Having empathy for ourselves – respecting our own pace



I saw this on Twitter today (thanks to Elisha Goldstein), and couldn’t resist putting it on the blog (a much-needed bit of optimism in a world dominated by pessimism), since it seems to fit so well with where I am in my head – we all struggle to move forwards, and need encouragement to keep going when we feel that we’re slipping (as I so often do). We are much harder on ourselves than we are on others it seems to me – when I think about how I would react to someone else’s backsliding, I realise how much more tolerant I am of the weaknesses of others than I am of my own.

I have pointed this out to friends when they are berating themselves for their own short-comings, when they’re telling themselves that they should do this, or they shouldn’t have done that – if a friend said that, what would your response be? Their immediate reaction is to be forgiving and kind, to try to understand, to want to help, to show empathy……….but we tend not to do this when it comes to ourselves. And yet the evidence shows that if we can be kind to ourselves, and show self-compassion, we are likely to be much kinder to other people – charity, as the old saying goes, begins at home.

Speaking of empathy……

Having empathy for ourselves – respecting our own pace

I also think that there is a more serious point here – something about the need to regroup from time to time, to consolidate our gains and take a rest, before we continue the climb. We can’t keep pushing relentlessly forward with change – it has a pace of its own, and if we push too hard, we risk falling apart. It is a process, and it takes as long as it takes for any particular person – my process is not the same as yours. We are unique individuals, and we must be allowed to change at a speed that works for us.

Long-term work with clients works for exactly this reason – it allows them to go at the speed that feels right for them, to decide that they don’t need help, and aren’t going to turn up for a few weeks, to then realise that perhaps they do after all want to continue with the work, to take long breaks as they become stronger – in short, to dictate the pace themselves. Just like a child who slowly gains his independence from his mother, the client can gradually move further and further from the therapist’s ‘knee’, and make their way out into the world on their own two, by then, well-grounded feet. However, this has sadly become a luxury that few clients are lucky enough to experience, and the all-too-common situation now is ‘time-limited’ work – something that in the case of someone struggling with core shame is not likely to be very helpful.


Thank you to Colette Bonar and Twitter for this

 When we try to reach out and it doesn’t quite work……

So going back to ‘reaching out‘ – trying to increase our social connections – we must respect our own pace, and if we try something, and find it doesn’t work, remember the picture at the top of this post – maybe we’re backing up to take a run at it next time! My late therapist used to say that ‘life is what happens while you’re making other plans’, and I have found that to be painfully true. We all make plans to do things – small things like deciding to buy fragrant, ripe tomatoes for a salad, and when we get to the shop, they only have pale, tasteless, pointless tomatoes; or big things, like planning a trip abroad, and the planes are grounded due to a volcano puffing smoke and ashes into the stratosphere. However, Harry S. Truman said a wonderful thing, and it is often quoted in our house:

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

An example

Imagine that in an effort to reach out to another human being, we make a very brave plan to sit in a different seat in class, in a training group, at the office, or even on the bus, and we find that the person next to whom we are now sitting is not at all how we imagined them to be – making a much-desired connection turns out to be really hard:

  1. We don’t know what to say to them, and there are long, awkward silences.
  2. We try to be amusing, and it falls flat – they don’t get our sense of humour.
  3. They talk all the time, and make us feel stupid.
  4. They are wearing a scent that reminds us of someone else in our lives that we don’t like.
  5. We feel big, or loud, or unattractive sitting near them.

zdm - 1_2

If at first you don’t succeed……

Those of us carrying core shame will immediately assume that this failure to connect with another human being is our fault – there is something wrong with us, the other person has spotted this, and that is why our attempt at connection has failed. We walk away from this encounter feeling terrible – we have dared very greatly, and we have fallen into the black hole of shame. We wanted so much to make a connection with someone, we took a huge risk, and did something that we thought would work, and it didn’t go the way we planned. However, what is actually happening is that we’re seeing the world through the bendy piece of glass of our implicit memory, and we need to ‘back up’ and be kind to ourselves.


Despite how we may feel – an overwhelming desire for the floor to open and swallow us up – the situation is not life-threatening. Remember that nothing is ever wasted - there is always a way to make an opportunity out of a difficulty. Respect your own pace, back up for a moment, and be kind to yourself while you take a break and think back over what actually happened.

An alternative view…….

If we were able to remove the bendy piece of glass from in front of our eyes, we might see the other person, and our interaction with them quite differently:

  1. He is naturally shy and under confident – he found this even harder than we did.
  2. He just doesn’t understand humour – not as uncommon as you might think.
  3. He is insecure, and talks a lot to cover this up – he is grandiose.
  4. Wearing the same scent as someone we don’t like doesn’t make them anything like that person.
  5. He is not very tall, and has issues with his body that we know nothing about.

All of the above points could be true, and our failure to achieve the desired connection with this person could be based, not on our own short-comings at all, but due to circumstances beyond our control – circumstances that may even have more to do with the other person than they do with us. Relationships (connections with others), are two-ended – each of the two people in any relationship puts something of themselves into the interaction – and perhaps you can now see that if both people are looking through their own bendy piece of glass, making a real connection can be very difficult.

An opportunity to learn

However difficult this encounter has been, rather than seeing it as a massive failure, we can see it as an opportunity to learn something. If we accept that we can only go at our own pace, we can show ourselves some compassion by taking the time to think about what really happened. We may realise that to our surprise, we do have the courage to try, even if this time it didn’t work, and we can try again. We may talk to other people who know the person to find out how they see him, and we realise that due to our own bendy piece of glass, our assumptions about him were misguided. Gradually, our perceptions about him become a bit more accurate – we are now able to see what went wrong between us in a more objective way.


Another one from Elisha Goldstein

Whatever has happened, we have learnt something. We have backed up, reconsidered things in the light of what we have learnt, and are now ready to make a running start on our next attempt. This time perhaps, we will judge ourselves a little less harshly if things don’t go to plan – when we notice ourselves assuming that any difficulty is our fault, we might pause, and remember what we learnt on the previous occasion – hang on, maybe it’s not that I’m boring, stupid, unattractive, or unloveable (the one that’s always at the bottom of the pile)! Maybe it’s not just me……….Maybe I’m actually doing really well in my own way……..Maybe things are beginning to go in the right direction………Maybe I can do this…….

And finally, another contribution on self-compassion from Emma Seppala………



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