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Compassion Makes Your Relationship Stronger

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This is your step-by-step guide to make your relationships more meaningful and more secure using the powers of emotional intimacy.

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Compassion includes action -- the act of doing something positive in response to someone else's feelings. I will be so bold as to declare that compassion is the very essence of love. Compassion is the trait we showcase when we are attracting a partner and falling in love. Compassion is the magic dust we sprinkle on our fights to help us repair the damage. And compassion is the glue that keeps couples together when the going gets boring and the grass next door looks neon.

However, the capacity to have compassion is a little tricky to acquire if you were not parented with compassion yourself, if your parents projected their own desires onto you instead of respecting you as a unique person. The good news is that the beautiful human mind is plenty malleable. Environmental conditions and intellectual processing can change how we think and feel. So the first step to becoming a compassionate person is to make a commitment to practice empathy. This is the day to get out of your own head and move into the heads of others. Because, in case you didn't know, each and every one of us has our own unique version of reality. Yep, in every family there are as many movies playing as there are brains perceiving.

The second step toward becoming a compassionate person (and strengthening your relationships) is to erase any negative feelings you might have about giving to another. Yes, believe it or not, some people think being supportive and kind is a sign of weakness or that putting someone else's needs ahead of their own is giving up some precious control. If this kind of belief system was programmed into your tender mind way back when, I give you permission today to let go of those notions. Instead, reprogram your brain with the idea that the "giver" is the power player in life. The receiver is not a "taker" but a worthy human being.

There are three kinds of people you can practice compassion with: strangers, acquaintances, and intimate family. With strangers and acquaintances the practice is quite simple: Increase your eye contact. Study their faces. What's really going on with the teenager working at the drive-through window? The teacher who sighs as she trudges into your child's class? The bank teller who carefully counts out your money? With each everyday encounter, ask yourself what kind thing, be it word or deed, you can do to improve someone else's mood. Then sit back and watch the magic happen.

Compliments work well with strangers. Friendships will improve if you put empathy into action and offer a ride, a babysitter, some arms to help lug stuff. And, don't assume you know exactly what people need. Inquire first. Then offer goodness with no strings attached. That's true compassion. And it can be done in the smallest of ways. I sometimes stack the dishes for a waitress at a busy family restaurant to make her load easier. I open doors for strangers. I say an earnest good morning to people at Starbucks. I always inquire and offer help to mothers with babies and toddlers in public. These small acts of connecting teach your brain to have compassion.

Our intimate family members require a bit more gentle detective work. We need to go deeper to create emotional intimacy. There is a technique that psychotherapists often use called reflective listening. Reflective listening involves translating the speakers words into your own words and feeding them back with a voice of inquiry. So, your kid comes home and says, "This was the worse day of my life." A straight inquiry might be simply, "What happened?" But with the addition of reflective listening, you might say, "Things didn't go so well for you today and you look like you're feeling mad." Then pause. Wait, and watch. You might even reach out and touch your child. A hand on the shoulder, a stroke of the hair, signals to your child that you are connected with him and available for support. Let the child lead the conversation and with each moment of interjection, reflect back to the child his feelings so that he begins to feel truly heard and supported. You might be surprised by what you hear and what you learn about the people you thought you knew so well.

Compassion is one of the skills that makes relationships stronger because when we truly see and empathize with others, we become loyal to them. We tune into the same familiar news anchor and our favorite sports stars in the same way. Familiarity breeds loyalty. Compassion works on us too. Compassion is the feeling we can use to love ourselves more. To accept our own flawed path and ill-timed lessons of life. When we can feel compassion for ourselves, that is, understand our own suffering and do something to heal it, then we have so much more to give in a love relationship.

So the next time you find yourself at an impasse with love, stop and entertain the feeling of compassion. Are you being too hard on yourself? Are you being too hard on that other human being in your life? Dig deep at these moments to scoop from the geyser of compassion that flows inside every person. Compassion is the only thing that works every time to build trust and emotional intimacy. Tomorrow: Emotional Intimacy skill #2: Shame Tolerance.



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