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Self-Empathy: A Life-Changing Bodily Experience!

In Nonviolent Communication, a fundamental part of what’s known as The NVC Tree of Compassionate Connection is ‘Self-Empathy’. Self-Empathy is something we teach on our Online: Six-week, NVC Level 1 Course. What can seem like a simple process theoretically can be very unfamiliar with a lot of people. It’s a great skill to practice daily. So what can you expect from adopting the practise of self-empathy?

person dancing

Some months ago, before Lockdown, I was coaching someone in their Self-empathy process on the NVC Dance Floors (see note below). At one point I invited the person (dancer) to feel their feelings in their body and asked her where is it. Her arms, legs and torso started shaking, even trembling. We didn’t stop the movement, we continued with the process and accepted that the body was expressing itself. No control, we went with the flow of what is alive in her right now.

When the dancer came to the card ‘Judging and Blaming’ she suddenly became aware of her thoughts and said, ‘Ahh, I’m telling myself I don’t have a voice’, and at this moment her body became calm. Everyone in the room was impressed and touched. When the dancer could distinguish between her thoughts and what’s alive in her, she was able to complete the process with connecting with the needs and find one small step to make a change in her life. It was a life changing bodily experience!

The topic of our session was ‘Healing past pain’. The dancer chose a situation related to her understanding ‘I don’t have a voice.’ She thought that she has nothing to contribute to the world and it’s better to stay quiet. It’s a painful thought which makes it difficult to feel lively and engaged and to meet the need for connection for herself and others.

I always feel honoured to support participants in their self-empathy process. It’s a magical, moving moment when people come to a place of transformed feelings and when they are able to find their own strategies to meet their deepest heart wishes.

Nonviolent Communication is not therapy; we don’t make a therapeutic contract with ‘clients’. However, this incident shows its healing aspect. I feel excited that I was able to contribute to the dancer’s healing.

Recently I was watching some talks online by Peter Levine, a psychotherapist and creator of Somatic Experiencing, body-oriented trauma therapy. He describes shaking and trembling as a way of trauma release. If a challenge is coming up for a person with traumatic experiences, they don’t know how to hold the emotions, they feel overwhelmed and a typical reaction is flight and/or freeze. The feeling of frozen (numbness, blank, not able to move forward emotionally) is stored in the body. Peter Levine explained that body-oriented therapy helps people to release the tensions in the body, for example through shaking and trembling.

When she was reflecting on her Dance Floor experience, the dancer described something remarkably similar to Peter Levine’s approach. She told the group, “The body is holding feelings which we are not aware of. They are in the subconsciousness. In the session I was able to open the lid a bit and let some pressure out. The feelings in my body were a release of stuck emotion. Now I can see I was frozen and not able to change anything. That’s funny, because I thought I was lazy and not capable of doing anything.”

This experience opened up new doors for her. Since then she is continuing with the NVC Self-empathy processes to find healing. So far she’s been able to improve her close relationships, find her voice and become more authentic and confident in expressing herself.

* The NVC Dance Floors were created by Gina Lawrie and Bridget Belgrave. Each step of a particular NVC process is written on a card and laid on the floor, helping the dancer to explore the process in a bodily way. The dancer takes an embodied ‘walk’ from card to card, quite often moving back and forth between the cards. The name ‘Dance Floor’ is related to this kind of movement.