Sympathy - when you feel sympathy you care for someone who is suffering but maintain your emotional distance.
Empathy - when you feel empathy you place yourself in someone else's shoes and feel their pain.
Compassion - when you feel compassion you are moved to take action to relieve someone else's suffering. Action is what distinguishes compassion from empathy.
If we find ourselves relating to others from a feeling of frustration and judgement eventually this will wear us down. However when we exercise compassion our hearts soften, our relationships strengthen and our perspectives broaden so we can see possibilities.
Elena tells us that in most schools one of the primary challenges teachers face is a shortage of empathy and compassion. It's so important to develop compassion as it strengthens our learning communities, is good for our physical health, allows us to collaborate more effectively and also helps us to deal with difficult people. Physically when we are compassionate our heart rate slows, our stress hormones decrease and our immune response strengthens - it's preventative medicine as it releases oxytocin which makes us more willing to take risks in interpersonal exchanges and it promotes long-term bonds and commitments. Getting back to the title of this post, eating chocolate also boost oxytocin - therefore it's good to have some during meetings!!
Before you can develop compassion for others, you first have to develop self-compassion. This includes acknowledging the impact that others have on you and setting boundaries around someone else's behaviour that is causing you suffering. Basically it's about extending kindness to yourself so that you have have the strength and energy to make changes: it's about talking to yourself as you would talk to a close friend, without rejection, criticism and judgement. It's about opening the door to learning and growth.
Of course all of us will encounter difficult people that we have to work with. Elena offers us good advice here such as listening to the complaints of others without commenting, not getting hooked up in someone else's story or with their attitude, being curious about what is going on for them and never taking their behaviour personally. She reminds us that it's possible to find connections, it's possible for people to change but at the same time we have to be clear about our own values and give ourselves permission to step away or even ask for help.
It's also important to forgive. There are many world figures who have exemplified the power of forgiveness but I saw this happen personally in a school I once worked at when the spouse of a teacher who was being treated poorly decided to speak up to the management and offer them her forgiveness. She explained to me it was important for her to do this because of her Christian beliefs, but in fact it's also important for ourselves because it helps us to move forward from the unhappiness. Forgiveness doesn't mean reconciliation or reestablishing relationships with the person who has done wrong, but it does mean you have drawn a line between forgiveness of the wrongdoing and acceptance or approval of it. Forgiveness is for yourself - it's connected with letting go of our expectations about another person and is the only way to free yourself and take back control of your own feelings.
Another emotion that Elena addresses in this chapter is envy or jealousy - the pain of something you don't have and the fear of losing something that you already have. When we feel these emotions we compare what we have with others. It's important to realise that we are not in competition - if someone else accomplishes something it doesn't mean we are less successful ourselves. To combat these feelings we can try to practice gratitude and perhaps also use envy as the motivation to improve our own situation.
Finally we also need perspective: we need to look at situations from multiple perspectives and points of view. We need to try to look at things within the bigger context, to expand our vision and to see the long view. Remember, changing the way you see changes the way you feel and act.
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