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Self-Empathy Is Required to Empathize With Others

Creating a receptive space to help you empathize without projecting.

 Juliet, Oil on Canvas, Copyright Candace Charlton, 2015, used with permission
Source: Juliet, Oil on Canvas, Copyright Candace Charlton, 2015, used with permission

In our previous post, "The Light and Dark Side of Empathy," we wrote about how your motivations and intentions determine whether you use empathy to help or to harm. Self-empathy, as a practice, guides you to tune in to your inner world and to understand, or even modify, motivations and intentions.

By choosing to practice self-empathy, as a deeply personal exploration, you observe and integrate your own experiences. You bring awareness to your inner experiential, emotional and mental state. A part of yourself observes the aspect of yourself that experiences in an empathic manner. You create a space within yourself by bringing your mind into the inner world of your own experiences of thought and feeling and by suspending judgments you may have about yourself (Jordan, 1994). This inner space is open, expansive, and receptive.

Your inner life may be noisy with random fragments of thought and feeling. The practice of self-empathy orders these fragments.

After going through the process of noticing, centering, sensing, suspending judgment, intention setting, and attending to self, you will have the tools to reopen yourself to the situation at hand with conscious equanimity. You created a receptive space to the experiences of others which prepares you to empathize without the often unconscious habit of projecting yourself onto them.

This is what the practice is about. You need to deal with tensions at work, you need to get your job done, and you are hardly ever independent of the people around you. Although you might be willing and inclined to empathize with others, you will not successfully do so if you are not aware of your own influence on the situation as it evolves. Coming back to your own inner experiences and understanding that they are intrinsically yours to work with, will help you to create space for the experience and action of others.

Is empathizing with others different from empathizing with yourself?

Yes and no. Yes, because empathizing with others is empathizing with the inherently unknowable experience of other people. Their experiences, thoughts, and feelings are not yours. And more importantly, they are not meant to be either. Empathizing with others does not mean experiencing what others are going through. It is meant to attentively tune into their expressions of those experiences. To open up to their perspectives on a given situation, to broaden your own views on it, and to hold a space for others to be as they are.

But empathizing with others is also not different from empathizing with yourself.

Although the practices are different, they require a similar reflective presence: noticing, taking ethical responsibility, suspending judgment, setting intentions, and attending to others.

Self-empathy helps you to develop agency, the awareness of yourself as being the initiator of actions, desires, thoughts, and feelings (Decety & Jackson, 2004). With self-empathy you become aware of your own experiential state in the moment, enabling you to differentiate your own emotional experience from the experience of someone else. This differentiation prepares you to face professional and interpersonal challenges ahead.

We consider empathy to be useful as a means to an end. You may choose to practice empathy quietly in your own life, in interaction with the people close to you. But it becomes truly powerful when people acting together to fulfill a cause, engage in mutual empathic interaction. This has led us to develop an empathic method of structured interaction for people working together: Empathic Intervision.

Empathic Intervision: Practicing empathy with others

Empathic Intervision (Niezink & Train, 2020) is an organised peer-support method for people working together to identify opportunities and co-create solutions to challenges. It includes exercises in integrative empathy, to help you to engage beyond cultural differences, to listen and hear each other's experiences, thoughts, and feelings about a topic and to identify and take the perspective of others. The process can either be guided by an external facilitator or it can be self-organized. It requires you to maintain the reflective presence attained during the self-empathy exercise. However, the presence of noticing, taking ethical responsibility, suspending judgment, setting intentions, and attending is focussed on others.

In the Empathic Intervision too, each person engages a self-empathy exercise. Yet prior to self-empathy, participants set a collective intention. Since empathy is applied here as a means to an end, the intention guides the process towards an identified outcome. It ensures that participants are able to identify a shared goal for the group.

This introduction and setting of the scene are followed by three layers of empathy practice, all directed towards the collective intention set at the start of the meeting. They are kinesthetic, reflective, and imaginative empathy.

Kinesthetic empathy, the capacity to participate in somebody’s movement, or their sensory experience of movement (Niezink & Train, 2020). This helps you to connect with others through coordination and synchronization. With kinesthetic empathy, you explore and become more aware of how you influence each other’s physical space. Kinesthetic empathy practices support the role of coordination and synchronization in empathy and enable people to hold physical space for others, hence experience the effects of being "seen" and "followed" in action.

Reflective empathy enables you to deepen your connection with others through literal reflection and advanced reflective empathy dialogue. Reflective empathy helps you to explore difficult or stressful situations without losing sight of your own self. Problems are clarified, and listening is intensified, through reflective empathic dialogue.

Imaginative empathy uses imagination and "as-if" acting to enable you to understand the perspectives of others you are working with and to experience the effects of having a problem explored from multiple perspectives. It is used as a means to explore difficult or stressful situations or to diversify perspectives and enable creativity.

The fifth and last aspect of Empathic Intervision is empathic creativity (Niezink & Train, 2020). During the full intervision process, the empathic practices described above guide and stimulate actions and reactions. The act of empathizing awakens creative insights. People become aroused in a particular way. These moments highlight significant change events and are ripe to be harvested and preserved. The consequences of empathic interactions can be quickly forgotten or get lost if not brought to attention. Empathic creativity is the practice of preserving that which is created and brings possible solutions to the issue at hand. As the final step in the intervision process, the gathered insights are transformed into actionable outcomes.

Self-empathy provides a foundation and is a prerequisite for each of the other four integrative empathy practices. As a deeply personal and transformative practice, it guides you to create a receptive space to empathize with others.

If you enjoyed the stunning artwork we have used throughout this series of posts, we encourage you to have a look at the fantastic work of our friend Candace Charlton. The human form, in particular the portrait, is the main focus of Charlton’s work. She strives to discover and reveal the mystery and depth of the human psyche in her intensively studied portraits and figurative compositions.


Decety J, Jackson PL. The functional architecture of human empathy. Behav Cogn Neurosci Rev. 2004 Jun;3(2):71-100. doi: 10.1177/1534582304267187.

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

Niezink, L.W. & Train, K.J. (2020). Empathic Intervision: A Peer-to-Peer Practice. France & South Africa: Empathic Intervision. Available from:… [accessed Mar 2, 2021].

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