Self-Compassion: A Bridge To Honesty, Empathy



In last week's column, I spoke about transforming enemy images. According to Nonviolent Communication to, all labels are the tragic expression of pain and unmet needs. So, when we have a judgment in our mind about someone else's behavior, that is a signal that we have unmet needs in relationship to them. The trick is to be able to identify those needs, and then express our needs honestly, without the judgment. In this way, we will be much more likely to inspire cooperation and get our needs met.

A bonus in this process is that we will begin to have empathy for the other as well, since all human beings have the same needs. Let me give you an example from my own personal experience. When I was first learning Nonviolent Communication, I did a role play exercise. The facilitator played the person I had judgments about and I played myself.

I had some trouble finding empathy for the person, until I stopped to consider my own feelings and unmet needs. Then, presto. I had the words to offer empathy to the person, because I understood that they probably had those very same feelings and unmet needs that I had. It was like finding a magic bridge of connection. When I first went into the role play, I thought I was dealing with an enemy; but afterwards, when I opened my eyes, I found a teammate instead.

So, let's turn to the process of self-compassion now, which is typically a three-part process. The first part involves identifying our observations. These are the specific facts: What happened that triggered our feelings? What was specifically said or done? When you recall the situation, avoid generalizations, as they have a tendency to leave us feeling helpless and overwhelmed and believing ourselves to be a victim of circumstances. It is important to understand that a person's behavior or actions, even though often a stimulus, are never the cause of our feelings. A stimulus can be a memory of past pain that gets triggered. The actual cause of our negative feelings is our unmet needs in the current moment.

Self-compassion requires a willingness to turn inward and self reflect. It involves being honest with ourselves, listening within and trusting what we hear. This may take practice, especially if we have been in a habit of reacting defensively or seeking approval. I invite you to think for a moment of how easily babies and children express their feelings and needs. If hungry, they cry, if happy they giggle and screech.

The next part of the process of self-compassion is identifying our feelings that come up when we focus on our needs that have or have not been met. There is a difference between feelings and thoughts. Feelings are emotional energy that we can literally "feel" in our body. Anger is often felt as muscle tenseness; perhaps in the jaw, chest, legs, or wrists. Fear may be felt as a knot in the stomach; confusion as tenseness in the forehead. Sadness may be felt as heaviness; are you getting the picture? Thoughts, on the other hand, usually come as phrases in the mind, accompanied by evaluative words such as "why" or "should."

Here is an example: Suppose I have been staying up late working on a project. I notice my body is feeling tired, yet I may tell myself that I "have to" or "should" finish the project. If I do not take a break, the end result may be less than pretty, because I did not stop to listen to my feelings. If instead, I continued to push myself despite my tiredness, from a sense of obligation, the end result may be speckled with a spirit of resentment.

The third part of the process is identifying our unmet needs behind our judgments. (By the way, this process works for judgment about ourself as well.) Let's say we think someone has treated us unfairly. Well, most likely our need is for fairness. Or we think we have been treated "rudely." In this case, our need may be for respect or consideration. Or perhaps we think we have been rude; our need is to be respectful and considerate. Try it.

It is kind of like sewing a hemline and then turning it inside out so the observer does not see the stitching. Our underlying need is the opposite of the judgment and sounds much more beautiful to the ear of the hearer.

Now, when it comes to expressing our needs, it is important that they do not come out sounding like a demand, because then the listener will only have two choices: Submit or rebel, and we never want anyone to do anything for us from a place of compliance.

Instead, we want others to give to us from a place of joy -- likened to the joy of a small child feeding a hungry duck. I will speak more on the differences between demands and requests in a future column. Meantime, have fun turning your nightmares inside out and discovering the dreams that are hidden within.

-- Send your comments or questions about relationships or communication to: Ask Dr. Donna, P.O. Box 2204, Payson, AZ, 85547 or e-mail: If printed, any references to specific identity will be omitted for confidentiality purposes.

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