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No Lemonade Allowed: When Life Hands Out Lemons – Attune and Empathize with a Generous Measure of Compassion

by | Aug 22, 2016 | For Everyone

I recently have had a string of difficult life challenges. Some less significant than others, but there have been several that have reached my core, inviting me to find meaning amongst the painful realities of impermanence, illness, and loss.

People’s responses have been interesting at best, inflaming at worse. I have encountered advice givers and positive outlook strategists, who seem determined to fix my distress. This really is not a surprise because I have noticed how much difficulty people have just being with another person’s pain. They seem to have a need to fix the perceived problem. Similarly, in my work as a psychotherapist, I recognize time and again how challenging it is for people to bring presence to their own pain. Further, if they do, they chastise themselves for wallowing or feeling self-pity.

  • Within Western culture, notions of coping with pain tend to reflect beliefs that suggest we need to overcome, resist, or get away from painful experience. For example, consider some of these commonly expressed attitudes:
  • You need to think positively
  • Look at all the things you have to be grateful about
  • Pull up your boot straps and keep going
  • Don’t dwell on the negative (which usually means don’t focus on your difficulties)
  • Be strong
  • Feeling vulnerable and experiencing the accompanying emotions means you are weak

This list could go on.   In many ways some of these beliefs make good sense, (with the exception of the last point), however timing is everything. Noticing what is good in life such as what is going well, or the many things one has to be grateful for, can be a valued resource. However, if applied too early in anyone’s process, or in a way that is motivated by a desire to suppress emotions, these measures create misattunement and can cause further distress. This occurs because as we human beings need connection and to know that we are not alone in our experience. In fact, the “tend and befriend” response, or turning to relationships and social connections, when in distress has been found to reduce physiological and emotional activation in the regulatory systems (Taylor, s. et al. 2000). Feelings of connection release many stress reducing neurobiological processes and chemicals in the body, including oxytocin, which is a hormone released during times of bonding and attunement. In contrast, Relational-Cultural theorists have found that when we feel disconnected in relationships we experience a loss in energy, feelings of disempowerment, confusion, diminished work and a desire to turn away from connection with others, when we experience disconnection in our relationships (Jordan, Dooley, & Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, 2000). Feeling isolated, while experiencing difficulty, adds a second layer of suffering.

We cannot avoid difficulty. Human experience encompasses all, including that which is pleasant as well as unpleasant. To forego <em>being with</em> one’s own or another person’s suffering, bypasses experiencing real lived experience. This bypassing also robs us of the opportunity to tap into deeper wisdom and transformative healing. In other words, we must also develop the capacity to attune to our own suffering. Findings from neuroscience back this up. Our nervous systems move into a stress response when we experience disconnection both in our relationships with ourselves as well as with others (Porges, 2011). Our bodies secrete stress hormones, such as cortisol as well as activate a cascade of hormonal and nervous system responses that are meant to protect us from further harm. For example, the ‘fight or flight’ response prepares our bodies for doing battle or fleeing. While this is an effective response in circumstances requiring immediate action, it often doesn’t serve us well when dealing with challenges that are longer term, or when we are required to tap into the fullness of our being including our deep wisdom or rational capacity to problem solve.

Relational attunement is a welcomed balm to calm a distressed nervous system. What this means is that we offer a listening ear to others, as well as ourselves, without an agenda to fix anything. Bringing embodied presence to an activated nervous system calls forth empathy (Siegel, 2010). This means that we connect to our sensations and emotions, offering intentional, openhearted, and non-judgemental attending. Dr. Kristen Neff (2011) suggests that compassion, offered to oneself or another, is a powerful practice and is particularly significant during times of suffering. Further, she has found that developing a compassion practice enhances our resilience and capacity to meet life’s challenges with kindness and grace.

References

Jordan, J. V., Dooley, C., &amp; Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. (2000). Relational practice in action: A group manual. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center, Wellesley College.

Porges, S. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation (1st ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Siegel, D. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration (1st ed.). New York: W.W. Norton &amp; Co.

Taylor, S., Cousino, L. Lewis, B., Gruenewald, T. Gurung, R., Updegraff, J. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychology Review, 107(3), 411-429.

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