Empathy is one of the most popular concepts in psychology, but self-empathy is a virtually unknown and often underestimated ability, despite its importance to our psychological well-being. We know that being empathic opens many doors as it allows us to establish interpersonal relationships based on trust and understanding.
However, empathy is an essentially outward-looking quality. It is putting yourself in the place of the other to understand his or her points of view and experience his or her emotions. Self-empathy, on the contrary, is focused inward. It allows us to give ourselves that much-needed comforting hug when things go wrong.
What is self-empathy exactly?
Self-empathy is a psychological ability that allows us to notice and recognize what is happening inside us. It provides us with a front-row seat to grasp and understand our thoughts, emotions, and impulses.
Therefore, self-empathy involves a deep and personal exploration of what is happening in our inner world. It is the “self” that observes itself empathically. That means that we open ourselves to our inner experiences without judgment, as we would with a friend.
Self-empathy is key to feeling good with ourselves
One reason we resist practicing self-empathy is because we mistake it for self-compassion and perceive it more as a euphemism for complacency. This generates a certain rejection and makes us treat ourselves too harshly.
However, while self-compassion involves treating ourselves with the same kindness, concern, and support that we would give a good friend, empathy for oneself goes one step further by suppressing judgment. Unlike complacency, which can become a destructive force, self-empathy often generates a higher level of self-knowledge, sensitivity to one’s own suffering, and a greater personal commitment to finding useful solutions to problems that concern us.
In fact, numerous studies indicate that self-empathic people are less prone to laziness than those who are overly critical to themselves, in addition to being more resilient, motivated, satisfied with life and empathic towards the others. On the contrary, highly critical people tend to be more hostile, feel less satisfied with their life more prone to anxiety and depression.
Self-empathy, therefore, implies recognizing that, like everyone else, we deserve understanding and compassion. This will not prevent us from demanding the most of ourselves, but it will prevent us from unjustly recriminating and punishing ourselves when we cannot achieve it. In a way, self-empathy balances the yardsticks we use with ourselves and with the others.
When we are self-empathic, we understand that whatever mistakes we have made, we deserve a second chance. We focus the understanding that we normally give to the others towards ourselves so as not to get stuck in the quagmire of our judgments and recriminations.
This does not mean that we believe we are superior, that we think we deserve more than the others or that we excuse our mistakes, but only that we treat ourselves with greater kindness as we try to improve and grow.
Self-empathy does not relieve us of our responsibilities or the need to apologize when we are wrong, it just means that, like everyone else, we deserve to treat each other with love, compassion, understanding, and empathy. This ability helps us feel good and make peace with ourselves as we strive to become the person we want to be.
How to develop self-empathy?
To develop self-empathy, we must first be fully aware of its importance. We know that empathy is an essential ingredient in maintaining good interpersonal relationships, but it is not something that we normally reflect inwardly. We urgently need to change that belief.
We can think of the kindness and understanding that we dedicate to ourselves as the equivalent of an oxygen mask on an airplane. Before offering empathy and compassion to the others, we must put on the mask and inhale oxygen ourselves.
To help the others, we must first help ourselves, as revealed by a study conducted at Harvard University in which it was appreciated that when we are emotionally overloaded, criticize excessively ourselves and become psychologically exhausted, our empathic capacity towards the others also decreases.
1. Talk to each other like we would talk to a friend
The first rule for developing empathy for yourself is: don’t tell yourself what you wouldn’t tell to your best friend. Changing the way we talk to ourselves will allow to treat ourselves with greater kindness. We cannot feel compassion for ourselves if we constantly berate ourselves and spend much of the day throwing poison darts to our self-esteem.
A simple exercise to change that inner dialogue is to draw a chart with two columns and five rows on a piece of paper, like the one below.
In the row “Maladaptive thought” we must write that idea with which we punish ourselves, such as: “I’m not good at anything.” Then we must focus on the emotions that emanate from that thought and write them in the “Negative Emotions” box. In the box “Evidences” we must write anything that challenges that thought and shows that it is not 100% true. Often that means looking back.
In the row “Adaptive thought” we will have to replace the original idea with another that better fits reality, such as: “I will recover from this failure” or “I will learn from the mistakes I made and I’ll do better next time”.
Finally, in the row “Positive emotions” we must write how this new thought makes us feel, focusing on pleasant emotions. We must repeat this exercise with the different thoughts and ideas that we usually use to whip ourselves, until the process of replacing it with a more objective and rational one becomes automatic.
2. Accept the emotions
Self-empathy involves diving into our feelings and emotions. But sometimes, when we get in touch with our inner world, we find things that we don’t like. We may notice, for example, that within us there are more anger or contempt than is “socially acceptable.” Then the urge arises to withdraw from ourselves to avoid those feelings. However, we must do just the opposite: accept the shadows that inhabit us.
Experiencing empathy towards oneself implies accepting ourselves as we are at that precise moment. To do this, we need to learn to dive inside ourselves with an uncritical gaze, being aware that, in addition to negative internal dialogue, the judgments we make about ourselves also hurt and condemn us to a vicious circle of recriminations and blame that ends up lacerating our potential making us feel bad.
Trascendental meditation is an excellent exercise to learn to identify our thoughts and feelings without reacting to them or judging them. In fact, the systematic practice of mindfulness helps us to better regulate our emotions and allows us to accept our “self.”
To get to that level we need to change our mindset and understand that emotions are neither good nor bad. Fighting them only serves to give them prominence and reinforce them in our minds. Instead we must learn to accept them, take note of their presence and let them go, without clinging to them. When we learn not to judge our feelings we become more empathetic with ourselves.
3. Forgive and treat us kindly
Being kind to ourselves is an essential aspect of self-empathy. Kindness to oneself implies being understanding and forgiving ourselves when we make mistakes, avoiding becoming too harsh and uncompromising judges of ourselves. In this way we prevent the mistakes of the past from accumulating in the burden of guilt and doubts to the point of crushing our self-esteem and self-confidence.
Unfortunately, forgiving our mistakes can be much more difficult than forgiving someone who has hurt us. However, we cannot develop self-empathy without learning to turn the page. Forgiving yourself does not mean justifying yourself or pretending that what you did was not wrong; it just means showing compassion to yourself and acknowledge your humanity.
To forgive ourselves, it is useful to remind ourselves that, in life, we have done the best we could with the tools and knowledge we had, at that moment. Judging ourselves in the light of the future is not fair to ourselves.
We must bear in mind that our experiences, the environment in which we made the decision or even our mental balance at that moment influenced the direction we take. If our parents did not teach us to manage anger, it is unlikely that we will know how to express it in a healthy way. If we work in a very competitive and ruthless environment, we have probably “cut some throats”, metaphorically speaking.
They are not excuses to misbehave, much less not to try to change, but taking into account our past and the context will help us to treat ourselves more kindly and make peace with ourselves. This will allow us to learn from our mistakes so that we do not repeat them. But, above all, it will allow us to become our best friends when we need it most.
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