Love without Hurt: Boot Camps for Compassion

Treating abusive people by training them to experience compassion.

Posted Jun 30, 2008

Since our boot camps were featured on a couple of Oprah Winfrey Shows (they'd been around for a decade before the popular media discovered them), I have been interviewed often about the "radically new" idea of treating resentful, angry, and abusive people by training them to experience compassion.

Using compassion to eliminate the vulnerabilities that anger and aggression protect us from seems radical and new only in this era of emotional pollution, in which we fail to see other people apart from our reactions to them. The emerging reactive narcissism -- the running theme of the current blog - is highly contagious and inevitably produces a sense of entitlement, victim identity, self righteousness, and the opposite of compassion: resentment and contempt.

Our boot camps help couples escape the effects of emotional pollution by reclaiming the most important thing about them - their core value, i.e., their ability to create value and meaning in their lives, specifically to make certain people and things important and worthy of time, effort, and sacrifice. A revitalized sense of core value returns them to the natural state of compassion they first experienced as very young children and then fervently relived when they were falling in love. Most of them realize that they like themselves more when compassionate than resentful. Most recognize that they have fundamental values that are more important to them than their egos and that their egos were constructed in large part as defense against the shame of violating or losing touch with those values. When motivated by defense of ego, they violate their deepest values and devalue those they love; motivated by their deepest values, they don't need so much of an ego. As their egos subside, so does their need to control, criticize, dominate, and devalue others.

Living with Them
Living with a resentful, angry, or emotionally abusive person turns you into someone you are not. As you naturally grow defensive and resentful about being blamed for your partner's negative feelings and bad behavior, you lose touch with your core value and begin to vacillate between contempt and pity, passing through guilt and self-recrimination along the way. Understanding the difference between compassion and pity and their relationship to trust is crucial to recovery.

Compassion entails equality: "I sympathize with your hurt, because, despite our differences in circumstance, we are (humanely) equal." Pity implies inequality: "I pity you because you're inferior in some way -- naïve, stupid, selfish, narcissistic, uneducated, poor, unskilled, etc." (Hence we receive compassion from others as a gesture of basic humanity but are offended if someone pities us.) Compassion includes motivation to connect emotionally to the experience of another, which, in turn, motivates helping behavior. Pity is merely feeling bad at the sight of another's suffering. Unmediated by genuine sympathy, pity leads to contempt. (The playwright, Bertolt Brecht mused that the first time we see a beggar on the street we'll feel pity; the second time we'll call a policeman to have him removed.) But it's not so easy when the contempt is for someone you love, for then it will eventually stimulate guilt, which will stimulate more pity, only to harden once again into contempt. This pendulum of pain, swinging back and forth from pity-contempt-guilt-pity is the emotional force that keeps people locked in dysfunctional relationships, with no clue of how to make them better. Unfortunately, the usual way out is for the parties to adopt a permanent contemptuous state, which greatly decreases their ability to create value and meaning in most areas of their lives.

Compassion Means Trusting Wisely
We never get hurt by too much compassion, but we're hurt all the time by unwise trust. Compassion lets you see the depth of other people's vulnerability and more intelligently assess their defenses against it. In short, it tells you whom you can trust. With compassion you can discern whether your partner can use his sense of inadequacy as motivation to become adequate in relationships. If your partner sees feelings of inadequacy as punishment rather than motivation to become adequate (more compassionate and loving), you will certainly be regarded as the punisher.

As you experience the healing of genuine compassion, you understand that your partner cannot heal without compassion for you, which means he must see, hear, and value you as separate from him. If your partner will not or cannot do that, your relationship will likely cause grave harm to both of you and almost certainly to your children.

Pity, guilt, and contempt will not heal either of you; only mutual compassion will make you whole as a couple. If you cannot feel compassion and value from your partner, the most compassionate thing to do for everyone is leave.