Sad little boy being hugged by his mother.

Bringing Compassion to Difficult Times

Peace at Home May 1, 2020 | Ruth Freeman

We’ve been offered much advice on how to improve our immunity, manage the stress and uncertainty, and come out of this stronger. Setting goals and intentions for our behavior is useful, but holding ourselves to an impossible standard, or being harshly self-critical when we don’t meet that standard, only fuels guilt, shame, and more stress. Instead, we can practice being aware of our coping strategies and remain self-compassionate when we fall short of the ideal. If we can stay out of judgment of ourselves (and others) and remain curious about our behavior, we have a better shot at noticing and changing the behaviors that are not serving us.

At our core, we don’t feel safe right now. There is real threat and there is perceived threat, and the uncertainty of it all adds to that fear and anxiety. The lack of safety keeps us in a state of high alert and reactivity which is not conducive to good decision making. As many experts will tell you, it is important to sleep well, eat well, exercise, and keep some semblance of normalcy. These are great intentions. But, let’s not add insult to injury by expecting that we can or will do that perfectly. We are all suffering and we are all doing our best.

Our relationships may be suffering. Ideally, we would remain empathic, understanding, and co-regulate our children and each other. However, holding ourselves to this standard does not allow for the normal range of human emotion. It leaves no room for the unavoidable triggers and conditions that may take us to the brink. Feelings of loss, grief, fear and overwhelm can leave us short-fused or shut down. When we have a disruption such as a blowup or harsh exchange, we can repair. We repair when we’ve gotten ourselves in a better state, recognizing our reactivity, and re-engage, perhaps sharing what we were thinking or feeling in that moment. We can convey to another that we see and understand their internal experience, even, and especially, when it’s different from our own. Repairing in this way teaches those close to us that we are all human, we don’t have to be perfect, and we can mess up and make it better.

It is more important than ever to find compassion, not just for others, but for ourselves. The research on self-compassion is clear; Practicing self-compassion reduces fear and reactivity. It makes us more likely to persevere when we’ve “fallen off the wagon” whether that be by eating poorly, staying on screens too long, drinking too much or any other behavior that feels good in the moment but can make our mood, or health, worse. Self-compassion gives us permission to have bad moments, bad days, or a bad week and still regain our ground and begin again. Reacting harshly by berating ourselves for not meeting high expectations, only increases the likelihood that we will give up, or engage in more self-destructive behavior.

The good news is we can recognize our suffering and respond to it, with practice. When we notice our reactivity or our impulse to have a drink, reach for the sweets, or snap at our partner or child, we can pause, sit with the discomfort, and bring a soothing response to ourselves the way a good friend might. Try sitting with the sensations in the body and simply noticing them. Often, taking this pause is enough for the discomfort to dissipate. We can also tune in to the thoughts swirling around, which may be anxious or negative, driving our behavior. Notice them as you would a curious observer, without giving them too much power or truth. Consider what you might say to a friend who was suffering in this way. Try offering yourself the same kind words or encouragement.

We can recognize our humanity and our shortcomings with a willingness to see it all, be with it all, and begin again, without condemning or berating. These are important skills in this time of high anxiety but also life skills that we can model for our children and for each other. Let’s stay curious, stay out of judgment, and let love and compassion lead our way through this, together.

Susan Averna, PhD
Developmental Psychologist and Consultant.

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