True compassion, or empathic concern, is one of the most sublime of all human impulses. We reach toward a greater universal purpose by joyfully extending from our hearts out of our small measly sense of self. Not only does this benefit others; through selflessly extending a hand to those less fortunate, we ourselves feel nourished and uplifted. Even just the compassionate impulse welling forth creates great peace and joy within.
However, even with the best of intentions to generate compassion, there are ways we go astray by deluding ourselves. This becomes apparent when, instead of feeling nurtured by offering compassion in thought or deed, we are left with the bitter taste of negative emotion.
One way we do this is by acting compassionately for others’ approval. If we are acting in a seemingly compassionate way so that others think highly of us, our motivation is still fundamentally self-centered. Even though our actions from the outside seem flawlessly selfless, our motivation is actually to get something for ourselves. Sometimes this is praise or a reward from another person. Other times, even subtler, the reward comes from ourselves: wanting to prove to ourselves that we are worthy by being a good person. We feel compelled to give to others to cover up our own shame. Because we are still fundamentally self-seeking, we end up angry or burned out when we don’t get what we want from the situation. We feel unappreciated or hollow from giving. We push ourselves past our natural limits in the hopes of receiving love, from others and from ourselves.
Other times, when witnessing a difficult situation, rather than feeling empathic concern, we instead feel personal distress. Instead of uplifting the one who is suffering by standing outside of the suffering and offering a solution or new perspective, we instead drown in their grief or sorrow. By simply mirroring another’s suffering, no one is benefited. Two people end up suffering instead. True compassion uplifts the one that is suffering, acts appropriately to shift the situation, and helps to transcend that suffering. Mistaken compassion is just another person pulled into the quicksand of suffering.
Social psychological research indicates that it is a matter of perspective as to whether an individual has empathic concern or personal distress when witnessing suffering. If the observer is imagining the feelings of the suffering person, this leads to empathic concern or compassion, which activates the part of the brain associated with positive feeling states. When the observer is imagining themselves in the suffering person’s situation, this can be linked to personal distress, “a self-oriented aversive emotional response such as anxiety or discomfort.” When we over-identify with the suffering of another person we have a neurological reaction as if the suffering were actually happening to us. Personal distress is also correlated with less motivation to act to relieve the suffering of the other person. It can be helpful to keep in mind this distinction if witnessing suffering causes personal distress. We need a healthy sense of separation from the suffering of others, so that we can reach forward with our hearts and bring others out of their suffering.
In our world, terrible things happen. We see people we love suffer, or we watch the news and see tragic events unfold that affect thousands of people. We can’t allow our self-centeredness to coopt our efforts at generating compassion. We also can’t allow ourselves to get swallowed up by the suffering of others, because that not only doesn’t create any benefit for others, it only harms ourselves. Our planet is in desperate need of empathic concern and compassionate action, and it is only through our own awareness of ourselves and the ways we go astray that we can transcend our limitations and extend ourselves for the greater good of humanity.Photo by Ana Maria
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