You’re at holiday dinner. The family is all around you; your Mom who brings up over and over again how much she wishes she could see you more often, your Dad who’s giving you advice about work and savings, your Uncle who has made it his mission to convince you to switch your political parties, and a niece who keeps kicking you by “accident” under the table.
Or maybe you’re at the holiday dinner table, and there’s no one there. Maybe the TV is there to keep you company, or the radio with joyful Christmas tunes. And you’re heart is aching for even just one of the inconveniences listed above.
Whether your holiday celebration is embedded in family and friends, or is isolating completely your own, these are trying times for most of us. A lot of emotions and pains, some old and some new, arise. There is a great tool that can help make all of this much easier to endure. And that tool is self-empathy.
Self-empathy is the act of giving yourself empathy, listening to one’s own feelings and unmet needs with compassion and understanding. Just like the empathy that we give to others, this does not make the problems go away, or magically make all our needs met and our feelings bright. But it does help us to feel connected and centered within ourselves.
For me, when my family pushes my boundaries, and I get upset, there’s a voice inside of me which condemns my anger and sadness. “Cheer up! You’re being ungrateful for the family which you have! You teach Nonviolent Communication for crying out loud, why can’t you be a beacon for peace in your family?” But this critical voice only makes it harder for me. I’m now feeling alienated not only from the people around me, but from my very self. And that sense of alienation and guilt will only fuel more destructive behavior towards my family, whom I’m projecting this voice upon, and thus perpetuate this vicious cycle.
So how can we give ourselves self-empathy? There are actually a number of ways. Before that critical voice comes out we may be able to cut it off at the pass. My Uncle might say to me “Don’t you know that this president is going to ruin our nation?!” and I can immediately say to myself “Wow, hearing that alarms me, to the point of even feeling panicked because that statement really doesn’t agree with the world I see, it doesn’t support my choice, and I’m scared of being at odds with my family member.”
But maybe we can’t connect with what’s going on in us that quickly. Maybe my Mom says to me “If only you lived closer…wouldn’t it be so nice to have family supper every Sunday night. Why did you have to move so far away from me?” And I may be so triggered to a fight response hearing that, so I quickly shoot back “Well Mom, you should be happy that you have a son who’s able to take care of himself and isn’t still lingering around the nest.” And when my Mom’s face hardens, and she storms off, regret and guilt fill me up as I hear the critical voice inside me say “You blew it again. Can’t you just be nice to her?”
But even in this moment we can engage in self-empathy. First I might empathize with this critical voice: identify its feelings and needs. “Critical voice, you’re awfully tired of the same old pattern of destructive behavior coming up again and again. You were really hoping that I might be able to have more compassion and understanding towards my Mom.” And then I can empathize with what I said to my Mom, “Wow, its awfully sad and distressing that my Mom isn’t seeing all of my accomplishments and celebrating my independence.” And now finally after empathizing with the two parts of myself, I can empathize with what my Mom is expressing, “Mmm, you seem awfully sad because you miss me, and you miss having regular time to connect with me, to share in my daily life.”
Self-empathy is a tool we can use to get connected with what is going on for us, and to get centered so that we may express ourselves with more honesty and compassion. It is a tool which does not make problems go away, but makes it easier to endure the problems since we are no longer alienated from one’s self. And it can be the first tool used to stop the vicious cycle of getting triggered to a fight-flight-freeze reaction and triggering other people.