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Understanding and Practicing Compassion

True compassion is not always easy to come by, and it’s even more difficult to communicate. Oftentimes, we struggle with feeling vulnerable. Unfortunately, this feeling frequently accompanies instances where we reveal our sensitive, emotional selves to others, such as when we’re demonstrating compassion. But compassion is integral to the development and maintenance of any good relationship, therefore it is important for us not only to remember to be compassionate towards others, but to be able to communicate that compassion effectively so that it can be received.

In this article we’ll discuss some key techniques for practicing and communicating compassion, beginning with the art of mindfulness.

What Does it Mean to be Mindful?

In most cases when we think of the word mindfulness we’re conditioned to associate it with therapy and meditation, but in reality being mindful just means being self-aware, which is why mindfulness techniques are often applied in healing settings. Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Adrienne Glasser, explains that: “Mindfulness isn’t just about being peaceful and loving no matter what. Unless you’re a monk who spent decades in a monastery on the brink of enlightenment, that isn’t realistic.  Moreover, this is not what mindfulness looks like. Mindfulness, simply put, is remembering to come back to the present moment.”

It is in this present moment where compassion lies. Sometimes when our mind wanders we become overwhelmed by worrying about things that will or won’t happen or things that happened our pasts or are looming in our futures. In these instances, we lose track of ourselves, and in doing so, lose our sense of compassion. Practicing mindfulness can help us learn to be aware of when our emotions are affecting us so that we remain in control of our emotional selves versus the other way around. Being mindful allows us to pause so that we can experience something different, something new. How does this apply to compassion? If we acknowledge when we are feeling overwhelmed or overly emotional we can better address those emotions as they are rather than allowing them to negatively impact others. For example, if we recognize when we are feeling frustrated from work we can address that feeling directly rather than taking it out on someone else. In this way, we are enabling ourselves to think and act compassionately, rather than be motivated by overpowering emotions.

Being Compassionate is About Caring How Others Feel

Another good way to practice compassion is to try to understand the emotions of others, particularly when they’re suffering, as it is in these instances when we are often at our most vulnerable and in need of compassion from others. In order for us to be compassionate towards anyone we must first be interested in finding out what’s wrong in the first place. Think of it this way, when we ask someone how they’re feeling or how they’re doing it’s a sign of care and concern. If we didn’t care about that person we likely wouldn’t be asking after their wellbeing. Likewise, to be compassionate essentially means to care and to demonstrate care unto others. By showing others that we care about how they feel and about what is hurting them, we are practicing compassion. Ms. Glasser reveals that: “Being curious about the underlying belief or emotion in the body can lend clarity to what’s really happening.” So, too, can we better understand others and show them compassion if we are actually care enough to learn what’s beyond the surface.

Self-Compassion is Just As Important

That being said, compassion isn’t solely for the benefit of others. We can and should be compassionate towards ourselves as well. Self-compassion means that we validate our own emotions without telling ourselves that we’re wrong for experiencing them. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and we accept that vulnerability as a necessary part of our emotional expression. Oftentimes this seems easier said than done, but self-compassion is essential not only for our own health and well-being but also because it is a necessary step towards being able to demonstrate compassion to others. We must learn to clarify how we feel and accept it as being an aspect of ourselves before we can begin to address it. This includes emotions such as sadness or anxiety.

We can say “I am feeling anxious” and then we explore the source of that feeling and accept it for what it is, without necessarily letting it rule over us. For example: “I am feeling anxious because I have bills to pay. It is ok to feel this way because this is a natural reaction to a stressful situation, but I do not have to let my anxiety take over.” In this instance, we are acknowledging our emotion, anxiety, and accepting it as being natural, but reminding ourselves that we are in control, not our anxiety. We might even find ways of dealing with this or other powerful negative emotions, just as we might propose solutions to a friend’s problems. In any case, by taking time to address our vulnerabilities without berating ourselves for having or experiencing them we are showing ourselves compassion, which is unbelievably important. We must remember to show ourselves the same consideration we would show others. Compassion is individual as much as it is social.

Honesty Is Not a Sign of Weakness

No one likes to feel vulnerable, but vulnerability is a natural part of human existence. There is no shame in vulnerability, despite what we might initially think. With it comes an honesty to ourselves and others about what we’re experiencing emotionally and mentally, which can lead to better understanding. It is through this better understanding, and the desire to understand, that we learn how to be compassionate, and how to communicate that compassion effectively. Compassion can make any challenge seem more bearable, and is a good way of reminding others if and when we care.

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