February is such a mushy month. Love in the shape of hearts and flowers (and diamonds) pours predictably out of newspapers, hoardings and malls. It feels like all of Bangalore’s flowering trees choose this month to bloom a joyful pink and red. To me, colour evokes emotion, and February’s palette of love and longing is painted powerfully, glowing soft fuchsia, glittering ruby red or flaming scarlet wherever you look. It’s hard not to be reminded of the Other in your life (or the lack of one). I often feel that with all the energy we give to creating and nurturing relationships with others, we often neglect or ignore a primary relationship – with ourselves. As I’m learning, the quality of your relationship with others is a reflection of the quality of your relationship with yourself. It made me think about self-empathy.
It was the underlying theme at a recent week-long convention I attended in Trivandrum. On the first day, we formed small empathy groups in which new friendships blossomed, stories flowed and warm connections became stronger. Midway through the week, after yet another organic vegetarian lunch, our little group was hungry for some lightness (and sugar), so we joined another group that was in the same mood. In the midst of much laughter and conversation, we demolished a very large slab of gorgeously melted Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Silk chocolate, sighing very contentedly when we were through. I laughingly commented that chocolate works like magic when I need self-empathy – all that sweetness and love wrapped in gold and purple foil is always such a special treat (I spent 6 months last year without chocolate as an experiment – yes, it was awful). Nods and smiles told me I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. And my mind quietly reminded me of the balance I often struggle to maintain – how much is too much and how little is too little? It’s an inner conversation for me that isn’t yet resolved.
We are conditioned to think of ourselves last; it’s a cultural and gender narrative, and for most of us, it is a practice deeply ingrained in our own histories. We expect ourselves to be thoughtful, kind, gracious and generous when it comes to the needs (and wants) of others and we either neglect or deny the warmth of that gesture to ourselves. Shifting that story will bring up feelings of guilt, assessments from others (and yourself) and a constant justification. The why story is important, as you’ll see.
Self-empathy allows us to acknowledge our need in that moment; the practice will slowly help to distinguish between what’s an immediate need (such as rest) and a deeply buried one (such as acceptance). It requires us to be vulnerable, first of all, to ourselves. Since needs come wrapped up tightly in complicated stories, gently probing deeper is your own inner conversation – and asking why helps to ground its authenticity.
Self-empathy out of balance can look like seeking attention or validation and it shows up in different ways. To borrow a phrase from Werner Erhard, if you’re attempting it, then it’s inauthentic. And it will be visible. Self-empathy to me is a wholly private conversation from your heart to your soul. If you hold yourself with the care you give to others, you’re not the only one who will feel the difference. You will embody that practice.
Isn’t that what love is about in the end?