Get my free Unleash Your Relationship Superpower eBook
Your Relationship Superpower is empathy – a warm, accepting presence to whatever is happening.
If after reading this first line, you’re skeptical about reading further:
- I welcome and encourage your healthy skepticism, and
- Only read further if you are willing to try new things and if you want more ease & understanding in your relationships …
Why is empathy a relationship superpower?
A warm friendly presence is so connecting, calming, and healing. That’s why.
Empathy is flexible. It can be directed inward or outward to someone else.
When turned inward to you, you gain self-connection and self-regulation.
When focused towards someone else, they are likely to feel close to you, understood, and that they matter to you.
In the remainder of this article we’ll focus on self-empathy.
So many people that I coach (most of them, actually!) do not give themselves empathy. No judgment because, at least when I was in school, it was never taught. And it wasn’t modeled by my caregivers and mentors. So why should we expect to have learned it?
But it can be learned! It takes practice …
I invite you to imagine a specific recent scenario in which you felt irritated or frustrated with a loved one (if you’re in a relationship, please choose an event involving your partner). On the irritation/frustration scale from 1 (mild) to 10 (overwhelming), choose a scenario that stimulates feelings in the bottom half.
Once you have selected a scenario, please continue on with the steps below. If you are having trouble thinking of something … congratulations, that’s wonderful! As an aid, think about who you were with and what you have done in reverse chronological order until you remember a time when you felt this way.
Before we begin, if at any point you feel overwhelmed or triggered, you are in control and I invite you to stop the practice, take care of yourself, and/or reach out to someone for support. This exercise uses imagination, so imagination has the advantage that you are in complete control and can end it at any time.
- Find somewhere quiet and private to sit for 10-15 minutes.
- Imagine the scenario in as much detail as possible. To start, please focus specifically on what happened. Not what you thought about it at the time or now, simply what happened. What was done and what was said.
- Imagine the other person, including what they were wearing at the time, their body language, their facial expressions, etc. Check in with yourself by asking silently to yourself “How curious am I about this other person’s experience right now?” There are no right or wrong answers. Whatever your truth is. It could be “I don’t care about their experience” or “I am not very curious about what was going on for them at the time.” or whatever it is. Just note it for now and we’ll come back to it later.
- Notice the feelings in your body. Pay attention to your sensations. Where are they? What do they feel like? Don’t focus on finding names for them or words to describe them yet. Instead, focus on what it feels like to experience the sensations. As you focus on them, do they change? Are they moving? Do they fluctuate in intensity? Or are they pretty stable.
- Allow yourself to check in with whether these sensations are pleasant, unpleasant or a mixture of both.
- Next, name the collection of feelings. For example, “I am experiencing irritation now.” Notice if anything shifts in the sensations after you name the emotion.
Note: There is no 1-to-1 correspondence between sensations and an emotion. Hold this naming lightly as a guess for now.
- Now it is time to bring empathy to yourself. For some, this part can be a challenge. So if you encounter some confusion or resistance, do your best. It is called a “practice” for a reason. It takes practice. Imagine being a warm loving presence to yourself. Hold yourself with great care. If helpful, you may start by saying silently to yourself “I matter. My needs matter. I deserve consideration. I deserve to be heard and to be taken into consideration.”
- Next, connect with the feelings again. Say silently to yourself your description of whatever your experience of the sensations is. For example, “These feelings are uncomfortable. I am feeling discomfort right now.” Whatever your truth is, name it silently to yourself.
- As best as you can, the next step is to welcome these feelings as a message about what is important to you. The general message of frustration and irritation is that “your needs don’t matter” or “something is getting in the way of getting what you want.” Ask yourself “What was it that was important to me in this imagined scenario? What did I really want?” Make some guesses to see what resonates with you.
By resonate, I mean that you may feel a relaxation or an ease in your body. Your need might sound something like “I wanted quiet” or “I wanted entertainment.” Whatever it was, name it silently to yourself.
- Next, it is now time to acknowledge that your needs are valid and reasonable. It may take the form of “It is reasonable to want quiet.” Whatever it is for you, say something similar silently to. yourself.
- Now just sit for a minute or so to rest in the warm presence in which you are holding yourself. You are acknowledging your upset and allowing it. You may have gotten some clarity on your needs at the time and, if so, acknowledge that they were valid.
- Last step is to picture the other person in the scenario again. Check in with yourself again by asking silently to yourself “Right now, how curious am I about what this other person’s experience was?” There are no right or wrong answers. Whatever your truth is. It could be “I don’t care about their experience” or “I am not very curious about what was going on for them at the time” or whatever it is. Any changes in your answer compared to when we started earlier. If not, that’s okay. If so, notice what those changes are and be curious about what may have shifted in you during the course of this practice.
Thanks for investing in yourself and your relationship!
At this point, you may be feeling some disappointment … “Wait a minute!, this article did not offer support for what to do in the situation with the other person!” I understand, and so I’ll offer a few now and more to come in subsequent articles based on the Your Relationship Superpower book:
Next time you are upset about what someone else is doing …
- Pause. Intentionally do nothing. Yes, my recommended first step is simply to pause and do nothing on purpose. Why? At least 2 reasons. (1) This pause gives you the space for self-empathy, and (2) It breaks any habitual reactions between what stimulates you and how you respond to it typically. Those are good starts.
- State clearly and kindly what you need. Go through the steps above in silence to feel more calm and to get clarity on what you need. Then say to the other person as simply and directly as you can, and using a kind tone of voice and calm body language, “I need _____ .”
For example, “I need some rest right now.” “I would like some fun if possible right now.” “I would value some support from you right now.” Whatever your need is.
In future articles, there’s more to offer about further skillful ways you can build on your clarity about your needs, share them, and be resilient to whatever happens next. But for now, the simple step of communicating your needs, in a calm and kind tone, does a couple of wonderful things: (1) It focuses on what is true for you at the time and does not judge the other person, and (2) It provides insight to the other person about what is going on for you.
Give it a try today or tomorrow. See how it goes. Pay attention to what you notice in yourself and the other person. With more practice over time, you can make these skills feel more natural and make them more of your own ways of being in the world.
And if you need more support, please reach out to me. One of the ways I am helpful to my clients is by supporting them in building relationship skills using this practice and other ones.