What Is Compassion Anyway?

Gillian May


Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash

I admit that I’ve been confused by the line between compassion and shrinking myself or manipulating situations to feel safe.

Not even a year ago, I would have described myself as an ultra-compassionate being. Someone who would listen to others, hear the different sides, sit beside, hold a hand, and offer an alternate view or an encouraging word if needed.

This may well be compassion, but underneath was also a desire to bend a situation to help myself feel safe. Well, I honestly wanted others to feel safer, as well. But I was blind to my own needs for managing things, so I didn’t have to endure. So I didn’t have to hold too much stress from the trauma expressions of others.

This has to end now. This is not compassion. This is an acceptance of boundary crossing and covert abuse and I am a selfish accomplice to my own demise.

We all know what causes this exhausting cycle of projection and protection — trauma.

But I don’t wish to re-hash yet again, how trauma is the new voiceless epidemic with zero end in sight. We know this already, even though we don’t always keep it in our awareness during interactions.

I just want to talk about what compassion actually is and what it isn’t.

Compassion is holding space for sure. That means listening and hearing the other person while not judging their feelings. You are simply there for the other without trying to fix things.

I used to think that holding space meant I should “take” whatever the other was unloading on me at that moment. And I’m not just talking about those who loudly take up space. I’m also talking about those who do the dreaded silent treatment where proper communication is withheld entirely.

Whether loud or silent, this kind of situation has been my Achilles heel. My idea of compassion used to be some version of de-escalating the loud situations or drawing out the silent ones.

The result was always me draining my energy while attempting to manipulate the other so that things would feel better again. This is not compassion for myself or the other. Trying to fix or change things was more about calming my own fears rather than listening to the other.

I own this now. This stops here.

But you know what else is not compassion? Allowing people to loudly or silently take up all the space.

It is not compassionate to allow situations to unfold where you either can’t breathe or have been cut off entirely without any mutual communication.

For loud space-takers:
It’s one thing to rant and rave about a bad day. But it’s quite another to dump it all on another, expecting them to hold it all without taking some responsibility for fixing yourself.

You don’t get to feel better about yourself by using other people as a punching bag.

For silent space-takers:
It’s one thing to need some silence for personal reflection. But it’s another thing when you neglect the other and withhold an opportunity for understanding to take place at all.

You don’t get to feel better about yourself by leaving others guessing and clamoring after you.

I know I’ve played into all of this too. I’ve refused to give myself compassion by allowing all my space to be taken up because I wanted to be nice, to be liked, to be accepted.

I’ve also refused to give others compassion by not laying down boundaries for proper adult communication. Instead, I’ve resorted to manipulation tactics and whiny pleas to be heard or seen.

Compassion is a two-way street where self-reflection and mutual respect are held as equal guiding principles for people in any situation.

We are here to hold each other while we grow, not strip each other of all energy.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work - https://upbeat-trader-4181.ck.page/839d0ab3f9. I also have a book on Alcoholic Liver Disease coming out in 2021.


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