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How to Become Compassionate Again After Being Badly Hurt

After struggling with depression and anxiety most of my life, I'm now dedicated to becoming a stronger person who lives life to the fullest.

If you're depleted physically, emotionally, or spiritually, you have no compassion to give.

If you're depleted physically, emotionally, or spiritually, you have no compassion to give.

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 identity—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

2. Listen

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.

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, renowned pastor and author, wrote a book about forgiveness called Let It Go. When 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.

“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.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers


Tessa Schlesinger on November 21, 2017:

McKenna, I've thought about this before responding. The thing is that I am open to those who are of my kind. I am closed (and I mean no offence) to Christians and to men who are romantically interested in me. I mean absolutely and completely and utterly to the nth degree closed.

The harm that was done to me by so many over such a long period of time can never be repaired. It irrevocably damaged my life, and I will never forgive it.

For my own safety and wellbeing, I stay away - far away, and as soon as I recognize any of these, I walk away. That is the kindest thing I can do.

Has it made me less open? I write in a very open way for the world to read. I expose who I am. In a way, I simply don't care. Anything I ever had was taken from me by Christians and men who wanted to sleep with me.

There is nothing left, either inside me or outside me, that can be harmed by anything I say or do.

So, no, I won't forgive.

I think, though, that I am fortunate in that I do have friends at this late stage of my life, and there are a few who even respect me and admire me. That's all I need.

And money and health, of course! :)

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 20, 2017:

I definitely mean being open to friends and family you trust. I agree with you, Tessa, that most people gossip so we should just assume what we share will get spread around. We have to weigh that reality with wanting to connect with others, be vulnerable, and get support. Our son recently told us he's gay. I need to be very deliberate about who I tell and who I do not. Fortunately, at this stage in my life, I have a pretty good handle on that, but it took a long time.

Tessa Schlesinger on November 15, 2017:

I understand what forgiveness is.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by being open? Do you mean open in your existing friendships? Or do you mean open to having new friendships? Or do you mean open in revealing lots of stuff about yourself?

To my way of thinking, very few people are trustworthy. They gossip about others. They are competitive. They are mean spirited if one slights them in some way - no matter how unintentionally. They care more about fulfilling their dreams than doing without something for the sake of the planet. Lots of things can make people untrustworthy.

I think it's about being clearsighted in chosing one's friends

I have no intention ever of forgiving the people who destroyed my life. Then, again, I think if one forgives, one does let them into one's life again. I won't do that.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 15, 2017:

Tessa, it depends on how you think of forgiveness. I don't think of it as a gift to those who hurt me. I think of it as a gift to myself—the ability to move forward. It doesn't mean I want those people in my life. It usually means I'm done with them. I'm doing what's necessary to take care of myself. If I don't forgive those who hurt me in the past, it contaminates my current relationships, making me less trusting, giving, and open.

Tessa Schlesinger on November 15, 2017:

I have mixed feelings about this. I will most certainly not forgive the people who destroyed my life. :) I suppose I don't really have a need to be happy or connect or anything. I'm perfectly content with the friends I already have and I have so many interests that I am never bored or with nothing to do. Perhaps what saved me from depression, etc. was that I have never expected anything from anybody. I don't know.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 15, 2017:

Thanks, Dora. I, too, love that conversation between Thich Nhat Hanh and Oprah about the importance of compassionate listening. It reminds me of a joke about New Yorkers: "To a New Yorker, the opposite of talking isn't listening. It's waiting to talk." Well, no matter where you're from, I think that's true of most of us. Instead of really listening, we're formulating what we want to say next. It takes great concentration to listen deeply and truly hear what the person is saying.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 15, 2017:

Great message here, McKenna. Your points are very helpful, and personally, I'm inspired. The compassionate listening tape is a great asset. Thanks.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 15, 2017:

Yes, Maria. When I started opening up to people about my son's autism, it allowed them to share with me. It seemed like everyone I met had some family member, friend, classmate, or neighbor with autism and needed to talk about it. It created an instant bond of compassion. Unfortunately, it took me many years to get over my own pain about my son before I was ready to talk with others. I wish I had started earlier.

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 15, 2017:

Yes, Bill, we can all do better at times. It's a constant challenge. But, what I found from my own experience is that a lack of compassion on my part shows me that something in my life is out of whack—out of balance. A lack of compassion means I'm not feeling patient, kind, and loving. It tells me something needs to be addressed and changed. Thanks for sharing your compassion through the Mailbag, Bill!

McKenna Meyers (author) on November 15, 2017:

Thanks, Patricia. I think the "fill your cup first" approach is something relatively new. I sure wasn't taught that as a girl going to Catholic school 40 years ago—quite the opposite. But, we burn out pretty darn fast if we don't take care of ourselves and have fun times. I've also learned to say "no" and that's been incredibly helpful.

MariaInes from Bogota on November 15, 2017:

Thank you for your article McKenna, I find that sharing our journey with others is also an act of compassion.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 15, 2017:

My first reaction, upon seeing the title, was "wait, I am compassionate and empathetic," and I am, but I can do better, so thank you for this.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 15, 2017:

So very important to fill our cup first. I was told that many many years ago and it was something that I found contrary to everything I had believed. And truthfully I still have some trouble with it but am so much better than I was in my younger years. I am of no value to anyone if I am do not value me...and learning that has allowed me to show compassion for others that I may not have previously. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Angels once again on the way ps