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Self-Empathy: Foundation for Empathizing with Others

Our capacity to Empathize with others is enhanced by our ability to find self-empathy. Neuroscientists have found that emotional regulation enhances empathy. In other words, when we compassionately understand and calm ourselves, we then are better able to understand others. In the Observe practice, you noticed your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Now, wearing our favorite detective hats, we are going to try to explain those thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. We want to understand the yearnings, needs, fears, and expressions of love that underlie our observations. I like to use this two-part sentence stem: I feel_________________ because I am afraid that_______________.

Empathy is not about liking or condoning our behavior, or even our feelings and thoughts. But, it is not about judging ourselves either. There is an author of whom I have periodically felt envious—I would like to have the platform that they have. I can easily move into negative self-talk, “That is so shallow of you to envy their success” (judgement). This quickly leads to, “If you were a better person, you wouldn’t have those thoughts” (shaming). And, then the clincher, “Maybe you have those thoughts because what you have to offer is not as valuable” (annihilation of agency). After those self-comments, I am now a long way from self-empathy and understanding what my envy is trying to tell me. Instead, without judgment, I can acknowledge that, among many other feelings and just like every other human being, I sometimes feel envious. Now, I can interrogate the envious feelings that arose in that specific situation and determine what Fear was trying to tell me. Instead of adopting a good-bad dualistic interpretation, I can expansively, lovingly accept all that has arisen in myself; and by doing that, I can make sense of it and reengage with the world as the person I want to be.

Enhancing our Self-Empathy

As well as completing the sentence, “I feel_________________ because I am afraid that_______________,” some additional areas for inquiry that may enhance your ability to empathize with yourself include:

Fears and Hungers: We can ask ourselves, “What hungers might these behaviors be evidence of?” (See blog, What is Fear?, for a full explanation of our root fears and their associated hungers.) Although all fears and hungers are rooted in the Fear of Pain/Hunger for Pleasure, sometimes I see specifically that I am expressing a Hunger to be Seen or a Hunger to Not be Seen. For example, my jealousy was a complex mix of a desire to have my expertise acknowledged and fear of my expertise being given a platform. It is a sign that we are human that we have these fears and hungers. It is a sign of self-awareness and self-love to acknowledge our hungers.

Needs: Another way to think of this is to try translating our feelings or behaviors into an expression of a need: “What do I need right now?” Our needs can be conceptualized as belonging to three categories: safety needs, belonging needs, and fulfillment needs. Feeling that our needs are basically met and comfortable that they will continue to be met, we operate primarily from love. Conversely, worried that our needs are unmet or will be unmet in the future, we respond from fear. If we are experiencing unmet needs, it can be hard to assume the open, vulnerable stance of empathizing with someone else—especially if we perceive them as impeding us from or withholding something necessary for meeting our needs (see prior blog). We can scan our bodies to see if we are worried about getting a basic need met. Are we feeling unsafe or worried that our basic needs won’t be met in the future? We can see if there is the ache of loneliness being carried somewhere in ourselves—for me, this usually is within my chest. Or, are we unfulfilled in some way—worried about our worth, purpose, or the meaning to our lives? As I transition from professor to post-professor, this one periodically surfaces for me—often making itself known in my gut. Again, as I notice these needs, I can bask in my common humanity—these needs are part of the human experience.

Time Travel: We can also take a temporal perspective. We can ask ourselves, “When was this response adaptive?” Fear always wants to protect us. But, Fear often forgets how we—and our relationships—have changed. It is reasonable for a newborn to cry when hungry—it is the only way they can communicate their needs. It is not the most effective means for me to get fed. But, I may still use crying or screaming rather than other more agentive behaviors to try to get my needs met. Fear confuses scary with dangerous. In interpersonal exchanges, our fear may be disproportionate to what is currently occurring. This is due to our implicit memories and unconscious assumptions about our lovability, formulated in our early years with our first family. Empathizing with why we are having this strong response will give us additional options in our response, and the ability to rewrite our stories about ourselves. As we empathize with our history that gave rise to these feelings, we can also ask, “What is different now?” We can see the additional skills we bring to the situation, as well as how the current relationship is different than the relationship(s) that gave rise to these insecurities.

Magical Thinking: Another detective option is to ask, “How might my response be magical thinking?” With magical thinking, we believe that if we just control our behaviors enough, we can get a desired outcome—or avoid an undesired one. We fall into the trap of taking responsibility for the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others. We lose sight of what we can and cannot control. And, because we become so focused on trying to control that which is outside of our control, we are left with little energy to focus on what we can control: our own response to things outside of our control. Two years before I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a pregnancy that ended in a second-trimester miscarriage, probably caused by an ureaplasma urealyticum infection. The day that I started leaking amniotic fluid, I went kayaking. I was convinced that my smelly kayaking gear had caused this infection, even though there was no medical evidence that this was true. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did not go kayaking. It is fine for me to have chosen to not kayak while pregnant. But, I had to challenge my magical thinking before I could be non-judgmental about other women’s choices to kayak while pregnant. I had to accept that I could have another miscarriage. Magical thinking is most prevalent in those of us who had significant disruptions or chaos in our early childhoods (e.g., divorce, death, violence, drug or alcohol abuse). But, we all fall prey to it—especially in significant relationships.

Other Possible Stories: And, finally, we can ask ourselves, “What is it like to live with this belief?” Ultimately, our beliefs are just that: our beliefs—one of many possible stories. But, our stories have great impact on our lives, as they drive our attributions. Our core beliefs filter our experiences of the present and prime our future responses. Due to our confirmatory bias, we gather and fixate on information that supports our beliefs. With intention, we can look for disconfirmatory evidence—information that doesn’t support our beliefs. So, besides for asking ourselves, “What is it like to live with this belief?”, we can also ask: “What would my life be like without this belief?; Who would I be if I no longer lived with this belief?; And, what is stopping me from letting go of this belief?” Investigating our beliefs can lead to tremendous pain—we see how our relationships would be altered if we rewrote our stories. As we imagine releasing stories that no longer serve us well, we can feel groundless—this is often equal parts enlivening, fascinating, and frightening. Some of our stories are more fear-based than others; they originated to protect us, but they may now be injurious to our agency.

Dancing Barefoot

As we practice empathizing with ourselves, we return to our resting state of love and compassion. In this place of self-acceptance, we are now better able to Empathize with our beloveds.

As we Empathize, we see more clearly ourselves and our beloveds. We will not always like what we see! But, as we gain insights into ourselves and all others, our compassion grows, and we leave behind the dualities of like/dislike, good/bad—instead, we embrace our shared humanness. As Buddhist priest Sharon Salzburg councils,

Loving others, whoever they may be, is about seeing and recognizing the basic wish to be happy, in ourselves and in others. This wish to be happy is something we share, and simply acknowledging that is the foundation of real love.

As we practice empathizing with ourselves, we become increasingly aware of our shared humanity and our loving gets ever closer to the pure love innate in each of us.

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