I’ve been watching my grandmother take care of my grandfather for the last year or so, dedicatedly taking him to appointments, helping him with most things and taking on so many more responsibilities that they use to share, as he’s becoming less able to do so. A few months a ago she underwent her own little health scare, and I know some of it must be due to compassion fatigue.
Something that is emerging in the science of emotion, is the discovery of something called mirror neurons. These special neurons help us perceive in our own bodies what others are experiencing. There are also areas in the brain dedicated to gauging social situations and resonating with the emotions of others. This type of empathetic resonance often happens at a preverbal, visceral level. According to K.Neff & C. Germer (2018), “Empathetic resonance is evolutionary adaptive because it allows us to cooperate with one another to better raise our young and defend ourselves against danger. We are hardwired for social interaction.”
Although empathy is usually a good thing, it can also be a problem, because sometimes when we are resonating with others in pain, we feel their pain as our own. This can be a very overwhelming experience for some. I am no stranger to this feeling. When my sister got stitches in grade 3, I immediately fell sick, when I’ve had friends talk about their surgeries, I’ve passed out—I sense things so deeply from others that it affects me in a very real way.
In some ways or another we all have this ability to feel the pain of others, and have developed different ways to cope with it. Often it involves tuning the other person out, or trying to immediately fix it. For example, have you ever opened up to someone about a struggle you were having and they immediately jumped in with advice on how to fix it, without really listening to your story? Or perhaps you have done this to someone? Sometimes the empathetic distress of another can bring up fears or memories in our own lives, so instead of sitting with the discomfort we immediately jump in with advice to distract ourselves from sitting with our own pain.
When I was recently at the hospital with my Grandpa he talked about the reality of his live coming to an end, and how much pain he was in. Many other family members would chime in that “Most people would be so happy to make it into their 90s” and so on. I took his hand and looked at him and said, “it’s okay to be feeling how you are feeling”, and he finally was validated and started to tear up. Compassion is the ability to hold pain without immediately having to make it go away. It also allows forges an emotional connection for the person who is experiencing it to know they are being heard and cared about.
For me it’s been hard to grow to a place where I can be with someone in their pain without being triggered. Some days are better than others, but I can tell you very clearly, that upholding empathy for others begins with compassion for ourselves. The days I am more connected to myself (through meditation, mindful movement, and self-awareness), the easier it is to be there for others. To be able to maintain a connection to yourself, and stay aware of our reactions while listening to another’s story allows you to hold space for the person without interrupting and undermining their experience. Sometimes it doesn’t feel right to think about yourself when someone we love is going through a much more difficult time than us—but when we also must recognize that we need to find a natural balance to maintain our level of support.
A helpful mindfulness exercise I adapted from the The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook is to practice an “In for Me, Our for You” breath.
Once settling yourself in to a comfortable seat and relaxing your body begin to notice your breath.As you draw the breath in, draw kindness and compassion in for yourself and as you exhale, breathe kindness and compassion out for the other person.If you wish, you can focus a little more on yourself (“two for me and one for you”) or vice versa (“one for me, three for you”, or just let it be an equal flow—whatever feels right in the moment.Drop any effort and just be with the natural, spontaneous flow of the breath. Feel the limitless ocean of compassion healing you and the other person simultaneously. 5. When you feel done, gently open your eyes.