What Really Is Compassion

Compassion is defined as a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. When we consider it a bit more deeply, what it’s really describing is experiencing the pain along with the sufferer. It’s a virtue considered admirable by nearly all cultures and religions, and those who practice compassion have a desire to make a difference in the lives of those experiencing difficulties. 

Common Expressions of Compassion

When faced with the word compassion, the first images many conjure up are of efforts like volunteering at a homeless shelter or giving your clothing or unwanted furniture to a veteran’s organization. Exhibiting caring or helpfulness to those in need are traits which modern society associates with compassion. But there are many other ways of showing compassion and more individuals deserving of it; who needs compassion more than those recovering from a traumatic experience – an event or situation in which a person feels threatened, helpless and unable to escape, no matter if the effect was physical, emotional, or a combination of both.

An outsider thinking about compassion may recognize that someone suffering from any level of trauma (formally diagnosed or not) is feeling vulnerable and going through the process of emotional and physical healing. What they likely do not consider is that the victim/survivor (depending on the day, you may feel one way or the other about yourself) has no compassion for her- or himself. Survivors often feel shame and guilt, low self-worth, thoughts that they may have deserved the abuse or trauma, that they’re hopeless, helpless, that they may never again feel the level of confidence they had before the event, and the list goes on. 

Shame is the at the Core After Trauma 

Many trauma survivors feel ashamed – of their experience, their lack of action to prevent or stop the trauma, or the fact that they just don’t feel the same afterwards. Shame is about judging yourself negatively and questioning your own worth. It’s a powerful emotion and sabotages recovery, undermining your efforts to recover. And although people will continually remind you that what happened to you isn’t your fault, so many survivors struggle to accept this, even if it’s an unconscious thought. Shame does not help recovering and doesn’t assist in correcting an action or feeling, it only causes you to judge yourself—on something you had no ability to change (whether by the physical surroundings, actions of others, or mental/emotional innocence). One of the remedies for this judgment or criticism is self-compassion.

Signs You Need Self-Compassion

There are many common behaviors after trauma that indicate a need to show yourself some compassion, including:

  • Constantly criticizing your own behaviors
  • Turning away (refusing to accept or downplay) kind gestures from others
  • Continually thinking something is wrong with you
  • Seeking solitude without clear reason
  • Becoming obsessed with particular behaviors

Methods to Showing Self-Compassion

There are methods to improving self-compassion, most requiring not heroic effort but mainly a change in mindset, from thinking you’re struggling because something is wrong with you, to understanding that your reactions make sense because of something that happened to you.

  • Recognize when you are experiencing negative thoughts about yourself.  This is in most cases a habit and not your true feelings. It’s important to develop a strategy for acknowledging them and turning them around, which may include distracting yourself, positive self-talk, and thinking about how you’d respond to a friend who shared these thoughts about themselves (because we’re never as hard on our friends as we are on ourselves).
  • Lessen self-destructive behaviors. We tend to focus on things which may have helped reduce our stress in the early days, but have no real benefit long-term. Restricting the diet, avoiding hobbies you once loved, discontinuing exercise, and even ceasing to participate in activities with friends and family may have given you a chance to focus on your recovery in the beginning. They are not helpful in the long run, in the effort to return to your typical lifestyle.
  • Practice kindness and compassion with others. One way to turn away from negative feelings towards oneself is to turn your efforts (and positivity) to helping others. Not only do you benefit from the thankfulness you receive from your actions, you can see the good that you provided in the world; this goes a long way to improving self-worth.

Ways to Show Compassion to Someone Else

To the outsider, conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and other exhibitions of recovery from trauma are scary. They may want to help but aren’t sure where to start. Like seeing someone suffering from a heart attack, if you don’t know how to provide assistance you may step back when something is happening, or try avoid the situation altogether. However, just like taking a first aid class and learning CPR, you can learn skills to show compassion to those in the throes of trauma recovery. Three relatively simple steps can help you improve compassion and help trauma survivors: BPT.

  • Believe: Especially in trauma situations like childhood or spousal abuse or other emotional abuse situations, your initial reaction may be of disbelief or disdain, which can be simply a reaction to hearing the truth and a desire not to believe that something like this could happen. Know that your reactions are vivid to the survivor and, just like first impressions are significant and memorable, you may be re-victimizing a person who chose to share their story with you. It takes a lot to tell someone how you feel after trauma, so it’s important to keep your negative reactions in check.
  • (Be) Present: Once you have heard the news, don’t feel like you can—or should—fix the person or the situation. If this is an ongoing event, realize there are trained experts who can handle this situation and that is most likely not you. Even if you are a trained professional who could deal with it, you may be too close to the situation. The best reaction is to tell the survivor that you’re there for them and acknowledge the courage they showed to tell you. Keep all comments about them and not you or your feelings.
  • (Say) Thank You: By telling their story to you, they showed you one of the most treasured things they could—trust. Don’t take this lightly and recognize the cost of this gift.

We all have different levels of compassion – some are naturally more compassionate, others have to work on it. And while helping others is a worthy goal, the most important person to be compassionate towards, especially if you’ve experienced trauma, is you.

Photo by J W on Unsplash