Develop Empathy for Others and Self-Compassion for Yourself

Important strategies to help you develop both.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

This is Part 4 of a series of 5. To read Part 1, click here.

When it comes to empathy, generally speaking, there tend to be two types of people—those who have difficulty empathizing with others, and those who “over empathize” by focusing too much attention on the needs and feelings of others and not enough on their own. Those who have difficulty empathizing with others are prone to abusive behavior and those who “over empathize” tend to be easily victimized.

For some, one of the after-effects of having been neglected or abused as a child is that their ability to have empathy for others is compromised. Because they likely experienced little empathy from their parents, they may not even know what empathy looks and feels like. Research, including that conducted by the APA Presidential Task Force, consistently finds that lack of empathy is associated with a tendency toward family violence. Parents who are unable to empathize with their children (put themselves in their children’s place) are more harsh and demanding than parents who have empathy. 

If you recognize that you have difficulty empathizing with others the following exercise will strengthen your empathetic abilities by helping you imagine what someone else is feeling.

Exercise: Imaginary letters

In this exercise, you will write several imaginary letters. These letters will be to yourself, from your partner and children.

  • One by one imagine what your partner and each of your children would like to say to you about the way they feel when you are at your worst. For example, put yourself in your partner’s place when you lose your temper and “go off” on him or her. Write down all the things you imagine he or she might be feeling (angry, hurt, depressed) and how you imagine it makes your partner feel about himself or herself (insecure, defeated). If you have children, write a letter describing how you imagine each child feels when you are too busy to spend time with him, when you become impatient, or when you are too demanding. For example: “I hate it that you expect so much of me. You make me feel like I’m stupid or lazy. I’m not perfect. When you expect me to be I just feel like giving up.”
  • You may choose to write all your letters at one sitting or to spread them out over time, possibly writing one letter a day or even one letter a week.
  • When you have completed all your letters begin reading them to yourself, one by one.
  • Imagine that each letter was actually written by this person and allow your heart to open to their words. When it becomes difficult to take in, take a deep breath and remember your commitment to yourself to break the cycle. Try not to become defensive or to slip into denial.

Self-Compassion

As important as it is to develop empathy for others, it is equally important to learn to provide self-compassion for yourself. While compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. More specifically for our purposes, self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.

Kristin Neff is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her ground-breaking book, she defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.”

Those who were abused or neglected in childhood tend to blame themselves for the abuse or neglect they suffered. In addition, they were likely deeply shamed by their abusive or neglectful parents and thus feel “full of shame.” Because of this, some build up a defensive wall to protect themselves from experiencing any further shame. This wall cuts them off from others, especially from having empathy for others.

By practicing self-compassion, an abusive person can slowly begin to understand why he or she took on an abusive pattern. He learns to make the all-important connection between the abuse he experienced and his tendency to become abusive. He will become more able to have compassion for the small neglected or abused child he was and to use that self-compassion to begin nurturing himself in actions and in words. Once he is healed of debilitating shame through self-compassion he can afford to lower the wall of defensiveness that protects him from further shaming and by doing so, free himself to begin to truly connect with others—and to eventually have compassion for others—which in turn, will make him far less likely to re-offend.

Through self-compassion, an abusive person can learn to forgive himself for his abusive behavior and to connect with how badly he truly feels for what he has done to others. As he gradually begins to feel more forgiving and ultimately more loving toward himself the self-hatred and shame he has been carrying his entire life begins to melt away. This can be a major step toward breaking the cycle of abuse because child abuse and partner abuse are often projections of the shame and self-hatred we are carrying.

On the other hand, some victims of neglect and abuse in childhood react differently to having been abused. They also suffer from tremendous shame and self-hatred but instead of putting up a wall to protect themselves from further shame, as those who become abusive can do, this shame causes them to believe they do not deserve to be treated with respect, or that they do not deserve to be loved. Therefore, when someone mistreats them, they often feel they deserved it.

These victims of childhood neglect or abuse tend to put up with unacceptable behavior and are unable to defend themselves. Without self-compassion people tend to judge themselves harshly when they make a mistake or when they don’t meet their own unreasonable expectations or the high expectations of others. They begin to chastise themselves and beat themselves up for not being perfect. And without self-compassion, they continue to blame themselves for the horrible ways that people treat them. Most important, without self-compassion they cannot even acknowledge the pain at having been abused in the past. Without this important acknowledgment, there can be no healing.

Whether you are afraid of becoming abusive or have already begun to abuse, afraid of being victimized, or have already established a pattern of being a victim, practicing self-compassion can help you break the cycle of abuse. Due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion. 

How to begin to practice self-compassion

  1. Make the connection between your current behavior and your past experience with abuse or neglect.
  2. Say to yourself, either out loud or silently to yourself, “It is understandable that I would behave in this way due to the abuse/neglect I have suffered.” This is not an excuse, just an acknowledgment of the facts.

By learning to practice self-compassion you will rid yourself of the belief that you are worthless, defective, bad, or unlovable. Instead of trying to ignore these false yet powerful beliefs, trying to convince yourself otherwise by puffing yourself up, overachieving, or becoming a perfectionist, your shame needs to be actively approached, recognized, validated, and understood.

Exercise: Becoming Compassionate Toward Yourself

  • Think about the most compassionate person you have known—someone who has been kind, understanding, and supportive of you. It may have been a teacher, a friend, or perhaps a friend’s parent. Think about how this person conveyed their compassion toward you and how you felt in this person’s presence.
  • If you can’t think of someone in your life who has been compassionate toward you, think of a compassionate public figure or even a fictional character from a book, film, or television.
  • Now imagine that you have the ability to become as compassionate toward yourself as this person has been toward you (or you imagine this person would be toward you). How would you treat yourself? What kinds of words would you use when you talk to yourself?

This is the goal of self-compassion—to treat yourself in the same way the most compassionate person you know would treat you—to talk to yourself in the same loving, kind, and supportive ways that this compassionate person would talk to you.

References

Neff, Kristin. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: William Morrow. 

Engel, Beverly (2015). It Wasn't Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Child Abuse with the Power of Self Compassion.

Oakland: New Harbinger.