NVC Self-Empathy

What is Self-Empathy?

When you think of empathy, you probably think of putting yourself in someone else's shoes, imagining what their life is like. Empathy is about connecting with what it's like to be someone else. In order to empathize with someone, you need to pay attention to them and really listen to them. Self-empathy is similar, but it's about really listening to yourself. It's about connecting with what's alive in you, turning your attention inward to see what is going on for you. Ideally, it's about turning towards yourself with loving, warm attention. Self-empathy is particularly helpful when you're experiencing some sort of emotional discomfort. It is a way to stay connected and compassionate with yourself when your tendency is to avoid, distract, or judge.

Some Background 

Self-empathy is a term used in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which is a process that was developed by an international peacemaker and psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg. NVC provides tools for speaking and listening in ways that foster connection and understanding. It is used for resolving conflicts large and small, from the macro level (between warring nations, tribes), to the micro level (internal conflict) and everything in-between (organizational conflict, family/couple conflict).


Empathy is a key term in NVC, and it can be translated as, "What is most alive in this moment?" or "What is the heart of the matter?" In NVC, the focus is on feelings and needs, and a key assumption is that all humans have the same universal needs. These include connection, well-being, honesty, play, peace, meaning, and autonomy, among many others. We feel certain emotions when our needs are met, and other emotions when our needs are not met. Feelings, then, are pointers to our precious human needs.

Practicing Self-Empathy

Practicing self-empathy can be very helpful in cultivating inner peace and self-compassion. The practice of self-empathy involves being present with yourself and turning your attention inward by asking yourself four questions:


What am I observing?

What am I feeling?

What am I needing right now?

Do I have a request of myself or someone else?


For instance, you may find yourself feeling lonely. Next time you notice yourself feeling lonely, rather than avoiding the feeling, distracting yourself away from the feeling, or beating yourself up or even subtly judging or criticizing yourself for having the feeling, try this instead:


1) Observation: Identify what the triggering event was. e.g. I saw on Facebook that an acquaintance is having a party and I wasn't invited.


2) Feeling: Ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" e.g. I feel lonely.


3) Need: Connect that feeling to a need/value and ask yourself, "What need is not met?" e.g. I have a need for connection.


3a) Give yourself a minute or so to "sit with" that need and how important it (e.g. connection) is to you. See if you can find care and compassion for yourself for having an unmet human need for connection in this moment.


4) Request: After "sitting with" that need for connection, do you have any request of yourself or someone else to help you meet that need? e.g. How about calling a friend and making a date to hang out?


Isn't that a much kinder way of responding to yourself than telling yourself what a loser you are and how you're not worthy of being invited to parties?


This process will help you direct your attention downward from the head (where the negative thinking resides), into the heart (where the feelings reside), and into the belly (where the precious needs reside). In this way, self-empathy is another tool for helping you get out of your head and into your heart and body. 


Note: It's common when practicing self-empathy to drop steps 1 + 2 and focus mostly on your feelings and needs.

How Do I Learn More?

The Center for Nonviolent Communcation is a great resource for learning more about self-empathy and NVC in general. For a printable list of feelings, click here and for a printable list of universal human needs, click here.


The Communication Dojo is a great resource to get lots of practice and tips with all things NVC. Local and online classes with Newt Bailey and Ali Miller. 


BayNVC offers a multitude of classes, workshops, and retreats on Nonviolent Communication. A wonderful resource for those living in or visiting the Bay Area.


NVC Academy offers online classes on Nonviolent Communication. Another great way to learn more about NVC without even leaving your bed!


Grok the World is the website of two NVC trainers - Christine King + Jean Morrison - who sell products like "Grok Cards" to support NVC integration. I highly recommend Grok Cards for supporting your self-empathy practice. 


Recommended reading:

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg

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