Why Compassion for Others is a Mental Health Practice
Compassion is often framed as something we do for another person. An act of altruism or charity.
Maybe that’s why compassion seems so difficult in these trying times of public health crisis, political polarization and systemic upheaval.
“I’m too burned out to show compassion to _________.”
“Why does _________ deserve my goodwill?” “I need to focus on myself first before I can start caring about _________.”
These arguments make sense. There is so much demand for our attention these days. So many fires to put out and so many causes to care about that we may sometimes feel like we have nothing else to give.
But what if we’ve got compassion all wrong?
What if, instead of being just a gift we give to others, it is primarily a gift we give ourselves? I’m not talking about self-compassion. I’m talking about compassion for others as a radical act of self care.
Yes, I know. It sounds a little counter-intuitive. But if we look at the impact compassion for others has on our own nervous systems and emotional state we can see that it is one of the most powerful mental health practices available to us. Here’s why:
The toll of the threat response
We process so much more information in our daily lives than our ancestors did. Technology has exponentially increased the number of interactions we have in a day, and that means not only our brains but our nervous systems have to figure out how to respond to each new input. Even spending 10 minutes on social media or watching TV exposes you to hundreds of sensations and ideas that your system has to evaluate at a very primal level and categorize as friend or foe.
When we respond to a social input with emotions like annoyance, judgment, anger, fear, and criticism, it usually means our system has tagged it as some type of threat, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, these hormones build up and lead to mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, digestive issues, high blood pressure, mood swings, insomnia and weight gain. Some people may even become addicted to stress because of the adrenaline rush they experience, leading to a vicious burnout cycle.
So what does this all have to do with compassion?
Creating more space
We associate compassion with outward acts of love and sympathy, but at its core, compassion for others is a shift in our own mental state. When we have compassion for another person, we remove ourselves from the throne of judgment and control and we place ourselves alongside that person. We say, “You’re like me and I’m like you. We both have faults and we both suffer.” Compassion is acknowledging our humanness and recognizing that every action, no matter how flawed, is an attempt to meet a valid need like safety, respect, or connection.
Compassion helps us move from critic to collaborator.
Making this mental shift in the middle of a challenging interaction, or even after the fact, gives us a little more space between an input and a threat reaction. From this place, not only can we think more clearly and calmly about a situation, but we can often find better solutions to the issues at hand. Compassion helps us move from critic to collaborator. When this happens, we limit the amount of time our bodies are in a state of “trigger,” which results in more energy, more mental clarity and yes….maybe even a bit more inner peace.
But isn’t the threat response useful?
Absolutely. And none of us would be here without it. It’s important to know when a person or situation is a threat to our well being and to be able to create boundaries that protect ourselves and our loved ones. But it’s also important to know that, for many of us, this threat response is overactive and is keeping us in a consistent cycle of fear, anger and judgment.
Compassion can be misunderstood as spiritual bypassing or “letting the other person off the hook.” After all, if we empathize with another person and their faults, aren’t we in a sense validating or excusing their actions? Those of us who trend towards people-pleasing and codependency certainly have to be wary about upholding our boundaries, but I have found that neglecting self and avoiding (or crossing) boundaries is usually prompted by fear and scarcity as opposed to true compassion.
In fact, compassion for others can help us better understand ourselves and set more sustainable boundaries because we are coming from a loving, non-reactive place. Think of a parent who firmly but gently sets a mutually beneficial limit with their child compared to a parent who lashes out with a punishment from a place of anger. Which seems like the more effective method? Which feels better for the parent?
Bruno Nascimento, Unsplash
Breaking the pattern
Millions of times every day we are making micro-judgements about whether another person is right or wrong, good or bad. This evolutionary filtration system combined with the Western propensity to dominate and penalize the “bad guys” leads to a lot of micro-punishments—from hateful thoughts to rude comments to aggressive actions.
Compassion helps us interrupt the pattern of perception -> judgment -> punishment that can run on a loop over and over again throughout our day if we do not pause and pay attention to it. Even taking a small break from determining whether another person is good or bad (and what they deserve as a result) can do wonders for our mental state and nervous system.
And as a bonus, practicing this shift in mentality toward others also helps us be more compassionate to ourselves when we make mistakes. It helps us release the instinct to judge ourselves as good or bad and to punish ourselves when we don’t live up to our own expectations.
In the end, compassion toward others and compassion toward ourselves are just two sides of the same coin. Because we’re all just doing our best.
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