In our latest post on Empathy, we reflect on the journey towards self-empathy, which one of us realized after becoming a mother. We learned that working from a place of relaxation is just as effective as working from a place of stress and anxiety. We hope to encourage others to develop self-empathy and provide some resources for those who wish to learn more.
I truly didn’t know this was a thing, and did not realize the level of importance, until the last few years… really this past year. Several factors brought this into focus for me: becoming a mother, taking the Playing Big course (shoutout to Tara Mohr, I learned so much), and having a few episodes of debilitating fatigue that seemed to have no identifiable source. There is so much to unpack here, but parenting struggles and the fatigue episodes uncovered a realization of how stress affects my relationships and my body. On the surface level, I knew this was true, but I did not learn the lesson in a real way until this past year. What I have started learning from Tara, and several other sources (Brené Brown, Dr. Rick Hanson) is that it can be difficult to have empathy for others, until I can extend it to myself. The pressure that I have been putting on myself to excel in my career, to be a “good” parent, and to always "go go go" at 110% is having very real effects on my body.
This was, this is, a big realization. Working to excel has always been an element of my core self, from my earliest days at school. It is a pressure for accomplishment, and deeply tied with that is a pressure for perfection. These needs feel so ingrained in my being, my perception of self, that I often can’t even see it. Most terrifying for me now is the fear that my parenting will cause that need for perfectionism in my daughter. And given my personal experience and a realization that I want my daughter to love herself exactly as she is; I don’t want to pass that on to her.
One of the big questions that Tara asks in her training is: is perfectionism and drive for achievement really serving you? Or said another way, what goal are you actually serving on the “treadmill” of perfection and accomplishment? Is it moving you towards projects that speak to your soul and core values, or is it holding you back or causing you to hide from bigger things? In one of her talks, she spoke about what it feels like to work from a place of relaxation (which is different from rest!). That concept hit a cord for me. I came to identify that I do my best work, and my best thinking, when I’m relaxed. That the “flow” state is one of relaxation, not one of pressure, stress, or anxiety. And as one example, this realization has actually freed me to be able to write, which I had always wanted to do, but felt stuck and unable to do previously.
What I am still learning and incorporating into my life is this concept that I can extend empathy to myself and that doesn’t mean that I’m giving up or giving myself a pass. I can work from a place of relaxation and that doesn’t mean that I’m slacking. That I need to have empathy for myself as a parent, to work on that with intention so that I can extend that empathy for my daughter and ensure that I instill in her the belief that she is worthy of love in any way that she shows up.
And wow, I will tell you — this is hard! It takes attention and repeated effort to not slide back into old habits. I found I was doing it again just the other day when I was feeling tired in the evening (more so than I feel I should, given the day’s activities) and told my husband I was going to wake up early again to get my workout in. And he just looked at me like “What are you talking about… why would you do that?” And I realized, "oh, yeah, I’m pushing myself unnecessarily and not listening to what my body is telling me" (so I didn’t wake up early, I let myself get rest).
Here is another clue about empathy: we know that listening and understanding others is critical to fostering empathy. So the lesson I’m learning is that having empathy for myself is actively listening and understanding myself.
Feels like a simple concept, but one that has taken me a long time and hard work to get to.
I’d like to bring Brian’s voice in here, as I’m curious about others’ paths or experiences with self-empathy:
We’re a bit different here, and I think that’s illustrative. I’ve always held myself and my work to a high standard, but I’ve never been highly ambitious — so I don’t relate significantly to the way Chloe describes the pressure to succeed. More often, I find my natural voice to myself and others is about accepting what is, about “less is more”, and about going with the flow.
What I find interesting is that my growth area is listening to (having empathy towards?) the part of me that is more ambitious, and more achievement-oriented. I do have “fire” inside, although I’m maybe less familiar with it. Cultivating and recognizing my goals and values has become more important to me as I age and my time gets squeezed.
I think self-empathy and knowledge are often about recognizing the variety of voices and impulses we have within ourselves. We are complicated beings! It is through empathy that I can see I am both intense and relaxed, both introverted and extroverted, and both confident and insecure.
Empathy for self is a journey, and I am so grateful to have discovered this path. I am hopeful that through deliberate practice, empathy for clients, my family, and myself will come as easily as the empathy I have for the users I study. Some of the clues and conclusions that we came to as Brian and I wrote this reflective series already feel like helpful wayfinding points on my path, anchors to recall if I feel like I’m slipping backward.
I also have a hope that in sharing these reflections those of you out there that feel a connection to some of what we’re saying can also move onto this path with us. I am wishing for you all that you start to realize that you are enough, you are doing enough, and you don’t need to push yourself to exhaustion to do great things. That you can learn and improve and achieve and also speak to yourself in a loving way. Taking a page from my favorite Peloton instructor Robin Arzon, if no one has told you that you’re doing a good job today, let me be the first one. You are doing a good job, you are enough. ❤️
Resources I’ve found particularly helpful on this journey so far:
If you haven’t already, check out the previous posts in our empathy series.
Exploring Empathy Part 1: An Introduction to the Series
Exploring Empathy Part 2: Empathy for Users
Exploring Empathy Part 3: Empathy for Clients
Published on March 10, 2023