On compassion

I received Brené Brown’s newest book, Atlas of the Heart, as a Christmas gift, and have been savoring it. Today I read the section on The Relationship Between Compassion and Empathy was moved. I wanted to share a portion.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Compassion is a daily practice and empathy is a skillset that is one of the most powerful tools of compassion. The most effective approach to meaningful connection combines compassion with a specific type of empathy called cognitive empathy. Let’s get into it.

Our working definition of compassion first emerged from the data about ten years ago. It’s been revised over time, but the core has remained the same and has stood the test of new data: Compassion is the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering. A very similar definition can be found in the research literature: Compassion is a “virtuous response that seeks to address the suffering and needs of a person through relational understanding and action.” What the majority of definitions share, including these, is that compassion includes action. It’s not just feeling, it’s doing.

Compassion is fueled by understanding and accepting that we’re all made of strength and struggle—no one is immune to pain or suffering. Compassion is not a practice of “better than” or “I can fix you”—it’s a practice based in the beauty and pain of shared humanity.

In her book The Places That Scare You, the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes:

When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience our fear of pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us… In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience—our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. 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.

This paragraph completely rearranged my parenting approach. I went from always wanting to fix things and make them better to literally sitting in the dark with my kids. Before I fully understood that the “action” part of compassion wasn’t making things better or fixing, I would race to flip on the metaphorical lights when my kids were suffering. Now, I try to sit with them in the dark and show them how to feel the discomfort. Talk about moving gently toward what scares us. It’s so painful, but now that I’ve been doing it for the past decade, I can see how my kids are developing that sense of shared humanity. I’ve even had the incredible fortune of witnessing them moving toward others in pain without trying to solve.

But I’m not going to lie. It’s still really hard. Sitting in the dark with them is not one bit easier in the moment than it was ten years ago. Everything in my body is screaming, “Make it better! Fix it!” Maybe this is an example of how understanding emotion can be a life raft in a sea of turbulent feelings. Sometimes I have to desperately cling to what I know, rather than act on what I’m feeling in the moment.

A couple thoughts struck me as I read this. First, this is the reason why my therapist is so damn good. She is very open about her own challenges. It helps tremendously that we share the same diagnosis of scrupulosity OCD. When she talks about struggling with OCD, I know exactly what she means, and vice versa.

My second thought was that this also describes the biggest way in which I changed through my treatment and ongoing recovery. When I finally acknowledged my own suffering, I was able to connect with others in theirs. For years, I didn’t allow myself to see the pain I felt. I thought there was simply a right way to do everything.

As I learned about the world of mental health, and started speaking openly of my struggles, I created space for others to open up as well. I have heard so many stories of people working through difficult situations.

Because I am not a therapist, or trained in any way, I am seeking to relate to people only as a fellow passenger on the painful road of life. All I have to offer is that I can listen without trying to fix it. But that is often all I want to receive, so it’s what I try to give.

Framing these connections as compassion, and recognizing that the action you can take to help someone is to sit with them in their pain, is empowering.

The skill to practice is validation. And we can all do that.