How to Become Compassionate Again After Being Badly Hurt
The End of Compassion
I can pinpoint the moment when all compassion drained from my body, and I became an indifferent human being. I had taught kindergarten for years at an inner-city school. In addition to the daily challenges of making learning interesting and fun, I dealt with students who came to school hungry and dirty, were being abused at home, and had lost neighbors to drive-by shootings and drug overdoses. I was glad to have had those experiences because, as tough as they were, they made me a stronger and more empathetic person. When I finally got pregnant at 36, I was oh-so-ready to focus on my own child and take a much-needed break from caring for others. When my son got diagnosed with autism and no family or friends offered comfort and support, I was shocked and devastated. In my naivete, I thought all the good I had put out there in the universe would come back to me in my time of need, but life doesn't always work that way, does it?
My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.— Maya Angelous
My Journey Back to Compassion
I fell into a dim hole of depression and bitterness from which I could not pull myself out so I started going to therapy and taking anti-depressants. I was then able to function as a wife and mother but had lost my ability to feel much of anything at all. I had also lost what had once been central to my identify—compassion. As my son grew older and became more independent, I weaned off the drugs and began the long journey of reclaiming my humanity . . . of becoming a warm, caring person once again. These are the 4 important lessons I learned along the way:
1. Fill Your Own Cup First
I recently saw a story on the news about a couple who adopted 12 children with special needs—one who is blind, two who are in wheelchairs, and many who have severe cognitive and physical challenges. While heartwarming and inspirational, I was bothered by how it painted an unrealistic portrait of the parents, making it seem as though they were god-like creatures who gave and gave of themselves and never took a break. In reality, those among us who are the most compassionate make themselves a priority. They have the extra time, patience, and love to share because they fill their own cups first.
On my journey to becoming a compassionate person once again, I read time and time again about the importance of putting ourselves first. This was antithetical to everything I had been taught growing up, watching my mom play the martyr—always doing for others, never taking time to exercise or eat right, and becoming overwhelmed, exhausted, impatient, and downright crabby. Spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, and Eckhart Tolle all endorse the power of meditation—having time to be alone, to be quiet, and to let go of our constant thoughts and worries. Studies have shown that meditation reduces stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure, improves memory and self-awareness, and, yes, increases compassion. To be fully present and empathetic, one must be relaxed, re-charged, and at peace.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”— Dalai Lama XIV
While reflecting on that terrible time when my son got diagnosed with autism and my family and friends turned their backs on me, I now have a greater perspective and peace about it. I realize people weren't being heartless but simply didn't know what to say or do. It was easier for them to ignore the whole matter than risk uttering something stupid that might cause me more anguish.
What I learned from that traumatic experience is that compassion involves listening more than anything else. It was only when I went into therapy and finally had someone hear my rage and despair that I experienced some ease. The therapist didn't give me advice, didn't tell me how to feel, and didn't tell me what to do. She just showed compassion by letting me purge my hurt with words and tears.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist, extols the power of “compassionate listening” as a way to heal individuals as well as the world. He says this kind of deep listening is done with only one goal in mind—to help the sufferer “empty his heart." It isn't an opportunity to change his perspective or give him a sunnier outlook. That can be done at another time. Compassionate listening is all about being present and allowing healing to begin.
Listening Is Key to Showing Compassion
3. Forgive Those Who Weren't Compassionate to You
For far too many years, I was angry at those who didn't show me compassion in my greatest time of need. Looking back now, I used it as a barrier to keep people away so I wouldn't get hurt again. Holding on to that grudge proved exhausting and isolating. It affected my whole life, making me negative, not fully engaged in my pursuits, and less spiritually alive. It was too high a price to pay.
Bishop T.D. Jakes, renown pastor and author, wrote a book about forgiveness calledWhen I read it, I realized how wrong and self-destructive my thinking had been. My unwillingness to forgive wasn't protecting me; it was poisoning me. An event that happened so many years ago was adversely affecting all my current relationships, even the ones I treasured most with my husband and sons. Jakes convinced me the act of forgiveness was necessary to move forward so I could show more love and compassion for others as well as myself. Let It Go.
“As long as you are standing, give a hand to those who have fallen.”— Persian Proverb
4. Be Empathetic but Don't Get Consumed by Their Problems
When considering empathy, I think of the saying: Don't hog your journey. It's not just for you. Compassion involves connecting to others with sensitivity and kindness, knowing the human condition involves suffering, challenges, failures, and the constant struggle to get up and keep going. When we let those in pain know that we see their anguish and can relate to it, we are displaying humanity in its highest form.
When my son got diagnosed with autism and in all the years that followed, my mother-in-law never acknowledged his condition or empathized with my suffering mom-to-mom. This was especially jarring because she, too, has a son with special needs (now middle-aged). Her unwillingness to reach out and share her own experiences caused me a lot of grief. She hogged her journey and, in doing so, missed a beautiful opportunity to act in an empathetic way that would have meant so much to me.
In their article, “The Empathy Trap,” Doctors Robin Stern and Diane Divecha warn against becoming so emotionally involved with others that you put your own well-being at risk. They write:
To put ourselves in someone else's shoes we must strike a balance between emotion and thought and between self and other. Otherwise empathy becomes a trap and we can feel as if were being held hostage by the feelings of others.
That's why when we connect strongly to other people's pain, we must remember to look out after ourselves, too, and may need to recommend that they see a professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 McKenna Meyers