Empathy and Self-Compassion: Be Good to Yourself When Nobody Else Will

By Jill Lublin, InnerSelf.com

Every single day, it is likely we will feel frustrated, rushed, stressed, worried, annoyed, angry, lost, and a whole host of other negative vibes. Whatever you want to call the angst and the suffering, we can’t let ourselves be dominated by it. We must learn to take care of ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and what we want, and that means taking our compassion culture and turning it inward.

By learning to practice some self-compassion, you can begin to treat yourself like a friend and give yourself the time and presence that you would give to someone else. Kristin Neff, PhD, is probably one of the most renowned researchers and teachers of the concept of self-compassion. In her work she has defined self-compassion and offered some caveats to those just getting their feet wet in the concept. On her website she writes:

“Self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain, while providing the optimal conditions for growth and transformation.”

Self-compassion can lead to more focus because it helps us deal with the garbage that distracts us all day long—the self-doubt, the mistakes we make, the argument we might have had—and then dismiss it. It is a way of understanding your own motivations, reigniting the passion for your work, and learning to forgive others and let go of situations so you are no longer stuck in the rut of despair, deceit, and disgust.

The “How-To” of Self-Compassion

So how do we do it? It is not enough to promise we will not be so hard on ourselves. In the end, too many of us punish ourselves in ways that don’t even fit the crime. We go overboard with self-loathing or insecurity, and we need to stop that!

The first step is to stop critical self-talk. You wouldn’t let a friend call herself a “loser” or a “failure.” You would try to lift her up. So why is it okay to put yourself down? It’s not. So practice becoming more mindful. Keep track of your negative self-talk. When you think something bad about yourself or your business, write it down. Can you identify the trigger or find the common themes that cause you to turn against yourself? Does the voice inside your head sound like someone who once hurt you, such as a former boss, professor, or parent?

The second step is a bit trickier. Dr. Neff suggests we make an active effort to soften the self-critical voice, but do so with compassion rather than self-judgment (that is, don’t say “you’re so stupid” to your inner critic).

Last, we need to reframe the inner critic. Can you figure out how to tell yourself why you might have done something that you are not proud of? Can you help yourself understand your rationale or motivations better? Can you even find a silver lining to the problem or mistake?

A good start is to practice the compassion actions outlined earlier in this book: forgive, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and give yourself a game plan using constructive criticism. Using the example of eating a bag of cookies, Neff offers the following dialogue as an example of reframing.

“I know you ate that bag of cookies because you’re feeling really sad right now and you thought it would cheer you up. Why don’t you take a long walk so you feel better?’ Physical gestures of warmth can tap into the caregiving system…. Start acting kindly, and feelings of true warmth and caring will eventually follow.”

Empathy: A Vicarious Experience

Usually confused with compassion, empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions, or more simply stated, it is the ability to share someone else’s feelings. Whereas compassion might lean more toward action to alleviate someone’s pain (like sending food when someone gets sick), empathy means you make attempts to understand a person’s perspectives, decisions, and motivations for their actions.

Empathy has been called a vicarious experience—if your friend is feeling betrayed, you too will experience a feeling of betrayal in your body; if they are elated, you too will feel happy. Feeling empathy is to tune into another person’s emotions.

Compassion typically happens a little more easily because it reminds us of something we’ve experienced; empathy doesn’t require a shared experience. In fact, developing empathy is a skill set that most successful leaders have because it means the leader is working very hard to see another person through a different and much deeper lens, regardless of whether he or she has worn those shoes.

Empathy is a combination of understanding others’ emotional and logical decisions that happen on a day-to-day basis. In his article for Forbes, “Why Empathy Is the Force that Moves Business Forward,” Jayson Boyers describes the connection created through empathy as a biological principle known as co-evolution, which explains that an organism’s adaptation is triggered by the change of a related object. And if we are to think of our business not as an organization, but as a living breathing organism, we can begin to see that Boyers is on to something.

Empathy is a communication method that keeps lines open and connections active. In order to develop empathy skills we need to learn to be deep listeners, nonjudgmental, and have the imagination to put ourselves into nearly any predicament. If you are generally curious about people and what makes them tick, empathy will be easier to practice, and as long as you look for the things you have in common with a person, instead of noticing the differences, you can develop that sense of awareness for the other person’s emotions much more quickly.

How to Practice Empathetic Listening

The Greek philosopher Epicetus said “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” As a constant connector myself, I depend on the ability to listen and really take in what a person is sharing with me. I can’t connect them to the right person or resource unless I understand their needs, desires, challenges, and goals.

I use compassion and empathy all the time in my work with clients and it really comes down to letting other people talk much more than you do. To quote Mark Twain, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.”

Being an empathetic and compassionate listener means you know when to stop talking. In her article “9 Things Good Listeners Do Differently,” Lindsay Holmes of the Huffington Post says research shows that the average person only listens with 25 percent efficiency.

Learning to listen goes beyond making eye contact and mirroring of people’s poses and expressions. We need to be focused on developing our empathetic ear by becoming active listeners. Active listeners draw out more information from people by knowing how to ask the right questions and then follow-up with deeper questions. It’s a natural progression and one that can seem quite seamless when the listener is truly engaged and practicing empathy. Allowing your imagination to lead you to the larger story of a person will help you form more interesting questions. Staying on the surface during crucial conversations will only act as a Band-Aid. We need the salve that can only come through the compassion and empathy that results from active listening.

Because empathy and compassion keep them less focused on ego, good listeners are not defensive. They don’t take things personally, which helps the speaker stay as open as possible and not shut down. When having serious conversations about a person’s complaints, problems, and challenges, we must be able to hear them out in order to respond properly and rationally.

Furthermore, good listeners don’t mind being put in awkward situations. They are not bothered by silence or by a person getting extremely emotional. If you are going to have a heart-to-heart with a business partner, you expect that there may be tears, interruptions, or shiftiness during the conversation. People who can deal with uncomfortable scenarios know how to keep it respectful and focused. Remember, it is called a heart-to-heart for a reason: You are getting out of the logical space of your brain and more into the heart space of vulnerability—the place where true connection lives.

Use Compassion and Empathy to Make a Difference

Before Facebook, there was Myspace. Myspace had groups with specific themes, and Keith Leon joined a group called “Committed to Love.” Because he and his wife were relationship experts and were new to coaching, they decided to utilize the group to offer free coaching to anyone who wanted it for the purpose of connection.

Fast forward to today: Keith is a best-selling author and the creator of You Speak It Books. Keith was kind enough to share his story of how he discovered the incredible, lifesaving powers of empathy and compassion and why he practices it in his business today.

One day, I logged into the ‘Committed to Love’ group and saw that one of the teens I had met in the group was online. I sent a message saying, “I see you are online. I hope you are having a great day. I want to you know that you have made a difference in my life.”

She replied, “Really, how?”

I told her that we are all making a difference whether we know it or not. There were a few things she had shared with me in our chats in the past, and they had touched my heart and made me think of things in a different way. We chatted for another 20 minutes or so and then said our goodbyes.

A few days later, I received the following message from that teenager:

“I want you to know that you saved my life the other day. I thought that nobody saw me or cared about me. I was feeling depressed and unseen. I had a handful of pills and a glass of water in my hand when you messaged me and told me that I had made a difference in your life. The chat we had pulled me back and talked me out of killing myself. If I have made a difference in your life, maybe I have done the same for others too and just don’t know it. Thanks for making a difference in mine. Thanks for saving my life.”

This experience led me to become a very successful coach, speaker, and book publisher because making a difference (by helping others to see how they make a difference) has always been my top priority.

We never know how we are touching people’s lives. One smile, one hello, one note or letter, one hug can make all the difference in the world. You make a difference!

©2017 by Jill Lublin. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, The Career Press.
1-800-CAREER-1 or (201) 848-0310. www.careerpress.com.