Compassion Ration

Photo by Kat Jayne on

My observation over the years has been many people learn compassion after experiencing a lack of it when they needed it, I have met a precious few who come by compassion naturally and some whose families taught them compassion because it was highly valued to them. These are the exceptions however, at least from my point of view. Compassion is another human quality, a higher quality if you will, that does not seem to be consistently observed or particularly revered. I think this topic has become more prevalent lately because so many people are struggling and are in need of compassion

I feel like I was taught my family to have compassion for others “like us.” For me, that meant other military families. There was an unspoken caveat, however, as if compassion was a rare resource that should be used sparingly so as not to waste it. Don’t use it on just anybody, ’cause then you won’t have any left when you need it for someone who deserves it (you know, people like us.) It was a weird dichotomy to grow up with. Everyone deserves compassion, but some people are more deserving than others. How are we supposed to choose? I learned in time that only showing compassion to those within your immediate group was not living up to the definition of compassion.

I was scratching my head on this one for many years. My eyes were opened further at age thirty-three while I was a few months into my internship prior to becoming a therapist. I was assigned a case by my internship supervisor. Typically, these cases are cherry picked by the supervisor so as to not overwhelm the student therapist who has yet to graduate. I had been working with my fifteen year-old client for about two months before he disclosed to me he had been sexually assaulted. A week later he told me he had been sexually victimizing his younger brother. By this point I knew my client fairly well and understood how he had come to victimize his younger brother. I couldn’t turn my back on him. This was not a professional consideration. As an intern, I could have tapped out and told my supervisor, “sorry this is too much for me.” But I didn’t. I understood the kid and I felt for him.

For clarity and context, it is very common for victims of childhood sexual assault to assault others in an attempt to reclaim the power and autonomy that has been taken from them. While this is maladaptive and doesn’t work, it is a common pattern among sexual abuse victims. It also creates more victims. Our culture pities victims and is generally uncomfortable with them. However, our culture dislikes abusers even more. Crossing the line from victim to abuser typically isolates an individual even more than they were previously. This is even more true of an adolescent. Because I understood these dynamics, I couldn’t turn my back on this client. This was another big step in my learning compassion.

It is also a common sentiment in our culture to have zero compassion for anyone who commits sexual assault. Many subscribe to the “they should be shot on site” philosophy. They subscribe to this until their brother, son, father, uncle, cousin or best friend get convicted of sexual assault. Now it is not so simple. A common refrain is “he wasn’t like this when we were growing up.” You’re right, he probably wasn’t. He was likely a victim and couldn’t tell you. In an attempt to alleviate his own pain, he assaulted someone else. Now he is an abuser and you have to make a choice to be compassionate or turn your back on a family member. This may seem an extreme example, but it is an example I have seen play out countless times in the eleven years I worked with convicted sex offenders.

“Compassion fatigue” is interesting in that it refers to those in the helping professions running out of compassion because they have had to pour out so much to so many.

Ted Morris

Let me also say I am not excusing sexual abuse or explaining it away. Personal choice and accountability are also key pieces to this that should never be discounted. I am also not saying that all victims of sexual assault become abusers, that is not accurate either. There are other scenarios that can lead to sexual abuse, but this particular scenario was monumental for me regarding compassion.

How do we come by compassion? How do we teach it? The old saying “There but for the grace of God, go I” seems relevant, but is it enough? We struggle to care about each other globally and nationally. Help is typically conditional and reliant on reciprocation rather than help for the sake of help. Sometimes people need help beyond what self-reliance and independence will cover. I have learned from both my partners and in my professional life that compassion is not a limited commodity. The phrase “compassion fatigue” is interesting in that it refers to those in the helping professions running out of compassion because they have had to pour out so much to so many. Could this be because no one else is showing compassion? Is it a case of “not my job?”

I have experienced compassion fatigue myself. I felt hardened and resentful to those who needed help for longer than a passing amount of my time. This is common among therapists and other helpers. A rebalancing was necessary for me to regain a sense of caring again. It took me about two years. Certain professions lend themselves to compassion more than others, but if we spread the compassion around more evenly within our daily lives there would be more to go around for everyone.

Many of us are looking for new ways to live due to our current circumstances (of which there are many.) Extending compassion towards those outside of our immediate circle could be an exemplary addition to our collective lifestyles. If you have ever needed help, you know what it feels like if it is not forthcoming. Making compassion a bigger part of our lives will highlight what we have in common with each other. The more we have in common with each other the less likely we will be to turn our backs on others when they need help. If we can balance our compassion with timely self-care, we will be creating a new environment where there is room for everyone.

#selfcare #compassion #mentalhealth #changethegame

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