There’s a part of me that doesn’t care about you. It’s not here to solve your problems, lend you an ear, or serve you in any other way. It looks out for me and me alone.
Isn’t that a terrible thing? Actually, I don’t think so. In fact, I think acknowledging I have a “selfish” part — and, sometimes, doing what that part wants — is key to experiencing, and expressing, real compassion for people.
I Used To Be Such A Sweet, Sweet Thing
I used to act really nurturing and giving, all the time. Whenever someone had a request or a problem, I was the first to volunteer my time and energy. I can practically hear Alice Cooper now: “I opened doors for little old ladies,” and so on.
But I eventually had a couple of disturbing realizations. The first was that I expected praise for service I did, and felt upset when I didn’t get it. Why would I care about receiving praise, I wondered, if I genuinely liked helping others?
Second, if someone — heaven forbid — criticized me in a way that suggested I was selfish, I got even angrier. I couldn’t help but ask: if I’m really such a 24-7 generous guy, why does it bother me when someone says I’m not?
Acting Caring Vs. Being Caring
Finally, it dawned on me that, at least sometimes, I wasn’t helping people because I enjoyed service. Instead, I was doing it because I wanted to show people I wasn’t self-centered. In other words, I did it because I didn’t want to experience the shame I felt when someone called me selfish.
I started wondering: what if, on some level, I actually am selfish? What would happen if I learned that there is, in fact, a part of me that thinks only of my wants? Would I explode, implode, or be annihilated in some other messy way? Probably not.
I noticed my body relaxed, and I sighed with relief, when I asked questions like these. It was as if, to put on a benevolent mask for the world, I had to tighten some part of my body, and use up energy keeping that part tense. Dropping the mask freed up that energy, and was a big relief.
I also saw that, the more relaxed I felt, the more I experienced real gratitude. Life, I found, is more fun when I’m not trying to appease someone or protect myself from criticism. From that genuinely grateful place, compassion for others comes more naturally.
In other words, interestingly enough, admitting there’s a part of me that doesn’t care actually releases and nourishes the part that does.
Everybody Is Everything
Why? I think about it this way: each person is like a prism – an object that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow. The colors represent every human character trait: compassion, selfishness, love, anger, sadness, and so on.
Often, we decide we don’t like one of the colors — perhaps we’d rather not be blue (sad), red (angry), or something else. So, we cover up the prism to keep others from seeing that color. The trouble is that, when we block the prism, none of the colors can be seen — no part of us can be fully expressed in the world.
When I try to hide my “self-centered” part, it’s like I’m covering up my prism — “hiding my light under a bushel,” as the saying goes. The result is that I can’t really bring my generous part into the world either. If I want my compassion to fully show up, I need to let my selfishness make an appearance too.
With That, Some Gratitude
I want to thank two generous and, undoubtedly, totally unselfish souls for the gifts they gave me. :) Evita Ochel and Patricia Hamilton recently wrote warm and wonderful reviews of my audio course. I hope you’ll check out their sites and enjoy what they bring to the world.
For a long time, I harbored a belief that came from reading and listening to spiritual teachers. The belief was that, when I feel upset, the best practice is to just “sit with the feeling” — to tune into the sensations in my body, and just let them pass away. Don’t “react” to the upset by immediately lashing out at someone.
This kind of practice has done wonders for me when I’ve used it in meditation. It’s helped me understand that, when I’m doing something solitary, I don’t need to run away from my task whenever a difficult thought or feeling comes up. However, it was actually harmful for me to practice this while talking to another person.
Why? Because my natural tendency, since long before I did any spiritual practice, has been to hold back my hurt or anger when I’m with someone, and try instead to understand what they’re going through.
I’d tell myself I was doing this out of concern for the other person, and sometimes this was true. But sometimes it wasn’t — instead, it was because I was afraid of how they’d react if I told them how I felt.
When I discovered the spiritual practice of “not reacting,” I started using it as an excuse for my habit of avoiding conflict. “Oh, it’s not because I’m afraid of hurting them or making them mad,” I’d tell myself. “I’m just ‘sitting with the feeling,’ like I would in meditation.”
In other words, spirituality — at least, in this case — actually enabled my immature way of relating to the world, instead of helping me let go of it.
Anger Can Be Compassionate
A major theme of Spiritual Bypassing is how spiritual practice can sometimes enable unhealthy behaviors, and actually retard our personal growth. The story I just told is a good example of what Robert calls “blind compassion.”
“Those of us who practice blind compassion,” writes Robert, “generally spiritualize our misguided tolerance and aversion to confrontation, confusing being loving with putting up with whatever anyone does and never judging them, no matter what.” Not only does this allow others to abuse us, but more importantly, it isn’t really compassionate toward them.
Sometimes, as Robert points out, we need our anger to get a compassionate message across. If I’m yelling at you and putting you down, for example, it may not help me for you to respond in a soft, understanding way. If you tell me “it sounds like you’re angry, and I get where you’re coming from,” I may decide — in my self-righteous rage — that I’m “winning,” and press the attack.
But suppose, says Robert, that you instead “meet me with a force of equivalent intensity, stopping me in my tracks with a ‘Stop!’ that is as fiery as it is caring.” If you do this, “you might not appear caring,” but “I can feel it as you interrupt my neurotic ritual.”
In other words, the intensity you bring can actually help me see how much you care, and snap me out of my old habit of being mean to control my environment.
So What’s Left?
This isn’t to say that spiritual practice is always harmful. In my view, spirituality, and maybe personal development generally, are really about getting intimate with, and getting access to, all parts of ourselves – what Robert calls “the cultivation of intimacy with all that we are.”
If we’re afraid of our anger, for instance, our spiritual practices can help us to fully allow that fear and speak our truth, rather than fleeing from the fear as we usually would. Some people, on the other hand, have no trouble getting angry, but expressing affection feels “weak” or “cheesy” to them — and spiritual practice can help them to fully allow that feeling of cheesiness and give somebody a hug.
I’d definitely recommend this book, especially if you’ve wondered (as I have) how to integrate your spiritual practice into the rest of your life in a healthy way.
It’s become common in business literature to say that entrepreneurs who care about others tend to be more successful. Thus, say business authors, it will profit you to act like a caring person. Say “thank you,” smile, look into people’s left eye, let them do most of the talking, and so on.
I think it’s true that people who are genuinely concerned for others’ wellbeing make better entrepreneurs. But that doesn’t mean we can develop real concern for others simply by imitating caring people — by aping their body language and the words they use.
We can easily see this, I think, when we recall moments when someone flashed a fake smile at us. The corners of their mouth turned up, but their eyes were hard, and fearful or angry. All this did was create unease for us — it certainly didn’t make us want to do business with them.
I’ll bet you can also remember a time when you went into a social event with preconceived notions about how you “should” act — perhaps you thought you needed to look charming, aloof, successful, or something else. Was that enjoyable or miserable? I think the answer is clear — making all that effort to look a certain way is no fun at all.
Ask Yourself Why You Don’t Care
If caring for others isn’t about imitating kind people, how do we do it? In my experience, the first step is to take a close look at what’s going on in moments when we don’t find ourselves caring about people — when our hearts are closed.
My sense is that, when we aren’t feeling concerned for others’ wellbeing, it’s because we’re occupied with protecting ourselves. Consciously or not, we think there’s a threat to our survival. Naturally, we’re focused on avoiding that threat, and others become just a means to that end. We start ignoring people who don’t look like they can give us money or prestige, and manipulating those who do.
So, I think it’s useful to ask ourselves, whenever our hearts are closed, “what’s the threat I’m trying to deal with right now? What danger am I protecting myself from?” The answer you arrive at, if you sincerely ask this question, might be something like this:
“I need to look tough to make sure people don’t hurt me.”
“I must look successful, or no one will work with me.”
“I must be seen talking to the right people, or my social status will be destroyed.”
“I need to get clients at this event or my business is shot.”
Facing The Danger
It makes perfect sense that, when we’re thinking this way, caring about others is impossible. But I think you’ll notice that the question I described helps put the perceived threat into perspective. The closer you look at the supposed danger, the less serious it starts to seem.
Is it really true, for instance, that your business will collapse if you don’t get clients at this event? And even if your business did collapse, what would that really mean for you? Would you disintegrate and never be seen again? Or is it more likely that you’d get up and try something else? Notice how just probing the fear a bit with questions like these can have it start melting away.
My sense is that human beings are naturally compassionate toward one another. Tapping into that compassion, I think, is more a matter of letting go of the ways we protect ourselves against getting hurt than memorizing the right “tips and tricks.”
(You can read Part One of this series here.)
My last post was about empathic reflection—the practice of reflecting back the desires and emotions of the person you’re listening to. While this may sound simple, it’s trickier than it sounds. When an interaction starts to feel emotionally intense, it’s easy to fall back into old, reactive patterns of thinking and behaving. If someone is angry and we’re feeling attacked, for instance, it can be hard to avoid the temptation to stop listening and start defending ourselves. Similarly, if the other person is sad or worried, it can be difficult to stop consoling them and actually listen to what they’re telling us.
In this post, I’ll talk about some ways we can stay centered, and continue caring about the other person, even when faced with a lot of emotional charge.
Recognize That It’s All Just Sensation. If the emotional intensity of the conversation is starting to feel overwhelming, pause for a moment, take a breath, and notice what you’re experiencing in your body. Is some part of your body—maybe your shoulders, neck, pelvis or somewhere else—feeling tight? Is some place—perhaps your face or hands—getting uncomfortably warm?
Usually we mentally label these sensations, calling them “anger,” “joy,” “fear,” and so on. What’s more, we come up with a mental story about why they’re happening—for example, “what she said made me angry,” or “he hurt me when he looked away from me.” Still further, we tell ourselves we’ve “got to do something” about what we’re feeling to “make things right”—“I’ve got to hurt him back,” “I need to make her feel better,” “I must prove my point,” and so forth.
What I invite you to do is experiment with letting go of these labels and stories, and purely focusing on the physical sensations arising in you. What I think you’ll find is that, without all the mental stories about what other people are doing and how you need to respond, those sensations no longer seem so threatening or intense. It’s just a tension in your shoulders, a heat in your forehead, or something else that, in all likelihood, will quickly pass, leaving you intact and unharmed. In other words, it probably won’t kill you.
For some people, it seems difficult to slow down and notice the sensations they’re feeling, because emotionally charged interactions feel really fast-paced. Maybe, for example, the other person is demanding to know why you did this or that, and you feel an intense pressure to answer them as quickly as possible.
In these moments, it’s useful to remember that you, as one of the parties to the conversation, actually have some control over its pace. You don’t have some kind of “moral obligation” to talk as quickly as the other person, have every bit of information they demand at your fingertips, or otherwise follow their lead. (In fact, as I wrote in an earlier piece, sometimes it’s more enjoyable and meaningful to stay silent.) It takes practice to keep this in mind, but when you really internalize this, relating with people can become less stressful.
Ask Yourself What You’re Really Defending Against. As I said, it can be tough not to slip into our old habits of defending ourselves when we feel attacked. And, what we usually don’t stop and wonder is what we’re really trying to defend ourselves against in those moments. In other words, if someone is criticizing you and you’re feeling defensive, try asking yourself: what am I trying to prevent from happening right now? What goal am I really trying to achieve?
If you’re able to slow down and observe what you’re thinking and feeling in moments like these, you may notice an inner voice making comments like:
“If I hurt the other person, I won’t feel as hurt.”
“I need their approval, love or respect to survive.”
“This conversation is a fight or a competition that I need to win.”
“If I don’t convince them I’m right, I’ll be punished or even killed.”
Once you recognize what your inner voice is saying and why it feels so important to defend yourself, ask yourself if what that voice says is really true. What I suspect you’ll notice is how paranoid, childlike and disconnected from reality that voice often sounds. Usually, the assumptions it makes simply aren’t true—you don’t need the other person’s approval to live, and hurting them isn’t really likely to make you feel better.
When you have this realization, you may begin taking your urge to stop listening and counterattack a bit less seriously, and feeling like you can actually choose how to respond in a conflict situation rather than automatically reacting.
At a deeper level, I suspect that the voice that urges us to defend ourselves is a relic of very early moments in our lives, when the world looked unfamiliar, scary and confusing. While I think it’s helpful to treat this frightened, young part with compassion, we don’t have to leave it in charge of how we relate to people.
Connect With Your Curiosity. One thing that tends to happen in emotionally charged interactions is that we lose our curiosity about what’s going on for the other person. If they’re feeling frustrated, despondent or something else and blaming us for it, we stop trying to understand why they’re feeling and acting the way they are, and instinctively start withdrawing, attacking, tuning them out, or whatever else we normally do to protect ourselves.
The next time you find this happening for you, see if you can consciously choose to stay curious about what’s having the other person be this way. What’s going on at a deeper level that’s having them blame, belittle, ignore, or do whatever they’re doing in this moment? What are they really concerned about or afraid of? What ideas might they have about the world and their place in it that would cause them to be like this?
What I think you’ll find if you can consciously choose to stay curious about the other person is that, even if there’s a lot of anger, sadness, fear or something else coming up in the conversation, the interaction can actually stay interesting and fulfilling to be in. Seeking to understand someone else and where they’re coming from, even when they’re expressing intense emotion, can actually be an adventure.
As Juliet from LifeMadeGreat recently observed, our desire as human beings to be understood is at least as important as our desire for money, relationships, “six-pack abs” and all the other typical “personal development” goals. Just having a genuine interest in understanding what’s going on for another person, in my experience, can defuse conflicts and bring a peace and depth to our conversations.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:
The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests