Is Compassion for Suckers?
The Case for Integrating Your Head & Heart to Cultivate Self-Compassion
Posted May 20, 2013
I recently saw what seemed to be an inspiring quote attributed to Mother Teresa:
“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.”
This quote resonated with me right away. I thought it truly spoke to the idea of what it is to be compassionate and follow an enlightened path. Thinking others would agree with me, I was surprised to see many online comments that were quite pessimistic – saying that living this way is a surefire prescription for pain and suffering. A gateway to being a patsy and walked all over in life.
I always appreciate competing viewpoints, especially when they challenge something I assume to be true. Was there some validity to what these people were saying? I know with certainty that many generous and compassionate people have been used, abused and treated badly, but did that mean we should all close down our hearts and fend for ourselves? Or, was there an underlying assumption that was not being spelled out? Something that Mother Teresa knew but failed to mention when she uttered those words.
It made me wonder: how is it that some people can live with an open heart, give freely and not get hurt?
On a quest to understand the secret to such freedom, I thought about compassion and what it really means. Compassion generally is concerned with understanding someone’s situation, being present for them, loving them and wishing for things to be different. According to scholars, the Latin roots of the word suggest that it literally means to suffer together. And, Buddhists speak of compassion as being a wish for others to be free from suffering. What’s interesting is that no matter whose definition you use, compassion is other-focused. It is not about us or what we need.
If you take those definitions at face value, it would seem to indicate that you should always try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes but never call them on it or take measures to keep yourself safe. Your job would be to exude love and understanding no matter the situation, even if it made things difficult or unpleasant for you. Exactly what those naysaying posters were asserting.
So how do we reconcile this? How do we create an environment, or cultivate a mindset, where a person can be compassionate yet not get walked on, taken advantage of or injured?
It made me think of a couple people* we wrote about in our book, You Are Not Your Brain. One is Steve, a man who always assumed people were trying to use him and constantly kept people at bay, and the other is Sarah, a woman who would give someone the shirt off her back but rarely stand up to anyone. What ties Steve and Sarah together is that neither of them were balanced. Steve erred on the side of caution, missing out on meaningful connections, and Sarah gave so much of herself that she got lost in the process. What makes this all the more challenging is that neither of them saw another way to live. Steve thought, why give more of yourself when people are bound to hurt you? Conversely, Sarah could not stomach the idea of telling someone they were acting inappropriately, setting limits on people’s behavior or acting with anything but love and understanding at all times. To her, it would indicate she was not being a good person and that she would not be loved or accepted.
But are Steve and Sarah’s beliefs really true? Does compassion mean that we simply accept everything another person does and let it go, never caring for ourselves in the process? It almost seems co-dependent to act this way, to use a psychology term. Self-less to a fault (Sarah) or avoidant of people (Steve). Is that healthy? Is that good for you?
Advocating for Your True Self
If we look at Steve and Sarah, they clearly were being ruled by deceptive brain messages – those sneaky beliefs rooted deep in our psyche that are erroneous but also powerfully held to be true. Interestingly, Steve and Sarah’s problem was the same – it was just manifesting very differently.
This is where the concepts of True Self and the Wise Advocate come into play. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, following your True Self means seeing yourself for who you really are and approaching yourself, your true emotions, goals, values and needs from a loving, caring, nurturing perspective that is consistent with how your Wise Advocate sees you. The Wise Advocate, in turn, is the aspect of your attentive mind that can see the bigger picture, including your inherent worth, capabilities and accomplishments (think of someone who loves you unconditionally). It encourages you to value yourself and make decisions in a rational way based on what’s in your overall best interest in the long-term. It is a balanced approach to life, one rooted in compassion but also self-compassion.
This is what was missing from Mother Teresa’s quote and it's exactly what True Self and the Wise Advocate collectively are saying: You must value yourself and cultivate self-compassion to be truly be compassionate to and for others. Anything short of this and you will run the risk of having people take advantage of you, taking things personally and/or avoiding people (and meaningful relationships) to ensure you do not get hurt. Why?
Without self-compassion, you do not truly stand on solid ground emotionally. Rather, you look to others to provide you with love, acceptance, caring and more – the things that a person who has cultivated self-compassion can provide to him/herself. When you do not have that secure base to work from – when you seek others to provide what you ideally should give yourself – you develop unrealistic expectations of others. When they inevitably fail to meet them, you end up taking their actions personally (when in reality it likely has nothing to do with you!), feel bad about the situation (and oftentimes yourself) and act in ways that are not beneficial to you. This in turn causes you to end up in the exact position Steve and Sarah were in: not setting appropriate boundaries or acting in lovingly self-protective ways.
If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense and it’s what people who advocate compassion as the way to live life must inherently know. Unless you dispel the deceptive brain messages in your head, you will not resolutely believe that you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. This is what happened with Steve and Sarah. Despite having a similar True Self belief that they wanted genuinely loving, close relationships, they did not value themselves enough to integrate their heads with their hearts. Steve erred on the side of “logic” (i.e., avoid people – they might try to use me) whereas Sarah was led by her feelings and was routinely taken advantage of. In both cases, they did not tell people how they really felt and/or value themselves enough to stop others from acting inappropriately with them. Rather than listening to their Wise Advocate, they let their brain (specifically, their deceptive brain messages) run the show to their detriment.
Had Steve instead been able to use his Wise Advocate to help differentiate who actually liked him for who he was (from people who were, in fact, trying to use him), he would have distanced himself from people who did not treat him well and prioritized nurturing relationships with those who genuinely loved him. Sarah would have done the same by speaking her mind more and letting people go who did not value her for who she was.
Self-Compassion is the Key
Ultimately, the answer to my question regarding the assertions from those pessimistic posters about compassion is this: To truly wish the best for others in a compassionate way and live freely without anger, pain, disapointment or over-personalizing, you need to be able to fully value, accept and love yourself for who you are (without being entitled, greedy or acting inappropriately yourself). Does that mean that being compassionate is a fool’s errand until you have achieved self-compassion? Of course not. We should always strive to be compassionate and accepting of others. Yet, at the same time, to have genuinely healthy and loving relationships based on mutual trust and generosity, we also need to set appropriate limits with people and only let in the people who can love, appreciate, support and accept us for who we are. The key is to honor and value everyone involved, including yourself.
This quote, attributed to the Buddha’s teachings, is a wonderful reminder of this concept:
"It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found." ~ Dhammapada Atthakatha
So, take the time to cultivate compassion for yourself in the way your Wise Advocate would want you to – really accept who you are (and I mean all of you – the positive, the negative and the mundane), what you believe in, your strengths, your weaknesses and your inherent worthiness to receive love. As you do this, you will find that you can be present for and understand another’s perspective with true compassion, while also setting appropriate boundaries and no longer take things personally. That is when you will live freely with an open heart and inch closer and closer to living life in a way that is consistent with Mother Teresa's words above.
* Cases in the book were composites.