What is empathy?
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as: “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”.
This is definition is important because empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably. However, there are some key distinctions between these two terms. You’ll need to grasp these differences to fully understand how to empathize with yourself.
Empathy Vs. Sympathy
While empathy involves understanding how someone is feeling, “Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person” (The Psychology of Emotional and Cognitive Empathy, Lesley University). It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. You can feel sorry for someone (sympathy) without truly understanding how they’re feeling (empathy). Confusing sympathy for empathy has important implications for emotional intelligence and self awareness.
Let’s get into what those implications are exactly.
Why Is Empathy So Important?
Feeling sorry for yourself has a much different emotional outcome than simply understanding how you’re feeling. Feeling sorry for yourself can easily slip into negative, judgmental self talk. Whereas empathy facilitates a non-judgmental, objective understanding of your emotions. Consider that empathy has to be cultivated. “In the past, empathy was considered an inborn trait that could not be taught, but research has shown that this vital human competency is mutable and can be taught” (The Science of Empathy, Helen Reiss MD).
Now, if you equate empathy with feeling sorry for yourself, chances are you won’t embrace empathy nor learn to empathize. Naturally, you won’t receive any of the benefits of empathy we discuss below. Instead, you’re likely to try and “suck it up”, never really processing your feelings. Moreover, empathy was developed in our species because it helped us survive. Empathy meant we were more likely to take care of others which meant our species was more successful. In fact, a paper by Helen Meiss for Harvard Medical School goes so far as to say, “The survival of our species depends on mutual aid, and providing it reduces our own distress.” So, there’s an evolutionary argument for how important empathy is to our wellbeing. Clearly, it’s important for how our species functions.
On this same point, according to Good Therapy, ‘Those who have high levels of empathy are more likely to function well in society, reporting “larger social circles and more satisfying relationships,”’ This makes a lot of sense. If you have high levels of empathy, it’s easy to see why you’d have an easier time forming deeper, more satisfying connections in your relationships. In addition, “Compassion cannot exist without empathy” claims Dr. Meiss. This is important because self compassion is linked to higher levels of “resilience, happiness and strength” according to Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. So, anything that can further your capacity for self-compassion is definitely a good thing.
Lastly, empathy for others means you’re more likely to take better care of others. This means having empathy for yourself means you’re more likely to take better care of yourself. So hopefully, you’re convinced by now there are plenty of good reasons to embrace empathy not just for others, but for yourself.
But how do you know if you’re empathetic with yourself?
Look at your self-talk. How do you deal with emotions? How do you handle failures, successes, and struggles? Compare how you deal with the emotions of friends and loved ones with how you deal with your own. Examine the language you use in each scenario.
Think of a time you really screwed something up. Think about what you said to yourself. Then swap out the word “I” for “you”. For example, if you said: “I’m such a failure. I can’t do anything right!”. This becomes: “You’re such a failure. You can’t do anything right!”
This is the test. If once you’ve swapped “I” for “you”, you sound like an absolute jerk, you do not empathize with yourself. Now, if you sound like an encouraging, compassionate person after doing this test, you’re probably doing alright in terms of empathy.
What If You Don’t Empathize With Yourself…
What do you do? How do you develop the reflex for self empathy?
The first step is awareness. If you aren’t mindful and aware of your thoughts, you can’t change them. When you catch yourself being hyper self-critical ask yourself if you’re being objective about how you’re interpreting events. Are your thoughts a logically formed conclusion or are you being unrealistically harsh on yourself? Are you exaggerating things? Are you treating something, that may or may not happen, as a guaranteed fact?
A good way to answer these questions is to imagine what advice you’d give to a friend in this situation. You’d likely have a more objective, balanced view if the situation were happening to a friend rather than yourself. Once you do this it’s easier to replace this negative self talk with positive, empathizing self talk. Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t accept the negative aspects of an event, just that you view them realistically. As Psychology Today says, “You don’t need to develop unrealistically positive statements; overconfidence can be almost as damaging as serious self-doubt. But a balanced, realistic outlook is key to becoming mentally stronger.”
The idea is to start reframing your thoughts and how you talk to yourself. Over time and with enough practice, the self-critical thoughts will become less, and you’ll find yourself becoming more empathetic towards yourself and towards others.