The Compassion Conundrum

Maybe you have experienced this before: You are in charge of a child (whether your own or someone else’s the experience is mostly the same) and while in your charge the little one falls and scrapes their knee, bumps their head, or has some other dust up that causes them pain.

It’s a caregivers dilemma what to do next. Time seems to freeze for a split second as everyone decides what to do: Do I move towards them to comfort them? Do I hold firm and hope they shake it off?

We are constantly told that the right way to act is to ignore the situation which in turn will help the little one realize it’s not a big deal and that emotions will not help heal them any faster. We have even seen instances of the opposite: when the care giver has acquiesced to emotion it seems to make the situation “worse” as the tears come out and the wailing starts. In cases where the child is ignored and not allowed an emotional reprieve, many times they do in fact “shake it off” and carry on.

Keep calm and carry on… first coined by the Brits during world war two. A good mantra for when times are tough, and something I think of often when faced with strife. But in every day situations, when our life is not really on the line, who is it that benefits from this “stiff upper lip” concept? The care giver who may not have time to thoroughly take care of the emotions? Or the child who may learn resilience?

The Compassion Conundrum

This is the “compassion conundrum” – how much of our time and our emotional capacity should we share with others? How does it help and how does it hurt? When is it necessary and when are we “enabling” someone? How do we keep sharing compassion when we are so overwhelmed just trying to live in our current environment?

I admit that often we do not have time to deal with every emotion that rises in our psyche each day, especially in today’s world, and I have a lot of respect for resilience. However, I also believe strongly that we need to better understand:

what compassion is, how it affects each of us, and how we can practice it to bring balance to our society.

What happens when someone shows compassion to another?

Being a human is difficult. We live in a state where our minds and our hearts are in constant battle. Logic and emotion are consistently at odds, fighting for control over our psyche, and this leads to a complicated existence. Balance is what we are after, but with many external sources of manipulation and confusion it is a very difficult tightrope to walk.

Compassion helps us release these pent up emotions. When another human shows compassion, what they are really doing is taking responsibility to shoulder another’s emotions for a time. They are saying “I know you are struggling, and I am feeling okay right now, so I can lighten your load by taking on some of your emotions so that you can sort through the rest and come back to a good stasis of being“.

When this is offered, it is often accompanied by tears, sometimes overwhelmingly so. We feel grateful to the other for allowing us to breathe, vent, talk, reassess and gain footing. Providing this release is one of the best things we can do for each other and something we all benefit from having in our lives.

In a perfect world we would all have times where we could be the one to provide compassion for others and then in turn, when we need it, someone would be available to do the same for us. This is so necessary that many cultures have specific words or events that allow people to come together and complain and share our feelings. However, with daily distractions and our ever changing environment, we are losing such events, instead moving towards a more singular life experience (a sort of selfishness), or a “self ignoring” of ours and others emotions.

Dealing with Tradeoffs

Some reading this may scoff at the thought of compassion in our world today, immediately thinking of the people in their lives that constantly are in need of assistance, and those who never seem to be able to steady the ground beneath their feet.

Isn’t it bad to coddle someone?

Aren’t we just creating soft people by enabling them in this way?

Can’t compassion hurt some by creating a group of people who greedily feed on our good will without ever giving back?

These thoughts and questions, while definitely something to keep in mind, should be a small piece of this equation. Yes, there are people out there who need constant compassion and enabling, but we shouldn’t use them as the rule, instead as more of the exception. We can learn techniques that help us remove ourselves from a soul sucking situation, instead bringing in reinforcements that are equipped to help those of us having a hard time getting off the floor.

But even in regular situations, we have to become aware that showing compassion doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to: with perfect symbiosis.

  • There will be times where we show compassion and it becomes a drag on us, especially if we aren’t really in a good place to offer it.
  • Other times we show compassion and it is thrown back in our faces.
  • Still others, we feel slighted when we go to someone we showed compassion towards and they do not allow the same for us.

These tradeoffs to showing compassion should not discourage us, they should instead allow us to create a better outline for moving forward; we should use them as a practice ground and a place to learn lessons. Take heed, reflect, and be honest with ourselves:

Why were we being compassionate? Was it to feed our own ego? Was it to feel better about asking for compassion in the future?

Did we try a wrong approach? Each of us looks at compassion differently, we need open communication to ensure that we are not just providing what works for us, but what will help the other person in the future.

Was compassion the right thing to do in this moment? Being compassionate when we are not in a place to offer it can do a disservice to others as well as to ourselves. Our patience may wane quickly if we are not balanced in our own world. We need to also practice being honest with ourselves and each other; explain gently but firmly when you are unable to provide compassion, then come back when you are able to give again.

Asking these questions helps us strengthen our compassion muscles.

Moving Forward

As we gain this strength, we can better assess when and how much compassion may be necessary within your relationships. When to push someone and when to coddle a bit. When to stop and take the time to provide someone else with the love they need, and when to explain that we are not in a place to do so. While this is a lot to take on, even starting small can really add a lot. In case you are a bit stumped, I thought I would share a few small examples of compassion that I have used with great success:

Being Kind to ourselves

Ignoring our own emotions in lieu of helping others adds unnecessary stress to our lives. We will inevitably experience those emotions regardless of how hard we pretend they do not exist, usually at a very inopportune time. It is important to experience our emotional reactions in a safe place and with those we trust in order to work through them productively. Self compassion is an important part of being able to effectively share compassion with others. Try to pick one point in each day to be kind internally: take a walk, meditate, practice mantras or other things that make you feel calm, content and centered.

Looking people in the eye

When you meet someone’s gaze, it shows that you are focused on paying attention to them. When we are distracted, looking away, fidgeting, the other person starts to feel like their words and actions mean little to us. That whatever has us distracted is much more important than communicating. Looking someone in the eye helps the people in our lives understand how important they are to us. When this is not possible, take a moment to explain why it is not and follow up once you have the time and capacity.

Saying “Thank You”

Showing gratitude helps us feel humble and feeling humble allows us to connect with others as our egos do not get in the way. Saying “Thank you”, even for something small, shows the other person that helping you was appreciated and very worth their time. Not only does this make them feel good, it also creates a stronger bond which adds to our longevity and overall happiness.

Asking “How are you” and really wanting to know the answer

Americans, especially, have a habit of using “how are you” as “hello” and only wanting a one-word answer. Think about how we feel when this happens to us, does it add to our happiness? Or does it take something (even a little bit) away? I argue it does the latter and have seen a lot of my relationships flourish because I took the time to really want to know how the other person was.

My hope is that slowly practicing these small traits will show one how good it can feel to show compassion, how a little bit goes a long way, and what help it can really be to our own lives. The more compassion we create in the world, the higher we can rise together.



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