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Taming That Inner Critic: Practising Empathy & Self-Compassion

A good way to practice empathy is to take a situation that may have caused you pain or to be confused before, and see if by using the components of empathy, you can learn something new about the situation.

When I was writing the class on the components of empathy, I decided to try it out on the following experience and what it did is give me a fresh perspective, which can actually leave you at peace:

When I was 20, I worked for clothing shop in Dublin after returning from spending my first summer in America. To give a little background – I had come back and decided that I hated the degree that I had never wanted to be on in the first place and decided to work while I figured out my next move. It had gone down badly with my mother and there were some other things going on at home, so all things combined, I was feeling more than a little vulnerable.

While working there for two months, it became apparent that my manager, a guy, didn’t like me. He made sure to give me the crappiest tasks, which to be fair, I didn’t mind doing, but he was rude and made veiled racist comments. It wasn’t my dream job but it didn’t stop me from making an effort to be on time and to muck in with everyone. If anything I was a little quiet and intimidated and that may have given the impression I was aloof. I became increasingly self-conscious especially when other staff members were there, as he would then pretend to be super nice which was confusing. I told my mother about how rude he was being and she told me that maybe it was because of how my hair was styled, or that I didn’t smile enough. She said I needed to try harder.

So off I went back to work, trying out different hairstyles and trying to smile through the gut wrenching days while people pleasing. The racist digs and general rudeness continued and on a couple of occasions he flirted with me. One day, he spent the whole day jeering me and I suddenly saw him for how pathetic he was, and even though my self-esteem was more than a little wobbly, after he paid me my wages with yet another snide remark, he said “See you tomorrow Natalie” and I responded with “Not if I see you first asshole!” and with that, I turned and walked off out the door. I caught a glimpse of him in the window open mouthed. It was the last time I saw him. He even called to apologise and I refused the calls. I didn’t care about getting a reference either. But I did take the situation to heart on another level, feeling rejected but also like I’d ‘failed’ at the job.

After listening to my own story, I recognised that I was in a tricky place at that time in my life. Young, unsure of myself, eager to please, not great at dealing with criticism anyway, and trying to show I was responsible by having a job. I recognised that it was an untenable situation though – how was I going to work in a job where the man degraded me day after day? I also recognised that in spite of how wrong the situation was, I did wonder what I had done, and also thought that I could do things to my appearance that might stop what was actually illegal behaviour on his part. When I ask myself what I was going through then or how I was feeling, I can point to a myriad of emotions that were arising from both the situation and things at home. I was scared, insecure, worried about pissing off my parents, worried about looking immature, worried I’d misunderstood, and convinced that my Eau de Not Good Enough was wafting strongly.

Putting up with criticism on a daily basis was familiar territory for me… it had just moved from home to work.

Can I empathise with his position? I think he was young, ignorant and on a power trip. I was so busy being an appeaser and obviously trying to keep my job, I doubt he had any idea how much he upset me. That doesn’t justify or excuse his behaviour though – he was out of order and he recognised I was a susceptible target because I didn’t tell him to jog on or report him.

What I do learn upon processing this situation now, is that you cannot nice your way out of assholic behaviour. You can shut it down by walking away or standing up for yourself where appropriate, but trying to please the unpleasable or someone who you have no business trying to please anyway? Hell no!

I know this, because a not too dissimilar situation happened a few years later with a work colleague, and I handled the situation better and quicker, but it still did mess with my head. I can now separate their behaviour from mine and not judge me so harshly or at all – really all I could have done differently in each situation is either have the same surgery that Michael Jackson did, use skin bleach, or nip it in the bud sooner, and the truth is, the outcome (leaving) would have been the same. Practising boundaries means that I don’t bust mine by saying that what he did was my fault – there is no direct line of my actions that correlates to what he does and explains it. What I do feel is very compassionate towards me and I want to give ‘old me’ a hug. I was very judgmental and I didn’t even appreciate the strength that I had in facing both of those situations. I bumped into someone from that retail job – me doing what I did encouraged someone else to be brave and leave. He was also eventually sacked.

If any other person came and told me this story, I would feel compassionate and be totally in their corner. I wouldn’t be wondering what they’d done wrong. Even if you’ve messed up a few times at work, it does not justify someone treating you in a reprehensible manner. Likewise, even if you feel less than perfect (yeah aren’t we all?) and that you’ve made mistakes (again haven’t we all), it does not in any way shape or form legitimise someone else’s poor behaviour. It’s also important to recognise that even if you recognise your mistakes, you must also recognise even small acts of where you have done good for you.

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Now take a situation where you haven’t been compassionate and empathetic towards you, write out the short story version of it, read your own story back to you and listen to how you feel. Connect with who you were at that time and instead of judging you and continuing a habit of being your harshest critic, instead, listen with love and empathise with you. Consider your age at the time, the situation, other things that were happening, what you would say/think for instance if your child or a friend or someone else you love was going through the same thing. Would you judge them? Yeah I thought not.

And tell yourself something nice afterwards. Say it out loud. Even better, say it in the mirror while looking yourself in the eye and give yourself a hug. Repeat as necessary.

Also check out the class: Getting To Grips With Empathy

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