Not butterflies and rainbows
When people talk about compassion, there is a basic assumption that it is all about the other person. A sense of caring, kindness, etc. However, that is too simplistic and perhaps also too idealistic.
While the focus may be on the other person, the work and the benefit is for the person being compassionate.
Compassion is a pathway towards seeing the world clearly. It requires pushing away the self-centered emotional reaction we all have as our default response and instead focusing on reality. Specifically the nuanced, very shades of grey, complex reality of the other person.
To understand this it’s helpful to start with the opposite of compassion: being “judgemental” ie, automatically criticising or disapproving another person’s actions regardless of context or circumstance.
What we think we’re doing in that situation is using our “judgement” in the sense of coming to a conclusion based on a sober examination of the facts. In reality this kind of default negative judgement is rooted in self-righteousness born of our own insecurities.
We are not perfect
We all have aspects of ourselves we wish were better. And we don’t like to think about these aspects. We are more than our bad decisions but those are often what monopolize our attention because we don’t need to do anything about what we’re doing right. We need to correct for what we’re doing wrong.
The trouble is that instinct for self-improvement can degrade into the tunnel vision of focusing only on what we’re doing wrong. And in seeking the root cause of these bad decisions, we start to see them as evidence of fundamental flaws in our character.
Similarly when we observe someone behaving in a negative or bad way, we begin to assume that is because they are negative or bad people. We see their bad behavior as due to a fundamental character flaw inherent to them as people. Because we “know” that good (or smart or honorable or decent) people don’t do that bad thing so that person doing it must be a terrible human being.
But how do we exist like this? No one likes to think of themselves as being a bad person. And yet all of us have these insecurities. And all of us make bad decisions at some point. We don’t like to think about the things we do that could be considered evidence that we are bad people.
So in order to preserve our egos by we simply ignore our own bad behavior.
Because we are not a terrible human being, we think we must not be doing that same terrible thing but we don’t actually bother to check. We start with the assumption that we are not a bad person and that therefore we don’t do bad things rather than looking at our actual behavior.
Any suggestion that we may also be behaving badly often results in our vehement denial. We’re deeply offended that someone could accuse us of acting like “those” people.
Good people do bad things
Compassion short-circuits this circular logic.
We start out by assuming that the person exhibiting some bad behavior is not actually a bad person. Without that pat explanation we are forced to figure other reasons for why are they behaving badly.
We start to look at the circumstances of their situation. The immediate events and past experiences that have brought them to that point to react in that way. We begin to examine the complicated reality of their lives, good and bad.
This becomes the first chink in the armor we have around our own selves.
When we begin to accept that bad behavior is no longer is automatically evidence of being a fundamentally bad person, it frees us up to admit to our own bad behavior.
When we begin to temper our judgement of other people with context, it no longer becomes dangerous to start examining our own behavior. We can start to see the reality of our own lives without feeling attacked. The actual, messy, complicated reality of our own lives.
We can recognize that maybe we exhibit similar negative behaviors and yet we too are not fundamentally flawed. We start having compassion for our own flaws and self-doubts.
We feel the insecurity that would normally spin up into self-righteousness and recognize that perhaps that other person has similar insecurities driving them. By being compassionate to the other person we are compassionate to ourselves.
We no longer see the world translated through what our insecurities want us to avoid but as it really is.
Give yourself a break
Compassion is a tool for self-awareness by drawing attention away from yourself to other people and allowing you to think about what they are going through. You throw your attention there and then imagine how you would feel in their situation.
Because you are imagining how they would feel instead of what you are feeling, it allows you to delink from your insecurities. The way you imagine they would react/feel gives you an awareness of why you would react in that situation. Compassion draws you out of your head which is the first step for self-awareness
By giving someone else a chance first, we become open to giving ourselves a chance.