Compassion. Easy to preach and difficult to practice. If you know me personally or have read my previous blogs you may know that I am a recovering perfectionist. Perfectionism is often accompanied by harsh judgment of self and others which is in stark contrast if not the complete opposite of compassion. As a result, in my own work I have focused on building a better foundation for compassion. My work starts with 3 assumptions.
Now, I know what they say about assumptions so let me clarify my intent. We as humans are meaning makers and when we lack all the information we make assumptions—constantly. These assumptions are merely starting points. True compassion involves SEEING people. Not just glancing but seeing—looking them, their stories, their pain, in the eye.
It is not about me.
When experience pain we often act out in defensive ways to protect ourselves physically and emotionally. But when our defenses are activated, we become egocentric—focusing on our own pain and survival. For me this looks like perfectionist, pleasing behavior; pendulating between shame (or blame) and judgment. For others this may look like aggression or isolation. When focused on our own pain and defenses, we lose the ability to see people. We assume that their behavior must be related to us. As a result, we might villainize the other, blaming them for our pain response. They did that on purpose to hurt/punish me or I can’t believe she did that when she knows how I feel. We might turn inward and shame ourselves, assuming their behavior is a reflection of our own inadequacy. I am not enough. It is because they don’t like me and why would they? He must be angry with me.
If I am able to instead assume the situation is not about me I am more likely to stay in compassion rather than harshly judging them or me. I don’t have to defend myself. I can de-activate my defenses and stay curious about the situation and the person. Maybe they are tired or ill. Maybe they have a lot on their mind. Maybe this is not about me. Again, this is just a starting point. Sometimes it is about me and I need to reconcile but I don’t want to assume this—I’ll let the other person be responsible for communicating this to me.
Others are doing the best they can.
This assumption comes directly from the work of Brene Brown. It is hard to have compassion for someone who is being a jerk on purpose—they aren’t even trying; they should know better. But what if it is the best they have right now? What if it isn’t even about you? (remember assumption number one). The rude person at the check-out line, the friend who never texted back (I’m usually the guilty one here), maybe it is the best they have right now in this moment. This does not mean we should not have boundaries and expectations, especially in our relationships (See my blog on boundaries here). It just means that we are not perfect and we shouldn’t expect others to be perfect either.
There is more to the story. Always.
We all have stuff and sometimes our stuff comes out in ugly ways. Sometimes it means we are flaky, rude, irritable, and downright intolerable. Knowing the story behind the behavior often increases compassion instantly. Again it comes down to seeing people. One of the greatest privileges of my job is that I get to see and know the stories of people from all walks of life. We all have the same depth of feeling. We all have pain. But I don’t have to know every story to know that everyone has one. Simply knowing that there is more to the story leaves room for compassion. Stay curious before making a harsh judgement; you may only be seeing one side.
Compassion is a skill set. Like any skill it requires practice. Changing our default assumptions takes time and repetition. It begins with quiet, intentional noticing—for example, when you observe someone at the coffee shop can you run these assumptions through your head? Eventually it becomes a “muscle memory” of the brain. One of the greatest keys to making this work—self compassion. We cannot judge ourselves by one set of invisible standards without automatically (and often subconsciously) applying it to other people. That is what makes perfectionism so toxic. When I practice compassion for myself, I get better at loving you. I am less egocentric because I don’t have to please, perform and perfect to make sure I am enough. I just am. And so are you.