“Empathy is only possible when one has achieved self-awareness—as one cannot understand others until they understand themselves.” Daniel Goleman
A big part of the empathy training, mentoring and consultancy work that I do is based on this. It is something I have invested in over the years, studied and actioned. It is now something that I support others to do, as they optimise their empathic abilities.
This report from Psyche Central highlights a study done on 161 adult participants aged 20 to 55 on this very thing and how knowing ourselves helps our perspective taking and understanding of others…key aspects of empathy.
The report states that:
When we are taught to identify and understand our own inner parts, or sub-personalities — such as the “inner manager” or the “inner child” we become far more understanding of the mental states of others, essentially increasing our levels of social intelligence and empathy.
For three months, 161 adult participants aged 20 to 55 were split into two groups and taught how to develop their perspective-taking skills through a variety of methods. The training was based on the Internal Family Systems model which views the self as being composed of different complex inner parts, each with its own defining set of behaviours, thoughts and emotions.
In this approach, each part may be identified as having a healthy and productive role or an extreme role, but each is still validated and recognised as important.
During the study, participants were taught to identify and label their own sub-personalities, as well as those of others. The findings show that after training, the participants could easily identify prototypical inner parts such as “the inner manager” or “the inner child” in their own personalities.
The degree to which participants improved their understanding of themselves, as reflected in the number of different inner parts they could identify, directly correlated with how well they improved in terms of their own flexibility and ability to accurately infer and understand the mental state of others.
In fact, the more negative inner parts they could identify in themselves, the better their awareness and understanding of other people’s negative frames of mind.
“There is a close link between getting better in understanding oneself and improvement in social intelligence,” said Dr. Anne Böckler of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science. Böckler conducted the study with Julius Maximilians University Würzburg in Germany.
The realization that people who learn to better identify negative aspects of themselves are better able to understand others has interesting implications for our ever-changing world, according to the researchers.
“This insight could prove important in an increasingly complex and interconnected world where taking the view of others, especially those from different cultures or with different religious backgrounds, becomes ever more difficult — and ever more necessary,” Böckler said.
The study suggests that taking the time to identify and understand our own inner mental states holds promise in therapeutic as well as non-clinical settings, all of which aim to foster psychological health and social intelligence.