet or satisfy those needs and values.
Fortunately, NVC skills transfer, whether it’s a personal or professional relationship — or whether it’s how you communicate with yourself.
After all, the purpose of NVC is to create the quality of connection out of which people naturally and spontaneously contribute to one another’s well-being.
Through its emphasis on empathic, compassionate listening, and self-responsible genuineness and authenticity in our expression, NVC leads to the kind of mutual understanding that heals relationships.
When you use NVC in your relationship with yourself, the same kind of healing is available.
Learning how to communicate while living with mental illness
Can you learn to communicate better while living with mental illness?
The answer in most cases is Yes!
One of the things NVC teaches you is that any judgment is a tragic expression of one or more unmet needs. In other words, behind or deeper than any judgment or criticism there are Universal Human Needs that are being unclearly or unskillfully expressed.
The next section spells this out in more detail.
The ability to talk about your depression — and to communicate your anger in a way that is non-damaging — are important skills NVC teaches you and helps you with
So how do you talk about depression?
How do you transform anger so that you can communicate without creating damage?
And how do you express your needs with regard to depression using Nonviolent Communication?
NVC teaches you to slow down. When you slow down you can see more clearly what you’re telling yourself.
When you look closely at the messages you give yourself you can begin to decode and translate them into more life-serving messages.
In NVC we take evaluations, judgments, interpretations, stories and “faux feelings” (words that sound like feelings but have a judgment mixed in) — and unpack them into one or more clear observations, feelings, needs, and requests (the four components of the NVC framework).
The following examples illustrate this, though some of them focus on the feelings and needs only:
For example, “You’re a loser! You’re destroying your life!” could become: “When I notice how much you’re smoking, I feel scared because I value health! Would you be willing to spend some time right now to get connected about this?”
For example, “I’ll never be good at anything!” could become: “I feel SO discouraged and am longing for a sense of competence in this situation!”
For example, “Nobody cares about me!” could become: “When I think about Richard’s recent actions, I feel hopeless that I’ll ever get the quality of care for which I’m deeply yearning!”
These latter examples are less damaging and increase the possibility of being met with compassionate understanding. This allows greater potential for forward movement in a way that is healing for you and for others in the situation.
See if you can practice expressing your truth in the form of needs and values instead of judgments about yourself, others, or situations.
Here is something you can try: write down something less-than-wonderful you’ve said to yourself. Then pull up the needs list and see if you can identify what you’re needing when you say or think that.
Nonviolent Communication is the key to living in a world without violence
Could Nonviolent Communication (NVC) be the key to living in a world without violence?
Violent communication — also known as life-disconnected, life-alienated communication — is a legacy from the past, an old habit-pattern.
NVC teaches us a new way in which we embrace our full humanity with kindness, gentleness, and generosity toward ourselves and others. This is distinctly different from permissiveness or coddling. Rather, it is the surest way to learn, evolve, and grow — because people who are cycling in anger, shame, guilt, and depression either cannot learn and grow or they do it at a much slower pace. Self-involvement stunts natural growth.
As you heal and transcend the violence within yourself and in your relationships — you are able to help others do the same. When enough of us do this we begin to transform the systems and structures that have locked in shame, discrimination, inequality, and violence. As we transform our systems and institutions, more of us are liberated. It is a virtuous cycle.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Depression
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg said in many of his live workshops that depression is anger turned inward.
How we speak to ourselves is often violent, especially when we have done something we regret, and even when we’ve been less than perfect!
How to transform that communication into something more life-serving is one of the legacies Dr. Rosenberg left us through the practice of NVC.
When we achieve this, we are able to transform debilitating regret into what he called beneficial regret.
Beneficial regret happens when we transform the violent energy of self-recrimination, and go through both mourning and self-forgiveness.
As a result, we are able to harvest the lessons from the ways we have been imperfect in ways that help us learn and grow.
“We can work on inner peace and world peace at the same time. On one hand, people have found inner peace by losing themselves in a cause larger than themselves, like the cause of world peace, because finding inner peace means coming from the self-centered life into the life centered in the good of the whole. On the other hand, one of the ways of working for world peace is to work for more inner peace, because world peace will never be stable until enough of us find inner peace to stabilize it.”
— Peace Pilgrim (July 18, 1908 – July 7, 1981), born Mildred Lisette Norman, was an American spiritual teacher, mystic, and peace activist. Quote is from “Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words”, p.99, published by Friends of Peace Pilgrim.
Puddledancer Press Books for NVC and Mental Health
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and mental health.
NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of growing, learning, and implementing more life-serving ways of relating to themselves and others.
Using NVC for mental health will give you perspectives you might not have otherwise, including an enhanced range of possibilities for co-creating outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.
Our books on NVC for mental health can help you:
- Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
- Offer compassionate understanding to others,
- Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
- Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
- Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict, and
- Create mutual understanding without coercion.
Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on NVC and mental health, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, communication prowess, and positive change effectiveness.
Check out our catalog of books on mental health… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!