Curiously, compassion has become a big topic for me today. It’s in my university course, my kids counselling session (in relation to a bully), and in the tv show I just watched. It’s also been something I tried to exercise on a perceived difficult person.
The new trendy psycho thing is “compassion training”. People in highly stressed jobs (doctors, firemen,… waitresses) are now being told/taught not to empathise, because it results in burnout. Brain studies (yes, magic rays sent into your head so it must be true) have revealed that empathy is bad, man. It is so 1990s.
An empathy-based approach (old school) taught us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. But now it has been found that doing this just makes us sad or mad or both. Is too much.
Instead of empathising, in compassion training, you just feel sympathy and provide kindness and support.
Now here are some thoughts I am having. For starters, empathy is fucked. It’s the most selfish process on the planet. Consider ten people watching a woman being attacked and having her bag stolen. One person might empathise with the woman and feel fear. One person might empathise with the man and feel hate (for the woman who stole her husband). One person might empathise with the woman and become sexually aroused at the idea of being dominated by the hot guy with the hairy arms and a ski mask.
How you empathise says more about “you” than it does about the subject person.
Now, I guess for all the middle of the bell-curvers this might seem far-fetched. But being a tail-end sort of person, I can tell you my empathy is all over the place, because most of the time people don’t think like I do. It is no wonder that I found ways of getting rid of my empathy, because it’s proved on many more than one occasion to be completely unreliable.
Furthermore, if you really empathise and it’s a bad feeling, don’t expect to be giving any help once you feel it because you are sucked into your own black hole. I have had the displeasure of accidentally getting a glimpse of someone else’s pain and letting it in, and it’s fucking horrible – like worse than my own pain because at least I can bury my own pain under layers of self denial or delusion. Or something.
Compassion training (or “compassionate bypassing” which I shall coin) is said to result in an overall much more positive outlook on life. I suppose the idea is that you don’t try to figure out why the other person is upset/angry/mad and instead you just accept it (hence the bypassing) and be supportive and kind.
I think it has to happen this way, otherwise you would need to have the empathy for how they feel (work it out somehow) and then apply the compassion, and you could get it wrong at many stages. Compassionate bypassing is just a band aid over the lot of it.
I suppose it might be effective if you work in an old-people’s home. Or have to serve people spicy chicken all day. But in a family situation it seems a bit superficial. Maybe it’s what we do for the ones (strangers?) we don’t think are worth empathising with for the lack of reciprocity.
I think there are layers:
1. “Compassionate bypassing”: Strangers not likely to provide reciprocal altruism – don’t try to empathise at all. Apply band-aid compassion of kindness and support.
2. “Statistical compassion”: for people you see often, but don’t have strong bonds with – apply most likely statistical empathy result (woman robbed most likely feels fear and shock). Don’t ask too many questions, and apply level of compassion commensurate with the felt empathy.
3. “True compassion”: for people you love – go for your best empathy spectrum of options, but ask for more info to get the empathy response as right as possible. Ask lots of questions and try to understand. Apply targeted compassion, including eg reassurance and physical touch.
This leads me to the question of what is compassion: It’s pity and concern.
I feel that having pity for someone you are really invested in (love) could graciously be paired with cognitive-empathy (which is where you attempt to understand how they feel and why).
Somehow I think this because that’s the way I love myself. I don’t just apply compassionate bypassing to myself. Instead, I try to understand my actions, do a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy on myself so I can be “the best me I can be”. And I am as truly compassionate to myself as I can be.