What is Self-Empathy?
When you think of empathy, you probably think of putting yourself in someone else's shoes, imagining what their life is like. Empathy is about connecting with what it's like to be someone else. In order to empathize with someone, you need to pay attention to them and really listen to them. Self-empathy is similar, but it's about really listening to yourself. It's about connecting with what's alive in you, turning your attention inward to see what is going on for you. Self-empathy is particularly helpful when you're experiencing some sort of emotional discomfort. It is a way to stay connected with yourself when your tendency is to avoid or distract.
Some background about Self-Empathy
Self-empathy is a term used in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which is a process that was developed by an international peacemaker and psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg. NVC provides tools for speaking and listening in ways that foster connection and understanding. It is used for resolving conflicts large and small, from the macro level (between warring nations, tribes), to the micro level (internal conflict) and everything in-between (organizational conflict, family/couple conflict).
Empathy is a key term in NVC, and it can be translated as, "What is most alive in this moment?" or "What is the heart of the matter?" In NVC, the focus is on feelings and needs, and a key assumption is that all humans have the same universal needs. These include connection, well-being, honesty, play, peace, meaning, and autonomy, among many others. We feel certain emotions when our needs are met, and other emotions when our needs are not met. Feelings, then, are pointers to our precious human needs.
Practicing self-empathy can be very helpful in cultivating inner peace and self-compassion. The practice of self-empathy involves being present with yourself and turning your attention inward by asking yourself four questions:
What am I observing?
What am I feeling?
What am I needing right now?
Do I have a request of myself or someone else?
Sometimes four questions feels like too much work, so an alternative is to simply ask yourself
What am I feeling?
What am I needing?
For instance, you may find yourself berating yourself for spending too much time on the internet. Next time you notice yourself beating yourself up or even subtly judging or criticizing yourself, try this instead:
1) Observation: Identify what you are doing and/or any judgments you are having about yourself for doing that. EXAMPLE: When I notice I've been online for three hours without a break....When I notice I'm criticizing myself for my computer use...
2) Feeling: Ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" EXAMPLE: I feel concerned
3) Need: Connect that feeling to a need/value/what's important to you, and ask yourself, "What need is not met?" EXAMPLE: I have a need for balance.
3a) Give yourself a moment or two to "sit with" or "feel into" the quality of that need and how important it (e.g. balance) is to you.
4) Request: After "sitting with" that need for balance, do you have any request of yourself or someone else? EXAMPLE: Am I willing to breathe mindfully for three breaths before going onto the next website?
Isn't that a much kinder way of responding to yourself than telling yourself what a hopeless internet junkie you are and how you're never going to get anything accomplished? You can take this a step further by asking yourself what needs are met by your internet usage (e.g. connection, learning, ease). The idea in NVC is that all behaviors are strategies to meet needs, so you can trace any behavior you tend to beat yourself up about to a need that you're attempting to meet.
This process will help you direct your attention downward from the head (where the negative thinking resides), down into the heart (where the feelings reside), and into the belly (where the precious needs reside). In this way, self-empathy is another tool for helping you get out of your head and into your heart and body.
How do I learn more?
The Communication Dojo is a great resource to get lots of practice and tips with all things NVC. Newt Bailey and I are collaborators on this and we offer workshops locally in the Bay Area as well as throughout the world through tele-classes and an upcoming online training course. BayNVC offers a multitude of classes, workshops, and retreats on Nonviolent Communication. A wonderful resource for those living in or visiting the Bay Area. NVC Academy offers tele-classes on Nonviolent Communication. Another great way to learn more about NVC without even leaving your bed!
© Ali Miller, 2009. All rights reserved.