Sometimes when someone is doing something we don’t like, we find it very difficult to care about why they are doing/saying it, and we find it very easy to label them as wrong. Some things are just so awful to hurtful to us, we lose our capacity to react any other way.
Has this happened to you? You really want to understand what motivated someone to do something —you sometimes even think you are trying to understand what motivated someone to do something. Your voice is pleasant, you insist that you really are curious. Yet, when it comes down to it, you really are furious, or disappointed, maybe full of despair. If you were able to slow it down enough and check in, you would be able to notice it.
Maybe your lips are tense, your eyebrows are fixed, your breath is short, your fingers held just a bit tighter than normal. When you pause for a moment to notice what is happening in your internal world, you become aware that you are not feeling very calm at all, and in fact, while you want to be curious about the other, you just aren’t quite there yet. And, it seems practically impossible to get there.
When I ask partner clients who are struggling with each other if they can offer empathy —which means begin to focus their attention on the other and becoming curious about the feelings and needs, they just ‘can’t’. Even if they want to. Their body is in such a neurological reaction of perceiving danger*, they aren’t able to notice that they are actually safe and sound, and it is this sense of danger that interferes with the compassion and connection they are hoping for.
*It is the extremely rare instance when someone is actually in danger. If you find yourself unsafe, meaning your life or your physical well-being is in question, please instantly remove yourself from the situation.
What I am referring to is perceived danger, which is very different than actual danger. However your bodymind is unable to distinguish the difference. So in that moment, your biochemistry is giving you the message you are in danger. The natural bodily reaction is finding power, rather than diving into compassion and care. The good news is that with intention and practice you can re-wire your circuits to recognize what is and isn’t actual danger. The result of this practice is finding yourself open-hearted more and more often.
Compassion and power are not mutually exclusive.
Another handicap to compassion and empathy is a misunderstanding of what it means. You can be quite caring about, understanding and compassionate toward someone and/or their distressing situation. You might even deeply care about something they are asking you for –and, don’t want to say yes to it. It doesn’t mean you agree with what they are saying, what they are doing, what they are thinking or what they are asking for. It might be a struggle for you to consider yourself compassionate in the midst of saying no to something that someone is asking you for.
The tragic remedy (meaning painful for you or the other) for some is to create distance —to stay away from someone to avoid the possibility they will ask you for anything. F others, anger (generating power and energy) is the tragic remedy. You get mad at them for even asking. Have you ever thought, “I can’t believe they are asking me for that!” Maybe even adding, “Especially after they did this to me!” Getting mad sparks internal power.
The remedy is to remember that someone else’s needs are just that; someone else’s needs. They are dear and precious and you can care. You are not required to do anything about hearing about them. I repeat…having compassion does not mean agreement, or responsibility for doing something about someone else’s needs. You are not required to solve their problems. You are free to choose what best serves you both (meaning including your own needs, which are also dear and precious). You don’t have to talk to someone (if they ask), listen to them, have lunch, lend them money, nothing.
With this new understanding I hope you will find more freedom to allow compassion and deep care to show up in difficult circumstances while remaining firmly connected to your inner strength to choose.