Compassion Gives Us Courage

Let us look at how the activation of your threatened mind might result in a different experience than the activation of your compassionate mind.

Your threat-detection system will affect what you attend to in your environment. For example, your threatened mind might focus on hypothetical situations in which you embarrass yourself or say the wrong thing. Your attention might become fixed on past social experiences that have led to feelings of humiliation or rejection. The activation of your threat-detection system narrows your attention, narrows what you attend to, and keeps you feeling anxious.

But if you were to activate your compassionate mind, you’d deploy your attention differently. Yes, you might be focused partly on some feelings of anxiety; however, your compassion would allow you to mindfully make space for this and remember that these feelings are a natural part of the human condition and not your fault. The compassionate mind allows us to be kind to ourselves, and truly wish the best for ourselves, which then allows us to feel an inner sense of safety that gives us an ability to face uncertainty.

In this example, instead of focusing on the negative “what ifs”—What if that person doesn’t like me? What if I spill my drink on my shirt and make a fool of myself?—your attention may turn itself instead to the likely possibility that the experience of meeting new people will be rewarding and informative. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to perform, excel, and impress, you could allow yourself to be good enough, just as you are, in this very moment. This warm self-regard and acceptance might allow you to see your experience for what it is: a learning opportunity and a new beginning.

The threatened mind affects how you think and reason; it generates a range of worries and predictions about how badly things could go, because it’s working in “better safe than sorry” mode. Likewise, the compassionate mind affects how you think and reason— but in a different way, open more to opportunities than to fear of rejection. The compassionate mind provides a counterbalance to the threatened mind; it remembers that you aren’t obliged to buy into the anxious thoughts that pop into your head.

If you let your threatened mind dominate, you may engage in certain behavior based on threat perception and a desire to find safety. You may feel an urge to activate safety-seeking behavior, such as pretending to look at your phone, avoiding eye contact, or even using sedatives or alcohol to “take the edge off.” Your urge to avoid, escape, or push away your feelings of anxiety is a natural result of the stimulation of your threat-detection system, and it can be very hard to withstand the pull of such urges when you’re stuck in threatened-mind mode.

In contrast, if you were to activate your compassionate mind in such a situation, new behavioral possibilities might present themselves. Remember: compassion gives us courage. As you made an effort to shift from your threatened mind to your compassionate mind, you might find the strength and wisdom to face your fear with mindfulness and acceptance and to more deeply engage in social interactions and new experiences. Rather than looking for ways to escape, you might focus on how to begin conversations, ask questions, and forge new relationships.

The compassionate mind invokes feelings of warmth and support—it may cause you to feel as though a dear friend and mentor is with you, guiding you toward opportunities to live in meaningful ways, and, although you’re entering new and unfamiliar situations, with the help of your friend you can feel confident and secure that you can meet the challenge and handle your happy and sad emotions with equal measure.

Both the threatened-mind mode and the compassionate mind can also influence your motives, which would be different if you were faced with a consequence of danger than if you’re faced with the reward of happiness and contentment.

The compassionate mind motivates you to be kind to yourself, to be aware of our common humanity, and to allow yourself to enjoy the present, moment by moment. The compassionate mind is, above all, motivated to help you cope with and maybe over time even alleviate your suffering. Your secure base, your affiliation, is within you, and when you find this place of safety you can then courageously move toward your aims, your horizon.

The following is an excerpt from The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dennis Tirch.

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