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Can Compassion for Others Build Resilience in Ourselves?

As a Youth & Community Education Worker in the 90s, my colleagues used to kindly say that I needed to toughen up to meet the demands of challenging clients. I pondered on this, knowing I wanted to change something. Yet the idea of just acting tough didn’t feel authentic for me or even workable. I also wondered what I would lose in the process. Wasn’t my sensitivity also my strength?

Over the last 20 years training in Yoga, Mindfulness and Compassion I have been exploring this and have found a more embodied sense of inner strength and resilience.

Compassion training has been a life changer. The practice shifts our physiology and learning about the underlying science and psychology has been affirmative.  It consists of 2 psychologies each with its distinct physiology.

First the ability to feel the suffering of another, which shows up as a stress response in our system. Secondly the ability to transform this stress response into a Compassionate response of moving towards the other with the intention to alleviate suffering.  

The first response is the Flight, Flight, Freeze response, so we might get defensive, run away or shut down in the face of suffering. If we have strong feelings in response to suffering it’s very human, it’s a sign that we care. But we don’t want to get stuck in this state which has been called ‘empathic distress’. This is likely to lead to shutting down and not feeling.

The second moves us into the social engagement part of our nervous system, a more evolved part, where we can access feelings of love, caring, strength and courage.

Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal gives us tips from her research-based approach on how to move from empathic distress to cultivating a compassion response:

  1. Having the ability to stay with the one who is suffering in this moment
  2. Not losing all sense of self when helping another. Learning the skill of sensing the self whilst connecting with another. She suggests keeping 5% of your attention on yourself and 95% on the other. An embodied way of doing this might be to sense one foot on the floor.
  3. Not letting empathic distress take all your attention. Cultivating the ability to put one’s attention back on the other.   So, we focus on a sense of connection with the other person and our intention to relieve their suffering, bringing in feelings of love, appreciation, sense of care and affection. This shift us into our social engagement system and releases the feel- good and motivating chemicals of oxytocin and dopamine. This new state increases our ability to keep helping others.
  4. Having a sense of our own resources being enough to help relieve suffering. If we believe that what we are doing is helping then we get the feel-good factor which sustains our capacity for further compassion.   Whereas if we are mindful and feel caring but don’t believe in its capacity to help then we lose out on the helpful chemicals. In this case our compassion is likely to collapse. This often happens to people in the caring professions even though they have the commitment and care for what they do.

The compassionate action doesn’t have to be a big action to be effective. It might be a kind word or a kind gesture, simply being present with another and listening or holding space. We can make a difference through a shift in the quality of the things we do already. Brain imaging shows that the physiological state of compassion is one that supports not only our resilience in times of difficulty but also supports our thriving and flourishing.

Compassion is a state that benefits both the giver and the receiver, so that that giver is more likely to carry on giving.

Sally Roach regularly facilitates the Compassion Based Living Course in the North-East of England and offers bespoke training in organisations supporting staff in the caring professions, to help staff sustain their compassion and reduce secondary trauma and burn-out.  Helping individuals and organisations to care for themselves whilst caring for others. 

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