I recently came across the word “compassionate” in a spiritual book entitled: Your Sorrow is My Sorrow: Hope and Strength in Times of Suffering by Joyce Rupp (1999). The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the word compassionate as feeling or showing concern for someone who is sick, hurt, poor; having or showing compassion. Rupp, however, uses the word in a way that gave me pause, as she described events in her life that called upon her to compassionate herself. Back to the dictionary I went and learned that “to compassionate” means to ache for; bleed for; commiserate with; pity, condole with; feel for; sympathize with; and yearn over. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassionate). Ultimately, the act of compassionating oneself or another, is the act of showing compassion. Compassion can be defined as sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion). This definition pairs the awareness of another’s distress with the desire to alleviate the distress.
We have all heard the expression “you have to love yourself before you can love another”. It seems to be the same with compassion in that we must first be compassionate with or compassionate ourselves before we can compassionate others. The question is: How often do we take the time to compassionate ourselves or to really get in touch with whatever we are suffering? I have also come across another definition of compassion, succinctly put, it means to suffer with. We can now re-phrase the question to read: how often do we take the time to suffer with ourselves; to meet our suffering self? Let’s face it, suffering is physically, emotionally and spiritually painful, and a fearful prospect at that. Fear means danger….do not enter….do not go there. It is not surprising then that so many of us are running from our suffering selves in one way or another, with a host of detours taking us in other directions. Sooner or later, however, those detours will put us back on the main road again, leading us towards our destination; our rendezvous with our suffering self.
In his book The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (1978), Scott Peck begins his first chapter with the sentence: “Life is difficult” (p. 15). He goes on to say that it is one of the “Four Noble Truths” which Buddha taught: “Life is suffering.” No one can deny that life is a series of problems producing an array of emotions ranging from fear to anguish and despair. Peck points out that these uncomfortable feelings of pain associated with problems are among the reasons we refer to them as problems in the first place. Very simply, “It is because of the pain that these events engender in us that we call them problems (p.16).” Peck believes problems not only call forth courage and wisdom but actually create them, allowing us to grow mentally and spiritually. He does admit, however, that most of us are not so wise, and fearing the pain involved almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. To avoid the suffering that results from dealing with problems, we also avoid the growth that problems demand from us (p.17). Peck goes so far as to state that the tendency to avoid problems and the pain inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness. The latter then produces a condition in which we stop growing and become stuck. Eventually, the human spirit (in the absence of healing) begins to shrivel (p. 17).
The pain generated from problems we encounter can be a profound form of suffering, but I am uncertain as to whether the suffering we experience can be viewed as a problem to be solved. Perhaps I have a problem with the word, problem. Caretakers whether professional or nonprofessional are no strangers to suffering, being confronted with human pain and suffering on a regular if not daily basis. Those we care for, however, are not problems to be solved but human beings to be nurtured and loved. Problems arise when we either look upon those in need of our care as problems, or when we neglect to both love and compassionate ourselves. I return to the definition of compassion as the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Meeting our suffering self with compassion allows us to not only recognize our own distress but our need for healing in order to alleviate that distress.
Meeting our suffering self, compassionating ourselves, or demonstrating self-compassion has been described as having three main components: self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness (Neff, 2011). Self-kindness is the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. It also involves offering oneself soothing comfort in times of suffering. A sense of common humanity allows us to recognize that all humans are imperfect, fail, and make mistakes. As such it reminds us that we are not alone in experiencing our short-comings and flaws because it is all part of the human condition that we share with the rest of humanity. Finally, mindfulness is being aware of our painful feelings in a clear and balanced manner so that one neither ignores nor obsesses about disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life. (http://www.self-compassion.org/what-is-self-compassion/definition-of-self-compassion.html). .
In the physiological realm, research suggests that self-compassion may be a powerful trigger for the release the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is released in a variety of social situations including the act of breastfeeding an infant, positive parent-child interactions, and when someone gives or receives a soft, tender caress. Additionally, research is showing that the feelings generated by self-compassion can actually decrease cortisol levels associated with physiological and psychological stress. (http://www.self-compassion.org/the physiology of self-compassion html).
In summary, the message is clear; we owe it to ourselves and those for whom we care to compassionate ourselves. The first step on the journey is to recognize our own suffering. How do we do this? Self-awareness of those times when we are overly stressed, fatigued, discouraged, irritable and angry is a crucial part of the process. There are many relaxation techniques and deep breathing exercises and various resources available to us especially with the internet at our fingertips. There is no denying the power of mind over body and the methods we choose are most likely to be the ones with which we are most comfortable. Everyone has a place where they experience peace and joy. While we cannot be physically present in that place, we can practice traveling away to it in our mind through visual imagery. It is a known fact that pleasant thoughts produce pleasant feelings that result in positive actions. The beauty of our special place is that we can visit it as many times a day (or night) as we find the need. Prayer and meditation are likewise powerful means of compassionating ourselves and alleviating our suffering. The good news is that we can compassionate ourselves which ultimately frees us to compassionate others with the greatest healer of all, love.
Mary Ellen Luczun, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC
Mental Health Nursing
Touro College Department of Nursing
Neff, K (2012). The power of self-compassion. Retrieved from: (http://www.self-compassion.org/the physiology of self-compassion.html).
Neff, K. (2011). The power of self-compassion. Retrieved from (http://www.self-compassion.org/what-is-self-compassion/definition-of-self-compassion.html).
Rupp, J. ( 1999). Your sorrow is my sorrow: Hope and strength in times of suffering. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Peck, S. (1978). The road less traveled: A new psychology of love, traditional values and spiritual growth. New York: Simon & Schuster.