March Newsletter: When compassion isn’t our knee-jerk reaction

| by Greater Good Science Center

“When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of our pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us.”
—Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You, 
(quoted in Brene Brown’s fantastic book, The Gifts of Imperfection)

Dear Raising Happiness readers,

I hadn’t intended a theme for this month’s postings, but as I look back over the month, there clearly was one.

My post about how to pick a fight, talking to kids about the crisis in Japan, and how to keep a new baby from wrecking your marriage are all about the same thing, really: fostering compassion.

I often teach that compassion is a positive emotion (like happiness, hope, or gratitude), albeit a complex one. As I wrote in this post, research shows that, physiologically, compassion can trigger positive changes in our bodies, just like other positive emotions do, even if we are experiencing the distress of another person.

But here’s an important caveat: Compassion isn’t necessarily our knee-jerk response in all situations. When someone else is suffering, our response is more likely to be one of self-protection, according to researcher Brene Brown, who I also wrote about this month.

“We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame,” Brown writes. “Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.” This is why all the earthquake emergency supplies sold out last week at my local REI.

We feel better, though, when we foster compassion rather than giving in to our worst fears, our anger, or our distress. Brown defines compassion as feeling “totally exposed and completely loved and accepted at the same time.”

This is such a different definition than I’m used to; it is so much more raw. This definition encompasses the compassion that we feel for others in the midst of a crisis (they are exposed, but so are we if the crisis evokes our fears). Or, in the case of new parents, it applies to what they’d like to feel from their partner as they each struggle to adapt to all the major changes a new baby brings.

The reality is that when we are suffering or are witnessing someone else’s deep suffering, our go-to impulse is often not compassion. Anger and blame, yes. Fear and despair, definitely. But compassion?

Yet imagine a world in which compassion was, in fact, our immediate impulse. What if we did react first with empathy and compassion? Think of how much more fulfilling our lives and our relationships would be.

I realize that this is often harder than it sounds. My advice is simply to practice. And go easy on yourself. Aim to change your knee-jerk response just a little at a time: Practice the part of the new response that comes easiest to you. (Check the posts below for compassionate responses in three different situations.)

To paraphrase the theologian Mary Daly:* “It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn compassion by compassioning.”

As always, thanks for all your great comments.

Happy Spring!

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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*Daly was actually writing about courage. I pulled this quotation from Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection.