The Starting Point for Empathy is You

The Starting Point for Empathy is  YOU  

In this series of articles examining empathy, we’ve explored some reasons to consciously act on developing our empathic skills.  In Becoming More Empathic  we looked at some of the ways to remove the obstacles we create in responding empathetically to others.  In this post, we’re going to focus on the most important part of the equation – you.

The reality is that we are often as hard on ourselves as we are on others.  We’ve often joked that if we sat next to ourselves at a restaurant and overheard our own internal “self-talk”  we’d be offended enough to get up and leave the table!   We can be very tough internal judges, self-critics and task-masters.  So the practice of empathy has to begin with how we treat ourselves!
The critical question is: Can you extend yourself the caring, kindness and understanding that are the hallmarks of empathic behavior?

The correlation between our inner and outer judge is strong.  The measures and standards we use towards others often apply first to ourselves. So the place we begin to look first – is always within.

Once we decide to act more empathetically in the world, it’s also important to look within to explore these powerful factors:

  • Your Self-Talk.  How do you talk to yourself? What do you say and how do you say it? When you “fall short” of your own expectations, how do you treat yourself? Unquestionably, the quality of our self-talk is connected to our ability to empathize with others.
  • Your Beliefs. This is a biggie. Your beliefs about everything filter your perspective, shape your feelings and show up as your behavior. So if you believe that so and so is a lazy slacker, you will be far less able to express any empathy towards him or her – even if some thread of it exists within you.  Judgement blocks empathy – and the place to look for judgements is within your belief system.
  • Your Emotions. For example, how do fear and anger work for you.  Just as there are emotions that enable the emotion of empathy to flow, there are several that impede it – fear and anger being the great gatekeepers.  Because of the interrelationship between those two powerful emotions – they can be explored and their inner workings revealed together.  Two quick examples: we may “fear” that if we demonstrate our empathy towards someone, we may be  taken advantage of: and we may withhold our empathy when we also experience anger at someone’s behavior.  Because most of us don’t have a great deal of experience “holding” multiple and seemingly contradictory emotions, we allow the more protective (at least to the ego) emotion trump the other.
  • Your Willingness to stay open and accept the caring, kindness and empathy others show you.  Sometimes people are more willing to express these feelings towards others, than receive them.  This is usually because allowing empathy in from others, can trigger other feelings like vulnerability that we are not used to experiencing.

As we wrap up this series  we want to reiterate the power of the role of empathy in every aspect of your life – family, work, relationships – and most important to you and how you experience the world.  Seeing the world from your empathic lenses may feel a lot harder, more vulnerable and even naive these days.  But the benefits greatly outweigh the costs of self-protection.

  • Empathy heals. The scientific evidence is in. Empathy enhances well-being in ways we are just beginning to understand.
  • Empathy brings people together – it is one of the great “joining” emotions. Empathy is an essential ingredient in advancing trust and understanding in relationships, working collaboratively and creatively with others and illuminating mighty conflicts and tiny misunderstandings.
  • Empathy feels better than being angry and fearful – when we hold back our empathic impulses we  inevitably close ourselves down.  Emotions are meant to flow (the root word of emotion comes from the Latin words, e’movere, meaning to moveout). Emotions are meant to move! Blocking our impulses carries a price tag – you cannot simply shut down the flow of one emotion without impacting others.

Ultimately, the greatest gifts of empathy come not simply from understanding the other person’s feelings, but what it does for you in the short – and long-term.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
Join our mailing list and receive our occasional mailings!



  1. Karen Hirsch says:

    Dear Louise and George,
    Once again a wonderfully helpful and thought/feeling-provoking posting.
    A few unedited thoughts – sorry for the length of this thinking out loud.
    Re your posting and Pema Chodrin’s encouragement to aim toward North Star of being open and receptive to “whatever is arising” – thoughts, feelings, etc. As Pema said, this really needs to include emotions that aren’t “comfortable” to experience.
    Ahn Huong, the wonderful niece of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, encourages us to develop a quality of awarness/ consciousness that is like a tender, loving mother who can ever so gently “cradle” especially these “unpleasant” feelings.
    Re “anger” in particular: I’m increasingly concerned about how some of the deepest spiritual teachings seem to me to consider anger “bad”. My concern is that when we label any emotion “bad” how can we possibly give it the loving-mother gentle cradling that will allow it to arise out of us and into the light.
    In my experience, the more gentle and loving the light of awareness, the more I can step back and hopefully learn from what I’m feeling. What triggered the anger, how was I perceiving and interpreting, what were my underlying beliefs,etc.
    If we can’t give “anger” this spaciousness of awareness because we think it’s a failing that we even feel angry, then what happens to the energy of it. Suppression? Confusion? Unintended distortion re understanding and assessing what’s going on? Depletion?
    Of course, I understand completely that sometimes an emotion is so strong that we wisely, intuitively sense we’ll feel overpowered if we allow it to arise full-blown at the moment. If so, there are other “strategies” that can be wisely chosen, i.e. distraction – that is, putting our attention somewhere else.
    There is a Huge distinction for me between allowing ourselves to feel anger and acting out on it. I think this distinction becomes blurred in some teachings so that people think it’s a sign of not being “evolved spiritually” if one feels, i.e. anger. I say that in this increasingly intense world it’s entirely understandable to experience anger arising at various times.
    Much more on this, but not now.
    Thanks for listening:-).
    Karen Hirsch

  2. Louise says:

    Dear Karen,
    Think away….we love it when you think “out loud.”
    Re: Pema Chodron’s teachings on allowing emotions to arise without judgement….this takes experience, first and foremost with recognizing our emotions (especially the “triggered” reoccuring ones)and noticing what thoughts activate them, and what beliefs are behind those thoughts.
    But you are so right that our “attitude” towards those emotions is the key to making the subtle shifts over time. We can judge empathy as harshly as we judge anger – and understanding the drivers within us is key.
    There are so many aspects to the “fight or flight” emotions – anger and fear that must be unraveled before we can SEE them objectively (if we ever really can). Because of the neural habituation of those emotions (so closely linked to hormonal responses) sometimes we have to adapt interim “strategies” to decouple our kneejerk reactivity.
    This is often very difficult in high pressure high stake circumstances like the workplace. All the more reason though, to begin the process. Becoming more empathetic regarding OURSELVES is the place to start.
    Thx again for all your rich insights,
    Louise & George

Leave a Reply