When we are in the thick of a personal struggle, it would seem that the last thing on our mind would be the pains and difficulties of other people. As it turns out, research shows that going through hardship and pain makes us more compassionate and empathetic to others over time, especially to people who are going through similar challenging experiences. We begin to see with more clarity and tenderness that others struggle, too, which in turn makes us feel less isolated and less prone to self-pity.
Think about the most compassionate person you know. What do you know about their life? Are you aware of their struggles and hardship? There is a good chance that this person has had their fair share of adversity and misfortune. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”—and research suggests it also makes us kinder!
The philosopher Ken Wilber writes in his book No Boundary that “Suffering smashes to pieces the complacency of our normal fictions about reality and forces us to become alive in a special sense—to see carefully, to feel deeply, to touch ourselves and our worlds in ways we have heretofore avoided.”
(Patient) Mona told me that when her pain first started she felt like she had been cast out of a happy universe. She so longed to be back there. In the same way that a person who moves from light into darkness can’t see anything at first, she felt utterly confused, alone, and lost. But like eyes adjust to the dark, at some point Mona realized that around her were other people with similar struggles. She was not alone. There was life and joy in her “new universe,” but with a slightly different flavor, seasoned with a deep knowing about pain.
After some time of living with chronic pain, we might experience the lifting of a veil that was hiding another reality—one that we have been initiated into. We can suddenly identify pain in others, be it physical or emotional pain, and that familiarity releases a strong flow of compassion. Compassion is a combination of love and pain: When we bring spacious love to pain it turns into compassion. With compassion, pain is accompanied by love. Love is a strong positive emotion that—when experienced at the same time as pain—changes how we feel. Just like salt undeniably changes the flavor of the broth.
Studies show that people who have gone through a lot of adversity not only feel more compassion but are also willing to help and to give their time, money, and energy to those in need. It has long been known that people from a lower socioeconomic status score higher in empathy and compassion. The reason might be that in less-than-ideal circumstances people need to rely more on each other for support.
We can’t overcome adversity alone. We need people to take care of us when we’re sick—to cook, to take care of the dog, to drive us to doctor’s appointments. After natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy (in 2012) and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the neighborhoods that rebounded the quickest were the ones that showed neighbors care for each other and could be counted on for support. We can’t do it alone, but we can get through it together.
Helping others also counterbalances the dangerous tendency to self-isolate and head down a spiral of self-pity when you’re in pain. You might recall from chapter 4 that self-compassion and self-pity are quite different.
In self-pity, as with self-compassion, we acknowledge that what is happening to us is hard. But in self-pity, there is no space to recognize another person’s suffering. All our attention contracts around us alone and how bad things are in our own world. Self-pity compounds the sense of isolation, the feeling that we’ve been singled out in misery and pain. It almost never inspires taking action or reaching out for help. It often leads to blaming others while waiting to be rescued, and it fosters a victim mentality.
Self-compassion is the same in that it also acknowledges that our experience is painful and challenging. We approach with care and compassion, the way we would with a dear friend who was struggling: “It is SO hard to feel that way!” But self-compassion doesn’t collapse into isolation. Instead it opens into an acknowledgment that what is happening to us is part of being human.
Years ago, when a dear friend and colleague of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer she shared that after the initial struggle with the question “Why me?” she realized that she needed to equally ask and reflect on the question “Why not me?”
“I know the numbers,” she said. “I know how many women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, so it’s fair to ask, ‘Why shouldn’t it have been me?’ I don’t have an answer for that. This realization helps me to be kind to myself when I fall into the pit of self-pity.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeling self-pity because it’s a natural response in this kind of situation! But there are many, many other people who know exactly what you are feeling because they have been in the same situation. This is not to diminish your pain and how bad it is—not at all! It extends the hand of connection that says, “Yes, me, too!” I get it. I get you. And yes, it is that bad.
It can be a big relief to learn that someone else has had the same experience, tragedy, or diagnosis. It doesn’t change what you’re experiencing, but it lifts the burden of being alone with your suffering. In a mysterious way, it softens the pain to know we are not alone and that there is nothing wrong with feeling the way we do. Hello, we’re human! This recognition can be the tiny movement of the needle that moves the pain from unbearable to somewhat, somehow bearable.
Not good, not gone, but bearable.
This mix of self-compassion—of realizing that we are not alone and that we can’t do it alone—and the shattering of the illusion of a perfect life or a perfect outcome is deeply transformative. We stop being so afraid of pain, be it our own pain or that of others. And we can start to be guided by Ram Dass’ beautiful reminder that we are all just “walking each other home.”
Note: This article is an excerpt from Christiane Wolf’s new book, “Outsmart Your Pain: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion to Help You Leave Chronic Pain Behind.”
Christiane Wolf, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally known, Los Angeles-based certified mindfulness-based stress reduction trainer and director of the VA’s national mindfulness training program for clinicians. Learn more at christianewolf.com.
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