How to love others without losing yourself.
"It hurts soooooo baaaaad!!" my daughter sobbed at the top of her lungs while tears streamed down her face. She was at a birthday party when a bite into a carefully-constructed frozen yogurt treat revealed a major cavity we'd been oblivious to. The coldness of the frozen yogurt must have really zinged the nerve because she wailed for well over an hour. After getting her into her bed, calling the dentist, and rummaging through the medicine cabinet for children's pain reliever, I settled in next to her to try to comfort her. I murmured soothing words, stroked her hair, and wished for her pain to subside. I noted that ache in my heart that is unique to situations in which we helplessly witness the suffering of others.
After about 30 minutes of my daughter's relentless sobbing, though, something started to shift inside of me. I felt my chest and stomach tighten. My jaw clenched. I felt myself leaning away from her, and my soothing consolations started to sound more like demands. "Ok, that's enough now ... enough."
Before I could stop myself, I barked at her "If you would just floss your teeth!!!"
I was remorseful the moment the words came out of my mouth. Chastising her about her oral hygiene was not going to help in this moment! Then I remembered a practice I'd learned in a Mindful Self-Compassion course. I took a deep breath in for myself, drawing in compassion for myself in this moment in which I witnessed and experienced the suffering of my child. I then exhaled a long, slow exhale, imagining that my love and compassion could ride the wave of my breath and soothe my daughter in this difficult moment. "In for me ... out for you. One for me ... one for you." I breathed compassion in for me, and breathed compassion out for her. My body began to relax again. My heart softened. I resumed comforting her as we waited for the pain reliever to kick in. "In for me ... out for you."
Being a parent/caregiver/helping professional/loved one in the presence of another person's suffering is a painful, difficult experience. Because human beings are wired to feel empathy - that is, to feel with others - we quite literally download others' pain in our own bodies. When I was unable to "fix" my daughter's pain, I became temporarily overwhelmed by her suffering and my threat-protection system was activated. In threat-protection mode we fight (bark!), flight (pull away), or freeze. These reactions often get in the way of responding in ways that align with our deepest values. Burgeoning research supports that practicing self-compassion can help us maintain equanimity while caring for others. In other words, self-compassion helps us love without losing ourselves.
"Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we
need is to love without getting tired." ~ Mother Teresa
The next time you feel yourself tiring from the act of loving, remember to take a deep, compassionate breath for yourself. Then, allow your compassion and well-wishes to ride the fullness of the exhalation. Compassion, in this way, becomes a limitless resource.