Self-Empathy as Self-Care

Like so many families, we just finished week three of online school. I say “we” because completing five hours of online assignments and video calls daily is not something that first graders manage on their own. Overall, it’s going well. My daughter has established a solid connection with her empathetic teacher, and she has completed all the assignments on time. I won’t go into the downsides, albeit I don’t know any parent who isn’t witnessing a surge of meltdowns, argumentativeness, and frustration. Teachers and social workers are providing self-care resources for families—articles for parents, age-appropriate videos for kids, daily yoga practice online, and mindful breathing opportunities. This Friday, Eleanor’s teacher showed her class a “self-care” video and then asked the kids to share how they are taking care of themselves. Their wise answers included playing with friends, running outside, picking fresh fruit and veggies, drinking water, taking breaks from school work, and walking a labyrinth. As I overheard the conversation, I first thought to myself: “They are learning life lessons that might strengthen their resilience for years to come.” And then I chuckled to myself, “Actually they could be doing video clips for Retreat Where You Are!” I’m incredibly grateful for educators, therapists, life coaches, and others who buoy us all up with life-giving and life-sustaining practices like these and I am grateful for the kids who, in small and big ways, remind us of goodness, truth, and beauty.

Many years ago, I learned a self-care practice that has sustained me again and again. Self-empathy, one of the skill-sets in compassionate communication (also known as Nonviolent Communication), might sound overly introspective at first. More than one shame-ridden theology student of mine first considered self-empathy a kind of sinful turn inward only to later embrace it as a practical way to love yourself so that you can love your neighbor. Simply put, self-empathy involves caring attunement to our own core needs and values. While it is particularly helpful in conflicted relationships, high-stress situations, or volatile socio-political contexts, it’s also a regular daily practice that sharpens our self-knowledge and strengthens our connections to self, others, and God. When we practice self-empathy, we are less likely to internalize others’ judgments, accusations, criticisms—all of which can contribute to burnout and depression. We are less likely to spew out resentment, bitterness, and dehumanizing vitriol. We are more likely to act with integrity (in congruence with our values) and to make choices that contribute to a whole host of human needs (ours and others’).

Needs, understood here, are qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life and include things like meaning, authenticity, shelter, play, rest, peace, honesty, wholeness, hope, peace, mutuality, belonging, and community. Needs also are the underlying motivation for our choices, whether we are conscious of them or not. We all are trying to meet our needs and others’ needs, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, sometimes in ways that care for both self and others and sometimes not. In any case, all human beings share needs in common, though their meaning and potency vary from person to person and culture to culture. (Thus, we can never presume to know fully the relevance of another person’s or group’s needs.)

Understanding, identifying and connecting with needs: this is the core of self-empathy.

In our book, Transforming Church Conflict, my colleague Deborah Hunsinger and I wrote this about self-empathy:

“Most often, we practice self-empathy after we hear, see, or remember something that brings up strong, negative feelings in us. We might feel sharp stab of hurt, the boiling up of anger, intense anxiety, or a feeling of being overwhelmed.”

For example, if you are arguing with your life partner daily and feeling exasperated, then you might be experiencing a host of unmet needs. Depending on the context, you might be needing peace, ease, understanding, solidarity or companionship. If you are living through a pandemic, working full-time from home, and helping your children with online school daily, then you might be acutely needing equanimity, security, stability, support, rest, inner strength, hope, or more. I imagine that the kids in my daughter’s class need a learning community, play, exercise, a mix of structure and spontaneity, and meaningful connection with peers and teachers. Given that their needs are not being met in the same ways that they used to be met (or are being met insufficiently), it’s important to help them find ways to do so. The same goes for ourselves.

Once we identify our needs in self-empathy, we can consider actions to take to meet those needs. Options may become apparent as we more deeply connect with what matters most to us in any particular situation. We can make choices aligned with our values. And, we can learn to pray for God to meet us in our authentic need. Rather than rattling off a to-do list for the Divine, we pray about what matters most to us, what gives us life, what we long for in our relationships and in the world. And we remember to trust that God satisfies our needs, because God is Love.


*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)


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