I want to hear me clearly
So I’ll guess what I feel
I’ll translate my judgments
Because I want to help me heal
I don’t want to beat myself up
Or get stuck in apathy
What is my request?
I want self-empathy!

~ From “I Want Self-Empathy” Copyright 2006 © David R. McCain

Focusing Attention on “What’s Happening” Inside

After I introduce people to the basics of Nonviolent Communication, I like to share the concept of empathy.  As I mentioned in my first Blog Post, empathy is a process of focusing our attention on what is happening inside of a person.  Being able to provide empathy to others is a skill that I have found helpful in channeling my desire to stay in compassionate connection with them.

Like all needs in the abundant landscape of the NVC Model, the need for empathy can be met in many ways.  An empathetic friend that reflects what they hear us saying or a listening presence that doesn’t say a word may provide the empathy (or the “empathetic presence”) we desire.  I live with a listening presence that often gives me empathy while sitting on my chest and purring. I call it “kitty empathy”.l

I am especially attracted to self-empathy because it is a gift that we can give ourselves in any moment and at any location.  I almost melt when I type these words because I am aware of the beauty of this gift that each of us holds in our hearts.  When we choose to focus our attention on what is happening inside of us, we open ourselves to a healing energy that flows into and through us leaving peace and relief.

Many of the most enriching things humans can do — riding a bicycle, writing a song, and making love are three that come to mind – must be learned by doing.  Empathy is no different.  Having a “full-being experience” of giving and/or receiving empathy (they are remarkable similar) provides a form of “heart learning” that supplements the “head learning” to which we are accustomed.

One way to experience empathy “in the flesh” is by visiting my Practice Group or attending my Foundations Class happening June 11, 18, and 25.  To give you an online example of self-empathy to provide “heart learning” (I’m not totally confident this goal is achievable), I’d like to hold your virtual hand and invite you to witness my process of self-empathy.

Two-Dimensional Self-Empathy Example

Before diving in to my example, I’d like to give a brief overview of the “energy” or intention that self-empathy rest on and I’d like to share words that might be used to give an empathetic response to yourself.  The “energy” of empathy includes these aspects:

  1. Connection not correction. It is being present (without judgment) to what is happening inside rather than trying to change yourself or another person.
  2. A guess not a test! Empathy is always a question not a statement and it’s not about guessing “right”.  If the reflection doesn’t fit, the receiver will let the giver know.
  3. Support to go deeper. Giving empathy allows the receiver to go more deeply into their emotional experience.  This process often includes silence as the receiver reflects on the giver’s words.
  4. Shift happens! When the receiver gets to the “deepest” point they often experience a shift in their energy that comes out as a sigh, silence, or a verbal expression of relief.

One example of the language of self-empathy is the following: “Am I feeling (guess your feeling) because I’m needing or wanting (guess the need)?”  When giving empathy, it is important to keep the “because you” bridge for empathy with others or the “because I” bridge for self-empathy to ensure that the receiver is aware of their responsibility for their emotional experience (see this post for an expanded discussion on this topic). For more information on the mechanics of NVC, visit my “What is NVC?” page.

Okay, here we go.  I’m a little afraid because I’m about to be vulnerable.  I think I want safety. I also want to contribute to your learning.  Hey, that’s a little self-empathy right there. Now I’m ready to go:

This dialogue happened in March of last year when I saw an email in my inbox and I immediately felt scared. I could feel all sorts of uncomfortable feelings based on my thoughts. I grounded myself in an intention of “Learning” and “Internal Partnership” and decided to have a loving dialogue with that fear.  I’ll call the scared part of me the “Internal Jackal” and the supportive, empathic voice the “Internal Giraffe” (The giraffe is the symbol of Nonviolent Communication while the Jackal is the symbol of language that may lead to violence.)

Inner Jackal: I don’t like it when people are mad at me.  That means they don’t like me and I’m not okay.

Inner Giraffe: It sounds like you are scared and wanting safety.

Inner Jackal: I’m not sure what I want.  I just know that it doesn’t feel good when people don’t like me. I want people to like me.

Inner Giraffe: Are you really concerned because you want acceptance?

Inner Jackal: I don’t want to be separate from other people. I want to be connected and participating and relating to people. I don’t want to always run away when I see something I don’t like or feel uncomfortable.

Inner Giraffe: It sounds like you want companionship and friendship and confidence that you can stay connected when you want to.

Inner Jackal: Yes, I’m tired of running away.

Inner Giraffe: Are you tired because you want to face life?

Inner Jackal: I have so much fear that it overwhelms me and makes me feel stuck.  I want to honor this fear but be able to move forward.

Inner Giraffe: It sounds like you want to be present to the fear and be conscious of ways to more forward.

Inner Jackal: I don’t want fear to control my life.  I want to learn how to hear the fear and be with it, but not let it overwhelm my whole being so that I huddle up in a ball and don’t move – either figuratively or literally.

Inner Giraffe: I hear a longing for motion and growth.

Inner Jackal: Yes, I’ve been hiding out for too long. I want to move forward without repressing the fears. I want to learn from them and move forward.

Inner Giraffe: Are you wanting skills to allow you to both honor your feelings and stay moving toward your goals?

Inner Jackal: Yes, I know that not honoring my feelings is a big part of being stuck.  I would really like to take those fears as “grist for the mill” rather than allow them to sabotage my entire being.

Inner Giraffe: It sounds like you have clarity about using feelings as a source of wisdom not an obstacle to wisdom. Is that right?

Inner Jackal: Yes, I want to move. I have been stuck so long.  How can I do that?

Inner Giraffe (shifting to honesty): I think one way is to do what we are doing right now — To look at the feelings in the moment and see where they lead.  What do you think about that?

Inner Jackal: I like that. I feel much more relaxed that I did when we started. I have felt pleased when we have had these dialogues. I can feel the warmth and compassion in these dialogues.

Inner Giraffe: It sounds like your needs for caring and tenderness are met.  Is that right?

Inner Jackal: Yes, and my need for growth and progress.  I don’t want to be stuck.  These dialogues give me some hope for the future.

At this point, I stopped the dialogue and opened the email.


I believe that we don’t “learn from experience” rather we “learn when we reflect on our experiences”.  Here are a few reflections I made at the time:

  • I notice that these fears come up more frequently that I’d like and, by habit, I don’t usually address them. Instead I employ strategies to protect myself from the fear by playing computer games or finding another way to dissociate.
  • I have a strong longing to strengthen my ability to honor the beauty and wisdom of all my feelings rather than avoid them.  Using the jackal and giraffe symbols, I want to translate jackal energy into giraffe energy with self-empathy.
  • Big needs: Growth, Self-connection, and Movement/Progress.
  • I’m excited about using NVC as a tool to create a vital, nimble internal partnership with all my thoughts!

I’d enjoy hearing your reaction to what I’ve written.

I invite you to join me in changing the world by helping people Communicate with Heart!

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