Look me in the eye: Using body language to illustrate universal compassion

Lately I can't help but feel fearful of what I'm going to read when I scan the daily news, and I know I'm not alone in this fear. News stories of racism and police brutality divide us, and frustrations and fear are mounting every day from both sides. At the heart of each story I read, I'm noticing an essential wisdom that seems to be missing lately in the way we treat each other, and I'm wondering what happened to "The Golden Rule."

Regardless of where a person stands on such divisive issues, can't we recall that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and compassion? 

I was shocked to find out recently that in NYC and in other law enforcement agencies across the country, police sometimes use "restraint bags" to deal with those that they deem "emotionally disturbed" at the time of an arrest. These bags have been compared to body bags with a mesh flap to breathe through - a head-to-toe restraint.

Many of the clients I've worked with suffer from PTSD, struggle with high anxiety, and often do not even feel comfortable riding the subways due to close confines. Many of them have been physically and sexually abused, with their body held and used against their will. They suffer from panic attacks where they struggle to breathe, and stepping outside may offer some small relief to their wildly palpitating heartbeat.They describe small spaces as triggering, terrifying, and avoidable at all costs. Some of them have frequent police contact. I can tell you with assurance that being confined in a restraint bag is the absolute last thing they would choose in instances where they are already undoubtedly suffering. 

Many may argue that using these type of restraints keep police officers and medical workers safe in the line of duty, and I agree that this is of the utmost importance. However, I am confident that appropriate body language is a fundamental opportunity to transmit a message of compassion and respect to those who are suffering, and that using proper body language from the beginning may minimize the need to use these types of restraints.

In a very different situation that also illustrates the need for compassionate body language, I can recall the first time I was ever with a client in crisis and feeling slight alarm at whether or not I would be able to help bring her back to the present moment and help her de-escalate her physical response to stress. She was filled with panic, and I can starkly remember noticing that everyone was hovering around her and above her - the psychiatrist who was there for her evaluation, the two agency directors, and initially, myself. She was seated and curled into her own body, shaking, crying, and struggling to catch her breath, surrounded by a ring of strangers and their clipboards just...hovering.

I notice the same thing now at Bellevue Hospital when I am called to provide support for a sexual assault survivor who has checked into the hospital, typically in the immediacy following their assault. The survivor is in the hospital surrounded by strangers, and in his or her close inner ring are more strangers - police, nurses, and doctors; all who are likely very well-meaning, but all who are checking their charts, taking statements, and doing what may be a very routine job while standing over a person who is suffering from a very non-routine situation. 

In both of these instances, my clinical and human instinct was, and is, to drop to my knees and really be there with the person who is struggling. And my suggestion to public servants, those in helping professions, and really, any person on this planet, is this: Consider your own body language when working with someone in distress, regardless of the severity. 

Consider the importance of looking at someone, really seeing them and seeing what they are going through, eye-to-eye rather than from above. Consider the fear that may already be present in that person from past traumas or their current physiological state, and consider how it would feel to be towered over or physically restrained in a moment of crisis. How can we empathize with others and illustrate compassion if we are not physically "with them?" By maintaining eye contact, talking to a person at their level, and keeping a warm and calm vocal tone, we send the message that, "I see that you are distressed, and I hear you." When you think back to times that you were struggling and were treated compassionately by a loved one or a stranger, was the helping person looking into your eyes? Or staring at the top of your head? 

One of my favorite therapeutic wisdoms is that "we may not be able to control the situation, but we can always control our own response to it." The person in distress may have committed a crime, or they may have done absolutely nothing wrong. Regardless of this and above all else, they still deserve dignity and respect. 

Rather than an eye-for-an-eye, let's return to seeing eye-to-eye. We continue to teach our children "The Golden Rule," as a basis for behavior, no matter how much the world has changed since the concept's origin. Perhaps it's time to revisit what this truly means, and consider how we can all illustrate compassion in a society that is currently in desperate need of an extra dose.