We're not alone: How common humanity heals
“We all need more kindness” series will focus on the three elements of self-compassion (common humanity, self-kindness, and mindfulness) and how we can apply this to ourselves and in our relationships with others.
Do you ever feel that you’re alone with your struggles? Does it seem like everyone else is ‘living their best life’ or appear to have their ‘stuff together’? When we suffer, we can feel alone and disconnected from everyone else around us. Not only might it feel like others wouldn’t understand, but it can feel embarrassing and maybe even shameful to admit to our mistakes, failures, losses, or feelings of inadequacy.
Self-compassion entails three elements: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. Common humanity is the recognition that all people struggle and that a lot of our suffering is connected to variables not in our control: biological, societal, cultural, economic, political, familial and experiences of oppression and/or discrimination.
As a therapist, I often speak with people about the first two elements; ways they can practice being kinder to themselves in words and actions as well as ways they can connect non-judgmentally to the present moment. However, I noticed recently that I do not have enough conversations about common humanity, as I fear that comparison to others will trigger invalidation. A wise mentor that I had early in my career reminded me that ‘someone always has it better and someone always has it worse’, so comparison is not useful. My mind somehow merged comparison with common humanity, but they’re distinct in several critical ways. Common humanity does not foster comparison, rather it creates connection: “I understand your pain, as I too suffer”. It’s recognizing that even if the triggers or events causing the suffering are different, the pain is shared. In fact, our brains experience pain similarly, so if the worst pain you ever experienced was caused by a job loss, this is as intense as the person that experienced their worst pain from losing their treasured family pet.
Recognizing this shared pain creates compassion for one another and reduces feelings of isolation.
Interestingly, research has found that people tend to underestimate the stress and overestimate the happiness in other people’s lives. We see pictures or hear stories of others traveling, getting married or a new job, adopting an animal, having a baby and might find that this triggers shame, envy, or sadness over the absence of any one of these things in our own lives. What you might not know is that baby that was just born was preceded by infertility or several pregnancy losses. Or the person that was just married might have struggled with significant family conflict prior to the ‘special day’ and maybe even the minutes before. You also can’t see whether any one of these people struggle with depression or anxiety. Generally, people do not share their hardships in their lives unless you’re close and are willing to be vulnerable as well.
Practicing Common Humanity
Common humanity decreases feelings of isolation and facilitates connection by helping us find the courage to be vulnerable to share with safe people. How do you practice it? First you acknowledge the validity of your own suffering, then you mindfully reflect on the fact that there are millions of people in the world that are also hurting or struggling with similar and different issues. Kelly McGonigal (2015) uses a simple, but effective phrase: “Just like me, this person knows what suffering feels like”.  We’re not alone and we all deserve compassion for our struggles and pain.
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 Neff, K. & Germer, C.(2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.  Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.  Neff, K. Embracing our common humanity with self-compassion. Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/embracing-our-common-humanity-with-self-compassion/  McGonigal, K., (2015). The Upside of Stress. New York, NY: Random House LLC.  McGonigal, K., (2015). The Upside of Stress. New York, NY: Random House LLC. Page 169.