Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Noticing with Self-Empathy

Becoming aware of sensations, emotions and thoughts.

Copyright Candace Charlton, 2009 used with permission.
Quiet Vision, oil, gold and silver on canvas,
Source: Copyright Candace Charlton, 2009 used with permission.

In our previous blog, we introduced you to the concept of self-empathy as a prerequisite to empathizing with others. We also laid out possible circumstances in either personal or professional life where empathy is a useful skill to relate to other people and suggested skilful empathy as a basis to prevent or solve interpersonal tensions. Self-empathy precedes empathizing with others and gives you the foundation to be able to do so.

But what is self-empathy? In essence, it is a deeply personal exploration of that which happens inside yourself. The self observing itself, experiencing itself, feeling itself. Through self-empathy, the self develops self-awareness.

Whilst working on a recent project, John became withdrawn and no longer contributed in discussions related to the project he was managing. John’s client, Jennifer, had pointed out, in a sharp tone, shortcomings in his contributions. He felt criticized, did not want to expose himself to further humiliation and reacted by holding back on voicing any further contributions.

Observer self and experiencing self

When you find yourself getting caught up in an interaction where misunderstandings are starting to occur, you may notice that you are feeling attacked or threatened, which can cause you to want to respond with a defending or attacking tone. You may recognise tension in yourself. Your concentration is failing you, you feel distracted and insecure, or angry and powerless. This is all good news, because recognising this type of tension does not always happen automatically.

Sometimes, you might recognise the tension but you might not understand its causes, and yet end up with a breakdown in communication with colleagues, family or friends.

You might also experience a non-specific feeling of frustration, anger or withdrawal, and you are not sure why. In these cases, your observer self is unable to notice your experiencing self.

Jennifer thought she had offered valid positive feedback. She was not aware of the sharpness of her tone. John, however, thought the feedback was excessive and directed as a personal attack on him. Neither John nor Jennifer were able to reflect on or notice the escalating misunderstanding or the nature of their individual responses.

The misunderstanding ended up with John wanting to walk out on the project and Jennifer being entirely dissatisfied with the end result. If either John or Jennifer had, at any stage of the escalating misunderstanding, stopped to notice and reflect upon their own responses, they may have altered the disastrous outcome of the project.

Creating presence

With self-empathy, we don't change the other person as much as we transform ourselves in response to the other person. The creation of a presence with our own inner life requires that we focus on ourselves rather than on the person we are trying to encourage in order to find an appropriate response.

If we are working to complete a budget or fulfill a sales target, we may want to motivate and lead others so that we can get the task done. If we are providing care to others in a healing or medical setting we may need to create a healing presence for them.

We want to find within ourselves the inner resources that speak directly to the other person's requirements. Empathy and the willingness to transform ourselves lie at the heart of being helpful and resolving both inner as well as outer conflict. To help and solve tensions, we must be willing to change ourselves and become responsive to our own as well as other people’s needs.

Becoming aware of sensations, emotions and thoughts

So in self-empathy, we notice ourselves and become aware of our own inner state. We get in touch with our own sensations, emotions and thoughts. We feel into our body and observe our mind. We notice how our mind becomes distracted and how we start mind-wandering into memories or plans ahead. After a little wandering while, we pay attention to the distraction without condemning it.

This is how the mind works; it focuses and then gets distracted for a while until we bring it back to focus. We learn to be aware of where our mind is and how our body feels moment to moment. In other words, we develop a mindful meta-cognition. And importantly, although we work to regulate our thoughts and our attention, we also accept ourselves as we are in that momentary state of being. There is no right or wrong, there is merely experience and observation.

In the case of John and Jennifer, noticing with self-empathy could have helped John to acknowledge his own feeling of being criticized. It could have helped him to take a moment before responding defensively to Jennifer. It could also have given him the opportunity to understand why Jennifer was speaking in a sharp tone and that the tone wasn’t motivated by criticism towards him but was borne of her own feeling of pressure and exhaustion.

Jennifer could have noticed her own troubled motives. She could have paused and reflected to find the most effective way to support John moving forward. If she would have approached him still with a sharp tone of voice, it would have been a choice, not an unconscious source of interpersonal tension.

Imagine what mastering self-empathy could do for you.


Jankowski, T., & Holas, P. (2014). Metacognitive model of mindfulness. Consciousness and cognition, 28, 64-80.

More from Lidewij Niezink, Ph.D., and Katherine Train, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Lidewij Niezink, Ph.D., and Katherine Train, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today