Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA
Last week, I asked a client if she could try and have empathy for the part of herself that was hurting. I asked her to close her eyes, find that part of herself, and put an arm around it.
"I can't do that," she told me. "The truth is, I'm unlovable."
One of the least-popular things I tell my clients is this:
"In this room, I am not interested in the truth."
Really. I really AM NOT interested in whether a thought is true or not. If you have the thought "I'm unlovable", I'm sure you can give me seventy-eight reasons why you aren't lovable, and one hundred and sixteen memories in which life PROVED to you that you are unlovable. I'm sure we could find a dozen people who would raise their hands and argue in favor of this thought that you are unlovable.
Once you've done all of this work, and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are unlovable, where does that leave you?
Unlovable, with no hope for change, and standing in a room with twelve hateful people!
This is why the relative truth of your thoughts and beliefs does not interest me in the slightest.
What interests me is the WORKABILITY of your thoughts and beliefs.
By workable, I mean that if you believe this thought, it leads you toward a life of meaning and happiness. In other words, it works for you.
So the thought "I am unlovable" might be empirically, statistically, provably true; but does it WORK for you? Is it getting you where you want to go?
Now, there is a chance that you belong to the small percentage of people who act in hurtful ways most of the time. There is a chance that this thought "I'm unlovable" acts as a motivator for you to change your ways and be kinder. If this is the case, then the thought "I'm unlovable" is workable for you, so you can just go on thinking it until that situation changes.
For nearly everyone, however, thoughts like "I'm unlovable", however true they may feel, are simply not workable. Believing these thoughts leads to loneliness, sorrow, and suffering. Believing "I'm unlovable" can make you so miserable that you act unlovable, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Once you realize a thought or belief is not workable for you, what on earth do you do?
If "I'm depressed" feels true but unworkable, or "I'm an imposter" feels true but unworkable, or "I'm a terrible mother" feels true but unworkable... how do you step away from something that seems to have the weight of truth behind it, something that sounds so powerful and right?
Some schools of thought teach you to argue with these thoughts, by contradicting them with challenges or affirmations:
I am lovable!
I am happy and lighthearted!
I'm a wonderful mother!
If this works for you, by all means keep at it! However, there can be a problem with this strategy. For many people, given the negativity bias of our brains, stating something positively awakens the cantankerous contradictor that sleeps in our skulls. Our inner critics love to respond to positivity with comebacks like these:
I am lovable! (who are you kidding, remember that time last year when you drank too much and outed your best friend's secret to a crowd of people?)
I am happy and lighthearted! (No you are not, you are still wearing your pajamas and it's 2 pm, you sap!)
I'm a wonderful mother! (oh really? Do you think if we interviewed your kids they'd agree with this assessment of your parenting skills?)
We can argue back and forth with ourselves all day, trying to prove and disprove these thoughts, and in the end, all we've accomplished is the loss of a day!
Here is the simple self-empathy exercise I asked my client to try instead.
The acronym for this process is TEN-4:
T: Thoughts. Notice the thought or belief that is coming up (I'm unlovable) and ask yourself if it is workable. Does believing "I'm unlovable" lead you toward the life you want, or away from it?
E: Emotions. Check in with the emotions behind the thought. Do you feel sad? Angry? Confused? Spacey? Name the emotions that you notice.
N: Needs. Ask yourself what need is unmet for you at this moment.
If your thought is "I'm unlovable" and your emotion is sadness, you might notice a need for social connection that isn't being met, or a need for laughter, or a need for being appreciated. Be curious and open as you assess what needs you might have that aren't being met in this moment.
4: For. Ask yourself or a friend for something that will meet your unmet need.
For example, if you have an unmet need for social connection, you can invite a friend to a lunch date this week, or call a family member you haven't spoken with in a while. If you have an unmet need for rest, ask yourself for half an hour's rest time in the afternoon, or five minutes of deep breathing. If you have a need for laughter, text a friend and ask him to share his favorite joke, or look up your favorite comedian on youtube during lunch break. Meet your need, and then move on. If the thought or belief returns, simply go through TEN-4 again until all of your unmet needs are met, or at least recognized.
Why does something as simple as this TEN-4 process work?
The brilliance of this simple process is that it works with your brain instead of against it.
The thoughts and beliefs that we create are there for a reason. Our brain uses them to protect and warn us. A belief like "I'm unlovable" is the brain's way of making sense of times we were hurt in the past, and its way of trying to warn us to stay away from such hurt in the future.
This is why simply contradicting our painful thoughts and beliefs rarely works. The brain's message didn't get heard, so it retrenches and sends those thoughts and beliefs out even more forcefully!
With the TEN-4 exercise you are actively listening to the brain. You are identifying the message it is sending you, locating the need behind it, and meeting that need.
Once the need is met, the brain does not have to warn you anymore---its job is done!
"But won't having too much self-empathy make me narcissistic?" my client worried. "If I'm always fixated on meeting my own needs, I might become completely self-absorbed!"
I told her this story:
King Pasenadi and Queen Mallika once approached the Buddha, concerned because they feared their own self-love was impeding their ability to fully love each other. The Buddha responded:
I visited all quarters with my mind.
Nor found I any dearer than myself;
Self is likewise to every other dear;
Who loves himself may never harm another.
The more time you spend truly listening to yourself and responding to yourself with compassion, the more practiced you will be at truly listening to others and responding to them with compassion.
Self-empathy is a crucial first step in healing the wounds of this world.
Starting in October, I will be opening up my schedule to offer a few more weekly counseling slots. If you are interested in one-on-one counseling, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.