One day in 2006, I sat in my clinical instructor’s living room for a day devoted to discussing care for the dying. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, but it is a day that I will never forget. It was filled with heavy emotions as we discussed grief and how to support someone who is facing their own mortality.
One thing that stayed with me from that day was a discussion where my instructor broke down the differences between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. While these 3 are sister terms, each helps us connect to others differently:
- Sympathy – “I see you are in pain.”
- Empathy – “I can understand and feel your pain.”
- Compassion – “I might not understand your pain, but I see you, and I am here with you.”
Empathy is a powerful tool for connecting with others. However, throughout my experience working as a navigator, compassion seems to be a more effective tool and a more manageable load than empathy. Empathy requires understanding another person’s feelings and experiences. In contrast, compassion only requires the willingness to be present and listen to another person. In addition, empathy can be hard to achieve if you have burnout, struggle with your own challenges, or are not able to connect with that person’s experience. This is where compassion has its power because it doesn’t change, fix, or explain. Compassion only requires attentive listening without judgment.
So how do we develop compassion?
The first step is practicing compassion with ourselves as a radical act of self-love and self-healing.
As a burnout coach and from my own experience, I have observed many of us say things to ourselves that we would never say to another person. I have found working on self-love and teaching self-compassion is an effective tool for improving personal resiliency that can help increase our compassion for others.
Here are 3 tips I give to clients to help increase self-compassion:
- Put your thoughts about yourself through the “biggest support” filter.
Our thoughts are not facts—they are stories created from our lived experience, education, and personal backgrounds. If you think something about yourself, ie, “I made an idiot of myself,” think of your biggest supporter and ask yourself if they would agree.
- Whenever you say something cruel to yourself, add an “and” statement to take away its power.
“And” is a powerful tool to help take away the power of thoughts that we might not be ready to let go of. So, if you are thinking, “I made an idiot of myself,” you can add a statement to help decrease the power of the original thought. For example, “I made an idiot of myself, AND I am still loveable.”
- Practicing self-soothing touch.
When you find yourself self-critical, place your hands over your heart center, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Warm, safe touch is an activity that releases oxytocin, a bonding hormone that helps our bodies handle stress.
In the beginning, these might feel weird to do, but the more you practice, the more natural it will feel. While it might not erase the negative stories and judgments, it will help you learn to manage them and decrease their power over you. Compassion starts with us, and you deserve all the compassion you give others.