The Self in Empathy: Self-Empathy

Noticing, recognizing, and working with self in order to empathize with others.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

Pearl, oil on panel, Copyright Candace Charlton, 2017 used with permission
Source: Pearl, oil on panel, Copyright Candace Charlton, 2017 used with permission

When most people think of empathy, they think of empathizing with someone else. It's no wonder, considering the many circumstances, in both personal and work life where you find yourself caught between people or groups of people expecting you to "understand."

These circumstances require you to manage, mediate, or facilitate amongst different individuals as well as maintain some form of personal connection with each of them. If not maintained with care and attention, interpersonal relations may become sources of stress and can get in the way of doing what needs to be done.

When interpersonal dynamics get in the way

At work, you may experience pressure both from the task you need to accomplish, as well as from the interpersonal dynamics. Task-related pressures can vary from the need to provide care to others, to completing budget plans, having to reach a sales target, or having to solve a design problem.

The interpersonal difficulties are something else, often more complex and less clear. Despite the fact that they seem rather invisible, they can have a powerful effect on your well-being and your ability to function in the world.

Empathy helps to avoid misunderstanding

Take, for instance, misunderstandings. When people start to feel threatened, small cliques or alliances quickly form. Amongst those alliances, one starts to speak behind each other’s backs. Sometimes it even progresses to gossip and backstabbing.

Whether you are in the group that is doing the backstabbing or are the one that feels gossiped about, the experience can be quite disconcerting. Trying to get a job done under these circumstances, you will probably find that it overshadows your ability to concentrate on the task at hand. In order to move forward and find solutions, you will need to engage with empathy.

Engaging with empathy will help you to understand the people you are working with and to know more about their thoughts, feelings, and actions. It will also help you to get an experience and understanding of the deeper motivations behind their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Empathizing means you are taking the first step to avoid misunderstandings from happening. When done skillfully and attentively, you will be able to communicate in both an efficient and effective way.

The first step to empathy is self-empathy

But when you are feeling challenged and misunderstood yourself, empathizing with someone else is difficult. And if you are not aware of your own inner experience, and emotional and mental state, how can you be sure that that which you perceive to be part of the other, is not rather a projection of your own self upon them? That is why the first step towards empathizing with someone else is to empathize with yourself (Barrett-Lennard, 1997).

Self-empathy observes and integrates experiences

We’re not talking about feeling sorry for yourself or bringing love to your own experiences. Self-empathy is not the same as self-compassion. Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend (Neff & Dahm, 2015).

Self-empathy means that an aspect of yourself observes, in an empathic manner, the aspect of yourself that experiences. This is done with an attitude of suspended judgment and openness towards yourself (Jordan, 1994).

Self-empathy simply requires you to notice and recognise what is happening in you. Attentive self-empathy provides both affective and cognitive empathic access to your own lifeworld. It provides an opportunity for you to integrate aspects of your current and past experiences and doesn’t necessarily require reinvention or radical conversion of those experiences (Sherman, 2014).

Self-empathy skills and its practice

Although there is some literature on self-empathy and its supposed effects in psychoanalysis (Jordan, 1994, Sherman, 2014), surprisingly little is written on the skill itself. How does one empathize with oneself? What blocks to self-empathy can prevent us from doing so? How does self-empathy differ from related commonly used terms like self-awareness and mindfulness?

In this series of six posts on self-empathy, we will tackle these and other questions. We will try to clearly define self-empathy and more importantly, we will look at the practice of it itself. How can one notice with self-empathy? How do we practice it with ethical responsibility and centeredness? What is the role of suspension of assumptions, opinions, or judgments in self-empathy? How do we set personal intentions and attend to oneself and how does self-empathy serve as a tool to empathize with others?

We will dive into the nitty-gritty of this crucial and embodied skill. Because empathy without self-empathy can lead to projection, emotional contagion, and even a complete failure of connection. All empathy begins, and is maintained, with self-empathy.

References

Barrett-Lennard, G. (1997). The recovery of empathy: Toward others and self. In Bohart, A. & Greenberg, L. , Empathy reconsidered: New directions in psychotherapy (pp. 103–121). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press. doi:10.1037/10226-004

Jordan, Judith. (1997). Relational development through mutual empathy. doi:10.1037/10226-015.

Neff, K. D., & Dahm, K. A. (2015). Self-compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. In Handbook of mindfulness and self-regulation (pp. 121-137). Springer, New York, NY.

Sherman, N. (2014) Recovering lost goodness: Shame, guilt, and self-empathy. Psychoanalytic Psychology 31: 217–235.