Self-Empathy & Self-Compassion – Compassion Training 4

Self-empathy. Self-compassion. What’s the difference between these terms? I’ve been curious about this, and so it’s time to explore.

I first heard of the concept of self-empathy when I went to my first Nonviolent Communication (NVC) workshop in Seoul. At that time, the term empathy was foreign to me, let alone the concept of self-empathy. Sure, I had felt and offered empathy at points in my life, but I don’t think I had a word for it.

That’s the power of words. They can help you see things for the first time. That being said, words are also precarious things. When used as labels, they are limiting. They shade the truth and the essence of who and what things truly are. But as a language teacher and learner, I appreciate the depth of understanding a word provides.

Interestingly, it seems that not too long ago, the English language went on a search for this word. English users had a sense of empathy, but didn’t have a word for it until 1909 when it was coined by the American psychologist, Robert Titchener. I wonder if the fact that English speaking cultures now have a word for empathy that they can start understanding and feeling it a bit more. Something to ponder.

But back to self-empathy. I was intrigued by this concept the moment I heard about it. The idea that I could be there for myself during hard times without needing the support of anyone else was a huge relief. The way I understood self-empathy through NVC was that when I felt conflicted, all I had to do was acknowledge the feelings that were coming up, and connect them to needs that weren’t being met at the moment. This simple awareness was enough to remove a few bricks from my shoulders. Bricks I had been carrying for quite some time.

Giving up bricks #redthumbforlove
Giving up my bricks #redthumbforlove

As Mark Coleman describes self-empathy, it’s as if you are receiving empathy from someone, except you are that other person.

“Put yourself in their shoes offering that to you. Imagine you’re like a third person viewing yourself from that distance.”

These days, however, thanks to the work of Kristin Neff and other emotion researchers, the term self-compassion is being used in psychology literature and media. To understand the difference between self-empathy and self-compassion, it’s helpful to understand the contrast between their roots, and another close friend: sympathy. I’m only bringing him in because when I present the idea of compassionate communication to teachers, they often raise this question: what’s the difference between empathy, sympathy, and compassion? I love this question because the difference is very important to make. For clarity on compassion and empathy, I refer to the excellent reports by The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:

Compassion – Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Empathy – Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

To help clarify the difference between empathy and sympathy, I highly recommend this short piece by RSA Shorts and Brené Brown.

Considering these definitions, I think the difference is that self-empathy helps me tune in to what I am feeling, and if I extend it to NVC terms, what I am needing. These can be positive or *negative experiences. When in self-empathy, I am simply aware of what’s going on inside me.

Empathy is a component of compassion, but what differentiates compassion is the desire to do something about the suffering. When my empathy is extended into action, I’m now feeling compassion. This then would mean that when I’m in self-compassion, I’m taking active steps to relieve my suffering.

Maybe these terms aren’t different at all. I think the act of acknowledging one’s feelings and needs is in itself an act of compassion. Perhaps this whole exploration is simply a matter of semantics. Another example of why it’s important to look beyond words. Because when we really tune in, it’s the silence and stillness that truly connects. Words are no longer needed.


  • If you are a teacher curious about self-compassion, or want to learn more about how self-compassion relates to you, please “like” our Self-Compassion for Teachers Facebook page for information and inspiration. You’ll also get an explanation about the red thumb you see holding the brick in the picture.
  • This post is a continuation of my blog Compassion Training blog series. Although this post doesn’t talk about the impact of compassion on teaching, the intention of the series is to make this connection.
  • For self-compassion practices online, please check out Kristin Neff’s exercises and guided meditations, as well as the resources offered at Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.

*  The more intimate we are with our emotions, the more adept we’ll be in both containing and expressing them, so that their presence serves rather than hinders us and those with whom we’re in contact. In this sense, there are no unwholesome or negative emotions—only unwholesome or negative things we do with them. Emotional intimacy allows us to make the best possible use of all our emotions—and it enhances the relationship. – Robert Augustus Masters, Emotional Intimacy (scroll down to “Introduction: Into theHeart of Emotion”)


14 thoughts on “Self-Empathy & Self-Compassion – Compassion Training 4

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights about empathy/compassion/sympathy — Definitely going to share out the video as well :)
    The focus of my Bachelor of Education degree was in ‘social and emotional’ learning (SEL) – and I definitely see these lessons being of value within the education system… SEL is beginning to play an even larger role within schools :) it is great to see!!


    1. Dear Sarah,

      Thank you so much for stopping by and letting me know how this resonated with you. I have read a few of your posts and will definitely be adding some to the page. And by the way, thank you for “liking” it. :)

      I am very curious to know more about your perspective on how you see SEL playing a larger role in schools. I teach in Korea, and so I don’t have my finger on the pulse of education in Canada (where I’m from), and often wonder about it. I am really excited to hear more about this. If you have written a specific post about it, please link it here. :) And I’d also love to read more about SEL. Are any specific articles I should read or educators I should follow?

      Thank you so much for your encouragement and inspiration!

      PS. I just added to the page. :)


      1. Hi Josette! I definitely have articles and book titles I can pass your way//educators to follow :) I will compile a list and send them your way!

        In terms of SEL playing a larger role in schools…. I feel it is about really creating a school culture that supports SEL… that there is a SEL specific language that students and staff understand and can use… that SEL is directy taught and indirectly infused into daily practice. I also think there needs to be opportunity to get family and community involved, so that hopefully the skills and strategies can become part of the family life as well…

        I will probably have more to say about this in a day or two ahah but off the top of my head those are my thoughts :)


        What does SEL look like in Korea (So cool you are teacher overseas by the way)


    1. Dear Fabiana,

      Thank you so much for your words of encouragement. They truly mean a lot, especially as I begin this new adventure into writing about this topic.

      I feel grateful to meet you, another teacher who connects to the importance of this.

      Hugs back!



  2. Thank you so much for writing this post. I wonder a lot about empathy and compassion and how these relate to my teacher-self. In the end, I guess it’s all about connection, which teachers can sense is integral to learning.
    Self-empathy and self-compassion I’m not sure on still. When no action can be taken, and only presence is required, does that mean I’m not practicing self-compassion? Is taking action to relieve suffering always necessary? Just some of the questions that come up for me.
    Back to the teaching world, words seem to have a lot of power with teachers. Labeling things like motivation, connection, even learning styles inspires people to try and find out more about them and experiment with them. Maybe this can be a good thing if it’s done critically (and with a red thumb).
    (I guess this comment is sort of scattered and might not make much sense.)


    1. Scattered is fun. It’s how I make sense of things so I appreciate it when others bring scattered thoughts into my life. And you always make me think. I like that.

      Yes. Connection. Absolutely. I couldn’t said it better so thank you for saying that. Without connection, it is very hard to learn. Empathy and compassion can only bring us closer to such connections.

      I love your questions! I think they really get to the root of the confusion I felt with these two words. To your first question — When no action can be taken, and only presence is required, does that mean I’m not practicing self-compassion? — my answer might look like this: I think presence is an action, at least the type of presence I am trying to cultivate these days in my meditation. In order for me to be present, I need to make a conscious choice to be. This must constitute as action. For example, yesterday I bumped my head on the fridge door, and I immediately started berating myself. Because of my meditation practice, I was reminded to take a step back and watch myself in that moment. Instead of being swept up in the swearing, I looked at it and acknowledged the pain, and also the old pattern of swearing like a sailor. This must be an action.

      Then to your second question – Is taking action to relieve suffering always necessary? – in light of what I wrote above, it depends on what you consider an action. I don’t think it’s possible to move through the world without action. The difference simply might be whether I am conscious of it or not. Perhaps conscious action provides healing. Lots to ponder.

      “Labelling things like motivation, connection, even learning styles inspires people to try and find out more about them and experiment with them. Maybe this can be a good thing if it’s done critically (and with a red thumb).” Yes and yes. Words exist for a reason: to tell a story and to move us into action. The trick again, is not to get swept away by them. They are not absolute. Red thumbs and a critical eye would surely help us see this. :)

      Always a pleasure Anne. <3


  3. Josette, Thank you for your insightful post. It is indeed more than semantics as you probably know from experience. Neuroscience research now shows us that empathy and compassion are processed in different regions of the brain. There are large implications for this. There may be more accessible resources out there, but this is one that comes to mind. I was blessed to attend a lovely presentation on this last fall by some leading neuroscientists and compassion researchers if you ever want to have a “chat”. Again I really appreciate your post here.
    L&L <3 Nanette

    Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2012). Empathic distress fatigue rather than compassion fatigue? Integrating findings from empathy research in psychology and social neuroscience. In B. Oakley, A. Knafo, G. Madhavan, D. Wilson (Eds.) , Pathological altruism (pp. 368-383). New York, NY US: Oxford University Press.


    1. Nanette, thank you so much for reading and for leaving helpful information. Your comment brought to mind the Joan Halifax, On Being podcast I heard recently. I recommend listening from 18min to about 24min. She talks about compassion fatigue and empathic distress. Her approach and explanations bring me clarity.

      Realizing the difference between empathy and compassion is what brought me to this exploration of self-empathy and self-compassion. The semantic resemblance only started to take root once I brought the self in. I’m curious to know your thoughts on how these might be different, especially in light of the description I offered. I haven’t been able to find literature on the difference and that is partly why I am exploring. Another part of me wants to chalk it up to semantics because the essence of care, is care. I don’t like the idea of labeling getting in the way. That being said, I am a teacher. :)

      Again, your thoughts are greatly appreciated. :)


      1. Dear Josette and all,

        One of the great challenges of fleshing out any useful differentiation between empathy and compassion is that they are often used interchangeably. However, they are not quite the same and for us as educators, I have found understanding this difference incredibly helpful. This is a very simple way of looking at empathy and compassion but this is how I currently understand it after having listened to Prof. Dr. Tania Singer director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig.

        We have the potential to be in one of three inner states. This has more to do with our state of “being” rather than with our “doing”. We can move along this pathway from emotional contagion where we “catch” emotions from another person but don’t recognize it as the other’s emotions and not our own. Next we move from that into empathy where we share the emotion with another although we recognize it is their emotion-we feel what they feel. From here we can then move into compassion which is where we feel for someone, we are concerned for them and their welfare but do not experience the same level of emotion that they do. I am working on this.

        As one who perhaps is naturally empathetically wired, moving from empathy to compassion is, quite literally, saving my life. I now recognize that I can be even more effective for my students, colleagues, family, friends, and the world by moving from empathy to compassion. It is keeping me out of perpetual cycles of burnout, isolation, regeneration, and reengagement. When we empathize with another there is no difference in the physiological stress and strain our bodies experience. Our hearts hurt. And for teachers and other “carers” we are typically very often invested deeply in a large number of lives. So this is where I am at this part of my journey. I have really come to appreciate Loving Kindness/Metta meditation. It allows me to be compassionate to myself so that I can be compassionate and serve others out of abundance rather than deficit. I am not distancing myself from others or their pain, but I can be with them in their struggles more effectively. I am much healthier physically, emotionally, and spiritually aw well.

        I am not quite sure how this squares with Brené Brown’s video clip. I love all things Brené Brown but here perhaps the semantics on what compassion is count. Perhaps we have different understandings of the word. I am not sure and I know I am still in process as well.

        Thank you for providing the space to share in our journeys Josette. You are doing good in the world!

        I think perhaps you have posted this before, but I will again. This is the free e-book on Compassion edited by Tania Singer (mentioned above) and Mattias Bolz. Joan Halifax contributes a few sections here as well. Absolutely love that On Being podcast. I have listened to it a dozen times and each time I glean something fresh.

        Love and ligt,


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