Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Having Empathy For Yourself?

My therapist recently presented an idea that was very difficult for me to understand: having empathy for yourself. I'm still not sure I get it. It's definitely a concept I've never encountered before. As she described it, empathy for yourself requires you to not be critical of yourself. I think I haven't heard of this idea because it's so contrary to the general culture we have in the US, and then greatly amplified in the LDS culture where I was taught that I need to be constantly making sure I'm thinking and acting "righteously."

I'm still not sure I really understand how to have empathy for myself. So I thought it would be good to understand empathy in general, and then try to apply its aspects to myself. I like the work of Brené Brown and how she defines aspects like empathy:

As given in the video, Wiseman defined empathy as having these qualities:
  • "Perspective taking: the ability to take the perspective of [a] person, or recognize their perspective as their truth"
  • "Staying out of judgement"
  • "Recognizing emotion in ... people" and
  • Communicating the recognition of emotion in the person
How does someone take these traits and apply them to them-self?

Perspective Taking

Taking the perspective of yourself would seem self fulfilling as our individual perspective is constantly our own. While somewhat true, it's not the full picture. Yes we have each of our own perspectives, but we are constantly trying to anticipate the perspectives of others (in a non-empathetic way). As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in No Exit, "Hell is other people." We are all too aware of other people watching and--as the next section covers--judging. (I am at this moment realizing how the idea of God eternally watching every one of our individual thoughts and deeds can create a constant sense of Sartre's Hell.) In anticipating the "other's" perspective we remove our-self from our own perspective, thereby not allowing empathy for our-self. In having empathy for yourself, perhaps we need to learn how to drop such expectations. We need to find the place where we let our own perspective be our truth, instead of constantly trying to mentally nag and adjust ourselves to the "truth" of the "other."

Staying Out of Judgement

Judgment is one of those concepts that is widely used. I've always struggled with it a bit as it's also one of those words that's never really well defined. (I have a number of other words and concept that seem to have the same problem.) So, what is judgment, really? I must say I'm still refining this concept down for myself. What I have so far, and what I think it mostly means for empathy, is the idea of not making decisions about ethical values, whether something is right or wrong, worthy of reward or punishment. This is a concept that runs contrary to general human nature, and even more so against cultures that teach one should be constantly vigilant against "evil" thoughts and deeds (e.g., what I heard from my LDS upbringing). It's very difficult to do, but as I've been learning about the concept of radical acceptance it is vital to good psychological health to be able to at least suspend value judgments and accept that something is. Empathy requires a grounding in reality. Jumping to judgement is an attempt to alter reality; change the past, present, or deterministic future. (Despite what some "Secret" certain people may claim to know, the universe doesn't shift reality to our wishes.)

Recognizing Emotion, and Communicating That Recognition

Again, this seems like an area that should be a given when applied to yourself. I am the one having the emotion to begin with, therefore I should be already aware of those emotions. In my personal experience, it definitely isn't the case. I can look back now at my life and see how I was clearly gay going back as far as I can remember. But that wasn't necessarily the case in my youth. I kept myself in denial of my sexuality all through my childhood and even past high school. I realize now that I had sexual attractions to other men and boys my age, but I always altered it in my conscious mind to something else. I didn't allow myself to recognize those emotions. It's much the same with suffering from PTSD. Yes, I realized I was anxious and angry, but again I didn't allow myself to recognize the true causes and the full aspects of what I felt. Even now, even with all the therapy and self study I do I struggle to identify and understand my own emotions at times. Of course, taking the care to acknowledge and understand your own emotions is very core to the idea of having empathy for yourself.

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