The Healing Power of CompassionApril 11, 2012 • By Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, Self-Care Topic Expert Contributor
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. -Dalai Lama
In life we encounter many different experiences. Some are joyful and uplifting, and others are painful and challenging. When we encounter joy, there is a yearning to have it last forever, but when there’s pain our first reaction is to avoid, ignore, or push it away. When we react to joy or pain with any form of resistance—clinging to joy, pushing away or ignoring pain—we suffer. What helps us walk through our suffering and the suffering of others is to become aware of when we are reacting to pain and learn to transform this reaction into a compassionate, caring response.
Cultivating a Compassionate Response
My first encounter in learning to confront suffering with compassion was many years ago, when I held a position as an intern at a center for survivors of domestic violence. In this environment, I learned a great deal about extreme suffering, as the women I encountered lived in a hostile, aggressive, and sometimes dangerous environment. In the beginning I felt overwhelmed just trying to learn how to help people deal with life-threatening, painful situations while remaining objective. Working in this setting was stressful, and I recall leaving the center in tears as I watched clients return to hostile and oftentimes dangerous situations. It brought up deep feelings of helplessness, frustration, and judgment.
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In helping these survivors, my initial reaction was to try and fix, change, or in some way rescue them. This was a reactive response as I was trying to get the pain (theirs and mine) to subside, and guess what? It didn’t work! It only increased my own feelings of helplessness and didn’t create the supportive, compassionate environment that promotes healing and empowerment. Luckily, I had a compassionate, patient, and wonderful supervisor who taught me that providing a nonjudgmental presence, connecting with an open heart, and having compassion towards the person, and myself, as I listened to their stories was what healed. This meant I had to let go of trying to control the outcome and allow myself to be present with their pain and my own. It was a growth experience that continues to help me in my professional and personal life.
Opening Heart and Mind Helps Connect and Heal
Running groups for survivors of domestic violence, I hear stories about physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. These stories are traumatic and heart-breaking. They all share a common theme of fear, loss of identity, and confusion. The shared experience of having to set aside their needs in an attempt to meet the needs of a controlling partner, whose wants and expectations are insatiable and unrealistic, left them with a sense of low self-worth, shame, and suffering. What helps them heal and become empowered is their ability to let go of judgment, share their stories in a supportive environment, and learn to develop a practice of self-care and compassion.
What Gets in the Way of Compassion
As we travel through life we will encounter pain. It might be through the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or recovery from a severe illness. Or perhaps it’s the small stuff that brings up feelings of shame, inadequacy, or worthlessness. When this happens, the tendency is to get lost in judgment; we beat ourselves or others up in an attempt to stop the pain. This only intensifies our suffering. Caught in this reactive response we forget that there’s a real need to treat ourselves with kindness, love, and compassion. When we turn towards suffering with compassion it helps us heal and reconnect with life.
The Practice of Compassion
In helping people learn the skill of transforming reactivity into a compassionate and caring response, I use the example of a hurt child or a pet. I ask them how they would help a child who is sad or a pet that is hurt. What would that response look like? They usually state they’d give the child or pet a hug and comfort them with kind words or a gentle touch. Our deepest need, when we are in pain, is compassion; this is what helps us heal. It is not a luxury, it’s a necessity! This turning towards pain, with an open heart and the intention to heal, is what helps us to live life fully.
Becoming aware of when we are reacting or in any way judging ourselves is the first step. The second step is to become present with how our bodies, minds, and hearts are responding to the experience of pain. Setting an intention to be kind towards ourselves and let go of reacting is what helps us to connect with compassion.
The following are some steps you can take towards developing a caring and compassionate practice:
- Awareness is the first step! Notice when you are reactive or triggered. Your body sends signals when reactivity happens. You might feel blood rushing to your face or a tensing up of the hands or body. Your breathing may be shallow and your thoughts may be filled with judgment.
- Connect with the present moment by letting go of thoughts and focusing on the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out of your body, or focus on feeling the ground beneath your feet. This helps to slow down reactivity and calm the mind.
- Place your hand on your heart in acknowledgment of the difficulty you are facing in this moment. Imagine the placing of the hand on the heart as symbolic of opening the heart to compassion or sending healing to the hurt place inside.
- Visualize yourself held or embraced by a spiritual figure or someone who loves you.
- Allow yourself to take in the healing sensation of compassion until you feel calmer and more connected to the present moment.
When we allow ourselves to care for ourselves and others, it is a profound act of kindness that refills the heart, energizes the body, and nourishes the soul. In that moment of opening our hearts to self and others, we recognize the immense healing power of compassion and reconnect with life and love.
May you be free from suffering.
May your heart be filled with compassion.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.
NinaApril 11th, 2012 at 1:05 PM
Compassion makes you feel like you know and understand what another is going through when they are experiencing a difficult time in life. It helps you to gain focus on the things that are good in your own life and lets you share this with someone else. So many times we have buried our heads in the sand and have not been willing to see the suffering that so many others are having to face while we are going about our own daily lives. But when we open our eyes to the world around us and really see the hardships that other friends and family are having to deal with it, it enables us to be more sympathetic to their situations and at the same time encourages us to share even more love and support with them.
Julie F.March 11th, 2015 at 9:06 AM
I am not correcting you, I only want you to replace the word sympathetic with the word empathetic….. it’s far more empowering in both the connection with the other person, and with the recovery process :)
CarmenApril 11th, 2012 at 3:28 PM
Offering one compassion and forgiveness is essentially the same thing as offering one love. There is absolutley nothing about any of that that could make you feel bad.
catherine yApril 12th, 2012 at 1:23 PM
Why should I exert so much of my time and neergy on hating someone else?
I have far too many things to accomplish to settle for that kind of behavior.
Kathy CustrenApril 13th, 2012 at 8:56 AM
Excellent post, Cindy! You have definitely conveyed the necessity of compassion. Thank you so much for sharing the difference between reacting to the pain and approaching it with equanimity and awareness. Just wonderful ~ Blessings!
Cindy ricardoApril 13th, 2012 at 9:01 AM
Thank you for your comments! I appreciate you sharing your own experiences with approaching pain with compassion. Nina, this sis so true that being with someone and vbeing able to see the world through their eyes, opening your heart to them and offering support and love is what helps them and you feel connected and loved! Carmen, it is such a healing and loving action and sometimes it’s painful to open our hearts to others and our own suffering. Catherine, most times we don’t intentionally close our hearts and hatred is usually a sign that a person is in a lot of pain and are reacting to it by becoming defensive, resentful or guarded…this is why compassion is such an important part of healing and staying connected to life and each other.
Steve FlowersApril 13th, 2012 at 11:00 AM
Beautifully expressed Cindy – such an important teaching and holy work.
sarahApril 14th, 2012 at 1:00 AM
wonderful article.its so true that we often just try to push away a bad feeling rather than supplying the medicine for it-compassion and love.we need to teach this to ourselves and to others.
Robert RosselApril 15th, 2012 at 8:28 AM
Lovely post Cindy. I hope many folks share thoughts/reflections coming from their own experience re the healing power of compassion. It is a very deep and rich topic! Thank you.
Laya SeghiJune 3rd, 2012 at 9:01 AM
Thank you for the reminder that compassionate presence is best when we include ourselves as well.
Your article brought to mind this anonymous quote: “The knowledge that time passes makes bad times bearable and good times precious.”
Cindy ricardoJune 3rd, 2012 at 12:28 PM
Thank you Steve, Robert and Laya for your comments and sharing your wisdom…yes it’s true that what really helps us flow with life is accepting our moment to moment experience and responding to it with an open heart mind and loving presence…this is the practice of letting go of aversion or clinging and flowing with life instead of fighting against it and in those moments where there is resistance it is acknowledging the pain in a loving compassionate embrace.
Ana Cristina SantosJuly 9th, 2012 at 5:13 AM
Thank you for your sharing your experience, that’s compassion too. Best regards.
kAREN ZIMMERMANJuly 10th, 2012 at 5:34 AM
just one fabulous artice !~therapy the way therapy ought to be,,thanks!!
Karen Wager-Smith, PhDApril 5th, 2013 at 1:17 PM
Cindy, I found this article profound. As a neurobiologist, I’ve asserted the theory that psychologically painful events actually create physical microinjuries in the brain. I’m wondering if compassion is actually the psychological correlate of the neurobiological process of healing. Thus, if we can get our minds through the psychological steps necessary to arrive at the feeling of self-compassion, we have actually triggered the neurobiological healing process. Thank you for giving us step by step instructions for how to give ourselves permission to heal.
Cindy RicardoApril 28th, 2013 at 7:06 PM
Hi Karen…thank your for your comment. Your point about psychologically painful events creating microinjuries in the brain makes sense. I’m not a neurologist but I can attest to the fact that deep wounds whether they happened in early childhood or recently have a profound affect on our ability to stay present. These events have a tendency to leave imprints that are set off by triggers (places, scents, sounds, people) associated with the wounding/traumatic experience. Clients usually report feeling alone, ungrounded and overwhelmed and what often helps is the ability to bring awareness to what is happening and to be compassionate towards self, acknowledging the difficulty/pain in need of soothing, calming and healing. I’m so glad that this post helped you. Feel free to pass it along to others who may benefit from it. Thanks again!
John BJune 17th, 2015 at 11:51 AM
I just printed out a number of your posts, they seem very insightful. I will read them carefully today and I am currently working on some of these issues with my therapist. For me, I have very little compassion for myself as I internalized a lot of judgment and criticism. At 60, I really do not know if I can change and many times, I do not give a damn about others. For me, all I heard was help others always and be of service — now, I come first and if the world doesn’t like it – TOUGH! Yes, my therapist is helping me to be assertive and set boundaries and I am still in a lot of pain over many experiences of being bullied and self-rejection — THANK YOU church, school, family and all other ‘socializing’ institutions for setting me up for failure in $$, relationships and career. I am learning better ways of doing life, but all of my past people can GO TO HELL! At 60, I will listen to your words; however, I have NO inherent desire to believe anything you say anymore.
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