I dedicated my thirty-year career as a psychotherapist to serving immigrants, primarily from Mexico. I lead groups to help empower women who placed their partners’ needs above their own. This contributed to anxiety and depression. I facilitated groups for women in violent relationships and most of them were able to claim respect and dignity. Practicing psychotherapy was rewarding and fulfilling.
Now in retirement, I am excited to share a therapeutic model I developed — Empowerment Therapy — with mental health professionals. It is the application of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to psychotherapy, with innovations. My dream is that many people benefit from this transformative model as much as I and my clients have.
Originally from Mexico, I immigrated to the United States more than forty years ago through marriage. Upon arrival, I shared with my husband, Peter, that I wanted to go to college. I want to fulfill the dream of my life: to be a psychotherapist, an opportunity that lay beyond my reach in my home country. Since I was a child of twelve, I dreamed of supporting people who were hurting and needed to be heard and understood.
With my husband’s support, I completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a master’s degree in clinical psychology at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology. When my childhood dream became a reality, I embarked on a career in nonprofit, social service organizations for three decades, working with marginalized groups and empowering them with NVC.
I first heard Marshall Rosenberg’s name from a grad-school professor who lent me a booklet on Nonviolent Communication. I thought it was going to be just another communication model, and I was moderately interested. But when I sat down to read the booklet, I realized it was much, much more. “This is very deep and meaningful!” I thought.
I learned that Marshall Rosenberg was giving a daylong workshop in Chicago, and I attended. At the end of the day, I saw the potential this model had to help me grow and develop, and to help build world peace. I asked Marshall, “How can I learn?!”
At Marshall’s suggestion, I attended a ten-day International Intensive Training (IIT). Toward the end of this intensive retreat, it was very clear to me that I wanted to give my life to sharing Nonviolent Communication.
Connecting with Needs
Most of my therapy work has been with people who came to the United States in search of a better life. Women made up the majority of my clients, not because I only wanted to work with women, but because men were less likely to seek therapy.
A consistent void in most of my clients’ lives was a lack of consciousness of their own needs. Often, the women I worked with would prioritize the needs of their partners and their children over their own, and they thought it would be selfish to actually have needs and honor them.
In an effort to help clients connect with their needs, I developed a therapeutic model that combined principles of NVC with psychotherapy concepts. I began applying and refining the model, and gave it a name: Empowerment Therapy. And so the women discovered that their needs were universal and it was not selfish to relax, or have space, or go out with their friends and have fun. Their lives changed, because they gained clarity about their longings and learned the vocabulary to better their conditions and relationships. The following are quotes from various women in these groups.
“I thought it was my duty to have sex when he wanted, so I made myself available and then got depressed. Not anymore. I decide about my body. I have a choice.”
“I used to dread bedtime because that’s when he would start blaming me for everything. Now, I say ‘I need safety.’ I take the crib mattress that [my therapist] gave me and go to sleep in my daughters’ bedroom. He said, ‘Don’t go to that group anymore. You’re going crazy!’”
“Ah, I’m not selfish to want to go out for coffee with my friends. I need to have fun!”
“I used to feel guilty coming to the group because my husband doesn’t like it. I don’t anymore. Now, I tell him, ‘I need support, I’ll be back at 8:15’ and leave.”
“Since we did the exercise about how we contribute to our families, I feel good about myself. I give a lot, and I want recognition.”
At the same time, as NVC would invite us to do, the women in the group learned to acknowledge their partners’ needs, which, not surprisingly, increased their safety in the relationship.
“Last night, my husband got mad that dinner wasn’t ready when he came home and started yelling. I said, ‘I get that you’re hungry; I’ll make you a snack. And I need respect. Would you please lower your voice?’”
Sharing Empowerment Therapy
When I retired from agency work, like many retirees, I got right back to work — in my case, in pursuit of another dream: sharing the Empowerment Therapy model with psychotherapists and other mental health practitioners, so that they can, in turn, share it with their own clients. I dream of a world in which more and more people heal life’s wounds, gain equilibrium and wholeness, and are empowered to build more fulfilling lives and more satisfying relationships.
To help promote this work, I co-founded the Institute for Empowering Communication with fellow CNVC certified trainer, Leslie Ritter-Jenkins. In the process of writing the book, Empowerment Therapy, I consulted with Bob Wentworth, PhD — a CNVC certified trainer and trained scientist. Impressed with his conceptual talents, I asked him to collaborate on revising the book for clarity and thoroughness. I also asked him to co-lead Empowerment Therapy workshops. We are excited to offer workshops on a gift economy — where money is not an impediment — so that anybody who wants to learn Empowerment Therapy, can.
- Conflict Transformation