As we dive deeper into working with our emotions, as in any healing work, it is important to cultivate self-empathy. Feeling our emotions can be hard! Our lives are hard, and can carry deep pain. That’s just the truth.
But just because it can be hard doesn’t mean we should avoid it. It does however mean that we need to develop practices to hold ourselves with love, grace, and kindness along the way. To meet ourselves where we are and let that be ok.
We usually view empathy as something we can offer someone else. Empathy is the ability to understand or relate to what others are feeling or experiencing - to see things from their point of view. It allows us to soften to others, to relate to or try to understand their experience. This can allow greater intimacy and a deepening of relationships. Empathy can also fulfill the essential human need to be seen and heard. The act of listening to someone and saying, “That sucks, I imagine it must be so painful to feel that way, it sounds like you’re dealing with a lot,” is extremely powerful. It allows the other person to be seen, and their emotions be validated. We can give ourselves self-empathy at any time really, but I find it most effective for me when I have big/hard feelings, make a mistake, or act out of alignment with my values.
I want you to think about a moment where you received empathy. Where someone was able to listen to you and not try to fix, advice give, or draw attention to themselves. A time when you felt seen and heard and held in a supportive way. It is also ok to think about this and realize you don’t have empathetic interactions very often, but I do encourage you to get curious and sit in the feeling that comes up.
BRIEF PAUSE FOR REFLECTION
Great, we’re back. How was that for you?? When I think about moments where I have received empathy, it has been so grounding and provided a sense of safety. It makes me feel less alone and more human. And guess what? We can develop a practice of self-empathy as well, a practice to give ourselves the grace and open heart that we sometimes seek from others.
To clarify - we are creatures of connection. We require empathy from others, we can’t give ourselves only self-empathy and expect that to be enough. But when we learn to offer ourselves empathy, it can critically change how we are dealing with the situation or emotion at hand and allow us to better offer empathy to others as well.
Self-empathy allows us to see ourselves as human, just as deserving of kindness and support as much as anyone else. In fact, self-empathy is imperative on the path to a more empathetic life in general.
Take in this important distinction: Giving ourselves empathy is not self-pity. It is not a place where we put ourselves into victim mode. Pity would say, “Oh gosh, I just got broken up with. This freaking sucks, my life is awful, and if it wasn’t for that person, I would still be happy and have a perfect life.” Empathy says, “I just got broken up with. That is really hard. I’m feeling sad and upset, it’s ok to feel what I am feeling. I am human, who is right now feeling big things.”
It’s a subtle difference, but self-pity focuses on external factors and centers us a victim, where empathy validates our internal feelings and humanness - a place that can actually feel quite empowering with enough practice (and it does really take practice, this is not an overnight oats kind of deal here).
Self-empathy is about observing what is happening in your inner world (aka, how you are reacting to the situation at hand) without negative judgment and, when another person is involved, recognizing that they are probably also feeling a lot and having a reaction too. A large part of this self-empathy practice is self-awareness and an understanding of our feelings, needs, and beliefs, and the understanding that everyone else also has feelings, needs, and beliefs.
Accountability still needs to be a part of the picture though. Self-empathy is not an excuse to let our mistakes slide by. We may need to apologize to others if we have caused them harm, and own up to our shortcomings and shadows. But the shift comes from not judging ourselves for making those mistakes, and understanding that we all deserve love and understanding when they happen. Because…they will. We’re all going to royally fuck up probably more than once or twice in our lifetimes. And shaming ourselves is not going to make those situations any better.
I have found that self-empathy has been an important skill for me to develop. I have noticed I am becoming kinder to myself over time, especially when I am feeling big feelings. Growing up, dealing with PTSD and anxiety, I had no idea how to handle my feelings and as a result, I was so unkind to myself. I shamed myself, thought that something was wrong with me, and was terrified of feeling anything too strongly for fear it would be uncontrollable. That stayed with me into my adult life, and only recently have I committed to therapy and developing tools to help me feel things in a more effective and healthy way.
I encourage you to bring self-empathy into your emotional life. Get curious - when might you need self-empathy? As I shared above, it’s most helpful for me when I have big/hard feelings, make a mistake, or act out of alignment with my values, but you may need it in different situations. Every human heart is different.
As always, I am here for you. Let me know how things go. Please remember that developing a skill like self-empathy takes time, and this can be very vulnerable, hard, slow progress kinda work. I believe in you- you got this. Keep going.
I’ve popped some articles for further reading below.