Be nice to yourself. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Few would disagree that this advice would lead to a life of less fighting and more empathy.
Why don’t we always exercise compassion?
American culture can promote competitiveness and celebrate where it’s easy to never be satisfied and think that we should do more. We place high demands on ourselves and sometimes have similar expectations of others, believing, “If I do, why can’t you do it?” says Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In this dynamic, nobody benefits from doubt. Social media can exacerbate the divide by having people post their positions without being interested in another perspective. It’s also a place where we can see how great everyone else looks in their photos. We end up using information (which may or may not be) to judge our insides from the outside world, says Melissa Brodrick, ombudsperson at Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and Harvard School of Public Health. “We can be our own worst critics.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer. It has created tremendous daily stress and insecurity, forcing us to show empathy for others because we need some for ourselves. However, it is difficult to be thoughtful and considerate all the time. We get tired and hungry. We have deadlines or children doing distance school. We are thrown off and reach a breaking point. “Welcome to humanity,” says Booth Watkins.
Learning self-compassion can help with stress
In order to successfully cope with the fluctuations in normal life stress in connection with COVID stress, we must learn and practice self-compassion on a daily basis. When we are kind and supportive to ourselves, we can better control fear and stay out of the fight or flight response. Cortisol, a stress hormone, drops. The blood pressure drops. The heart rate normalizes. And when we are mostly self-compassionate, we remain in an overall healthier, calmer state.
Self-compassion can be built. We need to focus on what we can control, be disciplined to establish new habits that broaden our perspective and promote acceptance, and be aware that we need to practice these new habits that are easier to apply, but are never automatic.
Five ways to practice giving and receiving a break
Be thankful. You want to see positive things. Some are as big as a blue sky; Some are less obvious, like the chance to make a mistake and learn. Try jotting down four or five moments a day and that will eventually become your playlist. “When you take the time to do the things you’re grateful for, you have less time to worry about the negative things,” says Booth Watkins.
Let go. People sometimes get into trouble by overestimating their importance. This can mean that you never go on vacation, refuse to delegate responsibilities, or become more involved than necessary in stressful situations. Brodrick says one way is to write your concern down on a piece of paper, get it out of sight, and try to forget about it. After a week, reread what you wrote and take stock of what actually happened. You may find that, “Oh, it came off by itself,” and realize that you can let go of some things and trust them to be addressed without you, she says.
Take your time for Really listen. You don’t have to like or agree with what is being said. But when you listen to understand and show the person that you listened by asking real questions and summarizing what has been said, the hostility and defense for the speaker may subside. This can lead to the other person trying to listen in the same way. “It can be the beginning of confidence-building in stressful situations,” says Brodrick, adding that it can be helpful to think about how it feels when you really feel heard and understood – and when you haven’t. The former can often make you feel respected, validated, empowered, and connected. “And who wouldn’t want these things?” She says.
Show curiosity. Once again, linked to listening is not about accepting anyone’s feelings. You are really trying to answer, “What could be wrong with this person?” You can ask specific questions about what the person is doing, where they are from, and how a conclusion was reached. Even if it is an internal process, the result is similar. You went from judge to detective trying to piece a story together. It is no longer about what that person is doing to You. It’s all about figuring out what they’re doing, says Booth Watkins.
Recruit a friend. Much like a hiking or training partner, another person can show you up and help you be accountable. This also applies to your emotional wellbeing. Set up an arrangement for you to check in daily with something as simple as “How’s it going?” You could also make it a challenge to take a five-minute break or listen to a song and report when it happened with the slogan “Have you done it yet?” Sometimes friendly pressure is the missing ingredient. “You don’t have to do it alone. We’re not alone on this planet,” says Booth Watkins.
Despite these steps, it is good to remember that stress does not and should not go away completely. “Some fears are a natural response. It drives us, but when we combine it with judgment and shame, it’s no longer helpful, ”says Booth Watkins.
And it also helps to remind yourself that perfection is not the goal. It’s similar to trying to stick to the exercise: skipping a day doesn’t discount everything you’ve accomplished before. It just means you missed that day. With empathy, you try to build a more routine and more emotional “muscle”. You will still have moments when you are absent and not as compassionate as you’d like, but with practice you will also be better able to forgive yourself. “We’re all in the works,” says Brodrick.