Compassion and Assertion

Compassion and Assertion

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each [person’s] life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I sat on the board of a meditation center for nine years, and was often struck by how its teachers expressed their views. They were compassionate about the concerns of others, but when they said what they thought, they did so clearly and often strongly, without hemming or hawing. And then they let it be, not becoming defensive or argumentative. This combination of openheartedness and directness was very powerful. It got the job done while nurturing the love in the room.

This was compassion and assertion working together. They’re the two wings that get any relationship off the ground and keep it flying. They support each other: compassion brings caring to assertion, while assertion helps you feel comfortable giving compassion since you know your own needs will be met. Compassion widens the circle of “us” while assertion protects and supports everyone inside it. They both nourish the wolf of love. In this chapter, we’ll explore brain-savvy ways to use and strengthen your inborn abilities to be compassionate and assertive, and we’ll begin with compassion.

In order to be truly compassionate, you must first feel something of what the other person is going through. You must have empathy, which cuts through the automatic tendencies of the brain that create an “us” and a “them.” So that’s where we’ll start.


Empathy is the foundation of any meaningful relationship. When someone empathizes with you, it gives you the sense that your inner being truly exists for that person—that you are a Thou to his I, with feelings and needs that have standing. Empathy reassures you that he understands your inner workings at least somewhat, particularly your intentions and emotions. We are social animals, who, as Dan Siegel puts it, need to feel felt (2007).

Or let’s say you are the one who is offering empathy. Empathy is respectful and soothing, and it usually evokes goodwill in return. Often empathy is all the other person is asking of you; if there is still something the person needs to talk about, you can address it in a more positive atmosphere. Further, being empathic gives you lots of useful information about the other person, including what’s really on her mind, and what she really cares about. For example, if she’s being critical of you, sense down into her deeper wants, particularly the softer and younger ones. Then you’ll have a fuller picture, which will probably reduce any frustration or anger toward her. She’ll likely sense this shift in you, and become more understanding herself.

To be clear: empathy is neither agreement nor approval. You can empathize with someone you wish would act differently. Empathy doesn’t mean waiving your rights; knowing this can help you feel it’s alright to be empathic.

In spiritual practice, empathy sees how we are all related to each other. It is mindful and curious, with a “don’t know” quality that prevents you from getting stuck in your own views. Empathy is virtue in action, the restraint of reactive patterns in order to stay present with another person. It embodies non-harming, since a lack of empathy is often upsetting to others, and also opens the door to hurting them unwittingly. Empathy contains an inherent generosity: you give the willingness to be moved by another person.

Empathic Breakdowns

For all its benefits, empathy disappears quickly during most conflicts, and fades away slowly in many long-term relationships. Unfortunately, inadequate empathy erodes trust and makes it harder to solve interpersonal problems. Just recall a time you felt misunderstood—or worse, a time when the other person didn’t even want to understand you. A history of empathic breakdowns has effects; the more vulnerable a person is and the higher the stakes, the greater the impact. For example, insufficient caregiver empathy often leads to insecure attachment in a young child. In the larger world, empathic breakdowns lead to exploitation, prejudice, and terrible atrocities. There’s no empathy in the wolf of hate.

How to Be Empathic

Your natural capacity for empathy can be brought forth deliberately, used skillfully, and strengthened. Here’s how to work with the brain’s empathy circuits.

Set the Stage

Bring conscious intention to being empathic. For example, when I realize that my wife wants to have one of those conversations—she’s not happy about something, and it’s probably me—I try to take a few seconds to remind myself to be empathic and not lame, and that it feels good to be empathic. These little steps activate the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to orient you to the situation, focus your intentions, and prime empathy-related neural networks; they also warm up the limbic system to get your brain headed toward the rewards of empathy.

Next, relax your body and mind, and open to the other person as much as feels right to you. Use the methods in the next section to feel safe and strong enough to receive the other person fully. Remind yourself that whatever is in his mind is over there, and you’re over here, present with but separate from the stream of his thoughts and feelings.

Keep paying attention to the other person; be with him. This sort of sustained attention is uncommon, and other people appreciate it a lot. Appoint a little guardian in your mind that keeps watching the continuity of your attentiveness; this will stimulate the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which pays attention to attention. (We’ll say more about this guardian in chapter 12.) In a way, empathy is a kind of mindfulness meditation focused on someone else’s inner world.

Notice the Actions of Others

Notice the other person’s movements, stance, gestures, and actions. (The point is to energize the perceptual-motor mirroring functions of your brain, not to analyze her body language.) Imagine doing these yourself. What would it feel like, in your own body, to do them? If it’s appropriate, match some of her movements unobtrusively with your own, and notice what this feels like.

Sense the Feelings of Others

Tune in to yourself. Sense your breathing, body, and emotions. As we’ve seen, this stimulates your insula and primes it to sense the inner feelings of others.

Watch the other person’s face and eyes closely. Our core emotions are expressed through universal facial expressions (Ekman 2007). They often flit by quickly, but if you’re mindful, you can spot them. This is the biological basis for the old saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul.

Relax. Let your body open to resonating with the other person’s emotions.

Track the Thoughts of Others

Actively imagine what the other person could be thinking and wanting. Imagine what could be going on beneath the surface, and what might be pulling in different directions inside him. Consider what you know or can reasonably guess about him, such as his personal history, childhood, temperament, personality, “hot buttons,” recent events in his life, and the nature of his relationship with you: What effect might these have? Also take into account what you’ve already experienced from tuning in to his actions and emotions. Ask yourself questions, such as What might he be feeling deep down? What could be most important to him? What might he want from me? Be respectful, and don’t jump to conclusions: stay in “don’t know” mind.

Check Back

As appropriate, check with the other person to see if you’re on the right track. For example, you might say, “Sounds like you’re feeling _______, is that right?” Or, “I’m not sure, but I get the sense that ________.” Or, “It seems like what bothered you was ________. Did you want ________?”

Be careful not to ask questions in an argumentative or prosecutorial way to advance your own viewpoint. And don’t muddle empathy together with any disagreements you may have. Keep empathy separate from asserting yourself, and try to be clear about the transition from one to the other. For example, you might say something like, “I get that you wanted more attention from me when we visited my relatives, and that you felt bad. It makes sense to me and I’m sorry. I’m going to be more careful about that in the future. [Pause.] But, you know, you seemed happy chatting away with Aunt Sue and didn’t tell me that you wanted more attention. If you could tell me directly what you’d like in the moment, it would be easier for me to give it to you—which is what I definitely want to do.”

Receive Empathy Yourself

When you would like to receive empathy, remember that you’re more likely to get it if you are “feelable.” Be open, present, and honest. You could also ask for empathy directly; remember that some people may just not realize that receiving empathy is important to you (and to lots of others, too). Be willing to say explicitly what you would like to receive. It often helps to make it clear that it’s empathy you want, not necessarily agreement or approval. When you sense that the other person gets how it is for you, at least in some ways, let the experience of receiving empathy sink into your implicit, emotional memory.

The article above is an excerpt from Rick Hanson’s book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom which is available in several languages, editions, and formats. You can learn more or purchase it here.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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