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More PsychNotes: Mindfulness and Relaxation Methods

August 7, 2017       
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Compassion: Selflessness With a Selfish Purpose
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Compassion...allows us to own our emotions and deal with them directly rather than hurting innocent others.

People often misunderstand the concept of compassion. When hurt by others, they believe compassion requires them to love, accept, and understand. They might believe that compassion means turning a blind eye to the painful behavior, forgiving the person, and being kind in return. As such, it seems that compassion means allowing a person to escape the consequences of their behavior.

However, that is not the case. Compassion is about the self, not the other person. In some ways, compassion can be sort of selfish (in a good way). Let me explain further as I sort through this myself. The following is with the knowledge that I probably don't have a full understanding of compassion, but this is my best effort to explain what I do know.

I have a person peripherally in my life (I don't have direct contact with her) who causes harm to people I love. She is hateful, full of venom, and tears down those who are close to her. She tries to make them dependent on her. Then she demands their love and respect. If they don't have the strength to resist, she ensnares them in a trap of fear and despair.

I try to counteract the harm she causes but negative messages always seem to be more powerful than positive messages. A single malicious person can damage so many people. As a result, I feel sad and powerless to change the situation.

How can compassion help?

My description of the Compassion Meditation says “The development of compassion increases awareness of others' suffering and cultivates the desire to alleviate this suffering.“

Can I be compassionate to the person I described? Sure, in an abstract way. I can meditate, be aware of her suffering, imagine removing the cloud of despair and anguish around her, and wish her happiness and good things in life.

As a result, I feel better and she can't harm me directly but it is still frustrating to see the pain she causes others.

Why be compassionate, then?

Frustration is a normal emotion in reaction to a situation we can't change. Compassion allows me to accept the emotions I feel instead of displacing them onto other people.

What I mean is that the practice of compassion allows me to stop the cycle. The power of hurtful people is to create others in their likeness. The psychological concept of displacement is best illustrated by the example of a man coming home after being threatened with the loss of his job and yells at his wife who then is irritable with their son who then kicks the dog. Each person is taking their anger out on an innocent victim.

So, in one way, compassion is selfish because it makes me feel better emotionally. However, compassion is also about others in that it allows us to own our emotions and deal with them directly rather than hurting innocent others.

Even though my description of the Compassion Meditation says that we cultivate the desire to alleviate suffering, it does not say, however, that we must take direct action. Unfortunately, sometimes direct action can make things worse. It also does not say that we must tolerate people who continue to hurt us. Those who are affected directly by this woman, for instance, have the right to protect themselves from further harm. They don't need to include her in their lives which, in effect, is a consequence for her behavior. But they can do so with a compassionate understanding of her behavior.

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