Compassionate Witnessing: Why It Is Important and How To Do It
This country is suffering an epidemic of depression, loneliness, and suicide. I point to disconnection from ourselves, nature, and each other as the underlying cause.
It is your nature to experience a wide array of emotions during your lifetime by design — a built in mechanism that helps you navigate the world as you recognize changing weather patterns and potential danger by feeling them in your body. Emotion and the release of tears are an aid in releasing tension when faced with the inevitable stresses presented by life. Still, a large portion of the population insists that if someone is having a difficult day, experiencing the so-called “negative” emotions, that person is unacceptable to the rest of society and best hide their feelings or themselves away. It tends to look like this:
You have had a pretty good week. You are feeling great! Some good things happened and you are on top of the world. You’ve got this…until someone dares to come to you in tears.
Good golly Miss Molly! That is not in your plan. Her emotions remind you of that time last week when you received some difficult news. Not that again! Her emotions might be contagious and you don’t want to feel sad again. And you will feel sad again because you continue to push away feelings in the moment when they happen…yours or anyone else’s feelings that stray from your ideal of what a human should feel. When you push away the opportunity to comfort someone else, when their emotions are too much for you, you are most likely not dealing with your own emotions in a healthy way.
So, you walk away, fast. Or you say, “Oh. You’re crying AGAIN?” with a hint of exasperation in your tone. Maybe you throw out a litany of fixes for the “problem” though no one asked you to fix anything. Somewhere along the road to adulthood you, me, and the rest of the world, learned that happy feelings are good and anything else is bad and we need to make the bad ones go away. So you do the same thing to yourself trying to run away from feelings, condemning, fearing. When I found myself taking on the emotions of a friend or loved one I used to feel as terrible as they did until I learned what was happening.
My unhealed wounds used to surface whenever someone else had a hard day, a hard, week, or a hard month. My frail unexpressed feelings would not allow me to be a compassionate witness for someone else because I climbed right into the drama instead of staying calm and simply listening. My feelings of discomfort caused me to not want to be around the person or I made lame attempts to try to fix their feelings for them.
When I have had periods of emotional difficulty, doctors have been too eager to fix my feelings, to prescribe drugs without first inquiring about my physical health or situational events that may be temporary and overcome with time and care from friends and family. We must take into consideration that certain illnesses, food allergies, and weather systems can cause emotional symptoms. Trying to fix feelings is the same as telling a person they are wrong for having them. Telling a person they are wrong for having disturbing emotions is like asking them to will their disease away or ignore the fact that much of their being is intuitive and regulated by subtle changes in energy. What if their disturbing emotions are something deeper trying to warn them of pending danger and you come along and convince them to ignore or cover up the feelings?
A brilliant teacher of mine once said to a class of body workers, “If you ever witness a client emoting on your table, be honored. When someone expresses emotions or shares difficulties with you it means they trust you. If you find yourself running for the duct tape or trying to fix or stop that person from emoting by lobbing wordy platitudes at them, get yourself a good psychotherapist because if you can’t be with someone who is troubled, you are troubled too. You have things you need to heal.”
I saw a touching photo in a video this past week that depicts real empathy, honor, and support. Three soldiers sit in a foxhole, one appears to be reading while a second soldier holds the third in his embrace. The third soldier in clear distress with his head sinking into the chest of his comrade. Life can feel like a battle at times, we all know this. Once we have successfully dealt with our own wounds, it becomes easier to come to the aid of others, but we don’t have to wait. All it takes is admitting that you too feel down sometimes and having someone who understands does wonders.
For children, offers of comfort are natural and we can learn so much from them. They hug or touch an arm and say very little beyond, “I’m sorry.” The “I’m sorry” is not because they feel they have done something wrong but rather is offered as a gesture of empathy. They know how it feels to skin a knee or lose your favorite toy and they stand with you as you mourn the pain and loss. Their egos do not stop them from humbling themselves in a gesture of compassion. Special Olympics participants often stop to help a competitor who has fallen with no concern that they might “lose” the race.
The best teachers, I find, are often found in nature. A goose who tires and flies down for a rest will soon find two others have flown to his side until he regains strength and is able to join the flock. I’ve had dogs who have left their comfortable sun spot or cozy dog bed to come and sit by my side when I cry. Elephants and other sentient creatures do not stress about giving comfort. Nor do they seek creative ways to avoid emotion. They do what is natural and necessary at any given moment.
February 18, 2014 Jennifer S. Holland, For National Geographic wrote:
“Surprise: Elephants comfort upset friends. Asian elephants recognize distress and offer a helping trunk, study says. The short list of animals that console stressed-out friends just got longer … and heavier. Asian elephants, like great apes, dogs, certain corvids (the bird group that includes ravens), and us, have now been shown to recognize when a herd mate is upset and to offer gentle caresses and chirps of sympathy, according to a study published February 18 in the online journal PeerJ.
The animals, in this case captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), offer something akin to humans sympathetic concern when observing distress in another, including their relatives and friends. During these observations, the scientists witnessed bystander elephants — those not directly affected by a stressor — moving to and giving upset elephants physical caresses, mostly inside the mouth (which is kind of like a hug to elephants). Bystanders also rumbled and chirped with vocal offerings that suggested reassurance. Sometimes the empathetic animals formed a protective circle around the distressed one.”
When someone is hurting the last thing that they need is to be told to “get over it” or “grow up” or “you always do this.” There are many reasons a person may feel down and it is not your job to pack their feelings up, tie a neat little bow, and ship the feelings off to a desert island. People do not want to hear religious or new age directives telling them they are some how unenlightened, need to do more affirmations or pray more, that they are immature or are in any way wrong for how they are feeling. Doing so will tend to feel like a reprimand reminiscent of parental dismissals that caused early wounding in the first place. Like rubbing salt in a wound, non-acceptance deepens feelings a hurting individual may already be feeling, such as inadequacy, hopelessness, simple human sadness or grief. What everyone needs is a compassionate witness to their pain.
Compassionate witnessing is so easy you may find yourself seeking out opportunities to use it. Sometimes we want to be compassionate and don’t know what to do. Here’s how:
1) In person, go to the side of your hurting friend. Lay a hand on their arm, or shoulder, or when appropriate reach to give them a hug. If you are on the phone proceed to step two.
2) Ask what is going on for the person.
3) Listen to their story without interrupting. When it feels right you can nod, make a “mmm” sound, or otherwise show you are paying attention and are offering sympathetic concern. A simple “I hear you” will suffice. Anything beyond that is intrusive and likely to make things worse.
That is all there is to it. It is not necessary to agree with the reason the person is upset and advisable to keep your opinions to yourself. When a person feels heard they feel valued and understood. If they ask for suggestions it’s okay to offer them using “I” statements such as, “When I had your experience, “X,Y,Z worked for me,” and not in a way that makes the person wrong or blames their state of affairs on something they are or are not doing.
It is high time we recall that we are part of nature, animals who are born with sensitivities that exist for a purpose. If you are suppressing or denying your own feelings or those of another you can stop right now, anchor yourself with love, and listen to how you speak to yourself when you are hurting. If you are anything less than kind, patient, and compassionate with your own feelings, chances are you will be much less able to hear the feelings of someone else. Working on bringing more self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion to your self will prepare you to listen to a hurting friend instead of armoring yourself with avoidance tactics.
Once you try compassionate witnessing, you may be surprised how people react. You would not believe how many times I’ve held space for a friend or a client who is feeling down and she ends up saying, “You really get me. I feel so much better now,” though I’ve done nothing more than LISTEN. Once you connect with your own feelings on those days that seem dark and dismal, your self-acceptance as part of the human species might just lead you to greater happiness!
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