NVC, NVC and Anger, NVC and Authenticity, time in

Choice Vs Submission/Rebellion


I have recently been introduced to the NVC concept of Choice vs. Submission/Rebellion. I will admit that I am still working on taking the discoveries I have made of this concept and integrating them into my life. This post comes from spending a few days in self-inquiry, curiosity, and leaning into my NVC training.

I found myself wondering, “What are choice, submission and rebellion” and “When have they shown up in my life?” This line of questioning has led me to discover that sometimes my many years of learned behaviors keeps me from being in full choice.

In order to be in full choice, we first need acknowledgement of, understanding and sometimes empathy for the training that shaped our past. By having a new relationship with our past and receiving empathy, we are better equipped to connect to our needs behind the choices we want to make. Empathy and understanding also gives us freedom to decide if we still want to make those choices or different ones.

Before I tell you a story about how I uncovered this concept, I will define these three words from the lens of NVC.

Choice is a calculated yes or no. Being in full choice means making decisions based on our awareness of all the opportunities available to us while also being in connection to our needs and other’s needs.

Submission is the habitual yes. It is a reactive phenomenon that surfaces in someone who is not connected to their needs/values. Submission is designed to please people in order to avoid negative consequences. It is habitual because it is not based on the freedom of choice to be able to say yes or no.

Rebellion is the habitual no. It is also a reactive state in which one advocates for their needs with some sense of urgency and without care for another person's needs. Rebellion happens when we perceive demands and try to protect our autonomy.

When we are in submission or rebellion, we tend to lack full awareness of either or both our own feelings and needs and other’s feelings and needs.


It was just a few nights ago that I found myself in a situation where I experienced both Submission and Rebellion. My husband, Julian and I were at a dinner event with other couples and their children. Our adult friends were giving us advice on buying versus renting a house and when was a good time to do either once Julian and I start having children. When we left for home, I was overloaded with information. Meanwhile, Julian wanted to discuss some of the strategies that came up in the conversation while we were driving home. I was only half present for the conversation and could tell I needed some empathy. Instead, I ignored that need, pushed it away.

Kat in Submission

I stayed half-present to our conversation for the entire ride home. In hindsight, there was part of me that was afraid to speak up about the overwhelm I was feeling. I did not want to bother Julian with my feelings, so I did not say anything. As we continued the conversation at home, my overwhelm and fear turned into conflict and confusion. With each moment, I felt more and more tense. I had listened much more than I was willing to listen for. The tension was starting to show in my tone of voice and my sharp responses. Julian was noticing and asked

“What’s going on with you?”

Kat in Rebellion

By this point, I was ready to burst. To make matters worse, I perceived Julian as demanding to know what was going on for me. This combination of overwhelm and hearing a demand was the perfect picture for my rebellion side to show up, and with great intensity. I said, practically yelling,

“You don’t care about what I have to say anyway, so I’m not going to tell you!”

Now, I was angry and ready to be done with the conversation.

Separating The Parts

The Submission side of us wants to hide in order to keep peace and harmony. The Rebel desperately wants to be heard, held, and understood. It wants to matter. Both sides can be felt in the body. Because most of us have learned that our feelings don’t matter, most of us will need to practice feeling our physical body sensations in order to know when our feelings are present and trying to tell us something.

We can do this by turning to empathy or self-empathy. If the Rebel and Submission side both show up in the same situation as they did for me, we need to give empathy to both parts. This will help us stay connected to our needs and what we would like to have more of in order to make our life more wonderful.

I like to start with writing out all my jackals (judgements) from both sides and then translate them into feelings and needs. This process allows me to feel heard and understood. Knowing what is important to me is the best way I know how to have compassion for myself. I also try to remember that the point of the exercise is not to believe my judgements that surface but to allow them their full expression so I can hear my own needs.

(Note: If you ever practice this with someone else, I highly recommend practicing with someone who understands the process of empathy. This will increase your chances of translating your judgements and have clarity about your needs.)

Below is a snippet of my process.

Submission Jackal: “I should just keep my feelings out of this. I always talk about my feelings  way too much. He doesn’t want to hear about them. This is going to be a lot easier if I just keep quiet and hear what he has to say.”

Translation: “I’m so scared that my feelings don’t matter. I’m sad and worried that I won’t get some compassion and care for what I’m going through right now. I’m also torn because I want to be able to contribute to the conversation. This is so hard! I just want everything to be peaceful and harmonious.”

Rebel Jackal: “Here I go again, letting him dominate the conversation as usual. I’m such a pushover. This is going to be a lot easier if I would just speak up for myself. Say something!”

Translation: “Wow, I’m really freaked out right now. I’m confused by all these feelings and all this information coming at me. We’re jumping to discussing strategies, and it’s overwhelming. I just want to slow dow and sort myself out. I could really use a hug and some empathy right now. I need some help!”

Herstory Repeats Itself

As I was going through this process, I remembered an old phrase I used to hear as a child: “Big girls don’t cry.” At an early age, I learned that my feelings don’t matter. Also, in order to fit in and be accepted, I must hide my feelings and act tough. After all, nobody likes a “cry-baby.” I grew up thinking that if I want to be accepted, I should stuff my feelings inside.

Sound familiar?

Lessons like these can contribute greatly to feeling powerless. Staying silent gives us less choice, less opportunity to feel heard and less opportunity for other people to support us. Instead, we convince ourselves again and again that our voices don’t matter, our feelings don't matter, and ultimately we don’t matter.

The Rebel is our advocate for choice, but it has it’s own agenda. The Rebel’s agenda is to defy all authority and only look out for #1 you. It doesn’t care about other people. This limits our choice and value for compassion and care for others.

Self-Empathy and the Time-In

If I were to go through this situation with my husband all over again, I would have taken a time-in, maybe even a few of them. A time-in is a phrase I learned from the NVC trainers at NVC Santa Cruz. It means to pause what is happening, take some time to reflect on what is alive in you at that moment, and administer some self-empathy or receive empathy from an empathy buddy.

I am an advocate for self-empathy and the time-in. I aim to get better at doing this, too. Self-empathy brings understanding, healing, and ultimately freedom from choosing out of fear and pain. When we rework the past, we have more courage in the present moment, which ultimately reshapes our future.


I recommend doing this with an empathy buddy, someone who knows and understands how to listen and guess your feelings and needs without giving advice or adding themselves into the story.

  1. Consider a time when you chose not to say something because you wanted to avoid a negative consequence. Choose something that lightly triggered you. This will increase your chances of having a shift towards more compassion and clarity.
  2. Tell your empathy buddy what happened in 4-5 sentences or less. Have your buddy give a reflection of what they heard.
  3. Identify how you are feeling in this moment. It’s important to receive empathy about the moment as it is happening now instead of what you were feeling in the past. Your empathy buddy can help you identify feelings.
  4. Identity what you are needing in this moment as you recall this story. Your empathy buddy can help you identify your needs.
  5. Now that you are connected to your feelings and needs, what request would you like to make of yourself, if any, in relation to your story? Would you like something to be different?

Visit our group Facebook page or leave a comment below and let me know how this exercise was for you? What did you learn?



Note: Kat makes no claim that any of this is The Truth for anyone else. She writes to keep up her practice of NVC skills, which are always evolving, and to share her learning with others. This post may change at a later date.  If you have any questions or comments about this post, Kat welcomes your feedback. 

A special thank you to those who created these resources.

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