When compassion is freely available, it is seldom needed
Compassion is the healing emotion. We can hardly heal an emotional wound without self-compassion and compassion for loved ones.
Compassion is also the cornerstone of romantic relationships; they cannot thrive without it. Couples don’t just argue over the issues that trigger the disagreement, they most often fight over a lack of compassion – “You don’t care how I feel!” When partners are sympathetic to each other’s feelings, issues are often resolved or deemed less important.
Through no fault of their own, many people suffer from crippling inhibitions that stifle their natural motivation to be compassionate. They cannot heal old wounds and cannot love without hurting themselves.
The main inhibitors: fear, shame, guilt
The inhibition of fear arises from the impression that compassion makes us vulnerable and inevitably leads to suffering. It is typical of those who have been punished or rejected for trying to show compassion to someone who was afraid of compassion.
Shame inhibition is more complex and consists of:
- Perceived inadequacy (can’t do it for very long or at all)
- Fear of being perceived as weak
- Fear of becoming a doormat
Guilt inhibitions appear at the worst times, when partners need compassion the most. When partners’ pain or distress invokes memories of past failures, inhibited guilt turns away. I have had many clients who cannot look at their hurt, distressed, or sad partners because the vulnerable expressions remind them of how badly they have behaved.
Inhibitions operate on autopilot, bypassing consciousness. As a result, they lack reality checks. The first step to breaking free from inhibitions that diminish well-being and alter relationships is totest their reality.
Compassion makes us less vulnerable. It helps us see the vulnerability of others beneath their superficial behavior, which is driven by symptoms and defenses. It helps us distinguish disappointment from rejection.
For example, some people face bad feelings or circumstances with blame. Being blamed is disappointing but not shameful when recognized as the blamer’s coping tool, conveying little or no information about you.
In another example, a client I treated was shamed by his male colleagues for developing compassion for his wife. They called it, to shorten the expression, “whipped”. The shame he endured at work caused a temporary relapse into the self-obsessed behavior that hurt his wife.
In treatment, he recognized that his colleagues’ derision stemmed from their own sense of inadequacy. He was protected from shame by having sympathy for those who mock compassion. He adopted a posture of, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Because he did not react in kind, his colleagues stopped embarrassing him. He showed two of them how to use compassion to raise their self-esteem and save their marriage.
We are more powerful when we are compassionate than angry
Unfortunately, most people react angrily to the helplessness that can accompany vulnerable emotions. The adrenaline of anger temporarily makes them more confident and powerful. But to feel powerful is not to be powerful.
True power does not act on impulse; it behaves in a way that promotes the best long-term interests. We are much more likely to behave in our long-term interest with compassion than with anger.
The Paradox of Compassion
Insufficiency inhibition is based on false assumptions about the duration of compassionate behavior. I’ve had many clients who have said, “I can do this for a short while, but I can’t go on, and my partner really needs help.” »
Those who feel they can’t sustain compassion assume it has to last a long time, which it usually doesn’t. Most acts of compassion are short-lived.
For example, a toddler plays on the floor while his mother works on her laptop. The toddler hurts his finger and goes to his mother for comfort. She stops what she was doing and kisses his finger, hugs him, soothes him. The little one returns to their game, confident in the knowledge that comfort is available when needed. The mother returns to her work, able to concentrate because her child is doing well. Neither mother nor child noticed that the compassionate behavior only took about a minute. After a few iterations of compassionate behavior, the child learns to calm down.
Suppose the mother, stressed by her work, rejects the child’s offer of comfort. The child may then worry that compassion is not available when needed. He will find other ways to get her attention. If the mother finds this annoying and pushes him away further, he will misbehave or break something, because negative attention is better than no attention.
Absent the extraordinary stress of illness, partners in need are deprived of compassion, which brings us to the paradox of compassion: When compassion is available when needed, it is rarely needed.
Train yourself to show compassion for any hurt or distress, and you will find that your partner’s need decreases in frequency and intensity.
To overcome guilt inhibition, we need to more accurately interpret the guilt signal. It is not a punishment for past mistakes to be avoided at all costs; it is the motivation to be true to your core values in the present. The only functional way to overcome guilt is to act on one’s motivation for corrective behavior. The key is to shift the focus from how bad you feel to what you can do to help your partner feel better.
All inhibitions grow stronger when we give in to them. But once defeated, they weaken considerably. We need to take the lead and fight inhibitions until compassionate response to loved ones becomes a habit. Reward yourself for each success.
Compassionate failures in the home often result from porous or rigid compassionate screens outside the home. Compassion consumes enormous mental and physical resources. Without screens of compassion, we can easily become overwhelmed.
A porous screen of compassion makes us give too much and take too much, causing exhaustion or merging with others. The latter makes us reactive, dependent and manipulative, as we try to regulate our emotions by controlling those with whom we merge.
Rigid compassion screens are defensive in nature. People who have it give too little and relinquish the responsibility of caring about the emotional pain or distress of their loved ones.
People with flexible compassionate displays don’t give too much or too little. They balance self-compassion with compassion for others. The secret lies in accountability-give someone the confidence to solve their own problems. Compassion for others supports their autonomy, dignity and need for self-sufficiency. It is helping others to help themselves. Flexible compassion displays consume fewer mental resources, so compassion for loved ones is available when needed.
You can make your compassion screen more flexible by practicing compassionate self-affirmation at home, advocating for your rights, opinions, and preferences while respecting the rights, opinions, preferences, and vulnerabilities of your loved ones.
With practice, you will discover that compassion is as rewarding and self-renewing as Mother Theresa famously described it. To paraphrase the saint, you can’t help everyone all the time, but you can help those close to you whenever they need it.