The Practice of Compassion - softening a hard heart
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
Do you find yourself* in situations that call for compassion, but instead you find yourself apathetic, cold hearted, irritated or resentful? Or perhaps there’s a particular relationship where you struggle to have empathy?
Having a hard heart may keep us from fully feeling emotions like compassion and joy. However, it also protects us. We didn’t necessarily actively choose to have a hardened heart, to distance ourselves from others. If we experience trauma, the body will do what it needs to do to survive, and that may include protecting our vulnerabilities.
Our bodies and minds house our tender human spirits. They shelter and protect us.
Imagine a home, repeatedly exposed to intense storms. To protect the occupant of the home, the windows are boarded up. This works - the glass doesn’t break - she’s safe. Yet she is living in darkness, no sunshine streaming in through the windows, no visitors to welcome in.
There is purpose to the emotional numbness and hardness, like there is purpose to boarding the windows of a home. Yet we often keep the windows boarded long past the storms, and we lack the warmth of the sun, the comfort of the breeze, and the solace of human companionship. And sometimes we keep the windows boarded even when we have new storm windows that don’t need that reinforcement. We stay hard hearted even when we are now strong enough to withstand the emotional storms that may come. We stay numb even when we have now developed the discernment to know how we can protect ourselves without blocking the sunlight.
The gift of being human is the ability to feel deeply - to feel and express tender care and concern. So while we can be grateful for the protection we received when we needed it, to experience the full range of our humanity we need to soften our hearts. We need to unboard the windows.
From the time we come into this world, we experience emotion. And for many of us, that emotion is shut down - whether through major traumatic experiences or through well meaning but wounding parenting.
Think of a small child expressing frustration through a tantrum. They do not have the words to navigate their emotions. Over time, they develop emotional language. Yet when they express their feelings verbally or otherwise they are met with:
- Tense body language.
- Triggered caregivers reacting harshly.
- “What are you crying for? Quit crying or I'll give you something to cry about.”
- “You’re okay. There’s nothing to be upset about.”
- “Don’t be silly. There’s nothing scary.”
- “There’s nothing going on. I am not doing that. You’re imagining things.”
- “Don’t cry - here watch your favorite show.”
- “In my day, people didn’t get depressed. They worked hard.”
- Anger and abuse.
- Any other reaction created by caregivers unable to hold space
And so as children we learn:
- Emotions should not be expressed.
- Emotions make other people uncomfortable.
- Even though I know and feel something bad is going on, I am being told nothing is happening. I doubt my own judgment and intuition.
- When I feel hard emotions, I turn to something that distracts me.
- My feelings are not valid.
- I am not welcome to express my feelings.
- I don’t even know how I actually feel.
We are meant as humans to mature and become able to express our emotions without tantrums, with nuanced and expressive language but many of us don’t know how. We are stunted by trauma, limited by the examples around us of denying the truth, suppressing or numbing our emotions, distracting or disconnecting.
So how do we overcome this? What is the opposite of emotional numbness?
It is holding space. The art of sitting in our discomfort instead of denying, distracting, disconnecting.
We only need a cursory scroll through social media or maybe attend a family get together to recognize that we are a society of people who cannot hold space.
Somebody with less privilege expresses their pain. We see lots of responses. Some are harsh, nasty, and/ or dismissive. Some appear to have good intentions but center the commenter instead of the person expressing the pain.
A family member talks about their depression, and is met with comments ranging from “all you need to do is run 2 miles a day” to “You know, you had the best childhood out of all the kids” to “at least you don’t have cancer like your aunt.”
And then this example:
Someone in your life hurts you. And you say to yourself, “Ugh, why are you so upset? Get over it! You have things to do.”
I have learned that the key to compassion for others is our own relationship with ourselves. The way we are in one area is the way we are in all areas. If you struggle with holding space for others, consider first how you are at holding space for yourself.
-How do you treat yourself when you are not well? Do you tell yourself to get over it? Do you experience frustration over bad timing? Do you feel impatient with yourself?
-Could you be tender with yourself? Could you gently give yourself nourishment and rest? Could you speak to yourself like you would like to speak to a sick child?
-How do you treat yourself when you are sad? Do you distract yourself? Push the feelings down?
-Could you allow yourself to feel the sadness? Could you tell yourself that it’s ok to feel sad? That you’ve experienced loss and you get to grieve?
The goal becomes to be able to hold space for ourselves - to pause when hard emotions arise and to allow a moment before reacting. This in turn will allow us to do it for others.
Our caregivers are supposed to safeguard our hearts. Many of ours could not - many of them could not safeguard their own. Could the answer then, be that we must reparent ourselves? Provide that tender love and care for our own hearts? Hold space for ourselves? I believe that is the answer.
Whatever degree of love and compassion we experienced as children, we have the capacity now to learn how to give ourselves the love and compassion we all yearn to experience. And in so doing, we can give that to others - and receive it.
In my own parenting journey, even though I love my children, I have reacted to my kids’ emotions harshly and coldly. In embodying this practice of holding space for myself, my capacity to hold space for them has grown. The more I show love and compassion for myself, the more I can show it for them.
Some things that have been really useful for me:
Pausing before responding. When I want to react with meanness or coldness, it is a defensive reaction to something. Pausing allows me the space to consider my own feelings. What am I reacting to?
When I am triggered, that pause allows me to show myself compassion, which in turn allows me to show that compassion to others. If I do not pause, the likelihood that I will be reactive is almost certain
Finding people who will help hold me accountable. Asking people I am in relationship with to tell me when I am dismissive of their feelings. For me this has been my own children.
Holding space for myself to feel my uncomfortable feelings instead of turning to something to distract me
I notice chores aren’t done, and I abruptly tell my child to get it done, NOW. They try to explain to me why there was a delay. I am triggered. My blood pressure rises, my face flushes, I feel heat rising in my body. I don’t listen, I don’t hold space. Even the mere act of trying to “excuse” themselves triggers me. I react immediately by raising my voice and shutting them down. The chores get done. At what cost? My relationship with my child is fractured, and the likelihood that they will come to me with their concerns - of any kind - is lessened.
I notice chores aren’t done, and I abruptly tell my child to get it done, NOW. They try to explain to me why there was a delay. Immediately I feel triggered. Instead of reacting, I pause. I notice the emotion in my body. Since I have been tuning in to myself more - holding space for my feelings - I recognize that I am triggered and ask myself why. I realize several things. I feel unheard - a childhood wound from feeling unseen and unheard. I also feel anxious. Why? I define my own value by how much I get done and I worry that my “unproductive” or “lazy” child will struggle because I believed my value came from how much I accomplished. I feel judged, less than. I believe the state of my house and my ability to make my children obey is a direct indicator of my value as a mother. I take a deep breath and listen to my child explain that they’re just tired. They didn’t sleep well last night, which opens up an important conversation. I hold space for them. My child feels heard. There is warmth, connection, and emotional safety. I am not perpetuating the generational trauma. The relationship is strengthened, and the chores get done. I am able to see where I need further healing.
Like all healing, this is a practice. I wasn’t able to transition from scenario 1 to scenario 2 overnight. Being INTENTIONAL magnifies our healing practices. Essential oils also amplify our efforts.
Using essential oils** for emotional healing is powerful. They don’t numb or distract us. They amplify our ability to heal by incorporating our senses. Our senses are key to healing because any traumas we experience that we are unable to process and release are stored in the body. Healing body, mind, and spirit requires the reintegration of the three.
I also firmly believe that these beautiful oils amplify our healing because they reconnect us to the earth. These little bottles contain her essence in innumerable and articulate ways. And the earth - she always holds space for us. Always.
To use, apply daily over heart, on forearms/wrists, or anywhere you feel drawn to use it and will use it consistently. All three suggestions below are wonderful for skin, so I even incorporated them into my daily skin care as part of my healing practice. After application take a moment to breathe and be still. You can also use them in the moments of need - when you notice you need support in holding space for yourself/others, apply and inhale deeply.
Magnolia - oil of compassion and the oil of divine feminine - helps to increase love, compassion, empathy, and understanding
Arborvitae - oil of divine grace - use this if you struggle with “I gotta do it myself,’ if you feel overly responsible for everything, want to control the outcome of everything, struggle to accept what is, believe everything must be done through solitary effort and that life must always be difficult.
Rose - oil of divine love - use when nursing a broken heart, wounded from a relationship based on conditional love, or for simply feeling unconditional, divine love.
In my experience, as we practice and expand our capacity to hold space for ourselves, amazing things happen. We become less reactive, more proactive. We become less harsh and mean, and more soft and compassionate - all while being better able to assert our boundaries.
Comment here or message me with your thoughts. I would love to hear from you!
*As with everything I share, I am not an expert. I am simply a woman on her own healing journey sharing my ever deepening and expanding Truth.
**My suggestions and recommendations are based on doTERRA essential oils. Here's why.