Compassion and the Man in the Mirror
Over the past several months, I’ve been on a journey to explore the topic of compassion, especially reflecting on compassion as the act of alleviating another person’s suffering. (See my recent blog Turning Empathy into Action.)
Like many of you, I’ve had plenty of time to think over the past 60+ days. All of this thinking has had its ups and downs as I’ve seesawed between positive, hopeful ideas and negative, self-critical notions. One day last week when I was way too far into my own head, I struggled with why it’s so hard to practice compassion at times. Then a simple truth hit me like a ton of bricks: I can’t have compassion for other people until I have compassion for myself.
I have a pastor’s heart, and so I put a lot of energy into taking care of others. I’m always trying to help people and to offer advice and support to those in need. Frankly, I’d much rather fix your problems than deal with my own. In fact, I’m notorious for failing to stop and take care of myself. This is easy to do when you convince yourself that you’re doing the right thing by putting everyone else on the planet first.
I thought things might slow down during this time of social distancing and quarantine, but the opposite is true. Zoom call after Zoom call. More and more meetings. Figuring out how to create school at home. Navigating a new normal where things take longer than before. I’m exhausted, and I’m now ready to admit that I haven’t been taking time to stop and breathe. I haven’t made time to be compassionate towards myself.
In a blog posted on the Psychology Today website, Alex Lickerman, M.D., warns about the dangers of sacrificing our own happiness and wellbeing when we’re practicing compassion. Over time, that isn’t healthy for you or for the person you’re trying to help. In fact, he argues, “if you find yourself actually sacrificing your own happiness in some significant way you’ve allowed yourself to be deceived into thinking one person’s happiness is more important than another’s—your own. A wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less.” That’s a hard truth to hear.
As we continue to live into compassion as a mindset, here are three tips for staying healthy and poised for action.
1. Self-Compassion. Take time to be more aware of your own problems and struggles and take intentional steps to alleviate the resulting suffering and pain. Give yourself the love and care you would offer someone else.
2. Mindfulness. In his article “Distinguishing Compassion from Sympathy and Empathy,” Tony Zampella puts it this way: “Mindfulness is a non-reactive awareness that cultivates a receptive mind to observe thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.” I don’t know about you, but I’m the king of suppression. It’s often easier just to ignore whatever feelings come to mind. Let’s change this narrative.
3. Unconditional Acceptance. As Dr. Lickerman suggests, “compassion focuses itself only on the potential all people have for good, ignoring everything else.” Though we live in a divided world and have lost the middle ground, we can still find the good in all people—including ourselves—through acts of compassion.
In the spirit of compassion-filled disruption, it’s time for us to act. Below you’ll find two exercises from MOFI’s Empathy Workout. (MOFI is one of the companies in our ecosystem.) These exercises lean into unconditional acceptance and, once completed, may provide an opportunity to be mindful about practicing self-compassion. Please complete the two exercises and send me your thoughts from the experience.
Your Truth Teller,
Shawn “Man On Fire” Nason