By Erin Leonard, Ph.D.

People with a strong conscience feel remorse deeply and feel profound shame after a mistake. Most of the time, this is an admirable quality. People who take their mistakes to heart usually glean insight from their blunder and avoid repeating it. Yet, in some instances, a person may spend a great deal of time and energy berating himself or herself regarding a transgression, which causes substantial internal anguish.

Also, the type of person who spends an inordinate amount of time berating himself for a mistake is usually the type who is astutely conscientious of how their actions and words impact others. Unequivocally, this qualifies him as a good person, albeit susceptible to doses of self-persecution after missteps or miscommunications.

As a psychotherapist, I know this type well. They comprise the majority of my clientele, and I am honored to help them regain their peace. The relief they feel when they experience empathy, in addition to insight, is remarkable and it restores their happiness.

Yet, the question clients often ask is, “Why can’t I have empathy for myself?” In order to live life happily and peacefully, a person needs to have empathy for himself. Empathy is not a pity party or a tendency to play the victim. Empathy is a person’s deep understanding of their feelings and the feelings of others in order to make sense of a situation. So, how do people acquire the ability to have empathy for themselves?

Before answering this question, clarification is necessary. Feeling intense and genuine remorse after a mistake is critical. Yet, perseverating about the mistake for days is torture. Having self-empathy allows a person to feel remorse, gain insight, and move on quickly.

Self-empathy is a two-step process. The first step is understanding the feelings that compel the behavior. Feelings fuel behaviors, so they are a good place to start. Ask yourself what were you feeling before you made the mistake? (The hypothetical examples that follow are derived from real situations but modified in order to protect confidentiality).

The first example involves a client who rebuked herself constantly for feeling irritated and impatient with her partner. She believed she was a “bad person” because she felt negatively towards someone she was supposed to love. The first step in greater understanding was deciphering why she was feeling irritated and angry towards him. As she talked about the relationship, it was apparent that her partner wasn’t listening to her. For example, she’d ask him to go on social outings with mutual friends, but he never went along. Daily, she’d attempt to strike up a conversation with him, but he rarely wanted to talk. In essence, the closeness in the relationship had vanished over time. So her irritation made sense. It was understandable because, deep down, she was lonely and hurt.

Step two is interpretation. Usually when a person is stuck and can’t move forward after a mistake, it’s because, somehow, it is a repetition of a painful childhood experience.

As therapy progressed, the client talked about her relationship with her father. It became apparent that he, like her partner, had difficulties with closeness. Consequently, the irritation and hurt regarding her partner was intense and emotionally laden because it was a repetition of a childhood wound.

Once she received empathy regarding her hurt and lonely feelings; past and present, she felt immediate relief. The anger dissipated and she was able to constructively convey her feelings to her partner. He responded favorably and the relationship improved.

A second example involved a young woman. Years prior to her entering therapy, she was arrested for shop lifting. Although she took responsibility for the act, paid restitution, and fulfilled her community service hours, she could not let it go. She thought about it constantly, admonishing herself regularly.

As she articulated the circumstances surrounding the incident, it was clear she was in a precarious situation at the time. She had accepted a position at a company across the country and also met her first serious romantic partner. Yet, the partner was volatile and continually threatened to leave her. In addition, the job was not what she anticipated. She recalled feeling lost, anxious, and keenly disappointed. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong way to get help, but once she fully understood the feelings that incited her mistake, she felt genuine relief. Deep understanding did not excuse the act, but it certainly explained why it happened.

During the therapy, the young woman also shared that her parentsseparated shortly after her family had moved into a new home when she was young. She saw one parent sporadically after the move and remembered feeling lost, disappointed and alone. When it dawned on her that the situation that haunted her was a repetition of the same terrible feelings from her childhood, she felt intense consolation.

In essence, self-empathy requires two steps. The first is reflecting on feelings. The second is having an eye on childhood injuries that may create vulnerabilities in the present. When a person has empathy for himself, he is at peace and feels secure, which allows him to stay present and have empathy for his spouse and children. Children who have an empathic parent thrive emotionally. Children with a strong capacity for empathy, hopefully, become parents who provide empathy to their kids. Thus, perpetuating the cycle of character and, hopefully, creating a more peaceful world.