Recent surveys by Relationships Australia indicate that the Christmas period is a time of increased stress for many families. While finances and work certainly contribute to this stress, family time can also be rife with old tensions that dampen the holiday spirit. One antidote to this tension is compassion. While it may be difficult to muster compassion for difficult individuals in our lives, the rewards are plentiful. According to Paul Gilbert, M.D., head of the Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Derby, we can begin to deliberately cultivate compassion by “learning to cultivate compassionate attention, compassionate thinking, compassionate feeling, and compassionate behavior.” Not only can this compassion help to strengthen our relationships, but it can also improve our own mental health. Explore the many benefits of compassion, how to start cultivating it for difficult people, and how to find self-compassion during trying times.
How Compassion Impacts Mental Health
The literal meaning of compassion is “to suffer together.” It is the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s plight or predicament, and you feel motivated to alleviate their suffering. Research has proven that when you feel compassion, your heart rate slows down, you produce the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and parts of your brain linked to empathy and pleasure are activated, which often results in the desire to care for others. But compassion for others doesn’t just benefit them. It can also have significant effects on your mental health. Brain scans show that during compassionate meditation your mind wanders less and tends to focus more positively on the present moment. And by activating the pleasure circuits of the brain, compassion leads to lasting increases in self-reported happiness. There are physical benefits, too. By boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, compassion has the ability to lower your risk of heart disease.
How to Find Compassion for Difficult People
Knowing the benefits of compassion is one thing. Cultivating it for difficult people is another. Surprisingly, this work begins by taking responsibility for your own suffering. Before you can feel compassion for a person who triggers you, you must become aware of why you become activated in the first place. When you feel this activation happening, it’s crucial to zoom out from the sensations that arise and acknowledge them fully. Find a private space to verbalize your suffering: ‘I am frustrated with this person,’ or ‘I feel judged by this person.’ Or you can simply visualize these statements. When you can verbalize or visualize your suffering, you are able to deactivate the amygdala, a brain region involved in negative arousal and physiological responses typical of fear and anxiety states. Once you have identified the negative feelings that have arisen, you can take responsibility for them. After all, one important maxim used in the Hoffman Process is, “While other people may trigger us, our reactions are 100% our responsibility to deal with.”
Once you have taken responsibility for your own emotions, you can turn your attention to the individual. If they are behaving in a way that is upsetting, such as criticizing you or acting passive aggressively, is it possible to see them as an emotional child? What are their wounds? What needs do they have? Do they find it difficult to ask for help? Do they strive for perfection as a plea for respect? By seeing this difficult person as an emotional child unaware of how to meet their own needs, it’s easier to start opening the door to compassion.
While it may be tempting to hide until the season is over or take a solo trip to avoid running into people you know, suppressing uncomfortable emotions may do more harm than good. In an eye-opening study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester, researchers found that people who bottled up their emotions increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, with their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70%. Allowing yourself to face difficult emotions (and the people who provoke them!) may just be the best route to long-lasting health.
Practicing Fierce Self-Compassion
The holiday season is also a wonderful time to practice self-compassion, something that may fall to the wayside when striving to buy the perfect gifts, cook the perfect meals, and make it through family functions unscathed. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Fierce Self-Compassion, when we hold our pain with loving, connected presence, we start to transform and heal. Her theoretical model of self-compassion includes three core components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness of suffering. Being able to soothe and comfort yourself when in pain is an admirable act of self-kindness. Recognizing that suffering is part of the shared human condition allows you to loosen your grip when things don’t go according to plan. And mindfulness allows you to hold and validate your pain with open-hearted acceptance. In the spirit of giving, don’t forget to give back to yourself. Compassion might just become your favourite new tradition.
This article was contributed by Erica Garza. Follow @ericadgarza on Instagram