Do you work with someone who you dread having to interact with? Someone who stifles you, who never gives you any positive feedback and is always disapproving? Do you find yourself with a difficult work colleague? It’s tough, isn’t it?
Most of us have to deal with a difficult work colleague from time to time but we may find that solutions are not always easy to find. When this happened to me a while back, I was surprised at how much it got to me. It made me look into what was going on more deeply and try to come up some new ideas for how to handle it.
My recent story
I run my own small business and do a lot of work online. Sometimes this involves working on quite complex projects with international teams of people I have never met in person. Most of the time this goes really well but just recently it went badly wrong. A new volunteer joined a team I was working with and was given responsibility for the project. To begin with, I really enjoyed her focused, organized approach and felt hopeful about our progress. However, as the weeks passed, she began to assume a more top-down approach in our relationship and things started to unravel.
It began to really affect me. Her refusal to meet me half way, her positioning of herself as the expert, her willingness to have me to the same work over and over again until it reached some standard that I was not privy to—it became demoralising. Most worrying was a sense of rebellion that became steadily more persistent. There was a voice in my head that kept saying, Why bother? She’s not going to like it anyway! Worst of all—I started to dislike her, and it was very hard to summon any sort of kind feelings towards her.
Eventually, I decided that enough was enough and the only way forward was to talk face-to-face and try to sort things out. We arranged a SKYPE session.
When the talking it out session fails
Here came my second major surprise. For me to have a conversation like this means allowing myself to be vulnerable, to try to connect with the other person and to attempt to put myself in their shoes. I did all those things—from explaining quietly what I found difficult in the way we were working together to inviting her to tell me what she found difficult about working with me. We talked for almost an hour but there was no movement at all. None. A couple of days later she emailed me to say she was withdrawing from the project and would not be contacting me again. My attempt to reach out and to heal had met with total failure.
What do you then?
I spend my life talking and writing about kindness and peace of mind. It is an extraordinary feeling to put on the back foot when you are trying to use all your skills and experience. For a while my reactions took over but when I calmed down I tried to take a more balanced view and to see what learning there could be in a seemingly immovable situation.
Here are some of the strategies I used to work with what had happened.
It would have been very easy to feel bad about the whole thing. A commentary started up in my mind telling me that I had created a real mess and all my years of meditation did not count for much. I began to feel guilty for not managing better. Fortunately, I have done a lot of work with my inner critic and it didn’t take too long to reign it in and get some perspective.
It seemed important to forgive myself for not being able to be perfect all the way through this story. I knew that I had tried hard, first of all to be patient, and then to have a meaningful communication with a view to healing the situation. I was only responsible for my part of the interaction—it was not possible to control the reaction of the other person in the story. She made her own choices.
It also occurred to me that situations like this must be happening over and over again in different workplaces all over the world. Meeting people we can’t always get along with is part of our human story, one of the challenges of life that we all face. To respond only by blaming oneself is to ignore the bigger picture and miss an opportunity to open up the experience to a deeper perspective. It was when I was facing the failure of my attempt to get things on a better footing with my colleague that I really started to think more deeply. Through reflecting came more insight.
In meditation we learn to work with everything that comes up in our minds—happy thoughts, practical thoughts, horrible thoughts—we don’t differentiate as we let them rise, and then let them fall away. Over time, we train our minds to notice what comes up in the mind during meditation but not to dwell on it. Again, and again, we focus on the method of meditation and not the thoughts that can pull us away. In time, this helps us to become more resilientto what life brings and less pushed and pulled by our reactions and worries.
This is because meditation helps us to develop the ability to cut through the cycle of rumination which we so often occupy our minds with. Instead of going over and over the stories we have in our minds, we can learn to be more available in the present moment, without judgement. In this way, it became easier to drop my anxious feelings about how things had gone with my work colleague and to have a sense of acceptance that that was just how it was. I was very conscious at the sense of relief I experienced when I began to let go of the upset and justifications that had been buzzing around in my mind.
Renew your commitment to kindness
There were moments after my colleague left the project where it really felt as if she had set me up and jeopardised all my work. I certainly felt angry and attacked. The project we had been working on had to do with compassion and I found myself struggling to understand how two people who care about compassion could find themselves in such a situation.
Again, my meditation practice helped me to drop the judgemental thoughts I was having, and to realise that actually I did not really know what was going on for her. The only person I could do anything about was myself. I also realised that my anger was hurting myself most of all and it was not helping the situation.
There is a wonderful Buddhist meditation called Loving Kindness Meditation.which explores the power of generating kindness for oneself and then sharing that kindness with people close to you, then people you don’t know so well and eventually with people who have hurt you in some way. It is said that anger cannot ever heal anger, anger can only be healed by loving kindness.
It reminds me of two quotes from Nelson Mandela,
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
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.
It felt wonderful to let my anger fall away. Maybe I could not heal the situation as a whole, but I could heal my own reaction. It can still bubble up sometimes when I am working through the results of her withdrawal, but it does not stay.
So where does this leave me now?
The most important learning to come out of this situation for me was that we need to adjust our goals to what is happening, rather than suffering disappointment and resentment about things we cannot change. There is no point in branding an interaction as a failure and then feeling bad about it. It works much better to keep digging until the learning becomes clearer.
It was also a good experience of accepting what cannot be changed. My habit is always to keep on at something hoping it will crack but that can actually make things worse. Turing my attention away from analyzing my difficult colleague to looking into my own behavior and understanding worked a lot better.
Re-affirming my commitment to kindness, even when the going is tough, was empowering. It felt like re-enforcing the importance of kindness as something worth trying to develop, even when you are not getting the response you hoped for.
What about you? I would love to hear from you about your experiences of working with difficult work colleagues and the strategies you tried.
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.
This is the story of how I recently overcame my feelings of wanting to lie low and nurse my stress by going into town and joining with the common humanity I found there.
The last few months have been pretty stressful one way and another and I have been feeling the effects. I work from home, which is great, but when things are intense I can end up feeling a bit isolated. A couple of weekends back my partner was away giving a workshop and I had not made any plans myself. Because I was not feeling sociable, I thought I could work through the weekend.
Unexpectedly, Saturday morning dawned fresh and bright and tempted me to go out and play.
Getting out of my comfort zone
Although I could feel the pull to get out of the house I resisted for a while—I had too much to do, I didn’t want to spend loads of money, I was a bit tired…………. After a while I realised, with a bit of a shock that what was getting in the way was my reluctance to leave my comfort zone. It was easier to stay at home, feeling a bit sorry for myself, than make the effort to go out. This insight gave me a real jolt. I don’t see myself as someone who plays safe. I made up my mind to get ready and go out.
Common humanity and self-compassion
Kristen Neffis one of the leading voices in the research and practice of self-compassion. She sees self-compassion as being composed of three elements:self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Each of these components is an antidote to ways we can undermine ourselves when we do not practice self-compassion. So self-kindness is an antidote to judging ourselves and mindfulness is an antidote to over-identification, or the ways we exaggerate what is happening around us. Common humanity is the antidote to self-isolation. I certainly felt that when I realised part of me preferred to stay home and wallow!
The healing potential of connecting with common humanity was something I experienced directly that Saturday, as I went tired and bruised into town and came home feeling re-charged and uplifted.
Connecting with others is healing
Amsterdam was packed that day. I had forgotten for a moment the huge impact of tourists in the city. There are always lots of people visiting Amsterdam but, in the summer, it gets astronomical. In a city of less than one million inhabitants, 18,000,000 visitors are expected this year. Sometimes I can find this invasive but somehow this time it touched me.
So many people were out and about wanting to enjoy themselves and have a good time. You could hear a whole range of languages and accents as people tried to find their way around the city. There were families and young couples. Older people in tourist parties followed closely behind their guide. There was a tangible sense of movement and enquiry.
To my shame, my Dutch is very poor. Although I have lived in Amsterdam for many years I have not managed to become fluent in Dutch. When I am on my own I always want to let people know that I am not a tourist, just a poor Dutch speaker. On this Saturday I had interactions with all kinds of people in shops, and my confession led to a whole series of interesting stories with the people working in the shops I visited. There was lots of sharing of experiences and much laughter and teasing.
Because I was on my own, people were more likely to take time to talk with me. I could feel something in me relax with the enjoyment of chatting without any particular kind of agenda. In the café where I stopped for coffee there was time to look round and see the other people enjoying their coffee and cake.
One of my favourite meditations for common humanity
The more I walked around and felt myself as one of the crowd, the more I could feel the tightness of recent months begin to dissolve. With my own stress and worry still so close, it was a small step to look at others and wonder how they were and what they were coping with.
I found myself reciting, or paraphrasing lines from this meditation more and more as the afternoon went by. Would anyone know from looking at me what I had been carrying over the last months? Probably not. How can any of us gauge what someone is dealing with, other than by accepting the basic truth that life is both wonderful and very hard at the same time. We all want things to go well but life shows us that some of the time they won’t. Everyone has their own worry, suffering and pain—everyone. So it is possible to look into the eyes of anyone you pass by and think, ‘just like me.’This is the experience of common humanity for me.
As my walk around town continued I experienced a growing sense of gratitude. It felt so good to be part of the energy of the people enjoying the city, as well as feeling a sense of connection between myself and them.
My worries were still there but I felt much less alone with them. Remembering that everyone I was meeting would be going through their own version of challenge and anxiety lifted the heaviness from my own. Before I set off to play in town I was feeling that my problems were all-pervasive. After a few hours of shopping and people-watching I simply felt that we were all in the same boat—wanting happiness but dealing with whatever comes along.
Research into gratitude over the past 15 years is finding several emotional, and lately even physical benefits. Connecting with common humanity, recognising its power to help me and experiencing gratitude because of that transformed my mood and lifted my heart. I will not quickly forget the experience.
If you enjoyed this post and want to go further, you might enjoy this online course:
When you are getting ready for work in the morning, is there a work colleague who comes into your mind who you dread seeing, and would rather avoid? If there is, then the chances are that you have a difficult person to deal with at work. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be a problem that only you are facing. Difficult people at work can cause a ripple effect that has negative consequences throughout the workplace.
Everyone is difficult some of the time of course, so what does it take to be seen as a ‘difficult person’? There are people who complain all the time and are impossible to please. Then there are others who seem to want to turn everything into a competition, or worse, a battle. I have worked with people who treat their staff pool as a free audience for them to play out their own personal soap opera—they demand attention and tend to suck all the energy out of a team. Perhaps you’ve met the perfectionist? Someone who cannot accept anything that is less than perfect and projects their exacting and unrealistic standards on everyone around them. Quieter but just as deadly is the person who quietly goes behind everyone’s backs and gossips and manipulates to get their own way.
Toxic behaviour of any kind takes up time, energy and resources to deal with—all of which could be applied to the actual work to be done. Such behaviour can impact productivity and lower inspiration and morale among any team. It causes stress, absenteeism, and a higher rate of staff turnover.
However, it does not have to be all bad. Difficult work colleagues can help to focus our attention and encourage us to check our own habits at work. Let’s look at some practical, accessible steps that anyone can take to help them to deal with a difficult person at work without risking any of these negative outcomes.
Maybe as you read this you are thinking that you are always paying attention, and this is too obvious to mention? Perhaps you have not heard about the researchthat was done at Harvard University in 2010. It showed that for almost 50% of our waking hours, we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. This means that for almost half our life we are not fully present to ourselves and what we are doing.
Let’s take a moment to consider what that means. If our minds are elsewhere when we are interacting with another person then we are going to miss all kinds of signs as to what is actually going on. Our memoryof the interaction will be flawed and incomplete. We are going to be seeing people and events as we think they are, rather than how they actually are.
This is particularly important when dealing with a person we experience as difficult. We are going to need to able to discern clearly the other person’s behaviour, as well as our own responses to it. It won’t help to get caught out by defensive reactionswhich could add to the problem. Things will only get worse if we exaggerate the difficult behaviour of the other person. Developing equanimity, on the other hand will give us the grounding we need to understand and work with the challenges they present for us.
What we can do
One of the best ways to learn to be present is to make mindfulnesspractice part of your everyday life. Try to spend at least 10 minutes every morning sitting on a cushion, or hard-backed chair connecting with your breath. Simply rest your attention on the rhythm of your breathing. When your attention wanders away, notice it has wandered and bring it back. Keep doing this over and over again. Slowly, steadily you are training your mind to be present.
During the day we can use STOP moments—very short moments of mindfulness meditation.
This is how they work:
Pause with whatever you are doing
Connect with your body, feel its strength, let it ground you
Take a few deep, slow breaths—release any tension you are feeling
Let your thoughts come and go without chasing after them
Enjoy the few moments of calm and spaciousness.
Take that feeling with you as you pick up your activities.
I don’t think I have ever met someone who owned up to being a poor listener. Each of us believes that when people talk to us we hear what they are saying. Sadly, most of the time we only just scratch the surface. We are used to putting our case, telling our story and we want others to listen to us. If we put ourselves in the centre, then it is hard to embrace the whole circle. Much of our listeningcomes from a place of believing we have the correct response, or the right solution and we can’t wait to share it with the person we are talking with. That comes across for the person talking to us, who senses that we are putting our own reactions ahead of their needs.
Susan Gillis Chapman has written a book, The Five Keys to Mindful Communication in which she uses the three colours of traffic lightsto help understand the different levels of communication. When we have someone at work who we are having problems with, the chances are that our communication is going to be the red light, where defensive reactions are predominant. At these times, how we listen is of over-riding importance. Our difficult person is expecting to not be heard, is almost provoking misunderstanding. We cannot afford to shut down and close ourselves off from the signals they are sending. If we can demonstrate that we are trying our best really be present and to listen without the inner commentary of our own opinions, then we have a chance to move to yellow light communication, where things can become more fluid. Of course, our goal is the open communication of the green traffic light.
What we can do
Try to avoid conversations with your difficult person when you are tired, hungry or stressed.
When you know you are going into an interaction with them, try to take a STOP moment beforehand.
Listen with your heart as well as your head.
Ask yourself what is really going on for the other person.
Look for any emotional clues.
Watch out for repeated words or phrases—the chances are these are the issues that are on the other person’s mind the most.
Consider your attempts to listen with an open mind and heart as your contribution to healing the situation.
Give up judging others
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading figures in the mindfulness movement, described mindfulness as being, an intentional, non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Why was it necessary to highlight this quality of non-judgment? If you think about it, we judge just about anything. In fact, we divide the world up into things we like and want, things we don’t like and don’t want and things we don’t really care about. We spend a great deal of effort going after the things we want, because we think they will make us happy and avoiding the things we don’t want, because we know they will make us unhappy. The thing is that none of it works. Lasting happiness is much harder to achieve than we thought and it’s hard to avoid challenging things happening to us.
Our like, don’t like and don’t care attitudes are just as easily applied to people we know, as it is to the things that happen to us. We hold our friends close and avoid people we do not like and in between is a huge mass of people we don’t ever really pay attention to. If we have a difficult person at work, they are likely to fall into the category of ‘don’t like and don’t want.’ Obviously, this is a weak position to try to find a solution from.
What we can do
We already mentioned the importance of equanimity as a basis for working with difficult people. It enables us to be present to the person and the situation but to not be drawn into it, to not be affected by it.
Without equanimity we are defenceless in the emotional territory of the difficult person.
We can see things as they are, rather than from the point of view of our own self-focus.
It is not necessary to draw courage from judgments which enforce our own opinions and prejudices.
Equanimity allows us to be open to what happens, rather than pre-judging any outcomes.
It is easy to think that we don’t have time for kindnessin the workplace but this is a misperception. Being kind does not take more time, it just requires us to be present to ourselves, our work colleagues and the situations we find ourselves in.
Jonathan Haidthas researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. This is the effect of people either experiencing kindness themselves, or witnessing it happening between other people and feeling the benefit personally. When this kind of interaction happens in a work environment it has the effect of building trust, commitment and loyalty. How we try to deal with a difficult person at work can contribute to the overall wellbeing of a workplace.
We’ve seen that it is all too easy to want to avoid difficult people at work, and to not have to deal with them—but let’s take a moment to try and see this from their point of view? Few people set out to be disliked—if their behaviour is provoking dislike, somewhere that is probably causing them distress.
What we can do
Ask yourself what you know about your difficult work colleague
—are they under stress, is there something going on at home?
Look for any small thing that you like about the person
—maybe you have the same taste in music, or they like the same movies that you do?
Try to separate the person from their actions
—all of us do stuff which is not always nice, but it does not mean we are all bad people.
Whenever you can, try to give your difficult person the benefit of the doubt.
Observe how they are with other people
—are there other people they get on well with?
—I once had to work closely with someone who said I reminded him of his mother (with whom he had a problematic relationship). Although I found working with him very intense, I noticed that many other people sought him out for collaboration. The problem was something sparked very directly between the two of us.
Don’t forget yourself
Having a difficult relationship at work can be very disheartening. We can feel guilty, inadequate, somehow reduced by being embroiled in a difficult communication. It’s important to remember that we are one part of the puzzle and that the problem has many elements. At the same time, it helps to recognize that although we might not have started the problem it is inevitable that somewhere along the line, we could play a role in perpetuating it. We need to take time to look into our own behaviour and check our own emotional habits and vulnerabilities.
My main meditation teacher always used to say that if you want to remove a difficult person from the world, you can begin by looking into where you need to disarm your own destructive tendencies.
It was in Barcelona a few weeks ago, that I got a direct lesson on the importance of mindfulness in supporting being self-compassionate.I was there to give a workshop on transforming stress and it was on the second day, after lunch, that I got a choking fit. I had hurried back from lunch and was slightly hyper because I was trying to lift the everyone-wants-a-siesta energy. I took a sip of water and it just went completely wrong. It is easy for me to choke and I am only too aware that if it goes really badly, then it’s possible that I will vomit. Not something any workshop facilitator is looking to do!
At first I tried to fight it and just carry on. Then it occurred to me to excuse myself to the bathroom but then people would have come after me and the workshop could unravel. There were a few moments where I just pretended that I wasn’t there but of course that didn’t work either. So, I gave up and just spluttered on until I could find a place to settle my breathing and take a cough sweet. Things slowly settled.
The three elements of self-compassion
Looking at the group I saw a sea of worried, slightly anxious faces. Something needed to be done. As it happens I had been starting to explain the three elements of self-compassion—self-kindness, as an antidote to self-criticism stemming from the fight response; common humanity, as an antidote to self-isolation stemming from the flight response, and mindfulness, as an antidote to self-absorption stemming from the freeze response. I realized that I had already run through the whole fight-flight-freeze stress response in myself, so I decided to try and use what had happened to explain the antidotes and how they work.
Self-kindness came in as allowing myself to acknowledge something unpleasant was happening but not beating myself up about it. It wasn’t my fault. Seeing the concern on the faces of the group reminded me that they knew exactly what I was going through and wanted me to be OK. There was common humanity. However, the basis of the whole thing was that because I could apply mindfulness I was able to keep the whole thing in proportion and not over-react to my predicament. There was no panic—it could all be managed.
Let’s look more closely at how mindfulness supports self-compassion.
5 reasons we need mindfulness for practicing self-compassion
To enable us to notice our moments of suffering
From an evolutionary point of view, we are programmed to turn away from anything that threatens us, and to keep focused on staying alive. This is so we can pass on our genes. On an everyday level, this means we put our energy into carrying on with whatever we think needs to be done—which does not give much time for self-care.
Our stress response is built to fight, run away or freeze and wait till the threat passes. So, our tendency is to rage against our suffering, or distract ourselves from it, or hide away and lick our wounds. It is hard for us to simply notice pain. This means that we are not always very skilful in knowing how to care for ourselves, especially regarding emotional, pain.
Furthermore, when we are suffering, our tendency is to focus on the failure rather than the pain. If you make a mistake at work, don’t you quickly find yourself feeling stupid, rather than taking a moment to acknowledge how wretched you feel for the mistake in the first place? When you have an argument, aren’t you more likely to spend the moments after it re-running the scenario and trying to see what you could have done differently? How often do you give yourself a moment just to feel the pain of the disagreement?
Mindfulness means being in the present moment and experiencing it fully, as it is. If the present moment is one of suffering, then we taste it fully. By not turning away, we give ourselves a moment to acknowledge what is going on for us and to see what it is we need to do about it.
To encourage being non-judgemental
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as being a moment-to–moment, non-judgemental awareness. Let’s look at that idea of being non-judgemental. For much of time we are looking at what goes on around us and dividing it up into stuff we like, and want more of; stuff we don’t like, and wish would go away, and stuff we don’t really care about. When we practice mindfulness, and become present to our experience, there’s an opportunity to be curious and to just notice what is going on. We don’t need to overload our experience with judgments, that tend to narrow things down.
In terms of self-compassion it can mean that we do not go straight into the monologue of our critical voice, telling us how we are not getting it right and falling behind. We can pay attention, rather than berate ourselves. This gives us a chance to get a more balanced view of what is going on and how we want to deal with it.
To take the simmer out of our reactions
Our stress response is basically the same as that for any other mammals but we differ in one important way. When an animal has escaped from a threat it faces—say the zebra has escaped from the lion—it quickly settles and returns to quietly grazing. We don’t do this. Our minds keep the threat alive long after it has passed. Think of the last time you had an argument with your boss—didn’t you spend hours afterwards thinking about how it went and what you could have done differently? Perhaps you discussed it with friends?
Our tendency to ruminate and worry and to go over and over things that have upset us, keep us in a constant state of low-grade stress—a kind of simmering stress. In this state it is harder to practice self-kindness, or to remember common humanity. If we are being present to what is happening to us now, not what has already happened, not what might happen shortly, then there is nothing to ruminate about.
Like the zebra—who is focused on grazing on the grass in front of it—we can engage with our present activity wholeheartedly. We don’t need to follow our wandering mind.
To have a choice in how we react
When we see how fast our moods and feelings change it’s maybe hard to believe that there is a tiny gap between something happening—an action, and our reaction to it. When we are feeling quite mellow and relaxed we can sometimes sense this gap but when we are worried, or stressed it seems to disappear. For me, self-compassion means using all our resources to work with ourselves in a healthy and constructive way. When we over-react to a situation and have to deal with all that entails, we are setting ourselves up for self-criticism and feeling bad.
With mindfulness, we are engaging with the present moment with our full attention and without judgment. Going from moment to moment with curiosity enables us to have a more balanced view of things as they occur. This makes it possible to put space around events and gives us the chance to notice the gap. Then we can have some choice in how we react, rather than simply being dragged along by our emotions and moods.
Often when we calm down after something has upset us, and look back at what has taken place, we can see that our reactions have encouraged us to exaggerate. Think of how mad you can get at another driver who seems to be cutting across you! Or how frustrated you feel when your internet connection falls away! When we are mindful, we are more able to see things as they are, without exaggeration. We are not trying to prove anything. We are just being with what comes along. So, even if you do over-react to a situation, with mindfulness you can more quickly bring your attention back and settle.
To avoid over-identification
Remember, from a self-compassion viewpoint that mindfulness is the antidote to freezing up, which leads to self-absorption. When we are not able to step back as we were discussing in point 4, then our sense of self becomes completely wrapped up in our reaction to what we are dealing with. It can be so easy to be caught up in our own personal soap opera.
Remember a time when you were faced with a big disappointment—someone else got the job you applied for, your relationship broke up or perhaps the holiday you really longed for turned out to be too expensive. A disappointment is a moment of suffering and we need to notice it and take care of ourselves as we work through it. When we over-identify with our reaction, then we deny ourselves the chance to work through it in a way that will enable us to heal. Our reaction becomes the main story, rather than our return to wellbeing.
Mindfulness of the present moment balances out our attention and prevents us from falling into a repeating loop of reaction and disappointment. Then we can apply self-kindness and see our problems in relation to those of other people. Mindfulness fuels self-compassion.
If you found this post helpful you might like to check out my online course, How to be a Good Friend to Yourself
A few years ago, I had to attend an outpatient clinic in one of Amsterdam’s big teaching hospitals. My treatment lasted several weeks and involved me making frequent trips. Naturally enough, after a while I began to see other people making the same journey. Something that struck me very strongly was that the was a big variety of people all going through a similar experience—different ages, backgrounds, ethnicity, occupation were just a few. Yet all them had an important element in common—the wish to be well and a feeling of vulnerability because they were not sure how their treatment was going to turn out. On top of that, most people came with a friend, or partner, or relative and the love and care between them was palpable—the carers so wanted everything to work out well for the people they were caring for.
As human beings, we all want to be happy and not to have to deal with pain and suffering and yet, pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life. My hospital experience demonstrated that for me profoundly but it also showed me the tenderness and courage that underlies that truth. As just one patient going through the motions of treatment, along with all these people who started out as strangers to me, I felt the raw material of myself as a human being. Maybe my interests, and life experiences were different but that was of no consequence. My hopes and fears were pretty much the same as everyone else’s who were there with me. There was a shared appreciation that while we were all going through our individual treatment, we were in this together. Somewhere each of us was touched by the depth of interconnectedness that unites us in common humanity.
Think of times when you behave in a way that you are not happy with—you lose your temper, or you’re impatient with a waiter in a restaurant. Do you feel yourself shrink a little? There’s a sense of disappointment and perhaps some shame. What about when you find yourself skipping the gym for the third week running, or not ringing your friend who just broke up with their partner because you don’t have the energy to comfort them again? Then there are the tricks that life can play on us—we get made redundant, or our children leave home and we don’t know how to fill the gap. Events like this that make us feel less good about ourselves can lead to us wanting to shut ourselves away from other people. We don’t feel good enough and we are worried that other people will find us inadequate too. Our fear is that if we are not managing to be up to the mark, then other people will not want to be with us, let alone love us. Much better to hide away before we feel rejected.
Self-isolation is contrary to how life it
When we isolate ourselves, we are cutting ourselves off from the nourishment and support of people, who, although we don’t realize it at the time, are just like us. Compassion is about understanding that everyone suffers and that suffering is part of life. When we can open ourselves to the reality of this, we find that we stop shrinking. Instead of being locked into a sense of our own failings we can see them in relation to the failings of others. Did you ever meet a perfect human being? My guess would be no—and yet we continuously expect ourselves to be perfect! There can be a big relief in dropping this pretence and accepting ourselves as a flawed human being, who is doing their best along with everyone else. Self-compassion is relational. It involves understanding that we have disappointments and inadequacies, while finding the courage to address them.
What Mirror Neurons tell us about interconnectedness
Mirror neurons were discovered by Italian researchers in the 1990s. Before this discovery, it was thought that the brain uses logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. However, mirror neurons seem to enable us to simulate not only other people’s actions but also the intentions and emotions behind those actions. It’s just like when you see someone cut their finger and you automatically wince in sympathy. It also seems that mirror neurons have a role to play in interpreting facial expressions and hand gestures. They point to a continuous subtle level of communication that is going on between our own brain and the brains of people around us. Vittorio Gallese, MD, PhD, one of the researchers involved in the original research in the University of Palma comments, It seems we’re wired to see other people as similar to us, rather than different. At the root, as humans we identify the person we’re facing as someone like ourselves.
This points to a neurological basis for common humanity and appreciating the power of interconnectedness. Knowing the science can help develop our confidence in common humanity but it is opening our hearts to the experience of it that will help us to make it part of our lives.
A simple way to see how interconnected we are
When we wake up in the morning and start our routine we are usually focused on getting ready for our day and all the things we need to do. Tomorrow morning why not try something different—think about how interconnected we all are. As you shower and dress take a moment to check the labels in your clothes. The chances are that many of them come from countries other than the one you are living in. How many people would have been involved in making these clothes and getting them to you? We can start by thinking of the people who made the clothes but to make them they would have needed the raw materials and so there is a whole mass of people involved in all the processes of making the fabrics. Then there is design and marketing and transport and advertising and selling! It’s probably fair to say that there are thousands of people who contributed to the clothes that we are putting on. Through their efforts, they touch our lives.