Self-Empathy: Not Just A Tool For Conflict
For a long time in my Nonviolent Communication journey, I exclusively used self-empathy as a tool to process interpersonal conflicts. When I was angry or triggered by something that happened in my life, I often found myself ruminating on judgments and blame of others (people around me, systems, or society at large). To get out of that space that I like to call "story land", I would use self-empathy. I'd give myself space to air out those judgments, and then I would piece out what were real, observational truths, what were just my thoughts, and what were my feelings and needs around it all.
To be clear, all of this has been quite helpful, and I still use self-empathy to process conflict in this way. However, I want to illuminate another, probably less obvious use of self-empathy beyond processing interpersonal disputes: pain perception.
Something I've noticed in the last year - specifically since I've had a child and experienced being in labor - is that physical pain is very much a mental experience. When something happens in our bodies that is out of the norm, possibly dangerous, or cause for alarm, our brains tell us so via pain. It's a pretty neat system for the most part (my judgment) because we are warned that something's up, often well before it gets catastrophic. However, pain is also a pain, and it can be distracting and even debilitating. Additionally, the stories we have around our pain can very much shape our reality in any given moment, just like stories we have about anything else. I've found that using self-empathy in these moments has changed the way I view pain, and ultimately makes pain less debilitating.
Here is an example. I recently moved from a very humid and warm climate to the high desert. In doing so, my sinuses have been through the wringer. The other day, I was hiking in high altitude and I noticed that I was having trouble breathing because my nasal cavity was basically raw (I had been bleeding from a dry nose for weeks at that point). I felt a stinging, almost burning sensation in my nose with every inhale, and I was also experiencing a sharp headache around my eyes and sinuses. As I noticed this on my hike, I then started thinking about how much longer I had to go and how fast I would need to move before the sun set. Then I started stressing out about how I was going to accomplish that with the pain I was experiencing. These thoughts seemed to exacerbate the pain; my breath quickened with my newfound anxiety (which was not helpful pain-wise); and by that point, I was no longer present with nature and having a good time doing something I love, but instead I was in a miserable, anxious story hole that I dug for myself.
It was then that I caught myself and did a little self-empathy. I noticed the facts: my body was getting the oxygen it needed to put one foot in front of the other and function in a way that I would deem "normal", I was hiking in the woods, I had 3 hours of sunlight left, and I was currently safe. I noticed my feelings, and really focused on the specific sensations happening in my body: my breath had quickened, my legs were slightly sore but in a way that I was enjoying, and of course, all the many sensations in my nose and head. And then I very intentionally did not allow thoughts about those sensations to creep in. I simply just paid attention to what I was feeling in each moment that came. I tried to define these sensations as specifically as possible, too. It wasn't just "my sinuses hurt", but rather "when I inhale, I feel a sharp, cold tingle deep in my nasal cavity and pressure behind my right inner eyebrow". Paying attention to sensations in this way - leaning into the pain - actually made the pain less painful and more matter-of-fact. Additionally, I no longer carried the stress and anxiety brought on by my stories that I was going to be miserable and slow and end up in the dark. The act of presence tends to dissipate stories, as they are typically about the past or the future.
This was all just from having awareness around what I was feeling. I hadn't even made it to a needs assessment yet. When I did think about my needs, I realized it was quite simple: I was needing comfort. With all the stories gone, I realized all I was really needing was some comfort, and I was actually okay with that, because I knew that the discomfort I was experiencing would be temporary. Not only that, but giving those sensations my full attention and having granularity around their descriptions somehow made them less painful or uncomfortable. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed time and time again. I think this is at the heart of a lot of meditative practices, actually - noticing without judging; observing the sensations without experiencing pain. Our brains are pretty incredible.
To be clear, I am not saying that you can meditate your way out of an injury. I'm simply saying that we perceive pain differently when we think of it as painful versus becoming curious about the exact sensations. This doesn't mean the sensations go away (although sometimes that has happened for me), but rather we can decide how much power we give them. This has worked for me in instances of mild to moderate pain. It was even helpful during parts of childbirth, however there were moments too intense for my mental willpower to overcome. I wouldn't say this is a solution to all the body's pains; I still use other external, tangible items for pain management from time to time. It is, however, a very helpful tool (and it's free!).
If you are curious about the process of self-empathy, or even empathy for other, check out the Intro to NVC course here. NVC is a mindfulness tool that has changed my life in so many ways, pain perception being one that I truly never imagined.