How is compassion different from sympathy, empathy or pity?
You’ve probably noticed plenty of people acting with anything but compassion these past few months: calling out people on NextDoor or other public forums for not wearing a mask, or for failing to clean up after their dog. Or calling the police on people desperate enough to scavenge through recycling bins on trash day.
When stress runs high, we often find ourselves quick to judge others. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve probably done or said some things we’re not particularly proud of, too.
This is exactly why compassion is so essential at any time, but especially now. So let me explain what I mean by compassion.
A couple of weeks ago, I stopped at the local hardware store to pick up some paint. As anyone would expect these days, there was a long, socially-distanced line, with everyone spaced out at six-foot intervals. Most of us have come to expect this.
As I was standing there, an elderly man came in. He was trembling and leaning on his cane, and he did not look at all happy about anything, especially not the huge, cavernous space between the checkout counter and the first person in line. The man took one look at all this, and he started shouting, “What’s going on in here! What is this nonsense?”
It would have been easy to jump to any number of conclusions about why I thought this man was acting out. But in this particular instance, I saw his outrage as the coping mechanism it was. And underlying his reaction, I sensed a fear of uncertainty looming like that huge, cavernous space.
Spiritual teacher and psychologist Ram Dass talks about compassion as consciously recognizing our shared humanity. He also said, and this is key: compassion happens without judgment.
Pain is often the force behind emotional reactions. When we can recognize this in ourselves and others, we’re already halfway there. The next half is about reserving judgment.
With the man at the hardware store, I could easily have leapt to judgment. But I was able to hold this back. And by reserving judgment, I also avoided an emotional reaction of my own, such as outrage or blame, and with it potentially even more judgment.
See how quickly it can go downhill?
Compassion is about recognizing someone else’s suffering, while withholding judgment about them. It’s about being a neutral, loving witness by doing your best not to project your own thoughts and fears and speculation onto another person.
For this reason, compassion is not empathy.
Empathy is a projection—that we know how someone else feels—and I’m not sure any of us can truly know that. When we think we are being empathetic, more likely than not we are attributing our own feelings to someone else.
You may have an intuitive sense of how someone feels, especially if you know them fairly well, but be skeptical of certitude. Be respectful that you might not really understand. There can be a measure of disrespect in assuming that you do.
Compassion is also not sympathy or pity. There’s a judgment inherent in the “oh, poor you” sentiment. And a lot of the common platitudes we rely on to express this also project knowing how someone else feels.
For example: “I’m so sorry for your loss. I know just how you feel.” (How can you possibly?) “You must feel awful.” (Well, I do now!)
When we acknowledge that we can’t actually know how someone else feels, or all of the circumstances surrounding their life, or anything else that makes their human experience unique, then we have essentially removed our basis for judging. Compassion can arise once we recognize the individual’s suffering without projecting or judging them or their situation.
We can better see the fear that causes a neighbor to police who is wearing a mask, the type of mask, and if it is worn properly. We can see people attempting to deal with their grief over a changed world through loud, public outbursts. We can see that many circumstances about our current lives are utterly confusing to a good number of us, and we can try not to judge ourselves when we, too, also act out our reactions.
Compassion isn’t just about the “other.” It is just as important that we treat ourselves compassionately. When we can view ourselves with compassion, our own coping mechanisms become clear.
Maybe we’re obsessively checking our 401ks, or the coronavirus case numbers, or the election news. Once we recognize this, we can hopefully see our own issues and dysfunction more clearly, as well as the distance we still need to go to reach a more peaceful, mindful and grounded place.
Before we can view others with compassion, we must have our own emotions balanced first. Only then can we see the real human being instead of a faulty person who deserves our judgment.
I’d like you to do this exercise: think of a family member who really drives you crazy. Now, become aware of this person as a human being with experiences that may be quite different from your own. The trick is to do this WITHOUT JUDGMENT. If you realize that you’re judging, or if superiority sneaks in, then start over. Try again.
If you find yourself stuck here, try thinking in terms of coping mechanisms. If your uncle lashes out at others, for example, is there a certain trigger that he’s responding to, maybe something one of his children or siblings said or did? When you can view behaviors as attempted coping mechanisms in response to emotional triggers, this can sometimes allow room for better objectivity.
Keep in mind that it’s less about analyzing a behavior and more about trying to see the behavior for what it is, as neutrally as possible, without projecting your interpretations—and especially your judgments—onto it.
For example, you might see that your sister-in-law is simply conditioned to behave a certain way due to her upbringing. You can still see that it’s unpleasant, and you don’t like it. But maybe you can also see her confusion about the state of the world, and how keeping her house immaculate at all costs is her coping mechanism. You don’t pity her because of it. You simply acknowledge her pain and witness the distance she still has to go to reach a place of inner peace.
You will know that you’ve managed this exercise successfully when you’re neutral. Your emotions aren’t revving, and everything seems still and clear. You might even feel somewhat removed from a situation you felt enmeshed in previously.
Compassion requires more of a big picture perspective, or a higher perspective view. It can feel, at times, almost like you’re stepping outside yourself to view the situation as a neutral observer. Or like you’ve become a witness to another’s pain, a position that does not require comment or judgment, or anything else.
So the next time someone around you acts out, be conscious of your judgments. Try to become more aware of the ways in which you interpret and project. And while you do your best to cultivate compassion for others, remember that it has to start first with yourself.
Take good care : )