When someone we love is upset, having a meltdown or in an immense amount of pain, our go-to reaction is generally to try our best to cheer them up or say something along the lines of ‘everything will be okay’. Perhaps you’ve been in this exact situation recently. Someone you loved was struggling with something and you just wanted them to feel better, so you did your best to offer solutions or point out the positive aspects of the situation. So you jumped right in to point out what solutions there might be to the problem, or maybe you went and ordered their favorite food, or invited them to go out and forget their worries. Perhaps you said something along the lines of “This will work itself out, don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
Though take a moment to now think of a time when you were in the same distressed position. How much did it help you to be told not to worry or that everything was going to be okay? Did it feel better the next day after you and your friend had gone through a whole pizza, carton of ice cream and bottle of wine? Probably not. I know because I’ve been there many times. It’s taken me a long time to realize that these temporary actions we take to numb our pain, worries and anxiety aren’t actually helpful, for ourselves and for others. This revelation came to me while doing mindfulness meditations, and since then I’ve tried to take a different approach in how I comfort my loved ones and how I comfort myself.
Admittedly, I’m not the most empathetic person in the world. I’ve realized that it’s actually pretty difficult for me to sometimes take a step outside of my own little world long enough to relate to other people’s problems. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about others. What it means is that it’s challenging for me to understand what someone needs when they’re going through something difficult. I think we all sometimes struggle trying to decipher the best way to comfort others. So much of the time we’re only considering our needs and feelings that when we see someone else in need of comfort, we freeze, not sure of the right move. It requires us to pause and commit to empathizing with another person, temporarily suspending our own agendas, needs, and emotions; easier said than done.
I first realized this weakness of mine a couple of years ago, when my husband and I decided to get a divorce. I still loved him, and I suddenly found myself all alone with an 8-year-old and a string of depressive thoughts swirling around my head. During this time, many friends came to visit me, all of them telling me that everything would be okay. The more people told me this, the angrier I felt. Hearing this wasn’t helpful. It felt as though my current experience was being dismissed and rushed. I knew that everything would be OK, but that knowledge did not stop me from feeling horrible in the moment. Nor did that fact help me feel better sooner. See, when we’re in pain, we need time and we need our emotions and condition at the time to be acknowledged, not dismissed.
At the time, I just couldn’t stop the negative feelings and thoughts I was experiencing. On top of that, what my friends were saying made me feel like the heartbreak and panic I felt, the grief I harbored for my failed marriage was invalid. I quickly realized that what I needed wasn’t someone rubbing my back, saying “there, there” in a soothing voice. What I needed was a companion. I needed someone to stand by my side, silently and without judgement, sharing the moment with me, as well as my sorrow and my emotions. I needed someone who mindfully listened, embraced me with all his/her heart and mind.
Psychologists define compassion as the ability to understand the emotional state of a person other than ourselves. This definition, though, should not be confused with empathy. When we empathize with someone, we’re able to put ourselves in their shoes. When we show compassion to someone however, we are able to understand how they feel and give them what they need. It sounds simple enough, but in fact it’s difficult to do in our ego-centric worlds. Like all difficult things, though, it’s a practice that comes with immense rewards. For instance, according to a study by the researchers James Fellow Ed Diener and James McKeen Cattell Fellow, “individuals that connect with others through compassion actually enjoy better mental and physical health”.
There are several reasons for this. First, according to a study conducted at the National Institute of Technology being compassionate towards others stimulates the pleasure areas of the brain. Stimulating the pleasure areas of the brain acts as a counter to stress. This is why we eat junk food or go on a shopping spree when we’re stressed. By being compassionate towards others, we stimulate these areas in a healthy way, thereby reducing stress which is very damaging to our immune systems.
Second, past research has proven that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus. Compassion, however, requires us to focus on others, instead of ourselves. Shifting our perspective to the well-being and experiences of others can help ease our egocentric thoughts and thereby prevent thoughts of depression and anxiety. Shifting our focus also gives us a sense of purpose that further stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain.
Third, showing compassion to others strengthens our connection with others. Having strong, supportive connections with others strengthens our immune systems, increases our self-esteem and sense of trust. Additionally, an increased sense of trust prompts others to trust us more and thus become closer to us. This creates a positive feedback loop that is overall very good for both our mental and physical wellbeing.
While compassion is an instinct that exists in everyone, it’s one that needs to be practiced constantly. There are several ways this can be done:
How can we be more compassionate towards someone if we are not in the moment with them? In order to support people we love, we have to learn to be with them, in the moment. Meditation primarily teaches us to be aware of the moment we are in. We can therefore use it to learn how we can be present for the people we care about.
Feeling like someone we love isn’t truly listening to us is an awful feeling, especially if they are bearing their feelings to us. Paying real attention to what others are saying, showing interest and support, encouraging them to express their thoughts and feelings are what mindful listening is about. Whenever your mind wanders or starts thinking about the response you’ll give, take a breath in and come back to the moment.
When we’re with someone, we should truly feel and understand what they’re going through. In other words, we should be empathetic and compassionate with them. One way of doing this is through meditation. It’s been scientifically proven that “loving-kindness” meditations or compassion meditations help to cultivate our instinct for compassion.
It’s important to remember that we shouldn’t judge the person in front of us, no matter what they are feeling. Judgement is the opposite of support. So, we must remember to be a safe zone for them, where they can talk about their experience, without shame.
Another thing to bear in mind is to try and see past our own perspective. We should instead strive to see the situation from the perspective of our loved one. Most likely this isn’t a stranger in front of you. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time and can use your observations and knowledge about them to imagine how they’re approaching this situation. Again it’s not our place to say whether their approach is right or wrong; compassion and support require us to merely be with them in the moment, however they’re feeling.
Lastly, we should choose our words carefully. We shouldn’t turn to meaningless clichés like “It’s alright” or “everything will turn out okay”. Instead, we should gauge what the person before us needs, or even ask them what they need from us. Sometimes, no words are necessary, just a silent listener and presence.
If psychology tells us anything, it’s that understanding others and showing them compassion isn’t something that happens overnight. People need time and a willingness to learn, in order to be able to get to that point. They also need the right tools which guide them in their journey to practice these skills.
So, next time you want to comfort a friend, try to consider what you’ve just read and do your best to listening intently, being present, focusing on their needs and experience, and connecting with your heart. Put your judgements aside and be there, right in that moment, with your loved one.
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