Optimize Your LifeEpisode #10: Embracing Compassion Without the Fatigue
Hey there and welcome back to the Optimize Your Life podcast. I am so excited to share this next topic with you. This is something that I’ve been talking about with my clients for years. And it’s such an important component of optimization because it really has to do with relationships. It’s about your relationship with yourself and your relationship with others. So what is it that I’m talking about? Well, it’s compassion, and when I say that — again, we’re talking about both self-compassion and compassion for others.
Before we dive in, I want to first take a step back and help you understand what it is that I mean because sometimes there is some confusion about this term. In particular, there is some confusion about the difference between compassion and empathy. So I want to first and foremost clear that up and then talk to you about how about compassion can be helpful and some ways to make it more concrete so that you can start to apply it to your life and gain some of the benefits. So let’s take a look.
So we’ve all heard the term ‘empathy’ which is really about stepping into another person’s shoes. In other words, you are able to really grasp that person’s emotional state. Whatever distress they might be going through ,you might even feel it as your own. That’s having a sense of empathy.
Compassion, on the other hand, is when you really understand what they’re going through. You may not necessarily feel it, but you’re then able to take some inspired action to help solve whatever problem they’re going through. So the missing component in empathy is the action step. So with empathy, I might feel really badly for somebody who lost their job or perhaps their parent just passed away or something bad happened had to them, you know. Maybe they’re going through a divorce and I feel really bad for them and I’m like, “Wow! I can’t imagine how really tough that must feel, how stressful that is. I really feel for you.”
On the other hand, compassion is sending them good intentions without necessarily having to feel all of the pain. lIt’s like, “Well, you know, I can understand on a conceptual level, on a cognitive level that this is a difficult time for this person and what’s something that I can do to help them out. It could be just, like I said, sending out good intentions. That could be my action. Or it could be even something more hands-on where I say, you know, “I know a really good mediation person that can help you with your divorce” and send them that referral. Or it could be, as a matter of fact, this morning I was talking to a colleague and her father just passed away and I offered to do a session for her to quickly alleviate her suffering. And so I did an EMDR session with her right there on the spot and when we started her distress level was at a 10 out of 10 and within 15 minutes, we got her down to a zero. So if you’re not familiar with EMDR, that’s a whole other tangent. It’s not meant for this episode, but you can look it up. It’s a form of therapy that is specifically used for distressing events from the past. But that was an act of compassion because I was helping her actually resolve her issue without me having a feel all of her distress. So that’s really the difference.
So now that you understand that, let’s take a look at what compassion can do for you and when it becomes problematic and why.
So compassion is something that really can help you become more connected to other people. So for example with this colleague that I helped her out, I am sure that that meant a lot to her because she was really struggling. You can imagine what it’s like to be at a 10 out of 10 in terms of distress level and when she walked away from that session only 15 minutes later she felt completely different. She didn’t feel ashamed of herself anymore. She didn’t blame herself for her father’s death anymore. There was less physical tension in her body. She wasn’t feeling all of this collapse or this tension, so it really did a number and I have yet to see kind of what happens with her, but what I said to her was, “ Now you have an opportunity to truly grieve the loss of your father without having to carry on this additional burden of the responsibility as if you had something to do with it.” So this is what compassion can do. It is helping another person perhaps problem-solve in whatever way you can so that they have an alleviation of their issue or of their suffering.
Where compassion sometimes goes wrong — you might have heard of the term compassion fatigue and that’s typically when you feel emotionally or physically exhausted. And I think it’s kind of a misnomer and here’s why. I think what happens is it’s really empathy fatigue. It’s when you’re feeling so much other people’s distress that you’re taking that on, then you start to feel the burden of that, right? So it’s kind of like the second-hand trauma if you will. I really think it’s a misnomer. I think it’s more to do with feeling the other person’s distress and having that take a toll on you. And I just found a statistic that said the between 16 and 85% of healthcare workers in various fields actually develop compassion fatigue and again I think that it’s again it could be like a secondary traumatic stress. It is when they’re taking on the other person’s distressing event, emotion, and so forth, and now they’re starting to feel it themselves both emotionally and sometimes even in their physical body.
So again, it’s really important to make that differentiation so that you are not getting into that other person’s shoes. Compassion, you might think of it as, “I see that pair of shoes over there. I can see how stepping into the shoes might be really challenging, might be really painful. I don’t have to go step into them. I can just look at them from afar, understand them conceptually and say ‘you know, what those shoes need right now is shoe shining’” or something along those lines. You get the metaphor.
Okay! So now I want to share with you how to make this practice a little bit more hands-on because a lot of times my clients are like, “What can I do to have more compassion for myself?” And compassion for self is actually sometimes even harder than compassion for other people. And that is because we’re so hard on ourselves. We have so much self-criticism, self-judgment. We’re so hard on ourselves so much of the time and I think this is very much cultural, that it is hard for us to really be kind and that’s essentially the opposite of being harsh, being judgemental.
And so along comes a researcher in the field by the name of Kristin Neff, which I’ve mentioned before, I believe, and she comes up with three factors that you can really grasp onto to take this concept of compassion and think about it in three separate ways.
So the first is really about your self-talk. So are you really judgmental, self-critical, do you beat yourself up, all the things I just said? If so then you are not very self-compassionate and she actually has a quiz on her website, and I’ll also leave the link in the show notes, to find out how compassionate you really are with yourself. She’s got this quiz where you fill out just a few questions and you can get your score, which is kind of cool. So that’s the first factor, the first component that we’re looking at with regards to self- compassion is your self-talk.
The second one is about your relationship to other people. And so, do you tell yourself that other people are able to do all these things but you’re the only one that can’t or that you know everyone has figured this out except for you and as a result of that mindset you are less likely to become vulnerable and to really share when you are struggling with other people because you worry that they’re going to judge you? One of the things that I like to teach is that often when we worry about other people judging us it is often a projection of our own thoughts. So if we’re the kind of person who judges others or even, more accurately, most of the time just judges ourselves, then we anticipate that other people are going to judge us too and then we are less likely to show up authentically and be vulnerable with them. So if you are one of those people who tries to do everything on your own and cover up and pretend like everything’s great and not really show up authentically, then you would also score lower on Kristin Neff’s self-compassion score, all right?
And the third component that she talks about is relative to your emotions. So when you experience these negative emotions do you stay mindful of them or do you get swept up by them? And that’s a really big distinction. One requires self-awareness so that you’re like, “Yes! I’m noticing this is happening” and self-management “and now I know what to do about it.” These are all, by the way, Emotional Intelligence skills that you can absolutely learn and things that I teach all the time, or when people don’t have those skills in place for no fault of their own, but just because they haven’t been taught, then they end up getting swept up by the emotions and they are less likely to stay in control of themselves and their situation and often are beating themselves up, are feeling really negative, all the things that we just said.
So all of these three factors, the self-talk, the way that you kind of think about other people and how vulnerable you show up, and how mindful you are of your emotions comprise the three aspects of Kristin Neff’s self-compassion quiz. So I encourage you to take that quiz and find out how you are doing and then based on that come back over time and retake it and see if your score has improved when you’re starting to apply some of the principles that we’re talking about. So if you did score low or if you know that you don’t score very high with regard to self compassion, chances are, and this is what I see with the majority of my clients, is that you are not very kind to yourself. So that’s a great place for you to start. Just becoming more aware of your sel- talk, about how you might have some beliefs about why you need to be berating yourself all the time, why it’s important to hold on to that. Often times people will say, “If I don’t beat myself up then I’ll become lazy and I won’t accomplish as much.” Notice that because that’s not true. You can’t really beat yourself up into accomplishment, at least not long-term. It doesn’t work. So you really need to clean up some of those beliefs so that you can show up in a way that’s actually going to work for you strategically for the long haul. And that means that you need to be your own cheerleader as opposed to somebody who beats yourself up.
So if I was to leave you with one action step for this week it’s to go ahead, take the quiz, and start working on whichever aspect you score lowest on. Chances are it is your self-talk and so finding ways to become more self-aware of how it is that you speak to yourself, why you think that is serving you, and if you know it’s not serving you but you can’t help yourself because you’re just on autopilot, then it’s really about just increasing your mindfulness muscle and there’s all different things you can do for that.
But one of the main things that I would recommend is that you start to pay attention to how you treat yourself. Perhaps you have a check in where you write things down or you just start to notice the voice as opposed to letting it go unnoticed. Find ways to really tap into that voice and understand why it is that you end up feeling the way that you do.
And to leave this conversation off on a positive note, I want to share a quote by Albert Einstein.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
As you can see, Albert Einstein understood that much of what goes on in our mind is really a delusion. We start to believe these thoughts that we have about what’s right, what other people are thinking, and it creates a real chasm between us and others and between us and ourselves. And so I really encourage you to take this work seriously because it can really truly impact your life in a profound way.
If you are looking for additional resources for your own stress and your relationship with yourself and want to find ways to master your mindset, I did put together a Mindset Mastery Starter Kit which you can download for free on my website at www.drsharongrossman.com
So I encourage you to grab these resources, to put these challenges to work for you so that you can continue to grow. They take just a few minutes and it makes a massive difference. And that my friends is all about optimizing. I’ll see you next time.