4 Steps to Self-Empathy: Get Calm and Clear

Self-empathy: A remedy for self-judgment

Sometimes I use this process with clients who are stuck to a sticky thought and want to get unstuck! We all have sticky thoughts. These are the intrusive or compulsive beliefs or mental stories we automatically tell ourselves when stressed. These thoughts can loop endlessly in our heads.

The sticky thought is almost always a judgement, either of yourself or another person. In case you are struggling to identify your thoughts, perhaps because all you know is you feel bad, give the feeling “a voice” – what is it saying? This will uncover the previously hazy thoughts behind your feelings. Then you can work with them, one at a time.

Self-empathy and “sticky thoughts”

Examples of sticky thoughts (judgements or criticisms) I’ve encountered are:

  • I’m no good at my job
  • I’m a bad mother
  • I should exercise more
  • I should be more organised
  • I am lazy (fat/stupid/unlovable)
  • He is lazy (rude/selfish/abusive)
  • She deliberately hurt me
  • They don’t care about me
  • I made the wrong choice
  • I will never be happy
  • I’m not good enough
  • And so and so forth! 

The list of sticky and stressful things that we tell ourselves could go on and on, right? Sometimes our minds are like “Radio Doom and Gloom”.

The Four Steps To Self-Empathy

Here’s the 4-step self-empathy process. Keep your answers concise. These feelings & needs lists can help, so keep them handy. Do this verbally with another person or by yourself on paper.

  1. When I tell myself ____________________ (one briefly-worded criticism)
  2. I feel ___________________
  3. Because I want / value / need _____________________
  4. I feel this in my ___________________ (where in the body do you feel this?)

Do this iteratively, meaning 2, 3 or even 4 times, working with the same self-judgement but focussing on a different feeling and need each time, one at a time. Use these lists to help identify accurate feelings and needs words. Below is a worked example.

I call it “unpacking your underlying feelings and needs”. The beauty of it is that it links our difficult feelings to our underlying needs, not to the behaviours. This gets us out of our mental stories for a while. It short-circuits the loop. It gives us somewhere else to go inside our head and heart.

Let’s work through an example, taking the first self-criticism from the list: “I’m no good at my job” – a sticky thought that a social worker client of mine was having.

FIRST ROUND: “When I tell myself: “I am no good at my job”, I feel anxious, because I really want connection with others at work. I feel this in my stomach” (heavy, queasy feeling).

Deep breath!

SECOND ROUND: “When I tell myself: “I am no good at my job”, I feel bad, like ashamed, because I really value being competent and effective at work. I feel this in my throat and face”.

Deep breath!

THIRD ROUND: “When I tell myself “I am no good at my job”, I feel sad and disappointed, because I really value contributing; making a difference, helping others. I feel this in my heart and chest”.

At the end of this process, my client said, “Well! That makes perfect sense to me now!” And we laughed, because, of course, she wanted connection, competence, and contribution. And in her work situation at that time, it felt like those important aspects were missing. She shed a few tears.

This process gave her self-compassion and stopped the self-judgements. She became calmer and more relaxed. She was then able to think more clearly, reflect on what she could do (and think) differently in future, and see also what was not in her control.

This is not a magic wand. It is inner work, and it will not change your boss, your partner, or your children. But self-empathy is the best remedy for self-judgements that I know. Self-judgement gets us nowhere fast! Self-empathy, on the other hand, can help you get clear and calm. And when you feel more calm and are in touch with your needs and values, you will handle everything better.

Need help?  Talk to one of our Therapists.