I have an embarrassing confession. Back when I lived on the hamster wheel, I wasn’t a particularly nice person, although no one really knew this. Even my friends don’t know this because I kept my judgment and rants about others to myself. Mostly.
To be clear, my judgment and rants were primarily about people I didn’t know, or didn’t know well. The slow woman in the grocery line. The guy who doesn’t use his turn signal. The high school classmate who would post on Facebook his opinions about affordable health care and gun control. The overweight woman who orders the large popcorn with extra butter and a large diet coke at the movie. I would rant about their behavior and question their intelligence. I’m not proud of this. I couldn’t seem to help myself.
It’s not that I didn’t like people. I did and do. But I felt so trapped in my own life of never ending stress I needed to blow off steam somehow. Bitching about others was my way of stress management; a release. On more than a few occasions I would turn these rants on to those around me.
Starting My Morning With A Stress Cocktail
One morning, I was driving to work and was cut off by a driver. To avoid hitting him, I pulled onto the shoulder. I cussed at him, imagined inflicting bodily harm on him and then dove into an internal diatribe about how I hate my 70 minute commute with stupid drivers.
I hate it. I hate it.
Not surprisingly, I arrived at work angry. In my first meeting of the day, a team member suggested buying a banner at a baseball game to generate new business. “Are you kidding me, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard,” I said. I was mortified by the words coming out of my mouth. Yet I couldn’t seem to stop them. Who was I? And yet I couldn’t stop. So went my day on the hamster wheel.
The problem was my odd form of stress management didn’t really work. In fact, I would feel more helpless and trapped after these rants, even as I felt a bit more calm for processing my adrenaline. I also had another reason to beat myself up for being a bad person. It’s not like I wanted to be mean or judgmental, but it gave me that sense of control so many of us crave in this 24-7 world.
It’s What You Be, Not What You Do
I knew stress wasn’t serving me but I didn’t know what to do about it. I read lots of books and saw therapists, but still the stress persisted. It was only when my health and future mobility was threatened with a diagnosis that I woke up to the unsustainability of my stress.
I was diagnosed with a condition exacerbated by stress. Of course, stress exacerbates most conditions, including the human condition. Therefore, I immersed myself in every possible form of stress management. I tried more therapy, biofeedback, regular massages, yoga, meditation, and many more activities to reduce my stress. All of it worked, a little bit, although doing so much stress reduction was hard to do. I found myself running from appointment to appointment. Not exactly a recipe for a stress-free life.
Then one morning a man showed me another door to escape my stress. While driving to work I was cut off by another driver. I cussed at him and was on the verge of spiraling down into the familiar pit of frustration and anger. Instead I noticed the all too familiar tightening in my body. I was about to play the “My life sucks, I hate my commute and I hate these drivers” tape. STOP!
What if that man just found out he has an incurable disease? What if his wife just told him she is leaving him? What if he has to go fire his best friend today? What if his mother or child or wife just died?
For five minutes I ran through a list of possible explanations for his cutting me off. None of them included that he intentionally cut me off because he’s a jerk or that he hated me. And yet that is exactly what we do when someone “wrongs” us. We take it personally. We get stressed about it. Instead my stress melted away. I swear my heart expanded in my chest. I even sent him a beam of love, albeit a small one. I felt great all because I had chosen to experience compassion. I felt free.
The Compassion Solution
Compassion is defined by Merriam-Webster as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” While I wasn’t driven to alleviate the driver’s pain, I wasn’t driven to ignore it either. Or the fiction of it.
I’m well aware that I made up all the possibilities of why he cut me off. Yet I used to do that all the time anyway. We all do. We create a story about how our offenders are awful, ignorant, inconsiderate, rude people. As my mentor Bettie Spruill says, we make up everything, so if you’re going to make it up, make up something that serves you. That is exactly what I had done. Happily, I was no longer stressed.
It turns out this wasn’t a fluke. Research confirms that practicing compassion reduces our stress hormone cortisol. What’s even better is that practicing compassion can regulate and normalize our immune and stress responses. Having been diagnosed with an auto-immune condition, I was happier to discover this benefit of practicing compassion, even in the hardest situations.
Five years after that fateful traffic experience, I use compassion to neutralize stress. I contemplate what could possibly motivate people to act in certain ways; ways that used to annoy me but now fill me with possibilities for compassion. I then send them love, big beams of love. Over time, I’ve noticed I don’t react as often with judgment. I’m also less stressed and happier.
As you go through your day today, see where you can add some compassion. It might be for others or yourself. Regardless, experiment with compassion as a way to see the best in people. Share your experience in the comments below.