We are starting to hear more in the popular narrative about compassion, but it’s well hidden. Just turn on the world news, and you’re inundated with stories of conflict – between nations, within nations, between people, at all levels. Almost every time, I turn off the news with the belief that more money, stricter laws, bigger prisons, more powerful weapons, taller walls, and most of the other purported fixes will fail us. Trace them back to their roots, and we find that these “solutions” are almost all reflections of a fundamental discomfort with others and their differences from ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not maintain the naïve view that holding hands and a belting out a rousing rendition of Kumbaya is the key to world peace. But, it is clear that of all the ills we face today, a lack of allowing others to be Other is among the most fundamental and destructive. In my job providing counseling in Oklahoma City, I see it all the time. I meet people who experience debilitating deficits of compassion – either not receiving compassion from others, or worse, not able to give it to themselves. While a greater abundance of compassion might go a long way toward fixing some world problems, I’m more focused on the personal day-to-day effects.
What is compassion?
Let me begin with what I believe compassion is not. It is not saying to someone in pain, “Oh, you poor thing. How sad. Let me try to make you feel better. Let me fix it.” While we may have learned to do this when we see someone in pain, this approach may be received as, “I’m evaluating your situation. Your pain is uncomfortable for me. I want to make you feel better so I don’t have to tolerate you in this condition.”
Dr. Paul Gilbert writes eloquently on this topic in The Compassionate Mind (you can get your own copy on my Resources page). Gilbert argues that compassion is being honest with someone, and making space for them to respond as they need. I’ll add a notion from Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg (an amazing book, also available on the Resources page) that we can ask more questions to demonstrate compassion. Instead of “You poor thing” (an evaluation), we can ask “How do you feel about that?” We can also make an empathic guess, “That sounds painful and difficult. Would you like to talk about it?” which gives the other an opportunity to talk and clarify… or make the choice not to. Sometimes the most compassionate act we can offer is to remain quiet, to sit with someone in their pain.
Why does compassion matter?
It’s not about being nice or fixing something for someone else. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but compassion is specifically about not trying to fix someone else’s problem or pain. When we try to fix things for others, we risk sending the covert message that we don’t think they are capable of handling their own problems, or worse, that we care more about our own discomfort with their pain. As a funeral officiant said to me about her work, “Don’t just do something…. Sit there!”
Being willing to sit with an Other in their pain, without trying to fix it or erase it, sends an empowering message. We say “I am here for you. Be however you need to be, and I can tolerate it. I accept your discomfort, and do not need you to not feel that to enable me to feel more comfortable.” By sending this message, we create agency for others. We Humanize those who may have previously felt objectified. We say “I see You” to those who may have always felt like an “it” instead.
Sometimes, the compassionate approach can lead us into some difficult conversations with hard-to-hear messages exchanged. The compassionate part is what we do with these messages.
Compassion for others is hard.
Why is compassion difficult? It forces us to take stock of ourselves, and have a clear understanding of where we end and others begin. If you grew up in a family where such an understanding was fostered, this may seem obvious. For the 99% of the rest of us, who grew up with some measure of enmeshment, narcissistic or codependent caregivers, being expected as children to be responsible for the feelings of the adults in our lives, or all of the above, these boundaries are not so automatic. We must deploy new understandings and habits to sit with someone in their discomfort, demonstrate empathy and caring for them, but not personalize whatever they are going through in the moment.
Compassion also calls us to accept someone we don’t understand, or possibly even like. Being truly compassionate means treating someone you may disagree with on practically every point of what it means to be Human or ethical, as an Other. In today’s political climate, I struggle with this daily. How can I look at someone I believe to be so completely misguided about….well… everything… and view this person with respect? I have to create space. I have to be intentional about recognizing that I do not need this person’s respect or agreement in order to hold my own values.
Every time this is difficult for me, I go through a process of unpacking why it is difficult. What makes me uncomfortable with the feelings or otherness of this person? When I struggle to treat another as an Other, that’s about me, not about them. This is an extraordinarily bitter pill.
Compassion for ourselves is even harder!
Of all the people we struggle to be compassionate to, most of us are the worst at directing true compassion to ourselves. Remember, compassion begins with absolute honesty. So, we have to begin self-compassion by being willing to admit pain, defeat, and weakness. In a world where we’re taught to have it all together (or pretend that we do), we have to chuck all that and admit our own Human frailty.
Then, once we’ve admitted this frailty to ourselves, we are then called to sit with it. Lean into the discomfort. (My clients hate it when I say this.) Instead of pushing it aside, we accept it. We love it because we understand that hating our weaknesses and faults is a form of self-loathing. We’ve spent too much time, energy, and money on good therapy to dive back into the shame pool. Besides, we deserve better.
But, are we supposed to wallow in it? Are we supposed to forget about our responsibilities and relationships, and just sit there all day leaning into our own discomfort? No, of course not, because that’s neither productive nor realistic. In the future, I’ll offer some thoughts on finding balance in the self-compassion journey. I believe the balance lies in choosing non-judgment. Just as we can avoid looking at someone else and saying “Oh, you poor thing. How sad. Let me try to make you feel better. Let me fix it.” we can avoid saying this to ourselves. Acknowledging our own pain in a non-judgmental way is authentic. It creates agency. When we take ourselves on a self-compassion journey, we can simultaneously heal ourselves and cultivate empathy for others.
Compassion is indeed a problem. We don’t have enough of it flying around, and generating compassion is hard. Still, with the new year upon us, I’m committed to finding new depths of compassion in myself. Who’s with me? If you want to step further in your own compassion journey, and feel it would be empowering to have me walk with you, please contact me. I’d love to have this conversation with you.
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