Why You Need Self-Empathy

There is a substantial body of research and practice that shows the importance of empathy in making a change in others. Whether supporting a friend through a change, leading a change in your organization, creating an innovative approach to solve a problem, or facilitating a change in your community, the capacity to put yourself in another’s proverbial shoes empowers you to appeal to others and address their needs in a way that is the difference between engagement and compliance. But what about when we want to be the change? What about when we have a significant change we want to make in ourselves?

The Heath brothers wrote one of those fabulous journalistic psychology books called Switch (find it here), and I love it. They have basically taken the Clark and Estes framework (find it here) that I think is readily applicable to most every situation and made it less research-y and more anecdote-y. And because change is hard, and because most folks struggle with it, the book immediately received high praise. But there is a starting place for change that Clark and Estes name in organizational change that the Brothers neglect, and it is in this starting place that power for change lies.


Clark and Estes root their theory of change with an identification of the goal and the performance toward the goal as a starting point. They jump in to the work of planning the change assuming the change agent has set an appropriate goal, has accurately assessed the data to determine the gap, and is then ready to plan the change. The Brothers disregard this whole process altogether. Yet, so much of goal attainment and actualization comes from having an appropriate goal and being clear on the starting point. If you set a goal to lose weight in the interest of increased health, but the work to improve your health may include weight gain or no loss of weight (ie gaining muscle mass, increasing intake of healthier foods, etc), then your goal may not be possible or appropriate. You end up shut down because it wasn’t the right goal, and that experience undermines your motivation to embark on the right change. Likewise, if you have set a goal to adopt any new habit or practice, but it is ultimately not healthy or rooted in a misunderstanding of your baseline, your capacity to attain that goal is compromised. So setting the right goal and making it Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound (SMART), is a critical first step. And this is its own process before you can make a change. If you want to make a giant change in your lifestyle, it may be several goals, and they may have a requisite sequence to be attainable. If you want to adopt a new habit that is contrary to who you are, it may not even be attainable or appropriate. Another book I love, called Designing Your Life (find it here), calls this a “gravity problem.” A “gravity problem” is one, like gravity, that can’t be changed. Or can’t be changed without so much work that it might not fit your original problem. Making sure your goal is SMART and mutable are critical first steps that are often overlooked.


The next important step is having the right data about your baseline. Burnett and Evans call it the “You are here” of design thinking in Designing Your Life.  And that is where my wholly invented concept of self-empathy (aka mindfulness) comes in. Just like an organization needs clear, reliable, relevant data on the current state against the goal in order to plan to bridge the gap, so does an individual need to be clear on the starting point for a change. If you are setting a new intention in your life, it is more than knowing you aren’t doing something you want to be doing. Self-empathy is really understanding where you are as a baseline from which to plan your change. If you decide to quit smoking, or eat healthier foods, and you haven’t fully processed the ways these habits are connected to emotional triggers or other habits, you have been set up for failure. The Brothers would call the mitigation of these traps “clearing the path,” but it is the work of understanding them that has to happen first. If understanding the context and feelings of the people we want to make a change is critical to planning it in a way that can be effective and sustained, then truly understanding our own feelings and context in a change of self is equally important. Although this sounds super basic, the truth is, mindfulness has become such a hot trend right now because so many of us are detached from the realities of how we are feeling. And this detachment can mean the difference between successfully enacting a change and not.

Last week, I facilitated a workshop for a group of parents in a diversity advocacy group that is part of a local, predominantly affluent, school district. These folks came to the table because they are concerned about the safety and promotion of diversity within their community, and some specific incidents of late (like reading a book about a transgender child in a fourth grade classroom) has led to all sorts of disagreement within their community. Turns out that even with largely socio-economic homogeneity, the diversity that is most painful to navigate is that of different beliefs. One of the things we dug into in this workshop were the physiological reactions to a challenge of deeply held beliefs. Affective neuroscience research and social evolutionary research have both shown that we react physiologically to perceived threats of deeply held beliefs, especially if they are connected to our identity within a group. Because our brains perceive these kinds of “threats” in the same way as physical threats, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and we flight, possum, or fight. All with a quickened heart rate, increased rapidity of breathing, an adrenal rush, and an inability to tap into rational thought. This is the entry point for disconfirmation bias, which more deeply entrenches a belief when it is challenged, and it also erodes trust and feelings of safety between two people. (Hence, the current state of our country.)


What was enlightening about discussing this with parents at the meeting was hearing them talk about their experiences in situations where they felt their beliefs challenged. People talked about sweating, rising bile, dizziness, nausea, feelings of worthlessness and anger, the palpable sensation of their faces flushing and their fists clenching—this happens to everyone, regardless of which side of the argument they are on. An important first step to empathy for someone from a different background, in the service of coming to some sort of working relationship or agreement to change, is to recognize the physiology of these experiences. But when the change to be made is no longer with others, but within us, we have to start by being able to recognize how we are feeling, what truths this change may challenge, and how we are physiologically reacting to the concept. Losing weight, quitting smoking, setting limits on electronics—any change in our life, especially when it is part of a habit, requires us to first confront the complexity and depth of what we feel about the change. And what the emerging study of mindfulness shows us, is that few of us are actually all that tapped in to how we are really feeling.


As a former smoker and introvert, I didn’t fully recognize the relationship between these two things the first time I quit smoking. I knew I wanted to get healthy, that I had friends who didn’t smoke, and I knew I was nervous about weight gain. But what impeded my resolve, beyond the addiction, was the sense that I had no way to escape in social situations. A smoke break had become a coping mechanism for my introversion, and the more challenging times to not smoke were in social situations I wanted to escape, rather than alone after dinner. I had to come to terms with this relationship, and my own insecurities about being an introvert, to successfully navigate the path to attaining my goal.


Through mindfulness practice over time, there are physical changes to the brain that enable one to be more tapped into the present. The research shows greater capacity for empathy in those who have a regular mindfulness practice, but it is in mindfulness practice itself that we begin to really see our own habits of thought and truly recognize our feelings without trying to change them. Mindfulness commands us to “notice without judging,” and do so in a way that engages the parasympathetic nervous system as to keep rational thought engaged. This is the critical entry point to a personal change and the companion to appropriate goal-setting. Self-empathy, truly tapping into what we believe and feel without changing it, gives us the full breadth of what to expect as we seek to implement a change. This is the map we need to forge “the path” the Heath Brothers recommend.


My own relationship with self-empathy is evolving. I have long held that I am not the meditating type and that mindfulness is a mushy gimmick I am too serious and busy to entertain. But the neuroscience is clear. The fMRIs of brains of those who practice mindfulness are markedly different. And in that difference lies the capacity to make effective change not just for others, but for ourselves.


#empathy #mindfulness #leadership #change


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Dr. Kristin Moody

Atlanta, GA

404-308-8025