by Miki Kashtan
I have been on the path of liberation for decades, and most pointedly since 1996. Liberation, as I have been saying for years and years, overlaps with and is distinct from healing. Liberation, for me, is restoring capacity in areas where patriarchal conditioning has robbed us of it. It’s a rigorous path, sometimes grueling. It absolutely benefits from empathic support and resonance, and empathic support alone is simply not adequate to the task.
Patriarchal conditioning affects all of us, wherever we are on the power map of the world. In a very basic way, each one of us is born in a state of flow in which we trust that those around us will respond to our needs. Where that happens, we unfold and unfurl from that initial state into a dance of togetherness and choice that I sense deeply is our evolutionary makeup. This dance, in my way of seeing it, is the essence of flow within human social life. Patriarchy has interfered with all of this and established itself through reproducing, instead, a foundation of scarcity in which we live and function in separation and experience persistent powerlessness.
When I use the word liberation, I am referring to the definition given by Erica Sherover-Marcuse in “A Liberation Theory: A Working Framework.” This means, to me, liberation from all forms of social oppression, including in particular the core patriarchal structures (such as exchange-based economies and social stratification more generally) emerging from scarcity, functioning in separation, and resulting in powerlessness. This is liberation for all, at individual and collective levels. This means that every person can reach toward personal liberation and every person can have a role in moving the world toward collective liberation, regardless of context and social location.
Liberation shows up in how we act, what we say, and, most importantly, how we think. Patriarchal conditioning, the habituation of our thought, word, and action to scarcity, separation, and powerlessness, has a set of narratives, ways of interpreting what happens, ways of responding, and ways of using language. Every time we rely on such patterning, including in our most casual language, we reinforce that conditioning within us and around us. This is a large part of why I so deeply advocate for language-based practices, where developing choice about what words we use or not becomes part of how we free ourselves from the dominant narratives and align more with life. This is also why I am so clear that Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can be such a potent path of liberation.
Although NVC appears on the surface to be about individuals and about communication, the kind of transformations that NVC proposes and rests on challenge every last bit of mainstream society. Beyond a certain moment, adopting NVC as a way of living, beyond forms of communication, is inconsistent with capitalism, with either/or thinking, and with scarcity, separation, and powerlessness, all of which are at the root of all patriarchal societies; with having armies, with coercive parenting, and with the retributive justice system; and with just about every system that exists in almost all societies today.
Because of this, it’s exceedingly difficult to integrate NVC all the way into our being as an individual living in such societies. A lot of people give up, and many say that the reason is that it’s too difficult. I don’t believe that what’s difficult is the practice itself. I fully believe that the kind of togetherness that NVC gives rise to makes life hugely simpler. The difficulty, I believe, is in the inherent challenge to the narrative that our societies are based on; the internalized trauma that comes from all that was done to us to get us to accept it; and all the horrors of socialization and the invisible and ever-present fear and shame that remain associated with standing apart from the norm even in adulthood.
Where it makes sense to counter this immense societal and inner pressure is in creating communities that co-hold the move towards liberation, whether they are communities of practice or actual communities where people live together and orient to how we want our human future to be. You can catch a glimpse of what this could be in another learning packet called “Creating Relationships and Communities that Defy Patriarchy.”
Unfortunately, this option is beyond what the vast majority of people would do, and I want to offer something that can work for more people. The packet from which this is excerpted and edited, called “NVC as a Path of Liberation,” is aiming to do the near-impossible: support individuals who are hungry for liberation; who want to shift out of the oppressive ways of being that almost all of us have been trained into; and who long for concrete and practical support in doing so even while knowing that doing it as an individual is a difficult feat. I am particularly excited to share that some of my closest colleagues are offering a series called Tools for Liberation: from Powerlessness to Reclaiming Our Power, that focuses on NVC from this perspective of liberation.
One of the impacts of patriarchal conditioning at present is a low-grade activation of the fight, flight, freeze system, coupled with a high propensity for full activation. The fight, flight, freeze system effectively means we have no choice about how to respond, because we are in survival mode. There are many reasons why living in conditions of modern, capitalist patriarchy means we are often in survival mode even if we are completely out of any physical danger. One way of understanding what liberation means is that we reach the capacity to choose how to respond to life instead of reacting to it, more and more of the time. If we can integrate this capacity, we may find ourselves, also, coming back to experiences of flow that many adults no longer remember.
Even if we don’t know the technical meaning of the term “flow” in psychology (based on the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi), all of us know the delicious state of effortlessly engaging with what emerges from within us. When we are in flow, we follow our own preferences, moment by moment, without any conscious decision-making or effort. It wouldn’t be accurate to even say that we notice our preference and decide to do it; we simply follow it. My intuitive sense is that flow is the natural state of any living organism.
It’s similarly simple to understand the meaning of emergency. Emergency is what happens when we perceive a threat to our survival, which then activates the fight, flight, freeze system in order to rapidly react to what’s happened. Although in conditions of emergency or other forms of activation we may be conscious of making decisions, because of the heightened sense of survival, the range of considerations that affect the decision making is quite narrow and we often experience ourselves as having no choice.
Mobilization is any state in which we pull together resources to attend to the purpose at hand. Mobilization is only needed when our flow encounters another flow that doesn’t effortlessly weave with our own without posing a threat to our survival. Then we need to decide how to respond and bring conscious intention to what we do next. This is, I believe, what our big brains evolved for: to access as much as information as possible about what is going on and to integrate all that information into a pathway that optimizes the solution in care for all we know about.
For as long as we are embedded within and experience trust in the larger flow of life, and for as long as emergencies happen at a rate that we can metabolize and bounce back from, both individually and collectively, we can thrive within our environment. This is quite likely what human experience was like for 97% of our existence, until the patriarchal turn. This perspective goes totally against what mainstream patriarchal narratives tell us and, still, significant anthropological, archeological, and evolutionary evidence all point in this direction, supplemented by recurring themes in many myths. Since it also aligns with the theoretical perspective on human nature that NVC rests on, I have accepted this understanding as the foundation of all the work that I do at three levels: vision, analysis, and practice.
From within this perspective, the patriarchal turn could only have come about through levels of collective emergencies that outstripped collective capacity to metabolize them. The likely candidates are natural disasters and invasions, and, however it happened, the patriarchal turn was the beginning of chronic intergenerational trauma that we’ve never had the conditions to metabolize before the next wave of something arose. We are now at an extremely acute phase of patriarchal functioning, teetering on the edge of global collapse, and as far from the flow of life as we may have ever been.
The impact of patriarchy on us is in all three modes.
Flow: Under conditions of patriarchy, which is the state of being that emerges from scarcity, functions in separation, and results in powerlessness, we are less likely to enter and to stay in conditions of flow. This is so, very literally, from the beginning of life. In much of the global north, as newborns we are taken out of flow instantly by being handled and medicated in ways our sensitive little beings cannot comprehend and are not prepared for. Socialization is a constant interference with our flow, especially with how it expresses itself through moment-by-moment little preferences. When we are in school, classes start and end at predesigned times, not when we are organically ready to complete something and move to another form of engagement. This regimented way of being continues, for the vast majority of us, throughout our lives.
This also helps me understand why so many people find competition to be fun, not only necessary. We are taken out of our flow state constantly in our patriarchal society and have been since birth. Competition is a place where we are allowed to bring everything they have, and in that sense it comes close to the experience of true flow.
Mobilization: When we are within the flow of life, we mobilize and make complex decisions by connecting to needs (our own and others’), impacts, and resources. This is so, I imagine, even when we don’t refer to them in this way, because they are all significant data points for making an optimal decision. Patriarchal conditioning, however, interferes with life-oriented mobilization by giving us pathways to making complex decisions that orient to abstract principles and external reference points: what should happen, what is right, who deserves what, what is fair and right, and similar notions. Learning to apply rules and norms without engaging in relationship, without attending to anyone’s needs or preferences, and without complex considerations, evaluation of possible impacts, or extenuating circumstances is considered the highest form of moral action within much of Western philosophy. This is a standard that was codified by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century as a “categorical imperative” and is still exerting enormous influence to this day.
Emergency: Patriarchy also influences how we function under conditions of emergency. Humans, as well as some other animals, have another pathway under conditions of stress which is called “tend and befriend.” This is a way of responding that seeks to protect the young while simultaneously affiliating with others for greater collective capacity to maintain physical safety. Since pre-patriarchal societies were mother-centered, since men in matriarchal societies are more connected to women, and since mothering behavior in matriarchal societies was much more common and valued, I see it’s quite likely that the degree of fight, flight, freeze behavior and the ease of activation so many of us experience are also the result of patriarchy and not our natural state. This would also explain why fewer men than women choose the tend and befriend pathway.
The last influence of patriarchy is in the all-important moment in which we swiftly evaluate a new stimulus to assess whether it’s dangerous. Under conditions of chronic multigenerational trauma and living within separation, we are more likely to interpret situations as a threat to survival than I imagine we were before patriarchy.
Integrating NVC principles and practices, when done with sufficient depth and rigor, can completely rewire our nervous system. How we think, how we respond to stimuli, how we relate to ourselves, how we relate to each other, and everything else that happens within us can change in significant ways. It’s a spiraling process of relearning how to make sense of everything and how to respond. I see, in particular, very specific ways that the practice of NVC can support us to liberate ourselves from the impacts of patriarchy on how we function in all three modes.
Flow: The degree of orientation to either/or, right/wrong frames, and the depth of mistrust of ourselves that so many of us have on account of patriarchal socialization are so deep that resting in flow is elusive. NVC can support us in relation to flow by reducing the permanent noise in our internal landscape that interferes with being able to settle fully into trusting our preferences enough to follow them. This can happen through increasing self-acceptance, general release of tension and judgments, and increasing willingness to listen inwards.
Mobilization: Just about anything we learn and practice when we seriously commit to leaning on NVC for liberation can support us in this area.
Gaining fluency in translating judgments and in accessing needs can support us in reorienting from abstract principles to actual needs of all concerned. Learning needs choreography can support us in regaining the capacity to integrate our own needs with those of others. Learning to listen with empathy can support us in discerning what else is going on beyond our own wishes and opening our hearts. Learning how to make requests lubricates the interactions we have with others and increases our capacity to trust that an integrative solution that works for all is possible and usually not too difficult.
One of the core mechanisms we internalize through patriarchal conditioning is either/or thinking which makes it exceedingly difficult to see integrative solutions when we mobilize, and which makes it more likely for us to slip into emergency mode unnecessarily. NVC supports us in shifting more smoothly and reliably into integration. This shift is highly complex and NVC can contribute to it at the mental, emotional, and spiritual planes at once. On the mental plane, integration benefits from reframing into needs-based narratives. On the emotional plane, NVC supports integration by giving us the capacity to be with our feelings without getting flooded, which increases the chances that we will respond to difficult situations using the tend-and-befriend pathway and without activating the fight-flight-freeze pathway. Spiritually, sufficient practice of NVC supports integration because we grow, over time, an obstinate faith in our oneness; that we are all the same at the level of needs, regardless of any other differences we may have, including the specific ones that activate the either/or thinking.
Emergency: Under patriarchy, because we have a permanent low-grade activation of the fight, flight, freeze system, emergency and mobilization often get blurry. It is often stunning to me to see how easily we misinterpret each other and react strongly to what happens as if it is a threat. I mourn the low level of trust we all accept as normal. And once we interpret threat and go into survival mode, we are likely to act in support of our own needs, without active consideration of what else is in the field. While this is understandable given the depth of loss of trust of the last several thousand years, I find it tragic beyond words.
The first contribution that NVC can make to liberation in this area is through increasing our capacity to disentangle observations from interpretations and, in doing so, to reduce the frequency with which we will interpret what is happening as a threat.
Another contribution is that if we enter conditions of emergency with an integrated capacity to see needs, we can more quickly get to the heart of the matter so resources can accurately flow to needs.
Another contribution that NVC can make when we are activated is a faster exit from reaction through active choice that arises when we broaden the range of needs we connect with beyond mere survival.
Although more and more of us encounter NVC as children, sometimes even before we are born, most of us will encounter NVC after we have been subjected to patriarchal conditioning. What can we do as adults to restore our capacity?
One of the core assumptions of NVC that my late sister Inbal and I learned from Marshall Rosenberg is that all actions are attempts to meet needs. With our own articulation of this assumption, we included this sentence: “We only resort to violence or other actions that do not meet our own or others’ needs when we do not recognize the existence of more effective strategies for meeting needs.”
If we recognize that the primary reason why the range of our options is so small stems from living under conditions of patriarchy, then we can find deeper capacity to choose to liberate ourselves from them. Those conditions firstly limit our external options based on our access to resources, which is extremely unevenly distributed in ways that are entirely unrelated to human needs, actual availability of resources, and impacts on people and the environment. I want to acknowledge these and say that engaging with the complexity of whether NVC has anything specific to offer at the systemic level of this colossal and tragic limitation is quite beyond what I want to try to grapple with within one blog post.
Where NVC absolutely shines is in supporting liberation from the second way that living within patriarchal systems limits our options, which is the degree to which we have internalized them through patriarchal conditioning. This means that even though patriarchy is so debilitating to our capacity, we continue to function within it and even to reproduce it in how we relate to others and in how we pass it on to our children. One of the core aspects of this limitation is that we don’t even see options because of our conditioning. This is the main area where NVC can directly support liberation: it gives us more options for how to respond to life.
NVC gives us access to a sense of possibility by offering entirely different narratives about what it means to be human that are based on the centrality of human needs to all that we do, think, and even imagine. NVC gives us a wide range of options for how to respond to difficult situations outside the deep grooves that patriarchal conditioning instills in us. This includes various ways to hear others’ needs and integrate them with our own. It also includes clear tools for how to engage in dialogue, to speak truth with care, and to ask questions that support us to remain in togetherness even in difficult moments. The practice of NVC supports compassion directly by reminding us that whatever anyone ever does is an attempt to meet needs just like our own. It gives us a way to understand systemic impacts through looking at how systems and power differences influence whose needs are on the table or not, who gets to speak or not, who gets to make requests, who gets to say “no” to others’ requests, and who absorbs the cost of it all.
I, personally, love just how much NVC expands my imagination about what might be going on for another person, and what might be a solution that will work for both of us, all of us, as we expand beyond the interpersonal. I have no interest in freeing up myself or some people at the expense of others, even if those others are ones that are currently acting in oppressive ways. I want liberation for all of us. I want the entirety of the human family to find, again, our capacity to live within the flow of life, to maintain togetherness as we attend to the immense challenges that our extractive habits have created, and to have full access to the immense power of choice that being human can mean.
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