When you understand we are all doing our best, it’s a lot easier to rouse compassion

I have always said that whatever we do – no matter how dysfunctional it may seem – it comes from a place of just trying to feel safe and OK. Now that I’m diving into Polyvagal theory, I understand that this is a biological truth. Our nervous systems evolved to protect us.

The earliest iteration of our nervous systems protected us by shutting down and becoming immobilized. This might be when we withdraw, wish to evaporate, feel separate from others and the world.

The next iteration of the nervous system protected us by doing essentially the opposite: mobilizing to fight or flee. Our bodies surge with hormones and neurotransmitters of activation so that we have the energy to fight off threats. Here we may feel anxious, buzzy, an inescapable perpetual motion.

The most recent iteration of our nervous systems protects us by connecting with others, driven by a complex and coordinated system that unconsciously recognizes subtle signals of safety (or danger) in others. Here we feel integrated and able to integrate, capable and receptive and empowered.

One idea that has been a mainstay for me is that the nervous system is not rational. Said otherwise, it doesn’t speak English (or any spoken language for that matter). It simply responds to what it picks up on. It cannot do otherwise (although knowing this we can begin to sense inward and guide ourselves toward feelings of safety).

Knowing that the nervous system responds as it must and that its guiding principle is protecting us makes it easier to have compassion, for ourselves and for others. We know that anyone who is simply doing the best they can deserves our kindness, our gentleness, our understanding.

And interestingly, when those of us who are struggling are on the receiving end of that tenderness, it actually increases our chances of coming up to that most recent part of our nervous systems that connects us. This is how compassion literally changes our biology and potentially the world.