Often I use this process with clients who are stuck to a sticky thought and want to get unstuck! We all have sticky thoughts; intrusive or compulsive mental stories we automatically tell ourselves when stressed that can loop endlessly in our heads.
The sticky thought is almost always a judgement, either of the self 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?) to uncover the previously hazy thoughts behind your feelings. Then you can work with them, one at a time.
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 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 decision
- I will never be happy
- I’m not good enough
- Etc etc etc.
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”.
Here’s the 4-step self-empathy process. Keep your answers concise. It will really help to have these lists handy. Do it verbally with another person, or by yourself on paper.
- When I tell myself ____________________ (insert one briefly-worded criticism)
- I feel ___________________
- Because I want / value / need _____________________
- I feel this in my ___________________ (where in the body do you feel this?)
Do this iteratively, meaning 2, 3 or 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 our underlying feelings and needs”. The beauty of it is also the key to it: It links our difficult feelings to our underlying needs, not to behaviours. This gets us out of our mental stories for a while. It short-circuits the looping thoughts. It gives us somewhere else to go inside our head … and heart.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s take 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).
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”.
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”.
The next thing my client said after we finished was: “Well! That makes perfect sense!” And we laughed, because, of course, she wanted connection, competence, and contribution. And in her work situation at that time, it seemed like those important aspects of her were missing. She shed a healthy tear or two.
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 only, and it will not change your boss, your partner, or your children. But self-empathy is the best remedy for self-judgement 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.