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Understanding empathy: how to be kinder to yourself

In the first part of his 2-part blog series on empathy, cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist Andy Thornton explores the power of empathy – and why we need to be more empathetic towards ourselves, in order to truly show empathy to others.

Thinking about empathy

Now perhaps more than ever, as we move forward from a global pandemic that radically changed the idea of ‘normal’ life and impacted millions of people around the world, we need to develop our ability to show empathy, both to ourselves and to the people around us.

In this article, we will explore what empathy is, and consider whether (and how) it is possible to show ourselves empathy. In my next article, we will look at what it takes for us to be empathetic towards other people.

Firstly, let’s just consider what we mean when we talk about empathy.

So what exactly is empathy?

Essentially, empathy can be thought of as the ability to understand a situation from someone else’s perspective, to share in their feelings.

It can help people to connect and find positive ways to move forward in life and is a vital component in developing and sustaining relationships with the people around us.

There are two forms of empathy:

Cognitive empathy

This is when we are able to see someone else’s perspective and imagine what it would be like to be them. Doing this allows us to increase our understanding of that person’s experience.

Emotional empathy

This is our ability to feel the same emotions as someone else, to feel their pain as our own, and to feel compassion for them.

Is empathy the same as sympathy?

People will sometimes talk about empathy and sympathy and use these terms interchangeably. However, they are different things.

Sympathy is feeling of concern for someone else, and a desire that they get better or happier, while empathy involves sharing the other person’s emotions and really understanding the world from their point of view.

Is it possible to have self-empathy?

If empathy is all about sharing the feelings of another person, it is legitimate to ask the question:

“Can I be empathetic towards myself?”

It would not be unreasonable to assume that the answer to this question is “No!”, but this would be wrong. In fact, an article in Psychology Today entitled ‘The Self in Empathy: Self-Empathy’ states that ‘the first step towards empathising with someone else is to empathise with yourself.’

This shows the importance of self-empathy as a cornerstone of our ability to empathise with others.

Are you empathetic towards yourself?

Just pause for a moment and consider the kinds of things you think and tell yourself.

Are you kind to yourself? Are you considerate? Are you accepting of those times when you find life difficult? Or are you self-critical and judgmental?

As a therapist I often find myself repeating back to clients what they are saying to, and about, about themselves. People are often surprised when they hear the kind of words they routinely use to describe themselves, words like ‘idiot’, ’stupid’, ‘hopeless’, ‘rubbish’ and so on.

These words can have a very, very powerful effect on self-esteem and confidence and they are certainly not self-empathetic. Most of the time people do not realise the extent to which they are subjecting themselves to such negative self-talk.

Of course, we all have an inner voice. Sometimes it can be very loud and clear, and at others very quiet, just whispering away in the background passing judgment on the things we are doing. How aware are you of your own inner voice?

It can be very powerful and persuasive, even at those times when we are not consciously aware of what it is saying.

If we are to be empathetic towards ourselves, then we have to become aware of what that voice is saying and be prepared to change what might be deeply embedded habits of self-criticism.

Self-empathy starts with self-awareness

We need to become more understanding of our situation and experiences, our strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears. We need to learn to appreciate that we are also human and will have both good times and bad, and that this is normal not failure.

We wouldn’t expect other people to live a life of unsullied perfection and blissful balance, so why do we so often feel that if we cannot achieve this ourselves, then we have somehow failed?

Perhaps you found it difficult to identify whether you treat yourself empathetically or not. Often we are not consciously aware of how we are treating ourselves, and I work with a lot of people who are genuinely shocked when I highlight the many ways in which they are being critical, unkind or judgmental about themselves.

Self-empathy starts with self-awareness. If you are not consciously aware of how you are thinking and feeling from moment to moment, it will be almost impossible to show yourself any empathy.

There is a good deal of honesty involved in looking inwards at our experience and emotional and mental states. Sometimes what we find there will be uncomfortable, but that is precisely why we need to be prepared to show ourselves some empathy.

In the same way we would with other people, we need to accept and validate the reality of what we are going through. Only then does it become possible to understand and address those things that cause us distress and, of course, become better at showing genuine empathy towards other people.

Becoming more self-empathetic

Accepting then that self-empathy is not only possible but essential if we are to be able to be empathetic towards others, and accepting that there are often times when we can be less than empathetic towards ourselves, what can we do to get better at it?

Take Some Time

Firstly, how about giving yourself time? Take some time to pause, to look inwards and reflect on what you are thinking and feeling.

Build your awareness of your own inner experience and that inner voice which is so often critical, and truly learn about yourself as though you were your own best friend.

You can only be self-empathetic if you are fully aware of what is going on inside.

Become curious

One way to help your journey of inner discovery is to become curious about yourself.

Whenever you have a thought or a feeling be curious about them, ask yourself what they are about, where they come from, what they might relate to.

This kind of deep exploration of our inner selves is observational and can lead to valuable insights and understanding. The objective nature of the exercise is much more likely to lead to feelings of self-empathy than might be usual.


Allied to being curious is becoming a listener. Listen to the way you talk to yourself and practise recognising, and changing, negative or judgmental self-talk which is quite often happening without us recognising it.

One way to help with this is to ask yourself what you would say to someone else who was thinking feeling or experiencing what you are. There is a very good chance it would be much more empathetic than the way you habitually talk to yourself.


And finally accept that sometimes you’re going to have down days, it’s normal and everyone does, so it’s OK and you can be kind to yourself when it happens.

There’s nothing wrong with you, and you don’t need to another pep talk going on inside your head.

In my next article, we will take a closer look at what it takes to be empathetic towards others, now that you have a deeper understanding of how to be empathetic towards yourself.


When life gets busy, it can be easy to forget to take care of yourself. Join our free Wellbeing Hub for expert advice, information and resources to help you take control of your wellbeing, and live better every day.

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