When I started learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC) a decade ago, one of my first teachers heavily emphasized self-empathy—that is, sensing into our own feelings and needs as a method to understand and connect with ourselves—as the easiest and most readily available source of empathy and compassion. “Self-empathy is your best friend,” she said.
Her preference made logical sense. You’re with yourself all the time. If you’re in distress, why not soothe yourself?
Except that I couldn’t access self-empathy when I was in acute distress, or even mild distress. No matter how hard I tried, my attempts just didn’t make me feel better. They felt like a hollow, intellectual exercise that left me feeling worse.
I heard in her preference for self-empathy evidence of my own inadequacy: Why couldn’t I just decide to be there for myself, especially when I could see how much better my life and my relationships would be if I did “choose” self-compassion?
So I did the logical, reasonable thing when you can’t do something you’re supposed to be able to do: I decide to hate self-compassion. The words, “Fuck self-empathy,” may have been my mantra, for about three years. And I had no intention of ever changing my stance on the subject.
Meanwhile, I regularly offered needs-based empathy to others, and I had weekly dates with empathy partners who offered me warmth, care, and guesses as to what feelings and needs were alive for me. I almost always felt remarkably soothed and strong after offering empathy to others or receiving empathy from others. Still, I was pretty clear and settled in on this point: “Fuck self-empathy.”
Then one day I was in my kitchen, ruminating over something that was upsetting me, and I thought to myself, with real warmth, “You’re just really needing understanding and care, aren’t you?” And my body relaxed at the guess. Yes, understanding and care were what I was really longing for. And wow, there was self-empathy, suddenly available to me and actually effective, seemingly out of nowhere.
It was only four years later, when I started studying Interpersonal Neurobiology, that I understood why self-compassion had been completely unavailable to me for so long, and why it later became available to me. And it all had to do with needing to prime the pump of self-compassion with compassion from and for others.
In my family, even with the most loving and well-intentioned members, distress was ignored, as if paying attention to it would only make it grow. This “elephant in the room” approach to pain had devastating consequences—among them that my brain and nervous system were conditioned to being ignored in times of distress, so I couldn’t just decide to stop ignoring myself and instead choose self-compassion. I didn’t have those neural pathways of warm, responsive attunement in my brain, and, like highways, you can’t just will neural pathways to exist, you need to create them.
I’d needed the warmth and empathy from others, regularly over a few years, to rewire my brain to expect care when I was in distress, so that I could access care for myself that morning when I was alone in my kitchen.
Psychologist Rick Hanson, who specializes in the intersection of neuroscience and Buddhism, and who also practices Nonviolent Communication, offers a three-step process to prime the pump of self-compassion:
1) Feel care from others
2) Feel care for others
3) Direct that care toward yourself
He recommends you remember a time when you’ve felt care from others, then remember someone you care for, then feel care for yourself. If this works for you, awesome. If it doesn’t, and you can’t call up a genuine feeling of care from or for others in a particular moment, it’s time to reach out to the most warm, caring people you know, and get some compassion from them, to prime your compassion pump. Feel the care from them, feel the care for them, and see if you can feel the care for yourself. (And if no one is available to offer you that care, see if you can get love and warmth from spending time with pets, your favorite fictional characters, an inspiring musician—someone whose care touches you enough to prime your pump to care for yourself.)
And if you can’t feel care for yourself, that’s okay. Fuck self-empathy—for now, and for as long as it takes for the care from and for others to create those neural pathways of compassion that you can eventually traverse for and by yourself. (Not that self-empathy is an end point. Self-empathy and empathy from others are both always needed, to optimally resource each other.)
I want as many people as possible to receive this support, because I know from experience that it’s life changing. That’s what brought me to this work, and as so many of my clients have experienced, this process is life-changing. If you’re ready to be loved as a pathway to truly loving yourself, I’m here for you.
Much love and empathy,