“Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” ~ Plato
“Really, everyone?” 15 years ago, that would have been my response to Plato. There are lots of people in the world who show their battles clearly, and I think I find compassion easily for anyone who is having a rough time. But what about the people who don’t seem to need my empathy or compassion?
There are a couple kinds of people who have fallen into this category for me, not surprisingly people who move through life differently than I do. One is the type who always seems to have it all together, who is continually saying, “Everything’s great!” My knee-jerk response in the past was, “Must be nice!”
But my view has changed after working with many people like this as clients. They are actually working incredibly hard to maintain their ideal-looking life. They show up at my door when that effort has become overwhelming. When I say to them, “You accomplish everything you set your mind to, but it’s very hard work, and it’s getting harder all the time,” they usually sigh heavily and agree. Often, I’m the first person who has ever recognized their struggle to keep what doesn’t feel good under control and work like crazy to keep everything together. And, they usually tell me that they didn’t even see how hard they were working until it started to feel impossible. From that, I have found compassion for those who don’t yet realize that they are fighting some kind of battle, as well as those who feel the struggle but just don’t show it to the rest of us.
Another kind of person who hasn’t seemed to need my compassion is the know-it-all, win-at-all-costs type. A friend who fits that bill gave me great insight into his internal battle one day. I had seen him completely take over a situation in a way that wasn’t appropriate. When I asked why he did it, his answer really surprised me. He said he felt unsure of himself and he panicked, and that his response to panic is to take over. When I panic, I get quiet and try to take care of everyone around me, so the idea that someone would do exactly the opposite was a revelation. As a result, I view people who are dictatorial or super-competitive in a much more compassionate way now.
To understand other people’s battles, I have found it helpful to look through the lens of “Learned Distress,” which is the fear that “there is something wrong with me being just as I am.” We all absorbed this feeling early in life and it becomes the source of moments that don’t feel good to us. When I really got that everyone is walking around with the fear that there something wrong with them, it gave me an entirely new perspective on the people I meet.
When I see people behaving negatively these days, I stop and wonder to myself what fear is driving that moment for them. Is it that someone might see they aren’t perfect? That their current situation is straying beyond the boundaries of what feels safe to them (even if it seems completely innocuous to me)? That if this particular situation doesn’t fit their ideal, that the world might fall apart? Even if I can’t figure out the specifics, I find it incredibly helpful to say to myself, “Oh! They’re just scared!”
What sorts of people is it hard for you to find compassion for? What do you think their fears might be? Please share your thoughts in the comments.