Dr Cecilia d'Felice's Step-by-Step Guide to Modern Life

How to be happy: 'What does compassion really mean?'

Dear Dr Cecilia, you often write about compassion in your column but I don't I really understand. I think it means to feel sorry for someone, but what good does that do when I always seem to feel bad about myself? Carly.

Step 1: Although some emotions can be agonising, they are a part of us that we cannot disown. Pity distances us from suffering, so feeling sorry for ourselves is never going to be helpful. Compassion, unlike pity, walks hand in hand with suffering. Compassion means acknowledging and understanding suffering, combined with the commitment to alleviate it. We could call it radical compassion: radical because it wants positively to influence the experience of suffering, to take care of it and therefore assuage as much hurt as possible.

Step 2: Our internal judge is helpful when prompting us to apologise for things we have done wrong and we simply could not manage our lives without some form of judgement. But often, this internal arbiter attacks us for no reason, telling us we are bad, unloveable, ugly and stupid. This voice is generated by a fusion of our earliest critics, punishments and upsets. So, when we find we are attacking ourselves for no reason, when we constantly hear in our mind cruel and diminishing things about ourselves, we need to get compassionate. Why? Because we are in danger of declaring war on all our emotions to stave of this negative critic, unable to live with emotional authenticity.

Step 3: To understand yourself and acknowledge that you feel both negative and positive emotions is to begin the process of compassion. Accepting that negative emotions arise naturally, as part of our humanity, allows us to see that they pass, as all feelings and sensations do. We can then allow compassion to step in and take care of these negative feelings.

Compassion, remember, wants to alleviate our suffering and we can do this by soothing ourselves, reminding ourselves that these emotions do not make us a bad person. Forgiving and nurturing ourselves while trying different approaches to life that sustain our wellbeing are all acts of compassion.

Next week we look at ways we can build a foundation of compassion in our lives, to send hope through both our emotional world and our relationships.

Cecilia is Mind journalist of the year

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