Self-Empathy

One of the most helpful and innovative tools Marshall Rosenberg popularized with NVC was self empathy. Aligning with the long held belief in many Eastern and Jungian traditions that our true self is separate from our ego or inner child or any other aspect of ourselves, it leaves open the possibility that we can give empathy to ourselves just like to another person. This type of empathy can also come in both silent and active listening.

In silent self empathy, we are self connecting to whatever is alive in us at that moment. We are trying to feel the felt sense of our experience. It’s like we put our mind’s eye into the heart of our experience and really feel it, without judgment or narrative. Just like in meditation, when we notice our attention drift to thought, we gently but firmly redirect our awareness back to the feelings.  When we are connected to the feelings we attune to them like to a young child, with tenderness and presence.

In active empathic listening, we use feelings and needs guessing to connect to ourselves. This may seem awkward at first, but overtime it comes very natural to ask our self, “what am I needing now?” Or “What needs is that thought, story or judgment trying to meet?” We can then empathy guess with our self, naming needs until one or more start to resonate. When we land on one, we can linger with it with our observing self, connecting to its beauty, to its universal nature.

Dr. Daniel Siegel in his book “The Mindful Brain” refers to self empathy as “internal attunement” when the “observing self” can focus “on the experiencing self as an ‘other’ that can be understood, received without judgment, and attuned to with a sense of resonance by the observing self.” He goes on to say that “this is the reflective state of awareness that is at the heart of mindfulness.”

In other words, when we connect mindfully to our needs, we bring qualities of empathy and attunement similar to what an attentive mother gives her child, and often a sense of peace arises that can be greater than if we actually met the need itself. Siegel: “In sum, we are proposing that mindfulness involves a form of internal attunement that may harness the social circuits of mirroring and empathy to create a state of neural integration and flexible self regulation.”  Isn’t that exactly what we need most when we are in distress?

Giving Empathy to the Obsessing, Worrying and Fantasizing Mind

Probably with few exceptions, all our thinking is an attempt to meet needs. Obsessing, worrying and fantasizing are all especially obvious attempts by the mind at satisfying one or more needs. One way to calm the thinking mind is to give it empathy. An effective method of empathy is to try to guess the needs the mind is trying to meet, and to linger with those needs and the resulting feelings once identified.

An example might be if the mind is repeatedly worrying because a challenging relative is coming over for a family dinner. When we notice that the mind keeps thinking about this same fear, we might gently ask ourselves, “What need am I trying to meet?” or if you like using the second person with your mind, you can say, “What need are you trying to meet right now?”

And when some ideas emerge, then you might say, kindly and softly as if to a child, “Are you wanting harmony, ease or kindness? Maybe reassurance, support and understanding?” Your body should resonate when you guess right, and you can confirm this with a gentle, “Oh, I see you (or I) are needing some kindness and support. I totally get that.”

Use the needs lists included in this book. The more precise we can be with the need guessing, the more empathetic it will feel and the more effective it will be at calming the obsessive mind.

Empathy can also work with fantasizing. While sometimes it might seem we have a little more choice about fantasizing than worrying or obsessing (not always of course), and therefore the source may be closer to “self” than the mind, the empathy guessing still works. When we notice that we have been fantasizing about some story or preferred outcome, we try to guess the needs that that fantasy is trying to meet.

For instance, we could be in fantasy about a relationship with someone who is unavailable. It may even seem we are powerless over the draw to fantasize about that person. These are strong indications that we are trying to meet needs. The needs in this case might be the exact same needs we would hopefully get met in a relationship: Affection, closeness, connection and touch for instance. Or sexual expression, companionship and mutuality. Try to connect to the needs that are alive in you, notice how beautiful and universal they are and how much you long for them.  Hold them with your kind awareness. Mourn them. Experience the feelings that come up.

Remember, the mind, just like all parts of us, cares for us. It means well. But some of the painful habits of the mind can be pretty ingrained, probably learned as a child from less than skillful caretakers. Be patient. Be persistent. Practice loving the worrying, obsessing, fantasizing mind with some tender empathy guessing.

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