- You probably have been trapped by anxiety for so long, and consumed by trying to find a way out, the idea giving back seems almost impossible. You may not even have the energy to try.
- Although, you have learned many strategies to process anxiety and anger, letting go and moving into enjoyable neural circuits is where the deep healing occurs.
- Giving back to others is a step beyond in that you are shifting your attention away from you (and your anxiety). With repetition, you’ll continue to move farther away from your mental and physical pain circuits.
- One of the first steps is nurturing compassion (awareness).
One of the most powerful ways of moving forward on your healing journey is giving back to others. However, you must first connect with yourself, anxiety, and all, in order to be able to effectively connect with others.
The Oxford dictionary defines empathy as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It is a core component of nurturing human relationships. If you don’t have some sense of how someone close to you is feeling, you can’t interact with them in a meaningful way. You might as well be in another room. The capacity to feel empathy is an inherent part of the human experience because from an evolutionary perspective, it was the species of humans who learned to cooperate that had the highest likelihood of survival.
Compassion is the next step in healthy relationships that follows empathy. You first have to have the ability to see a situation through the other person’s eyes with an understanding of what it might be like to be in a similar circumstance. Compassion is a desire to help out and contribute. Nurturing compassion has two parts: 1) engaging in practices that engender empathy, and 2) removal of any interference connecting you with your own compassion
Compassion is another word for love, and Anthony de Mello in his book, The Way to Love,1 defines love as awareness. Being aware means you are fully connected to the moment you are in. Anytime you are anxious or angry, the past is playing out in the present. In other words, you have learned that the current situation feels or is threatening based on your past experiences. It is how we survive. For example, you would not want to learn to avoid a hot burner on a stove every time you are close it.
Additionally, when you are upset, your brain becomes inflamed from small inflammatory proteins called cytokines. Your nervous system is hypersensitive, and everything is magnified. Additionally, these communicating proteins signal a shift in the blood supply from the neocortex (thinking centers) to the midbrain (survival region). You are not only not aware, but you can’t think clearly. Have you noticed how whatever you were so angry about often resolves when you calm down?
When you are consumed with frustration and anger, it is only about you and it is not possible to be aware of other’s needs. So, the foundational step of empathy is compromised. You might feel you have empathy in spite of being upset. You do – only after you calm down. But when you are trapped by anxiety and pain, when do you have any chance to calm down? So, you end up pushing people away who could nurture and support you, and the cycle continues.
Then people in pain often form bonds with others who are also angry and trapped. They may seem like close relationships in that you feel the conversations around common suffering seem intimate. They are. But you are both reinforcing each other’s survival circuits. Belonging to a pain support group has been shown to worsen the prognosis for recovery.2 Carolyn Myss is a well-know healer who calls this process, “woundology.”3
We all have a deep need to help those around us. But when you are angry, compassion goes right out the window. It is an interference that must be dealt with before you can feel compassion and engage in helpful acts.
JK Rowling and giving back
I’ve watched this Harvard commencement address given by J.K. Rowling in 2008 (se below) many times. It is one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever heard. She was determined to follow her own passion while at the same time remembering and honoring her past. I would encourage you to take the time to listen to it. In addition to being a highly acclaimed author, she is also a remarkable speaker. Her commitment to honoring her journey and giving back is extraordinary.
So, there are two parts to nurturing compassion. The metaphor of “filling the tub” continues to be a foundational concept. The first step on a given day, is you must first “de-energize” anxiety/ anger. They block connection to awareness and also to yourself. Compassion will emerge and some level of it is inherent in each person. I know for some of you that have experienced severe (unspeakable) trauma that this may seem hard to believe. It takes time to connect with it and often expert guidance.4
Then the second aspect to consider is actively nurturing compassion after you have connected with it. We are programmed with a strong self-critical voice almost from birth. Why not change the programming to compassion?5
I have a few suggestions to consider, which might help you formulate your own ideas of how to connect to your core values and give back.
- Remain committed to your own journey. You can’t help others if you are not doing well.
- Practice awareness. Remain aware of yours and other’s needs, listen carefully to others and try to see situations through their eyes.
- Don’t discuss your pain, complain, engage in malicious gossip, give unasked-for advice, or be critical. None of these are compassionate acts. It is a little harder than you might think because all of us exhibit these tendencies.
- Your highest priority is your immediate family. Even if you’re miserable, treat them well – no exceptions.
- Make a random list of ideas of ways to give back that are interesting to you—write them down. They can be small actions.
- Pick the top five
- Prioritize them
- Pick one
- Develop a specific plan.
- Do it!!
- Pick the top five
- Create a vision of what you’d like your life to look like in one year and five years.
- Be as specific as possible.
- Learn organizational skills to implement your vision.
- Getting Things Doneby David Allen6
The first step in giving back is understanding how anxiety and anger block awareness and compassion. This is particularly true when you feel trapped. These survival reactions will continue to grow and crush your quality of life. How could you possibly reach out in this state of mind?
Giving back a process that includes learning skills, cultivating awareness in yourself, becoming aware of the needs of those close to you, and then in others. Then you are able to effectively give back. As you move away from your troubles, you’ll continue to heal. Awareness, compassion, and love are reflections of safety physiology, and your body can regenerate and heal.
It’s easy to feel that J.K. Rowling was lucky; how can she not enjoy her life with the success she’s experienced? Luck is winning the lottery. We are all aware of high-profile public figures who spent their lives fighting addictions with many not surviving. What didn’t they possess? Their stories of self-destruction are legendary. J.K. Rowling didn’t have an easy start, but she continued to stay connected to her passion and compassion in spite of many obstacles. Giving back is a high priority for her. It is a complete reversal of where your energies are focused when you trying to fight your way out of a world filled with anxiety, pain, and frustration.
Questions and considerations
- As you read this lesson, you may not feel that you are ready to give back to others and you may not. That is fine and it is important to be OK with that. Remember, the essence healing is connecting to who you are and where you are at today.
- Another core concept is learning to have compassion for yourself. So, if you aren’t ready, don’t be hard on yourself. Be kind.
- You are not going to have more compassion for others than you do for yourself.
- Practice compassion. When you have a choice, choose joy. It will become habitual over time.
- This is much different than positive thinking where you might be trying to rationalize or minimize your suffering. A better term might be, “positive choices.”
- de Mello, Anthony. The Way to Love. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group. New York, NY, 1992.
- Friedberg F, et al. Do support groups help people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia? A comparison of active and inactive members. The Jrn of Rheumatology (2005); 32:2416-2420.
- Myss, Carolyn. Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can. Three Rivers Press. New York, NY. 1997.
- Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin Random House. New York, NY, 2014.
- The Dali Lama and Howard Cutler. The Art of Happiness. Riverhead Books. New York, NY, 2009.
- Allen, David. Getting Things Done. Penguin Books, New York, NY. 2015.