Increase Compassion by Remembering the ‘Good Stuff’

Recently, I asked participants in a domestic violence offender group about how they would define compassion. Some connected it with sympathy, others with doing what others want you to do. The fact that for most of them the word was not part of their daily vocabulary did not mean that they had never been compassionate. Unsurprisingly, they could remember some ‘good stuff’ and doing so may also help you to feel more secure in your relationships this year.

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The term compassion is not something we readily hear on the news; it’s hardly used in block buster movies. Although the word ‘compassion’ sounded strange to some men in the offender group, they were all familiar with acts of kindness that come out of concern for another person. They also agreed that there is a difference between feeling what another feels and acting upon this feeling.

Commonly, in psychology this distinction is made to distinguish between empathy and compassion. Empathy has been defined as the vicarious experiencing of an emotion that is congruent with, but not necessarily identical to the emotion of another individual, as well as the knowledge or understanding of another’s feelings tied to it (Eisenberg and Janet Strayer 1990). Compassion is more than that.

In broad terms, the term compassion refers to the ability to be touched by the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate their suffering. It has been associated with the vicarious experience of distress in response to another person’s suffering, a variant or blend of sadness or love, and as an evolutionary adaption that motivates helping behaviors for the sake of survival, reproduction, or both (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010).

The great news is that compassion also spreads. It reproduces itself because the recipients of compassion tend to become more compassionate themselves. Some researchers argue that higher “attachment security” is closely related to higher levels of compassion towards others and altruistic helping behavior (Shaver and Milkunicer (2004).

Attachment security or feeling valued, safe, and cared for in a relationship may be a result of your past experiences. It includes instances of having been treated supportively as a child, being involved in security enhancing close relationships during adulthood, being able to call upon mental representations of being cared for, being influenced by a security enhancing context, or a combination of these factors.

From this perspective, our human capacity to experience compassion is enhanced through trusting, secure, and protective relationships. While people with more attachment security are said to be able to show more compassion, little is known about the positive effects of compassion on attachment security and wellbeing in relationships.

In my own clinical practice, I found that even people who went through intense trauma, including many domestic violence offenders, “big” and “small” acts of compassion are common. Sometimes they are not seen as such and remain undervalued or not integrated into a coherent story about personal values and relationships.

For the men who had abused in the past, communication in the group provided a way to expand awareness about the benefits of compassion. In the past year, several had cared for sick family members, supported someone who struggled with everyday life problems, or intended to do so in the year to come. The group discussion provided them with a rare forum to develop a language around these act, to share and celebrate them.

In my opinion, one of the keys to cultivating compassion is to remember and become aware of the “small” compassionate acts we already perform. Once we value, understand, and enjoy them, we may create more possibilities to practice compassion – perhaps with the result of enhancing our own and other’s sense of safety and “attachment security.”

When I focus attention on the ‘good stuff’, I change neural pathways in my brain, a process called neuroplasticity. The term neuroplasticity is used to refer to our ability to change the physical structure of our brains throughout the lifespan (Siegel 2010). We can literally grow new synaptic connections through sustained and focused attention on compassionate acts. Is this going to increase your compassion? Try it out.

By reflecting and talking about past instances of turning empathy into action you may turn neural pathways into superhighways that inform future action.You turn something that is already present into the forefront and thereby make it more powerful. How have you acted compassionately lately?

 

 

 

Mindful Parenting: Beware of the ‘Boy Code’

Boys are often unintentionally put into a straightjacket of emotional constraint. Mindful parenting can help you cultivate compassion and put yourself into your son’s shoes. Instead of hardening a boy or young man by becoming emotionally more distant, you may choose to allow him to be vulnerable and dependent on the love and support of others just as you would with girls.

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Research has shown that mothers in the United States generally tend to use a greater variety in emotion language and show more vivid facial expressions when communicating with daughters. Both mothers and fathers commonly brush over more tender feelings when they are expressed by boys. This may happen to the extent that little boys expect their parents to respond far less warmly when they show sadness or fear.

Cultural stereotypes of the unwritten “boy code” keep boys from showing negative or vulnerable emotions and parents may reproduce them unintentionally. The result is emotional constraint apart from one strong feeling allowed: anger. When boys feel ashamed to show more tender feelings they commonly turn to anger. This is the case when the full range of emotional experience is constrained. Yes, it is true that gender stereotypes are changing. However, they are changing slowly and may present themselves in new guise. Today, psychologist William Pollack’s perspective is as relevant as almost 20 years ago when he wrote the book “The Boy Code”:

“…when we look closely at the behavior of young boys, and when we listen closely to their stories, we realize that what in men or older boys is often interpreted as a macho sense of rigor and cockiness, in reality often has much more to do with hardening. This hardening takes place and the mask goes up, not because boys or men feel particularly strong or self-assured, but rather because they don’t – they feel anxious to protect themselves from wounds to their already fragile male psyches. Once they have been shamed enough for failing to be fully masculine, once they’ve been told enough times that they should suppress their vulnerable feelings, once they’ve been actually physically injured for failing to meet the mark, boys allow the wounds to scar over, cover any remaining soft tissue, and act as if everything is going all right.”

A central tenet of mindful parenting is empathy and compassion. When you think back to your childhood, what did you most want from your parents? Children desire to be seen and accepted in the family for who they are, a desire to be treated with kindness, understanding, and compassion. This is true for boys and girls. However, when it comes to pressing children into a gender straightjacket of dominant stereotypes of masculinity, particularly boys and young men may lose out on warmth and tenderness given to them.

To be empathetic may be very challenging when the boy is yelling, screaming, or even starts to act out aggressively. This is why the ability to act compassionately takes intentional cultivation. It usually starts with becoming aware of what is happening in the moment. An awareness of your feelings is key. Only when you are able to pay attention to what is going on with you in a spirit of kindness, you are empowered to choose your response. You may find that you need to take a deep breath or get some additional support from another family member. In any case it is about responding rather than knee-jerk reactions.

To be empathetic and compassionate when kids are acting out is not easy. It is much less clear cut than traditional approaches such as distancing yourself and disciplining the child. As Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting” points out, there is no set formula. The challenge is to view difficult behaviors in a more non-judging and open manner that allows you as caretaker to keep a heartfelt connection to your boy – a connection the “boy code” wants to cut. This does not mean to be passive. Children are not fully able to self-regulate their emotions. They often need an adult caregiver to role-model sympathetic behavior and to give them some boundaries to hit up against and slow down. This is why mindful parenting is so much about being aware of what is going on with you in relation to the child, including your ideals and values about gender and masculinity.

 

 

How to create mindful relationships: Step One

Many mindfulness practitioners have noticed that we tend to be in a constant state of combat with ourselves. We are at war to escape the fact of being limited, limited by so many circumstances we cannot control. We want to get things we cannot have and once we have them we want something else. The same can be true for relationships.

We all know the experience of feeling attracted to a special person. After a while some of us find out that he or she does not have enough of one thing or too much of another. Sometimes there may be good reasons for a separation, break-up, or divorce, particularly when the relationship or marriage involves violence and abuse. However, often a relationship break-up can be avoided. Mindfulness can safe you from a continuing cycle of infatuation and dissatisfaction with the next partner, and the next.

To end the war we have to stop fighting. We need to stop fighting with ourselves and with our loved-ones. The first step is to be aware of what we hate and what we crave for right here and right now. Don’t judge yourself for whatever comes up when you are dissatisfied next time your partner doesn’t take out the trash, or does not listen to you, or does anything that triggers you. And don’t judge your partner. Instead take a breath and be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Are you tensing up? Be curious of what’s going on, every detail. This is the first step towards a mindful relationship. Sounds too easy to be effective? Try it out.

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