Self Empathy: the Practice of Living in Harmony with your Deepest Values
I don't know about you, but I can be very hard on myself. My head tends to fill with self-critical thoughts, especially when I "make a mistake" or fail at something. Actually, sometimes I'm silently self-critical for no apparent reason. But it doesn't stop there. I have a tendency to work very hard for long hours, relentlessly pushing myself to accomplish my latest task and ignoring signs that I may be exceeding my ability to cope. And I can be relentless with others: being critical of them, pushing them to perform, expecting them to behave the way I would like them to.
Am I the only one that has all these terrorists' messages running around in my head? I don't think so.
It seems to be part of the human condition, or at least it's common to most of the activists and change agents I work with. Most activists are deeply empathetic beings; they feel the pain of mother earth, of social injustice, abused children, the homeless, and the underprivileged. They empathize with it all and dedicate their lives to doing something about it. But it would never occur to them to be gentle with themselves and have empathy - for themselves. To me, self-empathy is the antidote to the pain and destruction caused by self-critical messages and the way they play out in our lives.
I call self-empathy the "final frontier" because, for most of us it’s unexplored space - uncharted territory.
It was a big surprise for me to realize, just a couple of years ago, that I was not being empathetic to myself very much at all. That's true even though I have been a psychotherapist for many years and believe that empathy always has to be present for my client to have a transformative experience.
Nowadays, I've learned to take some time each day to dump the critical thoughts in my head onto a piece of paper, one after the other without editing them. This practice is especially important if I have been triggered by a comment from another or perhaps an event which did not go the way I would like. For instance, as I sat down to write this morning, feeling some pressure to create something that others might like to read, I wrote these thoughts down:
- This is important and it has to be done right
- I am procrastinating. It's already 10 and I haven't started
- You've already put this off so long that you will never catch up
- I don't think I can do this well enough to reach people
- (Whoever) is doing this better than I am
You might see the pain and tension in this, and you might want to say some soothing words. Or you might laugh in recognition of the familiarity of it. Or maybe tell me to lighten up! When I'm actually thinking these thoughts I'm pretty unhappy and it interferes with getting on with the task.
To take the pressure off what I've found really useful is to identify what values are buried in this self-critical language. For instance, in the above statements I can see deep desires to contribute, to be present, and to be respected. That's right, buried in the painful, self-critical messages are my most powerful values - what is deeply alive in me. As I write these down I spend some time contemplating them. They have a timeless quality and if I will only spend some time getting back in touch with them I will feel refreshment, a release in my body, room to breathe, and a renewed sense of knowing what I am about.
I find that if I engage in this form of self-empathy practice, when I take the time to contact what is deeply alive in me many times in a week things go better in my life. A transformation takes place wherein I turn the pain of my acute self-criticism into an energetic rediscovery of my deepest nature. This gives me energy and freedom.
It's difficult to prove the value of this self-empathy process in a short piece of writing. Our inner essentials course has a segment on this topic, with exercises and assignments so you can completely understand it and learn to practice it. Of course there are many ways to be empathetic to oneself. This one has the advantage of enabling a person to be with her - or himself in a very direct way - it's the deepest form of self-empathy I know. It’s also practical, as it can be done at any time anywhere. And after a while it becomes second-nature.
If you are devoted to an intensely demanding action devoted to an acutely-needed cause self-empathy can look like a serious waste of time, pointless navel gazing. But the costs of not practicing self-empathy are huge. In the short run, I can seize up and not perform, be miserable, cause someone close to me pain etc. In the long run being self-critical and therefore tense all the time can lead to burnout or disease. The body can't handle that kind of stress. And empathy for others starts with empathy for the self. How can you be truly kind to others if you are not kind to yourself? Failed relationships and even failed collaborations or coalitions can result if empathy is not present.
Make no mistake about it, I'm saying that self-empathy, the practice of contacting and living in harmony with your deepest values, is a way you can live a life connected to your values and from which you can find empathy for others and a renewing connection to life energy.
I didn't say self-empathy is easy to practice. I still find I avoid it sometimes. I've had a lifetime of being oriented to accomplishing tasks at all costs and old habits die hard. What a paradox! I'm much more effective if I take a few minutes aside to give myself empathy. And it feels really good!