Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years.
Compassion and Kindness Are Not Wimpy
The Power of Practicing Compassion
Several years ago a couple of women who were volunteers and donors to the Bean Project asked me if I ever got burnt out due to hearing all the sad stories from the women. I remember thinking for a moment and then saying, no, not at all. It was an honest response, though I don’t think at the time I knew why I wasn’t left feeling bereft after witnessing years of stories of sadness, loss and failure.
Today I admit to knowing myself better and having the ability to understand why I answered as I did; that is, why I haven’t burned out from hearing so many heart-wrenching tales of trauma, stress and helplessness. I think the answer lies in having learned the power of practicing Compassion and Kindness.
Healing Must Involve Opening Up
In our work at the Bean Project we often meet the women we serve when they are at their lowest points, lacking self-esteem and hope for their futures. Part of each woman’s experience at the Bean Project involves sharing her story. People may wonder why we encourage the women to share their traumatic stories and feel concerned that it is voyeuristic or gratuitous. I assure you, it is not. Instead, it is because each woman’s healing must involve opening herself up to feeling the trauma and hurt she has experienced and then developing compassion for herself.
We know it is hard to overcome feelings of helplessness or despair when we are bad situations, but compassion can only be learned by experiencing pain, betrayal and hurt feelings. And though we would often prefer to leave our suffering behind, suffering is part of our humanity and a necessary component to feeling compassion. Having compassion, which is the ability to understand the emotional state of another person and then wanting to alleviate their suffering, makes us feel connected and part of a group. It gives us purpose and it grounds us. Without compassion we are bound to feel alone. Recently, scientific evidence has shown that compassion can play a vital role in our health and happiness.
Compassion Acknowledges Everyone’s Humanity
It’s important to understand that the work we do cannot end with compassion, but must include action. This distinction lies in the difference between compassion and kindness. Compassion is a feeling for another’s suffering or the ability to relate to another’s feelings because you can feel them too. Compassion involves feeling for oneself and others. In fact, the word compassion means to suffer together. Compassion acknowledges everyone’s humanity. It is a necessary component for success.
Self-compassion, the skill we try to help the women learn, is about being kind to oneself. Self-compassion is required before we can begin to have compassion for others.
Kindness is How We Act
Kindness, then, is an act that involves trying to help others in need; giving help, in addition to feeling for someone. Kindness is how we act when we feel compassion. Approaching every woman we serve from a place of kindness allows us to better serve her, to meet her where she is and walk alongside her on her path to a better future.
As individuals, using our power for kindness and compassion improves our feelings of power. It’s an amazing feedback loop of benefit to ourselves and others. According to researchers, from neuropsychologists to social scientists, kindness leads to happiness for ourselves and those with whom we interact. Studies show that when we focus only on ourselves, we experience more stress. Compassion and kindness actually protect us from stress!
A Show of Strength and Power
I often think that we are afraid to show compassion and kindness in work settings. We fear that others will be convinced that our ability to feel what others are feeling or to act based on a desire to be kind will be perceived as weakness. I contend the opposite is true. Compassion and kindness aren’t wimpy; in fact, they are a show of strength and power. It is by channeling this power that we do the most good.
Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO