How might you apply compassion and self-compassion to the practical matters of your life… to make your life better? This is an important question and a very worthwhile one to ask. Why? First, because many people want to know — before they put time, energy, and effort into something — that something good will result. Secondly, and more importantly, practical application is a very important form of practice.
What happens in real life is that we find ourselves in situations where emotions are triggered. If the emotions are both negative and strong, compassion tends to go out the window. That is, if we aren’t watching for it and intentionally working with it.
But what if — in situations where in the past we were anything but compassionate — we could be compassionate and stay that way? As the book, The Anatomy of Peace puts it, what if we could have a “heart at peace” in these situations instead of our internal state being that of a “heart at war”… where we are not seeing people as people?
Making practices practical in everyday life is a love of mine, and the practical application of compassion can and will change your life. In this article, I will give you two big reasons why you want to apply compassion and self-compassion in challenging situations, the one big reason most people fear doing so, and a ten-step process you can try out for yourself. Let’s go.
Two Big Benefits
Let’s talk about two primary benefits of “bridging” compassion into our real-life challenges and situations, into situations where compassion, caring, and connection tend to go out the window. The two benefits are:
(1) We Think Better — Simply put: we think more clearly, more expansively, and more creatively. And,
(2) We Act from a Better Place — Simply put: the place from which we act matters as much as the act itself.
Intentionally applying compassion and self-compassion to real-life, challenging situations will help you think better and will help you act from a place that increases the positive impact of your action. We will dig into both, but first, we need to step back and look at how we get stuck in these real-life, challenging situations. When you understand even a little bit of what is happening inside of you during these situations, you can understand why intentionally applying self-compassion and compassion is powerful and empowering.
How We Get Stuck
When we are in a challenging situation, and most particularly those where we negative emotions are activated, our defenses become activated. These defensive reactions are sometimes necessary and can be the difference between life and death. But often, they are not. And the problem is that once the defenses are activated, those aspects of our brain and nervous system that can discriminate between perceived threat and real threat are not sufficiently “online” to help us differentiate. That’s a huge problem, and most people cannot reel this in once it is out.
What then happens when we are not awake is “defense by default,” whether or not it is needed. This is a good thing, evolutionarily speaking, because if we are not awake enough to discriminate, “worst case scenario” thinking and reaction help keep us alive. The trouble is that while this helps us survive in a few situations, it doesn’t exactly help us and the people around us thrive in all the other situations. A life lived out of our defenses is a life half-lived.
The problem with “defense by default” is two-fold.
1. Most of us don’t know we’ve gone unconscious and are no longer discriminating. In short, we have no awareness of our awareness, and therefore our lack awareness. We have no awareness that a default sub-routine in our neural wetware (brain and nervous system) is now on autopilot… and the real pilot is no longer in the wheelhouse at the wheel.
2. Even if we do sense that our default systems are running the show, we have no real strategy for working our way out of that state. Therefore, put us in a stressful situation, and we tend to repeat the same old behaviors. The defensive ones. As predictable as a machine. Our thinking and actions aren’t creative at all. They aren’t compassionate at all. But, we survive even though a part of us often dies a small death. Over time, this takes a toll and, worse, tends to reinforce the defensive mechanism.
Thus, we are stuck and we are not thinking creatively or acting appropriately in the situations that matter most. Our defensive behaviors and the underlying system that drives them becomes continually reinforced and reified. The neural networks that fire together, wire together, becoming faster and more efficient. The stuckness tends to get concretized.
But there is a way out. In fact, there are multiple ways. But here, we are focusing on one way out…
As we will see, compassion and self-compassion practices, done both proactively and in-the-moment, are effective tools for disrupting the system, reprogramming it, and therefore learning to discriminate between the rare situations where we are in actual danger and the frequent situations where we are not. These practices also help us work from a more grounded internal state, one that supports psychological safety… and help us think more expansively and creatively when we most need both. In fact, these practices help bring our prefrontal cortex online, giving us better access to some or all of nine key functions of the mid-prefrontal cortex (click here to see a one-pager of those nine functions).
Now that we understand even a little of how we are stuck in the real-life situations and challenges and have so little response flexibility, let’s look at two real-life problems that arise from this “defense by default” dynamic, this state of being, and look at how compassion and self-compassion practice can help.
Problem 1: Limited Thinking
When our defense mechanism is activated, we stop seeing other people as people. We objectify them. Further, when we stop seeing the other people around us as people, we start thinking — really — only about ourselves.
This happens even to people who see themselves and describe themselves as being very caring and compassionate. If their defense system becomes activated, even though they may believe they are caring and compassionate, quite unconsciously they become self-centered as well. It is harder for these well-intentioned people to see it because their self-image is built around seeing themselves as compassionate, caring, altruistic, and the like.
When our thinking becomes self-centered, our thinking becomes limited. Our perception is more closed. We cannot see things from multiple perspectives. We see things as being only one way, no shades of gray. No different vantage points. Anything inconsistent or contrary to our position is summarily rejected. We become judgmental. Further, our limited thinking becomes justified, meaning we cannot see and therefore cannot imagine that our thinking is limited. It isn’t limited. We think it is simply right.
We are cut off from creativity and creative options. Self-centered thinking, influenced by our defense mechanisms, is very limited thinking indeed. It will not be creative, because creative thinking is inclusive, is based not on emotion but on sensing and intuition and interaction. The latter things are things that our negative emotions eclipse when those emotions are running the show and activating our default defense mechanisms, cutting us off from true thinking.
What we will see below is that compassion and self-compassion — applied in real life — can move us from limited thinking to creative thinking… just when we need it the most. That alone is worth the price of admission. But the benefits don’t stop here. Because there’s another big problem that arises when we are in “defense by default” mode.
Problem 2: Negative Internal State
When our defensive mechanisms are activated and our emotions are running the show, our internal state goes negative. We are hunkered down to fight or flee… or to shut down or withdraw. This is our “heart at war.” We are cut off from others and the others will feel it. In a situation where there is a real physical danger, this works to our advantage. However, in the majority of situations we find ourselves in, this works against us and the people around us. Why?
Our internal state profoundly impacts others. More than we can imagine. When our internal state goes negative, we tend to move the other person’s internal state to negative (assuming they don’t know how to work with their internal state and hold their own emotionally). If our internal state is positive, we tend to help others stay there or get there if they weren’t there in the first place. Our own negative internal state is the killer of psychological safety.
Our internal state profoundly influences the impact of our actions… how those actions “land” for the other person or people involved. A certain action taken from a positive internal state has one effect, and that very same action taken from a negative internal state has an entirely different effect. This may defy logic — given the words or actions are the same in both cases — but this is the reality. Doubt this? Try it. I’ll show you how, below, in 10 steps.
Therefore, wouldn’t we want to be able to take the most difficult action from a positive internal state? Doing so increases the likelihood that the other person will be able to consider, respond to, and act in the best way for them, for us, and for all concerned. We will become capable of doing more good and less harm, and we assist others in the same.
Of course, having a positive internal state (warmth, caring, connected, compassionate) doesn’t guarantee success. You can do the right thing from the right internal state and this may still provoke the defense mechanisms of the other person or people involved. However, doing the right thing from a negative internal state will almost never be as effective as doing the right thing from a positive internal state. Simply put, while having a positive internal state doesn’t guarantee success, it optimizes the possibility for the very best outcome for all involved. That is powerful. And it is rare.
So why don’t most people do this… work to shift their internal state to positive when it seems so… logical and helpful to do so? Fear. Fear of what?
A Common Fear of Compassion
A common fear is that having a positive internal state — such as feeling warmth, concern, care or compassion — will mean others can and will walk over us, push us around, take advantage of us, not take us seriously, or unduly sway us. We seem to believe that the only way to get our point across, or to win, or to protect ourselves, or to drive our point home is to harden. To harden our hearts, to toughen our stance, to brace for battle. But is that true?
“No” is a complete sentence. Annie Lamott
Is it true that we can’t effectively navigate tough, challenging, difficult, emotional situations without hardening ourselves, without bracing ourselves? While it is very real and common fear, few of us have tested it. Therefore, while we assume it is true, that assumption based on fear, not experience.
While that is a very real fear, it isn’t true. Not for most of us in most situations, anyway.
The most difficult of actions, actions requiring unequivocal and tough resolve, can be done from a positive internal state, from “a heart at peace.” And the effects will almost always be more desirable than the same action taken from a negative internal state. If you want to explore this further, I highly recommend you listen to or read The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. One of my top 10 books.
As we shall see, compassion and self-compassion — applied in real life — can help us shift our internal state, the inner place from which we operate… from a heart at war to a heart at peace. Unconditional love in action. That’s what we’re going for. It can transform our relationships, our families, our friendship circles, our work teams, our organizations, our countries, our world.
Recap: The Three Obstacles
What have we discussed so far?
In our most challenging, day-to-day, real-life situations, the ones that matter most, we are at a disadvantage. The disadvantage is three-fold:
- Our defense mechanisms activate, and we react habitually rather than respond consciously.
- Our thinking is limited and not creative, cutting us off from needed options, the capacity to sense and improvise and cooperate.
- We act from an internal state that is negative, often provoking a negative internal state in the other person.
Is it any wonder, knowing this, that these very important and pivotal situations don’t tend to go so well? There is something we can do about it. We can respond to these situations intentionally and consciously. We can access higher-level, more complex, creative thinking. And we can act with a “heart at peace.”
Now we will turn to how actively practicing compassion for ourselves and for the others involved can help. You now know the what and the why. Here’s the how.
The Practical Application of Compassion
How can we use compassion and self-compassion to help overcome these three obstacles above? There are two basic approaches. One approach is to prepare in advance for a specific situation, and the second is to utilize the practices in-the-moment. Both are highly effective, especially when used together.
Most people will want and need to start with the preparing in advance practice. The in-the-moment practice can be quite challenging (albeit far from impossible), so preparing in advance tends to be easier and a more practical place to start. Further, preparing in advance tends to prime the brain towards being able to do the same thing in-the-moment.
What does the preparing in advance process look like? Simply put, it might look like this. Of course, as always, make it your own. This is just a starting point, a stepping stone.
A Ten-Step Process
Step 1. Identify: Identify the challenging situation you want to work with. Name it. And choose one that is workable, doable.
Step 2. Describe: In 2-3 sentences, describe the situation.
Step 3. Tune In: Notice the bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts that arise as you describe and reflect on this situation.
Step 4. Capture: Write down what you notice. “Name it to tame it,” as the saying goes.
Step 5. Turn Inward: Notice the aspects of this that are hard for you. Turn in to this “hardness” or to this, you could say, “suffering.”
Step 6. Practice Self-Compassion: Say the following four statements three times, while holding this difficulty, hardness, or suffering in mind:
- This situation is hard for me.
- Situations like this are common and a part of being human.
- May I be kind to myself in this moment.
- May I give myself the compassion I need.
After repeating these four statements three times, notice your internal state… sensations, feelings, thoughts.
Step 7. Turn Outward: Consider the parts of this that must be hard for the other person or people involved — their fears, worries, thoughts, etc. See if you can see things from their vantage point, even (and especially) if you think their vantage point is wrong. See it from their perspective… especially their fears, worries, thoughts… including what they are thinking about you.
Step 8. Capture: Write down what you think the other person must be experiencing, worried about, thinking, telling themselves, etc.
Step 9. Practice Compassion: Keeping in mind that no matter whether this other person or these other people are wrong, just like you, they want to be happy and free from suffering. As misguided as you think their approach may be, they are doing their best to do exactly that in this situation. They are trying to be happy and free from suffering, and they may be seeing you and what you are doing as a threat to that.
The key thing to remember is that, just like you, this situation is hard for them. They are suffering. They are afraid or angry or frustrated or whatever, so they, too, are suffering. It is this suffering, not their position or behavior you disagree with, that you want to practice compassion for. Practice for their humanity, and not necessarily their position or attitude or behavior.
Say the following four statements three times:
- May this person or people be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
- May this person or people be happy.
- May this person or people be healthy.
- May this person or people live with ease.
After repeating these four statements three times, notice your internal state… sensations, feelings, thoughts.
Step 10. Reflect: Step back from the situation, shifting and hopefully elevating your vantage point… perhaps using the compassion practices above to “lift up” your awareness and perspective:
- Are your defense mechanisms now more activated, or more relaxed? How is that for you? Is that helpful, or not? Write this down.
- Are you thinking differently about this situation or the people involved? If so, in what ways? Any new solutions arising? Write this down.
- Are you feeling differently towards this person or the people involved? If so, in what ways? How does this state feel? Write this down.
- If there were one thing you could now go do to better approach this situation, what would that be? Do you want to do this? How?
- After taking that action… what did you learn? It isn’t so much about whether that new action “worked.” What did you learn about yourself?
Don’t just roll this over in your mind. Try this. See for yourself. Are you better able to work with the situation and the person or people involved? How does that make you feel? Do you feel more capable? More loving? More human? More creative? More powerful? Or less?
“You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” — Irish Proverb
I hope the above process helps you “bridge” your practice of compassion and self-compassion into real life. I hope it helps you transform the nature of your interactions and the quality of your relationships. I hope it helps you expand your thinking, helps you hold your heart open when you most need to, and helps you break free from the default, habitual reactions of your defense mechanism.
May you, and the people around you, flourish.
May you and I become… by applying the compassion and self-compassion practices to better solve the challenges in our lives… unconditional love in action.
That would create a new world, a whole new Earth. Let’s bring it.