Dr. Edward Adams talks about how to elicit men’s compassion towards themselves and others.
Ben was a wounded man. His wife divorced him to marry her lover and moved far away making it inaccessible and expensive for Ben to father his three children in a meaningful way. He defined himself as “a man reduced to a paycheck.” By the time Ben entered my office, he showed classic symptoms of depression: isolated, self-loathing, overworked, and unhappy. Yet he wanted to be a happier man and took his therapy seriously.
Conservatively, 1 in 10 men suffer from some degree of depression. But even if a man is not suffering from a clinical disorder, 10 in 10 men face fear, disappointment, anger, conflict and stress. No matter what method used or treatment pursued to help people recover from challenging or painful life experiences, many therapists, physicians, and other health care providers underutilize a very potent healing agent. It’s called compassion and self-compassion. Just as the body’s immune system protects against disease, compassion and self-compassion operate like an emotional immune system capable of warding off feelings of alienation, inadequacy, and even shame. By design, compassion connects and self-compassion soothes.
Compassion begins with empathy. Empathy evokes thoughts and feelings that acknowledge and connect with the suffering of others (I know how you feel). Fortified with empathy, compassion calls forth the intent and actions to help alleviate that suffering (I can relate to how you feel and I want to help you.) Self-compassion is being aware of your own suffering with an interior response that is supportive and kind rather than harsh (I made a bad mistake but I’m a good man and I can find a way to get through it).
Compassion is everywhere. Men perform countless acts of compassion on individual and grand scales. For example, a man exhausted from a day of work may drive miles to see his child play soccer. Another man spontaneously mows his elderly neighbor’s lawn without seeking praise or compensation. Around the world, first responders risk their lives to save others in distress. The tragic day of September 11, 2001 is a grisly demonstration of compassion in action. Each of these acts is born of compassion and I believe compassion and self-compassion are at the core of living a healthy, happy, and connected life.
Ben’s wounds of loss, anger, disappointment, and fear aroused his feelings of suffering and isolation. This self-absorption created a merry-go-round of thoughts and images that repeated his negative emotional and behavioral responses. Caught in this circular pattern, Ben unwittingly unleashed a myriad of invisible consequences. He compounded the problem by self-medicating through increased alcohol consumption and poor eating habits.
At the beginning of what turned out to be a pivotal session, Ben told me that his ex-wife’s new husband, Larry, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He shared this news with a slight but telling smirk. Ben wanted to talk about how to be the best father to his children during this tragic ordeal. This presented me a golden opportunity to challenge a piece of his self-absorbed worldview.
“Sure,” I said, “it’s a great idea to discuss your fathering. Then I paused and asked him, “What kind of father do you want to be as your kids experience illness and death?”
Ben looked startled and said, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” I replied, “how do you want them to know you? Do you want them to see your indifference and satisfaction at Larry’s suffering?”
Ben just shook his head and said, “No.”
“Then speak beyond your hurt and anger and come from a place of compassion. What might that look and feel like? What would your children see in you? This is a chance to give life to the man you talk about becoming.”
Ben thought for a moment and said, “Let me get back to you on that one.”
At the start of his next session, Ben handed me a letter he had sent to Larry and his ex-wife. I read it aloud:
Despite all that has happened between us, no one deserves to suffer or be deprived of living a full life. I am sorry for any grief I may have caused and I am sorry for what you both must endure. Please let me know the way I can help the two of you, especially when you need extra help with the kids.
Over time, Ben grew happier, in no small way, by embracing compassion and practicing self-compassion. He talked about cooperating with his ex-wife rather than “being in competition.” Practicing self-compassion gave Ben an interior language that comforted him and strengthened his emotional resilience. Ben merged compassion and self-compassion into his masculine schema and told me, “acting more compassionately makes being a man a bit easier.” Without knowing it, Ben stacked the deck in favor of living a more physically and emotionally healthy life.
As health care providers, we hold a unique position to encourage others to integrate the power of compassion and self-compassion into life with greater skill. This can happen when compassion and self-compassion is identified, discussed, and nurtured in therapy sessions. Ben said it best. “As I crawled out of my own skin and put others first, I went from feeling empty to feeling connected. I guess you could say that I found integrity and strength in my compassion.”
Edward M. Adams, Psy.D. is Founder and Past President of Men Mentoring Men, a not-for-profit designed to support men to live happier and deeper lives. He has been in private practice in Somerville, NJ for over 25 years and was awarded the 2013 Practitioner of the Year Award by the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity.
Originally published by the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity.