I often encourage my clients to practise self-empathy or self-compassion. I consider it an essential step in the process of healing and reconnecting with oneself, and others. Occasionally, people are taken aback by the idea of self-empathy. They equate a focus on the inner world with self-pity. Yet, self-empathy and self-pity are not the same at all.
Understandably, few people want to be seen as self-pitying. Yet, plenty of people do seek pity and sympathy from others. When we do this, we may hold a view that “my situation is worse than everyone else’s”. The problem with self-pity is it can create disconnection and separation. People seeking pity or sympathy are typically not looking for empathy or evidence of shared experience; they are looking for confirmation of their uniqueness.
The problem with self-pity is that it may imply, on the one hand, that you are worse off than others and that no one else can understand (“You have no idea what it is like”) yet, on the other hand, you want validation. It ends up a no-win situation. The more you feel sorry for yourself, the more you feel alone and disconnected.
Self-empathy means we drop the pity by acknowledging that, although the specifics of the situation are unique to us, the feelings of shame, sadness, fear, anger or hurt we are experiencing are universal. In this way, we can feel reconnected to the human experience.
Self-empathy also invites us to hold our self-judgements lightly, allowing those self-judgements to dissipate and fade away, leaving behind a kindness and compassion that we can extend to ourselves.
Part of the self-empathy exercises I often do with clients involves asking them to imagine how they would approach a frightened child, a distressed friend, or a vulnerable animal. I encourage them to hold their own feelings inside their bodies with the same acceptance and care they would show to another. This helps us to relax around our painful feelings, rather than letting the feelings turn into thoughts of self-pity.
Once we can extend empathy and compassion towards ourselves, we are then able to sense what it is most important to us and take action in service of our most precious values and needs.