09/29/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Empathy for Self and Others: Is it Really Such a Big Deal?


Mindfulness meditation research has concluded that those who participate in a mindfulness program experience an increase in empathy for self and others. Is this really such a big deal? How does being empathetic, defined as the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions, change or improve our lives?

It may be a revelation for some people to consider that having empathy is so important in our lives: For me to really understand how you feel and show you compassion, I need to have been able to feel the same, or similar, feelings and have shown compassion to myself. If I am not kind and compassionate to myself, how can I be those things for you?

It seems so simple, really; yet, it's not. I trip over the curb and say, "I am such a klutz." I answer a question incorrectly in front of a crowd, and call myself an idiot. I realize I make a mistake in trusting someone to do as they had promised, and call myself a fool.

Would we have the same responses to others in the exact same situations? I think not: I think we are generally more kind to others. But, I also think most of us are afraid the negative responses would occur. We don't want to hear laughter at our own expense. And we don't want others treating our actions as the joke of the day.

And what if others believe us to be strong, capable, and smart, but we don't always believe that about ourselves? If others think us to be popular or funny, do we always believe it, too? Do we agree with our public images?

Maybe each person wears a mask for others to see, and it takes some time before letting others see what's behind that mask. Maybe that's what each person looks for in their most significant relationships, and their closest friendships: to be able to shed the masks they wear in front of so many, and become comfortable with the people they really are. Should we only be able to remove those masks in front of a small, select group?

Now, looking back at the increased empathy for self and others that is often experienced as the result of practicing mindfulness; is it that big a deal? I think so. It highlights the value of speaking to and treating ourselves with kindness and compassion. Once we are able to recognize and have patience with our own feelings, even if our feelings are not rational, we are better able to do the same for others. Once we treat ourselves more kindly, we will be more able, more willing, to do the same for others.

We are, generally speaking, not in need of hiding. We can remove our masks and know that, while we are not perfect, we are good enough. We are smart enough, funny enough, and have enough positive attributes that others will see our worth.

And maybe we are perfect: we are the most perfect versions of ourselves that the world has ever seen. We have the potential to grow and change over the years. Yes, we will make mistakes, but we can hope to learn from those missteps and avoid repeating them.

With any luck, we will all realize, sooner than later, that it is essential to have empathy for ourselves, treating our feelings and thoughts with kindness and compassion. And, we can pay that forward, offering everyone who comes within our reach the same.

Dr.Wolbe can be contacted via her website at