“Ugh,” I say.
“You okay?” he says.
“Yeah, my neck just hurts.” I rub the sore muscle, frowning. “No biggie. It happens sometimes.”
“Oh, mind if I help you with that?” he asks. “I can do a release.”
I’ve seen his training certificate on the wall. That he knows what he’s doing when it comes to massage therapy. But still, I hesitate. “Well, I suppose,” I say. “It’s just… I’ve had other people do that before, and it’s so painful, working out that tension in the muscle.”
He nods. “It can be.”
“But it does feel better after,” I say. “Okay.”
“Okay?” he says.
He turns me to face the side of the couch, sits on the cushion behind me. I brace myself for the pain. But it doesn’t hurt. He isn’t even touching my neck. Instead he’s caressing my back. Rubbing it in a way that feels good.
“Mmm,” I say. I find myself slipping into a comfortable state. I barely notice that one of his hands moves up to my neck, so absorbed in how good the back rub feels. That hand pushes hard into my neck, releasing the tension. There’s a tight pinch of pain. But by the time I’ve even registered it, the release is practically over.
This is a far cry from the agony of the earlier neck releases I’d experienced. And whatever he did, worked. My neck feels much better.
“There you go,” he says.
I give him a hug. “Thank you,” I say. “You tricked my body into not feeling much pain at all.”
He nods. “Yeah, your mind has a hard time tracking both of those things at once. The back rub is a good distraction from the pain of the release.”
Compersion as Helpful Distraction
Sometimes I’ll get letters from readers asking me how they can turn their jealousy into compersion. Sadly, I haven’t found that this is the way it works. As I’ve written before, compersion is not a magic bullet for jealousy. While compersion is sometimes called “the opposite of jealousy,” it’s possible to feel compersion and jealousy at the same time. I sure did.
Now don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that compersion wasn’t useful when I was newly polyamorous and struggling with jealousy and insecurity.
But it wasn’t because compersion wiped out jealousy. Instead, compersion gave me something else to focus on. A new thing to pay attention to. A place to center my nervous energy as I adjusted.
I still had to do the hard work of tackling the underlying emotional insecurity I was experiencing, but much like the back rub made the neck release easier to bear, compersion served as a pleasant distraction that helped make that work less painful.
Hacking Your Brain to Cultivate Compersion
Another question I’m often asked is how exactly a person goes about cultivating compersion and developing empathy for others’ positive emotions and circumstances when they don’t feel it naturally.
For me, the most direct route involving the relationships themselves went a little something like this:
Rather than avoiding my partner’s relationships with others as something that caused me distress, I instead paid close attention to them. Emphasized the happiness I observed. And interpreted their joy as also being my joy.
It’s funny. Because in some ways, cultivating compersion felt like poor boundaries when I was doing it. After all, I was being nosy. Paying a lot of attention to something that didn’t directly involve me.
But paradoxically it was by viewing my partner’s success as my own that I was able to really let them do their own thing. By personalizing vicarious joy, I was able to depersonalize the threatening aspects of it. I stopped viewing relationships as zero-sum. I stopped thinking “Where’s mine?” every time I saw someone else get something good.
But I’ve also found additional indirect routes that can help this path be even easier. There are a few exercises that work well to increase positive empathy for others. They may sound cheesy, but they work when you practice them consistently and long term: Random acts of kindness and gratitude journaling.
Practicing Random Acts of Kindness
Paying it forward to other people is amazing. First, it just feels good, not only for them but for you. Set a goal of doing an act of kindness as often as you can manage it. Once a week was realistic for me. Some may be able to manage more, others less. The more often the better, but the key is consistency and developing the habit.
These do not have to be grand gestures.
For maximum effect, change up the kind act and who you are doing it for each time.
And most importantly — do NOT tell anyone you’ve done it. This is because we tend to ruminate and remember things that we haven’t told anybody about longer than those we have, because a task that’s completed is one we forget more easily (see: the Zeignarik effect). So if you keep your acts of kindness a secret, you are more likely to think of them over and over and get more mileage out of them.
Randomactsofkindness.org has an exhaustive database of ideas to get you started.
Part of getting away from fear is really appreciating the present reality of what we have. One way to do this is to keep a gratitude journal.
At the same time each day, write 5 things you are grateful for. Be specific and detailed as possible about them. Elaborate. Don’t just write “the people I love.” Write something more like “That my boyfriend brought me lunch even though it was really far out of his way.”
It’s fine to write about prized possessions, your pets, or abstract states (being grateful for your health, etc), but make sure to mention at least one social relationship every day, and if you’re struggling with jealousy or social insecurity, the more you can be grateful for the people in your life, the better.
If you adhere to this practice faithfully, you’ll find yourself looking for opportunities for your journal throughout the day, which will prime you to see the good in your interactions with other people and the things in your life.
It can take some time to see results, but I noticed a difference in my mood and instinctual responses to things after about 22 days of perfect adherence.
And finally, be kind to yourself if you do feel envy, jealousy, or fear. It’s not your fault. We are surrounded by people modeling competitive behaviors –we’re in this culture. It’s easy to get caught up.