Have you ever attempted self-empathy and found that you just end up getting stuck in unpleasant feelings and a swirl of repetitive thoughts? When taking to check in with yourself, it's helpful to have a reliable process. Let's define self-empathy and break it down into it's fundamental elements.
Self-empathy is meant to allow space for you to experience all that is alive in you with acceptance and honor for that experience.
Self-empathy isn't meant to be an elixir that removes unpleasant feelings.
I often think of feelings as energy entities that want to be known – experienced fully and acknowledged. Sometimes this takes a few minutes, sometimes a few hours or days or weeks.
What I call "being a big container" means allowing feelings to be there. You notice a feeling as it arises and say something like, "Okay, I notice I am feeling hurt right now. That's okay to feel. I don't have to do something about it nor push it away." Then you get to know the feeling by paying attention to it in specific ways. You can ask yourself questions like this:
- Where in my body do I feel this feeling?
- How much space does this feelings take up in my body?
- What's the texture of this feeling - sharp, dull, rough, slick...?
- Does this feeling move or stay still?
- What's the energetic quality of the feeling - heavy, light, expansive, contracted, busy, scattered, dense...?
When you interrupt mental habits by mindfully attending to what is alive in you, you create a spaciousness in your consciousness. This means that unpleasant feelings can arise and be there without a reaction from you. When you are not in reaction to your own internal experience, you can continue to function and be attentive to others, your work, your bicycle ride, etc.
A simple mindfulness practice to begin with involves cultivating an "acceptance voice". Find a short phrase that helps you accept your internal experience. Mine is simply, "That's okay". I have practiced this voice so much that it now arises of its own accord when needed.
Meditation is an ideal situation for this practice. When you sit quietly with the intention to stay in the present, your mind invariably wanders off and a variety of sensations and feelings arise. Each time you notice your mind wandering or a sensation or feeling arises, repeat your acceptance phrase and return to your practice of noticing your experience in the detailed way described above. If you continue this practice over time, you will find yourself less reactive and more able to flow with whatever experiences and situations you encounter.
When you have begun to settle your body, heart, and mind with the practices above, you can do the next two steps in self-empathy. First, name the needs that are alive for you in the present moment. As I was sitting in mindful meditation this morning, my consciousness revealed a need for creative expression by offering a simple art idea that I could do in the moment. Our waking consciousness communicates needs in the same way our dreams do at night, through tone, images, color, quality of light, energy, characters, memories, words, sensations, emotions, thoughts, etc. Your role is simply to pay attention and translate what your consciousnes tells you.
Once you have named the need(s) alive for you, acting on your needs is the next step in self-empathy. When you have a specific concrete do-able plan for meeting your needs, your body, heart, and mind relaxes into a relationship of self-trust. The important thing here is that the actions you decide on are ones that you can easily follow through on within a day. Putting your needs off until summer vacation doesn't create a relationship of self-trust.
Take a moment to scan through this article and choose one of the practices mentioned. Decide when and where you will practice that element of self-empathy today.