I started writing about one thing and it quickly evolved into something else. This happens from time to time. The original subject was how we often want to help someone, but feel powerless to do so. Circumstances can be such that we have no ability to act; we are limited to being supportive and providing the right messaging. Supportive often feels like standing on the sidelines in a clean uniform while the team gets battered and muddied.
With this topic, I found myself at a dead-end. Was it a good topic? Yes, I believe so, but I was not ready to write it as I had envisioned. Stepping back, I found that there is sometimes another way to help people. It is a power available to all of us. So, here we go.
Everything starts with empathy, being able to understand another’s feelings or situation. It is not required that we do anything, just being open and processing another human’s emotional state. Being empathetic, your focus is on others, not yourself. Approaching your interactions with empathy can influence your worldview as well.
Some people lack empathy. Hypercritical and dismissive, they feel little or nothing about others. It is cold in their world, feelings are for weaklings, unless it is their feelings needing validated.
Life is challenging enough without these empathy-limited people. Life often reminds us that it is big, and we are small. We are also reminded that our reach is only to the physical fingertips of the outstretched arm.
If you give in, your reach has just been defined, and limited for you. Few of us have fingers that extend for miles; imagine finding a pair of gloves that fit. Perhaps in the physical sense our reach is finite, but your emotional and spiritual power is as far reaching as your inner light and attitude. Your reach is really your influence, stretching far beyond what you see.
In leadership training, one of the basic concepts of how you interact with others is not the formal power you have, it is your ability to influence those close and far, by your values, attitude, perceptiveness, actions and generally, your emotional intelligence. This invisible interaction you have with others is your sphere of influence, which is a fundamental part of your reach.
One of the ways you interact with others is through compassion. Empathy is tuning into others and understanding them. Compassion is not just having empathy toward another; compassion is an action word. Compassion is not pity.
When someone is in need, often we want to help. When it is a person we care about, we most assuredly want to render aid. Compassion is often viewed as a sign of weakness, that we turn over our emotions and are controlled by others. We give people what they want. No, that is not even close. Compassion is not being manipulated into giving other what they want. What someone wants is not necessarily what they need or best serves them. Similar to servant leadership, compassion is caring enough and understanding to not enable someone to continue on a path that is ill advice or harmful. Compassion can be tough.
Where does compassion come from, is it a natural emotional trait or is it learned? Let’s be honest, not everyone has the ability or interest in being compassionate. If you are in doubt, just look at the different political viewpoints or read most social media posts. We are a warring society with battles over race, religion and role of government. The casualties are our values and civility.
An article in Psychology Today talks about what different studies have suggested about compassion in the animal kingdom. Studies done on infants and even chimpanzees reveal a natural inclination of a “compassionate instinct” toward helpful behavior even without expectation of reward.
So, research suggests it might be a natural trait, that can be nurtured and strengthened in human development. Conversely, can this trait be untaught or erased from a human being? Those who function in the world without empathy or compassion, what motivates them? They might construct a world where they have little socialization with others or surround themselves with like-minded people. These are likely narcissistic individuals with an outward view reflecting negativity toward others with themselves as the center of their existence.
British psychiatrist John Bowlby developed the attachment theory which focuses on the importance of early attachment to a caregiver. Insecure attachment is the lack of a strong early attachment and the increased risk of personality disorder and low ability to feel empathy.
A study by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, looked at whether adults could be trained to become more compassionate. Using MRI technology, the study measured changes in the brain activity as research subjects undertook a variety situations. Activity increased in the inferior parietal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex parts of the brain where empathy and emotional regulation are found. Their finding: “Compassion, like physical and academic skills, appear to be something that is not fixed, but rather can be enhanced with training and practice.”
My take is that compassion is something we either take advantage of or not. We can grow it and utilize it in our lives as a tool, and spread the seeds to others. We can show compassion and help others to be consoled and to strengthen their personal and professional lives. Compassion has a lot of flavors and is adaptable to the situation and our ability to apply it.
As a Superpower
The word “power” is an intriguing one. Power is impact, not necessarily force; and there is power to be found everywhere in life. The gentleness of a soft evening breeze, has a majesty as it swirls your thoughts and frees your mind. A friendly smile has a disarming nature, causing you to return favor, without thinking, a warm glow settles over you. A dog wonders over and puts his head in your lap, those loving eyes connect with yours and a bond is formed. These are eloquent and resolute in their own way, and incredibly powerful.
Something “super” has significance and value beyond what is deemed normal. Compassion does not come with a uniform, a mask or a cape. Compassion comes dressed as you or me. At a moment or in a situation, the use of compassion can be the most critical and important influence in a person’s life. Never under estimate the impact of kindness, attention and effort. Some people are very good at reaching out and having the perfect touch to make a heartfelt and vital impression. These “gifted” folks feel comfortable doing it and understand how to mold it around the situation and the person. Others of us, are less talented and fumble with it. Perhaps we feel that we are intruding or are uncomfortable with dealing with potentially emotional issues. For us, it may not feel “natural”, but if we practice it, we can get move comfortable using it. Are there right words or a best approach? Is our action appropriate or not? Are we overthinking this? Perhaps.