Compassion is ultimately the ability to completely understand and share in the feelings of another. It is a powerful tool that redirects blame and shame. Its intentions are to help the individual make a healthy connection to the problems that lay before them ultimately helping in the process of recovery. Compassion is the ability of being unconditional in a conditional world.
Compassion should never be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is a misguided source of care. Sympathy is an intense manifestation of sorrow and pity, but lacks in the ability to discern between empathy and responsibility. Empathy and sympathy make strange bedfellows. While both are filled with good intentions; it is sympathy that enables the right to make excuses and to overlook personal responsibility; through empathy we have a deeper understanding and emotional connection to the struggles of another. While empathy has a number of positive attributes and characteristics; its intentions are flawed. Not unlike its counterpart sympathy; empathy has an ability of motivating the caring nature of an individual. It is through this caring nature that an individual will often feel motivated to carry someone else’s luggage rather than teaching that individual to carry his or her own luggage. While the intentions of empathy and sympathy are purely altruistic; it is through such altruism that we may allow harm to become prevalent in our own lives.
Yale professor and psychologist, Dr. Paul Bloom discusses the common mis-leadings of empathy. He discusses how empathy can be limiting and ultimately allow harm to the individual providing care. “By empathy I mean feeling the feelings of other people. So if you are in pain and I feel your pain – I am feeling toward you. If you are anxious, I pick up your anxiety. If you are sad and I pick up your sadness, I am being empathetic.” Empathy teaches us to take on the pain, the heartache, and the struggles of another. Thus, it is through an empathetic approach that we might prove vulnerable in our desire to provide care. Dr. Bloom’s argument is that we should consider a different pathway of care.
Compassion instills all of the positive attributes and qualities of empathy, but it recognizes that we must teach others to carry the weight of their own burdens, struggles and sorrows. It is the ultimate empowerment and liberation of the psychological-self.
It is through a compassionate heart that an individual is willing to go out of their way to help another, but with the clarity that they too must be mindful of their own needs. Compassion teaches us to show empathy and sympathy through a measured approach. It is neither self-serving or self-indulgent, rather it is concerned with the personal empowerment of others. Essentially, compassion is concerned about helping others to alleviate and prevent harm.
The compassionate individual has a desire to help in all perspectives of an individual’s life including the physical, mental and emotional. It is through this process of care that an individual should learn to be empowered. Empowerment is the ability to proclaim liberation, power, and authority over something. Empowerment is that ability of proving stronger, more confident and resilient. For an addict, it is claiming one’s right over the addiction. Empowerment is the ability to claim one’s right over any particular issue, as well as, accept personal responsibility of all aspects of one’s life. Empowerment is a platform for not only enabling an individual to resist past challenges and temptations, but to overcome the mindset of powerlessness and the lack of influence. Empowered individuals are unwavering individuals. Empowered individuals are tempered individuals who have been enabled to overcome, conquer and prevail over challenges in life. An empowered individual is capable of distinguishing the good from the bad. Empowerment is not only key for overcoming, but it provides the individual personal awareness into his or her own role in this game called life.
Compassion should strive to empower and show an unconditional spirit towards others. A compassionate heart is not limited by the recognition of those we know, but also includes those that we do not know. Whereas empathy is often limited to those that we have a personal relationship with; compassion drives home the notion that everyone is worthy of unconditional love, acceptance, approval, meekness, tenderness, and kindness. Compassion is the greatest ally, because it instills in the heart of the vulnerable a need to prove strong and personally resilient. When I am compassionate, I am acting out of the interest of another; whereas, when I am merely empathetic I may be acting out of my perceptions of morality and justice.
The benefits of compassion are fourfold: it has the ability to share in the feelings of another; to offer unconditional comfort, support and love unto to another; it teaches us to recognize the pain of another without having us walk in the individual’s shoes; and to prove the ultimate accountability partner of another. While many of the positive attributes of empathy and sympathy are embodied into the concept of compassion; compassion is capable of recognizing the need to separate our lives from those that we serve.
Reflecting back, I recall making a common mistake of many of my fellow clinicians. I would take on my patient’s pain and sorrow, rather than trying to empower them to take on their own life’s struggles. As a parent, I still fight this battle of trying to eliminate my children’s pain and angst by carrying it for them, rather than teaching them to carry the weight of their own life challenges. Compassionate empowerment teaches another to be the captain of their own unique vessel. Addicts need a strong advocate to help them to prove personally resilient, uncompromising and unwavering. Addicts need to eliminate their excuses, blame and shame; and begin taking on the cloak of personal responsibility.
An addict that is not empowered will find it difficult to overcome the challenges of life; but for the addict that is taught personal self-empowerment, they will prove resilient. Compassion reminds us that we are capable of overcoming and facing life’s challenges. A compassionate heart is a sincere heart.
Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.