Are We Confused About Compassion?

"It is a radical shift to embrace any reactivity we experience and not make an enemy of it. Rather than saying, 'I must get over this, get rid of this' or 'I must heal this,' we go toward our reactivity and see it as our life force expressing in us, saying, "See me, allow me.' Our liberation, our freedom is in attending to our greatest fears with an allowing presence. The action of turning toward that which we perceive as the block in our lives is the act of self-compassion." 

-Robert Gonzales

There's been a depth of learning I've experienced this year as I've begun to question how I want to live. It's been brutal.....yet, also, beginning to feel lovely. I've said to a few people that after these many years of learning, practicing, and living NVC something about these experiences is renewing me. A few of the weighty topics of inquiry are patriarchy and its effects, evaluating power dynamics interpersonally, and the investigation of how compassion is understood and activated individually and collectively.

A lot, uh? The interesting find has been how much of an integration or merging one inquiry and experience has with another.

There's a lot to say about compassion and it's my opinion we're confused about it. Merriam-Webster says compassion is 'a sympathetic consciousness of another's distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

I've questioned how compassion lives in me and why sometimes it produces an action and other times not. I notice, for example, when I see someone on the corner of a street with a sign asking for monies or work, there's a part of my brain that wants to take action, to do something. The call to action is fueled by feelings of compassionate care. However, there is a man I pass often who stands on the corner of an exit off the interstate, rain or shine, holding a tattered sign asking for work and monies. His face is weathered by pain, he wears no smile, and he barely stands on one leg. And yet, he's there, holding the same sign, every time I pass. Having had a son who lived on the streets as a homeless male for a number of years, rather than experience compassion, I consistently see this man through the lens of a mother and my own despair begins. My experience becomes painful as I get stuck in the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. The focus becomes alleviating my distress in an effort to access compassion for the person standing in the rain on the corner. So in order to contribute to alleviating the distress of another, I find the practice of self compassion comes first. Self compassion moves me from despair to hope. Taking responsibility for my feelings, my experience, and flipping the switch ON to self compassion moves me from suffering to compassion for the other and the opportunity to take action.

This is where we become confused about compassion.
Our conditioning often suggests bringing attention to ourselves is selfish or self absorbed; that we are to think of others and not ourselves first. I disagree.

Sarah Peyton, in her just released book, Your Resonant Self addresses this experience. She writes:

"It might also be possible to hear the word compassion but have no idea what it might mean. People may even be able to recite the dictionary definition but still be so bewildered by the word that they don't know what direction to point themselves in to find it."

Further addressing our discomfort she says that

"Even hearing all the benefits of turning toward the self with understanding, it can seem dangerous to move in the direction of self-warmth. If we speak vulnerably with generosity to and especially about ourselves, does it lay us open to accusations of self-centeredness or selfishness?"

 I first began to experience the practice of self love, self awareness, and self care in the rooms of Alanon, a 12 step program for the families and friends of alcoholics. Here I learned  responsible compassion asked me to follow the instructions given by flight attendants on commercial airlines. As adults, we are asked in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, to apply the oxygen mask to ourselves FIRST in order to care for the child next to us. Why would the same principle not be true when compassion in us isn't easily accessed for another?

My experience of compassion has deepened this year because of a truth I've experienced through the practice of NVC. Without compassion for myself, many times I'm not fully able to have compassion for another. Compassion can be experienced for the one with the sign asking for help. However, in the effort to move from being stuck to being open, taking responsibility for my experience by giving myself compassion for what I'm feeling moves me forward and toward not only an action, but greater self awareness. 

This act of self compassion also applies when something we've said or done stimulates pain in another person. Coming again to the self with warmth and compassion inquiring about the need we were attempting to meet in what we said or did creates awareness and understanding. By activating self compassion, the possibility of seeing one another through the eyes of compassion is more likely. Selfish? No, not in my experience. Responsible? YES!

Which leads me to the pearl in the oyster for me this year and why I've concern we're not consciously aware of how together we add to the distress we experience individually and collectively. Living out our compassionate nature is activated by realizing the responsibility I have to myself in relationship with and to others.

For example, when someone in our lives is doing or saying something where harm is experienced, where one is unaligned consciously or unconsciously with their own values, compassion acts responsibly addressing the need for a dialogue or conversation about it with the person. The part of us that wants acceptance, love and belonging may say, "Oh no, I couldn't say anything to them. That would hurt them. I must be compassionate rather than hurt them." This is what Carol Gilligan, in feminist psychological literature, calls the Tyranny of the Nice and Kind.

See the confusion about compassion? 

In the long run, it's much more hurtful to say nothing than to say something. This year a beloved one in my world said they'd been wanting to tell me for two years something I was doing that was hurtful to them. Two Years!!! I was shocked and hurt with the thought that for two years there'd not been in our relationship the honesty I thought was there. So I began the journey inward first, asking myself how it was to hear this from my dear friend. Through the widening door of sadness, I began an NVC process of mourning where the needs I'd been attempting to meet in this relationship I'd not met. (In mourning unmet needs, I touch the beauty of the need in me and although saddened it was unmet in this situation, I'm sweetly reminded of how important the need is in my life.) I began the inquiry of what was going on for me as I shared my life in the ways that I'd been sharing it. I'd been asking for what I wanted which had summoned my courage. My attempts in our conversations had been to experience a deeper connection with one another. I found compassion for myself, knowing I'd done nothing wrong. The inquiry through the mourning process and experience of self compassion diffused the congestion of 'wrongness' in me where I then felt such tender compassion for him knowing he had held this in him for two years! How painful this must have been for him. I then wrote to him voicing my deep regret for the impact he'd experienced in the way I'd shown up in our friendship. Self-Compassion responsibly led me to take an action.

Compassion asks us to be responsible to what is true for us. With the well seasoned tool of NVC that explains how to speak honestly WITH compassion, our path toward fully embracing ourselves with warmth and compassion directionally moves us toward the other with warmth. We become agents of living out compassion responsibly!

I've witnessed compassion with responsibility this year in a couple of NVC communities. In both communities, a person afflicted harm to themselves and the community. Another person in the community spoke to the "Actor" (, a word given to someone who has done 'the act.' Responsible compassion addresses the impact of what is happening individually and collectively. It's the path of nonviolence when the choice to have a difficult conversation is made. The fight, flight, and freeze responses activated by our sympathetic nervous system support separation and scarcity, the consequences of violence. Turning toward the fear, as Robert Gonzales writes in the earlier quote, is the act of self compassion.

Participating and witnessing people courageously having difficult conversations with one another this year ( has renewed my belief in The Beauty, the power of something greater than me, that lies in, through and on the other side of hopelessness. 

Carlene Robinson,

Certified Trainer with
The Center For Nonviolent Communication