Can there be good news hidden in this crisis?

Can there be good news hidden in this crisis?

Isn’t it incredible how quickly our lives have changed in the last few weeks because of the Corona Virus? Seemingly overnight our way of living has altered dramatically. Yet even among all the anxiety, grief and disorientation there are still glimmerings of good news. It’s this good news that could be the basis for our long-term recovery.

We are all in this together

A striking feature of this situation is how it affects everyone. Not long ago we were watching scenes of flooding in the UK, of refugees flooding across the border in Turkey and the bush fires in Australia and Brazil. Like most people, I found these scenes distressing and they occupied my mind for ages. At the same time, I had the luxury of them not happening to me—they were happening to other people.

All this has changed now. This virus is affecting the lives of everyone on the planet—how we work, socialise, keep our economy afloat—the list is endless. There’s no room to say one country is getting something wrong and another right. We just don’t know. Governments are making up their responses as we go along. They’re trying their best, but they don’t really know what will happen.

Everyone is anxious and uncertain. However wealthy, powerful or successful you are it doesn’t matter. We’ve seen celebrities, royalty and politicians all going down with it. The virus does not discriminate.

So, what is the good news here?

If we pay attention this could be a real wake-up call for how we care for each other. As we witness each person’s vulnerability it’s brought home to us strongly that is the very nature of being human. We all know this but in the rough and tumble of living it can get pushed to the back of our minds. As we focus on making  living, caring for our families and living as best we can it’s all too easy to overlook the importance and uniqueness of each human being. 

Now as we stand side by side through this pandemic, we know that just as each of us is anxious and worried, so is everyone else. Whenever we feel closed in by not being able to go out into the spring air, we can remember that this is how it is for almost everyone. As we struggle to get in supplies, we know that it’s not just us wanting to make our home as safe as possible. It’s as if our personal defences have melted away and we are all vulnerable together.

We are experiencing the reality of our connected world

The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a “wet market” in Wuhan which sold both dead and live animals including fish and birds.  We know that such markets pose a heightened risk of viruses jumping from animals to humans. This is because hygiene standards are difficult to maintain if live animals are being kept and butchered on site. Typically, they are also densely packed allowing disease to spread from species to species.The animal source of Covid-19 has not yet been identified, but the original host is thought to be bats. Bats were not sold at the Wuhan market but may have infected live chickens or other animals sold there. 

If this is correct, then just think of a scenario where a farmer, or butcher takes his animals along to the market to sell. He’s probably done it many times before without thinking about it too much. This time however, one or more of his animals is infected. In the crowded market, somehow the infected animal comes into contact with other animals and humans. The chain of the virus beings to unravel from there on.

We live in a deeply interconnected world. Although we may behave as if we are independent, autonomous entities, the truth is that we are not. It’s not so clear how the virus got to Italy but the fact that it was the half-term holiday around then was significant. There’s a whole group of people who go skiing in February in Europe in Italy, France and Austria. It was as these people came back home that the virus started to spread.

Now as we try to deal with the effects, we see again and again how much we need each other—whatever country we live in, whatever our situation. This does not mean that the co-operation is always there but our awareness of the need for it is growing. Slowly it become something we see more clearly and have more respect for.

Strangely, we are also learning how to suffer. According to Buddhism, understanding the truth of suffering is essential for us to achieve wisdom. It’s only by understanding our human condition that we can be inspired to grow and change. However, suffering is uncomfortable, and we often want to turn away from it. Rather than examine difficult circumstances, we often prefer to distract ourselves from them. Right now, we are surrounded with news about the virus. Anyone we talk to has something to say about it. Newspapers, news programmes and social media are all abuzz with it. There really isn’t anywhere to hide. 

When we ask each other how we are, each of us knows the seriousness of what we are asking. It does not work to just talk about all the places we can’t go and the people we can’t see. We can only reply with a version of how we actually are.

Even the environment is experiencing some good news

We’ve seen that pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen since the isolation measures were put in place. Fish can be seen in the canals in Venice, smog has lifted in Kathmandu. Satellite images from NASA and European Space Agency have shown a significant decrease in nitrogen dioxide pollution.

The virus has done what climate activists have not so far been able to do. Planes sit idle, and car use is reduced while people stay home. Tourists are not visiting popular destinations. Air quality is improving in most of the big cities.

Probably it won’t last. When this is over, there will be a hug surge to get the economy back on track. People will long for movement and travel. Perhaps though, in this moment of respite, we are learning again to appreciate the planet and our wish to care for it could be deepened.

Our healthcare and support staff are valued for what they do

One of the features of the new normal that we find ourselves in, is the weekly applause from home and balconies for medical staff. These brave doctors and nurses are working tirelessly to do all they can to help the increasing flood of patients.

Added to our gratitude to them is a recognition of the efforts of care staff, supermarket workers, garbage disposal workers, delivery people, postal workers, and all the other people working in vital jobs. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that these people are generally at the lowest end of the pay scale? Personally, I have been amazed at the kindness of the delivery people who bring our groceries. When I thanked one young man for his help at the end of a phone call about getting supplies, he said that at times like this, we all have to help each other.

If we think that middle class people on comfortable salaries are being forced to apply for state aid in droves because of their jobs disappearing, or their pay being cut. Can we hope that this experience will act as a shake-up to accepting the old norms? Will going through this experience give people a taste of how it is for those who live on limited income? Do we dare hope that when we emerge from all this that our health services will get the support they need and the decision is made to look long and hard at the low rates of pay awarded to so many people working in what are currently referred to as vital occupations?

How to make the possibility of good news become part of society after the virus

Like many other people, I have been inspired by the news updates from Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York. The other day, I heard him say that there will be no ‘going back’ when this is over. The experience of the virus has been so strong that it just won’t be possible to go back to how we were.

That could be a good thing. The shock of this virus and its effects has given us much to think about. It’s exposed some of the best and the worst of how we organise ourselves. Perhaps as we come out the other side, we can bring with us the fruits of all we have been through. To do that we need to think deeply and to reflect on what are the elements of our society that we can let go of.

I live in the Netherlands and like anyone who lives in a wealthy country, I have the security of knowing that the government will work to offer some support for me and for my family, and for all the families in the Netherlands. What of the garment workers in Bangladesh whose work has disappeared because big western clothing companies are cancelling their orders? More than a million workers have been sent home. As a poor country, Bangladesh will not be able to offer the same support for those people. As our awareness of each other’s vulnerability and our interdependence grows, can we allow this to continue to be the way things are?

Perhaps we can’t go back but we can ensure that where we are going to will reflect positive changes in how we live, not negative ones.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

What happens when you lose your job

What happens when you lose your job

I have had one major incident of job loss in my career. It was messy and painful. Although it happened years ago, I can still wake up in the night and wonder what on earth happened. I wasn’t fired but made redundant, although the difference felt like semantics. The experience left me feeling disorientated, lonely and inadequate.

For most of us, losing a job means a scramble to find another one as soon as possible. The bills that need paying do not stop with job loss. My own solution was to become a solo entrepreneur, which involved a steep learning curve. There is very little time left to care for how wounded, low and discarded one can feel.

Here are some of the issues that I tried to work with while setting up my new business.

Who was I after my job loss?

My job had been in senior management in an international non-profit. I travelled a lot, I had teams who answered to me—I was a boss. When it was over there was a short period of time where I was completely disorientated. For so many years I had worked very hard and focused my energy on my work. Without it I was not sure who I was.

It took me a while to consciously disconnect myself from the job that I had had. I needed to remember why I wanted the job in the first place, and to re-connect with the motivation that led me to carry it out for so long. Slowly, painfully it became possible to remember interests that I had dropped through lack of time before my job loss. My meditation practice, which had become minimal during the busiest times, flourished again. The space it helped to open up enabled me to process what I was feeling in a way that was healing.

Struggling with a sense of shame

Brené Brown describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of live and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

That seems pretty accurate. I certainly felt that I had failed and become somehow lesser in people’s eyes. Indeed, by not being able to avoid job loss I had failed in my own eyes. However, much worse was the idea that people would think that as a failure I was not someone they would want to know. Not being able to explain to myself what had gone wrong made it very hard to explain to other people. I felt defenceless. 

That was the place from which I set out to build the next phase of my working life.

Major cracks in my self-confidence

Perhaps it is inevitable that when you suffer a job loss you are precipitated into an intense period of self-examination. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to take time to reflect on your work habits and how you are coping with your working life.

The trouble comes when, hurting from the shock of losing your job, you forget all about how to be kind to yourself. I have had friends who have been made redundant or lost their job who have turned to me for help. I have never subjected any of them to the tirade of judgment and criticism that I poured out to myself.

Self-compassion was not so well known at the time that I lost my job. As part of my work now I have studied it quite thoroughly and wish that I had known more about it at the time. Learning how to tame the sharp voice of my inner critic and to change oneself through kindness would have helped me enormously. Understanding that my job loss was not something that only happened to me but was happening to many other people at the same time would have taught me a great deal.

Fear of what my job loss meant for the future

Underneath everything else there was the constant worry of not being able to get more work. The threat of financial difficulties was a constant drain on my energy. Working with that fear became a priority because when it got too intense, I froze. 

Fortunately, we often have more resilience than we think. As much as I could, I used the fear to cut through my feelings of inadequacy and to spur me on.

The loss of community

One thing that I had not anticipated was how much I missed the people that I had worked with. People that I had worked with for years and seen every day simply dropped out of my life. Gone was the flow of ideas and the shared camaraderie. 

When you work with other people there is a ready-made social network. Of course, you are joined together by the work you are doing but you also share all kinds of other things. You hear news of what is going on in other people’s lives. There is an audience for you to share what is going on in your’s. You accompany each other through all kinds of moods, challenges and accomplishments.

With a job loss, all this is gone in a moment. 

Struggling with the sympathy of friends and family

My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but I found it hard to be the one needing support. I am more used to offering it. Too often I found myself putting on a brave face when actually I felt really low. In fact, it was a journey for me to allow my vulnerability to show and to accept their support with gratitude. 

However much we may need to move on after a job loss and find new work, we need time to grieve. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and it takes time but without it we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from what has happened to us. In order to move on in a good way, we need to be able to make some sense of what has happened. How we heal the pain of our loss will depend on being able to take the time for reflection, and evaluation. Job loss is one of the most stressful experiences we will face but it is also a time of opportunity. We need to give ourselves the gift of that time.

men and women being fired

I hope you enjoyed this post. I am currently designing an online course to support people through job loss. If you could fill out my survey it would help me to gather data for the online course. It will only take you 10 minutes. Thank you so much!

Five reasons why forgiving is so important

Five reasons why forgiving is so important

For the last few months there has been a strange distance with one of my closest friends. It’s been really uncomfortable. Recently we met up to try and talk some things through and things got heated. She walked out on me, left me sitting. I was astounded and very hurt. It was difficult to know what to do.

My partner, who has also been involved in the whole story, suggested that we buy her a big bunch of flowers. We wanted to break through something. Last weekend we chose some lovely flowers and drove over to her place to deliver them. She wasn’t home—which worked well, but we could leave them with her daughter.

Within an hour of us dropping off the flowers our friend was on the phone and our communication was completely different. The whole tone was forgiving, and healing. We recognised that there had been pain and that there were things to work through, but it all seemed possible.

It was as if a boulder loosened itself from my back and rolled away. Since then I have been doing a lot of thinking about forgiveness and the reasons why it is so important.

It eases your own pain

I have been quite amazed at how relieved I’ve felt since delivering the flowers. The hurt I’ve been feeling is much more in proportion than it was. There is also a sense of feeling better about my own role in whatever the dynamic is with my friend. Instead of feeling helpless, and a bit inadequate, there is more patience and trust that things will turn out well.

It was powerful to replace my feelings of hurt, with a healing action. I could actually sense the resentment in my heart ease and was able to access the affection and love that I have always felt for my friend. Yes, we were offering flowers as a gesture of healing—we wanted to give something to our friend that would unblock things‑but we both walked away feeling lighter, and as if we too had received a gift.

Forgiving reduces your stress levels

We could say that the opposite of forgiving is bearing a grudge. It turns out that when we bear a grudge it has a damaging effect on our wellbeing. In a study carried out bypsychologists at Hope College, Michigan, participants were asked to recall a grudgethey held against someone. Recalling the grudge led to an increase in blood pressure,heart rate and sweating. On an emotional level, participants described feeling angry, sad, anxious and less in control of themselves.

When they were asked to imagine forgiving the person, they held a grudge against, theirstress levels fell and the physical symptoms they had experienced subsided. In the psychological domain, forgiveness has also been shown to diminish the experience of stress and inner conflict while simultaneously restoring positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

In his book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman reminds us that studies of people posthostility reveal that every time they merely think of the group they hate, their own body responds with pent-up anger. It floods with stress hormones, raising their blood pressure and impairing their immune effectiveness. Whereas forgiving someone we’ve held a grudge against reverses the biological reaction. It lowers our blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones and it lessens our pain and depression.

When we can forgive other people, we are releasing our own hostility as well, so webenefit just as they do.

It’s the only way to free yourself

One of the things that Nelson Mandela is famous for is his insistence on a policy of forgiveness as opposed to revenge when he became President of South Africa in 1994. In one of his most famous quotes on his release from prison he said, 

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

Bishop Desmond Tutu expresses the same kind of sentiment in a slightly different way,

If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.

Both quotes point out that forgiving frees us. That is not to say that it is easy in any way. When we have suffered grievous hurt it can be hard to find our way to forgiveness. Realising that it is the only way to begin our own process of healing can help us find the courage to try.

When we spend time going over the hurt that has been done to us and suffering all the anguish that brings, we are continuously pulled back into the past. Although we might wish to move on, we are still caught in the prison of all our conflicting emotions. Forgiving enables us to move on.

Forgiving helps you to recognise the pain in others

We are not born wanting to hurt others, or with hate in our hearts. Our life experiences shape us as we grow up and mature. If we can take some time to look into the circumstances of the person who has hurt us, we can often find all kinds of clues that help to explain their behaviour. When we take time to explore our common humanity, we can begin to see things from a bigger perspective. 

The person who caused us pain is a vulnerable human being trying to cope with their challenges, just as we are. Each of us is trying to find the way to live a good life and to avoid suffering but experience shows us that that is not possible. Life includes suffering. Sometimes the way we process our suffering can make us hurt others—either intentionally, or unintentionally.

Don’t we also sometimes need forgiveness from other people for the pain we cause them? If we cause pain, don’t we wish for forgiveness?

It contains the seeds of compassion

The road to forgiving can be hard. We need to be patient with ourselves. Compassion itself can be hard. Although we have the potential for compassion in our hearts and minds, our life experiences can make it hard to access. We need to take small steps and build confidence in our ability to care about the suffering of other people and to wish to help them to be free of it. 

Connecting with other people, paying attention to what is going on with them and seeing how alike we all are will help to turn our minds to compassion. Forgiving other people when they cause us pain will help the seeds of compassion to grow.

Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.

How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

We all know that Christmas is a big opportunity for stress. The combination of having to appear to be having fun, while coping with all the frustrations and extra work can be a real downer.

One of the things we need to know about stress is that it closes things down. It’s hard to feel joyful and enthusiastic when you are stressed. We tend to close in on ourselves and set up a kind of survival regime to get us through. Maybe it does help us to struggle along but it does not help us to care for ourselves, to open our hearts to others, to learn anything about the habits that lead to the stress in the first place.

Let’s take a look at some ways we could set about making connections this Christmas instead of going into survival mode.

Connecting with yourself as the basis to overcome stress

Do you ever feel like the people in this snow globe at Christmas—all in your festive gear but not able to communicate how you are really feeling? The holidays can be a strangely lonely time, even when you are surrounded by people.

As the lead up to Christmas gathers pace, why not take some time to check in with yourself and see what you are hoping for from the holidays.

Whether you are religious, or not you can ask yourself what is important to you about this holiday. Is it having family around and lots of good things to eat and presents to share? Or is it about having a few days off from work and routine in the middle of winter. Whatever it is, it will help you to set an intention for yourself—a kind of inspiration for the holiday.

Then at the other end of the scale, try to see what it is that triggers stress for you.

Take a moment to sit quietly and then ask yourself these questions:
  • At what times do I experience a high level of frustration over relatively small events?
  • How does it feel in my body? 
  • What do I do about it? 

Going through this exercise will help you to identify the times when stress can creep up on you, so you can prepare for it and hopefully, avoid it. Allowing yourself to use your body like a stress barometer shows you the effect that stress has on you. Spending time thinking about how you deal with stress helps to get you off the survival treadmill and really consider how you can ease your stress.

Connecting with the present moment

So often when we are busy our minds are just rushing away with us thinking ahead of all there is still to do. That’s particularly sad at Christmas when there are so many enjoyable rituals in getting ready—like making the cake. 

So one way we can ease a feeling of stress is to connect with the present moment. For example, try not to hurry with making the cake. While you are mixing it, don’t think about making the mince pies, a present for grandma and whether you have enough wine in the house. Instead, try focusing on simply sorting your ingredients for the cake, weighing and adding them in the correct order and mixing it all to a delicious consistency. Take time to smell the fruits and the brandy. Allow yourself to enjoy the texture of batter. Remember to make your wish and just be with the making of the cake. When it is in the oven, you can go on to the next task and approach it in the same way.

Connecting with a sense of enjoyment and celebration helps to dissolve stress

The more we can get our stress into perspective, the more chance we have to enjoy some of the magic that there can be around Christmas. We said earlier that stress closes things down and one of the first things to go is any sense of enjoyment and celebration.

Allow yourself time to look around you and see the things you enjoy. I am a big fan of Christmas trees both indoors and out in the open. There is something about all the lights and glitter on a dark winter evening that just says home and love to me.

What is it that you enjoy most at Christmas?

Connecting with family and friends

Probably if we are honest, one of the biggest sources of stress is how the family is going to manage together over the holidays. It can get complicated with all the in-laws and the extended family. We all know that awful tense feeling that can come when uncle George manages to come out with the opinions that we know will drive our teenage daughter to distraction. Or when grandma insists that we don’t know how to put on a Christmas like they did in her day. You dread the moment when your sister-in-law, who always manages to make you feel like bargain-basement wife, arrives for dinner looking as if she just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, along with her two immaculate children. You, on the other hand, hot and bothered from the kitchen feel less than glamorous.

Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind while the family dinner is underway:
  • Everyone around the table wants to be happy—just like you do.
  • None of them want to be anxious, or worried, or miserable and yet, inevitably they all have times when they are—just like you.
  • Chances are that each one of them have their own insecurities about the family gathering—just like you do.
  • Perhaps some of them are even intimidated by aspects of your behavior–what a good cook you are, how you juggle family and career—who knows?

It can help so much if before your irritation arises you can put yourself in the shoes of the person irritating you—perhaps they are more like you than you think.

Connecting with the rest of the world

As well as closing things down, stress makes us lose perspective. Whatever is going on with us seems so much more important than anything else that is happening in the world—which in the scheme of things, really does not make sense.

During the holiday period you can counter-act any tendency to feel that getting the lights working on the tree is more important than, say, global warming by consciously allowing yourself time to think about what is going on for everyone else in the world. Many millions of other people are celebrating Christmas around the world, with traditions that may be very different from your own. There are also millions who are not celebrating Christmas and it is just another ordinary day for them. Then there are the millions who whether or not they wish to celebrate Christmas are not able to because of poverty, or war, or persecution. Keep them in mind also.

So, a very merry stress-free winter holiday to everyone!

How to be kind when following the rules

How to be kind when following the rules

I admit to being not very good at following the rules. It’s always important to me to understand what the rule is for and if it is really necessary. So, when faced with an instruction, I usually come back with why? Or I have  suggestions to offer as to how things can be done differently. It does not always make me very popular! Also, I can see how it can be challenging for someone trying to enforce the rules.

Ways of following the rules

Of course,  we need to have all kinds of rules in order for society to function well. It just seems to me to be important how you decide to follow them. There are the kind of people who enjoy their authority. They seem to take pleasure in wielding the small amount of power that enforcing the rules gives them. They are generally not interested in explaining the rules, just in making you follow them. It can be tough to be at their mercy.

Then there are people who use empathy to help them administer the rules. These people try to see through your eyes and to understand where you might feel challenged. Conversation with people in this category can help you to understand the rules you are being asked to follow.

My recent experience of following the rules

The background

A couple of months back I had a direct experience of both of these types of people in authority. My partner and I went through an extraordinary week of loss and bereavement. We lost two people very close to us through cancer. First, my partner’s brother passed away in Amsterdam. Then a week later a very dear old friend passed away in the South of France. We wanted to attend both funerals and spent an anxious week making arrangements to make it possible. 

My brother-in-law was cremated on a Friday. Straight after the funeral my partner and I left for Schiphol airport to catch a plane to Girona. It was the quickest and most efficient way to get to Roqueronde, where the second funeral was going to be held on the Saturday afternoon.

Both of us were quite exhausted and emotionally frail with all the grief and worry we had been through, but we were very relieved to be able to attend both ceremonies.

Security at Schiphol Airport

I am always a bit uncomfortable going through airport security. There is always a slight feeling of waiting for something to go wrong and on this occasion it did—spectacularly.

We usually favour checking in our luggage when we fly. It’s good to minimise the hassle of security. This time we were taking carry-on luggage because we were in such a hurry. We completely forgot the 100ml maximum for toiletries. We had bought brand new tubes of the cream my partner needs for his skin and the gel I need for my rheumatism. Of course, they were all bigger than the allowed size.

Although we had our outsize tubes in the designated plastic bag, our case was still hauled off the conveyor belt. With her rubber-gloved hands the young woman dealing with us rummaged through everything. She was completely deaf to our explanations—which soon became entreaties—that we needed the creams, that they had never been opened and would cause no harm.

There was even an underlying feeling that she enjoyed the drama of taking about €60.00 worth of creams and throwing them all away.

Bus drivers at the long-term car park

In contrast the bus drivers at the independent long-term car park definitely came in the category of people following the rules with empathy. The arrangement is that you park your car in a protected area and then catch one of the buses that the firm have running between the car park and the terminals. When you return, there is a bus scheduled to collect you.

The driver on the way out was very friendly and helpful. He was happy to talk but kept quiet if you had little to say. He noticed my difficulties getting in and out of the bus because of my rheumatism and made sure he was on hand to offer an arm. I really got the impression that the boring routine of the job came alive for him through the people he met and helped. For him following the rules was simply a skilful means.

Our flight back was already and late evening flight and then it was delayed. We rang to warn the drivers but were still anxious that it was too late for them to wait. Imagine our relief to find the bus waiting patiently at is allocated place in a cold and rainy Schiphol. As I tried to run, he waved me down and shouted for me not to hurry. He tucked us up in the bus and drove us back to our car. We really felt we were home.

We don’t know what is going on for people 

There is a quote that I like very much and often use in my workshops:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

The quote is attributed to Ian Maclaren, as well as  PhiloPlato and Socrates. I don’t know which of them actually said it, but it carries a deep wisdom. As we encounter people during our everyday activities, we really have very little idea of what is going on for them. The woman at security did not know we had just been to one funeral and were on our way to another.

The thing is, if we allow ourselves to take just a moment of reflection to consider how life is, we can see the truth of this quote. We all want our lives to go well and to be happy but so often things go wrong and the very things we want to avoid happen to us anyway. The very fact of being alive means that we can be in the middle of all kinds of worry, anxiety, and fear, as well as hope, inspiration and happiness. The point is that we do not know and therefore it could be a good idea to make sure our behaviour does not add to someone’ pain.

There can be many occasions when we are distracted, or overwhelmed and our wish to be kind gets pushed aside. Remembering that everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle could help to focus our attention.

Barriers to empathy

In his marvellous book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution Roman Krznaric sets out four main barriers to empathy. 

These are:

Prejudice

When you own opinions about the type of person you are encountering overwhelm your ability to relate to them. Among others this can refer to sexual orientation, social class, race, nationality and work occupation.

Authority

We referred to this earlier when we discussed the kind of person for whom following the rules comes first.

Distance

If the problem you are dealing with is happening a long way away from you either in geographical distance, or emotional distance then it can be easy to disengage from it.

Denial

This happens when we dissolve any sense of responsibility for actions that are taking place.

In my experience the woman at the security desk bumped into all four of these barriers.

The antidote

To put it simply, the main antidote to these barriers is humanising the other. Instead of taking distance we engage. We try to look at each human being as being just like us, with feelings and hopes and fears. Sweeping statements and broad generalisations are set aside. Instead we look at the particular circumstances and individual needs. There is curiosity to really know about people and things. We take time to pay attention.

My insight about following the rules

These barriers to empathy can be crude and obvious but they can also creep up on you in surprisingly subtle ways. When I look back on the thoughts and feelings that I had concerning the woman at security, it dawned on me that I too was bumping into the same barriers. In my distress, she became the ‘other’ for me. I was ready to fault her on the way she was doing her job without giving any thought to how she might feel as a person. Just seeing her at her post in her uniform made me feel uneasy. It built up from there. So, although I am of the opinion that staying kind while following the rules is very important, I would now add another point. When you are being subjected to the rules, you also need to keep your heart open towards the person making you follow them.

office building

If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.

Where is the compassion in online communications?

Where is the compassion in online communications?

I am particularly delighted to welcome Carole to the blog. She is writing about such an important topic—compassion on the internet. In these polarised times it is so important to take her Netiquette guidelines to heart. Thanks for the post, Carole!

Compassion is a strength that has supported me throughout my life. I have also witnessed the development of compassion help many people in my role as a private practice psychologist.

I think we’d all agree that communicating via the internet has been one of the fastest growing evolutions of the last 20 years. These days there are endless opportunities to communicate online and it can seem like a fast-paced world, difficult to keep up with. No doubt there has to be an effect on our mental health. Our relationship with these communications and how we relate to each other has been something of a personal and professional fascination to me over the years. 

Today I will be sharing an online experience that took me to some dark human depths and caused me to wonder ‘where is the compassion?’ in these places. It was hard learning. This has driven me to create some online etiquette (Netiquette) guidelines that I am sharing with you today. I’ll walk you through my story.

Stepping into the Lion’s den

Working solely in private practice has its rewards and difficulties. One of the potential pitfalls can be becoming isolated from other professionals.  So, when the opportunity to connect with others became available through social media, I considered it. To be honest I mostly ‘lurked’, watching others post and felt very reticent to get involved. I didn’t think too deeply about why that might be at the time. I found myself drawn in to respond to areas I had experience and knowledge in, feeling a responsibility to share. 

One fine day I noticed someone asking a question on one of these social media networks that I had some information on and experience in. I summoned up the courage to post a link on the subject in question in a desire to be helpful – I remember thinking it was a neutral thing to do as I wasn’t directly offering an opinion. Now, it is important to say here there are difficulties with having such a small space to respond in as things may look out of context, AND you do not know what has gone on before in that forum…..these are things I learnt the hard way. 

The unforeseen threat

Although I had responded to one person’s information request what happened was an entirely different person responding with an angry tirade of words. They were directed to me personally, questioning my knowledge and professionalism…I had a sense of ‘who do you think you are?’. It felt very threatening and I can share with you I felt absolutely crushed. I did not know who this person was and what sort of influence they might have. Crucially, I did not know who was looking in and struggled to find a way to deal with the situation, in the moment. Nobody posted anything straight away after this – although each of us got (secret) likes. In effect I had experienced a group shaming process, and in my vulnerable state had to decide how or if to respond. 

I absolutely agonized over what to do. Ultimately, I decided there was no way I could respond directly or indirectly without entering into the angry, difficult behaviour. Abstaining was hugely difficult in itself as a fragile part of me felt like I was allowing myself to be bullied. In effect I was both trapped by the situation and blocked from responding – a dangerous and compassionless feeling place. This has caused me to wonder whether the speed of our ability to communicate is bypassing the decision-making part of our brain? We could be responding straight from our threat systems. Ironically, I suspect my seemingly (from my end) innocuous posting provoked the other persons threat system. 

The power of self-compassion

Now, at this point I’d like to say thank goodness I had been practicing self-compassion for many years. Fortuitously I was already on one of Maureen’s (online) self-compassion courseswhich was hugely helpful in helping gather myself, and help view things from a safer feeling mindset. From this view I applied some compassionate self-correction as opposed to shame-based self-attacking (Professor Paul Gilbert OBE) for my part in entering naively into the online domain ill-prepared. 

I wondered how I might respond if this were to every happen again. This was quite a conundrum. I spent some time considering what had happened to compassion in this situation and how important to our well-being kindly, well thought out communications were likely to be. Goodness knows we can think of many examples of difficult, unhelpful and harmful online interactions that go on every day. 

Salvaging something from the experience

I decided to move forward by finding a way to contribute positively to these tricky communication spaces. Previously, I had encountered Netiquette (online etiquette) guidelines but they did not cover what I wanted to convey. I really hoped it would be useful to offer an understanding of what might be going on for us as human beings in online places, and why this might be important for our well-being. 

Using my experience, I wrote from the heart and a set of compassionately written guidelines emerged. My thinking was that if anyone found themselves in the same impotent situation instead of entering into the communication, they could send a link to these Netiquette Guidelines. And whilst I am not naive enough to think this might also feel inflammatory the other end it would offer an opportunity to respond compassionately and not feel blocked.

NETIQUETTE GUIDELINES

These guidelines focus on the realities of being human beings in the online space, which has some significant differences to communicating in other places. There are some very interesting phenomenon that influence these communications such as the Online Disinhibition and Black Hole effects that you can follow if you are intrigued.  I bring into view the public shaming opportunities public platforms can bring, as well as the opportunity to use our powers for good. I also encourage PUSHING THE PAUSE BUTTON as we are encouraged to sacrifice sense for speed. 

Importantly …I encourage us to remember there is often a human at the other end  but crucially remember we are all human! Being courteous and mindful is likely to reap big rewards for our well-being. 

FORGIVE OTHERS AND BE COMPASSIONATE WITH YOURSELF 

– Remember you are a human too and with the best will in the world we all make mistakes. Mistakes online can feel much bigger, but if we are forgiving and compassionate with others and ourselves, perhaps that will become contagious. 

REMEMBER WE ARE ALL HUMAN.

We are not all the same

 You may be thinking ‘I wouldn’t be affected like that’, and this is a very interesting point. We are just in the beginnings of understanding what impact communicating via the internet might be having on us in terms of; changes in our brain, conditioning, attention etc. This evolution has potentially been the fastest in history and pushing the pause button to reflect perhaps the wisest thing we can do at this juncture. I have come to wonder how differently we react to online communications in different contexts and one interesting notion is how relevant our attachment styles might be. If you haven’t encountered attachment theory before it is really relevant in how we communicate with other people (and ourselves) and is often explored in compassion-based therapies. 

Attachment and its importance in relating to others

From our early experiences we often talk about four styles; Secure, Ambivalent/Anxious, Avoidant and Disorganised (basic explanation). It’s not our fault we find ourselves subject to these styles and it can be helpful to understand how they might impact on our lives. 

What is fascinating to me is how these might be acting on us in online communications that have different rules and less non-verbal communications to steer us. I have certainly noticed in my practice how some clients are drawn to continually check for approval in these 24/7 online spaces. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that we can compare ourselves to others at an alarming rate. Other factors are suggested as important such as; having a safe haven, a secure base, proximity maintenance and separation distress

It is profoundly interesting to wonder how these ideas might be being influenced in the often boundaryless feeling online space of the world wide web.

Reflecting on the learning

 My own very strong reaction to this experience has been hugely interesting and I would certainly subscribe to the idea my attachment style has a place to play. An area of concern for me is the idea that compassion might be getting eroded in some online communications.  Also, the capacity for group shaming and high levels of self-critical thinking, greater than in other spaces. Perhaps we could view these communications as high challenge in terms of being without the same safety giving non-verbal cues. This in turn might mean we require high self-support to manage them. In my experience self-compassion which encourages courage, distress tolerance, and a sense of safety might well provide balance to this modern-day stress. I sincerely hope my story and subsequent reflections have resonated with you. Please feel free to share the guidelines and I send compassionate best wishes for us all going forward.  

Endnote

I would like to leave you today with the words of Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the internet) in his open letter 2019, 30 years after he gifted us the Internet. His message, I believe, is of hope in we can steer the internet as we move forward – as opposed to being steered by it. I’m hoping in a more compassionate direction.

Against the backdrop of news stories about how the web is misused, it’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us, we will have failed the web.” (Direct quote)

  • Gilbert, P. (2010). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London
  • Holmes, J. (2014). 2nd Edition. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory (Makers of Modern Psychotherapy). Routledge: Abingdon-on-Thames.

Carole is a counselling psychologist in private practice near Bristol, UK. She provides therapy, supervision, consultation and training both face-to-face and via online means. Carole often combines her research interest area of online relational aspects and compassion orientated approaches to explore some of our every day struggles. Her passion is in sharing understandable insights she hopes will be helpful to us as human beings.

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