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Staying with Yourself Despite Others’ “Not Empathy” Responses

You express a difficult experience and hear your friend respond with everything but empathy.  As you become more familiar with self-empathy and empathy, you realize its power and the rewards of just turning towards your experience and staying present.  Unfortunately some of your loved ones haven't learned this yet.  You know they care about you and mean well.  At the same time, it's pretty disconnecting to share in a vulnerable way and hear your friend say something like, "Come on, it's not so bad, look at the bright side, you…"  In an attempt to be helpful, your friend directs you away from your experience* at a moment when you are hoping for empathy.  How can you stay with your experience and ask for empathy in a way the other person can receive?

Learning to stay with yourself, even when someone else isn't, is an empowering practice. When you can hold your attention on your present moment experience with a sense of warmth and kindness to yourself, your friend's disconnecting response may be a disappointment, but it doesn't throw you off your center into defensiveness and resentment.

To learn this practice of staying with yourself, you can break it down into a few fundamental components:

  • Direct your attention away from the "not empathy" response and the other person.  Focus internally on your center for one full inhale and exhale.  (It's okay if you miss what they are saying).

  • Give yourself some reassurance and acceptance with a gentle internal "It's okay." or "I can be with my experience right now."

  • Gently name your experience to yourself - feelings, sensations, needs, longings, etc.

  • Say something aloud that lets the other person know you are staying with your experience.  Here are some possibilities:

    • "I'm okay to just feel what I feel right now."

    • "I am noticing what's coming up for me."

    • "I want to stay with my experience so I can feel what else is there."

    • "I'm okay with sadness (fill any emotion here)."

    • "I trust that just being with my experience is enough for now."

One of the most effective ways to strengthen this practice of staying with yourself is to have the experience of consistently being met with empathy by others.  That might mean putting yourself in situations in which you know this will be consistent, for example, with a therapist, a spiritual community, NVC classes, or other gatherings that share the practice of respect and empathy in a skillful way.

As your skill and trust in self-empathy grows, asking for empathy gets easier.  You learn to ask if the other person is available for empathy before you share.  And, you learn to request empathy with an open and accepting heart.  Such requests might sound like the following:

  • Oh, I hear you care and want to contribute with advice, right now I just need to stay with what I am feeling, are you up for hearing me?

  • Could we stay here a little longer? I'm okay feeling it, even though it's hard.

  • I'm wondering if you could give me a sense of what you are hearing?

  • It really helps me to know that you get what I'm going through before we try problem solving.  Could you tell me what you're getting from what I shared?

  • Hmm, yeah, I hear you saying you know exactly how I feel, could you share what you know?  It would help me to feel connected.

  • What would help most right now is just to feel you with me.  Can we just snuggle and sit quietly for a few minutes?

Most likely the person receiving these requests is someone who cares about you and thus will be relieved to know how to contribute to you.  You can help others build confidence in offering empathy by letting them know exactly how it's helpful for you.  Empathy is a subtle offering and for those unfamiliar it's hard to trust that they are doing enough.  You are giving others a gift when you're honest about what works for you and ask for it in a clear way.


Take a moment to reflect on the relationships in your life.  Choose one in which to practice staying with yourself and asking for empathy in the coming week.  Perhaps it's one in which you really trust the other person cares for you and could receive your request most easily.

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1 Response

  1. Dec 03, 2015
    Karen Cox

    Dear LaShelle,

    What a timely gem of the week as something like what you described happened yesterday. I so appreciate the clarity with which you describe situations and how to be present with myself. And I am printing this one to read frequently in the hopes of integrating the questions and practice more fully. And believe that I am slowly moving towards being able to be present for myself more often. This will help.

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