The Three Stages of Emotional Liberation

Black and white portrait of Marshall B. Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg writes about the three stages people often pass through on their journey from emotional slavery to emotional liberation. As an NVC fanboy, Rosenberg groupie, and an unyielding proponent of his work, I’m gonna share this concept with you today (largely in my own words and with my own spin, of course).

Stage 1

Ol Rosey Baby refers to the first stage as “emotional slavery.” This is where you ignore your feelings, wants, needs, etc., have no boundaries, act compliant all the time, don’t rock the boat, don’t speak up for yourself, shrink, self-abandon, and so on. In this stage, you truly believe that you are responsible for the feelings and needs of other people (some say the very definition of codependency).

In fact, this is how I used to do romantic relationships. But every time my unrelenting self-abandonment inevitably smothered my spirit, I had to escape immediately! And this took on various flavors of self-sabotage, self-medicating, and burning relationships to the ground. Rosenberg describes this exact behavior and adds, “This response is common among those who experience love as denial of one’s own needs in order to attend to the needs of the beloved.”


Stage 2

The next stage is called “the obnoxious stage.” This is when you realize just how much life you’ve pissed away trying to accommodate other people and do a job that was never yours to do in the first place. And you get real angry about it. The pendulum swings to the other extreme, and you trade in your “fuck me” for a shiny new “fuck you.”

I know my rights, goddamnit!

You start setting wild-ass throat-punch boundaries and ultimatums. Technically, it’s a step in the right direction because now you’re actually speaking up for yourself and asserting your needs, but in a way that completely dismisses the feelings and needs of others. It often seems like a move from abject self-abandonment to rigid or even aggressive selfishness.

Stage 3

The third and final stage of your journey is “emotional liberation.” This is when you realize that my needs matter and your needs matter. I want both of us to have our needs met — to be seen, heard, validated, respected, etc. And we can work together to find a win/win solution. Neither one of us has to get thrown under the bus!

This requires a high level of emotional maturity and self-awareness. You’ll need the tools and resources to navigate triggers and conflicts in a relatively calm and proactive manner. Rosenberg says this is where “We accept full responsibility for our own feelings but not the feelings of others, while being aware that we can never meet our own needs at the expense of others.”

Taking The Journey

A lot of people wanna get to stage 3, but they’re too afraid stage 2 will make them a “bad person,” so they stay in stage 1 forever. But I’ve never seen anyone skip the obnoxious stage.

Many people go from having never had healthy boundaries in their life to using you-statements (literally a boundary violation) to demand other people respect their boundaries, haha. I’ve done it myself and seen countless others do it. It’s uncomfortable as all hell to watch people botch their first attempts at healthy self-interest. But I know if I criticize someone’s maiden voyage on the boundary boat they’re liable to turn back and shame themselves back into a stage 1 fetal position.

So I just encourage them as best I can and ease them into the constructive feedback that’ll take them to stage 3 when they’re ready for it.

Another Lens

I don’t know if Marshall Rosenberg and Pia Mellody ever rubbed elbows, but Pia has a developmental model that aligns quite well with MBR’s take on it. To paraphrase, she says there is a wounded child (stage 1), a pissed-off teenager (stage 2), and a functional adult (stage 3) within each of us. And at any given moment, any one of them could be driving our bus. When we’re triggered into a regressed emotional state of immaturity, the wounded child or the salty teen will most likely grab the wheel.

In any event, I love how two of my intellectual heroes both described these three stages of emotional liberation in their own way. They seem to corroborate a fundamental truth:

First we are wounded, then we are outraged, then we find peace.


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*This article contains Amazon affiliate links to the books mentioned

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

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