When we’re looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, is able to bend and, most of all, embraces us for our strengths and struggles.
— Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Everyday Compassion Means Everyday Suffering
When we’re attempting something difficult, we’re usually wondering, “When is this going to be over?”
For example, when we’re in the middle of an intense workout and can’t go another second.
Or when we’re taking a hard test that seems to last forever.
Or when we’re out at a party, but we’re desperate to go home and curl up with a good book.
It’s easy to dread certain experiences where the human mind perceives pain.
To be alive is to experience pain.
It exists in every area of our lives, including our physical, mental, and emotional worlds.
So, what does compassion have to do with experiencing pain?
Well, the Latin root of compassion is “to suffer” and the prefix is “with”.
Having compassion for someone means we are “suffering with them”.
Compassion vs Empathy: “Suffering With” Doesn’t Mean “Feeling With”
I always thought having empathy meant I had to experience the same emotions as someone else.
Yet, I discovered that if we allow ourselves to experience negative emotions consistently, it’s harmful.
Fortunately, that’s not the only option. Researchers suggest that there are two key ways people respond to the suffering of others.
On one hand, you can respond with empathic distress, which means you feel the full weight of their pain.
The other response to suffering is empathic concern, or compassion, which involves positive and warm emotions, paired with the desire to help.
When someone experiences empathic distress, they typically want to escape. Those who consistently respond this way are prone to negative feelings, poor health, and eventual burnout. Because this type of empathy is unpleasant, it results in withdrawal or distancing in order to self-protect.
In contrast, compassion often results in a prosocial behavior instead of a non-social behavior like withdrawal. Instead of distance, compassion creates connection. It also involves action, since the person experiencing compassion wants to tangibly ease another’s suffering.
Emotional Withdrawal & the Ways We Do It
“I don’t believe that compassion is our default response. I think our first response to pain — ours or someone else’s — is to self-protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.”
— Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Many of us don’t know what compassion looks like.
Perhaps no one ever showed us or taught us how.
Truthfully, when someone shares deep emotions with me, I often feel uncomfortable. I’m not always sure what to do and frequently fall into one of these default reactions:
When we take an honest look at why we withdraw, it’s often more self-serving than we’d like to believe.
Ultimately, withdrawing protects us. That means it leaves you comfortable, even if you claim that you’re “trying to help”.
To learn how to be more compassionate, let’s talk about these methods of emotional withdrawal in more detail.
When giving advice, you distance yourself from the other person.
If they’ve just shared how sad or anxious they are, you’re sidestepping their desire for empathy in relationships by jumping straight to telling them what to do.
You might intend to be helpful. You might think you know exactly what the problem is and want to solve it for them immediately.
If so, you’re like my friend who once described that his approach was like trying to lift someone out of a pit. He told me that his primary concern is about how to get them out of the pit, not on how they’re feeling in the pit.
Although this seems like a pragmatic approach, it doesn’t address that for many people, emotions are the pit that swallows them up.
On top of that, your perception of the problem may not be the actual problem.
You may think they’re upset because of what someone said at work, but it likely strikes deeper than that. Maybe it’s less about the actual words exchanged, but more about how out of control and afraid they are.
You might tell them to change their mindset or perspective, but really all they want is for someone to look them in the eye and say, “I hear you. I get it. It may not make sense to me, but I’m present and I support you.”
It’s just easier sometimes to give advice. You get a sense of satisfaction, feel more competent, and in control.
By embracing the discomfort of not knowing what to do, you allow space for their pain instead of emotionally withdrawing.
To become more compassionate, learn to first listen before giving advice.
Here’s one of my favorite videos that highlights these opposing viewpoints in a light-hearted way:
When you judge, you focus on how you feel more than how they’re feeling.
When they express how devastated they are, you might feel a bit relieved or smug, thinking, “At least I’m not that bad.”
You focus on labeling their experience instead of staying present.
If someone is sharing their emotions with you, they are sharing their reality.
They aren’t interested in hearing your interpretation of their reality.
For example, imagine they’re crying because they dropped ice cream on the ground.
You might laugh to yourself, wondering, “Why are they crying? It’s just ice cream.”
However, they don’t have to justify why they’re sad. They just are.
For those who have weak internal boundaries, it can be particularly devastating when they’re told they “shouldn’t” feel a certain way. Other potentially harmful messages include claiming they’re overreacting, overthinking, or “blowing things out of proportion”.
Now, why exactly might it be devastating?
Because, if you’re convincing enough, they might believe you.
They might buy into your version of reality and begin feeling shame for how they’re reacting, when they never had control over their reaction to begin with.
This shame is an example of what psychologists call a “secondary emotion”. Instead of only experiencing the direct emotional pain from the event, they experience a cascade of emotions about how they feel.
Now, it’s obviously not your responsibility to know how they might process something. You might intend to help, lightening the mood by minimizing the negative emotions.
However, in learning how to be more compassionate, it’s important to practice stepping into their reality instead of doing what’s “best for them” in your own reality.
Set your opinions aside and learn to listen.
If you’re aware and uncomfortable with someone’s pain, you might instead react with willful optimism.
People who do this go straight to, “You’ll get through this!” and throw out Hallmark statements like, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
There’s a reason that grieving people respond poorly to cliches, even though these “comforters” are well-intentioned.
For example, the author in this article describes a time when her father was dying of cancer. Her friends responded to her by focusing on the positive and ignoring how much she was struggling.
She writes, “Both of them love me and my family, and they just wanted to be happy for us for the first time in a while. But I felt like I hadn’t been heard and that I couldn’t be fully honest with them.”
Many of us are guilty of responding this way, especially because we’re afraid to say something to worsen their situation.
For instance, just a few days ago, I had trouble trying to find the “right” words to say to my grieving uncle who is now a widower. I sat in front of my keyboard for at least 30 minutes, just trying to resist the urge to say anything overused and disingenuous, like “She’s in a better place now”.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. Often, grieving individuals just want someone to listen.