Hard things have the potential to bring out both the best in us and the worst in us. Something about the catastrophe, the chaos, and the devastation can either compel us to become greater than we ever imagined — or, to make ourselves smaller than we truly are. And one of the most important factors that decide whether we become bigger or smaller is our response to other people’s pain and suffering.
So often, pain and suffering are not met with compassion, but with judgment. We’ve all been on the receiving end of it. A few of our community members shared their stories:
- “Nearly every time I’ve made a comment about my job this year (e.g. it sucks that I had to take a pay cut, I’m sad our benefits were cut to help the company save money, I’m frustrated that I’m being overworked during a pandemic), I almost always received the reply of “Well, you should be thankful you still have a job.”
- “My ex said my depression and anxiety were the result of having it too easy during my childhood and that it had made me soft because I didn’t know what suffering was.”
- “My family constantly reminds me that at least my life isn’t as hard as my sibling’s life is, and I should just shut up and be grateful for what I have.”
We even meet our own pain with this same judgment, admonishing ourselves with statements like:
- “I shouldn’t be suffering because I have it so much better than everyone else.”
- “My pain isn’t worse than Person X’s pain — I should stop complaining.”
- “I shouldn’t feel so sad/angry/tired/upset about this.”
This judgment is so unhelpful, not least because it gets in the way of our own well-being, but because it also genuinely hurts the well-being of our community and the world at large. We need empathy and compassion to solve the problems our world faces.
Today, we’re exploring why we do this and what we can do differently — so that we can come together during these hard times, not come apart.
Painful emotions are the result of experiences, memories, beliefs, and thoughts; we’ll roll all of these together and call them an ‘event’.
When we experience a positive event, we tend to feel positive emotions. When we experience a painful event, we tend to feel painful emotions (although, of course, these two types of emotions intermingle constantly!). There are many nuances and shades of the different negative emotions, but these ten are the most commonly felt.
We have all seen this sequence unfold in our own lives countless times. We know what our own sadness, despair, anger, guilt and frustration feel like. We remember the times we have been disappointed or grieving with acute clarity. And we remember the events that made us feel this way: the bully, the divorce, the job loss, and so on. On a smaller level, we also know that many things affect this sequence: we react differently to challenges when we’re hungry or tired, something that was really scary a few years ago is now probably pretty quotidian, and as we get older we become wiser and more adept at handling these emotions.
With all that awareness in mind, it should be easy to cope with our negative emotions and to be there for other people when they’re going through something hard. Unfortunately, there’s a danger zone that constantly trips us up. It’s called the zone of judgment.
The zone of judgment is the place where we find ourselves whenever we judge why an event led to an emotion. It sounds a lot like this:
- “I wouldn’t react like that.”
- “Why hasn’t she gotten over that yet?”
- “She should just be happy things aren’t worse.”
- “This shouldn’t make you so upset.”
- “You don’t have anything to be depressed or anxious about.”
- “Compared to other people, your pain is not a big deal. Snap out of it.”
The zone of judgment is a place many of us find ourselves more frequently than we would like to admit. It’s very, very easy to slip into. Here are the most common reasons why it happens:
- We compare their event to other’s events (our own, another person we know, hypothetical pain) and use that as a benchmark.
- We imagine how we would respond to the event, and then compare our reaction with theirs. We don’t truly understand what the event means to them, because it is shaped by their experience, history, goals, personality, and so many other factors. Putting ourselves in their shoes is often not useful, because we all have walked very different paths.
- We imagine their feelings rather than trying to feel with them, forgetting what it is like to be in a true state of suffering. This puts us at a psychological distance from the feeling, a distance that frequently leads to evaluation and judgment.
- Painful emotions are extremely hard to sit with. Further, our society’s Old Happy narrative has told us to bury negative emotions and suppress them, slapping on a happy face at all times. Most of us are not equipped with the skills to sit with other people’s pain, so we try to either fix the problem or tell them to look on the bright side. If we haven’t learned how to cope with our own painful emotions, this is even more likely to happen: we are so used to being in the judgment zone for our own feelings that it’s easy to slip into it for other people, too. Focusing on the event is safer than focusing on the raw, unpredictable emotion.
Moving Into the Zone of Compassion
We can override these tendencies by teaching ourselves how to respond to suffering with compassion. There is a simple way to get out of the zone of judgment and move into the zone of compassion.
All it takes is the decision to stop focusing on the sequence — the event that led to the emotion — and instead focus simply on the experience of the emotion.
Our emotions are strikingly similar to one another. Pain is pain is pain; jealousy is jealousy is jealousy; anger is anger is anger. The nuances of our expression and feeling are different, but at it’s core, our feelings are very similar.
When we focus on the emotion — which we share — we move into the zone of compassion. Believe it or not, your worst enemy has felt the grief you’re feeling now. Your horrible boss has been consumed with anxiety over something you could never imagine. We can bond over our shared experience of the emotion without ever judging why they feel this way or don’t feel that way, without ever bringing in how you would respond differently, or why it’s taking as long as it takes for the emotions to be processed and healed.
Here’s the process to move into the zone of compassion:
When you encounter someone who is in suffering, identify what painful emotions they are feeling.
Consciously take the event out of your evaluation completely. Think about a time that you felt those same emotions.
Try to bring yourself back to that feeling and re-immerse yourself in it as much as you can, thinking about what you would have loved to have received or heard in that time.
For example, if someone is grieving a job loss, remember what it was like to feel grief, perhaps with the loss of a loved one or a pet. Really bring yourself back there and feel what it was like. Then, connect with them through that emotion, drawing upon your own experience of grief, and bond through that feeling. Offer them what you would have loved to have received in that time.
When you are encountering your own suffering, the process is very similar:
Identify what painful emotions you are feeling
Gently put aside the event and how it compares to any other events in your life, the way other people would react to this event, and any other evaluations.
Allow yourself to experience the emotion.
Recognize that this emotion has been felt by millions of people around the world, that your feelings are okay and normal, and that you are not alone.
Why It Matters
When we are in the zone of compassion, we recognize both our uniqueness and our differences. We are grounded in our common humanity, recognizing that all of us have profoundly sad and challenging moments in our lives, and that this shared experience connects each of us.
When we are in the zone of compassion, we can be with others as they are, without blame, shame, or judgment. This empowers us to give them the support that they need and deserve. When we are in the zone of compassion, we can offer this gift up to ourselves, too.
When we are in the zone of compassion, hard things bring us together rather than tearing us apart. Instead of comparing our pain, we are connected through our pain.
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