Why We All Need to Practice Self-Empathy

One reason we resist practicing self-empathy is that we mistake it for self-pity. We view it as a soft and fuzzy euphemism for self-indulgence. The difference is that self-indulgence can become a destructive force that allows you to give in to anything that makes you feel good despite its unhealthy effects, such as excessive use of food, drugs, or alcohol to numb feelings. Self-empathy requires greater self-awareness, discipline, and sensitivity to self-suffering and also a commitment to finding helpful solutions. Self-empathy is the acknowledgment that, like all human beings, you deserve understanding and compassion. To truly practice self-empathy to its fullest, you must be willing to use it even when you trip over your own feet and make mistakes that leave you feeling embarrassed or wishing you had stayed home. It is an exercise in humility that requires acknowledging that you are human and fallible, and that are part of the broad human experience.

When you have empathy and compassion for yourself, it allows you to compare your own experience to everyone else’s and acknowledge that whatever your troubles or concerns are, they have been experienced by others and are worthy of compassion. In a way, it’s the ultimate form of perspective taking because you slip into your very own shoes and look at yourself from a compassionate point of view.

In the same way that understanding how others think and feel tends to prevent you from judging them too severely, extending that same courtesy in your own direction prevents you from wading too far into a pool of self-judgment. This doesn’t mean you are superior or more deserving than anyone else or that your mistakes should go unchallenged. Self-empathy does not relieve you of accountability or a need to apologize if you’ve let others down. It merely means that you, just like everyone else, deserve empathic concern, love, and care even when you make mistakes. When you learn to become more compassionate with yourself, you learn to treat others with similar kindness. Once again, it is the empathy loop in action.

In today’s world, self-empathy is an underrated psychological proficiency. When things go wrong, we’re inclined to withhold those psychic hugs from ourselves because we don’t want to lower our standards or because we equate doing so with egoism, permissiveness, or laziness. Yet the opposite is true. Studies show that people with self-empathic tendencies are less likely than self-critics to lounge around on the couch all day. On personality tests, self-empathy is strongly correlated with positive traits such as motivation, resilience, creative thinking, life satisfaction, and empathy toward other people. Conversely, the faultfinders among us tend to score higher for personality attributes such as hostility, anxiety, and depression and lower in qualities such as life satisfaction and outwardly empathic behaviors. In other words, the way we treat ourselves is often the way we treat others.

Empathy has traditionally been considered a characteristic that allows us to understand and share the emotional experiences of other people. We view it as an essential ingredient for good interpersonal relationships but not necessarily something we turn inward on ourselves. Let’s shift that thinking. The kindness and understanding you express for yourself are the empathic equivalent to an oxygen mask on a plane. Before you can offer empathy and compassion for others, you need to “pull down the mask” and inhale the oxygen yourself.

Compassion researcher Kristin Neff has recently done some trailblazing work on the concept of self-compassion, breaking it down into three main components: self-kindness, shared humanity, and mindfulness.

Self-kindness refers to the practice of being understanding and forgiving toward oneself, including in times of failure or pain. Being gentle with yourself is an essential aspect of self-empathy because it prevents you from judging who you are too severely. Far from creating a self-centered view of the world, a self-forgiving attitude is one of the best defenses against narcissism. You can move on from mistakes without allowing them to pile up and bury your confidence and self-esteem under a mountain of doubt.

A sense of shared humanity means you perceive your own experiences as part of the larger human tapestry rather than as separate and isolating. Shared humanity feeds self-empathy by reminding us that we are not alone, even in our failings. As Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human . . .” But let’s not forget the second part of that quote: “to forgive, divine.” By recognizing the fact that suffering and personal inadequacy are natural parts of the common human experience, you can forgive yourself and move on.

Mindfulness, which has become something of a buzzword of late, is the ability to identify your thoughts and feelings without reacting to them or judging them. Appraising the contents of your mind from a third-person point of view affords you the self-awareness to understand the difference between the actual self and the thoughts and feelings that the self is having. It’s like taking a seat in the balcony to watch a drama starring your thoughts and feelings as they play out on a stage. Becoming an observer of the drama rather than an actor allows you the freedom to consider different beliefs and attitudes about what is happening in your life.

Of the three components of self-empathy, mindfulness has been the most extensively studied and is best understood. The reason it has received such an enormous amount of attention is that mindfulness has been theoretically and experimentally associated with psychological well-being. Mindfulness has been shown to help us self-regulate our emotions more effectively. Also, studies link regular mindfulness activity with heightened levels of focus, awareness, and nonjudgmental acceptance of moment-to-moment experience. By priming the brain to take greater control over attention, it helps us focus on what is important, fine-tuning our ability to switch attention onto something else when necessary. We know that when people feel centered and can live their lives with equanimity, the way they approach the world is very different from when they are distracted and emotionally dysregulated.

Excerpted from THE EMPATHY EFFECT: 7 Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences, by Helen Riess, MD. Sounds True, November 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

This book excerpt was featured in the Oct. 7th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.




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