A while back, I wrote a post regarding empathy and how cultivating empathy was a necessary pathway to wellness.
I do not believe empathy is something that immediately comes to people’s minds when they’re talking about wellness. I say, ‘I want to study nutrition’ and you think, Food? Calories? Exercise? Weight loss? And perhaps rightfully so. I think most of us are programed to measure wellness with those obvious, and socially discussed, markers.
The interesting thing to me, however, is when you speak to people struggling with health problems, the thing you usually stumble over is shame. Illness, disease, weight, and health are intricately connected to our feelings of vulnerability, our fear of failure, and the risk of being exposed as a fraud who isn’t good enough. Most people who are struggling with their health, on some fundamental level, believe that it’s their fault. In my experience, when I talk about wellness in a personal way with people, I almost always encounter shame.
So what exactly, you may ask, does shame have to do with empathy? Again I would turn to researcher Brené Brown, who sees shame and empathy as opposite ends of a continuum. The best way to pull away from shame, is to cultivate empathy. Or as she beautifully puts it, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
As I’ve progressed along my own wellness journey, if you were to ask me for any particular trick, I would have to say, ‘cultivate self-compassion’ (or self-empathy, if you will) as my number one tip, mostly because it was the starting place for my journey. Until I learned to show myself compassion, it was impossible to progress in wellness. Why? One reason, that applied in my life was worthiness. In order to be well you have to invest time into taking care of yourself and you have to create boundaries in your life; to invest time into taking care of yourself and make boundaries, you have to believe you are worthy of that investment.
Are there people who invest into taking care of themselves and also struggle with worthiness? Absolutely. While I do believe our motive for not taking care of ourselves is generally wrapped in feelings of unworthiness, I’m not sure the inverse is always true. There are many motivations for why people do what they do, and I do believe there are people who invest a lot into themselves, motivated by reasons other than believing they are worthy. I would also argue that beneath the surface appearance, these people are most likely highly judgmental to both others and themselves. However, for the sake of this post, I’m focusing on the majority of people I speak with, who like myself, struggle to believe they are worthy and struggle to treat themselves with compassion.
The interesting thing is, while empathy is something we must receive from outside ourselves, it is also a gift we must give ourselves. Empathy is a practice you can’t simply apply in one direction—if you truly want to be compassionate to those around you, you must also be compassionate to yourself. If you truly want to be compassionate to yourself, then yes, you must also be compassionate to those around you. It gives and takes in equal measure.
So how does one begin to practice self-empathy?
Today I’d like to give you three specific ways to practice self-empathy right now.
- Mirror Talk: The first time I begin doing this, I felt like a crazy person. Now I do it almost every single morning, and it’s become an impressive umpire in my own internal-monologue. A few years ago, I started making a list of daily affirmations. A list of things I didn’t really believe about myself, but I wanted to be true. I think the original list was about 8 or 9 items. Then everyday, I’d stand and say those things to myself in the mirror. Did I say them out-loud? Why yes, yes, I did. I know what you’re thinking… You’re saying, “wait a minute Elle… you want me to stand in front of the mirror and talk to myself out loud?” Yep. This is actually what I’m advocating. Need a demo?
So, maybe you don’t need to say it super loud, maybe you just whisper it to yourself like Anne of Green Gables to her imaginary friend. The point is, you start becoming intentional about telling yourself your value as a person, and speaking to yourself like you would speak to another person. You wouldn’t walk up to another person and say hateful rude things to their face? Well, stop saying them to your face, even if it’s just in your mind. You may not be the most important person on the planet… you’re not special in that way, but you are the only you the planet will ever have. That makes you sacred and irreplaceable. Act accordingly. So what do you say? In the beginning I struggled to decide what I should think, so I looked to sources outside myself. If you’re a person of faith, this is a good place to employ your faith tradition. And that is where I begin. My list included things directly from scripture, along with speaking certain goals as though they were already reality. I’d tell myself, ‘I’m healthy, I take care of myself, I weigh exactly the weight my body was designed to weigh.’ etc. And on the days when I really didn’t believe it, I’d take a memo from Joyce Meyer’s book and say, ‘I’m not where I want to be, but at least I’m not where I used to be.’ Mirror Talk is about practicing an internal monologue that mirrors the kind of things you would say to another human being.
- The Art of Asking I borrow this line from Amanda Palmer who gave a Tedtalk a while back by this same title. Asking was an unexpected practice for me when it came to cultivating self-compassion. There’s a scripture in James that says, ‘you have not because you ask not.’ which until recently I believed this only applied to prayer. We’re supposed to go before God and ask for our needs. It was only recently that I realized the value and importance of asking people; that this wasn’t simply a good vertical practice, but it had horizontal applications as well. Somewhere in our striving of western individualism, we’ve become somewhat obsessed with the idea of being enow unto ourselves. The problem is, this requires each of us to be perfect… and not lacking in anything. When we practice asking, we are admitting to our vulnerability; the good news is, when we are allow ourselves to be authentic, we in turn will invite that authenticity from others. Or as Amanda says in her talk, “I fell into the connections I made and I asked the crowd to catch me.”
When we fail to ask, we fail to connect. Asking is vulnerable yes, but it is also compassionate; compassionate to ourselves, because we no longer have to be perfect, but also to others because we’re inviting them to authentically be imperfect also.
Private Eye I think this item may be the most fun, and oddly was very instrumental in my practice of self compassion. In my own wellness journey, I found myself relying on one thing to numb myself from feelings of shame. Unfortunately, the catch-22 was, that one thing was also increasing my feelings of shame… that thing was food. The fastest way to feel better was to numb myself from feelings by eating really yummy things. I tend to be a pretty sensitive person, and so I find sometimes I will still turn to food for comfort in times when I feel particularly emotionally drained. But I’m a little better at avoiding this, and one of the reasons is I became my own private eye. So how do you play?
Ok, yes that was music… I just really love Poirot when it comes to little detectives. But moving on. Start investigating what things help you deal with stress, help you unwind, and make you feel truly refreshed. This list will vary greatly from person to person. For instance, what are my go-to refreshers? Playing the piano, yoga, taking a walk, writing, taking a hot bath, drinking a cup of tea–your list may look completely different. How did I find these? I became an investigator of my own emotions, and realized that I have to leave margins in my life, and find ways to refresh myself. If I don’t, I’m likely to wake-up finding myself hustling for worthiness, and withering in the process. Sit down and make a list of ten things you think you love, and then try them out. Do they refresh you? Are you sure? Investigate. Try them on. If so, add them to your list of ways to engage self-compassion. These are valuable resources for crafting the exquisite life.
I hope these three tips help get you started on your path to cultivating empathy. If you are interested in more study, I highly recommend the book ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ which offers eight guidepost, and which I continue to greatly draw from in my own empathy growth. I believe is a powerful resource in exploring vulnerability, compassion, courage and connection, as well as growing in whole-hearted living.
Most of all, I encourage you to be patient with yourself today. Exquisite Life is not a destination; it’s a work of art. Enjoy the process.