Let’s say your colleague, or friend, or child, or partner, or family member, or even a stranger starts sharing a problem that pains them deeply. And let’s give this individual the gender-neutral name of “Alex”. And also let’s assume that you sorta care, and do wish to help. For many of us, our habitual responses after Alex starts speaking, are likely to fall into one of five approaches which we sincerely believe to be a “compassionate response”, but … not really.
Fake Compassion #1: Rescuing
I listen to Alex but can’t wait for them to stop talking because. So at the very first moment Alex pauses for breath, I jump in to reveal what Alex should do to solve the problem. Because I know better, I’m smarter, I’m more experienced, I’m senior etc. And of course, because I care, I have a ‘duty’ to rescue Alex. It’s irrelevant that they didn’t ask to be rescued. Because from my vantage point, Alex is drowning and doesn’t even know it, so thank God I’m here to save them. By the way, I’m thinking to myself that Alex should be grateful, and a thank you would be nice.
To be clear, there are situations when we need to “rescue” others, ergo ‘life-and-death’ situations, but those situations are not very common. It’s much more common that we rescue people because we want to be superheros. But we call it compassion.
Fake Compassion #2: Hijacking
After listening to Alex, my first response is “me too, he was such a coward during my appraisal, making up all these fake excuses so he feels justified demoting me”. And of course for the “sole” purpose of distracting Alex from the pain, and to feel less lonely, I have to share lots of juicy details just to make sure Alex understands how bad my situation was, and how badly I understand them. Unfortunately, what I may have actually done is 1) I’ve swept Alex’s pain under the carpet, and 2) I’ve hijacked the conversation as an opportunity to talk about myself and my pain.
In this situation, my need to make sure that Alex knows that I understand and sympathise with them, is more important than Alex’s need to process their reality. I’ve taken the attention away from Alex, and made it about me, under the pretence of trying to make them feel better. But we call it compassion.
Fake Compassion #3: Positivizing
After giving Alex all the space they needed, I immediately respond with a “pep-talk” by saying something like, “Alex you’re strong, you’ll get through this” or “look on the bright side” or “I’m sure you’ll find the silver lining in this shit storm”. Helping Alex stay positive and not waste time wallowing in negativity ensures that they can keep focused on their strengths, and overcome the challenge in a jiffy! Sounds pretty efficient, no? Now, if you really took the time to reflect on my “pep-talks”, you may sense that what I’m actually saying to Alex, underneath all the positivity, is that my comfort matters more than their reality, and that I have no patience for their messy suffering.
Of course pep talks can be very powerful, but only if the foundation of compassion is there. But too often, we ignore the foundation building and go straight for the pep talk, because it’s so much sexier and definitely more convenient. We’ve mistaken toxic positivity for compassion.
Fake Compassion #4: Buddying
Because my mirror neurons are firing like crazy (or so I’ve been told) as I’m listening to Alex, and I’m soooooooo feeling them, that I ask Alex tons of why/what/when/where/who/how questions to help them process. And the drama just seems to be non-stop! By the time it’s over, both Alex and myself feel so alive and satiated. Sounds wonderful, no? Well … how would you respond to the question: “Did your ego just go on a pain-feeding binge, and that slightly buzzy euphoric sensation actually feels a bit like being high on a ‘forbidden’ substance?” Tough question, and perhaps one that may remain hard to answer regardless. This is where one’s intention may be the only clue, and only you know your own intention. Which is to say, the responsibility of your conscience is yours alone.
For many of us, it’s not that we intentionally delight in others’ pain, but rather it’s strangely that we vicariously feel more validated, more alive. And so we naturally seek more of that which enlivens us. Unfortunately, this be of the addictive ‘junk food’ variety, instant short-lived highs with a big long-term price tag. But we call it compassion.
Fake Compassion #5: Categorizing
I’m giving Alex my full attention, leaning forward, nodding at all the appropriate places, and displaying all the necessary “minimal encouragers”. Though I’m actually listening to my own thoughts as I evaluate what’s wrong with the situation, and by necessity, categorizing Alex. And of course, the grand finale ends with me issuing my “learned assessment”. Now that the situation had been properly diagnosed, the right solution will naturally present itself! In other words, I’m more interested in “correctly assessing the situation itself” (which invariably involves the assignment of right/wrong) than I am in Alex the human being who’s right in front of me.
It’s a bit like being on a therapist’s couch with their gazillion degrees and diplomas adorning the wall, and you can’t help but feel the therapist is busy assessing which pigeon hole of neurosis to slot you in (that actually happened to me). This approach is different from <#1: Rescuing> in that here, I’m not trying to fix the problem. I’m more interested in convincing Alex to accept my diagnosis of what’s wrong, and leave the solutioning to someone else. But we call it compassion.
Why do we do this?
Perhaps because, in part, we are so unpractised at first showing ourselves compassion, ergo we’re unpractised at being present to our own suffering. We don’t know what it feels like to companion ourselves through the messy ickiness of pain. What we then end up doing when we are confronted with another person’s suffering is likely to be some version of the strategy we use with ourselves. i.e.:
- Blame ourselves, mirror of <#5: Categorize>
- Deserve the suffering, mirror of <#4: Buddying>
- Shame ourselves, mirror of <#3: Positivizing>
- Justify by saying “others are like that too”, mirror of <#2: Hijacking>
- Solution ourselves, ‘rushingly’, mirror of <#1: Rescuing>
Herein lies the dark side of the golden rule to “treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated”, because sadly, the reality is that we’re sometimes outright hostile to ourselves.
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May this sharing be meaningful to you as you journey home to the intimacy of your innermost knowing 🙏🏻 And if you’re wondering what then “is” compassion? Check out this article.
PS. If you are curious about how I came to compassion, click here 🌹