“Some people think that compassion means feeling another person’s pain. That’s nonsense.” ~Byron Katie
I wish someone had told me that years ago! For much of my life, I did think that compassion meant feeling another person’s pain. I’m sure some of this misunderstanding came from the fact that I tend to be an empath. Some of it surely came from my co-dependent upbringing.
Either way, I remember often feeling guilty if anyone I knew was in pain and I was not in the same kind of pain with them. I truly thought that I was a bad and uncaring person if I was not hurting as much as those that I cared about. Of course, this same expectation could also be applied to people I didn’t know who were experiencing horrible trauma—like the Japanese people are currently experiencing in the wake of the earthquakes and the tsunami that recently hit their country.
The problem with that was that between world events and the number of people I knew, there was always someone I knew of who was suffering somehow, so I felt guilty for ever feeling good or being happy! This went on for years before I realized one day that me feeling sad (or depressed or angry or whatever) did absolutely nothing to alleviate their suffering. Their pain was not decreased a bit by my suffering (which they may or may not even be aware of).
About the same time, I also realized that I wasn’t responsible for fixing anyone else’s troubles. I could support them in fixing their own problems, I could provide help when they asked for it, but it wasn’t my responsibility to fix it!
These two realizations brought enormous relief, but they also left me clueless in trying to figure out what I could do help. I couldn’t suffer for them. I didn’t have the responsibility to fix it (even when they thought I did). But I did still care, and I did still want to help, so I needed to find a new way to do that.
So what does healthy compassion look like?
“Compassion: In my view, it is neither empathy nor sympathy, but requires some of both. Empathy is responding to another person’s emotions with emotions that are similar. Sympathy is regret for another person’s suffering. Compassion, on the other hand, is caring about another person’s well-being as if it were your own. I consider it an essential quality if one serves as a guide from illness to wellness.” ~Susan Shadburne
When I am hurting, it can be helpful to talk with someone who has just enough empathy for my situation to be able to truly hear and validate my emotions. By validate, I don’t mean some kind of pronouncement that my feelings are “right;” I want them to be understood and acknowledged as real. I want my struggle to be witnessed by someone who can relate to what I am feeling. I don’t want or need them to carry those empathetic feelings around with them, though. I don’t expect (or want) them to walk away feeling as sad I am feeling!
I also want someone to feel just enough sympathy to think that my struggles are regrettable. I don’t want to hear that I deserved them or that I just got what’s coming to me. I don’t want to hear that whatever I am suffering through is good for me. I want to know that the other person thinks it’s a shame that I am suffering, that they aren’t either rejoicing at my hardship or indifferent to it. But I don’t expect (or want) them to feel so bad about it that they think they need to take charge and fix it for me!
I am capable of feeling my own emotions, and I am capable of taking responsibility for fixing my own issues. What I want is someone else to care about me and about my struggles. I want to feel loved and supported. I want to know that my friends will help me if I ask for it.
I think it’s reasonable to assume that if these are the things that I find most helpful from others when I am hurting, it’s likely that these are the kinds of things that those I care about would find most helpful coming from me when they are hurting. The Golden Rule would tell me that treating others the way I want to be treated is the best course of action. So far my experience is that when I do this, the other person seems to feel better and so do I!
Old habits and old belief systems are hard to break, so I am still quick to fall back into my old ways, but the relief of not feeling required to feel bad all the time or feel like I was responsible for everyone else’s troubles is enormous. That relief has been the biggest motivator in helping me remember to practice a healthier form of compassion.
A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a very fragile place, and it takes a good deal of vulnerability to share this personal journey of transformation so openly. Therefore, I need this to be a safe place for exploration and sharing for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight—or the expression of that experience or insight—are NOT welcome here and will be deleted.