Self-Empathy is NOT 'Poor Me': It's Strength and It's F**king Difficult - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

I’ve gotten pretty used to the grimace on my clients’ faces when I begin to talk about self-compassion or self-empathy. Understandably, they don’t want to place blame outside of themselves for something they did that they feel guilt or shame about doing. There’s a sense that giving yourself empathy is the same as letting yourself off the hook. They want to be held accountable. People sometimes seek out therapy because of this shame and guilt–they don’t want to be coddled or forgiven, they want to stop negative behavior.

Initially, I also saw self-empathy as weakness. It’s as if i was getting a pass by promising that I’d ‘Do better next time’. But when that wasn’t accompanied by any semblance of a plan that would lead me to ‘do better’ I realized that I was just fooling myself. I just wanted to get away from the uncomfortable side of an accusation.

Many of us have also been on the receiving end of that non-apology that has a strong commitment in the moment and is followed by a short honeymoon–until that person does the same thing again.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

So I don’t blame the skepticism.

This is different, though. This takes strength because instead of calming someone down we’ve hurt by promising ‘Never again’, this has us feeling the discomfort of knowing that we have hurt someone. This is strength because feeling that discomfort is the first step to actual accountability.

Let’s take a look at what this entails.

Recognize the Emotion

This might be the most difficult part of self-empathy, but once we start to do this, it makes all the difference in giving back choices to ourselves. Many people don’t realize how angry/sad/scared/guilty/ashamed they are and, if they ever do get a chance to recognize this, it’s after the fact. Usually, that’s too late. One of the big challenges with building up our self-empathy is to know in the moment that we are experiencing something. That something is usually a negative feeling, but it doesn’t have to be–but we put a lot more energy into exorcising the negative feelings than the more pleasant ones.

What’s it mean to recognize a feeling in the moment though? We may have had the experience of a parent, a partner, or a friend telling us that we’re ‘getting emotional’ or ‘Why are you getting so angry?’ Often, especially if we’re not aware of it before someone else points it out, that leads to more defensiveness a la the old sitcom joke of yelling, “I’m not angry!” at someone who dares to accuse us that we are angry.

It’s jarring when we are unaware that we’re ‘in it’ to have someone point that out. Is it because we thought we were hiding that feeling? (I remember crying in 7th grade and fully denying this to the very annoying teacher who was pointing it out to me!) Maybe it’s because we’re caught off guard that someone noticed something about us we hadn’t realized yet?

The bad news is, we may need to go through a period of this. Challenge yourself to reframe these perceived attacks as though someone is trying to help us. This is how parents support their children by helping them name a feeling that is overwhelming them. Tantrums are often the understandable response to an overwhelming feeling that the child just doesn’t know what to do with. The reason for it (i.e., not getting a cookie, having to take a bath, not wanting to go to school) is not the most helpful thing to address especially the younger a child is. We need to help them name the feeling so they can learn to self-regulate: this is what not getting what I want (anger, sadness, betrayal) feels like. And now that I know what I’m feeling, I have more options than just spilling that feeling all over the place!

So talk to the child in yourself who’s getting stirred up: name your feeling.

Notice What the Emotion is Doing

Now that you know you’re having a feeling, take a minute to locate it in your body. This is easier for some people than others, but the whole body-mind connection isn’t just a New Agey idea. For some, it’s easier to feel the physical sensation before they are aware of the feeling, so feel free to do this part first before the Recognizing the Emotion above. Where do we feel challenging emotions?

  • Is our stomach churning?
  • Are we sweating more?
  • Do you feel hot in your face?
  • Are you balling up your fists?

These are just some common ones, but you’ll go far in understanding yourself if you can start to become aware of where certain emotions ‘live’ in your body. You might be helped by others if you’re open to it. Ask your partner or kids how they know when you’re getting upset. Just like you probably know their ‘tells’, they may be able to assist you with an outside perspective. Just make sure you don’t get too defensive. Remember: you’re the one asking them! Don’t argue if you don’t like what you hear! (Feel free to get angry at me for suggesting it. I can take it.)

Once you’ve recognized the feeling and located it in your body, you’ll probably start to realize you have an interpretation of the feeling:

  • This is because my boss thinks I’m an idiot and I’m about to be fired!
  • This is because my husband forgot to take the garbage out again and he is so inconsiderate of me!
  • This is because my child is being manipulative and thinks they are smarter than me!

Note the exclamation point at the end of each interpretation. We believe what we make up about the genesis of our feeling as if it were fact, but right now, it’s only one perception. It’s just an interpretation. Sure, it could be correct, but that’s not important in the moment (An old Couples Therapy saying: ‘You can be right, or you can be in relationship’). Right now, we need to be aware how we are fanning the flames of this challenging emotion. We’re literally feeding it and reinforcing the supreme injustice of it all. And it’s a long way down hill if we go in that direction.

This is the time to disconnect from that narrative. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter during a time of self-regulation. And it’s not going to lead to a productive discussion with someone if you’re at this level of reactivity.

Deal with the emotion, not the story. And by ‘deal’ I mean ‘have’ the emotion. Which leads us to…

Self-Empathy: Actively Accept Whatever the Feeling Is

This is where a lot of people start pushing back.

This sounds like giving in! Defeat! Lack of control! Emasculation! Giving up!

And if acceptance meant to go through life as the proverbial doormat, I’d be protesting right there with you.

But what this is talking about is accepting that you are having the emotion while not necessarily accepting the situation or the outcome. You’ve heard the phrase, “Feel the fear and do it anyway!” That’s closer to what this is. You are going to feel however you’re going to feel. And, what’s worse, you’re going to feel that way until you don’t feel that way any more. The more energy you put toward changing your feeling, the more steeped in the feeling you’re going to be–or the worse you’re going to feel if you try to numb yourself (via substances or porn) or attack yourself or others by lashing out.

You can accept that right now you are anxious. That right now you are horrifically embarrassed. That right now you are steeped in sadness. You can recognize it. You can feel it in your body. And you can say, I am having a feeling I really don’t like. In fact, I’m having it right now.

And that’s self-empathy.

It’s having the feeling without pushing it away or digging in deeper. It’s acknowledging the feeling.

It is not blaming the subway car for slamming shut before you got inside. It’s not going to get those people to shut up during the movie you’re seeing. It’s not going to get your child to stop making fart jokes while you’re trying to get them to go to sleep (or church, or grandma’s house, or…whatever).

It’s acknowledging what you’re feeling, so that it doesn’t dictate what you do. It’s simply (ha!) acknowledging that you are feeling.

The active acceptance of the unacceptable feeling gives you back your freedom to choose.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin wrote a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity and can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)