How do we create compassion for others?
I was on the Hunt for this answer & did a long self-reflection while writing this article. I discovered 2 things we need before we can express compassion to others.
1. FEELING SAFETY & ACCEPTANCE. 2. HARNESSING OUR THREAT RESPONSE.
It turns out that feeling safe is a precondition to activating biological systems that promote compassion.” – UC Berkeley on the Science of Compassion –
We need to feel safe before we can express compassion to others OR ourselves. Before that, however, WE GOTTA TALK ABOUT WHAT STANDS IN ITS WAY: OUR THREAT RESPONSE.
We can’t create safety when we feel threatened.
When something hits us in the most vulnerable place in our body, we feel threatened. Someone says something they think is neutral, but we: take it personally, see it as a judgement on ourselves, think they don’t like us…
These types of interpretations cause us to FEEL we are under attack. We go into protection mode. We spurt out a storm of self-defensiveness or anger (internally or externally).
Our brain is screaming – DANGER! The lions are circling, and the sympathetic nervous system is ON. The amygdala has taken over, and there’s no logic now.
Now we start projecting. This is how it’s always going to be. We’re suddenly a fortune teller and can see the future laid out before us. Now (we think) there is only one option; darkness (ok, maybe that last bit is just me – my inner artist can get a bit intense).
The Shut-Down, Protection, THERE-IS-NO-SAFETY-HERE Script goes something like this:
- The same stuff that’s happening now (insert your interpretation here – “I’ll be left alone, no one likes me,” etc…) will continue to happen forever.
- I have no control,
- I am helpless to stop it,
- How can I get out of this?
- I’m going to run away, quit everything, and live alone forever.
These are just some examples of how we shut down to create safety (& what usually causes us to over-identify with our emotions). These strategies are called thought distortions. You might have heard of some of them: fortune-telling, black & white thinking, negative mental filter & etc…
We use these strategies as a means of self-protection or to create safety, but what they really create is pain by adding fuel to the confusion & fear we already feel when we sense a threat.
So how do we create safety in threat mode?:
- Observe our reactions – not judging them or ourselves for having them.
- Acknowledge what’s going on. Watch that we aren’t identifying with or making the feelings mean something about our character or worth.
- Invite some understanding (& thereby self-compassion) instead: “Ok, wow, I’m feeling a lot right now. I need a moment to process this.”
- When the emotion of the moment has passed, ask some neutral questions: “What’s going on there? Why am I interpreting stuff this way?” (again, no judgement, just curiosity).
- We can dig a bit deeper and ask; What are we afraid is going to happen? What are we afraid to lose; a relationship, a job, our position, love, self-respect, respect of others…?
- Look for more practical solutions. Ask about ways to deal with & heal the hurt that’s caused the (over)reaction.
Notice by creating safety, we just harnessed threat & exercised self-compassion at the same time? COOL.
Accepting what other people feel.
Compassion is a two-way street. If we can’t be compassionate toward ourselves, we can’t be compassionate toward others. Take judgement, for example. No matter how much we think we are a kind, empathetic person to others, if we judge ourselves harshly, we judge others too.
It’s all happening at a level we aren’t aware of. Often that judgement comes out on those who are the least threatening people in our lives, our closest family members. Self-compassion is a pre-requisite for ‘others-compassion.’
A few years ago, I discussed something with my husband that remains with me to this day. We had a heavy talk about what was holding him back in his career at the time.
He concluded that he didn’t see the value he adds.
After our talk, he couldn’t think.
Like 2 hours later, we were in the store; he couldn’t decide what to get. He had to let me decide everything and stood in the freezer section staring at nothing beyond the frosty doors.
In the past, my reaction would’ve been ungracious and judgemental. Probably wondering when he was ever going to get past his stuff (because yup, you guessed it, that’s what I’d say to myself). But I had been practising self-compassion.
I knew you couldn’t have compassion for others till you have it for yourself.
Looking at him in the freezer section frozen in fear, I saw only someone who needed help instead of judgment. I felt what he felt because I’d been allowing myself not only to KNOW but to ACCEPT that I’d been frozen in the aisles too. My heart melted for another human being.
I knew I was finally feeling compassion for myself because I could feel it for him. It wasn’t scary to be scared anymore – it was just human.
Compassion for others was showing up.
I knew I’d turned a corner from SAFETY TO ACCEPTANCE.
Before then, being frozen in the aisles was unacceptable.
‘MOVE already!! You can’t stay frozen here! We don’t have time for this! You’re so weak!’ This was the conga line that would play in my head, again and again, each time I failed or froze in life.
Because of my inner work, my conga line had changed from SELF-CRITICISM to SELF-ACCEPTANCE. I will get frozen or overwhelmed again. No. It doesn’t define me or mean that I’m weak. It means that I’m a person who’s trying.
Now it was ok to get afraid and frozen, not just for me, but for him too.
So I said to him, ‘It is ok to get frozen. We all do. You are overwhelmed. You will move beyond this when you’re ready. It’s just too much to look at all at once. Piece by piece, you’ll move. Trust.’
I was expecting a sigh of relief and maybe some surprise, but I think his ears were frozen too. All he could hear was the dull drone of freezers in the background.
And that was ok too.
Because I’ve been there, I’ve accepted sometimes I’ll feel overwhelmed & frozen. It doesn’t define him or me…he’s a person too.
And I can hold compassion for both of us.