Tactic: Empathy Bath

When you are chilled, a hot bath brings your temperature to normal. When you have a fever, a cold bath can bring it down. When you are tense, self-doubtful, jittery, or otherwise triggered, an “Empathy Bath” can bring your emotional state back to neutral.

“Empathy Bath” Tactic Overview

What: An “empathy bath” is a systematic process for introspecting the broad range of potentially conflicting feelings, in order to regulate your emotional state.

When: Use it when you are tense, jittery, or otherwise emotionally uptight, and need a quick way to get emotionally grounded.

How: First, check your mental-emotional-physical state. See if you need first-aid for your state. Second, for each family of emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling those feelings (both positive and negative). Give your reason in a full sentence. Finally, translate any “motivation by fear” into “motivation by love” by identifying deep rational values at stake.

Why: The method helps to ground you by ensuring you become aware of the entire value landscape at the moment. The mental-emotional-physical check ensures you are aware of your biological needs. The check through the 8 families of emotions covers all of the basic value- judgments that might be in play. By asking why you “might” be feeling each emotion, you can reveal not just acknowledged feelings, but also suppressed or slightly repressed feelings. By looking for both positive and negative emotions in each family, you naturally look beyond the immediate distress to other aspects of the situation. Finally, by translating any “motivation by fear” into “motivation by love,” you ensure you focus on the values in your surroundings. This is what grounds you and lets you choose your next step freely.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1) Briefly describe the situation that has you emotionally upset.

2) Check in with your mental-physical-emotional state.

  • Are you overloaded or clear-headed?
  • Are you tired or energized?
  • Are you tense or peaceful?

If you are overloaded, tense, or tired, you may need a short break in order to carry on. Any kind of mental work takes energy, a clear head, and enough emotional presence to take the initiative. You need energy, a clear head, and emotional presence. When you are tired, overloaded, or tense, you are getting an alert that you need these values. It’s important to choose a break that will meet that need, to get you back into a ready state, so that you can do mental work.

Many popular breaks, such as eating a snack, watching TV, or chatting with someone are not particularly effective. They do very little to directly address your mental, emotional, or physical needs, so when you finish the break, you are in the same unready state you were in before.

If you want to engage, make sure that you spend your break meeting the need you identified. Some suggestions for effective breaks appear in the table below.

Overloaded Tired Tense
To clear your head:

  • Pause
  • Offload to paper
  • Get an overview
To energize your body:

  • Breathe
  • Rest
  • Exercise
To become emotionally present:

  • Breathe (Pause, Relax, Reflect)
  • Introspect
  • Get Empathy
  • Celebrate Successes
  • Mourn Losses

3) For each of the following basic emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling this feeling in the current situation and why.

IMPORTANT: Write out each reason in a full sentence, so that you can judge whether it’s true or false.

Anger: Who did what that they shouldn’t have?
Gratitude: Who did something nice for me?

Fear: What bad thing is going to happen?
Relief: What bad thing is no longer going to happen?

Despair: What good thing is never going to happen?
Hope: What good thing will happen eventually?

Guilt: What do I wish I had done differently?
Pride: What am I glad I did the way I did?

Frustration: What is giving me a lot of trouble?
Confidence: What am I doing with ease?

Desire: What am I longing for?
Aversion: What am I trying to get away from?

Joy: What have I succeeded in getting?
Grief: What have I lost?

Love: What person or thing or idea stands out as a positive here?
Indifference: What don’t I care about at all here?


  • The question following each word is a trigger for any situation that would logically create the emotion.
  • For best results, check for the feelings in the order offered, which goes from easiest to hardest, most negative to most positive.
  • Don’t skip any feeling. Imagine why you might feel it in this situation, even if you don’t think you do.

4) Spell out the values in the value landscape based on the above.

Examine your reasons for feeling each emotion, identifying values at stake for each one. If you have trouble naming them, consult the table of deep rational values for ideas. Deep rational values are fundamental values that support human flourishing. These are listed in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.

5) Optional: Translate disvalues into the corresponding value.

A disvalue is something that threatens or harms a value. When motivation is driven by disvalues, it is called “motivation by fear,” i.e., a desire to avoid a disvalue. In these cases, try to identify the value that is threatened or harmed. That is the value at stake.

6) Optional: Identify irrational motivation and determine the deep rational values at root.

Even mistaken value-judgments have some ancient root in rational values, values that in fact do foster a successful life. If you find a reason that is irrational, assume it is a distorted or misguided attempt to achieve a rational value.

a) Duty Premises: Examine everything you wrote for evidence of a duty premise—an out- of-context absolute or something you have “no choice” about. Identify the choice you are trying to deny. Identify the rational values at stake on both sides of the choice—to do it or not do it.

b) Emotionalism: Examine everything you wrote above for arguments based on feelings. Wherever you see a feeling word, introspect the feeling to understand why you feel it. What is the underlying evaluation? Express it in terms of rational values.

c) Secondhandedness: Examine everything you wrote for hints of secondhandedness, such as a concern for what other people think, a victim mentality, or a desire to control other people. Identify the rational social values at stake, for example, cooperation and connection. Finally, what independent judgment can you make in this context to reaffirm this moral value?

7) Hold all of the values with care.

Recognize that there are many values at stake. You may not be able to have them all at once, but that doesn’t mean they are disvalues. Rather, celebrate the values you can pursue, and mourn the ones you can’t pursue right now.

Additional Comments

I developed this process for people who were inexperienced in introspection. It is not the fastest process — it takes 15-20 minutes to go through. If you are in a hurry, the AND List is the fastest way to calm down.

After using it, I discovered that it had the added benefit of revealing value-judgments that I would not have identified if I just introspected feelings I was already feeling. As a result, it is a great first aid process when you are emotionally overwhelmed.

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Next Class

Three Ways Self-Direction Contributes to Happiness
Tuesday, October 11, 2022
3:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Eastern, plus 15 minute Q&A

Self-Direction Theory and Practice #10 will include:
– How to be happy about the past, present, and future.
– Healing damage from earned and unearned guilt.
– How self-direction immediately improves your quality of life.

Please bring an example to class of the last time you needed to course correct on a project, in part because it took too long, e.g.
– you were tempted to pressure yourself to “just do it”
– you were floundering
– you could not get into the “flow”


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