(Receiving) Compassion Blockers: Shame, Fear, Distrust

Courtesy of Inesa Cebanu @ Unsplash

eing compassionate is equally about giving, as it is about receiving. While many of us are willing to commit to working on ourselves so we can be more compassionate to others (be careful thought of the 5 Fake Compassion), receiving compassion from others and/or ourselves usually triggers an instinctive resistance, often visceral. Why is that?

Let’s test three possibilities, and see how it lands with you as you read it. This is to say, try to connect with your inner knowing instead of taking what you read at face value. For ultimately, the truth of your interiority is known only to yourself, but do be reminded that life is change, and to every season, there is a right time. So too the seasons of your life, and perhaps even day. Thus hold lightly your own knowing. Also, these three possibilities are not mutually exclusive, but offered for analytical purposes, because often, our resistance is a mix of all three in different proportion.

  1. Shame is a bone deep sense of feeling apologetic for who you are / what you’ve done, and that you “deserve” to suffer because you should have known better / should have done otherwise. It is the privileging of the “should” over the “is”. Stemming in part from a deep sense of unworthiness (not being accepted for being just “is” / “who you are”), the pain is thus the penitence and salvation. In this sense, the suffering serves the illusion of a redemptive purpose.
  2. Fear is likely to stem from a sense of not knowing if you can handle the pain (your own and that of others), i.e. “Will I drown, lose myself?”, “Will I make it through in one piece?”, “Will I end up doing more harm?”. In that regard, fear may be understood as the lack of confidence in one’s own competence. Some say it’s because we’re afraid of the pain, and while that’s true, I believe (or at least hope) that if we can be given the assurance that we’ll all come out fine, then most, if not all of us, would give it a go.
  3. Distrust of another pertains to intention, i.e. we don’t trust the other person truly has our best interests at heart. Though paradoxically, it’s likely that our distrust says more about us, because maybe, deep deep deep down, we believe that only we have the answers, or that we actually don’t harbour best intentions for others (i.e. we’re unconsciously concerned that karma might be true!). Distrust in one’s self is perhaps simpler because it may be, in part, due to shame and/or fear as described above. Or because we’ve forgotten the sound of our own voice.
Courtesy of little plant @ Unsplash

The Antidote?

For shame, GRATITUDE. Strange as it may sound, the surest way to disarm shame is to embrace it with gratitude, so it may be transformed into mourning. Because shame is in essence about “lack / insufficiency / falling short”, the aim here is to rebalance so as to increase the sense of worth, i.e. blaming / guilt-tripping yourself about the shame makes it worse. But gratitude for what you may ask? Gratitude that the shame is hinting at that which you long for but do not yet have, for you may only mourn that which you care deeply for. And once you realise what “that” is, then you have a chance of fulfilling that need, closing that gap, and feeling satiated.

For fear, PRACTISE. This may be the simplest (but not easy) one of the three, because it is about learning new skills so as to companion yourself and others through the suffering, and being consistent at practising it. Skills such as heartful listening, mindful presence, the art of questions, expanding your emotional vocabulary, embodied communication, boundary setting … to name a few, can all be learned. Wonderful tried-and-tested practices to start with include (i) the Virtues Project, (ii) Nonviolent Communication, or (iii) Compassion-focused Therapy for the clinically inclined.

For distrust of self, INTEGRITY. Starting with keeping promises we make to ourselves, regardless of which domains in life. The trick here is to make small-enough promises that the chances of not keeping it is virtually nil. This works because habits become instinct (yeap, instincts are often conscious habits becoming unconscious), i.e. if you wish to become more compassionate, practise “acting” compassion acts until it becomes habitual, then instinctive, which is one way to automate the compassionate intention. Often, it’s not the intention itself that’s been distrusted, it’s the artifice when one has to “summon” an intention that seems contrary to one’s innate orientation.

When it comes to distrusting another’s intention, sometimes it is valid, in which case, you respond to them with compassion. Yeap, you read it right! Which may involve removing yourself from the conversation, or changing the topic, or letting them know how you would like them to support you. The third option is my favourite (for both situations of before the conversation begins, and during the conversation), and it often goes something like, “Alex, would you mind just listening to me and not offer any advise”, or “Alex, I do appreciate your perspective, and if it’s ok with you, I’ll let you know exactly what I need it on”, or “Alex, I need to hear myself talking to someone about (x), so would you be willing to hold that space for me while I try to figure it out?” PS. These are my words, so please try them out in your own words.

If however, your distrust is indicative of something within yourself, well, refer to #3 above, because it’s a tad difficult to truly trust others when you fundamentally don’t trust yourself. Now, to be clear, we’re not talking about the “blanket” kind of trust that applies in any and all situation. We’re simply talking about trusting the person who’s trying to show you some compassion in that specific moment of your suffering. Note: Should you be able to gracefully receive the compassion offered, that is a life-affirming gift of your trust. Which is why I close every compassion session with “thank you for your trust”, because trust is a gift, always.

Courtesy of Clay Banks @ Unsplash

Parting thoughts

I am human because you are human, and you are human because I am human: UBUNTU.

In this eternal dance, with no beginning and no end, of reciprocally recognising one another’s humanity, and conferring humanity unto one another, the giving and receiving of compassion is essential to our distinctive sense of self-hood. Giving though seems the easier end of the equation for receiving asks, not just that we reveal ourselves, but as well that we acknowledge our need for another, no matter how temporarily. But it is precisely our need for one another that makes us strong.

The next time compassion gazes upon your suffering, will you let it in?

PS. If you are curious about how I came to compassion, click here 🌹

Executive Doctoral Candidate * 6x Entrepreneur * Nonviolent Communication Mediator * Healing & Reconciliation Facilitator * Compassion Coach * roslinachai.com

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