This fortnight I have enjoyed exploring sympathy and empathy, how they differ and how they relate to compassion and self compassion too. We have been exploring self-compassion in our POM yoga classes for some time now and I thought I was doing pretty well until I was reminded by a conversation with a dear friend this week that I could do with a little more self-compassion. And as I said, I am going to use this 6 weeks of lockdown as a 'self-compassion retreat'. You are welcome to join me. Or to join me for POM yoga on zoom - please email me here for details
I am going to take the wise advice of my friend Shadi and take this time to 'be easy on myself, to do less, rest more and connect with those who support me (including my wise self) and those that don't give myself a break from now (including my task master self)'.
I am going to use this time to develop self -compassion, to acknowledge and accept my feelings instead of bypassing them and to connect with myself for the understanding, support and love that I need. A barrier to showing compassion toward others is lacking self compassion. Or as Pema Chodron says 'Compassion for others begins with kindness to yourself". I am going to' look after myself' so I can continue to be available to for others. Brene Brown says 'empathy is communication that incredibly healing message of 'you're not alone'. I am going to remember this in relation to myself and others too.
So lets explore empathy first. Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, is an expert on the meaning of empathy and sympathy and how they differ. She tells us 'empathy is about connection; sympathy is about separation'. And that 'empathy fuels connectionand sympathy drives disconnection'.
She explains that empathy involves .........
1. Perspective taking or seeing the other persons point of view. This is the ability to put yourself in someone else shoes (including a suffering version of you). In Buddhism this practice is called 'exchanging self for others' and is a practice for developing compassion.
2. Staying out of judgment (Of yourself too). Which is not always easy! Many of us are in the habit of being self-critical.
3. Recognising emotions within another (Or ourselves) (i.e. recognising that anger, for example is happening). We recognise the emotion in another because we know what it is like to experience it.
Sympathy is defined as 'a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune. It often lacks the understand and connection of empathy.
Empathy is a choice that we make to put ourselves in another person's shoes (including our own) without judgment in order to connect with them.
Brene Brown tells us that sharing a listening ear is something we can all do. Extending that listening ear to yourself is important to. When we feel heard, cared about and understood we also feel accepted, loved and as if we belong. We can give that to ourselves as well as to others too!
Brown encourages us 'to communicate your understanding of that persons' (or your own) feelings we need to AVOID telling yourself or others things like..........
'At least you..........
'It could be worse........
We are often well intentioned with these remarks, they are ways we try to make things better but they do not promote understanding, empathy or connection.
So if for example if I tell myself 'at least you still have your mother when my father has just died'. Or 'It could be worse, he could have died 20 years ago'. This response does now allow for acceptance of 'feeling sad', understanding and connection.
Another example would be if a friend expresses disappointment regarding her relatives inability to visit due to our lockdown and I say 'at least you have a family that is well and safe'.
Again this response does not allow for understanding and connection.
Instead wiser responses in both situations would be to say........
As Brown recommends 'I don't know what to say right now - I am so glad you told me'. Or, 'that really hurts, It sounds like you are in a hard place now, tell me more about it
Or to say 'I hear you'. You sound really disappointed. And continue to listen.
Brown says 'rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection'.
Empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice. We can practice it with ourselves and with others. It feels good to be heard and accepted by both ourselves and others. And to extend it to both.
In order to connect with anothers we need to connect with the me that knows that feeling. I had been thinking about this in terms of our ABC compassion formula, self-compassion and empathy for ourselves. When we are able to give ourselves the empathy, compassion and love that is needed we are able to connect with the other person.
I became aware I was dropping into a couple of pitfalls, (namely by-passing my feelings, and being judgmental or self critical of myself) and was not being empathic toward myself, by 2 conversations I had this week. I will talk about the first this blog and the second next blog.
The first was a telephone call from a dear friend from Sydney. We had not spoken since Christmas time and fortunatelyI had popped into her mind to ring. Our conversation involved a catch up on what has been happening for us both. She asked about my family, including my dad who had passed away in January, my mum who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, and some other challenging situations. She helped me to realise that I had lots of challenging times within this challenging time. She said I am sure you are supporting everyone else, but who is supporting you?
Fortunately I have and am very grateful for many wonderful supports in my life. However, as my friend helped me realise, there was someone who was not always supporting me or giving me the understanding, love, empathy and compassion I needed. That person was me! That 'task master voice' that told me I should not feel sad and sorry for myself, that I needed to get on with it and soldier on, that I should be grateful and think about others. I cried on and off for most of that day.
My friend helped me understand......
A lack of self compassion is a barrier to showing compassion for others.
We need to take care of ourselves in order to care for others. Apply the oxygen mask to yourself first!
Kindly recognise your negative self talk and reframe it. To 'turn up' that kind, encouraging, empathic voice on the left shoulder and 'turn down' that ' judgmental, task master voice on the right.
Whatever judgement I hold against myself will seep into my relationships with others.
The Pitfalls to avoid are below. The one I was falling into is in bold in the 'A' in the ABC formula..........
1. ACCEPT the feeling (sad, disappointed, lonely)
a). AVOID AN UNHELPFUL REACTION
Catastrophizing 'This is terrible. This is my fault or someone else's What have I done!
This unhelpful reaction allows that destructive judgmental attacking voice take over with blame and criticism regarding my experience, feelings or reaction.
b). SUPPRESSION THE FEELING (bypassing)
Ignoring the sadness, disappointment I was feeling. As I said I did this by letting that 'task master voice' tell me I should not feel sad and sorry for myself, that I needed to get on with it and soldier on, that I should be grateful and think about others', take over. (at least......It could be worse....)
Leaving no room for understanding and connection
Instead a more helpful response would have been to ACCEPT that sadness was happening and to listen kindly to myself to feel heard and understood.
2. BREATH and tune into the kind, encouraging angel voice
This empathy and pause will allow for self-compassionate action.
3. CONNECT - Kindly ask ....What do I need? (to be of benefit)
I need to give myself what is missing - the understanding, encouragement, love and kindness!
So, yet again I tuned into and turned up that kind friendly, angel voice gave myself some kind, friendly encouragement. I said to myself 'that really hurts and is sad and disappointing' What do you need?
This kind talk meant I could get on with what I needed to do - have a cry and then get on with my look after Maree, Self-Compassion Retreat' . I am taking this time to connect with myself and give myself what is needed first to allow for connection with others and to continue to be there for them too.
With love and my very best well wishes to us all