Photo Credit: Youssef Hanna on Flickr.

Checking In: An Exercise in Self-Empathy

Photo Credit: Youssef Hanna on Flickr.

I have taken a couple of Sundays off from writing about Nonviolent Communication, mostly because by Sunday evening the idea of getting up from the bed after I get Annabelle to sleep has been unappealing. This topic has been on my mind today, however, and I really want to take the opportunity to write about it.

On days like today, when I find myself grumbling around the house, finding another reason to be ticked off at every turn, I really benefit from a little NVC-style checking in exercise. I think I would have had a much more pleasant afternoon today if I had taken the time for it, and I’m hoping that by writing about it, I’ll bring it back to the forefront of my mind and return to it more readily the next time.¬†This little exercise does not come directly from the book Nonviolent Communication, but it’s an adaptation of the NVC process, inspired in part by practices in The Mindfulness Workbook, that has worked wonderfully for me.

I was in a really great groove for awhile, where I took ten or fifteen minutes for myself before making dinner each evening. Sometimes just going into a quiet room and being still for a few minutes was all that I needed, but other times I was really on edge and needed more to bring myself back to ‘center.’ Here’s what worked:

Take out a sheet of paper or a journal and write the words: “I feel …”

Stop for a minute, and determine what emotion is most prevalent for you at the moment. Is it anger, exhaustion, frustration? Add that to your statement, so that you have something like, “I feel frustrated…”

Remember that emotions are a normal response to life events, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling any old way that you feel, but what you do with these emotions is up to you. Try to go easy on yourself. Now, add the word “because” to your statement and take as much time as you need to find the root of your feeling. Are you frustrated because all you really wanted out of the day was a few minutes to finish a personal project, but you felt pulled in every other direction by your family and your own work remains unfinished? See if you can determine what’s going on with you, and use that to complete your sentence. “I feel frustrated because I was hoping to finish my article today, but wasn’t able to set aside the time.”

Repeat this process as many times as you need to. I have had days where I’ve filled half a page before I really felt I had gotten to the bottom of what was bothering me.¬†It sounds a bit contrived, even to me as I write it, but the sense of clarity it brings me when I’m too overwhelmed by the busy-ness of the day to see straight is worth it. Sometimes just understanding why I’m so worked up is enough to calm me and help me to finish out the day with more peace. If there’s time, however, I like to take this a bit further.

I have never cared much for practices that are strictly warm and fuzzy. I like to take information and do something with it. With this exercise, I find that it’s beneficial, once I have taken stock of my emotions, to determine what I’m going to do to change the circumstances that have caused unpleasant feelings for me. For example, to the statement, “I feel frustrated because I was hoping to finish my article today, but wasn’t able to set aside the time,” I might add, “So I’m going to set aside thirty minutes to write after I put Annabelle to bed.” If I’m plain exhausted, I might decide on an early night for myself.

When the reasons for my worked up state are less concrete, the best way to end this exercise is not by finding ways to change specific things about my day. Some days, I simply like to use the information I’ve gathered to set some intentions for moving forward. In this case, I might take out a brand new sheet of paper and write several statements starting with the words, “Tonight, I’m going to…” If one of my earlier statements was, “I’m feeling disappointed because I was short with Annabelle this afternoon,” I might write something like the following: “Tonight, I’m going to be patient with my family,” or perhaps, “Tonight I’m going to be patient with myself.”

There are days that start off so wrong that I find myself wishing for a “reset” button. This practice is the closest thing I’ve found.

What about you? How do you bring yourself back to center when you’re overwhelmed or on edge? How do you turn a lousy day around?

10 thoughts on “Checking In: An Exercise in Self-Empathy

  1. Janine @ Alternative Housewife

    The husband and I frequently try to ‘reset’ by taking a nap or a shower. I hadn’t thought much about it before, but I suppose it’s because those things symbolize morning and the start of the day. I mention that we both do this because not only do we each use this technique, we also push it on each other, suggesting it when we can tell the other person is in some sort of funk. It contains that funk and keeps it from spreading through the whole family. Today I sent my husband to bed for an hour at 5pm and spent some happy time coloring with Sebastian. It would have been a very different day otherwise.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Both showers and naps are a great idea – so helpful to reset and start over in that way! I love that you’re able to suggest it for one another without it being a dig at the other for being in a lousy mood. Seems like you make a great team!

      Reply
  2. Melissa V

    We all have hard days that get off all wrong. Or start right and get off track somewhere in the middle. Argh. I like Janine’s suggestion of nap or shower! I love that idea. I think yours is wise, too. I’ve done lots of CBT to treat my craziness, =P and what helps me the most is acknowledging what is difficult for me, and coming up with a balanced way of thinking about it. Like, “I’m frustrated that I lost my temper with M. I feel like such a horrible mother… BUT Every mom gets frustrated sometimes, and M. is a handful. I need room to make mistakes while I figure this parenting thing out. I’m pretty good MOST of the time, so I think he will survive. And I think I’m okay.”
    It is similar to your desire to have a plan or new approach to dealing with it in future, rather than stop at warm fuzzies. “Thinking positive” doesn’t work for me. Because I don’t believe it, in my core. Thinking balanced works, because I believe it.

    Writing down “I feel” sounds like a good way to tackle these moments! Great idea.

    I hope you feel more energetic soon! And less sick. When will you hit week 12?

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Great points, Melissa! Reminding myself that there’s a valid reason for how I’m feeling, and that’s it’s normal definitely makes it easier for me to forgive myself and move on.

      I’m 8.5 weeks now, and it seems that things will get less fun before they get better, but it won’t be much longer. I’m ordering a hazelwood necklace to see if that does me any good!

      Reply
  3. tinsenpup

    I read about the notion of self-empathy in NVC today, so this is timely and broadens a new idea for me. I think that I have developed self talk that can often play a similar role to your exercise, although I like the idea of taking a few minutes to yourself in a more deliberate way. I’m still in the very earliest stages of processing what I’m reading in NVC, so I’ll have to go back and re-read your earlier posts when I can. Thank you for the recommendation and your insights.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Self-empathy has been huge for me, as it was never a strong point. I really look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book as you get further into it.

      Reply
  4. mrs green @littlegreenblog.com

    What a great tool; thank you for sharing. I find writing things down really helps. Often I use CBT but it requires you to be able to take around 20 minutes to do the process with mindfullness, so I love that yours could fit into a stressful moment during the day and you could come back to it later. I also appreciate that it is solutions-based; like you I need to be able to do something constructive with my feelings once I’ve owned them. Definitely a ‘life skills’ tip to file – thank you so much!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      I’m glad this is a tool you can use! Your comment, and Melissa’s above have been my first introduction to the idea of CBT. Something new to read about – thanks!

      Reply
  5. Amy

    Thank you for sharing! My husband has always been more introspective than I and has tried through the years to get me to better identify my feelings and their causes. I’ve gotten much better, but this exercise will certainly help!

    Reply

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