December is one of the busiest months, jam-packed with celebrations and lights and opportunities for connection. December is also the darkest month, with the shortest days and the longest nights—nature’s invitation to tend to our pains and losses. In no month is the human struggle between light and dark, life and death, hope and despair more alive. And for many of us, this start contrast between celebration and mourning can feel uncomfortable, unacknowledged, and incredibly draining. What we need most to weather this month’s beautiful but challenging complexities is empathy.
How full is your empathy tank right now? Do you feel fully resourced, with plenty of warmth for yourself and others, so that whatever comes your way today, you can respond with spacious care? Do you feel more like half full, as if you can handle a regular day with ease, but a challenging day would drain your tanks quite low? Or are you running on fumes, ready to snap, shout, cry, retreat, or shut down?
Regularly refilling your empathy tank is essential for fostering warmth, compassion, and harmonious connection in your life. Chronically running on empty can leave you feeling edgy, shaky, brittle, snappish, or numb. When you’re depleted, you’re more likely to judge others for “making your life difficult” as you wonder, “Why are they doing this to me?” You’re also more likely to be harsh with yourself, wondering “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why am I always like this?” When your empathy tanks are low, you’re way more likely to go into painful judgment, blame, assessment, and demand, instead of being able to warmly attune to feelings, needs, and connection requests.
It’s not easy to keep your empathy tanks full; it actually takes ongoing conscious effort. That’s because, as Kit Miller (director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence) says, “We’re all living in an empathy desert.” All too often, when we’re longing for empathy, warmth, compassion, and genuine understanding (from ourselves and others), we instead receive advice, strategizing, intellectualizing, lecturing, blame, and shoulds and shouldn’ts. Often those responses come from a loving place that’s simply trying to help us get through. Nonetheless, every time our need for empathy isn’t met, every time we push past our pain or sweep it under the rug, our empathy tanks are drained.
Our culture places a very strong emphasis on productivity, doing, and accomplishment. So much so that the vast majority of us give more of our energy to our task list than to nurturing ourselves and our relationships. And while we all share the need for meaningful contribution, purposeful days, and easeful security, getting sucked into the cultural pressure of consistently prioritizing those needs over needs for emotional self-connection, deep rest, enjoyable movement, physical nourishment, nurturing touch, genuinely intimate relationships, and playful fun robs us of our fullness and leaves us chronically drained.
When I first started learning this empathic practice, realizing how long my empathy tank had been empty and understanding how “running on empty” had painfully impacted my relationships with myself and the people I loved brought up incredible mourning for me. At first, that grief made it vulnerable and scary to receive empathy, because I wasn’t sure my tank could even handle being refilled. At the same time, I had a lot of resistance to the idea of offering myself empathy, because I was so longing to receive empathy and nurturing from others. Fortunately, I had an empathic supporter/mentor who accompanied me in this healing empathic process with warmth, reassurance, and patience. Her weekly, loving support helped me get my empathy tank from chronically bone dry to generally about half full, which eventually allowed me to feel resourced enough to start also practicing self-empathy. Now, I find that anytime I’m living in the energy of empathy—whether I’m receiving empathic support, tending empathically to myself, or offering empathic support to others—my empathy tanks are filled.
Most of our tanks require daily doses of empathy from ourselves and others to stay full. But if we’re used to running on empty, simply having a quarter or half tank can be a revelation. If you feel open to trying some self-empathy, here’s a practice you can use to attune to the ever-shifting feelings and needs inside you, moment to moment, to keep your empathy tank full:
- Using the NVC Feelings/Emotions list, identify the emotion that’s most alive for you in this moment.
- Now look at the Universal Human Needs list, and identify the most urgent need(s) underlying that emotion.
- Apply compassion, using your warmest tone of voice reserved for your most beloved person or animal. For example, if the emotion is a painful one, and you’re feeling the pain of having a need unmet, you might say, Oh sweetheart, are you feeling lonely, because you’re longing for support? And if the feeling is an enjoyable one, connected to a need that is currently being met, you might say, Wow, are you feeling super energized, because you’re so enjoying being seen and acknowledged?
- If you’ve guessed your feeling and need accurately, you may feel a sense of that guess “landing” comfortingly in your body, or you may have the thought or sensation of “yes.” Breathe into that sensation for at least one full inhale and exhale, and, if you have time, continue that process for a few more breaths, allowing your body to soak in your empathy and refill your tank. Repeat regularly throughout your day, refilling your tank a minute or two at a time.
The holidays stimulate both joy and pain. The cold dark nights of winter invite us to take extra care of ourselves and ask for extra support. Acknowledging both the light and the dark that lives inside us allows us to be fully in our humanity, which allows us to meet each other in that place of fullness with love and compassion. In addition to tending to myself and celebrating with loved ones this month, I will also continue to be in my office each week, offering empathic support, company, and guidance, being with you in the light and the dark.
With love and empathy,