I’ve heard these words many times before, usually uttered when someone is perceived to be being insensitive or cold towards something. What’s interesting about this is that it makes the assumption that compassion is a choice – something that can be ‘switched on’, and if a person doesn’t show compassion, that’s bad.
I’m going to briefly let anyone that’s ever had those words spoken to them off the hook. If you haven’t showed compassion, the likelihood is you haven’t felt compassion. Integrity may prohibit you from ‘faking’ it - that and the fact that we’re not all Meryl Streep. And herein lies the challenge when it comes to genuine, authentic compassion.
We HAVE to be able to relate.
Compassion is a visceral, emotional reaction to some else’s experience, and it usually originates from one of two areas:
We’ve been through something similar ourselves, and therefore have an understanding of what that person is going through, or at the very least, can easily accept how they’re feeling or reacting;
We may not have been through the same thing, but our imagined version of the experience brings with it similar emotions or reactions to what we’re seeing in someone else.
In a nutshell, we can RELATE. And when we can relate, compassion comes more naturally. It still requires us to have a level of emotional literacy and intelligence so that we can communicate with compassion, but on the whole, genuine, authentic compassion happens when we relate to what someone else is going through at an emotional level.
But what happens when we can’t relate? What happens if we had an entirely different experience, reaction or response when we went through something similar? Or our imagined version brings with it a different reaction or response? Or we haven't ever gone through or can't even imagine ever going through something like it. What we’re seeing in someone else becomes very different to how we either have handled it or would handle it. Now, instead of feeling compassion, we might be feeling frustration, exasperation, impatience, confusion… in our minds, how the person is handling the situation doesn’t make sense. We don’t feel compassion, so we don’t show compassion. In fact, our response may be entirely uncompassionate.
And this is where compassion can scupper us.
You see, compassion happens when the line between another’s experience and our own becomes blurred and intertwined. Mirror neurons in our brain mean that we may even feel a bit of what the other person feels. Here we run the risk of making someone else’s experience about us, or at the very least, affect us. It also means that we can only show genuine compassion to certain people in certain situations. We can only show compassion IF we relate.
Empathy, first and foremost, is about understanding and accepting another person’s internal experience – and here’s the clincher - whether you agree with it or would react that way OR NOT. Empathy requires us to be genuinely curious about another person’s experience and why they’re experiencing it that way, without judgement or agenda. Whether you share the experience or not is irrelevant – it’s not about you.
This is where we start to realise that empathy is a choice. We may be naturally compassionate towards people or situations that we relate to, but we can choose to be empathic – choose to seek to understand, accept and acknowledge another person’s experience – with anyone, in any situation. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a really hard to choice to make, especially if you don’t like a person, or find the situation really awful. It’s worth being aware of your own values and limitations as well. A colleague of mine who is a therapist is a massive animal-lover. So powerful is her affinity for animals that she knows she will always struggle taking on clients that have hurt or abused animals. She knows as a therapist that it’s essential to keep her own and her client’s experiences separate, but she also knows when that may be too hard to do.
This is why empathy – as over-used a word it is, and as common a concept it is – is a lot harder than we realise. It requires us to keep our own thoughts and feelings out of it, and an ability to notice our biases and judgements in order to put them to one side. And before empathy can become ‘natural’, we have to master both of those things so that they become a habit.
So in summary, there is no such thing as an uncompassionate person – just a person that doesn’t relate to what you’re going through. There’s no such thing as an unempathic person - just a person that hasn’t yet mastered the art of putting their own stuff to one side when necessary. But even when we don’t feel compassion and therefore cannot display it, we can make the choice to take an empathic approach. And if we can master the empathic approach, we can demonstrate genuine compassion and authentically relate to anyone.
Interested to develop your empathic approach? Get in touch!