People need a hug: A crash course in compassion

100 Inspiring Voices | Episode #30 | Dr. Yotam Heineberg | People just need a hug


This episode is a crash course in compassion.

To learn more about the topic, I spoke with my friend Dr. Yotam Heineberg, a clinical psychologist who teaches at Palo Alto University, runs a private practice in San Francisco, and is the Chief Clinical Officer at Resiliens.

I speak with Yotam about the three types of compassion (receiving care, developing self care, extending care), where most people tend to get out of balance, and specific tools we can use to live better lives.

We also talk about why Yotam thinks resilience should be an essential part of every conversation about Diversity & Inclusion and how he and his colleagues are re-shaping the field.


3:00 – “I decided on psychology because I figured I will always be working with narratives, and I wanted to work with live narratives, as opposed to narratives that are just in a book.”

4:35 – “I come from Israel, and if you had a chance to follow the news in the last 2,000 years or so, it seems like there’s a little bit of conflict.”

5:35 – “It’s this cycle of hurt people hurt people.”

7:00 – “In graduate school I was very adamant that I was only willing to work with angry, traumatized people.”

7:30 – “By getting in contact with people that have really suffered the most severe hardships in life we realize that compassion is an antidote to these challenges.”

9:20 – “Many of us have been fortunate to not be in direct contact with suffering and hardship in the way that many people are in this country as well as the world as a whole… on the one hand, that’s a really good thing because we want people to be safe. On the other hand, to be able to able to taste, or even imagine, what many people are living with everyday for many years, maybe there’s a benefit there.”

10:35 – “The formal definition for compassion is sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a deep commitment to alleviate and prevent this suffering.”

11:10 – “To me, compassion is about a clear recognition that suffering is part of life. The challenge that many of us face as human beings is that we don’t want to suffer. And that makes perfect sense – guess what, I don’t want to suffer either – and this recognition that whether or not we want to suffer, suffering will come to visit.”

12:00 – “When you learn how to suffer, you suffer much less… I realized that I have such strong and aversive reaction to the idea of learning how to suffer, which then increases my suffering.”

12:45 – “The evidence is very, very clear, the more we avoid suffering, the bigger it will become in our lives and in the lives of others.”

14:20 – “The biggest mistake that my students make… is they don’t spend time trying to actually understand what is the root cause of this suffering. They don’t spend time with supporting the client in actually feeling the somatic sensations, the distress, the grief that comes up. Nobody wants that stuff.”

15:35 – “If you’re a person who’s dealing with grief and anxiety and you never spend time feeling the grief and anxiety and reflecting and experiencing what that’s like from the inside, and every time it comes up you go for a run for two hours, there’s an avoidance piece there.”

18:20 – “It’s always been the case that we wanted people to get in contact with what they’re experiencing. The focus used to be too analytical… let’s find a clever way to look at your suffering. Then people like Paul Gilbert come along and say the issue is not looking or not looking, but the issue is how we’re doing it. With a sense of critical tone, with a sense of harshness, or with a sense of nurturance and compassion.”

19:20 – “The reason that we suffer they way we do oftentimes is that we take a very critical voice toward orienting toward our experience… it’s so painful that it makes me want to avoid or distract.”

20:20 – “So the compassion framework is essentially suggesting ‘stay with your experience, but try to espouse a position of care and nurturance toward yourself.’ What would it be like if you had an internal compassionate self that’s rooted in strength, wisdom, commitment for care – how would that part speak to you?”

20:50 – “It’s a no brainer that you would want to hold your child with warmth and nurture them, but ironically we don’t really do that for ourselves as often as one would think… we intuitively nurture the child that is crying but we don’t intuitively nurture ourselves when we’re having a hard time.”

21:50 – “Receiving care, developing self care, extending care.”

22:45 – “My deepest understanding about us humans is that people need a hug… this three-way hug is really where it’s at.”

24:50 – “The challenge is that especially during times of distress and stressful experiences is that we put up all these boundaries so that we feel safe, and then we become disconnected from others and we lose the ability to give care and nurturance and our resilience goes down.”

25:35 – “What we don’t hear enough about is receiving compassion. To me, this is in many ways the missing link… challenges with receiving oftentimes mean challenges with self-compassion as well as with extending to others.”

27:05 – “When you’re a baby, when you’re one day old, your one skill interpersonally is to receive care, nurturance, and compassion.”

31:35 – “We’d rather know other people sometimes than know ourselves.”

31:50 – “Ultimately we all want the same thing. We want to feel a sense of safeness and soothing and nurturance. And I say that not because I’m a hippie, but because I’m a mammal. All mammals ultimately have a sense of closeness and care and bonding with each other and creating these affiliated bonds and it’s hard to deeply connect in a positive way with others when we’re disconnected from ourselves.”

33:20 – “It’s really about humanizing these experiences because so often we just have the belief that nobody else is dealing this. That there is something broken or weird about me. But these are all very common human experiences.”

38:20 – “My quick reaction is through the emotional texture of threat and hurt and fearfulness. That’s valuable, and you want to listen to the voice. And then can I get another perspective through another emotional texture of nurturance toward myself. And then you’re well positioned to make decisions based on different perspectives as opposed to that really aggressive, threat-based first voice.”

40:05 – “From the perspective of this model I’m speaking from, there is no such thing as compassion fatigue because if you’r truly engaging with compassion, you’re engaging in those three directions… burnout is because there’s an imbalance with the three directions.”

42:50 – “To me it’s baffling that these trainings around diversity and inclusion do not integrate a stronger resilience component… when we don’t feel safe, we feel stressed out, we want to come closer with people we hold dear, our in group members, and by default we’re going to push out those who are different from us.”

51:20 – “I think that’s my job definition: helping people realize and remember the things that they’ve always known… ultimately the task is to tap into a deeper intuitive knowing and understanding about who we are as a species and how we can make it through these storms.”

51:50 – “It looks like we’re moving in that direction with these different models of healing and growth. We’re tapping into very ancient forms of understanding about who we are and then we’re integrating very cutting edge scientific perspectives, bringing in technologies like neurofeedback, biofeedback, but at the core of it is really our human spirit.”


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