Compassion From A Psychoanalytic Point Of View
Whether you are a hardened criminal or the next Mother Theresa you have surely felt authentic compassion for another human being and acted upon it. The strange fact for the majority of us is that we usually find it noble and worthy to feel compassion for others yet we don’t often give ourselves the same courtesy.
Actually from a psychological point of view those who spend their time in a helping role without worrying about themselves are likely to be engaging in the process of externalization. They feel blocked from treating themselves well or thinking about themselves in a positive light, often due to traumatic experiences of emotional or physical abuse in childhood. Yet those human feelings have to go somewhere. They find their realization in an external object like a sick relative or starving children in Africa or some other cause.
Compassion is an empty shell when it comes out of an unconscious psychological need to regain equilibrium rather than out of an authentic desire to help others feel complete and loved just like you do. This is probably one of the reasons that so many people who go into the helping professions quickly burn out and eventually switch careers. Their unconscious motivation was psychic equilibrium, and trying to help others in this way always backfires. Instead of feeling positively charged by an experience of service a person feels empty and drained. Energy meant to be centered in one’s own life is misdirected.
An exercise you can do any time that you are being hard on yourself is to summon the image of a person to whom you have shown real compassion. Let yourself open up in the moment to how it made you feel to really care about the welfare of another. Then turn these feelings inward. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love and compassion from others and that you are especially worthy of it from yourself.
The most important paradox of mental health is that if you can accept yourself how and where you are on your life journey you are in the best position to change, grow and flourish as a human being. Many of us are hard on ourselves because we believe that only rigorous standards will help us excel and achieve our goals. Actually inhabiting the moment in a full and open way, where we remember that goals are only truly achievable by walking the right path, is more effective and infinitely more fulfilling. You are allowed to love yourself as you presently are and know that this is just one stage in your evolution.
When I was an intern I had a conversation with one of my mentors where I expressed my desire to become an expert in the world of psychology. He reminded me to spend every day fully in the moment with my studies and with my clients rather than worrying about future possibilities. I was freed to authentically start moving towards mastery by taking the correct steps to get me there. I’m still on that journey and I think about our conversation sometimes while conceptualizing psychology or while in the middle of a challenging session. I let myself live in the moment and I cut myself a break for not knowing everything.
The more compassion you can feel for yourself, the more overflow you will have to share with those around you. Instead of compensation for deficits you act because you know that others deserve to feel the way that you do. When people are unable to show you compassion you know that it is about them rather than about you. You are insulated from feeling hurt or having your self-esteem damaged. You give yourself the gift of freedom and the path opens up before you to become the person you have always been.