The terrible sexual assaults in Cologne are reminding me of some experiences I have had, so I thought to do a nonviolent communication exercise on one incident here. Two things to note: 1. This isn’t a serious incident, but if reading such things causes you upset, please don’t read further. 2. I am not saying that this exercise will make everything better for people who have experienced sexual assault or sexism. No. I do find that doing this exercise creates a safe mental space for me to think about a situation, about how to address it in a powerful way. And I also experience a sense of peace, these are the potential benefits I am suggesting.
So, in my understanding, in nonviolence in general and nonviolent communication in particular, where violence has occurred, we attempt to move away from demonising others, and from laying blame, retribution and guilt. This does not mean that we do nothing about acts of violence. No. It means that the actions we take to protect ourselves and others from future harm, and also to make amends where our actions have triggered hurt in another, these actions are informed by a deep understanding of what has triggered the violence in the first place. It also means that we don’t comment or judge before finding out as much as possible about the event and attempting to come to an empathetic understanding.
The man who assaulted me , what was he experiencing in that moment?
My incident: doing The Exercise
The facts as I remember them: It happened in broad daylight in a suburban shopping centre carpark. He smelled strongly of spirits. He was about my height (tall) and immaculately dressed in a beautiful black suit. Immaculate. He was in fact tall, dark and handsome. He had (or was using) a French accent. He was kind of gleeful, laughing at my rage and impotence (I was 7 months pregnant and hampered by several very heavy shopping bags that I had wrapped around my wrists). He said, but baby you are just TOO sexy! He pinched me hard in an intimate place, he twisted, he hurt me. Then let me go and he walked away, he didn’t run.
It occurred to me instantly that no-one was going to believe my story: that of a single pregnant girl, a mere Pizza Hut employee… over someone who could wear that suit. That my morals and integrity would be scrutinised at every step by those who are supposedly charged to protect me, that my story would not matter, all that sort of thing.
My feelings: I was very angry in the moment, furious in fact. And so frustrated (I am usually well able to defend myself physically). So I also felt vulnerable and contemptuous of that vulnerability. I felt shame.
My needs: Goddammit how about some simple respect. AND some space. To matter. And the one I am meeting now: to understand and be understood.
My empathetic guess at his feelings: I’m thinking that this man was feeling angry, bitter, and gleeful (taking delight in my pain). I also sense contempt.
My empathetic guess at his unmet needs, at what was alive in him in that moment: I’m thinking he wanted to know and be known, maybe also to matter. Not to me, doing this exercise, I now have a strong sense that this incident had nothing to do with me, but in the absence of his needs being met, imposing himself upon my body, inflicting the pain of his unmet needs on another would do.
And now I am thinking that under those other feelings was something submerged, something hugely painful, like despair.
And now what?
This incident happened 24 years ago. What has the point been of dragging it up?
- I do have a deep sense of peace. It arose when I came to understand that this had nothing to do with me, I did nothing to cause it, I have nothing to be ashamed about.
- I have had the opportunity to meet some of my needs that were unmet in the moment: to understand and be understood, starting with being understood by myself. I can also see that I do matter, that I always did 🙂
- I can appreciate that this man is not a monster, he is a human being just like me.
To be fully complete, I would like an opportunity to speak to this man. I would like to say this to him:
Your actions caused me pain, pain in the moment when you hurt me with your hands and pain over the years when I felt ashamed for not defending myself. I do not want you to feel ashamed or guilty about this though. That seems a waste. Rather, I would like you to take responsibility for your actions. I would like you to do the work necessary to make sure your precious needs are met in a way that satisfies you and creates something beautiful and precious for others. I believe you are capable of this. I believe in you.
I am complete.