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The Compassionate Path: Embracing Compassion of Self and Others

"Compassion is love's response to suffering."

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Caring is fundamental to our human nature. It is a fundamental pillar upon which our social interactions, our relationships, our societies are built. We human beings are inherently social creatures, wired to seek connection and belongingness. From the tender moments shared between parent and child to the bonds forged between friends and communities, caring fosters a sense of belonging, support, and mutual understanding. It enables us to recognize the needs, emotions, vulnerability, and suffering of others, fostering empathy and driving us to act in ways that alleviate suffering and promote the well-being of those around us. As outlined here, this seems like a pretty straight forward concept. And yet, it's not. Even though our brains evolved to care for our own well-being and that of others, many of us find it difficult to stay present and loving when faced with discomfort. Compassion is a skill; one that we must regularly practice if we are to learn how to better be there for ourselves and care for each other.

Scenario One:

Deana was just wrapping up her conference call when she noticed she had a missed call from her friend Bridget followed by a text message that simply stated: "Mom fail yet again." Deana called her friend who was flustered and sounded as if she had been crying. It was Bridget's daughter's turn to bring the cupcakes for their class AR reading party for the students meeting their AR reading goals. Bridget had not only forgotten to bring the cupcakes, she also had forgotten to even pick up the order. She only remembered when she received a call from the bakery. Bridget criticized herself for being the world's worst parent. Deana reassured her, "We all have those moments. It happens to the best of us." The duo devised a plan to get the cupcakes to the class tomorrow. Deana reassured her friend Bridget what a caring, hardworking mom she is.

Scenario Two:

Deana was just wrapping up her conference call when she noticed she had a missed call from the bakery. The dread hit her. It was her daughter's turn to bring the cupcakes for the class AR reading party. Her daughter was among the students who met the AR goals for the semester. Deana had forgotten to swing by the bakery to pick up the order this morning. Deana's mind raced with self-critical thoughts. "How could you be so stupid! Why can't you get anything right? What would my daughter's classmates think of her now?" Deana couldn't shake the feeling of disappointment in herself, and the more she dwelled on her mistake, the worse she felt. As the minutes ticked by, Deana's anxiety only grew, leaving her feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed by her own self-blame.

Place yourself in scenario one then in scenario two. Which scenario is it easier to muster up compassion? Why do you think that is?

Compassion, An Ugly Truth

The more I deepen my mindfulness studies, the more I realize we were not told the full story on a lot of things, and compassion is one of them. The two scenarios above are simplistic representations of what it is to have compassion for others and for ourselves. However, compassion is much deeper than that. Many of us have a hard time showing patience and compassion towards ourselves because we weren't taught how. The reasoning behind this phenomenon can be varied and deep. For some, it is the cultural idea that self-compassion is selfish and can lead to one becoming self-indulgent. This was echoed in our article, "Muting Your Inner Critic: Learning to Be Kinder to Yourself." That article explored 5 common reasons it can be difficult to be kind to ourselves. There is another reason why compassion is difficult to express towards others but especially towards ourselves. Compassion is love's response to suffering. No one is immune to the rules of life. No matter how lucky you are, how much money you have, how intelligent you are, or even how good of a mediator you are, there will be times in life where you don't get what you want, or you get what you don't want. As earthlings, we are all on borrowed time. We are going to age, get sick, and ultimately die, and that's if we're lucky. Truth is, we sometimes lose those we love much too soon or we ourselves get grievous illnesses or in life altering accidents that leave us questioning, "Why me?" We try to avoid suffering at all costs-which is the opposite of what compassion requires of us to stare it face on.

Compassion, Starts at Home

We make the mistaken assumption that when we speak of compassion, it entails disregarding or sacrificing our own interests. However, there is a deep connection between self-compassion and compassion for others. Compassion starts at home meaning it starts with the Self. In the 15 years that I have been in the behavioral health field, I have found that how people talk to others outside of their own heads tends to lend a clue to how they talk to themselves inside their heads. Even if it starts out well, it doesn't take too long before the cracks begin to show and the mask falls. If we are in the habit of judging and criticizing ourselves harshly, it is only a matter of time before we begin extending the same towards others, even if done in passive ways. Mindfulness meditation shines the spotlight on this. When we start to pay attention to our inner dialogue, we may begin to realize just how much borrowed or inherited self-criticisms, self-limiting beliefs, and harsh judgments carry over from our childhood which we internalized from strict parents, severe teachers, cruel classmates, or even competitive siblings. When we are most under pressure, these harsh vestiges of our pasts appear-taunting, criticizing, belittling. So I ask you dear friends. What is the quality of your invisible conversations with yourselves? Compassion starts at home and there is at least one word that can no longer be welcomed in.

Compassion, Avoid Shoulding Yourself...& Others

In the English language, there is a word with enormous power to create shame and guilt, "should." This word is so deeply engrained in our communication (inward and outward) that we would probably have a hard time living without it. As in, "I should have known better," or "I shouldn't have done that," or "You should have known better," get my drift? Somewhere along the way we are taught to judge ourselves in ways that imply that we are wrong or bad and that we deserve to suffer for what we have done. Even when a lesson is learned, we still judge ourselves harshly. Such shame and guilt are very destructive energies. As mentioned previously, if we are in the habit of judging and criticizing ourselves harshly, it is only a matter of time before we begin extending the same towards others. To be compassionate, we need to avoid shoulding ourselves and others and identify what needs are or are not being met. Some common needs are for safety, trust, respect, autonomy or our right to choose what is important to us, to celebrate dreams fulfilled, to have a sense of meaning and self-worth, to be accepted and have love and support, to play or have fun in enjoyable activities, to appreciate the beauty in life and enjoy peace, and for physical nurturance. Avoiding shoulding ourselves is the first step but there is something more we need to enable us to open the door to our heart space to allow compassion inside.

Compassion, Three Elements Required

Regardless of if the object of your compassion is yourself or others, there are the core components of compassion that we need to get acquainted with. Kindness involves taking a caring stance towards yourself when you feel inadequate, incompetent, or defective in some way. We tend to have a very hard time showing ourselves the same kindness, respect, and empathy that we would offer to a dear friend in distress as outlined in scenarios one and two earlier. Kindness requires us to answer the question: "Can I be my own friend when I most need it?" Once we are triggered, the other element to compassion is common humanity. Imperfection and pain is a part of humanity; they are natural parts of our human experiences. Don't isolate thinking that it's only you. So no, you are not the only one who forgets your child's cupcakes for the party, or misplaces car keys or wallets, forgets an important name/face during critical work meetings or other social engagements, or doesn't understand what is expected in the class project or work project, or forgot an important birthday or anniversary. This list can go on and on. Common humanity requires us to answer the question: "Can I stay connected instead of isolating in this difficulty moment?" The final element or component is one we have been discussing since the turn of the calendar year, mindfulness. We are called upon to notice the suffering, the discomfort without being absorbed in it. Mindfulness requires us to answer the question: "Can I be fully present with this experience of suffering without forgetting that I am larger than it is?" Keeping these three elements in mind helps us have a more balanced attitude. We are not denying or suppressing our emotional pain nor are we allowing it to overtake us, so we are overidentifying with it.

Compassion, Just Like Me

Now that we have some understanding on the elements needed for self-compassion, let's turn it back towards compassion for others. When we judge others, we run the risk of becoming arrogant and closeminded. Remember that common humanity involves that we do not isolate and remember you are not the only one. They too are "just like me." When we are able to pause and recognize our own imperfections, it lends a hand to help us also pause before we automatically judge others. When we try to understand their perspective or even their circumstances better, we suspend our quick judgments and assumptions about them and their character and offer the benefit of the doubt. When we can see every action as an attempt to satisfy a basic human need and to avoid suffering, we begin to crack open the door to caring and compassion. Of course, I'd be remiss to not point out that often the strategies that people use to meet their unmet needs may be off-putting. However, it is important to acknowledge and respect their need. When we are able to reflect on what we need most when we suffer, we increase our awareness of what others might need when they suffer. To understand others and have compassion for them requires that we have time to look deeply. This is exactly what we do when we practice mindfulness-look deeply, noticing what arises, with no judgement.

Just Like Me Mindfulness Practice

When you are out and about over the next week, I would like for you to pause briefly and simply notice the people you encounter. You are going to have automatic opinions to pop into your mind, and that's okay. When that happens, ask those opinions to gently step to the side to give you space to observe. Invite in curiosity toward your observation of others. Do their gestures, behavior, routines, or even irritating ways reveal any vulnerabilities you might have otherwise missed under normal circumstances? Now offer this phrase up: "Just like me, this person wants to be happy. Just like me, this person wants to be free from suffering." Try this same with your partner, children, family, work colleagues, and classmates. Seeing them through the "Just like me" lens may change the perspective with which you have viewed them previously.

I know I wrote a lot here. Sorry about that. Even as I bring this thing to a close, the article feels incomplete somehow. But I will not be critical about that. I am pretty sure there will be other opportunities to talk with you all about compassion. For now, here a few takeaways that I want to close with. There is nothing selfish about self-compassion so you can unlearn that now. In fact, self-compassion is step one in being a more compassionate person. The disdain and lack of compassion you hold towards yourself can only stay hidden for so long before it starts to bubble forth and stain how you regard others. Step one learn how to be compassionate with you. If we were truly using steps, I guess step two here would be to avoid shoulding yourself and others. The shoulds open the floodgates to the negative energies of shame and guilt. Instead of viewing ourselves through a "should" lens, instead lets consider that we all have needs to be met. Once we can accept this, we proceed to step three and open the door to the 3 amigos- kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Then last but definitely not least, step four-remind yourself that they are "just like me." They too want good health, they too want love, they too want respect, they too want a meaningful life, they too want to be free from suffering, just like me. Compassion is a whole skill to developed through practice. It's not happening overnight. So as always please remember, as you begin this journey, do not worry about getting it perfect; just get it going. Until next time. Happy reading!

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"Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity." ~Pema Chödrön


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