Five ways to become a compassionate listener.
Seth J Gillihan
At the lowest points in our lives, the presence and care of one supportive person can be life-changing. Our pain or loss may be just as real, but we suffer less knowing we're not alone.
Coming together in this way works a sort of alchemy, transforming one person's pain into a shared feeling of uplift. Indeed, compassion is the opposite of a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers. Both giver and receiver benefit.
Firstly, our suffering is recognised and acknowledged. Compassion starts with a willingness to see someone else's pain. Rather than looking away, denying the pain, or choosing to ignore it, we acknowledge the person's experience. This acknowledgment makes us feel less alone in our suffering.
Secondly, we understand the universality of human suffering. Part of compassion is knowing that at some point, everyone hurts. In this way the pain is relatable. While pain is a personal experience, it is also a common and unavoidable part of what it means to be human. Thus we feel a further joining with others in the shared recognition that pain is part of existence.
Thirdly there is an emotional response to our suffering. Compassion is not simply knowing that another person is in pain; there is an emotional component, a "feeling with," as the etymology of compassion suggests. It's comforting to feel another person's heart go out to us.
Compassion requires tolerating uncomfortable feelings. And that comes fourth. While there are benefits to being compassionate, it's also not easy. Connecting emotionally with another's pain activates our stress response (fight-or-flight, or freeze). It takes emotional work to stay with a person's pain rather than fleeing or trying to deny it in some way (e.g., by blaming the person for their distress). When we see that a person isn't running from our pain, we're better able to withstand our own discomfort.
And last, there is a motivation to alleviate our suffering. Compassion involves feelings but not just feelings. We would probably not feel much compassion from someone who acted sad for us but was unwilling to help. When we respond with compassion we're moved to act. As a result another person's compassion can improve our situation, and we feel better just knowing someone is trying to help us.
You can probably think of people you know who seem to have a lot of compassion, and others who have little. Recent studies suggest that compassion is not a fixed trait; it can improve with treatment, which in turn leads to other benefits.
Those who received training in compassion experienced a range of additional benefits, including greater mindfulness, better mood and lower anxiety, and enhanced overall well-being and lower distress
Self-compassion is the antidote to our tendency to ignore our own needs and be critical of ourselves when we most need love and support.
So how can we increase our ability to show compassion for ourselves and others? A common practice to enhance compassion is the loving-kindness meditation.
It involves deliberately fostering a sense of warmth and care for others and oneself, starting with those who are easy to love and moving gradually to more complicated relationships. Simply learning more about compassion can also increase our ability to enact it.
Have you wanted to improve your relationships and express more care and concern for the people in your life? Are you tired of beating yourself up and ready for an alternative? Consider giving one of these approaches a try.
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