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Giving Yourself Compassion

In my experience people often have more difficulty with self-empathy than empathy for others.

What makes it so hard?

I recently sent two emails which stimulated pain for the people on the receiving end and didn't meet their needs for understanding, acknowledgement, and caring.

Here are three things that made it hard for me to do self-empathy.

1. All of us carry around a set of standards for how we "should" be that we often don't hold as true for others.

Usually these standards are unconscious, but we are continually comparing ourselves to them. You can uncover your standards by looking at the various roles you play in life - daughter, employee, father, student, spiritual person, etc...

In my example, I had a standard around being the perfect communicator. This is my profession after all. I am not suppose to make mistakes. I heard my jackals* saying: "What in the heck were you thinking? You know better!" 

When you are comparing yourself to a standard you hold, it's hard to connect with your heart and just be with what is.

2. Self-empathy requires time and focus and a willingness to step into the pain of the situation.

We live in a culture that values distraction as a remedy for suffering. It seems easier in the moment to just turn away from the situation and go see a movie, eat something, or not think about it until the emotion has been repressed or dissolved due to the passage of time.

From one email I sent, I received a message back that really stung. I didn't want to admit to myself how much it hurt so I did a superficial layer of self-empathy: "I feel confused and frustrated when there is not clarity and communication I would enjoy." Later, when I took the time with a friend who is skilled in empathy, I realized what I really felt was hurt that the caring and trust I would have hoped for in our connection wasn't there. Ouch.

3. Self-empathy also requires skill and knowledge.

The skill is to hold your mind and heart on the one event and the feelings and needs connected to it. Sometimes your mind is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch -analyzing, theorizing about the future, remembering other similar situations, etc.  Taming your monkey mind means focusing just on the situation in front of you.

The knowledge is having a vocabulary for feelings and needs and recognizing them in yourself.

In my example, there were many layers of feelings and needs in me just in this one situation. There were feelings and needs alive in the moments before I sent the emails. There were feelings and needs alive around past similar situations. There were also feelings and needs connected to the results of my actions. I needed to take time with a friend skilled in empathy or with my journal and the feelings and needs list in front of me in order to stay focused and to guess all of the feelings and needs present.

While all of these challenges get in the way of self-empathy, perhaps the most pernicious obstacle is the belief that your mistakes are a reflection of your inherently flawed nature rather than a confused attempt to meet a life-giving need.  Just being conscious that some part of you holds this belief can sometimes create enough space to allow you to engage in the practice of self-empathy.  You don't necessarily have to talk yourself out of this belief.  You can practice self-empathy regardless of knowing the truth about your inherent nature.

This week take one situation in which you find yourself experiencing unmet needs. Set aside fifteen minutes with your feelings and needs list and write down all the feelings and needs (you can download one from my website) that were up for you in that situation.  Follow my example in number three above to get to all the layers of feelings and needs.  When you feel yourself shift into connection with your heart and clarity about your needs, decide what specific actions or requests you would like to make to begin to meet these needs.


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3 Responses

  1. Mar 03, 2010

    Hi Lshelle
    I loved your article. It totally resonated for me, particularly this part:

    "While all of these challenges get in the way of self-empathy, perhaps the most pernicious obstacle is the belief that your mistakes are a reflection of your inherently flawed nature rather than a confused attempt to meet a life-giving need"

    This week I happened to be talking to a friend who has also trained in NVC. We planned to go out and have coffee - but found we were both tired. We noticed there were two needs: rest on the one hand and fun, connection and mutual nurturing on the other. While trying to decide what to do
    (go out or stay in) I wondered to myself: What's wrong with me? why can't I choose between the two? later my friend said: How about recognizing them as two different needs . both living inside of you, that want to be met? I saw how hard that was for me to do, but how someone from the outside could lead me to it. Why is it so hard to just BE with what is?

    Best Yael

  2. Dec 09, 2010
    Hanna Seithe

    Reading this was very very helpful for me. I have felt so helpless the last months for not knowing how to effectively give myself empathy and compassion, while wanting and needing those two so very much.

    What did I decide after reading your text, to tell myself when practicing self-empathy?
    - keep a look out for standards that you might be comparing yourself with, acknowledge them and connect with the need you are trying to meet through such comparison
    - its worth to work hard for a connection with yourself because once you are connected you will feel deeply touched and grateful and strong
    - focus on one situation - write it down on paper, so when you get sidetracked, you just need to read what you have written
    - work with a needs-list and feelings-list, even though you might believe that you are able to recognize whats going on inside you without such tools
    - take your time; in case you have to finish before you have found your hearts connection, just return to it later
    -its so much worth the effort
    - No matter what I have all the compassion and love and empathy for you that you need

  3. Dec 11, 2010

    Thank you for letting me know how this impacted you. I celebrate your commitment to compassion with yourself.

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