In Their Shoes
Compassion is at the very heart of good communication and meaningful relationships. Being compassionate entails imagining being in someone else’s shoes and desiring to ease their suffering. Suffering is the sorrow of having lost someone or something of meaning to us. Paradoxically, suffering is intimately linked with joy, for inherent in every moment of joy lies the potential of loss. Since the hours of joy are fleeting, they are tinged with the shadow of sadness.
On the other hand, suffering also may retain some of the joy we once experienced, just as Blues music expresses suffering so beautifully. Witnessing suffering may bring meaning to the pain and can help move a person to the other side of suffering.
To be compassionate does not require fixing problems or agreeing with others. It only calls for giving someone your full attention and presence. If your partner feels that you’ve ignored him, you can feel compassion for his state of mind even if you don’t agree with his perception. Compassion doesn’t require listening to endless gripes and complaints, which can be exhausting and unproductive.
Should you have compassion for someone who is angry at you? Absolutely, even though it may not be easy! Once you look behind the anger, you may find fear and unmet desire. For example, if your partner is angry because you’re absorbed in your own activities, becoming defensive simply continues the cycle of anger and you may remain unaware that he or she feels somewhat abandoned and is unable to admit it. Once you truly see the hurt or fear driving the anger, there’s a good chance of communicating effectively about what really matters to each person.
Compassion for oneself
We need to be compassionate toward ourselves. Understanding the dynamic that leads us to lose our temper, for example, is more effective than harsh self-criticism. Looking for the fear or hurt beneath our temper allows us to find a better way to address it. Ruthless self-condemnation, on the other hand, simply buries the hurt or unmet need deeper until the situation is ripe for another explosion.
Compassion does not equal tolerating abuse
Compassion recognizes the humanity in all people, and accepts that all of us have our weaknesses. Yet, compassion does not mean condoning or tolerating abusive behavior. You can have compassion for someone who has hurt you or others, while still holding them accountable for their actions. If your spouse has had an affair, for example, although you might try to understand how that situation developed, you don’t need to accept the behavior. In fact, you should probably protect yourself from further harm.
1. Communication without compassion imprisons us in a world of judgment. Judgment uses language that implies wrongness or badness. “You’re lazy.” “She’s selfish.” “He’s narcissistic.” Blame, insults, and labels don’t enhance life, they alienate it. It’s tempting to judge things as good or evil, right or wrong, or black or white, but we do so out of fear or contempt. Nobody’s needs, least of all our own, will be met that way.
2. Compassion can be blocked by using comparison as a form of judgment. Compare your own musical accomplishment to that of Mozart and you’ll feel thoroughly demoralized rather than inspired. However, our personal joy in music cannot be compared to anyone else’s, including Mozart.
3. The most dangerous barrier to compassion is the denial of responsibility for our actions. We all remember the Nazi system of invoking higher authority, which authorized normal people to commit horrendous crimes against humanity. When we deny responsibility for our actions, we enter dangerous territory and distance ourselves from our humanity.
Even if we may be tempted to say, “she makes me unhappy or he makes me angry,” we need to take responsibility for our expectations, feelings, and actions. We can handle disappointments with understanding and compassion, and at the same time adjust our future expectations of those who continue to disappoint us.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD