One thing that’s changed my life more than any other is the practice of self-empathy. Simply hearing the term for the first time was a revelation for me, since I immediately recognized that I wasn’t in fact empathetic toward myself. It had never even occurred to me to have empathy for myself. And this was despite the fact that I’d been, at that point, practicing lovingkindness meditation for more than two decades.
My lack of self-empathy showed itself in the way I could be down on myself when I was struggling. I took being unhappy as a sign of failure, as if I was meant to be happy all the time. At one point my not-very-conscious habit of self-blame led to me being overwhelmed by depression, since I was responding to feeling unhappy by making myself feel even more unhappy.
Over the years, I got better at being understanding toward and supportive of myself. In fact I now see the cultivation of self-empathy as an indispensable prerequisite for cultivating self-metta—kindness toward oneself. And since kindness for oneself is the basis of kindness for others, self-empathy is therefore the foundation of the entire practice of lovingkindness.
Probably the best way to explain self-empathy is to say how you can cultivate it. It’s easier to understand when you see it in action.
1. Recognize Yourself as a Feeling Being
So first, recognize that you’re a feeling being. You are wired to feel. You feelings are important to you. You can override them for a while, maybe even for a long time, but there will be a cost in terms of a diminished capacity to enjoy life, a sense of emotional brittleness, and difficulty in connecting with others in meaningful ways. It’s quite common for us to suppress an awareness of ourselves as feeling beings in the service of pursuing goals like work. Having self-empathy involves accepting that it’s OK to feel.
2. Sense Your Deepest Needs
Next, recognize that, deep down, you want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. This is an instinct that all sentient beings have, and it’s among our most primal instincts. Feelings have evolved as a way of helping us to survive by moving toward potential benefits and away from potential threats. We’re wired to do this, although again we can suppress or ignore those drives, and can see feelings as a source of weakness. Having self-empathy involves having a sensitivity to our emotional needs.
3. Understand that life is challenging
It’s difficult to have our desires for wellbeing and to be free from suffering in a world where wellbeing is frequently elusive, and where various forms of suffering visit us all too commonly. Empathy can involve recognizing that we’re doing a difficult thing in being human. You’re not failing when you’re having a hard time, you’re just being human. You’ve been set up by your evolutionary past.
4. Offer Yourself Kindness and Support
Putting this all together, we start to think of it as natural for us to give ourselves support and encouragement as we encounter life’s inevitable difficulties. As the Rev. John Watson said in the 19th century, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And who, out of this “everyone,” do you encounter most often? That person is, of course, yourself.
We’re already offering ourselves a considerable amount of support just by empathizing with ourselves in this way, but there are many ways we can show ourselves kindness. For example I make a practice of talking o myself (usually internally) when I’m having a hard time. The standard lovingkindness phrases—things like “May I be well, may I be happy”—can be useful, but using natural language is even more so. So I might say something like “I know you’re anxious right now, but I’m here for you. We’ve been through this before and we’ve always come out the other side.”
Another way of showing kindness is to have a kindly inner gaze. Think of how you might look at a beloved sleeping child, or a dear pet, or at a lover (not when you’re sexually aroused, but when you’re feeling particularly loving toward them). Sense the qualities that arise in your gaze as you do these things. And then turn that same quality of attention inwards as you observe your own body and feelings. To look at ourselves with this kind of fondness, tenderness, and appreciation communicates a sense of being supported. And when we feel supported we’re better able to weather difficult times.
A third way to show ourselves kindness is through touch. Your first instinct when a loved one is experiencing grief or some other form of suffering may well be to hug them or place a hand on their arm or shoulder. I’ll often just place a hand on my heart. I might do this at the same time as I talk to myself and regard myself with kindness. This is all very sustaining.
Some people assume that developing self-compassion will make you soft. The opposite is the case. Research shows that individuals who have the best developed self-compassion skills are the most emotionally resilient. And learning to turn toward and accept painful feelings is challenging, to say the least.
What I’ve found over the years is that the more I’m able to be empathetic and kind with myself, the stronger is my empathy and kindness for others. Just as I want to be happy, so do others. Just as I want to be free from suffering, so do they. Just as I often need support as I go through life’s challenges, so also do they. And so this sense of empathy for others communicates itself as kindness, which may be expressed simply in the way we look at them, or in words, or touch, or in helpful actions.
There’s more to developing self-empathy than this, but I’ve no doubt be writing more articles on this important topic. You can also check out my online course, “How to Stop Beating Yourself Up,” which gives a more thorough introduction to self-compassion, self-empathy, and self-kindness.