When Self Empathy Doesn’t Work

Moving from a self critic attack to warmth and compassion for yourself is a huge internal shift to make.  Sometimes, identifying your feelings and needs might feel more like artificial steps than actual self connection.  You can't just tell yourself to feel warmth when a wave of shame or worthlessness is moving through.

When you were growing up and facing these difficult feelings of shame, worthlessness, or even insecurity you may not have had the tools or support to deal with them. You learned to shut down or distract yourself. But now you do have what you need.  You have practiced mindfulness and meditation and you have learned to identify various aspects of experience.

The tricky part is trusting the skills and consciousness you have cultivated. The pain of getting caught in difficult emotions and not knowing how to get out, scares you.  Some part of you is still afraid to give your attention to painful feelings in fear that you will be lost there.

And yet, it is this ability to pay attention to difficult feelings that is the critical step to accessing warmth and effective self empathy.   In actuality it is not the difficult feelings that create the most suffering, it is alternately your resistance and intensifying of them that creates the most suffering.

When you are experiencing a self critic attack whether it has words or just body sensations, impulses, or images, the first thing you need to do is stabilize gentle attention - mindfulness. This means turning your full attention to this difficult emotional state.  As you give the state your full attention begin naming its components as clearly as possible. For example your noticing might sound something like this:

"...there is a heaviness in my chest, I feel like I'm shrinking, I have the impulse to hide, there is a sinking in my heart, fear, shame, there is a collapse that I recognize as the belief of worthlessness, I have an image of running away to a faraway place, I want to disappear, it's like a tidal wave moving through me, tightening in my stomach, a heaviness in my eyes, my shoulders are collapsing in, it's difficult to breathe …"

This noticing doesn't necessarily have to be verbal, but naming can help with initial stabilization of attention.  Notice that this mindful naming stays entirely with present experience and does not shuttle back to the trigger event.  This is an important difference between mindfulness and wallowing. When mindfulness is present, your attention stays on its object, in this case, your emotional state and all its components.  

Wallowing, or getting lost in an emotion is really about getting lost in the story* that emotion triggers and then that story triggers more emotions and then more emotion triggers more story, etc.  This mental-emotional proliferation leads to suffering and a sense of inner chaos.

You will know when mindfulness has stabilized when you feel a shift into expansiveness. You will feel bigger than the difficult emotional state, as though there were space between you and it. From this stabilized mindfulness you can engage in any helpful response to your experience and it will be exponentially more helpful. After stabilizing mindfulness, engage your anchor.**   Then engage the steps of self empathy (naming the observation and connecting with feelings, needs, and requests).

Learning to trust yourself to become mindful of a difficult emotional state rather than getting lost in it, requires practice. You can begin your practice by noting small discomforts during meditation and staying with them. With these small experiments you will know in your body what you already know intellectually:  that all experience is impermanent, that it arises and dissolves rather quickly. In addition, you will gain confidence that you can give a difficult experience your mindful attention and you will not become lost in it.

Trusting that you can stay in mindful relationship to your experience is true freedom.  The freedom to fully embody and embrace your life.


Take a moment now, and ask yourself if there is a particular emotional state that you actively avoid when it arises.  What type of support do you need to gain confidence in your ability to stabilize mindfulness in relationship to that state?

*The word story is used here to refer to falling into a cycle of believing in your own worthlessness and then gathering evidence to prove it from the trigger event, but also from other similar events in the past, then feeling worse, then thinking of all the ways you are worse, etc.

**An anchor is something you put your attention on that wakes up the expansive network of experience.  An expansive state enables you to return your attention to the present moment with full access to skills, wisdom, and compassion.  An effective anchor is specific, doable, has aliveness/meaning, is simple, and can be done any time and anywhere. It could be physical, verbal, energetic, visual, or any combination.  Here are some examples:

  • Placing your hand on heart and bringing to mind the memory of someone smiling at you lovingly.  

  • Bringing to mind a key aspect of a peak experience of connection.  

  • Repeating a mantra while breathing in the belly.

  • Sitting up straight and running your attention up and down the hara ln