Empathy Starts From Within
I love the analogy by the Reverend Thich Nhat Hanh. Empathy is the basic effort to appreciate the internal world of another person or creature. With a little bit of effort and heart, most of us can muster up the capacity to empathize with some people. We might not get it right but we can roughly feel what they feel.
However, most of us neglect to empathize with one person.
We often end up blaming, shaming, criticizing, hating on and banishing parts or all of ourselves. Is it any wonder that we end up feeling fractured or even empty? If we keep subtracting bits of ourselves, then at the end of the day, there’s not much left, is there?
Now consider this. Whenever you’ve empathized with someone – given the message that “you know (kind of) what it’s like for them” – what happens to that person? Did they soften a little bit more and become more relaxed? Did relief peek through the dark clouds on their faces? Did they feel less alone in their suffering?
Did they feel better, even if it were only for a little bit?
Now, suppose you turned the arrow of attention that points outwards, 180 degrees inwards, towards yourself. Suppose you applied some empathy to some parts of yourself, to try to understand the reasons and motivations behind your feelings, reactions and thoughts, what would happen?
It will be difficult because we’re so used to being anything but empathetic towards ourselves. And yet, should we persist and try to look ever deeper, then we might come to understand ourselves better. With that understanding, comes first a relief, then a change in how you feel, react and think.
For instance, once I got a client who needed people to validate her all the time to empathize with that (emotional) part of her with this need. After a rocky start, she began to validate this part. Tentatively. Awkwardly, but she did. That meant that she had to stretch herself to listen deeply and persistently to this part – as if she were listening to another person – to find out reality from “it’s” point-of-view.
She began to uncover layers of new understanding and meaning – just as you would if you listened to someone else tell their experience of an event both of you might have shared, but from their perspective. More importantly, she began to discover what was needed to truly give this part of her the validation that would stick.
And with great relief, she gave it.
I say that self-empathy of this order is of paramount importance. It helps us become whole again by reclaiming those emotional parts of us that we fear, hate or dislike. Those parts that we’ve pushed away to the furthest reaches of our consciousness.
Once we’re able to empathize with ourselves, then can we truly receive the empathy from other people. Otherwise, there will be a disconnect at two levels. We’re so disconnected from ourselves that we can’t connect to other’s attempts to emotionally reach these parts of us.
That’s why we might come to feel so alone – apart in a world we’re a part of.
So start today by listening in to yourself deeply – touching those feelings you’re experiencing, and trying to understand their points-of-view (as if they were another person).