Empathy: Before You Weigh In, Tune In

Poster from the Canadian Mental Health Association's 2022 campaign for Mental Health Week. The theme is "empathy." Caption reads: Empathy: Before You Weigh In, Tune In

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Week — May 2nd to 8th — is empathy. Empathy can be described as the ability to see things from another person’s perspective or perhaps even walk a mile in their shoes. Empathy makes us concerned for the well-being and happiness of others. It allows us to build social connections and respond appropriately in social situations by learning to regulate our own emotions and manage our personal feelings and triggers. It is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. In this articleKendra Cherry tells us that “Empathy allows us to understand others and, quite often, compels us to take action to relieve another person’s suffering.” But, when someone is struggling, don’t feel that you have to “fix” their pain. Before you weigh in, tune in and see through their eyes. This is empathy.

First, Practice Self-Empathy

The ability to connect outward often starts within — with our ability to understand our own emotions and hear our inner voice. In other words, empathy can be turned towards the self. Psychologist Valeria Sabater writes that self-empathy means “loving yourself, taking care of yourself, and recognizing your own needs, just as you do for others.” Her article describes how to start practicing self-empathy.

Valeria continues, “Self-empathy requires you to notice and recognize that you’re here. You need to recognize that there’s a part of you who suffers, feels sad, gets excited, and feels hopeful. It means you can observe yourself without judging nor criticizing yourself for feeling the way you do. In fact, accepting what you feel and giving yourself the love you need is the ideal way to initiate change. Then, you can move from instability and turbulence to balance and calm.”

Psychology Today echoes this: “In self-empathy, we notice ourselves and become aware of our own inner state. We get in touch with our own sensations, emotions, and thoughts. We feel into our body and observe our mind.”

Self-empathy is a foundational prerequisite for being able to empathize with others.

Connect With Yourself

For most of us, the events of the last two years have limited our opportunities to make connections and challenged our ability to make sense of the flood of information and controversy around us. There may have been times when we started to question our own thoughts and emotions; times when we needed to be mindful and take a time out to go within. Mindfulness as a practice of self-empathy is an objective observation of our experience without judgement. “And importantly, although we work to regulate our thoughts and our attention, we also accept ourselves as we are in that momentary state of being. There is no right or wrong, there is merely experience and observation.”

The key words here are “accept ourselves as we are.” This means facing our inner critic and challenging the negative chatter that seems to linger in our subconscious waiting for the right moment to sabotage our happiness. Although our brains are wired for connection, they often default to protection.

Connecting with ourselves prepares us to not only show empathy toward others but also be open to receiving it. When we are unable to process our own emotions, we often end up pushing people away. While it is comforting to know that our loved ones are close, sometimes we just need to take the time to figure things out inside before we’re ready to let anyone else in.

My Journey to Becoming Empathetic

My personal experience during the pandemic caused me to spiral down a dark hole, especially after my dad’s suicide. My brain went numb as I went through the motions of daily living. I did not feel safe in the world. It was only once I gave myself permission to be okay with not being okay that the door to healing opened. I was able to step into “not okay” and observe life from that lens. Although I put on a brave front, I was still struggling inside. Weeks eventually turned into months until one day something inside me acknowledged that I didn’t want to be “not okay” anymore.

My journey back focused on “how do I want to feel and what do I need to do to get there?” I needed to find happiness again and knew that had to start through connection with myself.

It was during a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat that I was able to create the space to start to hear my inner voice. Mindfulness was teaching me a “Sensory Awareness of Feelings of Equanimity.” As I became aware of my sensations in the moment, my nervous system was learning to feel SAFE.

Dexter Yun writes that feeling safe means “to feel protected from or not exposed to danger or risk.” Psychologically, it means you’re comfortable just being yourself. You accept yourself unconditionally and openly acknowledge that “having flaws is part of being human.”

I was learning to create a space where I could feel calm, clear, connected and centred.

Mindfulness is Essential

Thus, my mindfulness practice expanded. By sitting in quiet both morning and evening allowed my thoughts to float to the surface where I could reflect upon the emotion that I felt inside. The 10-day retreat was an approach that worked for me. I invite you to explore a variety of mindfulness and meditation options to find the one that feels right for you.

Greater Good magazine defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” What I appreciate about a mindfulness practice is the ability to tune in to my own inner guidance and to follow my intuition.

As I began to feel safe, I was now ready to reach out, connect, and begin to truly empathize with others.

Let’s All Practice Empathy

Practice empathy by taking a pause before reacting or judging yourself or others. Listen carefully, but share when appropriate. You’ll find these things build compassion, trust, and acceptance. Through mindful awareness and acceptance, our differences dissolve and we learn to appreciate the uniqueness of others.

Robynn King explains that, as humans, “we are influenced, and have the power to influence others, with happiness.” Dr. Paul Ekman calls happiness “a contagious social phenomenon.” Reconnecting to what makes us happy takes us out of our fear and into the moment. This frees us to develop our ability to accept and connect to ourselves and others in life and at work. This Mental Health Week, let’s walk together with empathy and #GetReal about how to help.

Be well. Be happy. Be safe.

Carol Brochu combines a 30+ year career in HR, operations, and client service with a unique personal and spiritual development journey that has included studies in Mental Health First Aidenergy work, and self-care disciplines. She is a certified yoga and martial arts instructor, mindfulness facilitator, Me First practitioner, CPC member, and Certified Work-Life Strategist.

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Fantastic article Carol, thanks for sharing !

Merci Monique. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to practice self-empathy.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with empathy Carol. I had never considered that my empathy for others would be enhanced by being empathetic to myself.

Thanks Barb – it’s a lesson that I learned this year. It’s like the oxygen mask, before we can help others we must look after ourselves. Be well.

Hello Carol. Thank you for opening up and sharing your experience here. I truly appreciate the reminder of connecting with ourselves first.

Thanks Felisha – I used a lot of links in the article as they offer different ways to connect. I used to hate to sit in silence until I learned the vipassana technique as it created the space of quiet in my mind for my inner voice to speak. There is a part in all of us that wants to be heard.

Hi Carol, thank you for everthing, just what I need to hear.

Be well my friend.