What an Anonymous Survey Taught Me About Compassion
We all have stories, but it seems we don’t always have the avenues through which to talk about them. We all crave connection and intimacy, but we don’t always know how to get it. There are so many things we leave unspoken, out of fear or avoidance or shame, until someone gives us an opportunity to share it… and then what needs to come out will.
Almost a year ago as I was contemplating this project, I did a public survey in which I asked women questions relating to faith, identity, and intimacy.
One of the most surprising revelations to come from this survey was that every woman who completed the survey had so much to share — each of them carried trauma, pain, overcoming, shame, ideas for how we can move forward together. There was no shortage of conversation.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise: we are designed for connection and intimacy, to be seen and known. I experience this in my own life, and I witnessed it in the responses of the women who filled out each question with courageous honesty. I felt incredible compassion, and at times, validation, as I read through the results. I was reminded that I was creating this project as much for myself as anyone else. Our stories are so different, yet also much the same.
It reminded me on a deeply personal level that any creative work or contribution we do in the world has to flow from a personal level.
I cannot aim to help anyone else or understand their pain if I have not also learned to help myself and understand my own pain.
When we face past pain with bravery, we begin to make a way for others. One way of doing that, of being brave with and for others, is to start talking about things that matter and things that go unspoken in my own life first. It’s making a way for others in my immediate spheres — online or in personal conversations — to share or be validated in places they have hidden or didn’t know how to share. I’ve wanted to do this with this set — but I knew I also needed to be good at doing it everywhere else in my life, too.
Each of us carries an atmosphere around us; we set a standard by how we respond and act. If I want to make it safe for other women to share what really matters or what really scares them, I need to be brave enough to do that, too. Online and off.
Having compassion and making it safe for others starts with having compassion and making it safe for me. As I read those survey results, I felt compassion rise up within me—I so wanted these women to find peace in the midst of their pain. Yet if I’m honest, how moved have I been by my own pain? How hard do I desire and fight for my own peace? How many days did I wake up last week with dread, moving quickly to task-oriented work so I wouldn’t have to confront my own heart?
I think this is many of us: ready and willing to love and accept others, but subconsciously unwilling to first love and accept ourselves. Loving outwardly without being able to love inwardly is a different kind of love, something weaker. If I cannot go into the depths of myself and have grace and compassion for the wounded woman I find there, whatever I give to anyone else is superficial at best.
This is a form of shame, this is what it does to us. It will keep us superficial and unable to achieve the connection we were made for.
It makes us powerless if we let it, persuading us to hide our stories and our hearts and our bodies so that no one else can ever really know us. I know that if I’m ever going to help other women overcome shame, I need to do the same. If I want to increase conversations around intimacy and bodies in church culture, I need to change the conversations I was having in my head, with my husband, and with my friends.
Having more and better conversations around things that matter is a journey I am on in my life that I have not yet perfected — but I am convinced that it is one the most worth-while explorations I will ever take. If you would like to join me on this quest for more compassion and better conversations, I have some ideas for how we can make changes on a more personal level. I believe that the more I create compassion and safety for myself, the better I can do that for others. I think you will this to be true, too.
Get rid of shame.
Identify where and why you feel shame or embarrassment. When I share the things that I am most afraid to share, I experience great freedom. We were made to experience acceptance and love, but we can’t if we don’t give people an opportunity to give it to us. Every time I have shared with someone about something that scared me, I have been surprised by their compassion, interest, and support. You will not experience the connection you need — or be able to authentically give it to others — if you do not put yourself out there in vulnerability.
Revise your self-talk.
The more I read the bible and understand the extravagant, definitely-insane kindness with which God talks about us, the more I realize how off my own self-talk is. Loving myself and being proud of who I am isn’t pride or selfishness — it is having a right view of who God made me to be. Not only do I police the thoughts in my head when I am looking in the mirror, I pay attention to the things I say in public. Specifically, I noticed that I would use self-deprecating humor to make social interactions easier, or deflect compliments. This may sound unrelated, but I think the way we relate to ourselves in thoughts and words is a big way we are really unkind to ourselves.
Whenever I’m with a friend who seems sad or stressed, I will stop everything to stare into their eyes and hear about what is happening. I realized that I never do this with myself. I will wake up and go through my day like a robot, ignoring the pain in my chest or whichever way my body is alerting me to emotional distress. It sounds a little silly, but what would happen if we sat down with ourselves and gave our hearts permission to feel? And not just feel, but be fully expressive? The few times I have done this have been wildly therapeutic — and I walk away with more compassion and love for myself. I want to learn to be a kind friend to myself, especially when I am going through pain.
Embrace your story.
Sometimes, it’s a “tell” that people aren’t comfortable with their own pain when they can’t handle hearing about what other people are going through. We’ve all done this: we rush a person from their pain to “But God is good, it’ll all work out!” or can’t just sit still and let them be sad and vent awhile. It’s as if we are afraid by letting them really feel their pain that somehow God will step off the throne or we ourselves will not be able to contain it.
We get better at letting other people share their stories by getting comfortable with our own — and that means remembering. For me it’s journaling or talking to God and getting his perspective. I’ve received counseling or talked with pastors or close friends when I needed. There is no shame in getting help to return to scary places. It has only been in returning to scary places with the help of others and the Lord that I have been able to leave those places behind for good. I can’t make space for someone else, or really honor their story, if I can’t learn to hear and love my own.
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